Let me begin with a couple clarifying points around my position on Rob Bell and the ministry of Mars Hill. People have been asking me about Rob Bell for a number of years and it recently reached a fever pitch around the release of his newest book, “Love Wins.” I have been very careful to try and give Rob Bell and the leaders at Mars Hill the benefit of the doubt in every area possible. I also specifically avoided comments concerning the accusations of universalism made against him until I was able to read the book and respond to it.
Unfortunately that approach is no longer sufficient because Rob’s book is out, I’ve read it as have many others and I believe it is the responsibility of believers everywhere to affirm the true Gospel and point out the errors that are present in his book.
To be clear, universalism as a concept did not start with Rob Bell, nor does he actually hold to it exactly as it is typically defined, “all people, regardless of faith or life will go to heaven.” His view is more nuanced but still Scripturally inaccurate and very dangerous for weak and immature believers who could be swayed. Rob uses a concept of exclusivity/inclusivity and that the Gospel is something like, “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity (Kindle Location 1,867-84).” Essentially he believes that only people who are ‘won over’ by the work and person of Jesus will be saved but he believes that because God’s love will win that everyone, either in this life or the next will be won over and ‘their hearts will be melted’ by the love of God. This is a slightly more nuanced universalism than most are giving him credit for but it is still flawed in several ways that I’d like to address specifically.
—Rob’s not a ‘universalist’ like we think but he thinks everyone will receive Jesus…eventually,
The way study Scripture is incredibly important and Rob’s is very different fundamentally from how most Bible scholars would interpret Scripture. There are several hermeneutical methods that we use almost intuitively when we study the Bible. First we should interpret the less clear passages of Scripture through the clearest passages. With this is in mind we can use the letters in the New Testament to help interpret the life of Jesus and the narratives found in the Old Testament. Rob Bell works in reverse and uses the narrative passages in Scripture to present a meta-narrative (broader picture), and then interprets clear passages in the New Testament through those positions. This is flawed because narrative isn’t designed to be a complete and cohesive theological matrix but rather an outlined story of specific events with themes and targeted purpose for the reader. Stories are incredible and the narratives in the Bible are true and complete but not the only part of Scripture and definitely not the primary source of Biblical theology if we desire clarity. Additionally we will discover that Rob disregards context of passages and promises targeting believers and applies them to all people.
In addition to Rob’s reverse views on how to take Scripture he also deals very loosely with the Hebrew and Greek. I remember several professors early in my Greek and Hebrew studies who warned that a little Greek and Hebrew is a very dangerous thing. Their point was that if we go in with ideas and a low understanding of the language we could do some profound damage to the text and in our interpretation. I don’t want to paint myself as a Greek or Hebrew master or paint Rob as an idiot in the languages but he is overly reductionistic, simplistic and self-serving in his own views. He sums up entire sections of what words mean (like aion – 412-32) in a few pages without even giving voice to the thousands of years of linguistic development that inform his position. The fallacies present in his handling of Greek and Hebrew are incredibly dangerous and it’s why many of his interpretations are ‘different’ than what most Christians have heard.
—Rob allows personal experience and theological shortcuts to short-circuit his study of the Scriptures and ends up with many varying viewpoints compared to the vast majority of current and historic Christianity.
When we think of who God is we are venturing into the realm of “theology proper” where we seek to better understand an infinite God as a finite people. The core to the problem of this investigation is that our perspective is limited and so when we as morning mist (James 4:13-17) look into God who is bigger and whose ways are admittedly not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). Proverbs tells us the fundamental first step to our orientation of who God is and our understanding the world around us and the ultimate reality of God we must have a reverent fear of His power and our weakness (Isaiah 6; Proverbs 1:7).
Additionally God is multi-faceted, infinitely. The Jews still use a myriad of names for God to describe all of His various attributes (healer, present, shepherd, provider, banner, Lord of Hosts, God of Recompense, strong one who sees, everlasting). The Hebrew equivalents are beautiful and profoundly informative to a complete picture of who God is as He’s revealed Himself to be in Scripture. It’s only when we consider who God is as He’s revealed Himself to us that we can properly orient ourselves to the true reality of His plan for this place and our lives.
Rob spends a lot of time in this book focusing on love as God’s chief attribute to the detriment of other attributes. God is definitely perfectly loving but not in a way that weakens His justice or holiness. When we encapsulate God into one area we miss out on huge parts of His character that are equally valid for our spiritual journey.
One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis’ books is a conversation about Aslan, the lion that portrays Jesus. Lucy is talking with the Beavers and they describe Aslan this way, “He’s not a safe lion, but he is good.” This concept of God’s power and multi-faceted nature is all throughout Scripture and echoed throughout the majority of church history in the last two thousand years.
—Rob portrays a ultimately loving God to the detriment of His other revealed attributes and that God is capable of doing everything, except altering the free will of humanity.
We all have views about humanity, whether we are good, bad or neutral but as followers of Jesus this is a pretty open and shut discussion. The Bible clearly communicates our fall from the state of connection we had in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:6), that all our best efforts are incompatible with the holiness of God at best (Isaiah 64:6), that our heart is wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), that we do not seek God ever (Romans 3:10-11), that we love darkness (John 3:19) and that we reject the Gospel and we are hostile to God (1 Corinthians 1:18; Romans 8:7). There is no question that humanity has no hope on its own. We don’t even need to review the news of today to know that our sin and rebellion from God is causing pain and suffering everywhere.
Rob paints the picture that we are bad but not that bad and that we are all going to eventually decide to follow God but the condition described of our hearts in very clear passages throughout the Bible make it clear that our heart will never seek God and that it is only in Him seeking us that we can know Him. There isn’t a morally neutral or good person in the world and besides Jesus there’s never been one (Romans 3:12).
—Rob wants us to consider humanity as capable of experiencing God’s forgiveness through our own self-discovery if given enough time but the Bible illustrates continuously that without God’s direct intervention we will rebel against God for all of eternity.
NATURE OF SALVATION
I waited to address this because it’s where most of Rob’s baggage in life has improperly informed his views theologically. As we’ve already described, when we as fallen people interpret unclear passages of the Bible through the lens of our own experience we get some very bad theology. Salvation in the Bible literally could not be clearer.
God’s Word says that we are all sinners in both condition and lifestyle and fall short of God’s holiness and glory (Romans 3:23). It says that the cost of our sin is death but God’s gift to us is life through Jesus’ sacrifice (Romans 6:23) and that if we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord as an extension of a heart choice to trust Him with our eternity then we will be saved (Romans 10:9). Further we know that for those who have placed their faith in Jesus there is no condemnation (Romans 8:10). Some incredible promises in Scripture about our life with Christ!
Rob uses an illustration from his childhood about a piece of art that foolishly depicts a cheesy and unhelpful bridge of a massive cross with people walking on it to create a straw man argument about the popular understanding of salvation. This is a huge problem throughout the book where he will point to an experience or common poor practice in churches as the only alternative to his own view and it makes his views seem right to an uninformed person but you are only reading a part of a broader discussion.
This is extended as it pertains to hell when he talks about Jesus’ use of the word Gehenna to refer to a real physical place rather than how we understand to be a place of eternal separation from God as a result of our unreconciled sin. He says that it is important to remember the context for the Greek word but again the language usage here is weak. Throughout the New Testament Jesus uses metaphors to communicate concepts and this was one in which He referred to endless fire and constant torment as the stakes for much of humanity (the wide road, Matthew 7:13). By Rob’s logic we would need to ensure that Jesus hadn’t transformed into a door for every room we walk in (John 10:9). It’s only when we have an agenda that these arguments make sense, clear reading and interpretation of Scripture will not yield these positions.
—Rob thinks salvation is inevitable for all people and that we will have forever to be won over but Scripture portrays the urgency of the choice, the stakes of disobedience and path God has made for us to avoid the current trajectory of our own depravity.
The nature of prophecy throughout Scripture is like a telescope. When a Biblical author sees the future they see all the layers on top of one another in a single image through the filter of centuries old vocabulary. Interpretation can be difficult if we don’t understand that the timeline of prophecy requires a deeper understanding of what God does and how His timing works. There is near or immediate fulfillment to much of prophecy, far fulfillment years in the future and ultimate fulfillment in the return of Christ and the creation of the new heavens and earth.
Rob simply ignores these elementary concepts that are all but universally accepted in evangelical scholarship, even to a great extent in Jewish scholarship. He argues that heaven is now and while he is right that the promise of eternity is about a quality and quantity of life that begins at conversion. However it is also about the future hope we have of a life and reality without suffering, depravity or sin. We experience pain now as well but to equate even the level of human suffering throughout human history is insensitive at best and the pain that awaits those separated from God in eternity is exponentially worse.
Rob uses a phrase, “we can have all the hell we want,” but this isn’t true according to Scripture. Romans 1 and 2 reveal that God is actively resisting the evil in this world and that we all experience grace from God through general revelation and grace, even if we’re not believers.
Much more could be said on these things but I’ll leave you with links to explore. I want to make it clear that my prayer for Rob and those influenced by this book is a proper understanding of God’s infinite character, our total depravity and God’s incredible grace.
Rob Bell as a Universalist?
The Question of Hell: