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?