Rob Bell and Universalism


The Christian blog world has been rocked this week after Rob Bell’s new book has been announced with the promotional video, LOVE WINS (from Rob Bell on Vimeo). Notable Christian bloggers Justin Taylor, Joshua Harris, and Kevin DeYoung have all weighed in.

Christianity Today blogger, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, has has responded with criticism for Justin Taylor and others for passing judgment before the book it is fully released.

John Piper tweeted, “Farewell Rob,” only to be blasted by Scot McKnight, who wrote to Bailey,

Frankly, John Piper’s flippant dismissal of Rob Bell is unworthy of someone of Piper’s stature. The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.

Taylor, Piper, DeYoung, and Harris have this right. After watching that video, how much more needs to be seen, heard, or read? Quite frankly, the content of book would have to completely contradict the content in the promotional video in order for Taylor and others to be wrong.

This new video does from Bell does not surprise me at all. I have been following Rob’s trajectory for the past several years. In one sense, I grieve for those who have been influenced by his teaching. I also fear for him, that blackness of darkness has been reserved for him. However, in another sense, I’m glad that he has been unmasked.

What Rob Has Already Said

He writes in Velvet Elvis,

While we were unable to do anything about our condition, while we were helpless, while we were unaware of just how bad the situation was, Jesus died. And when Jesus died on the cross, he died for everybody. Everybody. Everywhere. Every tribe, every nation, every tongue, every people group. Jesus said that when he was lifted up, he would draw all people to himself. All people everywhere. Everybody’s sins on the cross with Jesus. So this reality, this forgiveness, this reconciliation, is true for everybody. Paul insisted that when Jesus died on the cross, he was reconciling ‘all things, in heaven and on earth, to God.’ All things, everywhere. This reality then isn’t something that we make true about ourselves by doing something. It is already true. Our choice is to live in this new reality or cling to a reality of our own making.

To Bell, since Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world, then the whole world is already reconciled to Jesus. The only choice now is not to make this reconciliation true – there is no call for faith and repentance. Rather, the question is: “Are you going to live in this new reality or will you cling to one of your own making?” It has been suggested that Rob’s work has been highly influenced by neo-orthodox theologian, Karl Barth. Notice the similarities; Barth writes,

The conversion of the world to God has thereofre taken place in Christ with the making of this exchange. There, then, in Christ, the weakness and godlesness and sin and enmity of the world are shown to be a lie and objectively removed once and for all. And there, too, in Christ, the peace of the world with God, the turning of man to Him, his friendship with Him, is shown to be the truth and objectively confirmed once and for all. That is the history which Paul has to narrate. And such it is the history of God with Himself, as he has already said in v. 18. But now it is also the history of God with the world, as we are told in v. 19. And notice that in this respect too (and the two cannot be separated) it has taken place once and for all, the history of a decision which has been taken and which cannot be reversed or superseded. That is how He was in Christ – we might say with Jn. 3:16 that is how He loved the world – and it is the fact, and it is so, it is in force, and must and will be, whether there are few or many who know the fact, and whatever attitude the world may take to it. The world is God’s. Whatever else we may have to say about it (e.g. that it perishes) we must also remember that it is God’s – not merely because it is His creature, not merely because God has sworn to be faithful to man, but because God has kept His oath, because He has taken the world from a false position in relation to Himself, becuase He has put it in that place which belongs to it in relationship with Himself. The reconciliation of the world with God has taken place in Christ. And because it has taken place, and taken place in Christ, we cannot go back on it. The sphere behind it has, in a sense, become hollow and empty, a sphere which we cannot enter. The old has passed away, everything has become new. The new is conversion to God. In v. 18 Paul said that this had happened to him personally in Christ. In v. 19, and as the basis of the former verse, he says that it has happened to the world in Christ. It was a definitive and self-contained event.

If everyone is already reconciled to Christ, then the questions naturally follow: “Who goes to hell?” and “Is there a real place called hell?” Bell gives some answers in his first chapter of Sex God, entitled “God Wears Lipstick.” He writes,

Now if there’s a realm where things are as God wants them to be [heaven], then there must be a realm where things are not as God wants them to be. Where things aren’t according to God’s will. Where people aren’t treated as fully human. It’s called hell.

Ask Rob Bell if he believes in hell and he will tell you that he does. However, his comments in Velvet Elvis may suggest otherwise; he writes,

“Heaven is full of forgiven people. Hell is full of forgiven people.”

