Rob Bell: A Universalist?

Oh no!  And this heretic is leading the church! At least that’s how this post over at the Gospel Coalition makes it sound. I have a few problems with this post, and realistically a lot of them are too in-depth for one post, but I’ll give the quick version and you can ask in the comments if you don’t understand. Before proceeding, you should check out the promo video in question.

First up, does he actually say he’s an universalist? I suppose the question mark in the title leaves up the option that he’s not, but then the rest of the article makes it clear that Bell quite certainly is. Hop over to the post, read the book description and the video link provided there, and somebody please tell me what makes it so obvious. All I’ve heard is that God is love, and he is willing to ask the questions about what that specifically means about Heaven and Hell. I know in some of his other work, he’s asked the questions and ended up at the orthodox answer. He does challenge the penal substitution view of the atonement – Jesus died on the cross to save us from an angry God – and yes, a lot of people accept that as an important part of the “good news” (which makes no sense to me), but there have always been other theologies of the atonement, including the ones which dominated for the first 1200 years of the church. Maybe he does embrace universalism in this book. Or maybe it ends with him still not sure or maybe it ends with him rejecting it. But I thought I was a reasonably competent theologian, and I just don’t see it in those promos anywhere. But fine, let’s suppose for a minute that he actually is a universalist…

Rob Bell: Heretic of the Month magazine

I have to admit this made me laugh

He’s getting attacked because the promo is vague. What smart book promotion gives away the central message of the book? If he were to lay out his promo like an abstract for an academic paper, outlining his points and how they lead to his conclusion, who would want to buy the book? I wouldn’t, no matter which side he took.  Now I want to buy it to know what he says.  Seriously, why are people attacking a book promo for being vague?  No suspense means no sales!

Next question: how central to your faith is the doctrine of Hell? I could maybe understand the uproar if he went around saying that God doesn’t exist, or even that Jesus wasn’t God.  It would make sense to say that somebody is not a Christian if they deny the importance of the Christ; that’s just the definition of “Christian” in my opinion. But since when did who’s in and who’s out of Heaven form the basis for your faith? The uproar makes it sound like since one pastor thinks that God is not angrily trying to torture us all for eternity, that therefore God must not exist. The only logical conclusion from this line of condemnation is that the only god that could possibly exist is the one who angrily tries to torture us all for eternity. I know nobody is saying it that way, but everybody is talking as if their whole faith is meaningless because one guy might disagree on the doctrine of Hell.  Maybe I’m missing something and somebody can clarify for me why this is so damaging to the faith.

Get Out of Hell Free card

Christians actually give these out apparently. The site I got this from say that they are being “well received.”

I’ve heard it put a couple of times that if Hell doesn’t exist, there is no point of repentance, and therefore no point of being a Christian. There are just too many things in that logic that I want to argue about. Is the only point of being a Christian going to Heaven? Does repentance not lead to a better life? Ironically that is one of the things that Bell actually does say: eternal life starts now. Even with the most conservative though, I’m not really sure why it’s controversial to say that life is better now with God than without. That skewed theology is not my main point here so I’ll move on, but again, maybe somebody can explain the logic here.

Fourth, what is it about the evangelical church that finds it necessary to condemn every single “heresy” as defined by their own personal views? There have been a lot of verses thrown around about not listening to the false doctrines of the day. The irony? Those verses were written in an era where the doctrines of the day were Greek philosophies. And where did the doctrine of Hell as eternal conscious torment come from?  Any guess anybody? Yep, Greek philosophy. Not entirely of course – you can find some ambiguous texts to use as proof texts – so I’m not necessarily saying they’re wrong, and I’m personally not a universalist.  But still, the majority of our conceptions of Hell came out of Greek philosophy and medieval thought, not directly the Bible.

There’s this crazy expectation in evangelical circles that you must fix people when they are WRONG. And who says they’re wrong? The denomination sometimes, the individual sometimes. Maybe some are actually wrong; some inevitably are not. These arguments against Bell are not arguments against division which I could justify; they’re arguments trying to stop difference. We must squash all disagreement in the church! We don’t want to be different! Oh no! Imagine the horrors if the church wasn’t made up of everybody who is exactly the same! How dare we think about actually discussing or even *shock* questioning our doctrines! This whole attitude is frustrating because it uses fear to stifle any growth.

Let’s do better, fellow theologians. If you disagree with Rob Bell, that’s ok. Read his book honestly and critically. Explain as a brother or sister why you think his view doesn’t make sense. We don’t need to rush to labelling people heretics and we don’t need to encourage those in our influence to take a similar divisive and judgemental approach.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.