Love Does Win: Responding to Rob Bell, Universalism & The Emerging Church

Posted: April 15, 2011 in Faith/Christianity, Uncategorized
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When I first started vocational youth ministry in 2002, like many other young pastors looking for creative and effective ways to engage youth in spiritual conversations, I was enamoured with a new video series called NOOMA.  It featured a young, dynamic church leader named Rob Bell, who wore stylish black glasses and sported bleach-blonde dyed hair.  The videos were generally 15-20 minutes long, and were created to be conversation starters for small groups, and/or sermon ‘additives’ to help bring about modern reflection on ancient Christian doctrine.  Little did I know that those supposed simple conversation starters, designed just to get the ‘party started’, were really a platform for Bell to preach a new kind of Christian dogma for the post-millennial culture. 

Once NOOMA videos began hitting the bookstores, as well as the bookshelves of pastors, small group leaders and seminary students, Bell gained international attention with his other works (Velvet Elvis, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and Sex God).  And with that attention, came intense criticism from many within the traditional, or ‘neo-orthodox’ Christian arena (Mark Driscoll, John Piper, John MacArthur…just to name a small few).

For anyone that is remotely attune to the ‘Christian culture’, you would likely be aware that over the past few years there has been increasing attack and scepticism on fundamental Christian beliefs from others outside of Rob Bell, including emerging church ‘power brokers’ such as Brian McLaren, Dan Kimball, Tony Jones, again…just to name a small few).  The Emerging/Emergent ‘movements’ have initiated several conversations re: the worldview and perspective many evangelical Christians hold towards orthodox Christianity.  I’m not suggesting it’s not appropriate to engage in conversation and to wrestle through some questions of faith, but it’s another thing completely to abandon certain core, fundamental beliefs because they don’t sit well with a post-modern, Gen Y audience.

Not everything about the Emergent Church movement, however, has been a negative experience.  ‘Emergents’ have brought about an authentic willingness to want to dialogue about faith and doctrine, and even though those conversations have been void of some core solid doctrinal structure, they have nonetheless been much more willing to talk, and less willing to engage in harsh judgment, than others in the Christian community.  Even though I agree with the stance the’ new-Reformers’ have on biblical orthodoxy, I don’t agree with the sometimes arrogant and closed-mindedness they display with an all-too-often perception that ‘if you don’t agree with us…you’re out of the club.”  Nonetheless, its well-and-fine to dialogue about how we process our fundamental beliefs about life and death, but for some of these leaders within the Post-Modern landscape, there has been a marked departure from orthodox interpretation on such concepts as the biblical view on Heaven & Hell, Atonement, Sin and even Salvation. 

In Bell’s most recent book, Love Wins, he calls into question the views on soteriology and Heaven & Hell…who gets in, and who, if anyone, gets left behind.  The following video gives you a little glimpse into what kind of message Bell is preaching to those who would listen. 

The reason I’m even writing this particular blog post is because I firmly believe that how we view and understand God and biblical doctrine, is of utmost and profound importance.  Whether you’re a parent, adult, youth…or somewhere in between, knowing fully what we believe, why we believe it, and why it matters is crucial in our ability to effectively communicate, and live out the true gospel story in our culture. 

The bible speaks a fair bit on false teaching with warnings Jesus, Paul and Peter give to identify, and steer clear from these kind of folk.  False teachers were described as wolves masquerading around in sheep’s clothing, but as Jesus and Paul point out, eventually every wolf has his cover blown, and it looks like Rob Bell actually blew his own cover!  For years now Bell has been engaging the ‘new millennials’ in conversations that question biblical orthodoxy, but Bell has often remained somewhat vague and convoluted on giving yes/no answers to some of his own theological questioning.  Now, Bell has finally seemed to tip his hand on a fundamental view he has addressed in the past, but never really came to stand on.  In fact, when push-came-to-shove, Bell still seems to consistently back off publicly taking any pronounced stance when confronted on his doctrinal views, as evidenced in this recent interview with MSNBC host Martin Bashir.

I have not had the opportunity to read the entire book, but have read the preface and an outline of the book chapters, as well as several reviews.  That is not to say that I don’t need to read the entire book to gain my own ‘full meal deal’ opinion, but I do know enough about the book, and what message Bell is trying to get across in its contents.  Although I doubt he would endorse such a label, it would seem quite clear throughout the pages of Love Wins, that Bell has embraced some level of universalism, which is the belief that every person eventually inherits eternal life (Heaven) regardless of their faith journey in this life. 

Here’s a quote from the publishing website that should accurately sum up the tone & message of the book;

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.”

If you’ve been a follower of Rob Bell, or just followed from a distance, his messages and teachings over the years should not cause us to be surprised by the contents of Love Wins. In fact, his views are somewhat of a re-packaged 2.0 version of N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, yet this newer work delves much deeper, and makes a stronger assertion.  So now what?  What does the evangelical world now do with this kind of teaching…how should we respond?  I don’t think we should respond, as John Piper did, by firing off flippant Tweets that write people off and slam the door shut in their face.  As right as Piper may have been in his assessment of Bell’s theology, it didn’t do much good for the Kingdom, and I doubt it was something that caused God to smile down!  But I do think we have the duty and obligation to call out false teaching, and to judge the teaching…not necessarily the teacher. 

If someone holds a certain view that is contrary and apart from biblical orthodoxy, and refuses to recant their position, I really don’t think we need to cast judgement at the individual…it’s already been cast within their exposed teaching, as they’ve revealed themselves to be teaching false doctrine.  If someone was going door-to-door in your neighbourhood trying to sell you goods, but was distorting the facts about the warranty and service…would you not warn others to keep alert and careful? 

So that is what I am doing friends…don’t just take my ramblings, but ‘judge’ for yourselves.  I can’t come out and state, without hesitation, that Rob Bell’s Universalist claim that Hell is empty, and Heaven is open for anyone and everyone is undeniably wrong in the end.  But what I do know is what scripture teaches about Heaven, Hell and salvation, and the questions we may have…and I know that God does not contradict Himself in scripture.  If we take the scriptures to be true, then there is nothing contained within that would suggest that Hell is not a very real destination for those who are not found in Christ through faith and belief, and are faithful followers of Jesus and His teachings/commands.  Denny Burk, among others, does a great job answering some of those questions on his blog, in particular, the ones Bell raises in his Love Wins promo video; (quoted from Burk’s blog)

Bell: Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?

Answer: The Bible teaches that there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). The Bible also teaches any person who does not believe in Jesus falls under the judgment of God (John 3:18). Anyone (including Gandhi) who refuses to trust Christ alone for salvation will die in their sin and will not be able to follow Jesus into eternal life (John 8:21)

Bell: Will only a few select people make it to heaven?

Answer: Yes, that is true. Jesus taught that a select number of people would make it to eternal life. Most people will choose the broad way that leads to destruction, but a few will choose the narrow way to life (Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 13:23-28). Nevertheless, the Bible also teaches that there will be a great multitude which no one will be able to count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9).

Bell: And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?

Answer: I don’t know if anyone knows what the exact number will be, but the Bible teaches that at the end of the age there will only be two groups of people: those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life and those whose are not. All those whose names are not written in the book will be thrown into the lake of fire. This will no doubt be a countless throng of people (Revelation 20:10-15).

Bell: And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe? Or what you say? Or what you do? Or who you know? Or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or baptized or take a class or be converted or be born again? How does one become one of these few?

Answer: There is nothing that any person can do to be counted among the saved. Salvation from the penalty of sin is all of grace. God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life (John 3:16). God offers us His Son, and the only way to receive Him is by faith. Jesus said it this way, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (John 6:29). If you want to become one of the few, then you have to trust in Jesus alone for your salvation.

Bell: And then there is the question behind the questions. The real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. So what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that that we would need to be rescued from this God?

Answer: What is God like? This is the ultimate question and how one answers this question will determine how all the others get answered. God is holy. He loves righteousness, and He hates sin. He is the most valuable, precious being in the universe. He is worthy of all our worship, devotion, and obedience. All people fall short of their obligation to love and worship God, and this falling short is called sin (Romans 3:23). Through our sin, we all have earned God’s just sentence of death (Romans 6:23). In fact, God says that He is angry with those who do not repent of their sin. The Bible says that God is storing up His anger for impenitent sinners (Romans 2:5) and that it will be a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of an angry God at the judgment (Hebrews 10:27, 31). The Bible teaches that God is both the treasure of heaven and the terror of hell. God will punish His enemies.

Bell: How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?

Answer: You are asking how can God be good if He sentences sinners to eternal damnation, but I think you have the question backwards. The real question is how can God be good if He doesn’t send sinners to judgment. In other words, how can God be good while forgiving sinners? This is the question Paul wrestled with in Romans 3, and he concluded that God set forth His son Jesus as a propitiation for sin. That means that all of the wrath and anguish that would have taken us an eternity in hell to endure, God poured out on His Son in the moment of the cross. God is good because He settles our sin debt in the cross of Jesus Christ, our substitute. This is good news because God clears away guilt through the cross and offers eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus. Anyone who believes in Jesus in this way can have forgiveness and eternal life. This is more than good news; it’s the best of news.

