Rob Bell is not a universalist…
Update: A careful and devastating review of Bell’s book can be read here (it is a PDF file).
Note: I’ve added an update at the end of this post.
… let me explain. I know that many of you that read this blog are familiar with the name above. As a college student I was first exposed to Rob Bell and his thought provoking questions through his Nooma videos and multiple books. I remember when I first encountered Nooma I felt they were a breath of fresh air in what was (in my opinion) silly evangelical media. I remember being taken back by his speaking ability, his thoughts, and his creativity. Someone who thinks like me (way outside the box), is willing to challenge evangelical norms and not just accept what he was spoon fed.
I also remember when I was just beginning my theological education that multiple professors warned me about Rob Bell and other emerging types. I heard them, but I defended him and others vociferously and for the most part most of the pastors and teachers I defended have proven to be extremely orthodox in their theology.
Well if you have not heard (or just don’t care) Rob Bell is in the center of a pretty large brouhaha about where he stands theologically. Many people are throwing around the words “heretic”, and “universalist” and it is getting the attention of the likes of USA Today, Good Morning America, NY Times, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Honestly, I think this is a good thing and not a bad one.
I also know many of us younger Christ followers barely have any stomach for controversy, let alone strong words about a serious topic. If there is no way to be simultaneously bold and humble; if there is no way to be a gentle, caring person while still speaking in clear tones about hurtful error; if there is no way to correct those who oppose sound doctrine without being a moral monster; if there’s no way to love truth and grace at the same time, then there’s no way to be a biblical Christian. Let me be clear, not every judgment is sinful and not every truth is cruel.
It seems that most people I talk have expierieced Rob Bell’s books and videos and this what makes this issue so pressing. Clarity on the important issues he raises (and misunderstands) is absolutely necessary. I think the clear and overwhelming rejection of Bell’s views by orthodox Christians (with very lengthy responses) indicates that this is clearly in error on several points. I think Lisa Miller of Newsweek frames this whole brouhaha in a simple format when she asked Rob Bell in their interview, “Aren’t you just a mainline Protestant posing as an evangelical? Aren’t you just saying what Episcopalians have been saying for fifty or sixty years?” (Be sure to read the whole interview here. I don’t think he answers the question she asked, but his answers and ideas are worth reading)
Bell has largely recast and tweaked the view that many mainline Protestants have held for a hundred years: that because of God’s love, he saves everyone, regardless. This is not new. This is not groundbreaking. This is not revolutionary. In many ways, Rob Bell’s Love Wins is simply mainline Protestantism with better haircuts and cooler music.
In the end Rob Bell is right about one thing: what you believe about heaven and hell says a lot about what you believe about God. That’s why theological error of this magnitude cannot go unchecked.
Checkout the video below for Rob Bell in his own words…
Update: Based on some conversations I have had with friends I decided to clarify where I see Rob Bell standing in. Rob Bell is not a Universalist. He more clearly an “optimistic inclusivist” (some might say a “mostly” universalist or christian universalist, the latter is an oxymoron). Either way clearly is not within the stream of orthodoxy but defiantly along the line of the early 20th century mainline denominations. A Universalist clearly states that they believe that regardless what someone believes they will go to heaven, don’t pass go, don’t collect $200, just straight in. I know this is splitting hairs but it is important for us to be precise while criticizing anyone. Bell consistently says that God’s love will eventually win in light of Jesus Christ. My initial response is sorry Jewish people (Hitler), Russians (Lenin and Stalin), Cambodians (Pol Pot), Ancient Near Eastern world (Genghis Khan), and anyone who actually believed the Bible. This view reflects a morally repugnant diety who has no claim to Holiness, heterodox in thinking, and humanistic at best. Similar, better constructed, and clearer statements were made at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893 or later in Karl Rahner’s concept of the Anonymous Christian and I would rather refer you to those documents instead.