Rob Bell + Universalism = Fireworks

Update: My review of Love Wins was posted 03/09/2011.

This weekend a big stink was kicked up about the trailer and marketing copy of Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Indeed, the brouhaha led to Bell’s name trending on Twitter!

So as you can imagine, this thing is causing quite the commotion among Christians on the interwebs.

The issue came onto my radar yesterday when I saw Emily had been reading this post from Justin Taylor. I read the marketing copy, which after some fairly heavy-handed selling of Bell’s credentials, we get to the heart of the controversy:

Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

The accompanying video doesn’t help much:

In his previous books and tours, Bell has often been… squishy regarding his take on the wrath of God (even going so far as to reinterpret God’s wrath as a feeling of grief mixed with a desire to reconnect and restore). Indeed, he’s been so ambiguous that it’s caused a great many pastors and theologians to ask the question: Is he a universalist?

With this book it seems we might have an answer, in much the same way Brian McLaren dropped his pretence of trying to remain orthodox in A New Kind of Christianity.

However, I don’t know if it’s safe to say that for certain because, well, the book hasn’t been released yet. Because the material is in Bell’s typically ambiguous style so it can be taken one of two ways:

  1. He is playing “Devil’s Advocate” (oh, how I loathe that term) and presenting legitimate questions
  2. The trajectory he’s been on for years has reached it’s destination and he’s outright abandoned the gospel

My hope would be the former. But if I had to be honest, my expectation is the latter. And  this is not something I find delightful or comforting.

Here’s what I would hate to see: If it turns out that he has indeed abandoned the gospel and embraced universalism (“Christian” or otherwise), that is cause to weep. Rob Bell’s influence is enormous and, if he does indeed advocate for universalism, then he will be preaching people straight into hell.

We can’t get away from the reality of hell. The Bible is clear that there will be eternal punishment for those who do not repent and turn to Jesus for salvation.

And love doesn’t win unless there’s something from which to flee.

(Thanks to Erik from J.C. Ryle Quotes for the title of the post.)

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  • Joshboston

    Thanks Aaron for your level-headed, informed and professional post on this matter. After a day full of seeing unprofessional, malicious discussion, this post was a breathe of fresh air.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks Josh.

  • http://LookingForPurpose.com Dylan Dodson

    Great post. I, too, am hoping for reason number 1.

  • http://seth.heasley.net/blog SethH

    When did eternal Hell become part of the Good News? Where is it in the Apostles’ preaching? Conspicuously absent, isn’t it?

    Embracing Universalism (which I don’t) isn’t abandoning the gospel, if it’s done while taking the Bible seriously. Scripture is more ambiguous on the fate of the lost than most realize these days.

    I doubt Bell’s book will be as good as Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God, which I highly recommend, as well as The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment by Thomas Thayer (available online and great reading).

    I guess I should make it clear that I’m decidedly undecided on the issue of Hell, though I don’t question that it exists. There are arguments for more than just the eternal punishment view. I’m not looking to start a fight here, I’m just hoping to inspire study on this issue.

  • Selectarrow

    Revelation says that the fire of hell is reserved for the Devil and his angels…. Jesus describes it (or something about afterlife) as outer darkness… If those who are evil are tormented forever, than has evil been conquered or simply displaced; I see no victory or ultimate strength in the former option….

  • Carson T Clark

    An Open Letter to Justin Taylor Regarding His Condemnation of Rob Bell
    http://bit.ly/fLawpU

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks for the link Carson.

  • Wjones128

    Revelation – Chapter 20
    Rev 20:1 And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.
    Rev 20:2 And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years,
    Rev 20:3 And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.
    Rev 20:4 And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
    Rev 20:5 But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.
    Rev 20:6 Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
    Rev 20:7 And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison,
    Rev 20:8 And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.
    Rev 20:9 And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.
    Rev 20:10 And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
    Rev 20:11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.
    Rev 20:12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
    Rev 20:13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
    Rev 20:14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
    Rev 20:15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

    • James

      It may surprise you to learn that other people have Bibles too.

      Theologically you can’t see the wood for the trees, but I suspect you are about thirty years and a number of serious personal crises away from even beginning to understand what the Bible is actually about.

      Try not to put too many people off Christianity in the meantime.

  • http://www.fingertoe.com/blog Josh Reighley

    My guess, based on the responses of Bell defenders who have actually read the book, is that he will put out a hypothesis, explain all of the plausibility and advantages of the hypotheses, then but keep the toe of his pivot foot toe back into the orthodoxy by saying “but this is where I land:

    Kinda like in Velvet Elvis where he explained how the Virgin Birth didn’t matter even though he does believe in it.

    I think Justin Taylor and John Piper sold a ton of books for him yesterday.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      They definitely sold a ton of books for him, it’s true. The thing that frustrates me most about Bell. If you’re going to hold a contrary opinion to Scripture, be a man and do it; tiptoeing and throwing out ideas in the name of a “conversation” isn’t actually helpful, it’s being sneaky.

      • http://www.fingertoe.com/blog Josh Reighley

        Yes, and even more sinister is when you start a conversation, then throw a tantrum when people respond to your provocation.

        • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

          True.

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  • James

    Aaron, you are yet another ‘little Pope’ who likes to think he understands the Bible. Your trite little ‘the Bible clearly says’ quotes were out of date in the 1800s let alone today, and your understanding of theology is zero.

    It is a shame the internet gives a voice to people like you, whose hope that people go to hell outweighs their desire that they don’t. Thank God its not up to you.

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks for your feedback, James. Just to be clear, acknowledging the reality of what the Bible says and believing it does not make one necessarily happy about the idea of people going to Hell.

      But you’re right, thank God it’s not up to me who goes to Heaven and who doesn’t—because if it was, no one would (myself included).

      • James

        Aaron, it is interesting that you say you know the reality of what the bible teaches on hell with such certainty. Not a hint of doubt, not years of struggle, not taking the views of hundreds, nae thousands of years of theological thought that has gone before you.

        Pope John Paul stated that the bible tells us hell exists, but it does not compel us to belive that anyone has actually gone there. But then you know best, and the bible is so clear that all Christians agree about what it says.

        A little more humility from you would go a long way, but you need your certainty don’t you……

      • Stuartvalentine

        I’ve just re-read your post Aaron, and realised that you meant if it was up to you no-one would go to Heaven. What a joyless soul you are.

        Perhaps you should apply your theology to yourself and only yourself, and leave the rest of us to share in God’s wish that ‘all men (and women) be saved’. (I’m sure you know the reference).

        • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

          I do indeed know the reference.

          I do have one request of you: You are welcome to comment and discuss as much as you want, but only do so civilly. Suggesting that I need a little more humility is fine, but your stating “but you need your certainty don’t you,” doesn’t help your case.

          Please watch your attitude.

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  • Daniel

    I thought you might be interested in Doug Wilson’s video response to Rob Bell’s book (and universalism). Doug Wilson is Post-Mil in eschatology, and that effects his view of the fullness of Heaven and Hell.
    http://www.canonwired.com/featured/wilson-vs-bell/

    • http://www.bloggingtheologically.com Aaron Armstrong

      Thanks Daniel – really appreciated Wilson taking the time to offer such a thorough response.

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