The Theological Implications of Rob Bell’s Christian/Hopeful Universalism Compared to the Historical Theological Consequences of Swedenborg’s Traditional Universalism
By Kathy L. McFarland
13 October 2012
(Accepted for presentation to the American Academy of Religion, Theology and Religious Reflection Section, Chicago 2012 Annual Meeting, November 2012)
Emmanuel Swedenborg, in the last moments of his life, appeared to fully believe the mystical revelations that he had received in his lifetime from the angels that came to him to develop a theology based upon love and self-determination. Reports of his confidence in his last breaths were witnessed by many who watched closely to catch him in a lack of faith. It was not forthcoming. Swedenborg met his maker and his destiny with surety of faith that was developed from unbiblical and questionable sources, without a foundation of common and traditional theological ideas. Yet, it should also be noted that just months prior to his death, it is said that he was forced to pause in contemplation for a moment when an inquisitor of his angel-revealed faith asked him how he knew the good angels were from God and not from Satan. He wrestled with the horrendous idea that he might have made a terrible mistake in listening to angels that were not speaking from God’s perspective. His pause of deep contemplation concluded with his admittance that he had absolutely no way of determining the nature of the angels that had guided him, since the wicked would surely present themselves to him as those sent on a righteous mission by God. Yet, upon his deathbed, Swedenborg had resolved this inner conflict, fully confident that his belief based upon self-determination of final destiny rather than orthodox Scriptural interpretation of faith alone in Christ for salvation purposes, was intact and ready to activate his choice for existence after death.
Pastor Rob Bell, author of Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, seems to move upon a similar unbiblical path as Swedenborg, declaring confidently that the love of God reigns supreme, with His judgment against non-believers ending in their eternal damnation of Hell a changeable verdict. He makes unscriptural suggestions through leading questions that all people are saved by the loving Lord God in due time with different ways of approaching Him in other faith expressions as relevant as those Christ-led paths that Christians take. Bell wonders if Christ is part of all of these different paths that sometimes keeps Jesus unnamed in the faith journeys of people. Accordingly, Bell seems to develop his new progressive teachings about an ill-defined God that is wrongly limited to saving just a select few upon a doctrinal foundation that is flawed.
The theological implications of universalism are moving toward the mystical theology of Swedenborg in a slow, steady crawl that seems likely to meet the same fate of insufficient Scriptural support for adherents, in spite of the attempt to Christianize the message more. This presentation will compare Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell theology type of traditional, mystical universalism with Rob Bell’s new theology of Christian/Hopeful universalism that shows striking similarities that threaten to drive faith to the mystical side, with salvation guaranteed for most. I intend to show that the heightened focus upon God’s love over His righteousness, the concept of a changeable nature of Heaven and Hell, and the idea of salvation being in the hands of the individual, rather than in the hands of God, connect Swedenborg and Bell together in a universal theology that promises to derail theological Scriptural truths from the foundation of Christian belief.
Replacing the God of Judgment for the God of Love
According to Swedenborg, the Divine Truth of God derives from His Divine Love, conjoining mankind’s interiors to Him. This Divine Love gives the essence and vitality of life to human beings and supports the formation of the different levels of heaven, with the innermost third heaven populated by those that love the Lord, and the second or middle heaven populated by those who love their neighbor. The angels, of both ethereal origin and those human beings receiving their angelic heavenly bodies and natures upon death, emulate the love brought forth from the goodness of God. It is the love of each angel in heaven connecting their sphere of love with others that forms the place of Heaven that God dwells within and throughout the resurrected body of Christ. And, it is the measure of love for the goodness of God, or the rejection of that goodness, that determines the changeable fate of individuals upon their death.
