Rob Bell: Universalist?
Update: A careful and devastating review of Bell’s book can be read here.
Note: I’ve added an update at the end of this post.
John Piper once wisely wrote, “Bad theology dishonors God and hurts people. Churches that sever the root of truth may flourish for a season, but they will wither eventually or turn into something besides a Christian church.”
It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.
But it is better for those teaching false doctrine to put their cards on the table (a la Brian McLaren) rather than remaining studiously ambiguous in terminology.
So on that level, I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to lay his cards on the table about universalism. It seems that this is not just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.
Here is HarperCollins’s description of his next book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
Fans flock to his Facebook page, his NOOMA videos have been viewed by millions, and his Sunday sermons are attended by 10,000 parishioners—with a downloadable podcast reaching 50,000 more. An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, 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.
I haven’t read the whole book yet and was hesitant to say something based on the publisher’s description (which usually isn’t written by the author). But this video from Bell himself shows that he is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity:
Update: Thanks for all of you who have weighed in. I cannot respond to each comment, so I thought this might be the best way to make a few points.
1) One of the things I get criticized for is having comments in the first place, but this is a place where you can tell me if you think I’ve done things wrong or in the wrong way. I want to be open to correction, and this is one forum by which to do it.
2) I updated a couple of things on the original post. First, I deleted “seems to” with regard to Bell’s moving farther away from biblical Christianity. Second, I changed “unambiguous about his universalism” to “lay his cards on the table about universalism.” Third, I deleted the 2 Cor. 11:14-15 reference at the end. I do think it’s important to recognize the biblical theme that false teachers look like cuddly sheep and like angels of light. But let’s wait for the book so we can see all his cards laid out on the table.
3) I have not read all of Bell’s book, though I have read some chapters that were sent to me. When the book is published there will be detailed reviews, and I will link to them. I think that the publisher’s description combined with Bell’s video is sufficient evidence to suggest that he thinks hell is empty and that God’s love (which desires all to be saved) is always successful. I should have been more careful in my original post not to imply that Bell is definitely a universalist. He may believe that some people go out of existence and are not thereby saved. The materials I have seen sound more like universalism though (note it sounds like no one goes to hell, and that the title promises to talk about the fate of everyone who has ever lived, which sure sounds like it’s the same for everyone).
4) I highly doubt that this is a mere marketing stunt or that Bell is merely asking questions or playing Devil’s Advocate. If it turns out that the full book is diametrically opposed to his publisher’s description and to the conclusions he wants you to reach in the video, I will make that clear on this blog.
5) If Bell is teaching that hell is empty and that you can reject Jesus and still be saved, he is opposing the gospel and the biblical teaching of Jesus Christ. You may think that’s judgmental to say that; I think it’s being faithful. I would encourage a careful study of 1 Timothy to see what Paul says about false teaching and teachers.
6) For those who are not regular readers of this blog and think that the perspective advocated here is totally out to lunch, you may want to check out Kevin DeYoung’s post, “To Hell with Hell,” which gives a nice brief summary on the importance of understanding the wrath of God. As H. Richard Niebuhr wrote 75 years ago, too often we want “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross,” (Kingdom of God in America , p. 193). Also see Denny Burk’s post where he seeks to answer Bell’s questions from a biblical perspective.
7) Let’s remember to pray. Rob Bell needs to know and teach the liberating gospel of grace—including that Christ absorbed the Father’s wrath on behalf of those who trust in him and repent of their sins. And there are tens of thousands of folks who look to Rob Bell as a biblical teacher and leader. May God give much mercy.
Update 2: Announcement from The Gospel Coalition:
Rob Bell’s forthcoming book Love Wins has already raised perennial questions about universalism, exclusivism, the love of God, and heaven and hell. So what does the Bible say about these weighty matters? What did Jesus himself say? And what’s the best way to relate this teaching to a skeptical culture?
Don Carson and others will address these questions in a special session just added to The Gospel Coalition’s national conference in Chicago, April 12 to 14. A panel that follows Carson’s address will field questions from the audience.
Update 3: Kevin DeYoung has a helpful post about whether or not (1) I needed to go to Rob Bell first before airing public criticism, and (2) I needed to remain silent until Rob Bell’s book is published.