There is a well-written response to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins in the May 2011 edition of Christianity magazine. The article explores the accusation of universalism, considering various expressions of universalism and noting that Bell clearly rejects ‘universal universalism’ (the belief that God will sweep up everyone into heaven regardless, as a scandalous act of unmerited grace) and ‘religious pluralism’ (the belief that all religions lead to God); while being open to ‘post mortem evangelism’ (the belief that there is the possibility to encounter and respond to Jesus after death) and ‘anonymous Christianity’ (the belief – influential within Roman Catholicism since Vatican II, and shared by the present Pope, who is generally considered to be extremely conservative – that people within religious paradigms other than Christianity may encounter and respond rightly to Jesus without knowing his name or his story. Significantly, like Bell, Pope Benedict XVI does not see belief in anonymous Christianity as negating the urgent responsibility of Christians to proclaim the uniqueness of Jesus and call people to respond to him).
The article points out that such a position raises more questions than it answers: in particular, questions regarding evangelism, and salvation, and also our understanding of the end of the world (eschatology), and of the nature of the church.
I think it is a mistake to conclude that openness to post mortem evangelism and anonymous Christianity result in a loss of confidence in, and commitment to, evangelism now. It does, however, open the possibility of asking important questions of our understanding of the nature of evangelism. In my view, conversion, as both event and process, is a work of the Holy Spirit; whereas the related-but-distinct charge on the church is to make disciples. Too often, churches have abdicated their responsibility to make disciples, while trying to do the Holy Spirit’s work instead. For me, the obvious answer to the question “Why bother with evangelism?” is that we are sent out by Jesus to call and teach people to not only recognise him but to follow him in the world, and in so doing to usher-in and to populate the future kingdom of heaven which is breaking into the present.
Such an answer has an impact on our eschatology: the future is breaking into the present; moreover, our response in the present has a bearing on the responsibilities entrusted to us in shaping the future;
on our ecclesiology: the call on the church is to make disciples, and to model what it looks like to live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven among the kingdoms of the world;
and on our understanding of salvation: we are not only saved from something, but saved for something: set free from slavery to sin and death, as expressed through a wide variety of manifestations, in order to be formed into a chosen people who set others free (regardless of whatever else Jesus might be doing).
There is far more to be explored in relation to these questions than has yet been explored – but the good news is that there are people exploring. Bell’s latest contribution is best seen within the wider context of a rediscovery of the centrality of Jesus, and a questioning of Christendom, evident in several current conversations (such as Anabaptist writers), engaged by participants who will find themselves in combinations of agreement and disagreement with each other’s thoughts.