It seems Swedenborg’s theological assumptions are supported by Rob Bell’s theology of Christian hopeful universalism that rejects the final destination of an eternal, fiery Hell for those that fail to heed the “turn or burn” mentality of traditional Christian faith. God is fully love, unable to reject any part of His creation; the existence of Hell is not eternal punishment, but a troubled spiritual destination of those unable to reach God’s standards in this lifetime but given additional chance following death to reach Heaven for Heaven’s sake. The love of His Creation given to the Creator as He loves them becomes the essence of God’s purpose in Bell’s kingdom, with a certainty that in due time, unrestricted by death, all mankind will seek His presence. In that sense, Swedenborg’s ideas of loving worshipers of God connecting together and forming the place that God dwells captures the same essence as Bell’s Creator and Creation loving each other without need for judgment.
Both Swedenborg and Bell analyze the expression of God’s love to be the focused purpose of His existence, when in reality, it is not. They fail to consider that Scriptural representation of God’s purpose that shows the exaltation of God’s glory to be the goal of mankind’s works, rather than one part of His nature that is revealed through his deep love of His creations. When the love of God toward mankind is made the defining goal of God’s expression, it makes His love existent for the sole purpose of elevating mankind, rather than revealing Himself to them. This is far from God’s Truth; the important threefold recitation of “holy, holy, holy” that describes God by those standing in His presence in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4, proclaims His full nature. The love of God must be examined through His larger revelation of His holiness if the truth of the Bible is to remain foundationally solid and undistorted.
Failing to measure God’s love through His holiness elevates one part of His character to mystical places of exaggerated importance that are not represented by Scripture as His defining purpose for His existence. It is only through His love measured first by His holiness that allows the punishment of the disobedient through the sentence of Hell. God’s love without first measured by His holiness changes His essence from a clear line between righteousness and wickedness and worship toward him vs. apostasy and heretical rejection. The Holiness of God cannot love wickedness or disobedience to Him; His love can only exist in righteousness. While His love alone might well look upon the doings of man differently, judged through His holiness first, mankind risks punishment for their wrong actions.
Final salvation determined by individual
Swedenborg rejects the doctrine of salvation by faith alone and thinks God imparts righteousness to whomever he chooses, even to those who have not repented. His autosoterism doctrine declares man as the author of his own salvation that is developed according to his own merit and obedience. Similarly, Bell’s position rejects traditional belief for the need for proper declaration of Christian faith for salvation purposes and says the focus upon the belief in the “right things” religion profanely limits opportunities to come to God. Bell’s stance affirms the autosoterism priority in salvation by declaring a response to Jesus as most important without a regard towards the content of faith. Thus, Bell determines the eternal destination of folks cannot be defined by the traditional practice of religion that seems limited to the lucky few born to the right and only religion allegedly supported by God.
But, before probative judgment and eternal damnation can be removed from the actions linked to God’s holiness, God’s character must be reshaped. Bell’s theology requires a God whose love is not tempered nor measured with holy justice or harsh judgment. Bell’s God prepares a wide path easily traveled without need for a Christ awareness in their journey, contrary to that well-known narrow way of Christ found in Matthew 7:13, 14. It is a broad way with a large gate, instead, where all manner of beliefs or lack thereof have opportunity to achieve salvation through Christ’s sacrifice, even if Christ is unknown or known as someone different than the narrowly defined Lord Jesus Christ of traditional Christian belief. Sadly, it is a similar broad path that the Lord cautions leads to destruction, not to life eternal through the leadership of false prophets (Matthew 7:13, 14).
Concept of Heaven and Hell Unformed by Scriptural Truths
Swedenborg’s heaven and hell are occupied by various groupings of deceased humans made angels according to their interior capacity for love of God and each other. The worldly naïve and even those without certain faith in Christ can ascend to heaven as long as they have love in their interiors. Those that love themselves and reject love toward their neighbor and love of God’s truth, automatically flee from heaven and associate themselves to like-kind haters in a natural ordering in a Doctrine of Correspondence system that has many realms, at many levels, extending from hell to heaven, but yet connected together with the entire body with association to similar purposes given them by God. Each society forms a part of God’s realm, and each society varies in the quality of love and goodness depending upon the love of the Lord that is reflected from within them towards others and God.
