The evangelical community experienced a massive earthquake yesterday with the release of Rob Bell’s newest book, Love Wins. For weeks, the buzz surrounding this book was an ad agency’s fantasy. Everyone wanted to know – is he a “universalist?” The simplest definition of a universalist is someone who believes that God will eventually save everyone. That no one will spend eternity in hell. Everyone gets to heaven eventually. I joined the interested crowd yesterday by down-loading Love Wins to my iPad. I read until the wee small hours of the morning.
Here’s my conclusion. (Now you don’t have to read the whole blog to know where I’ve landed after reading the book.) Rob Bell believes that God wants everyone to be saved and he also believes that God always gets what He wants. Therefore…everyone will eventually be saved. “God’s love eventually melts everyone’s heart.” Therefore, Rob Bell IS a universalist. And that is false teaching.
When asked directly whether or not he is a universalist, Bell says no. This provides keen insight into his methodology. Every word Bell uses takes on a nuanced meaning. You say “heaven” and “hell” and ask Bell if He believes in the reality of these. He readily says, “yes.” But the words don’t often mean the same thing to him that they have meant to Bible students and scholars for millennia. Every familiar word seems to beg for new and fresh meaning in Bell’s theological world. So, you have to dig deeper into what he means. That’s why I read the book.
There is much about Bell to like. He has amazing stage presence and self-confidence. He seems to really care about people. He quotes the Bible easily and frequently. He is likeable. He is witty. He has an agile mind. He is a master communicator. Every time I see him, whether in person (in Grandville, Michigan at Mars Hill Bible Church), in video, or in print, something in my heart aches to comprehend what he means and why he is saying the things he is saying. I want to “get” him. But last night, when I turned off my iPad and went to bed, I felt deeply sad for Rob. I still do. I don’t think he got it right with Love Wins. And this is not a small miscalculation. I kept thinking of the Beatles song, “All You Need is Love,” as I read Love Wins. This seems to be Bell’s bottom line. While I typically like Beatles music, they are very poor theologians. So is Rob Bell. What he presents rises to the level of theological heresy. I do not say this lightly.
I’ve read some other amazingly comprehensive reviews of Love Wins. 1. Kevin DeYoung – http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/ 2. Albert Mohler – http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/16/we-have-seen-all-this-before-rob-bell-and-the-reemergence-of-liberal-theology/ If you want a full and comprehensive analysis of what Bell says, check these. DeYoung’s is 20 pages long and will undoubtedly be my go-to reference when responding to Bell defenders. Quotes abound. If you don’t plan to read the book, this is a great “Cliff’s Notes” version. Thanks Kevin.
As I wondered how to respond, I reviewed some of the things Bell is asking his readers to consider. His style isn’t dogmatic. He poses questions - at one count, 350 of them. It’s like he’s asking the reader to believe that certain things might be true…things that you maybe never thought about before. I’ve selected several things Bell asks his readers to consider might be true, and my answer to each is – “NO that’s not true.” This is my format, not his. His writing style is fluid and artistic. Like I said, not didactic nor dogmatic for the most part. Just pondering possibilities. Here is a list of things (not necessarily quotes) Bell proposes to which I say, “No, that’s not true.”
1. That since the traditional Gospel story isn’t a “good story,” we need to replace it with a “better story.”
2. That heaven and hell are essentially what you make by your choices here and now, and not a place in the hereafter.
3. That "eternal" doesn’t really mean forever, it means an eon/age of time.
4. That God’s love eventually melts everyone’s heart and no one resists God forever.
5. That Jesus saves and rescues and redeems not just everything, but everybody.
6. That salvation is realizing that you are already saved. Everyone is forgiven. Just live in it.
7. That Jesus doesn’t say "how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through Him." (My answer – FAITH!)
8. That the Biblical story is all about restoration and all the restoration promises to Israel are for everyone eventually.
9. That a God who can be kind and compassionate one minute and angry the next "could never be trusted."
10. That universalism has been in the “center of Christian tradition” throughout church history.
My answer to all 10 is, “No, that’s not true.” There is so much more. I chose to limit myself to ten ideas that came to mind in no particular order. My bottom line is that I don’t agree with Bell’s ultimate conclusions. Like many of his predecessors in liberalism, Rob says several things that are true. It’s the toxic mix of truth and error that makes him a dangerous teacher.
Someone sent me a link to a video of an interview on MSNBC between Bell and Martin Bashir. I’m sure you can find it if you are interested. It’s only six minutes. In it, Bashir accused Bell of “amending the Gospel so that it is palatable.” He adds that Bell is trying to make it “warm, kind and popular.” Good for Bashir. I believe he is spot on. The Gospel is an offense to those who do not believe. Paul reminds us of this in I Corinthians 1:23–24 – “We preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” We know that the world is going to see the “story” of Jesus and the Gospel as foolishness. What I find distressing is someone from the evangelical family suggesting that it is foolish and demanding a “good story” to replace it. This happened with Protestant Liberalism in the 19th Century and sadly, I believe it is happening again in the 21st Century in Grandville, Michigan with Rob Bell.