Is Rob Bell a Universalist? (or what does Love Wins actually teach)

Rob Bell is the pastor of Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, MI. He has written a book – “Love Wins – A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” that has been a NY Times bestseller due in large part to the debate that ensued (most of it before the book came out) around whether Rob Bell is a universalist. The first to respond (to the promo video) was Justin Taylor and the Resurgence has a good overview (with links) of the early responses to the promo video and the book. Since then there has been a lively discussion on hell and Bell has been interviewed several times – with Lisa Miller of Newsweek, Martin Bashir of MSNBC, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Morning Joe of MSNBC, and Josh Loveless of Relevant Magazine. Bell has also been featured on the cover of Time Magazine and a site has been set up to track what is now known as Hell’s Gate.

Is Rob Bell a universalist? 

I guess to answer that question we first have to know what universalism is. In an interview with Lisa Miller, Bell was asked that question.

[Miller] Let’s get right to it. You have been accused in a lot of the coverage of your book of being a universalist. A universalist, in theological terms, means that everybody gets to go to heaven – everybody is allowed to go to heaven. That means Buddhists, Hindus – you can reinterpret my definition when I’m done – Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Atheists, all get to go to heaven. Are you a universalist?

[Bell] No – if by universalist we mean there’s a giant cosmic arm that swoops everybody in at some point, whether you want to be there or not.  […] So, if by universalist we mean that love doesn’t win, and God sort of co-opts the human heart and says, “You’re coming here and you’re going to like it,” that violates the laws of love. Love is about freedom, it’s about choice. It’s about, “Do you want to be here?” Because that’s what would make it heaven.

The definition used by Miller and Bell generally agrees with the definitions on several other sites:

  • Christian Universalism denies pluralism and balder forms of universalism by contending that all can or will be saved, but only through the saving work of Jesus Christ. [Jesus Creed: Scott McKnight]
  • Yes, everyone will ultimately be saved. Historically known as “universalism,” this view exists in multiple forms, but in each the outcome is the same: Every human being whom God has created will finally come to enjoy the everlasting salvation into which Christians enter here and now. [the Gospel Coalition: Collin Hansen]
  • [Universalism] is the doctrine that states all people of all time will be saved by being reconciled to God and go to heaven, whether or not faith is professed in Jesus Christ in this life. [the Credo House]

Based on these definitions, the answer is no – Rob Bell is correct in claiming that he is not a universalist. That said, much of what he writes in Love Wins, can be seen as opening door wide on this view for others to accept – even if Bell does not.

At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God. [page 109]

[Note: I have written a few posts regarding whether the orthodox, Christian tradition has such claims at its center for those interested.]

What does Love Wins actually teach regarding the after-life?

Before attempting to answer that, here is a chart that lists the major theological views of the after-life. Within each of these major views there are of course multiple variations, however I have tried to summarize them in general terms as I understand them.

pluralism All will be saved. All religions are equally valid and lead to heaven. Jesus is not (necessarily) the means of salvation.
universalism (christian)
All will be saved. Jesus is the means of salvation and everyone is saved through His sacrifice regardless of what they believe (or want). In this view there is no possibility for people to reject God.
inclusivism Jesus is the means of salvation but some (unevangelized, young children) will be saved through His sacrifice even if they have not heard or responded to the gospel message. In this view it is possible that some people will eternally reject God.
postmortem evangelism A form of exclusivism where Jesus is the means of salvation and a person must willingly choose to accept God’s gracious gift. If people do not accept the gift in their lifetime they will be given another chance to choose to accept Christ after they have died. In this view it is possible that some people will eternally reject God.
annilationism A form of exclusivism where Jesus is the means of salvation and a person must willingly choose to accept God’s gracious gift in this lifetime. Those who have not accepted Christ are thrown into hell at the judgment. They are destroyed in hell rather than being eternally tormented and punished in hell.
traditional view of hell A form of exclusivism where Jesus is the means of salvation and a person must willingly choose to accept God’s gracious gift in this lifetime. Those who have not accepted Christ are thrown into hell at the judgment. They suffer eternal torment and punishment in hell.

Determining which of these views Love Wins is affirming is a tough question to answer because Love Wins does not advocate or defend any position regarding the after-life. Instead it poses questions and possibilities and reports on what others ask or claim. Rob Bell seems much more interested in generating discussion and stirring up debate than settling any theological questions. Referring to the traditional view of hell (page 110), Bell claims:

Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives.

In fact on page 115, Bell asserts that we can’t know which perspective or view is right:

Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t …

That said there are four strong points that the book does make regarding the after-life:

  • God is love and love involves the freedom given to us to choose or reject God. Our fate in the after-life is based on this choice.
  • God is not limited to giving us a choice only in this lifetime but can provide one or more chances after death (postmortem evangelism).
  • God is not limited to someone hearing the gospel and choosing only in this lifetime but can accept a person’s implicit acceptance of Jesus because they responded to what they had available (inclusivism).
  • There is a strong reaction against (if not a denial of) the traditional view of hell.

On love, hell, and choices Love Wins does make some clear assertions (points I agree with):

Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want. [page 113]

That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. … God says yes, we can have what we want because love wins. [page 119]

It is based on these statements (and similar ones in interviews) that I don’t think Rob Bell is a christian universalist (even if he leaves that door open for others).

The rejection of the traditional view of hell in Love Wins is based on the provocative questions more than any clear statements. Here is a sampling:

Can God do this or even allow this [send millions of people to spend eternity in anguish], and still claim to be a loving God? Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life? This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God; it raises disturbing questions about the beliefs themselves. [page 2]

Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? [page 98]

Is God our friend, our provider, our protector, our father – or if God the kind of judge who may in the end declare that we deserve to spend forever separated from our Father? [page 102]

Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story. [page 110]

After reading through this that there is not much room for the traditional view of hell. And one could certainly see universalism in some of these statements.

The postmortem evangelism view is explored in Love Wins. However, the view is presented through what others ask or others claimed – opening up the possibility for the view without advocating for it directly.

And then there are others who can live with two destinations, two realities after death, but insist that there must be some kind of “second chance” for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime. […]  And then there are others who ask, if you get another chance after you die, why limit that chance to a one-off immediately after death? […] At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence.  [page 106-107]

The inclusivism view is explored in Love Wins. Based on the texts in Exodus 17 and 1 Cor 10, Bell draws the conclusion that since Jesus was the rock Moses struck and He was not identified then the possibility exists that others can come to Jesus without identifying Him or placing faith in Him directly too:

 People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways. […] Sometimes people use his name; other times they don’t.  [page 158]

 [Jesus said] “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”

This is a wide and expansive a claim as a person can make.

What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are exclusively coming through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.

And so the passage is exclusive, deeply so, insisting on Jesus alone as the way to God. But it is an exclusivity on the other side on inclusivity. [page 154-155]

And this may be the biggest problem in the book – one is left with a muddled and incoherent gospel message. But more on that later.

This quote from the Relevant Magazine interview may explain why it is hard to label Love Wins (or Rob Bell) with any particular view – he does not have one:

Serious, faithful, devout followers of Jesus have wrestled with these questions and have entered into the speculation and have all sorts of ways they thought about this and talked about this. I’m not interested in dying on any one of those hills, I’m interested in dying on the hill that says, “There’s lots of hills, and there’s lots of space here.” That’s what interesting to me.

So while Bell is saying there are a lot of hills, he seems to be far more open to the hills of universalism then he is to the traditional view on hell.

Have you read the book? What do you think, is Bell a universalist?

What view of the after-life does Love Wins teach? 

What do you think?

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