The New York Times Book Review printed an essay this Sunday by Lauren F. Winner on the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell’s been accused of universalism by his critics. I haven’t read his book and don’t want to comment particularly on that, but on the general issue of universalism in America and its history.
Winner places Bell’s work in the context of the American tradition of books about heaven, including an 1869 novel by Massachusetts writer Elizabeth Stuart Phelps “offering a comforting view of the afterlife to women who had lost loved ones in the Civil War” as a bio from the Camelot Project puts it. Winner also cites Mitch Albom’s “Five People You Meet in Heaven,” and books by Don Piper and Todd Burpo.
Winner writes this about the history of universalism:
For all the controversy, this book’s argument has been building for a long time. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many evangelicals rejected universalism, even as it began to gain traction among liberal Protestants. Yet for the last half-century, universalism has been subtly reshaping North American evangelicalism, to the alarm of many evangelical leaders. As early as 1965, the theologian J. I. Packer warned that many evangelicals had “slipped into the practice of living and behaving as if universalism were true,” even though those same functional universalists would never declare a doctrinal commitment to universal salvation. Two decades later, the sociologist James Davison Hunter detected a creeping liberalism in evangelical thought. “There is a pervasive uneasiness both about the nature of hell and about who is relegated to it,” he wrote. “It is an uneasiness which may portend a greater cultural accommodation.” “Love Wins” can be read as a fulfillment of Hunter’s observation.
Reading that previously “evangelicals rejected universalism, even as it began to gain traction among liberal Protestants,” and that “for the last half-century, universalism has been subtly reshaping North American evangelicalism,” you might think there’s been an upward trajectory for universalism, but only because there’s a missing part of the story.
Universalist belief was a particular denominational affiliation—and an important one—in 19th century America, like being a Methodist or a Baptist. There’s a collection of historical universalist denominational documents here. But universalism is no longer the independent force in organized religion it was in the 19th century. The denominational body that universalists organized long ago merged into the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and ceased to be either Christian or universalist in theology. Part of what that means is that some of the evangelical warnings were correct. When you endorse universalism, moving away from the doctrine of historical orthodoxy and the Bible, you predictably start sliding away from Christianity in general.
P.S. One could read the essay and think Rob Bell started getting blow-back for his beliefs when the promotion for his book began, but that started years ago. In fact, I’d be unsurprised if controversy over his views is part of what made his book attractive to his publishers at HarperOne in the first place.
P.P.S. This essay was much more of an essay than the one they printed a few weeks back on Green’s Dictionary of Slang, which was really more of a review. The essay is important and we need our publications to preserve the places available for it.