Is Rob Bell A Reluctant Universalist?

Derek Ouellette —  March 16, 2011

I have been extraodinarily graceful towards Rob Bell. Rob is incredibly ambiguous and I have interpreted that ambiguity in a way that hopes for the best. I have tried hard to listen to what he has to say without jumping to gut-wrenching or reactionary conclusions.

Disclaimer: I have not read the book.

Rob Bell does not like labels, he does not like to be backed into corners, he likes “interpretive art”, he likes “dialogue”, he likes ambiguity and tension. In every way he want’s his cake and to eat it too. And as a result he plays fast and loose with terms because – admittedly I agree – terms can become stagnant and dry and even mean different things to different people in different generations. Rob Bell knows this, and uses it to his advantage.

For example, in the interview with Lisa Miller recently when he was asked point blank, “Are you a Universalist?” he responds with what seems to be unimbiguity:

“No, if by Universalism we mean a giant cosmic arm that swoops everybody in at some point whether you want to be there or not.”

But that’s just it, in case you missed it, Bell adds a qualifier. But what if Universalism were not defined in such a narrow way as Rob does here? What if Universalism were defined simply as to say that in some way and some how in the eternal unknown everyone will be in heaven so that we could speak of Universalism broadly as “in the end everyone will universally be saved”; then would Bell categorize himself as a Universalist?

What if Universalism was defined as that “eventually everybody will be persuaded by God’s love postmortem” or as that “God’s love will eventually melt hearts”? I think even by that definition Rob Bell would say he is not a Universalism. Does he accomplishes this by eschewing the label altogether?

When Rob is asked by Martin Bashir in this MSNBC interview if he is a universalist, his answer is telling:

“First and formost no, and that is a perspective within the Christian stream…”

When he says “that” he means “Universalism” as he goes on to make clear. Let’s not miss what he is saying. First he says that he is not a Universalist, but then he seeks to set up a barrier between himself – if he ever were pushed to say that he is a Universalist – and what many perceive to be “heresy” by defending Universalism’s right to orthodoxy.

But Martin Bashir pushes Bell by asking the pressing question which really is at the very heart of why Christians have been so up in arms with Bell’s position:

“So is it irrevelant, and is it immaterial about how one responds to Christ in this life in terms of determining ones eternal destiny?”

It is a carefully worded question which for me strikes at the heart of this issue. If the point of the Gospel is just to be good on earth then who really cares because life one earth is just a drop in the bucket of eternity. Rob Bell’s answer is ambiguous:

“It is terribly important. Now how exactly that works out, and how it works out in the future, we are now, when you die, firmly in the realm of speculation”.

I think Christians would mostly disagree. Sure there is much to speculate about in the afterlife, but the scriptures seem quite unambigous in some very important respects.

But when Bell is further pressed by Bashir, he turns to a defense which I would say falls into the category of inclusivism, not universalism. Furthermore, Bashir seems to be quoting Bell out of context, reading into Bell more then is there, asking leading questions which do not always logically follow and unfairly dismisses Bell’s insistence that love is a choice.

So I’m still not convinced that Bell is a Universalist. At best, he sees to be an ambigous inclusivist or a tension filled “inexclusivist”.

Now I have given you my commentary, what’s your take on the interview?

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Craig L. Adams

    Rob looks bad in this interview. He was obviously not prepared for that kind of sustained attack. His answers sound evasive. But, Bashir is well within his rights to play hardball. Why not? Rob doesn’t know how to play that game. Public conversation can get a little rough.

  • rwblake

    I would think a person who seeks to be inclusivist as you are trying to state, is a universalist. From Rob Bell’s book the following quote is both,

    “These [Eucharist] rituals are true for us, because they’re true for everybody. They unite us, because they unite everybody. These are signs and glimpses and tastes of what is true for all people in all places at all times—we simply name the mystery present in all the world, the gospel already announced to every creature under heaven.”

    — Rob Bell, Love Wins (157)

    So, If I understand Bell correctly I can be Muslim and worshipping Allah, but I am really worshipping Christ. That is what essentially he states in the book. He implies that a different name means nothing, its just a name but still the same God.

  • Peter Berntsson

    Rwblake: Perhaps that’s what he means, but then with emphasis on “may”. He isn’t by that saying that we shouldn’t tell Muslims or Buddhists about Jesus, only that perhaps some of them will be saved because God is good.