Swedenborg advances the belief that those confined to the farthest realms away from God, even those in Hell, can escape the desolate darkness of separation from Him. The Lord gives even the most evil minds the ability to see God’s truth and gravitate toward God at their individual pace as goodness grows within them. In fact, these varying degrees of love in the different realms and societies are necessary for heaven to exist at all. According to Swedenborg, heaven would lose its value without the fluctuation of interior love for Him, because it is only this variation that stirs perfection to increase love for Him. Thus, the ebb and flow of wickedness to righteousness sustains heaven, and supports the containment of God.
Bell’s use of Scripture in a post-conservative model with general support for his perceptions of truth and reality provide ample room for his questions on the eternal environments of human existence after death. However, this approach requires a rejection of the revelations that God offers mankind with real and accurate knowledge concerning His last things. Bell’s hell is a place of speculation with hope that a just and loving God has alternative plans for the majority of dead who do not follow the narrow path of Christ. His reflections of the New Jerusalem with its “open gates” (Revelation 21:21) suggests that they remain open to allow entrance to the new citizens from hell that are mystically reconciled to God from their fallen place. In fact, he calls the traditional Scripture interpretation of the revealed God as a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor, opting instead for the presentation of a loving heavenly father that reaches for the lost souls in Hell and draws them closer to Him. Bell’s hell as a changeable dwelling place for the fallen can only exist with his personal interpretation of Scripture. Like Swedenborg, He is fully unable to reconcile a loving God with a judging God, and must make the damnation of hell an individual choice, rather than a verdict by God.
Swedenborg’s teachings conform to the belief of Pluralistic Universalism which holds the expectation that everyone who ever lived will be saved. While both men’s teachings seem closely related, with the expectation of salvation available even after death, Pastor Bell embraces instead, either the new doctrine of Christian Universalism or Hopeful Universalism. Christian Universalism claims both classical and orthodox doctrines of Christianity, but altars the doctrine of salvation by declaring that eternal destiny is not fixed at death. Those in hell can repent and accept Christ in an intermediate environment between heaven and hell, where the decision can be made without coercion. Hopeful Universalism, while similar to Christian Universalism in the belief of evangelical doctrines, opens the possibility that some might reject God’s grace, even though salvation is possible after death. These views seem in direct conflict with Scripture, and contrary to the nature of Christian faith.
Dr. David Mappes, in his Biblical and Theological Critique of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” takes issue with Bell’s theological method that falls short of a valid “canonical, comprehensive, consistent hermeneutical, congruent, coherent test of Scripture, call/response.” The 350 questions that Bell pummels his readers to ponder in his book, overwhelms the senses and forces the suggested errant answers to seem more likely supported by alternative interpretations of the Bible than really is the case. Actually, Bell’s approach to reflect a God different than the One revealed in Scripture is fraught with insurmountable spiritual problems that dismisses mainline orthodox views that have developed in Christianity over the centuries. He cleverly locates Scripture pieces with a theological method that seems to answer his probative questions and reassures Christian post-conservatives that Scripture can be viewed with different realities not explored by traditional interpretations.
Both Swedenborg and Bell share the idea that Scripture contains hidden, mystical properties that increase the salvation potential dramatically that gives most humans the ability to determine and change their place of dwelling in eternal life. They reject the immediate banishment from the Lord’s presence into the lower realms of Hell, (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 16:23-28), and the foundational orthodox truth that salvation comes to those that respond to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior on faith alone (John 3:18, 36; 5:24).
