I have had a great 12-year stretch working with adolescents. During that time, I have found myself responding time and again to one of the great choruses of the adolescent subculture: “lots of people are saying…” Please note that various covers of this age-old tune have come out. These include: “everybody thinks so,” “everybody knows,” etc. What I have discovered in the last 12 years is that scratching below the surface will invariably result in “everybody” or “lots of people” turning out to be “the three guys I gossip with.” The strength of the argument is that it presents a sense of large and unified opinion backing the spurious statement being made, thus solidifying it as fact. This type of argument is called “argumentum ad populum.” It is a logical fallacy and is not a solid basis for a line of reasoning. We might see this in the statement: “Justin Bieber sells lots of records; therefore, he is the greatest singer EVER!” This statement is clearly wrong and clearly made by a 13 year old girl. Just because lots of people think its true, doesn’t make it any less true that Johnny Cash is actually the greatest singer ever. (Hey! My philosophy degree isn’t quite as useless as all that!) This is the central argument behind the chapter in Love Wins dealing with the tradition of the church regarding universal salvation.

Bell appeals to the early church fathers for support to the idea that universalism has always been around, we just ignore it most of the time because it isn’t orthodox. Please note that this is similar, but not identical to, a more common approach for demonstrating theological truth through appeal to the early church fathers. The proper way to look to the early church fathers as a measure for the validity of theological concepts is to consider their reflection of the teaching of the apostles, and Christ through them. This isn’t the same as appealing to the opinion of the masses, as is the case with the ad populum argument. It is appealing to the teachings of Christ directly. The thinking goes: “If Jesus taught the disciples stuff and they taught it later, then they must be teaching what Jesus taught.” Jesus is authoritative primarily because he was God. There is a collection of books called the Ante-Nicene Fathers, which features the collected writings of all of those guys from before the Nicene Creed was written (that was a basic statement of the beliefs of the church regarding Jesus, the Trinity, etc. Google it! It’s important!). Theologians will frequently look at these guys’ writings to establish things about the early church. This frequently includes the usage of words (check out the long boring part 2 of my Rob Bell Love Wins review), minutia of history that is lost otherwise, some theological ideas, etc. We find Bell referring to this collection of books when he speaks of Clement and Origen in his chapter on how universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason” was a part of Christian thought since the beginning of the church. Clement and Origen are generally credited with coming up with the Universalist theology, which makes it odd to point to them because the stuff they taught has ALWAYS been labeled universalism even though Bell repeatedly denies universalism in his book… but I digress. Now, for this to be a valid argument from authority, it would need to be established that Clement and Origen got their teaching from Jesus or one of the apostles. The problem is that Origen was pretty open about the fact that he had synthesized Platonic philosophy (a Greek pagan guy’s writing) with Christian Theology, which is actual origin (pun) of this doctrine. This negates that apostolic authority that is sought by those appealing to Origen and Clement. Because Origen is open in his indication that the idea of universal salvation came from non-Biblical sources, it is his opinion rather than apostolic authority. Thus appealing to him and those who were taught by/agree with him is an appeal to popular opinion (ad populum). The lack of apostolic teaching is further demonstrated by the fact that this idea didn’t appear until 250 AD. 
This is in the ballpark of 150 years after the last apostle’s death. It simply was not a teaching of the apostles at all.

In addition, Bell appeals to their teaching as a demonstration that there has always been an element of universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason” in the church, without actually revealing what it was that they taught. This is problematic. Clement was not overt in his teaching of Universalism. Origen, his student, taught that all things would be restored to God, which Bell resonates with as a central point in his “everybody says so argument.” For Origen, this included the devil and the fallen angels, who would repent and go to heaven. Further, Origen argued that our freedom to reject God through sin results in repeated casting to hell and restoration to heaven for ALL people throughout eternity. Now, Bell isn’t pointing to these arguments as true, but he is pointing to the guy who said this stuff as an authority of some sort. This is somewhat akin to saying “the crazy cat woman down the street thinks so.” (Please note that I am being a little tongue in cheek. Origen did make some useful contributions to church history.)

Now, Clement and Origen did have a school in Alexandria that taught this universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason.” By all accounts it remained prominent for quite a while. This leads to the second half of the argument regarding the presence of universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason” in church history. Bell points to Clement and Origen as holding the belief. He then goes on to list several well-known names that acknowledge the presence of universalism “everyone-goes-to-heavenism-but-it’s-not-universalism-for-some-reason” in the church. These names include: Jerome, Augustine, Eusebius, Gregory, Basil, etc. Now, it’s key to note that around 250 AD Origen was teaching heavily. Augustine and Jerome wrote in the early 400s AD. Eusebius wrote in the late 300s AD. Basil and Gregory wrote in the mid 300s AD.  This puts the full breadth of the witnesses supporting/mentioning the doctrine to a 50-150 year stretch, with a heavy emphasis on 50. Now, it is also important to note that this rash of sightings of Universalists during this era is easily accounted for. There was a school teaching it. I drive by the Humvee factory on the way to work every day. I frequently see Humvees on the road on their way to the train yards for shipping. Therefore, lots of people drive Humvees because I see them every day. Lots of people has always driven Humvees because I see them every day. Henry Ford taught about the importance of Humvee maintenance… He must have because I see so many people driving them. Everybody thinks so. See the problem? Bell makes a moment in history seem like an eternity. The total argument is not based on apostolic authority, but an appeal to ad populum for authority. Worse still, its ad populum that simply doesn’t exist beyond a short stretch in the history of the early church.

The only other name mentioned is Luther. Martin Luther is cited in a letter, responding to a friend’s inquiry about God forgiving those in Hell. His response essentially was: “God can do anything He wants.” This is far from a point of doctrinal support, particularly in light of the fact that Luther wrote about Hell quite a bit. Luther’s larger writings on the subject are neglected, probably because it doesn’t support the premise.

There you have it. That is the full breadth of the “lots of people in the Christian tradition held this view” support that is pointed to in the book. It’s just not true. In my research, I have found the suggestion from historians (I’d have to look it up and I need to cook lunch for my wife so I won’t. E-mail me if you want names) that this particular theology came about as a result of Platonism’s infusion with the church and died out again quickly because of the lack of scriptural support. This does happen with various doctrines. Popular culture and philosophy makes in-roads into the church and ultimately the influence dies.

Now, we CAN learn from the early church fathers regarding the doctrine of hell. Polycarp was a student of John the Beloved Disciple. This was the guy who leaned on the breast of Christ at the last supper. He was one of the infamous “sons of thunder.” He wrote 5 New Testament books. Irenaeus was Polycarp’s student and wrote about his life. In Irenaeus’ writing there is a clear acknowledgement of eternal hell. This is a real point of apostolic ascendancy. The teaching has a clear line from the apostles to these guys. They don’t acknowledge Plato or any philosophers as sources for ideas. In addition, their teachings appear in the second century. Earlier than the third century when universalism popped up. This is not an example of “everybody says so.” This is an appeal to authority to establish fact. It is also neglected in the explanation of the vast stream of Christian tradition referred to vaguely in Love Wins.

What is the point? Simple, Bell’s argument that the church has always held these beliefs is spurious. Even if there is a history of the doctrine, it runs contrary to the teachings of the disciples and is demonstrably the result of synthesizing philosophy and Christianity.

I will take this moment to reiterate something. I am not taking joy in this effort. I am (was) (maybe am still I am unsure) a Rob Bell fan. I am not certain what to do with any of this. I will point out falsehood, though with a heavy heart. I am not trying to play gotcha at all. This is about the basic facts of the discussion that are glossed over in Bell’s book. Basic facts that most people lack the resources to research. Instead, they look to shepherds and teachers for guidance and education. It is appalling to me that they are taught shoddily. The mantle of ‘teacher of God’s people’ is one that should be taken up with fear and trembling. The whole thing saddens me.