There seems to be a furor on the Internet right now over Rob Bell. I've seen some former seminary classmates say some correct and not so correct things about it on Facebook. Also, I guess that Bell is now on cable news.
A couple of thoughts.
1. Isn't this whole thing with Universalism kind of cliched at this point? Why all the furor? He's only voicing what pretty much all mainline Protestant clergy actually believe- is it a big deal because he's kinda, sorta an Evangelical?
Many so-called conservative folks in the LCMS and other Evangelicals believe all this too. It's part of being in America with a lot of cultural diversity. Original sin dictates that people are habitual self-justifiers. In the old days, people would only know people from their own religion. They also held that they were going to heaven because they were nice. It was easy to say "hey, the Hindus are badies, and their going t hell- but all the nice people I know are going to heaven!" Now that the Hindus live next door and are in empirical reality really nice folks. So they feel they can't damn them to hell. Why? Because that would mean that niceness doesn't get you to heaven and the project of self-justification would be broken.
Guess what? As this country gets more diverse, you're going to see way more Evangelical types buying into this. They already are!
2. One thing that disturbed me is Lutherans trying to defend Bell. This happened on Pr. McCain's website and on Facebook. This is highly disturbing. Lutherans can never buy into the Universalism because it militates against what the entire purpose of the preaching office is: to proclaim Christ through the Biblical Word of law and gospel. To put it succinctly: When Christ is preached, things change!
What Bell offers is nothing but a better concept of God. Humans are afraid of the hidden and wrathful God, so Bell says "let's tell them that's all an illusion. Look! No hidden and wrathful God! Jazz-hands!"
That's pure non-sense and anyone who has suffered under the hidden God (that would be everyone) and is honest (not everyone, at least not Rob Bell) knows that this merely means a re-narration of reality. Let's pretend things are different, when their not! Sinners don't need a better concept of God. All that leads to is more self-justification. What sinners need is to be killed and made alive. That happens through God changing his relationship to us through the proclamation of law and gospel.
The law doesn't pretend that God's judgment is an illusion, but executes that full judgment on the sinner. The gospel is a real resurrecting word. It is the last word of our relationship with God.
Faith is meaningful then because it is, as Luther puts it, "something omnipotent." It actually changes God's relationship to us by the power of the word of absolution. In Bell's mind, faith is nothing but enlightenment. There was a big misunderstanding. We thought God was wrathful, but I guess he really wasn't after all.
Though people might think that Bell's false gospel is antinomian, it's precisely the opposite. It's hyper legalistic. If God's grace is a given, why preach it? Word and sacrament don't really change anything. There's no move from law to gospel! Just enlightenment and the clearing up of the big misunderstanding.
What's left then? Well, a big weekly pep-talk about the law. Hence week-after-week of seminars on "godly marriage" and "godly management of money"- you get the idea! One can sort of see this in Church Dogmatics vol. 14 where Barth, after espouses a quasi-universalism (there is still an "impossible possibility" that some might not be saved) everything descends into legalism. The sacraments (baptism is really the only one he discusses) are about showing people that you're part of a community that's going to obey the law. Barth is mainly interested in preaching law. There's nothing left. Grace is boring, since it's already a given.
You see this works itself out in mainline Protestant preaching. It's all about social justice, because hey, what's the point otherwise? We're all going to heaven anyways-right? So they need a justification about why they should continue to meet in this building every week.