Quite a remarkable amount of fuss took place online about a Christian book that hasn't even been published yet. Rob Bell, who has become well-known to many for his Nooma videos, is founding pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church, near Grand Rapids Michigan.
His informal and engaging style has made him a popular speaker. Having seen him in action at Greenbelt and in Manchester, he certainly knows how to handle an audience. He provides a more inclusive and questioning account of Christianity in a genre that many modern evangelicals warm to. Some would describe him as part of the 'emergent' movement; others might label him post-evangelical (especially now!). He certainly connects with a post-modern generation, especially those for whom the traditional formulae have become empty or meaningless.
However, the recent fuss is over the publicity for his forthcoming book "Love Wins" which drops a pretty heavy hint that it will present a case for what is usually referred to as universalism. In other words, it isn't just the Christians who make it to heaven (although I'll unpack this a bit more later) Now, it's not new that Christians have adopted this kind of position with regard to heaven, hell and judgment - there's been plenty of stuff out there for a very long time. What's generated the stink is that a lot of evangelicals thought Bell was "one of them" and he has now challenged the traditional and conservative views - even on the promo video.
Not having the book, I'm not going to comment on it. But universalism it becoming a big question for Christians, especially (but not exclusively) those from an evangelical background. You can identify a spectrum of views on who's "in" and who's "out" (which in itself is terminology I'd prefer not to adopt!)
An exclusivist view would regard only those who explicitly follow Christ to be those who are promised a place in heaven. even here there is variation - ranging from only those who are Christians and have all the correct doctrines to a slightly more generous position that would also allow in others who might struggle to articulate a commitment, such as young children or those with learning difficulties. Usually this view looks back to a Calvinist/reformed position that sees anyone getting into heaven as an undeservedly generous act of grace on God's part as we all deserve condemnation. The summary of the Calvinist position is often called TULIP - a 'pessimistic' view of humanity, and a commitment to a position that limits salvation to the elect.
The problems are obvious: those who don't hear the message through no fault of their own, those who got a very bad presentation of the gospel and so rejected it, let alone the problem of a few enjoying eternal bliss in the knowledge that most of humanity is suffering in hell forever.
An inclusivist position would see things differently. In non-technical speak, it can be summed up as judgement based on one's response to the light one has received. In other words God's mercy and grace extend beyond the bounds of those who have specifically chosen to be Christians - revelation is present in nature and experience. The question then is about what people made of what they glimpsed of Christ.
Universalism takes a number of forms, ranging from a very generous version of the inclusivist position above, via an "all roads lead to God" view of all faiths, through to a view that everyone will end up in heaven - because in the final reckoning the love of God will be irresistable, both in drawing all people to him and in transforming them for that new reality. Here the question is what, if any, uniqueness is there in the person of Jesus for a Christian universalist?
All of this casts the issue in terms of the human. As Bell points out, these questions are really about the kind of God we believe in. Let's try and look at it from God's point of view, and I have to credit Thomas Talbott's Chapter in Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate for the idea. You can view a fuller account here (go to page 43) He suggests 3 propositions [and I abbreviate them]: 1) that God loves and desires salvation for all. 2) God will triumph and accomplish his will. 3) Some human sinners will never be redeemed.
Talbott points out that if (1) and (2) are true, then (3) can't be. If God desire redemption for all and he gets his way, then noone can be left out. Hence Calvinists don't subscribe to (1), as and Arminians [who place more emphasis on human choice] don't hold to (2) as they both accept proposition (3). Christian universalists say (1) and (2) are both true, and hence (3) has to be rejected.
On the face of it, universalism seems a lot nicer, but it's not without its problems. What might it mean for a concentration camp victim and their Nazi guard to share heaven? Where does justice come in? Is it possible to think that everyone could be transformed? Is there a spark of good in every soul, or are some people just plain evil?
When the hype and furore is over, it will be interesting to see just how Rob Bell handles these questions.