This post has been on my heart to write for several weeks now. As I was first preparing to review Love Wins I looked around and saw that many other bloggers far more able then I had already exhaustively taken Rob Bell to task (e.g. Kevin DeYoung and Scot McKnight). I wanted to come at the book from a different angle and ask two questions: 1) is Rob Bell a Universalist? and, 2) what is the main thrust of Love Wins?
I stand by everything I said there, but now I want to balance the scales of my opinion of Love Wins because it seems I may have given some people the wrong impression.
I’m asked all the time what I think about Love Wins. In answer I typically respond first by summarizing what I said in my first post followed by what I’m going to say here.
1. That the chapter on heaven is good and non-controversial, mostly parroting Randy Alcorn or N.T. Wright
2. That his view on Hell is terribly argued, but his main premise is shared with C.S. Lewis
3. His approach in the book was down-right belittling to anyone who might hold to the traditional view. As someone said, “I suspect many felt poked in the eye by the way Harper and Rob decided to market Love Wins.”
The “Rob Bell” controversy seemed to revolve around the question, “is Rob Bell advocating universalism?” While people have found other primary issues, it was the universalism charge by Justin Taylor that sparked the whole controversy. (I think all of the key issues at stake in this debate were best brought into focus by Scot McKnight in an article for Relevant Magazine, What Love Wins Tells Us About Christians.) For me, universalism simply falls outside the bounds of Evangelical orthodoxy, but I want to emphasize that I always make an effort to distinguish between a person and a particular view held by that person on a particular subject. I think it is possible to hold to a heterodox (or heretical) idea and yet still be an orthodox Christian, albeit in need of correction.
Is Bell a univeralist? This is the question of concern for me. I have advocated that he is not – at least not that I could find in Love Wins. It seems rather that he is a “hopeful univeralist” (as am I, if by hopeful we mean we hope that no one will spend eternity in Hell or be annihilated). But I’ve grown tired of how Rob Bell treats these important issues, playing fast and loose with words and skirting around questions to avoid answers (it seems to me). These issues are important to Christian identity and require careful thinking and sensitive care. Scot McKnight writes:
Ninth, we are still asking a big question: What is the Gospel? Time and time again Bell mentions the Gospel, and it appears to me that Bell defines the Gospel as God’s utter love for us. How odd, I muse at times, that so many claim “gospel” for what they think but at the same time don’t recognize that the word “gospel” seems to be a contested term and category that demands careful words and definitions. I believe reducing Gospel to God’s utter love for us is inadequate, however true. One group wants to define Gospel through the lens of a kind of Reformed theology, another group wants to define it through the lens of the term “kingdom,” while yet another—Rob Bell included—through the gracious, unstoppable love of God for us. Well, which is it?
In an interview with Relevant Magazine (p.61) Josh Loveless (← irony) says, “Last time we talked, you were a Christian. Then we went online and the Internet said something different.” So he asks the straight-up question (~ sigh ~ again) “Are you a univeralist?” The question is a pertinent one because it strikes at the heart of the Gospel. And again Bell’s answer is, in essence, “well, define universalism…” The next time someone interviews Rob on this issue, the question needs to be worded like this: “Do you believe that at some point in the future every person who has ever lived will be partaking in the Age to Come?” Because that is the question everyone is asking, and that is the question Rob Bell is pretending not to hear.
But what if Bell finally answered an affirmative to that question, what if Bell were some type of universalist, how would that affect my view of Bell and his ministry and material? Would he be a heretic? Would he be someone I would tell everyone to stay away from? Would his church and those in his congregation be under suspicion? If Bell’s view is the same as C.S. Lewis, then I really have a personal moral challenge on my hands. If I answered yes to the former I would have to answer yes to the latter. And if I answered no to the latter, I would have to answer no to the former.
And the thing is, I’ve always encouraged people to read C.S. Lewis.
In the end I must say, had Justin never written his article igniting a whirlwind of controversy, I probably never would have read Love Wins (or at least it would have been at the bottom of a very long list). And having read it, I don’t care much for it.