A Few Thoughts on the Whole Rob Bell Thing

I’ve made a big deal on my Facebook page about Rob Bell and his new book, Love Wins.  From an early review of the book, plus what Bell says in his own promo video for the book, he appears to be embracing universalism and rejecting the doctrine of hell.

One thing I want to make clear is that I’m not having some reactionary, uninformed response to his book. I have a minor in Biblical studies from Biola University.  This equates to 30 semester units of Bible from professors and doctors in theology at Talbot School of Theology. I’ve studied deeply the Christian faith, its tenets, its beliefs. I’m not jumping on a bandwagon of protectionism. My feelings are based on a studied, educated understanding of Biblical theology.

There are many Christian professors and thinkers who have taught me, led me, and continue to guide me in my role as a Minister of the Gospel. Some of these are professors and doctors of theology, others are contemporary authors and pastors.  Some are fellow pastors and mentors, while others are trusted men and women who grapple with theology and the doctrines of the Christian faith on a regular basis.  Most, if not all, of them would take umbrage with the doctrine of universalism and a rejection of the doctrine of hell.

What may surprise some people is that “universalism” is nothing new.  The rejection of the doctrine of hell has been around since the early days of the church, and I would venture that Bell’s definition of universalism most likely echoes the idea of apokatastasis propounded by Church fathers such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus, and Isaac of Nineveh. It provides an interpretation of the statements of Jesus about hell, but translates the “forever” (age to age) as “an age.”

However, nearly 1500 years ago, the early church examined the idea of universal salvation and rejected it. Origen, mentioned above, was a proponent and was ultimately judged has a heretic. In 544 AD the Fifth Ecumenical Council condemned universalism as heresy. The great theologian Augustine, in his Enchiridion, championed the defense that for grace to be applied, faith was required.

Like Bell, I don’t believe every question can be easily answered. Is Gandhi in hell? (This is a question Bell asks in his promo video for the book, which is what began the questions this weekend.) Yes, I can’t judge his state when he died, and I think it would stink that someone so influential for good in history would be condemned for eternity away from God. However, just because I feel that way (as Bell does), doesn’t mean I can redefine my theology to fit my better answer to an uncomfortable question.

Some people may say that they love the fact that he asked the tough questions even if he can’t find an answer.  The problem with that statement is that, based on what Bell says in his own promo video for his book, he HAS found an answer: “Love wins.”

Dr. Ravi Zacharias actually addresses this beautifully in Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Faith: “Because we are moral human beings, we want to see equity. But when we reduce equity to issues of who behaved in what way during a given span of time, we miss the whole concept of equity. We are judging it from the point of view of our system.” (Emphasis mine.)

GK Chesterton put it this way: “Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.”

I would recommend JP Moreland’s response to hell and why God allows people to go there in Strobel’s book (it’s Chapter 6: “A Loving God Would Never Torture People in Hell”) as clear, logical, and well-answered. I would venture to say that, in a book written 11 years ago, Strobel and Moreland already answered the arguments that Bell raises. I love this statement from Moreland: “[Hell} is a quarantine where God says two important things: I respect freedom of choice enough to where I won’t coerce people, and I value my image-bearers so much that I will not annihilate them.”

I’m glad that Bell’s book and his video promo have prompted Christians to ask big questions. I would suggest that people should read Bell’s book when it is released (surprise, it’s coming out early) so they can form judgement for themselves. But remember, he is not just wresting with the questions. He doesn’t say, “Wow, that’s a tough topic and I guess I may have to wait for eternity to find out about that.”

His book IS his answer, for better or worse.

One comment

  1. I’ll be interested to see how Bell formulates his universalism, though I probably won’t read the book myself. I imagine it will be much more like Philip Gulley’s If Grace Is True than like John Hick’s Under No Other Name, or (running in the other direction) anything by Deepak Chopra. Very pastoral and emotionally tugging, more focused on narrative and how we image God than on exegeting Romans 5.

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