Rob Bell: In Universalism Love Does Not Win

Derek Ouellette —  March 14, 2011

In this video interview (about 22 minutes in) Rob Bell is asked this question by Lisa Miller:

“Are you a Universalist?”

It is the question which is on everybody’s mind, and to which he answers with this:

“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…. If by Universalism we mean that love doesn’t win and God sort of co-ops the human heart and says “Well you’re coming here and you’re gonna like it.” Um, that violates the laws of love, and love is about freedom, it’s about choice. It’s about “do you want to be here” because that’s what would make it heaven.

Now, do I believe that all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds with all sorts of labels will be there? Yes, I think heaven is full of surprises. “

When the next question is posed, well how do you get in? Bell becomes a whole like more ambiguous, explaining that he begins with the heaven and hell we see in this world. “We see hell on earth all around us… I begin with these realities in the here and now.” Jesus is very, unabashadly exclusive and yet he is boldly inclusive. Bell coins the term, “inexclusive”. Some followers of Jesus focus on the “exclusive” message of Jesus at the cost of his inclusive sayings, others focus on the “inclusive” message of Jesus at the expense of his “exclusive sayings”. Jesus is “inexclusive”, and how that pans out? “That’s God’s job.”

Throughout the video Rob Bell is notoriously ambiguous. He takes “tension” to a whole new level and it seems he makes no attempt – in fact he avoids all attempt – at theologically working these things out. So to ask Bell which is it, some passages teach “inclusivism” and others teach “exclusivism”, he says “Both”. How’s that actually play out, “That’s Gods job”. Ours, he would say, is to preach Love.

When Bell trys to deliver this tension-filled message to Miller he says:

“… but then Jesus says stuff like, very divisive stuff like, but, but then he also says, ‘if you’re not against me your for me.’ He is a paradox. Within himself there is tremendous tension, and we’ve been trying to figure it out for thousands of years.”

Notice how Bell could not actually get out the “divisive stuff” that Jesus said but he had no problem – in fact he was anxious to – get out the “inclusive” words of Christ.

Now to the question of why Bell might suppose his book – in which he states that there is nothing new in it – has been deemed heretical by so many people he says:

“I think that grace and love always rattle people. As soon as you say that perhaps this particular little club of people who have decided their the orthodox ones, as soon as you say ‘I think it might be a little wider then that’ you’re threating whole systems.”

At this point I think Rob is taking a bit of a shot at those in the Gospel Coalition who started the controversary. Later Bell adds:

“Do I think that I am Evangelical and orthodox to the bone. Yes. And I think that orthodoxy is a terribly wide and diverse stream and that is the real question here. Is the endless religious sort of compulsion to say, ‘you’re in, we’re in, you’re out’, to constantly sort of narrow it. And I think that the vibrant historic Christian faith is wide and leaves lots and lots of room for variant perspectives”

Bell says that many people have said this in the past and they have all been within the “Jesus tribe”. Now I want to stop here to give an affirmation. On this point I would agree with Bell unambigously, in so far as we are talking about those “within the Jesus tribe”. I tire of Calvinists trying to claim exclusive rights to the Gospel, or Orthodox telling me they are the one true “historic” church and that I must join them to truly be a part of the body of Christ (given my two most recent experiences). Both of these traditions want me to join their club, but I think both are wrong in certain important aspects. Yes, I believe that Christian orthodoxy is a wide stream with “lots of room for variant perspectives”.

The interview portion of the session concludes with an interesting discussion of the resurrection (in which Tom Wright gets a mention I might add). It is excellent (considering Lisa Miller is a Jew who doesn’t “get it”) and very central to Rob’s entire theology – Miller observes. But I’ll leave that discussion for another time.

Until then, thoughts? Opinions? Insights?

Be Sociable, Share!

Derek Ouellette

Posts Twitter Facebook Google+

a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Dave Leigh

    Amen Derek! Nice job!

  • brad d

    I don’t listen or read any commentaries from people like rob. I’ll, or.even the conservation e groups, billy graham, etc… so what this guy says is beyond me.

    But I will say this, the most coman way I.hear the.gospel.preached makes god appear to meet the definition of.terrorist. “if you.don’t believe what I.want, I.will kill you forever..”

    They.forget the… for god so loved the world…. parts. They overlook the.command in Matthew 5:48 and even rewrite it and add the word strive in it, so it in their box. They ignore or.worse are blind to the.fact if you.don’t have the love part right, you.aren’t His. 1john 4:16ish.

    Xian maturity is about love, not sin. We look at sins so Much these days we don’t see God who.IS love. It’s like driving a car looking at the bar ditch instead of.the.road, going to steer into.the ditch.

    From, sorry for the……s everywhere.

