Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Looking at Love Wins Part 1 -- Is Rob Bell a Universalist?

As promised, here is Part One of a two-part blog series on Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived by Rob Bell – Is Rob Bell a Universalist? An Actual Look at the Book Itself.

Before we begin, let me first make clear some rules of engagement. Before you comment on this post, please make sure that you meet the following two conditions:
1. You have read the entire book – I don’t mean that you’ve read blogs about the book,
listened to podcasts created by your favorite preacher, or that you’ve studied
hard books about this book. You have to
have actually read this book, all the
way through.
2. Your comments are not personal attacks – you can analyze arguments, refute claims,
contradict my conclusions, but personal attacks on Rob Bell, other bloggers, or
even me are not welcome here. For example, responses like “Rob Bell is a fake” or “Rob Bell is stupid” do not add to the conversation in any positive way, so please keep these opinions to yourself.

Sois Rob Bell a universalist? First, let’s make sure we all know what it
means to be a universalist.
Universalism is often expressed in two ways: 1) Jesus’ death provided salvation for all people, so regardless of who a person is or what they have
done, they are going to heaven. 2) All roads lead to heaven. In other words,
all religions are actually worshipping the same God and that they all lead to
the same place. Romans 5:12-21 is often the passage used to support universalism.
Verses 18-19 summarize the content:

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted
in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in
justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the
disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the
obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Does Rob Bell fall into this theological category?
Well, some think so. Bell definitely suggests some theological conclusions that prick the ears of most Christians. For example, as one possibility (as a part of a list among others) for heaven and hell, he suggests that those who go to hell may get a “second chance” to follow Christ after
death. “At the heart of this perspective,”Bell explains, “is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence” (107). Although he doesn’t come right out and say that this is what he believes, he does spend quite some time providing evidence for this theory. Part of his argument is based on his understanding of the Hebrew word olam – a period of time with a definite end, not “forever” as we usually understand it (92).

Another reason why Bell appears to be a universalist is that he goes out of his way to emphasize the broad reach of the atonement of Christ. Here are a few examples:

“First, I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere” (vii).

“…what God is doing in Christ is for everybody, every nation, every ethnic group, every tribe” (149).

“…we see that Jesus himself, again and again, demonstrates how seriously he takes his role in saving and rescuing and redeeming not just everything, but everybody” (150-151).

“Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it…Forgiveness is unilateral. God isn’t waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up—God has already done it” (189).

Other proponents of Bell’s universalism probably find cause in his “inclusivity on the other side of exclusivity.” Some probably had issues with Bell’s suggestions that “the door is opened to
Muslims, Hindus, [and] Buddhists…” (155). Now, this sentence is taken out of its original context. However, this is probably how many people read it even though it’s not how Bell meant it.

So, in summary, Rob Bell says that salvation is for everybody and that even those who go to hell might get another chance to repent. So, is he a universalist?

I say no.

Here’s why: Although Bell paints salvation with a very broad brush, he still paints a picture that includes hell as a permanent possibility and Jesus as the only source of salvation.

As I pointed out above, universalism is characterized by the belief that all people go to heaven. Although Bell seems to suggest people will be given a second chance, he also maintains freewill and the possibility to choose hell permanently. Check out these passages:

“…it is absolutely vital that we acknowledge that love, grace, and humanity can be rejected…God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free” (72).

“Whatwe see in Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next” (79).

“…there is no place in this new world for murder and destruction and deceit. There can’t be because this new world is free from those evils, which means that it is free from those who would insist on continuing to perpetuate those evils. This is important, because in speaking of the expansive, extraordinary, infinite love of God there is always the danger of neglecting the very real consequences of God’s love, namely God’s desire and intention to see things become everything they were always intended to be. For this to unfold, God must say about a number of acts and to those who would continue to do them, ‘Not here you won’t’” (113).

It seems, at first glance, that Bell contradicts himself. On the one hand he says that God’s love
though Jesus is so big that everyone has a chance to go to heaven – even those you wouldn’t think would. On the other hand, he also says that it’s possible for people to reject this love because God gives us freedom. And, at a second glance, it is a little contradictory. This
is a tension that Bell is willing to live with (115). God desires that all people be saved, but he
also allows everyone to choose to reject his amazing love.

The second major way that universalism manifests itself today is in the idea that “all roads lead to God.” Basically, this is expressed whenever someone says “As long as you are sincere in what you believe and are a good person, you are going to get to heaven.” Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Hindu – it doesn’t matter as long as you are faithful.

Bell doesn’t say this though. He makes it clear that it is the atoning work of Christ that makes a way to heaven. However, “People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways” (158). Across many pages, Bell explains that Jesus is the only way to heaven. However, the salvation that is offered through his loving sacrifice is not love that is confined to the walls of a specific religious tradition. In other words, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection provide salvation that is offered to all regardless of what any particular tradition believes. Just because you don’t believe in Jesus doesn’t mean that the love that he has for you is not real. “What we see Jesus doing again and again—in the midst of constant reminders about the seriousness of following him, living like him, and trusting him—is widening the scope and expanse of his saving work” (159).

Bell explains that Jesus is the only way, but is the way open to everybody to find, but they must come to real Jesus and not just the “Jesus” of their own making (154-155). They may not need to know his name, but they need to trust in the reality of his saving work.

So is Rob Bell a universalist? No. Does he think more people will be in heaven than Christianity has typically wanted to believe? Definitely. It is easy to read into Bell what you have been told that you will find, however after a careful investigation I think that it is clear that Rob Bell is not a universalist.


Come back soon for Love Wins Part Two – A Summary of Rob Bell’s Theology.

1 comment:

  1. This is a good fair report, and I think if you read it objectively you can agree. Something that I would add is that Bell argues that our decisions in this life on earth do matter. The farther we go away from Jesus now the harder it is for us to follow him later. So after death, we do have chances to turn and repent and follow Jesus, but it is possible that we just continue on our destructive path. Our pride and sin in this life doesn't necessary stop at death.
    I think this is a very hard thing to understand and more speculative than anything. But since in some sense we are always speculating about life after death, Bell wants to ere on the side of grace and love.
    Also, is he not just presenting purgatory of Evangelicals? It seems close to that, but of course the devils are in the details and I'm sure there are many differences.


What do you think?