In an interview with the Ooze, the online presence of known universalist, Spencer Burke, Rob gives some interesting answers.

Q: You recently preached a sermon called “God wants to save Christians from hell.” I was discussing the message with a guy who after hearing this message was a bit disturbed and somehow came to the conclusion that you didn’t believe in a literal hell. Let me ask you, do you believe in a literal hell that is defined simply as eternal separation from God?

Rob: Well, there are people now who are seriously separated from God. So I would assume that God will leave room for people to say “no I don’t want any part of this.” My question would be, does grace win or is the human heart stronger than God’s love or grace. Who wins, does darkness and sin and hardness of heart win or does God’s love and grace win?

I don’t know why as a Christian you would have to make such declarative statements. Like your friend, does he want there to be a literal hell? I am a bit skeptical of somebody who argues that passionately for a literal hell, why would you be on that side? Like if you are going to pick causes, if you’re literally going to say these are the lines in the sand, I’ve got to know that people are going to burn forever, this is one of the things that you drive your stake in the ground on. I don’t understand that.

Q: Especially when so many fail to recognize the hell that many people are experiencing today and do little about it.

Rob: Yeah, I would think it would be your duty as a Christian to hope and long and pray for somehow everybody to be reconciled to God. If you are really serious about evangelism, as I’m sure your friend would claim, and you wanted to save people from hell, then wouldn’t your hope be that everybody reconciles with God? Why would you hope for anything else? It would be your duty to long for that. I would actually ask questions about his salvation.

You can see that whole interview here.

  1. #1 by Ken Silva on March 2, 2011 - 12:38 pm

    Did what I can to get this out further into the blogosphere my friend: http://apprising.org/2011/03/02/rob-bell-and-universalism/

  2. #2 by Dave Marriott on March 2, 2011 - 1:44 pm

    Thanks for the link, Ken. Trust you are well.

  3. #3 by Dan on March 5, 2011 - 10:11 am

    I totally agree with the point that heaven and hell are both full of forgiven people. The reality is, all sin is forgiven. However, not everyone receives that gift through faith and comes into relationship with Christ. That is the ultimate tragedy of hell. Those in hell had their sins forgiven and they never received the forgiver.

  4. #4 by JT on March 7, 2011 - 10:51 am

    I think the church worries too much about things that we shouldn’t, and don’t worry enough about things that we should. Rob Bell asks questions, doesn’t make declarations. I agree he tries to “stir the pot” a bit. But his questions require each of us to dive in and find out for sure what is true and what is false.

    What the church should be more concerned with, instead of Rob Bell’s new book, is how we react so quickly and violently to things. If we act and respond out of fear, that is not Godly. We should be quick to listen, not throw stones. If in fact, Rob Bell’s book(s) warrant stoning…it is not our place to do it. Jesus removed the practice of stoning. So the bigger question is, why are we so threatened by a guy who doesn’t say anything? Who only asks questions? Questions require interaction, they require involvement within the conversation. Statements end the conversation, they require no interaction. So if that is what the church wants, then of course…let’s hang Rob for his questions. But unfortunately that is not Christlike.

    Rob Bell’s video promo said nothing. It appears that it was designed to appeal to those who already like his work, and enrage those who already don’t like him. For those who don’t care, like me, that video doesn’t make me want to buy or not buy his book. Sadly those who are enraged, will buy the book anyway–just to look for justification and ammunition towards their attacks against him.

    Paul writes in Ephesians 6 about God’s armor. He writes that there are many areas that we are protected, chest, head…but nothing for our backs. Now I was taught as an adolescent that Paul was implying that we shouldn’t run away from battles. I’m sure that is a lesson to be learned from his words. But another could be, maybe Paul and God (it is His Word, right) would hope that we (the church) would have each other’s backs. But sadly, most of the time we are driving our own swords into one another’s backs.

    What upsets God more, someone possibly teaching fiction and calling it God’s truth? Or how we treat one another? Is God so insecure that he couldn’t handle a few books being written? Is God threatened by Brown, Young, Miller, or Bell? Is the God who created everything, worried that a finite author might burn his house down?

    If you think the answer to any of those questions are “yes”…then I would invite you to read your Bible more thoroughly. And if you answer “no” to those questions…why are you so threatened? How secure are you in God? Or are you really trying to earn your keep, your stay with God? Is all this just a big fancy show to you? When Jesus announced it is finished, what do you believe He was talking about? Was that Him being overdramatic, and what He was actually thinking was…”well it will be finished once my followers start earning my love my grace.”

    One of the biggest downfalls we have as a church, is that we don’t understand the book we profess. We pick isolated chapters and verses, and use them as ammo to prove that we’re right. Cause that seems to be the god we are truly worshipping…we HAVE to be right! And even in this article, we select passages from Bell’s book. Forget the fact that you can take any selection from any piece of writing, and make it say what you want to.

    Bible says if your hand or eye cause you to sin, get rid of it. So how come we all have hands and eyes? How is it possible for me to type this? To read this article? Is that because we are to use discernment and seek out the context and the deeper meaning of each scripture? Let us not forget, that the Bible was written originally to specific audiences and had a purpose for the original audiences. When Paul or Peter writes to a Jewish culture, they will say things that won’t be meaningful to those who aren’t Jewish.

    I think the church would be better suited, understanding THE BOOK–instead of spending so much time trying to tear down other books.

  5. #5 by clearly on March 8, 2011 - 8:14 am

    JT,

    You wrote, “I think the church would be better suited, understanding THE BOOK–instead of spending so much time trying to tear down other books.”

    I don’t know how to say this any kinder — you are barking up the wrong tree. While I have read the entire published writings of Rob Bell (minus forthcoming book), I have also read the entire Bible many times, have preached through many entire books paragraph by paragraph, have read almost the entire NT in Greek, have translated entire books from Greek, have translated smaller portions in Hebrew, have memorized entire books in English translations, meditate upon those verses often, and continue to read and memorize more.

    It is precisely because I focus on The BOOK that I have found Rob’s teaching to be biblically bankrupt. Thus, I warn my church, my friends, my family, and anyone else who would read what’s written here. As a pastor, my responsibility is to feed the flock of God, warning and teaching them (see Acts 20; Col. 1; Titus 1). Ultimately, I have to give an account for their souls (Heb. 13:17) and it is my goal to present them “perfect in Christ” (Col. 1:28).

  6. #6 by JT on March 8, 2011 - 9:02 am

    Clearly,

    Nice resume. Didn’t realize you were into Bible flexing. I wonder do you practice that in front of a mirror? I find it disheartening when people so easily speak for the condition of another’s soul. And find no problem with it, as if they are the one that is infinite. As if any person can be certain of things that only God can.

    So I say, keep on doing whatever you are doing. Because in the end, it is not based on what we do but on what He has already done. So if you believe your efforts are what make your listeners “perfect”–then I guess you better get back to work. Doing the Holy Spirit’s job must be exhausting.

    And thanks for proving my point.

  7. #7 by clearly on March 8, 2011 - 9:34 am

    JT,

    My first post to you was in keeping with Proverbs 26:5, while this post will be in keeping with Proverbs 26:4.

    Dave

  8. #8 by JT on March 8, 2011 - 2:10 pm

    “Its difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

  9. #9 by Jeremy on March 8, 2011 - 6:48 pm

    JT,
    You come here and complain about the church reacting “violently” to Rob Bell’s book. In doing so you accuse a man of not focusing on the Bible. He defends himself by giving you specific examples of how he has avoided what you accused him of and you respond with snide comments that attack his character and occopation? Can you not see the hypocrisy?

  10. #10 by John M on March 11, 2011 - 9:57 pm

    Thank you for this blog entry. I’m not sure how anyone can read Matthew 24 and 25 and come away from it thinking that there isn’t a literal hell. I’m not sure how anyone can read those chapters and think that the existence of a literal hell isn’t a critical issue. Furthermore, I’m not sure where Jesus’ sense of urgency about the Kingdom came from if hell only exists as our present suffering here on earth; in other words, if hell is temporal, then shouldn’t it have received from Jesus the same treatment he gave other temporal issues?

  11. #11 by Shane McKinley on March 15, 2011 - 4:16 pm

    You have hit the nail on the head when you made the connection between Rob Bell and Neo-Orthodoxy. I was thinking the same thing myself when I started reading about all the hubbub about Rob Bell’s views. It’s essentially existential philosophy wrapped up in cool, relevant Evangelical Christianese. Buyers beware…

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