Monday, February 28, 2011

Rob Bell and the Question of Universalism

Rob Bell is one of those slippery sorts of authors (I absolutely refuse to call him a "theologian." I'm hesitant to call him a pastor.) By that I mean he generally comes across as having one foot on each side of the doctrinal fence, straddling the line between outright heresy and sound orthodoxy. He tends to assent to just enough orthodox doctrine to make it really hard to say he's an outright false teacher, yet not enough to convince me he really belongs in the orthodox camp. It makes it very hard to discern where he actually stands on anything.

Yet, given his popularity, I'm not permitted to have no opinion of him. And given his fence-straddling, just one misstep could throw off his entire theology. Think about it, in Velvet Elvis he said we wouldn't lose much if there were no virgin birth, or if the resurrection were a myth copied from pagans (clearly he never heard of Ronald Nash's The Gospel and The Greeks, which was formerly titled Christianity and the Hellenistic World.) Yet even though he said that, he at the same time said "But I still believe in those things." What the heck, Bell? You don't think those doctrines are too important, but you're just going to believe them for good measure, or what?

After a critique of his Analogy of the Trampoline (posted on Facebook and on, my blog attracted several Bell-inquirers, as I'm one of the only bloggers who undertook a serious critique of his analogy. I even had one commentator who had actually met and talked with Rob Bell. Based on my conversation with him, I was mildly optimistic that Bell had perhaps swayed over to the definitively orthodox column. I thought maybe, just maybe, he was really turning away from some of the horrid ideas he suggested in Velvet Elvis.

Then I heard of his new book, Love Wins, which will come out in March. Based on the advertisement I watched, it seems like Bell may be endorsing Universalism. (See:

Obviously it is too early to know what Bell will assert in this book. But let's be honest, the advertisement is not promising, and he doesn't have a great track record. But, since nothing along these lines is definite yet, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt for now. Though I'm certainly skeptical.

Let's just say, hypothetically, that Bell really does endorse Universalism in this new book. What then?

Before I answer, I want to define what Universalism is, to give us perspective of what's really at stake. Universalism, simply stated, is the idea that all people will be saved (perhaps in the future after some degree of punishment proportional to sins committed in this life). More specifically, Unitarian Universalism teaches that all people are already saved.

I am aware that we constantly hear "Universalism was widely accepted in the early Church." Let me be clear on something, when someone appeals to "the early Church" to justify something, our default position should be skepticism. I even want you to be skeptical of claims I make regarding the "early Church." Appealing to the early Church does two things: It immediately makes the claimant sound authoritative, and it generally takes the discussion to a period of history that most of us know very little about (which is an easy way to end debate on a contentious issue.)

With that said, even if the early Church did believe something, that does not automatically make the position correct. It's simply a prima facie case that the issue is worth considering more. We are not bound to Church tradition, we are bound to the Bible alone. With all that said, Origen, living in the 3rd Century, provisionally suggested the possibility of universalism [1]. He did this in a work prefaced with the fact that he would raise arguments he himself did not agree with (something lots of philosophers and theologians do to provoke debate, or "for the sake of argument.")

But what of the doctrine itself? Is it really such a harmful doctrine? My short answer is "Yes, it is." This question is one regarding God's nature, and as A.W. Tozer said, "what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." [2]

Let me phrase the issue this way: Universalists say "A loving God wouldn't punish people forever, and a Sovereign God would have a means to avoid doing so." Now the Bible is our sole guide regarding matters of faith and practice. If the Bible teaches that a loving God can allow for eternal punishment, than that is the bottom line. If we think otherwise we are misunderstanding love somehow. As Douglas Wilson says, to be loving is to do what the Bible says to do. [3] That is, we don't even know what love is apart from how the Bible defines it. Who are we to say that we know more about love than God does? Who are we to say God has not properly revealed Himself?

Additionally, the question I would pose is this: How exactly would it be loving of God to force people to live eternally in the righteousness they hate? We assume that the people in hell don't want to be there. We assume everybody will want to be in Heaven. Why? Plenty of people demonstrate with their lives that they want nothing to do with God. Is God unjust or unloving to give these people the desires of their heart? People sin and live apart from God now, so what makes us think they will stop doing it in hell?

Some may ask, "What about those who have never heard?" My response is "such as?" Do we honestly believe that an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving God is going to somehow forget that there's someone just yearning to be in relationship with Him and by some sort of Divine oversight they will never hear the Gospel? I don't believe such people exist. Even in the heart countries dominated by oppressive tyrants there are people having visions of Christ and coming to Him. Given what Jesus did, why should we think that anybody on this earth exists that is beyond His reach?

My last point for now is this: No body is eternally punished for finite sin. They are eternally punished for infinite sin, one infinite sin in particular: Rejecting God Himself. See, the weight of an offense increases with the dignity of the one offended. In this case, an infinite offense against God merits infinite punishment.
I know this is but a short overview of the issue, but let me end with this: If Rob Bell teaches universalism, then we need to reject his teaching. I know that seems harsh to some, but there is too much at stake. The New Testament does not permit us to put up with false teachers. So if it turns out Bell teaches universalism, in spite of how much we may like him, we need to stop supporting him and to separate ourselves from his false doctrines that may lead untold numbers to the hell he doubts exists (notice this last statement is conditional: It applies only if Bell actually endorses universalism, and it is not yet clear he has.)

God bless!

End Notes:
[2] See A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy
[3] See Douglas Wilson, A Serrated Edge


Lavender Darwin said...

Ultimately the universalist has to accept that they are content to spend eternity side-by-side with unrepentant murderers like Hitler and Stalin.

FishHawk said...

WOW! Way to go, Josiah!

To be quite honest about it, I do not have a problem with spending eternity with the likes of Hitler and Stalin. In fact, one of the earliest "thoughts" that I was given on the subject is that it is entirely possible for the first person (like myself) I meet in Heaven to be Adolph Hitler. For if anyone deserves to spend all of eternity in Hell, it is me, and who am I to say that he could not have fully repented of his heinous actions and accepted Christ Jesus as his own person Lord and Savior just before he took his last breath? Highly unlikely, yes, but...

The key, as you so eloquently stated, is true acceptance of our Heavenly Father, which certainly includes acceptance of His only begotten Son. For as it was personally revealed to me, the wrath that will be poured out upon the wicked, come Judgment Day, has so much more to do with the pain of His heartbreak over their rejection of Him as truly being their Heavenly Father than righteous indignation.

As in regards to Rev. Bell, it has been made clear to me that he is trying to present a gospel that is acceptable to all, which will amount to nothing. Woe be it unto all who follow his teachings and refuse to leave the darkness of Spiritual ignorance before it is too late.

sweetswede said...

That's true, Hitler (along with Stalin, Pol Pot, etc...) could have repented at the last possible moment, though that does seem very unlikely. But it's at least possible.

I'm also in agreement with you on Bell, though I think that much was already obvious.