“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a world without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” — that’s how H. Richard Niebuhr described the message of Protestant liberalism back in the 1930s. In those days, there was a fairly clear dividing line in Protestantism between liberals and evangelicals. The liberals didn’t believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God and so they could discard the elements of Christianity they found unpalatable. The evangelicals generally had a high view of the Word of God and maintained that how we feel about what the Bible teaches is irrelevant to whether it’s true or not. However, something changed in the following decades.
Back when I was still pastoring in Canada, one of the hats I wore was that of an instructor in North American Church History at the Canadian Reformed Teachers College. When I first took on the role, I was given a general set of topics the College wanted covered in the course. One of those topics was “the Emergent Church.” That suited me just fine because I’d been studying that topic for a couple of years anyway.
Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck characterized Emergent as a combination of “mystery, journey and uncertainty – the perfect porridge of not quite fundamentalist, not quite liberal.” It was also described as a conversation. To some, it was about a new style of worship, one that involves “couches, candles, and coffee” – integrating the smells and bells of Roman Catholicism with low-church American evangelicalism. For others, it was about taking postmodern philosophy and bringing it into the contemporary church. A precise definition of this movement has always been difficult. It was diverse and those who identified with it resisted the notion of precise definitions.
You might have noticed that I used the past tense in the previous paragraph. Emergent is now a thing of the past. It’s run its course and nobody really talks about it anymore. However, many Emergent thought-trends linger. This is especially true when it comes to the character of God.
The year I started teaching the church history course, Rob Bell came out with his book Love Wins. I showed my students the promotional video for the book:
The video sees Bell getting to the heart of the matter: what is God like? His rhetorical questions ooze a disdain for the traditional Christian understanding of God’s character, especially as a holy and just Judge who condemns unrepentant sinners to an eternal conscious torment in hell. In Love Wins, Bell argued that everyone goes to heaven because of Jesus – in other words, all are justified. Everyone is right with God through Christ. For those who don’t believe, heaven is like hell. But eventually, there in heaven, God’s love wins them over and everyone lives happily ever after.
Rob Bell promoted universalism back then — these days, it isn’t clear where he stands on anything. Regardless of what’s happened with him, universalism is more popular than ever, especially in circles that might be described as “evangelical.” There are numerous authors and preachers peddling the view. Surveys would seem to indicate that they’re having an impact. For example, the Ligonier State of Theology survey from 2018 found that 57% of respondents who identified as “evangelical” disagreed with the statement, “Even the smallest sin deserves damnation.” The same survey found that 53% of evangelical respondents agreed that “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.” That reflects a particular take on the character of God.
As always, we need to put our feelings to the side, and humbly listen to what the Bible says. The Bible is God’s self-revelation. One thing clear from Scripture is that God is just. In his interaction with God in Genesis 18, Abraham recognized it already and appealed to it: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25). Exodus 34:7 sees God revealing himself to Moses as the one “who will by no means clear the guilty” — God just won’t look the other way when it comes to sin. In Revelation 16:7, the altar speaks: “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments.” God will always do what is right, as defined by his own holy character.
In connection with this, the Bible also speaks about God’s wrath. It’s important to remember that wrath is not, properly speaking, an attribute of God. Wrath is not essential to his being. God’s wrath exists as a response to sin. To express it more precisely: wrath is how the holy and just God responds to sin. Wrath is a function of the attribute of divine justice.
The Bible speaks repeatedly about God’s wrath against sin and sinners. Let’s just take two passages, one from the Old Testament and one from the New:
For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you.
The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man. (Psalm 5:4-6)
For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:30-31).
You’d have to do one of two things to up-end this biblical teaching: 1) Deny that the Bible is the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God; or 2) engage in some scarcely believable interpretive gymnastics to make the Bible say something it doesn’t say.
The same is true when it comes to what the Bible says about hell as the place and experience of God’s just wrath against sin. The Old Testament speaks about hell in places like Isaiah 66:24. It’s a place of undying worms and unquenchable fire (cf. Isa. 50:11). No one spoke more about hell in the Bible than Jesus. He says in Mark 9:43, “It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.” And again in verses 47 and 48, “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” That is a description of eternal conscious torment. In Revelation 20, those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire, the second death, a lake of burning sulfur. There they will be tormented with the devil day and night, forever and ever.
The error of universalism is not just about the character of God. Ultimately, it follows through to the very nature of the gospel. What’s the gospel about? What’s so good about the good news? The Bible teaches that the good news is so good because, in his love, God has provided a way of rescue from the judgment and condemnation we deserve for our sins. When you deny this message, you obliterate the urgency of mission and evangelism. If everyone’s going to heaven anyway, if “love wins,” why would you ever need to tell anyone about the cross? The cross is emptied of its meaning as a substitutionary atonement. While the universalist message might be appealing on a sentimental level, if you approach it with the Bible as your ultimate standard, you’ll discern that it’s a terrible, gospel-denying fabrication. No, God is just. Because of his justice, God has infinite wrath against sin and sinners — but the gospel promises that, for all who believe in the Saviour God has sent, that just wrath is turned away and his favour restored.