The study of prophecy must include what happens to people at the end of their mortal life. Two books that are very popular right now deal with some of these questions. One of them is Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. It is the delightful story of Todd Burpo, a 3 year-old who apparently went to heaven briefly during an emergency appendectomy. Little by little, his family discovered that he had experienced many wonderful contacts with Bible personalities and family members whom he had never even known existed. This heartwarming message is not a Bible study. It is offered as an account of one boy’s personal experience. It does not contradict orthodox Bible doctrine.
The other book was just released two days ago, but it caused an enormous theological debate even before its release. That book is Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by emergent church pastor Rob Bell. Conservative Bible scholars are alarmed by Bell’s position that the traditional Christian teaching about hell is mean-spirited and untrue. The book tries to answer to the question that all of us have: “How could a loving God condemn people to an eternity of torment in hell?”
While thoughtful theologians agree that there may be various levels of punishment for those who rebel against God’s will, Bell apparently thinks that judgment and hell are mostly descriptions of the awful events that happen to people during their lifetime (“hell on earth”). As I read the book, I noticed that he didn’t explain the Great White Throne Judgment. How could a serious book about hell ignore this passage?
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. – Revelation 20:11-15
Taking Bell’s arguments to their extreme leads to what is known as “universalism,” the belief that people will eventually be drawn by God’s love into his blessing instead of his punishment, even if they do not receive Christ’s offer of salvation during their mortal lifetime.
The obvious problem with this view is that it is contrary to the clear teaching of Jesus and the rest of the Bible. Jesus taught more about hell than all the prophets that came before him. Yet he loves sinners more than anyone else has ever loved them, and sacrificed his life for them! His stern warnings about hell are the direct result of his love for the people he came to save.
Bell agrees that God’s love is infinite (thus the title: “Love Wins”), and that salvation is accomplished through the atonement of Jesus’ death. But he thinks that those who respond to God’s love will receive the gift of eternal life even if they don’t know about Jesus.
This issue will undoubtedly create a great debate among Bible scholars in the days to come. We will follow that debate and post more information in our blog from time to time.
From the standpoint of Bible prophecy, the acceptance of universalism will make possible a final world-religion. According to several passages of Scripture, there will be a great apostasy, or “falling away” of Bible-observing Christians (Matthew 24:12; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; 2 Timothy 4:2-4). Apostate Christianity will then be able to merge with other religions. The final evil one-world government will be supported by a united religion, symbolized by the adulterous woman who rides on the beast in Revelation 17.
For more information about Heaven, Hell, and the End-Times, see our book – Connecting the Dots: A Handbook of Bible Prophecy.