“Love Wins,” a new book by prominent evangelical pastor Rob Bell, was creating controversy weeks before it was released on March 15, for its non-traditional proposals about eternal salvation and God's judgment. Now, Catholic and evangelical voices are calling for clarity in discussing the issues it raises.
Bell's latest work – subtitled “A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” – was promoted through a video that provocatively asked whether Gandhi, and the majority of the human race, had been eternally condemned by God for their lack of Christian faith.
While the book raises more questions than it answers, some reviewers have interpreted it as an argument for universal salvation, a position most evangelicals would regard as not biblical. Bell also suggests that there could be an opportunity for faith and repentance after death, and that God's condemnation of some individuals may not be final.
The Catholic Church denies the possibility of either post-mortem repentance or a temporary hell, and most Catholic theologians have regarded universal salvation as an impossibility. Pope John Paul II wrote that the “silence of the Church” was “the only appropriate position” on the question of whether any particular person was saved or lost.
Bell also speculates that some non-Christians may reach salvation through a type of implicit or unconscious relationship to Christ. The Catholic Church accepts this notion as a possibility, in instances where individuals have failed to receive the Gospel message by no fault of their own.
John Michael Talbot, a Catholic recording artist with close ties to the evangelical world, told CNA that all Christians must be careful in approaching the subject of death, judgment, and the afterlife – particularly those who rely upon “scripture alone,” without the Church's definitive teaching authority.
Talbot, who left evangelicalism and founded a Franciscan brotherhood, described many contemporary evangelicals as feeling “a hunger for something less legalistic, more mystical and intellectually rich,” than the “rather shallow answers” they are often given in response to questions about salvation and judgment.
But Talbot said Bell, and other like-minded evangelicals, “lack the full set of tools to find those deeper answers” – which Catholics are given through “sacred scripture, apostolic tradition, and the magisterium, or teaching authority, of the church.”
He indicated that Catholic teachings on salvation could provide more definitive answers to the kinds of questions that led Bell to write “Love Wins.”
“Those who have never had the good news of Jesus written on their hearts by the Spirit are only responsible for what they know,” Talbot said, paraphrasing what the Second Vatican Council taught in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.
“Therefore,” he stated, “those who are not Christians may be saved.”
But he pointed out that this possibility “does not negate the need to proclaim that Jesus alone is the fullness of God's revelation to humanity, and opens the doorway to salvation.”
Talbot said that the Catholic understanding of salvation portrays God's character more accurately than the common Evangelical teaching that assumes all non-Christians are damned.
Catholic teaching on salvation, he said, “is like a rich oil painting of Jesus, as compared to a black and white line drawing or even a cartoon. It has the basics found in the line drawing, but with subtle colors, shades, and hues not found in the other approach.”
But Talbot concurred with Bell's evangelical critics in rejecting the notion of universal salvation.
“The mystery of iniquity is that some will actually choose to turn from God for eternity,” he said. “This seems inconceivable to most of us, but scripture and tradition says that some will.”
Dr. Douglas Groothuis, an evangelical philosopher and apologist who teaches at the non-denominational Denver Seminary, gave CNA his perspective on several subjects where Bell takes an unconventional turn in “Love Wins.”
“Some evangelicals hold that while salvation is through Jesus Christ alone, some in the New Covenant era may be saved by Christ without having known of the Gospel as such, if they fulfill certain conditions.” But, Groothuis said, “others deny this.”
Many evangelicals are committed to the principle of salvation by “faith alone,” which teaches that no human act other than believing in Christ has any bearing on one's salvation.
But Groothuis said “most evangelicals” would accept the possibility of God making a “final offer” of salvation to individuals at the threshold of death. Catholic teaching holds that this could occur, although it is impossible to know whether or not it actually happens.
“Love Wins” also contains a passage in which Bell expresses anxiety for the fate of those who die suddenly and unexpectedly, without having become Christians. He indicates that the notion of an immediate and final judgment after death makes God turn from “kind and compassionate” to “cruel and relentless, in the blink of an eye.”
But Groothuis said that this issue of death and judgment required a clearer understanding of God's providence, a subject on which evangelicals largely concur with the Catholic Church.
According to Catholic teaching, God has complete sovereignty over the beginning and end of life, and complete foreknowledge of human decisions. From these principles, it can be inferred that no one dies “before his time,” meaning that all those who die are either prepared to face God and be saved – or else, would never have chosen to be saved even if given additional time.
Groothuis agreed with this traditional understanding of God's providence, and said it could help both evangelicals and Catholics to understand the logic of an irrevocable judgment immediately after death – because, he indicated, every person is either prepared to face the judgment, or would never have prepared themselves in any case.
“God is sovereign over life and death, “ he stated. “Nothing surprises God.”