Bell: This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it has an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies, and they say, “Why would I ever want to be a part of that?”

Answer: Sin will always appears as a trifle to those whose view of God is small. If you were to discover a little boy pulling the legs off of a grasshopper, you would think it strange and perhaps a little bizarre. If the same little boy were pulling the legs off of a frog, that would be a bit more disturbing. If it were a bird, you would probably scold him and inform his parents. If it were a puppy, that would be too shocking to tolerate. You would intervene. If it were a little baby, it would be so reprehensible and tragic that you would risk you own life to protect the baby. What’s the difference in each of these scenarios? The sin is the same (pulling the limbs off). The only difference is the one sinned against (from a grasshopper to a baby). The more noble and valuable the creature, the more heinous and reprehensible the sin. And so it is with God.

If God were a grasshopper, then to sin against Him wouldn’t be such a big deal and eternal punishment wouldn’t be necessary. But God isn’t a grasshopper, He’s the most precious, valuable, beautiful being in the universe. His glory and worth are infinite and eternal. Thus to sin against an infinitely glorious being is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinitely heinous punishment.

We don’t take sin seriously because we don’t take God seriously. We have so imbibed of the banality of our God-belittling spirit of the age that our sins hardly trouble us at all. Our sin seems small because we regard God as small. And thus the penalty of hell—eternal conscious suffering under the wrath of God—always seems like an overreaction on God’s part. If we knew God better, we wouldn’t think like that.

Bell: [You] see, what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.

Answer: You couldn’t be more right. But I question whether the god that you are describing is the same One I am describing.

In the end, love does win…it’s just unfortunately not the kind of love and doctrine that Bell interprets his book.  If Bell’s assertions about Heaven and Hell are true, then the life we live now really doesn’t matter, and the joys, pains and experiences we endure here on earth, matter little in the end…because we’ll all make it to Oprah’s happy utopia version of Heaven anyways…we’ll just all take a few different roads to get there.  The cross then is minimized to nothing more than a cruel display of God’s love for us, in that He condemned Christ to die just to illustrate and prove a point…and not because of eternal ramifications of a real Heaven (for the elect in Christ–those who have chosen Him), and a real Hell (the penalty for those who would deny Christ as Lord and Savior) and the fact the even though we are all justly condemned to death for rebellion, God, in His grace, still provides an ‘escape clause’.  As tough as it is to comprehend, and as unfair as it may seem, it’s still clearly the way the scriptures teach.  In a world where we love to meander through life without lasting consequence (because that would be unfair too!), it’s no wonder emerging leaders like Rob Bell appeal to the cynical crowd of young post-modernists just waiting the throw spears at doctrine that causes un-easiness and inconvenience to their lives. 

I pray that someday Rob, and others in and outside the walls of the ‘Emergent/Emerging’ church culture, would see the collateral damage that is being caused, and that the Lord would call them back to true biblical teaching…and not some trendy, plausible, in-between theology-of-the-day.  There’s enough damage the enemy is doing to people’s faith, without it coming from within the hearts of discord and contention being sown from Christian leadership.  Rob Bell is one of the most gifted communicators alive today…not just in the Christian community, but in the world-at-large.  And with that gift comes tremendous influence amongst thousands of people world-wide, who look to leaders like Bell to feed and process their theology for them.  Many young minds are being shaped by these leaders, and regardless of the disagreements we’ll have between Tradionalists, Post-Modernists, Neo-Reformers, and Emergents in practice and experience within our faith journies, there is no excuse for bad theology!

In conclusion, I’ve included a couple of reviews on Rob Bell and Love Wins by leaders with far more doctrinal and theological experience and knowledge than I possess. The first resource is from Kevin DeYoung, the 2nd resource is a word from Justin Taylor, and the final resource is a chapter-by-chapter review by author Tim Challies.  And finally, I’ll leave you with this prayer for Rob Bell that was given by Albert Mohler, pastor and president of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Lakeland Florida.

*NEWLY ADDED– Kevin Harney’s excellent and well resourced article- Reflections on Heaven, Hell, Universalism and Rob Bell’s Confused Theology

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on this controversial, but highly necessary conversation!

All 4 his Call…and Kingdom;



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