Origen, Barth, and Bell: Theological Perspectives on Hell and Universalism

Let me begin by making two statements: 1. I have read Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.  2. I am not interested in giving a long critique of the book.  Several people have already written good ones, and another review from my perspective would add nothing to the conversation.  What I want to do here is attempt to answer the question, “Is Rob Bell saying anything different than what Origen and Karl Barth claimed?”  In the last month I have heard Bell’s view of hell likened to both of these men as well as C.S. Lewis.  (I cannot, however, speak to Lewis’ view b/c – to my shame – I have only read the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity).  Ironically, if you Google image “Universalism” both Origen and Bell’s pictures show up.  Origen was excommunicated for some of his teaching, being accused of saying that even the devil might have a shot at redemption.  At the end of Barth’s life he often had to defend himself against the accusation that he was a Universalist.  Is there any correlation between these men?


The notion that Origen taught that all people would be saved, including the possibility of Satan, has been around for some time.  The reality is that Origen was much more “orthodox” than what he is given credit for.  According to the historian, Justo Gonzales, Origen proposed many doctrines, not necessarily as truths to be generally accepted, nor as things that would supersede the clear doctrines of the church, but as his own tentative speculation, which was not to be compared with the authoritative teaching of the church.  He was in line with what was considered orthodox for his day.  It is unfair to take later matters settled by the church (some several hundred years later), and then look back on his teachings and scold him for wrestling with them.  However, the question is whether or not Origen taught that all men would eventually be saved, even Satan.  The answer is that he postulated some type of universal reconciliation because of his view of free will, but never affirmed it as orthodox or in line with Scripture. In his book, First Principles (1.8.4), he says, “So, too, the reprobate will always be fixed in evil, less from the inability to free themselves from it, than because they wish to be evil.”  Once in hell, the choice to choose otherwise will never be exercised because the will of man will not choose otherwise.  Concerning the possible salvation of Satan, Origen did not teach the possibility that he would be saved.  In a debate with a man named Candidus, Origen was defending his notion of free will, and said that Satan could be saved if he wanted, but that he would not be saved because of his choice to live in rebellion. Origen’s point was that Satan did not want salvation because his free will choice.  He writes in a letter defending himself against the above accusation, that anyone who would claim that Satan would be saved was a “madman.”  Although he was labeled a heretic in 399 by a council in Alexandria, and then excommunicated as heretic by the 5th Ecumenical Council in 553, Henri Crouzel says this was more from the musings of Origen’s followers than Origen himself.  Origen postulated a reconciliation of all things, but did not affirm it as orthodox.  He also did not teach any type of post-mortem changing of the heart.  Although he wanted to defend the notion of free will, he affirmed that the reprobate’s will was fixed in sin and rebellion.


When it comes to nailing down Karl Barth on the issue…good luck!  According to Oliver Crisp and Geoffrey Bromiley (translator of Barth’s Church Dogmatics into English) his theology cannot escape the accusation.  Karl Barth taught that Jesus Christ was both the subject and object of election.  As the subject he is the electing God.  As the object he is the elect man.  Simply, Barth sees Jesus as the representative of all men, not only some of them.  (He had a major beef with Calvinism!)  If Jesus represented all men, took the condemnation that was to fall on all men, then the logical conclusion of Barth’s theology would be that all men would be saved.  This is what Barth hoped for.  The problem is that he wasn’t sure it would happen.  When asked if he was a Universalist, he denied the label.  Furthermore, he taught that although all men were elected in Christ, their election still had to be actualized through the exercise of faith, and that the gospel had to be preached if there was any hope for man.  Thus, in the end you can take one of two approaches with Barth.  You can side with Oliver Crisp, who says that Barth was either a Universalist or incoherent in his doctrine.  Or, you can opt for George Hunsinger’s view that Barth was not a Universalist but an agnostic.  He simply left the question open ended with a strong tilt towards universal hope.


So where is Bell?  Again, good luck.  I think he wants to keep the free will of Origen, and the hope of universal reconciliation like Barth.  Unlike both of these men, however, he seems to go further and claim a definitive reconciliation of all people, including post-mortem redemption.  If all are not saved then love does not win, which is the premise of his book.  He redefines the term aion to refer to an “intense experience,” not a period of time with beginning and end (by the way, it’s never good to get one definition of a word and apply it to all uses of that word) (57).  Going so far as to say that, “forever is not really a category biblical writers use” (92) Thus, hell is not forever in the sense of time.  It’s just a “period of pruning” or a “time of trimming” or “an intense experience of correction” (91).  Hell can be now, on earth, as we reject God’s way and God’s story of love.  Hell can be a place we go to after death.  The picture John gives us in Revelation, however, is of a city with open gates in which people can “come and go.”  Bell suggests that if someone dies and goes to hell and is finally overcome by the goodness of God in Christ and repents, it is possible that God will let them into heaven whose gates are always open.  (I wonder if that also means those in heaven can leave?)  Hell, even one of their own making, has finally pruned their resistance.  He says that Christians should long for this (111) and admit that these questions “are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.  We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires”(115).  If he is genuine in this statement, he affirms that he’s not sure if there is a universal reconciliation.  (If he’s wrong, though, doesn’t it end really badly for people?!)  Furthermore, Bell is not a traditional Universalist (i.e. everyone gets in regardless of what they want).  However, he seems to be advocating a type of Christian Universalism.  Jesus is necessary.  Everyone gets in, but everyone gets in only because of the sacrifice of Jesus.  In this sense Bell is exclusive.  Also, the sacrifice of Jesus was inclusive of all.  Bell says that “Jesus does declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody” (155).   He also says that people just might not be aware that it is Jesus doing this for them (155).  Buddhist will use a different name.  Muslim’s will say Allah.  In this case, the gospel in the Bible is not the only way to heaven (i.e. Believe this or you don’t get in).  Jesus is the only way, and the Christian church (especially those that mix the warning of eternal conscious judgment in hell with grace) doesn’t get to lay claim on the only exclusive message.  The message is really love.  So although Bell is not a traditional Universalist, he does appear to be advocating a view of Universalism (i.e. an Exclusive (Jesus alone) Inclusivist (Everybody) Pluralist (Many Ways to Understand) Universalism) that puts the love of God and the cross of Christ squarely in the middle of every persons salvation.  This allows him to have some vague tie to evangelical Christianity, even though his definitions behind the terms create something new.

If I’m reading Bell correctly, there is indeed a piece of continuity between his view and those of Origen and Barth.  There is the hope of universal reconciliation.  I think that all Christians would hope for what these men hoped for, the salvation of all men.  At that point our desires would be in line with God’s.  However, in the end Bell is very different from Barth and Origen.  Bells view is different from Origen b/c he postulates, not a fixed will of rebellion in hell, but the possibility that the will may always change, even post-mortem.  Origen may have questioned, but never considered it an “orthodox view” as Bell does.  Origen also never separated salvation from the Christian gospel or thought that the beliefs of Roman pagan religions were somehow coterminous with the gospel of Jesus.  Bell is different from Barth in that Barth never separates salvation from a choice that is made in the here and now.  Barth never spoke of a hell as a time of “pruning.”  More pointedly Barth never called for a softening of the biblical text or a “better story” that excluded judgment or widened itself to encompass other religions (Neither did Paul in Acts 17).  If anything Barth called for more proclamation and the indiscriminate preaching of the unique Christian gospel (not a widening of it) along with a warning for those who rejected it.  They hoped for a universal reconciliation, but thought it not possible or, at best, were agnostic about it.  In the end, neither Origen nor Barth, say what Bell is now saying.


Posted on April 11, 2011, in Early Church, Eschatology, Historical Theology, Salvation, The Modern Church and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. Get Lewis’ The Great Divorce (about hell) – I think you’d find it fascinating…

  2. Brian’s right – The Great Divorce is a great read and worth reflecting on.

    @Billy, I love the label “Exclusive Inclusivist Pluralism.” I’m going to have to use that one. Quick question, you point out that many think Barth’s position logically entailed universalism, but that he consistently denied this. Your summary of Bell seems to set up the same dynamic. You say that his position logically entails some form of universalism (i.e. “love wins” in the end). But, from what I’ve read elsewhere, he seems to deny drawing this logical conclusion. Is that a fair summary of how you understand the book? Or, do you think Bell clearly draws the conclusion that love will eventually win everyone over so that everyone gets saved?

    • @Marc: I think that label covers it all!! 🙂 That either shows how much I can’t pin him down, or how obscure he is. I think Bell clearly draws this conclusion using his own definitions. He definitely denies the traditional defining of universalism. However, when asked if he was a universalist in an interview in New York, he said, “No, if by Universalist you mean that there’s a giant cosmic arm that sweeps down and scoops every one in regardless of their wanting to go there or not.” So he denies a traditional view that doesn’t have Jesus in the middle or violates the free will choice of the individual to want to be in heaven. From what I can tell, though, his book points to the view that eventually the love of Jesus does win and everyone will want to get in and will be let in, even if this requires a period of pruning. If Bell is not advocating some type of universalsim he needs to be more clear b/c even secular mainstrem media is labeling him a universalist and finding hope that a mainline pastor is teaching that hell might not exist or that you can choose postmortem if you get it wrong here. If that is not what he’s saying, or alluding to, them he seems to have confused Christian and non-Christian alike.

      • I think it’s clear that he’s affirming the possibility of postmortem conversion. I’m just still not clear whether he explicitly draws the conclusion that many think is entailed by his argument. Even in your comment here, you say that his book “points to” the conclusion that love will win everyone over in the end. But, there’s a difference between pointing to a conclusion and actually drawing that conclusion. Ultimately I’d disagree either way, I’m just curious which you think is the most accurate way of portraying what he’s done with the book.

  3. Justin Cardinal

    Great post Marc. And great replies guys. I have been a Bell “fanboy” for a long time as some of you know… now, that doesn’t mean that I endorse everything he says. Rather it means that I get a fair amount of amusement from him. You all might find the first couple of minutes from his recent sermon interesting.


    If anything it made me ask, how can he be so clear in one context and so unclear in others? Anyway… nice work guys.

    • @Justin: That first two minutes is definitely clear. I’ll have to listen to the rest of it. Thanks for the link.

  4. Justin re: Bell – I hope as a minister I don’t have to stand in front of my people and list a bunch of historic Christian teachings that I really believe, because folks might be wondering. Maybe his folks never doubted it – I don’t doubt it about him, for that matter. But he sounded rattled, and ironically, giving answers out of fear, than anything else. Is everyone who disagrees with him operating out of a narrative of decline or reasoning out of fear? Fair question to fire back at him.

    And he can’t just dismissively say that folks haven’t read him or understood him, either. Its not like he is Derrida, or something!

  5. The book is certainly confusing. However this passage suggests the “Love Wins” = we are given freedom. This means that in universalism love doesn’t win, since freedom would have to be abandoned.

    “It’s not ‘Does God get what God wants?’
    ‘Do we get what we want?’
    And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure,
    and positive yes.
    God is that loving….

    if we want hell,
    if we want heaven,
    they are ours…

    God says yes,
    we can have what we want,
    because love wins.”

  6. Maybe that previous comment was unclear (maybe because I quoted Rob Bell). Here’s what I disagree with in Billy’s post: “If all are not saved then love does not win, which is the premise of his book.” No. If love wins, everyone gets the choice to be saved or not. The idea is: Love implies freedom, freedom implies the choice of salvation or damnation.

    • Craig, I agree you. Bell definitely ties the notion of hell to getting what one wants. However, he seems to go beyond that as well to speak of remedial punishment in hell, and to speak of postmortem repentance in light of God’s devastating love. He implies both.

  7. Which Afterlife?

    In his new book “Love Wins” Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from “the greatest achievement in life,” my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote “In God we all meet.”

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