Over the weekend, the world wide web has been lit up by a video released promoting Rob Bell’s new book. I had heard a smattering of comments here and there about it, but as I came in the office, I’ve seen it everywhere on my Google reader, Facebook, and everywhere else on the Internet. See what Christianity Today had to say about it here. The article written by Justin Talyor mentioned in the opening of this article has been shared by nearly 21,000 people on Facebook – holy crap. It has certainly made it’s way around. Here’s the video that’s prompted all the talk:
I find the article on CT really interesting. A few thoughts on the people quoted: my respect for John Piper continues to tank – what a poor way to handle his comments when he is respected by so many people; Justin Taylor sure puts it all out there – I hope he’s got everything lined up; I love Scot McKnight’s short quotation – as my respect for Piper declines, McKnight is more and more impressive; and I love Matthew Paul Turner’s tweet quoted there.
I think Scot McKnight is exactly right when he notes that this has so quickly grabbed people’s attention because this truly is the most important topic facing evangelicals (I come from a group who aren’t truly evangelicals, but there are a great deal of similarities, and I think on this topic most of our folks could be seen in line with them). I may address the topic of universalism some day. Right now I feel inadequate in doing it . . . and unprepared for dealing with the backlash that would come (even from the four or five people who read this 😉 from suggesting the things I probably would – at least right now. As I did previously with the women’s issue, let me make a few autobiographical remarks in this regard.
The only area I ever remember really being encouraged to pursue by a professor in seminary was in the area of pluralism and other religions. One professor in particular was very complementary of my writing and ability to navigate this area and encouraged me to continue on in my studies here (a student like me doesn’t get this kind of encouragement all that often!) My career has brought me away from the academy and into full-time ministry, but I’ve continued to read a lot in this area and am always fleshing out my thinking here. This makes me far from an expert here, but I’ve definitely spent my time thinking through the challenges of this topic.
Bell’s video above gets at the heart of the issue for me. What do we do with Ghandi? Even the hardest-nosed conservative Christian will crack the door of heaven open to Mother Theresa (the really, really good Catholics can get in ;-)) but Ghandi? Hindu Ghandi? We had a good conversation in a Bible class several weeks ago on this topic. Someone made the comment that it has been a difficult process for many of our older members to open the arms of fellowship to other Christian denominations (many are still learning how to do that), but to open it beyond that is a real struggle.
When I was studying this issue at Lipscomb in a theology class I came across the concept of Catholic theologian Karl Rahner called “the anonymous Christian.” In it, he admittedly wanted to have his cake and eat it too attempting to uphold the uniqueness of salvation found in Christ alone with the purity and meekness of heart that many seek their own god(s) and religious tenets. Rahner lost the battle for othordoxy and his perspective has long been cast aside as a viable option, but I still think his goals should be admired, and taken up by current theologians in search of addressing this challenging topic. [Essentially, Rahner’s doctrine stated that those who were well-intentioned Hindus, Muslims, etc. from other faiths whose life displayed evidence of the fruit of the Spirit and served their gods and religious systems with pure hearts were under the atonement of Christ saving work . . . they just didn’t know it. You can read the wiki summary.]
The heart of my struggle lies in my belief that God has never punished anyone for good/righteous intentions. There are certainly challenging aspects of the Old Testament to consider, but I also don’t want to quickly associate the destruction of cities and nations in the Old Testament with eternal destruction – that concept seems missing in the Old Testament.
Clearly I have a lot of thinking left to do in this area, but it’s something we need to get serious in thinking about and continue to grow. As our world becomes more and more pluralistic and technology continues to shrink the world, Christians have to think through this area of their theology and realize just how undeveloped it is in most people’s minds. If nothing else, Rob Bell looks to be at least pointing us in the right direction.