Universalists Debate Where Osama Bin Laden Is

By Don Rollins

Nobody would’ve faulted the Rev. Rob Bell if he’d buckled. Not two months ago the hip evangelical mega-pastor rocked the fundy world with his book Love Wins, a treatise in defense of a bold, if not new, theological assertion: universalism. (Think theological populism: When we finally get fitted for the old toe tag, everybody goes to heaven. No hell. No exceptions.)

This was, to say the least, wholly out of step with evangelical orthodoxy. Old Guard fundamentalist pushback was swift, condemnatory and sustained. Heresy. Blasphemy. But the cat did not back down. Instead he did what Jesus did when the message came under siege: he went on tour and spread the word.

Then last week Bell’s theology of ultimate love was exposed to scrutiny of an entirely different and unpredictable sort: the morally bankrupt button man behind 9/11 up and took one in the chest and one in the melon. Osama Bin Laden was doornail dead and his body was swimming with the fishes. But what about his soul?

Within hours the pop religion blogosphere was abuzz with folks daring Bell to hold the line on universal salvation. No more hypotheticals, preacher: Is Osama in heaven?

Once again Pastor Bell once stood by the gospel of universal salvation (even though he sometimes bristles at the term). Not two days after the storming of the compound Bell issued a statement saying, “…Now that [Bin Laden] is dead, he will be sure to choose Jesus. I am sure that I will see him in the new creation someday.”

Oh boy. Jesus, Osama and Rob Bell chillin’ in glory land. Now the cyber traffic doubled in volume and vitriol. In keeping with America’s propensity for a pop religion approach to complex religious matters, discussion of Bell’s ideas, on the whole, devolved into a blog-and-tweet prattle fest without historical context or theological heft.

But there may be a silver lining. Because for all the mud slung his way, Bell’s book is selling, the tour is working and there is clearly an astute young adult support base. (Not to mention an 11,000-member congregation.)

Could it be that neo-progressive theology may be making inroads with the 35-and-under evangelical crowd? There’s reason for hope. Bell’s case for theological populism (“Hell: Population 0” as one critic puts it) comes on the heels of a study indicating that more than half of young adults who identify as evangelicals are less concerned than their elders about gay marriage and abortion. In a nation infatuated with religion, this is a seismic religious shift with potentially seismic political and social consequences.

And there’s more. A 2006 study by the Chronicle of Higher Education showed that young adults are not the unreflective slackers of Boomer stereotypes. Quite the contrary. They registered a higher degree of interest in “big questions” than either their parents or grandparents, not to mention a greater respect for more than one set of answers.

Could these things add up to a generation of evangelicals more comfortable with ambiguity, diversity and tolerance – a generation less committed to conservative ideology and the political will to advance it? There’s reason for hope.

The sturm and drang surrounding Rob Bell and his God of love is absolutely understandable in a nation still traumatized by terrorism and enmeshed in two resulting wars. Who can blame us for wanting our guilt-free pound of flesh? And the timing of Bell’s book and Osama’s demise may have been pushing the love-your-neighbor ethic further than most of us can handle. But the notion of cracks in the walls of the residual, irresponsible theology that has for centuries been co-opted for conservative ends is mighty, mighty encouraging. Whatever Bin Laden’s current address.

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2011


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