Respected theologian Don Carson hadn't planned on discussing hell and universalism at this year's Gospel Coalition conference. But the subject became inevitable when Rob Bell's new book burst onto the scene, debuting at No. 2 on the New York Times' bestseller list.
The research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., is not happy that universalists are diminishing God's holiness, cheapening the cross, and distorting biblical truths.
Though he didn't accuse Bell directly, Carson said the handling of the atonement of Christ by universalists is blasphemous.
"I say it with respect, I say it with brokenness, but it is blasphemous," he said plainly, as he addressed pastors and other conference participants in Chicago.
"You just have to say it. You simply cannot talk about the cross in such slighting, denunciatory, cheapening, belittling ways."
Emphasizing the centrality of the cross, he stated, "He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities. God set him forth to be the propitiation for our sins that God might be just and the one who justifies the ungodly."
The talk on Thursday, which was followed by a panel discussion, was precipitated by the newly released Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In it, Bell, who pastors Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., wrestles with the notion of people being tortured in hell for eternity.
He denounces the teaching that only a select few Christians will spend forever in heaven while the rest are tormented in hell, calling it toxic and contending that it subverts the spread of Jesus' message of love.
Bell has made it clear that he believes hell exists. But he questions the belief that punishment in the afterlife is forever and suggests that there are postmortem opportunities to repent and join God in heaven.
The author has denied being a universalist, saying he doesn't believe God will come in and swoop everyone in whether they want to be in heaven or not.
But evangelicals argue that what Bell presents can only be described as universalism.
On Thursday, Carson defined universalism as the belief that ultimately everyone will be saved, however you understand saved in different religions.
"That means, if there is a hell, it will one day be empty," he explained.
Addressing Bell's denial, Carson stated, "Beware the attempts to muddy the definition of universalism.
"Rob says he is not a universalist if by universalist we mean that God somehow imposes His will on people to force everybody to go to heaven whether they want to or not. He doesn't think God forces His will on anybody. Rather, he thinks that 'love wins.' He keeps working at them ... until He's got them all on His side."
"But," he continued, "universalism does not refer to the mold or degree of force or attractiveness of God's love. It refers to the result. Are there any people who are finally rejected absolutely or eternally or will everyone be saved?"
Turning the discussion to universalists in general, Carson indicated that their view of God's love is distorted or incomplete.
Yes, God is loving, the theologian and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition noted. But the Bible speaks of God's love in different ways and what universalists do is absolutize one aspect of it – namely that God loves everyone the same way.
There is providential love, where God sends His son to die for both the just and the unjust. And there's a yearning love where God "dares to depict Himself as the almighty cuckold" and goes after even the betrayer to ultimately win them. But sometimes God also loves in a particularizing way such as when He loved Jacob but not Esau, as illustrated in the Old Testament. And other times, God's love is conditioned by His followers' obedience.
All this paints a picture of a God who is sovereign and on the other hand, personal.
Unfortunately, universalists only emphasize one aspect while tossing the rest.
"This is horrible exegesis," Carson maintained. "If you absolutize things merely to make the answers turn out the way you want them to, pretty soon you have a horribly diminished view of what the Bible says about God."
The evangelical theologian recognized why some may be teaching about an empty hell and an all loving God.
"We feel pressure from the culture to find universalism attractive," he pointed out.
"There are pressures in our culture to reduce the truth content of Scripture and then simply dismiss people by saying that they're intolerant or narrow-minded ... or bigoted without actually engaging the truth question at all. And that is really sad and in the long haul, horribly dangerous."
Part of what has happened in culture and in the churches is that the God of the Old Testament has been written off.
During an earlier discussion, Carson noted that there is a widespread assumption in evangelicalism that God in the Old Testament is meaner than in the New Testament, considering there are instances when people get wiped out.
But he asserted that the Old Testament passages on judgment are not ones to shy away from in embarrassment or "make jokes [about] and do an apology for God" and then say "Jesus is nicer."
"When you move from the Old Testament to the new, you don't move from a harsher view of God ... Rather, just as the vision of the love of God is amped up and made clearer and more wonderful, so the vision of God in his wrath and judgment is made clearer and more comprehensive [in the New Testament]."
Reducing the wrath of God is hard to square with Scripture, he noted.
Joining Carson in a short panel discussion, Georgia pastor Crawford Loritts described attempts to pick and choose single attributes of God as prostituting God.
"God does not need a publicist or agent or a PR firm," he added. "God is not sitting around wondering if people like Him."
Renowned theologian Tim Keller also rejected attempts to elevate one attribute of God over another.
"At the cross, all the attributes of God win," he underscored.
Ultimately, reducing the wrath of God affects one's views on atonement and holiness.
"I don't think you see the spectacular love of God until you see the spectacular holiness of God. If you diminish one, you inevitably diminish the other one," Carson stressed.
"If you soften your view of God's holiness, then what the cross achieved also is a little weakened."
What atonement becomes to universalists is the conquering of sin or death or overcoming evil "but not setting aside the wrath of God because, after all, God loves us."
The discussion at the April 12-14 conference was timely, with Christians preparing to observe Good Friday and Easter beginning April 22.
Before sending the pastors back to their local churches and seminaries, Carson made it clear that the stakes are high when it comes to getting it right on salvation and heaven and hell because once a decision is made in this life, the consequences are eternal.
"Hell is not filled with people who want to get out. They don't want to be there. But I don't think there's a scrap of biblical suggestion that people in hell repent," he stated.
"You must not think of hell as a place where people are saying 'Oh, now I get it. Your love has finally conquered. Please forgive me. I'd like another chance.' It's filled with people, rather, who for all eternity are so self-focused they cannot even there stop trying to be god for themselves. [It's] an endless cycle of sin and rebellion and curse; a world without end."
"We know the only solution to this: It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ."