There has been a great deal of hoopla over the possibility that Rob Bell might be a universalist (See here and here). Much of the criticism against Bell has come from those of the Calvinist persuasion. Given the source of criticisms, it is worthwhile to note that hell is necessary for different reasons for Arminians and Calvinists.
A belief in universalism requires an amalgamation of Arminian and Calvinist belief(1). First, it requires that God genuinely wants to save everyone (Arminianism). If God doesn’t want everyone to be saved, universalism can’t be true. Second, it requires that God “make” people believe (Calvinism). If God doesn’t irresistibly change hearts, universalism can’t be true.
For the Calvinist, hell is necessary to display God’s wrath. Jesus bore the curse of God’s wrath for the elect, but not for the reprobate. Thus, hell is needed for God to express his wrath against the sin of those for whom Jesus did not atone.
Arminians believe that God’s wrath was fully manifested at the cross. Hell is not necessary in that sense. Jesus’ sacrifice was intended for everyone, and it is of benefit for everyone who believes. For Arminians, hell would become unnecessary if everyone believed (for humanity, not fallen angels).
For the Arminian, hell is for those who reject the sacrifice of Jesus. Those who reject Jesus do it by their own choice, not because of a lack of grace from God. C.S. Lewis once wrote, There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’(2)
For the Arminian, God does not want to or need to damn anyone. Hell is necessary because of the nature of the way that God created us with free will. God doesn’t work coercively to make us believe, because to do so (in Wesley’s words) would destroy the very nature which He has given us.(3)
1Universalism could also be true if God permits sin in heaven and/or what Jesus taught on hell was inaccurate. I don’t consider either a viable option.
2C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce.
3John Wesley, Predestination Calmly Considered.