Is Rob Bell a Universalist?

Note: Update at the bottom.

The answer seems to be yes, given his most recent book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
The publisher’s description:

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.

This short promo video seems to reinforce the notion that Bell himself thinks “love winning” means that hell cannot be populated.

If this is an issue you’re wrestling with, I highly recommend Let the Nations Be Glad! by John Piper, who has a lengthy chapter dealing with this issue.  Also, the audio and transcripts from the 1990 Bethlehem Baptist Church Pastors Conference, which dealt with this theme in detail, are available. [Some of these messages reference George MacDonald, who also seems to have embraced universalism, his many beautiful writings notwithstanding.]

HT: Justin Taylor

UPDATE:

1.  Some have questioned the appropriateness of posts like this, given that Bell’s book has not yet been published (and I’ve not read it).  But I think the promo video is so damaging that it merits a public rebuke.  Did you notice how glibly he cast aside the necessity of the re-birth?  None less than Jesus Christ establishes the necessity of being born again (John 3:3, John 3:5) to enter the kingdom of God. [See also I Peter 1:3-7, 23.]

2. The nature of Bell’s questions, as Kevin DeYoung has pointed out, is decided non-neutral.  Bell is saying that a loving and merciful God cannot send people to hell simply because they do not embrace Jesus Christ as their Savior.  Bell is also saying that Jesus does not “rescue people from God.”  In doing so, Bell trivializes sin and minimizes the holiness of God, contrary to Romans 3:21-26, I Thessalonians 1:10, and other passages.

3. I’ve seen some bloggers liken Bell’s perspective to that of C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce — in which souls in hell were being beckoned to repent and come to heaven.  Possibly so (Rory’s comment seems to suggest as much).  But it should be remembered that while Lewis was a skillful writer and helpful in many ways, he was not a reliable theologian.  In addition, Lewis was strongly influenced by George MacDonald, who by all accounts was a universalist. Though I don’t recall MacDonald ever working out a detailed systematic theology, his writing certainly pointed in that direction, as others have noted.

4.  I recommend this reflection by John Piper on the extent to which people willingly go to hell.  Piper’s point (contra Lewis) is they don’t — they want sin, not hell.  An excerpt:

What sinners want is not hell but sin. That hell is the inevitable consequence of unforgiven sin does not make the consequence desirable. It is not what people want—certainly not what they “most want.” Wanting sin is no more equal to wanting hell than wanting chocolate is equal to wanting obesity. Or wanting cigarettes is equal to wanting cancer.

Beneath this misleading emphasis on hell being what people “most want” is the notion that God does not “send” people to hell. But this is simply unbiblical. God certainly does send people to hell. He does pass sentence, and he executes it. Indeed, worse than that. God does not just “send,” he “throws.” “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown (Greek eblethe) into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15; cf. Mark 9:47; Matthew 13:42; 25:30).

I don’t think there is any contradiction between Piper’s position and this essay by Tim Keller on The Importance of Hell.  Keller argues that hell is both God’s active judgment and our choice. It’s impossible for sinners without the Holy Spirit to want to be with God at all  (see I Corinthians 12:3 — this is true Philippians 2:10-11 notwithstanding). The more an unregenerate sinner is forced to admit what the real God is like—holy, transcendent—the more he or she will want to stay away from him.  See Keller’s discussion of Jesus’ account of a rich man in hell  (Luke 16:19 and following).

5.  The Calvinist position does not require that one hold to active hardening. In other words, the “double predestination” of which we speak is not symmetrical.  The reprobate freely choose to reject God’s terms of pardon — the door to hell can be “locked on the inside,” and simultaneously be according to divine decree. As someone once said, “What man freely chooses in time, God ordains outside of time.” The elect (who consciously embrace Christ in this life) are actively regenerated. The reprobate are passively hardened; God simply leaves them in their sin. He doesn’t actively push them toward greater sinfulness so that they’ll merit more hell (the way he actively regenerates the elect and effectually woos them to repent of their sinfulness and hardheartedness and to embrace Jesus Christ as their Substitute, Sin-bearing Savior, Lord, and Treasure).  For more on this matter, I highly recommend Chosen By God by R.C. Sproul and Chosen For Life by Sam Storms.

