Rob Bell is NOT a Universalist (and I actually read “Love Wins”)
On the basis of a publisher’s promotional paragraph and an advertising video in which Rob Bell questions someone’s certainty that Ghandi is in hell, Justin Taylor sounded the web-wide alarm that Rob Bell’s forthcoming book Love Wins espouses universalism (the doctrine that everyone will eventually be saved). Though he too had not yet read the book, John Piper followed up with a puzzling melodramatic tweet bidding Rob Bell “Farewell“. An avalanche of tweets ensued — all (so far as I could discern) by people who had not read Bell’s forthcoming book — to the point that this yet-unpublished book became one of the top ten tweeted topics. (If this was planned by HarperCollins, the publisher of Love Wins, it was brilliant!!!)
Well, I would have blogged on this Twitter madness earlier but someone hacked my website the other day [thank you very much] and we’ve just now got it back up and running. I suspect I have a slight advantage over some who have expressed strong opinions on Love Wins inasmuch as I have actually read the book (I received an advanced copy). There are four brief things I’d like to say about this book vis-a-vis the Twitter madness that’s erupted around it.
First, Rob is first and foremost a poet/artist/dramatist who has a fantastic gift for communicating in ways that inspire creativity and provoke thought. Rob is far more comfortable (and far better at) questioning established beliefs and creatively hinting at possible answers than he is at constructing a logically rigorous case defending a definitive conclusion. I enthusiastically recommend Love Wins because of the way it empowers readers to question old perspectives and consider new ones. Unless a person reads this book with a preset agenda to find whatever they can to further an anti-Rob Bell agenda (which, I guarantee you, is going to happen) readers will not put this book down unchanged. To me, this is one of the main criteria for qualifying a book as “great.”
Second, given Rob’s poetic/artistic/non-dogmatic style, Love Wins cannot be easily filed into pre-established theological categories (viz. “universalism” vs “eternal conscious suffering” vs. “annihilationism,” etc.). I am certain some readers — especially those who position themselves as the final arbiters and guardians of evangelical truth — will try to do this (obviously, they already have!). And, having read Rob’s book, I can almost guarantee you that they will find isolated quotes to justify their labels. As I interpret Rob’s work, however, it would be misguided and unfair to apply any of these labels to him (more on this below).
Third, Taylor’s “review” and the ensuing Twitter madness notwithstanding, Rob’s book really isn’t about the population or duration of heaven or hell. It’s mainly about the unfathomably beautiful character of God revealed in Jesus Christ and therefore about the unfathomably good nature of the Good News. Putting his formidable communicating skills to full use, Rob paints a New Testament-based portrait of God throughout his book that at times almost brought me to tears. In the course of painting this magnificent portrait of God, Rob brilliantly raises pointed questions about the dominant evangelical view of hell as hopeless conscious suffering as well as about common evangelical views of God’s wrath, the nature of salvation and an assortment of other topics. But these are secondary topics next to Rob’s main focus: namely, the incomprehensible and unlimited love of God expressed on Calvary as Jesus prays with his last breath, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Finally, despite my earlier claim that Love Wins can’t be neatly filed into any pre-established theological category, I know many readers will want my opinion on whether or not Rob is in fact a Universalist. I’m tempted to say — and probably should say —” I’m not sure; read the book for yourself and figure it out.” But far be it from me to shut up when I should, so here’s two thoughts, for what they’re worth.
1) I strongly doubt Rob would describe himself as a “Universalist.” But even if he did, I would recommend Love Wins just as enthusiastically as I already have. Love Wins masterfully raises all the right questions, even if one ends up disagreeing with some of Rob’s conclusions (which, as I said, are at most alluded to rather than dogmatically defended). Not only this, but questions surrounding the nature and duration of hell and the possibility that all will eventually be saved are not questions Christians should be afraid of. What does truth have to fear? (I sometimes wonder if the animosity some express toward Universalists [or toward those some assume are Universalists] is motivated by the fear that the case for Universalism might turn out to be more compelling than they can handle. For several defenses, see the Addendum to this blog).
2) While its clear from Love Wins that Rob believes (as do I ) that God wants all to be saved, it’s also clear Rob believes (as do I) that humans [and, I would add, angels] have free will and that God will never coerce someone to accept his love and be “saved.” Rob doesn’t himself argue this way in his book, but it seems to me that if God will not coerce people into heaven, then hell (which, by the way, Rob does emphatically believe in) cannot have a pre-set, definitive, terminus point. That is, hell is not, at present, finite. Hence, in this sense, hell is, at present, infinite (= not finite). And this holds true even if Rob believes he has warrant to hope everyone will eventually be saved. And for this reason, I would argue that Rob cannot hold to Universalism as a doctrine: he cannot be, in the classic sense of the word, a Universalist.
Then again, I could be wrong…
which is why this is a good conversation worth having…
but not on Twitter…
and not by accusing and labeling and bidding a brother “farewell” before you’ve even read the book!
THAT is madness!
Addendum: As I’ve said, I don’t think it’s accurate to describe Rob’s book as a defense of Universalism, though it expresses a hope for all to be saved. If you’re looking for defenses of Universalism as a doctrine, the best I’ve found are 1) Thomas Talbot, The Inescapable Love of God; 2) Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist; and 3) Jan Bonda, The One Purpose of God (quite academic, but insightful). Just to be fair, if you want a sound defense of Annihilationism, see Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes. And if you want a sound defense of the tradition view of hell as eternal conscious suffering, see R. Peterson, Hell on Trial and (with an interesting twist) C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce.