USA Today on the Rob Bell controversy

In case you missed it, USA Today ran a nice article yesterday on the controversy that has erupted in the Christian blogosphere regarding "rock-star pastor" Rob Bell's upcoming book Love Wins and the video used to promote it online. The video (you can watch in the page linked above) has Bell describing a version (an over-simplified caricature, it seems to me) of traditional evangelicalism and asks a number of probing questions that strongly suggest that Bell teaches Christian Universalism, which is generally viewed as heretical, or at least very questionable.

Yet is Bell really a Universalist? The article says that, according to Bell, "Heaven and hell are choices we make and live with right now. 'God gives us what we want,' including the freedom to live apart from God (hell) or turn God's way (heaven)."
If you take that same logic and extend it into the age to come, you have something very close to what I believe (which I hope and believe is basically orthodox). Whether Bell does believe that this spiritual state of affairs between us and God extends into eternity or rather only exists "right now" in this age is something I couldn't say without reading the book.

And of course reading the book is precisely what many of his critics have not done (though some have, as the article above indicates). Yet the video has certainly been available for viewing and is fair game for criticism, but there is only so much that can be said about it, since, far from making theological assertions, it mostly asks provocative questions that will (presumably) be addressed in detail in the book. The article also says that Bell believes in the possibility of repentence after death, suggesting a scenario similar to that in C.S. Lewis' fictional work, The Great Divorce (which Lewis clearly says was not intended to depict what actually happens after death). I don't know where in Scripture Bell will find any support at all for this position, though that might be worth exploring further.

It may be that Bell is, as Richard Mouw (professor at the well-respected evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary), well within the bounds of orthodox evangelical Christian faith. It may be that Bell is being provocative (and perhaps a bit 'fast and loose' with the Bible) to generate sales for his new book. It may be that Bell really believes his approach is a more Biblical alternative to traditional evangelicalism. And it may be that Bell (like so many others) has fallen into error, allowing what he wishes to be true of God and of the age to come to overshadow what the Bible actually reveals, when faithfully interpreted by the church across the ages.

My ministry has greatly benefited from Rob Bell's Nooma series and I certainly hope (and pray) that we will have plenty of thought-provoking and orthodox resources available from his ministry in the future. If nothing else, perhaps this whole episode presents us with an opportunity to think long and hard not only about the relative merits and problems of the doctrine of universal salvation (not to be confused with the Wesley-approved and Biblical doctrine of universal or unlimited atonement) but also about how we, as Christians online, dialogue and debate; and how we can conduct ourselves in a manner "worthy of the calling with which we have been called."

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Blogger Jason Woolever said...

great post, Daniel

10:38 PM, March 16, 2011  
Blogger Fr. Philip said...

Yes, great post. The early Church condemned Origen for teaching that all will be saved. However, they laud Gregory of Nyssa as a saint for saying we may hope for the salvation of all. As you said, it is the teaching that God gives us exactly what we want. Unfortunately, some of us prefer being away from God. That will be true both now and in the age to come.

8:54 AM, March 17, 2011  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I thought it interesting that a controversy over a theological question and a Christian book actually made it into the "Life" section of the National Newspaper.

11:46 AM, March 17, 2011  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Here is what our confessional Lutheran brethren are saying about Bell's use of Luther in his book Love Wins:

10:24 AM, March 18, 2011  
Blogger Nance said...

Thanks for that, Daniel.

As far as the question of repentance after death is concerned, how do you think Christ's descending to the dead and preaching to those imprisoned (1 Pet 3:18ff) would fit into this, if at all?

7:34 PM, March 18, 2011  
Blogger Fr. Philip said...

There is a wonderful new book, Christ is the Conqueror of Hell by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev that deals precisely with the conquering of hell you reference, Nance. It is really an interesting read that pushes all Christians to repentance in this life because we have the Truth in its fullness. Those who do not yet know Christ, well, they get a chance to meet Him when He storms the gates of Hades. What else happens is up to our merciful and Almighty Lord! Thus, Dare we Hope for the Salvation of all. I highly recommend anything that Metropolitan Hilarion has written that is in English. He is Russian, but they are working on translating a lot.

8:33 PM, March 18, 2011  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

One of the points that has emerged out of some of the blog discussions about all this is that some people have mis-understandings about what some Universalists actually believe. And in any discussion or debate it is naturally important to actually understand the argument of those with whom we are discussing. Here are some "myths and facts" about Christian Universalism, from an "Evangelical Universalist."


With regard to Nance's question, I wonder what the relationship is between our own experience of time in this world and the nature of time in that "place" (Hades? cf. Acts 2:27) that 1 Pet. 3 refers to. I assume that the act of preaching implies the possibility of a response on the part of the folks there. But does it include only souls who died before Christ's crucifixion (from the point of view of earthly time), or is it outside of our time so as to also include those who (in our time) lived and died after the Resurrection?

1:48 PM, March 28, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Incarnatio (UM) blog has had some good discussion of the issues raised by this controversy. It is pointed out that Universalism - as it was taught by Origen, at least - was condemned (as Fr. Philip notes above) as a heresy at the Fifth Ecumenical Council.

See here:


That does not, I think, address the question as to whether repentence is possible after one dies. Can those who die and find themselves in outer darkness still give up their rebellion and turn back to God, or has the opportunity been lost? Does it make a difference if we are talking about souls in Hades before the Day of Judgment or persons (body & soul) in outer darkness after that great and terrible Day?

It seems that this question will be closely related to our question about how to read 1 Pet. 3:18.

9:23 AM, April 04, 2011  

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