Rob Bell comes clean?

11 04 2011

When I opened Facebook yesterday, virtually one in three items on my news feed contained the following video, in which Rob Bell ‘comes out and states what many have been waiting to hear.’ Each time it has been posted, it has been accompanied by one of the following kinds of comments:

  1. Well done Rob! Glad to see you are orthodox after all (that’ll show those nay saying reformed guys)
  2. I haven’t read the book yet, but I thought everyone’s saying he is a universalist. I’m confused.
  3. I have read the book, and I thought it was fairly clear he was a universalist. Now I’m very puzzled

In the clip, Bell introduces himself as a Christian, and then essentially recites a creed, outlining the details of his Christian faith, all of which I say ‘amen’ to. Listen to it. See what you think. He includes in his list the fact that Jesus is the way, and that there is a hell… All of which seems a little confusing.

Here are a few comments:

I do believe he is a Christian. I believe his faith is genuine. As I’ve said before, I like him very much and enjoy listening to his preaching… though usually armed with a large pinch of salt. It’s great to hear him affirming many of the central tenets of the Christian faith. (Shame he couldn’t have included the virgin birth in there just to put the Velvet Elvis confusion to bed)

However, just because you throw around some titles and terms doesn’t mean you have affirmed where you stand on a particular doctrine. You could glance through the creeds of many different church streams and find them all affirming similar things using similar language, but meaning things that are worlds apart! Get a high Anglican, a non-conformist, a Baptist and a Mormon together and ask them if they believe in baptism – of course they all do, but what they mean by ‘I believe in baptism’ will be entirely different.

Of course, baptism isn’t the best example, because that’s an area of practice that has divided churches, whereas the items Bell includes are all things that evangelicals would have broad agreement on. But my point is this: Saying ‘I believe in X’ means very little when you are regularly guilty of redefining what X really means.

I’ve read Love Wins and I have no doubt Rob believes in Hell. He makes that very clear. But whether he and I and Jesus agree on how you define ‘hell’ is a different matter. I do think that he has redefined hell beyond the boundaries of where scripture goes, and so a simple affirmation like ‘I believe in hell’ means very little.

The central statement in his creed is this:

‘And I’m not a universalist because I believe God’s love is so great God lets you decide.’

This, I imagine, is what has confused many people, and put a smug smile on the face of others. And again it’s a labeling thing. Rob is defining universalism as the belief that everyone gets out of hell and into heaven. And of course he is rejecting that, because he believes that Jesus is the way, and so God won’t simply override your decision to reject Jesus. ‘He lets you decide.’

The question is ‘when does he let you decide?’

It’s very easy to reject a label, but functionally Bell is very far along the spectrum towards universalism. Because what he doesn’t say in this clip, but does say in his book, is that he anticipates that God’s love is so strong that people will be wooed to respond to him after their death, even if they’ve been languishing in hell for some time. The gates of heaven are never shut and Sodom and Gomorrah get restored, and this, for Bell, is enough to show that there will be postmortem opportunities for people to respond to the gospel.

(Of course, that’s not all of his argument – read the book if you have the time and inclination, or don’t if you don’t – see if you can figure out what the heck his exegesis of the prodigal son is about? It baffled the hell out of me.)

So Bell can and does reject the label of universalism, but what he actually says is barely different: hell is real, people will go there, but even there they will have the opportunity to respond to God’s love, and God’s love is so great that we can be optimistic that even in the darkest place, people will be swayed to respond.

So if we were to ask him ‘will hell at last be empty?’ I imagine his answer (not that he gives answers per se) would be: “theoretically no, since people will still be able to choose to reject God’s love. But hopefully yes, since God’s love is so compelling, who wouldn’t want to respond?”

I’m not going to get into critiquing Bell properly… that’s been done to death (and beyond). But I would make this appeal, particularly to my friends who fell into category (1) ‘Way to go Rob!’ – Don’t cheer too loudly. Rejecting the title is not the same as rejecting the doctrine. And Rob Bell is still preaching unorthodoxy.

And that leads me to the final point of his creed; the pinnacle:

‘And I also believe it’s best to only discuss books you’ve actually read’

(Cue rapturous applause)

Leaving aside the chagrin I felt at this getting more applause and whooping than the death, resurrection and second coming of Jesus, this wound me up a little…

Of course people are going to discuss books they haven’t read, when you release a promo video raising discussion questions before the release date. You invited them to discuss it!

Of course people are going to discuss it when they pastor churches and need to shepherd congregations.

Of course people are going to discuss it when the fate of their friends hangs in the balance, and they want to ensure they hear a faithful representation of the gospel.

And I would add this; it cuts both ways! And I have heard as many, if not more, people defend Bells book without having read it, as I have critiquing it. If we were to cut their voices out of the discussion, it would be a rather different tone of conversation.

To those who have, on the basis of this clip alone, declared Bell to be orthodox after all; you are just as ill-equipped to make that statement as the people you have criticised. Don’t put your eggs in the basket of a pithy creed. Read what he’s saying and take heed of what he’s not saying. Be discerning.

And remember; all of us run the risk of having itchy ears. Let’s be careful who we allow to scratch them. (2 Tim 4:3-4)




7 responses

11 04 2011
Chris Williams

Hi Liam…Good piece. I have read through the book as yourself and came to the same confused state re his rendering of the . As a confession I did download the book as an e-book just in case someone saw me reading it in Starbucks and labled me without question of my own beliefs.

I suppose my main confusion is the fact that a church leader would so clearly provocate…and so unclearly provide guidance to the readers – I’m unsure of the fruit of this exercise. I would also be interested to know how the other ‘elder…leaders’ within his church have stood alongside him through this? Is it a one-man crusade or a churchwide belief and stanse?

All in all I’m glad I read it, though I feel he owes me the costs of a couple of shirts due to the amount of coffee I coughed up reading varous chapters and passages!!

11 04 2011

Ha! Send him your dry-cleaning bill and see what he says. Perhaps attach a note saying ‘Love Reimburses’ 😉

I don’t know about the other elders in the church… I’ve read varying reports, but given that none of them were by people in the church I haven’t really paid much attention to them. Oh well… guess we’ll never know!

11 04 2011

“Rejecting the title is not the same as rejecting the doctrine” – bam you just nailed it.

Great post.

11 04 2011
Jason Reid

Hello its nice to come from a discussion on geo strategic politics in SE Asia in the Rex Hotel Saigon, back to the hoo-haw with Mr Bell. We have to be careful of obfuscation on both sides and get to heart of the matter. What most excitingly that Mr Bell has done is ignite a discussion on eschatology that no one else was capable of. So whether we agree with him or not, and for the record he is most definitely treading a politically negatively line on the damnation of anyone, this is a very important matter. So whatever he says, we have the opportunity to present the gospel position that some (most) are facing the prospect of eternal torment based on the fair assertion that none of us have earned God’s approval. Without Mr Bell we would be accused of being fire and brimstone types but now its a gospel free for all…

12 04 2011

fabulous piece, thank you mr thatcher

12 04 2011
Joseph Mukungu

Hey Liam,

Thanks for this, I have enjoyed your review of ‘Love Wins’. To my mind your comments are balanced and fair, which I think is always important.

I decided not to read ‘Love Wins’ but only because many of the heavyweight theologians whose reviews of the book I did read, all seemed very confused. So I took the view I have enough confusion in my life…

From reading your review as well many others, the overwhelming conclusion of them all is that Rob Bell appears to lean toward Universalism(as to how far, is debatable) and at the same time, he attempts to hold true to Orthodoxy. No wonder those who have read the book are confused. It begs the question:- What exactly are you saying Mr. Bell?

Although I have never agreed with all Rob Bells says and writes, I must admit to being a big fan of his work. I have found a lot of what he does simply inspirational. I do however feel disappointed that a Church leader with a following of his magnitude has written a book that by all accounts is controversial, confusing and vague.

I second the comments written earlier by Jason Reid and can’t help but be reminded of Romans 8. Although ‘Love Wins’ has caused the mother of all controversies amongst the evangelical community, it has none the less proved to be the catalyst for an incredible amount of debate and discussion on the most important of subjects – Eternal Life.

I have tickets to see Rob Bell speak next week and can’t wait. If he opens it up for questions ill do my best to get clarity and report back!


7 07 2011
Francis Chan: Hail the conquering her…oh! « Liam and Helen's Blog

[…] be wary of putting people on pedestals, even people we have good cause to admire. As Rob Bell said, ‘I believe it is best to only discuss books you’ve actually read.’ I do think […]

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