Just their suppositions that those first sent to Hell have an option of recanting their hatred and eventually rise above their carnality and wickedness in a crawl toward the love of God once again belays the Truth of Scripture. They both fail to address how anyone could have the strength, preservation of mind, heart of love, and ability to endure the furnace of fire (Matthew 13:42; 50), the “lake of fire and sulfur” (Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14-15; 21:8); if fallen mankind cannot find their way toward the love of God in their far less threatening environment in their life on earth, how can the damned see past the smoke of brimstone and perdition. They both misunderstand that Hell is punishment received by final judgment with full justice by the Lord Jesus Christ rather than a place of corrective action that encourages growth once again toward God. The torment of those damned to eternal perdition in the second death (Revelation 20:14; 21:8) and the smoke of the lost rising “forever and ever” (Revelation 14:11) shows the eternal state of damnation and hellfire.
Conclusion Addressing Theological Implications of Universalism
Both Swedenborg and Bell begin their new theologies with Scripture reference; in fact, both initially use a great deal of referenced support. But, as their new ideas develop, Swedenborg relies more and more upon the mystical revelations given to him by angels. Bell’s new ideas, though not revealed as coming from the mystical pipeline that Swedenborg channels, still rises above basic Scripture interpretations into an ethereal realm of possibilities of personal interpretation that are not traditionally embraced by the church of orthodox Christian believers. In fact, they rise above the theological growth of the Church, the early debates of the fathers of the church and the councils that believers formed to sort out the conflicts between Scripture and practice. The ever-increasing knowledge of solid interpretations of God’s Word, are cast aside with favor given to a new way of post-conservative theological methods that rejects earlier doctrines that give order to foundational belief.
While Bell might one day be as confident in his belief upon his deathbed as Swedenborg exhibited upon his, it does not make it a reliable truth. Once Scripture revelation of God’s nature is picked apart with the inclusion of only parts that reflect a universal and favorable love toward all, then theological interpretations become mystical, elevated and personal. Bell’s teachings derail Scriptural truths that reflect a Holy God of judgment and love that cannot be diluted into only the most agreeable parts of His essence for mankind’s pleasure. When parts of God’s nature are denied, elevated, or excluded, to allow a universal faith to include all people in a salvation plan, then the theology behind that newly created, man-made attempt to redefine God becomes mystical in nature and unsupported by Scripture.
Bell’s effort to change God’s essence and deny Scriptural revelation of His nature of Judgment that limits salvation through Christ alone for faith alone is misdirected. His plan that favors a more accepting and loving God that embraces all mankind, whether Christ is knowingly embraced or not, will meet the same fate that Swedenborg’s mystical efforts brought with insufficient Scriptural support for adherents. This false teaching is doomed to the same fate as Swedenborg’s in spite of Bell’s attempt to Christianize universal salvation with the message that love heals all wickedness, leading even the dead to come to their senses and reach the presence of God in their eternity; the Lord’s Final Judgment will prevent it.
Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. New York: HarperOne, 2011.
Cairns, Alan. Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002.
Cone, Christopher. "God Wins: A Critique of Rob Bell's Love Wins." In Biblical Sufficiency Applied, 53-74. Ft. Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2011.
Cross, F.L. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Mappes, David. "Love Wins by Rob Bell: A Biblical and Theological Critique." In BBS Faculty Forum, 23: Baptist Bible Seminary, 2012.
Rohr, E.G. Swedenborg, Emanuel Who's Who in Christian History, Edited by J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992.
Swedenborg, Emanuel. Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell: From Things Heard and Seen. New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1758, 1812.
 Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 83-93, 106-107.
 Ibid., 139-143.
 Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Its Wonders and Hell: From Things Heard and Seen (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1758, 1812), 9.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 10-11.
 Bell, 63-64.
 Ibid., 92, 106-108.
 Ibid., 100-101, 178.
 Ibid., 108-109.
 E.G. Rohr, Swedenborg, Emanuel, ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who's Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 651.
 Bell, 182-185.
 Swedenborg, 12.
 Ibid., 86.
 Bell, 114-115.
 Mappes, 3-4.
 Ibid., 16.