    The same is suggested in C.S. Lewis final Narnia book, “The Last Battle”. Emeth from Calormen worshipped the demon god Tash all his life. And indeed, no one at this point is fooled into thinking Tash and Aslan are the same – that’s exactly what has just been exposed. Aslan denies it. But still, Aslan does say that he considered the sincere worship Emeth had given to his god, which he only knew as Tash, as worship to himself.

  • Dave Leigh

    Derek, Once again you’ve nailed it. And I think Bashir nailed Bell. My only concern is that we are still talking about Bell, rather than the issues he raises. Why? I think it’s because he sounds very much like a universalist and “no-hell” advocate on purpose. Yet he knows the boundaries he needs to stay within if he’s going to retain respect with the Evangelical camp he wants to live in. I think he is talking this way to get attention, not to be understood or even make a point. If that results in the gospel being proclaimed, I’m all for it. But is it? I think the jury is still out because Bell continues to be flakier than ever.

    In the interviews I’ve seen with Bashir and Stephanopoulis, the recent flood in Japan was raised each time. But in each case both Bell and the interviewer miss the significance of the metaphor:

    What if in fact sin has resulted in a tsunami upon all humanity that threatens to flush us all away. Most of us are already dead because of the cataclismic impact of sin breaking upon us like floodgates. But what if God has elected to build an ark and offer entrance to all who will rise from this world of death and enter it? What if he has sent warnings in advance and even offers his life-giving Spirit to make this happen? Would we say “love wins” if one person makes it into that ark? How about 8? Or 12? Or multitudes in response to the 12? Would not humanity be saved (rather than wiped out completely) even though many individuals might be lost?

    God is free to save any and all individuals by any means he chooses. But what about the means he’s told us already clearly that he chooses? The one and only means revealed in Christ? (He is the ark.)

    If tsunamis can exist, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of lives, while God remains almighty and all-loving, why is it such a stretch to think the same is the case when a spiritual tsunami (a hell, if you will) has been forcasted by Yahweh’s representatives?

    • Derek Ouellette

      Dave, thanks for making the connection between the tsunami, universalism, noah’s ark and Christ (the ark).

      If you don’t mind, I’m going to use that in an upcoming post? :)

    • Peter Berntsson

      Dave: I hope you’re not saying by that that God considers any single human individual as “expendable” in the larger scale of things. What Bell is saying wasn’t, isn’t, has never been, that there is no Hell or that there won’t be one. He’s saying that it’s not something God intends for anyone, but we are free to choose it.

    • Dave Leigh

      Peter, Thanks for asking. I’m just saying all are lost until any are saved. Salvation results from accepting the universal offer of salvation from the one who plunged himself into our tsunami to extend his hands. We should each grab on to him and the reach out to others so that the life line can save all who would choose life.

  • Dave Leigh

    Sure Derek! Btw, I think the Apostle Peter thought of it first 😉

  • Martin Davies

    That’s a tough interview! I did, in the past, think that Rob’s postmodern approach could appear intellectually dishonest. However, he gives a good account of himself here under some pretty direct questioning (incidentally, they’re good good questions and Bashir is right to ask them). Bell’s position is similar to that of C.S. Lewis and probably makes reference to Paul’s inference in scripture that there are some who do not have the gospel but that they are saved because they obeyed the law in their hearts.

  • FrGregACCA

    In light of these sorts of controversies, one wonders how many Evangelicals would be secretly disappointed if, in the end, everyone IS in fact saved, reconciled with God?

  • Peter Berntsson

    Amen, Fr. Greg!

    I believe that God hopes for all to be saved, and so should we! That does not mean we should teach it as a future fact. There’s a biiig difference, and I wish more would get that.

    • FrGregACCA

      Indeed, Peter. In order to really get that, one has to understand that free will is extremely basic, even ontological. This is so because salvation, restored communion with God in love, is premised upon humans choosing such a relationship with the Most Blessed Trinity (and therefore,with each other as well) who has already chosen to offer us this relationship and to do everything necessary that we may freely choose it. Love is indeed ontological, but love that is not given and received freely is not love at all, and if we were somehow forced into such a relationship, it would not be love, but something else. It would be about power, not love.