UPDATE #2:

In terms of a detailed exegetical response to the kinds of questions Bell is raising, I commend to you a few resources from Dr. Christopher Morgan and Dr. Robert Peterson: Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, What Is Hell?, and Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism. On the latter, I previously interviewed Dr. Morgan.

12 Responses to “Is Rob Bell a Universalist?”

  1. Erik February 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm #

    Rob Bell + Universalism = Fireworks.

    Justin Taylor, knowingly or unknowingly, has ignited a full blown war with this blog post on Rob Bell. ;)

    Look out folks, it’s a “Reformed vs Emergent” battle within the Blogosphere, Facebook and Twitter for the next several days.

    Buckle your seat belt; it’s gonna get a little rocky…

  2. Mike Gantt February 26, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    I know it may seem hard to believe but there is a biblical case for everyone going to heaven: http://wp.me/PNthc-i6

    It exalts Jesus Christ as Lord and the only way to God.

  3. Carson T. Clark February 27, 2011 at 3:43 am #

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

  4. Rory March 1, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    For anyone interested, I own an advance copy of the entire book and have started a series of posts about it on my blog, which is linked here. The first – basically an exercise in question-asking and ground-clearing – is up, and I’d welcome feedback, as I think these issues are important, often misunderstood and caricatured, and worth discussing.

  5. Rory March 1, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    Alex and I briefly corresponded via email and decided to move the discussion here. He’s asked me to reproduce one of my emails as a comment. I fear my thoughts are jumbled and I probably raise too much, but here is what I wrote:

    The thing I’ve chiefly noticed thus far, from much of the blogosphere chatter, is that many people aren’t engaging Rob on the level of the actual questions he’s asking. Kevin DeYoung, for instance, responded primarily by emphasizing eight reasons why we need the doctrine of the wrath of God; but he doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that the phrases “wrath of God” and “eternal, conscious, tormenting punishment” don’t necessarily equal one another. I think it’s certainly possible to argue, scripturally, that they do, but his post seemed to beg the question that Rob’s asking, which is: Does a serious understanding of God’s wrath / judgment logically or scripturally entail belief in that specific kind of hell? I understand that that kind of question might seem provocative to some, but surely there’s ample and orthodox precedent within church history of persons coming to different conclusions about that?

    Having read the book, I can tell you that Rob promotes a sort of Christian exclusive inclusivism – basically the idea that God’s action in Christ for the world is so decisive and extensive as to eventually include everyone. Again, this isn’t a new idea, and it’s not even a new idea within orthodox Christianity – I’m pretty sure Karl Barth is often credited with believing something like this, as is C. S. Lewis. Bell does suggest that it is possible for persons to continue choosing hell for themselves, and so they could be in hell forever; but Bell hopes and believes according to the power of God’s love in scripture that they will simply be unable to continue choosing that for themselves.

    Honestly, it seems to me that the persons who would have the most reason to respond negatively to him are Calvinists who adhere to double predestination. This isn’t to say whether that’s correct or incorrect, but on such an account hell is certainly not locked “from the inside” but rather decisively and eternally locked by nothing other than God’s free decree.

    I guess what I’d like to see is more people engaging Rob at the foundational level on which he seems to be arguing. He seems to be saying: Look, I take God’s judgment and wrath as seriously as anyone else does, I’m just not convinced that the scriptural evidence on “hell’ is as clear as many dogmatic statements about its nature and duration have made it out to be in the past, and can’t we just acknowledge that there’s room for difference on this, and also can we begin focusing together on truths that are more central to gospel and mission? Frankly I find it hard to disagree with at least this part of his project. Other parts deal with our understanding of heaven (and here he’s channeling people like Dallas Willard and N. T. Wright, which is nothing unorthodox or new) and the question of what our motivation for sharing the life and love of God with persons ought to be.

  6. Alex Chediak March 1, 2011 at 10:41 pm #

    Rory,

    The Calvinist position does not require that one hold to active hardening. In other words, the “double predestination” of which we speak is not symmetrical. The reprobate freely choose to reject God’s terms of pardon — the door to hell can be “locked on the inside,” and simultaneously be according to divine decree. As someone once said, “What man freely chooses in time, God ordains outside of time.” The elect (who consciously embrace Christ in this life) are actively regenerated. The reprobate are passively hardened; God simply leaves them in their sin. He doesn’t actively push them toward greater sinfulness so that they’ll merit more hell (the way he actively regenerates the elect and effectually woos them to repent of their sinfulness and hardheartedness and to embrace Jesus Christ as their Substitute, Sin-bearing Savior, Lord, and Treasure). For more on this matter, I highly recommend Chosen By God by R.C. Sproul and Chosen For Life by Sam Storms.

    As to replying to the questions Bell raises, I think you’re right: these are serious matters worthy of detailed, cogent, exegetical response. I look forward, for example, to Dr. Carson’s session at the Gospel Coalition.

    Thanks again,
    Alex

  7. Rory March 2, 2011 at 7:36 am #

    I appreciate your response, and the additional “Five Brief Reflections” you wrote. I’ll say this: I agree with you that it wasn’t necessarily improper as such for persons to respond as they did to the promotional materials, and Justin Taylor’s quite right to point out the (somewhat obvious) intended rhetorical function of Rob’s questioning.

    I will also say that I don’t think it’d be helpful for me to continue the line about double predestination that I mentioned in passing earlier, simply because I think that isn’t the main issue: the main issue is, as I see it, interpretation of scripture, and interpretation of to what extent scripture allows room for flexibility on these issues. From a personal standpoint I confess that I don’t understand how it is possible to equate man freely choosing in time with God ordaining outside of time; it seems that you must radically redefine the nature of free choice. But that does lead to this question: If it is still possible – within that framework – to speak of hell being “locked from the inside,” then does scripture leave room for the possibility that persons on the “inside” will not lock themselves in forever? How this question is answered speaks volumes. If your answer is no, because God has ordained that they stay, then it seems that God’s decree has primacy. But what I’m interested in is those who answer “no” based on scripture, because it seems to me that that’s where Rob’s arguing from. He looks at the bulk of scriptural teaching related to judgment and hell and reads it differently than that, or at least reads it as leaving room for what is historically an orthodox Christian: the possibility that God’s glory will ultimately be more greatly served by overcoming all boundaries of unbelief.

    What I’d like to see is a rigorous treatment of scripture that demonstrates why the possibility that hell is anything less than eternal, conscious torment ought to be ruled unorthodox. For instance, you quoted John Piper’s post on hell, in which he references Rev 20:15, Mark 9:47, Matt 13:42; 25:30. But there are significant hermeneutical issues that should prevent someone from using such scripture to *dogmatically* rule out the kind of questioning Rob’s doing.

    For instance, consider Rev. 20:15. Persons whose name isn’t written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire – but so is Death and Hades. We don’t normally think of those two – who just a couple verses prior “gave up the dead that were in them” – as being entities capable of being burned. And this passage is itself occurring in a piece of apocalyptic literature the interpretation of which has been vastly disagreed upon throughout church history. Furthermore this passage doesn’t say anything about the duration of the punishment; additionally John calls this the “second death,” which might seem to at least leave open the possibility that the persons thrown in (if indeed we are to read this as indicating a literal lake of fire) are annihilated. (As an aside, I think there are problems with treating Jesus’ parable about Lazarus as teaching us something about the nature of the afterlife – the point of the parable wasn’t that at all, but was to make a rhetorical point to his audience about his coming death and resurrection!)

    I fear this comment is already grown too long, but you did say you thought the discussion would be helpful, so this is my humble offering. I think, on a more charitable interpretation of what Rob’s doing, one could conclude that he’s simply drawing attention to the way scripture has been (mis)used in coming to certain overly dogmatic conclusions about matters that are peripheral to the message of salvation, the kingdom, and eternal life. As I mentioned above, I’d like to see the engagement with scripture, and I think it ought to be worth admitting by some that scripture leaves open at least the possibility of the nature of hell being different than (some) classic teaching on that subject has handed down.

    I appreciate your gracious interaction – and on another note, I’m glad to see someone else writing something thoughtful about how to live faithfully in the course of higher education – I hope to do something about that in the future myself. Grace and peace-

    RT

  8. Rob Tisinai March 16, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    Point 5 above is one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever read and paints a picture of a God who can in no way be described as “good.”

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