    • Barbara

      There’s nothing worse than a Christianity (no matter what branch) that has a ceiling to what they are willing to learn or believe. The limitations that are bred throughout churches, belief systems, patriarcal leaders, etc. is suffocating. Do you honestly want to keep God in a neat little box that only allows God to be a certain way because that’s what’s comfortable to most Christians? There’s so much more to know, learn, and experience that it’s a shame to be closedminded and too afraid to believe there’s more than what Christian churches, faiths teach from one generation to another–the same, limiting, doctrenal rules and regulations and laws. OMG, you and others are missing out!!!!

    • brad dickey

      Barbara, know what I found when I looked into “alternate realities” so that I wouldn’t be as you say, “missing out?” I found a bunch of people trying to help others be more than they were. They were seeking power inside themselves. It was a “ME” focus faith they all shared. Whatever insecurities made them feel small inside, they could at least with their lips show they were NOT small because they had something I didn’t have. Some knowledge they possesed made them “more” in their eyes.

      I’m neither concerned for whatever power I might have, nor interested in being able to say I’ve more than the next guy. So I guess whatever insecurities motivate that type of person, are just missing in me and I don’t see the appeal. When you study the history of most of the “faiths” I usually hear in this chat, their beginnings are a fraud. I guess I’m speaking more of the New Age type faiths since the 80s, Wicca, etc… not so much Hindu, etc…

      The Christian faith, puts me as less. It shows me as less. To be more I must be less. Rather than being served, I must serve. Rather than striving for inner strength, chi, inner peace, etc… I’m striving to have my weak spirit strenghened by His Spirit.

      This is the only faith that makes a claim to be more by being less.

      What does that tell you about the motivations of the others?

      GOod luck with that.

      And man, reading or seeing my comment above, I’ll never use my phone again. :(

  • Brian MacArevey

    I think that Bell is right on here, and its hard to explain the “inexclusivity” of Jesus; I have a hard time myself, but I believe it. On the one hand, it appears to me that the only people that Jesus says will be excluded from the kingdom, will be the exclusivist Pharisees who did not want Gentiles to enter in (as Gentiles), unless of course they followed their rules, conformed to “orthodoxy”, and submitted to their authority. But it can be dangerous, for those of us who realize this, because we are so easily tempted to develop exclusivist attitudes toward the exclusivists, and thus become just like them. I have a really hard time with this myself. I just cant resist posting on the neo-Puritan blogs sometimes, with great frustration; especially when they attack good brothers like Bell and Wright. But the inclusivity/exclusivity thing…true, though very difficult to explain w/o yourself becoming an exclusivist.

  • benMelek

    Are you saying that love doesn’t win? I’m sorry but I can’t truthfully believe in an infinite God that would punish us finite beings for finite sins infinitely. Rob is saying that like in C.S. Lewis’ the great Divorce, love will always triumph in the end. Now the big question to us Christians has to be, what is hell? Is there a hell? If so is it permanent? I know what I think on these questions. I think that we should not hold exclusive rights to heaven. God loves all of God’s creation. Now that may be hard to reconcile with the old testament views on God, but under Jesus the new covenant went to show that God made peace with us. So then what about those questions?

    • Derek Ouellette

      No Ben, not I, but Rob. Rob Bell says that if Universalism is true, then love doesn’t win because love is a choice. I’m quoting Bell, not myself.

    • benMelek

      Well as I am watching it. It makes a lot of sense to me. Love is a choice. It is free will ultimately. I think we need to choose to love someone, or choose to accept the love you know. I think in that way Love does win. Because in the end all will see that love is there and will eventually take that love you know.

    • Barbara

      I really wish that the typical translation of schripture didn’t stop where it has stopped. When you take the law of first mention and look at how angels, kings, etc. are used, the whole thing about angels being kicked out of heaven and all the talk about Lucifer, the fallen angel, blah, blah, blah, without going into detail, I’m pointing out that angels are really mnisters/pastors in the true definition and the king that fell out of grace was not Lucifer/the Devel/Satan — it was an actual king and angels that were kicked out were actual priests/ministers/pastors who fell.

      There is no hell, ya’ll (I know this beyond question) and there is no Devil! The only hell is what is between out ears and what we create that’s negative and unhealthy in our own lives. It’s what torments us in our own minds because of our own shortcomings and miseries of real life.

      I use to believe in Satan, Hell, and running from the boogie man if I “sinned”. Once I had a revelation of the true interpretation of scripture, I no longer am afraid of that ole lie, false interpretation, yada, yada, yada. There ain’t no demons chasing me!!!!!

    • brad d


      The problem with conversing with people.that have all this superiorily revealed information, that redefines words, such as angel that simply.means messenger, for e,ample. Is.they impressed with the.claim they can make about knowing more, that you couldn’t show them an error, even if it

  • Pingback: Hell, Japan, & Why Rob Bell is NOT a heretic But….. | Political Jesus()

  • Peter Berntsson

    Barbara: I’d advise you to pick up “God at War” by Greg Boyd. If you can refute that book seriously, perhaps I would take such a claim as “there is no Devil” seriously, but wow. I can stomach attempts to say that the Bible teaches Universalism (although that’s pushing it), but to deny the concept of Spiritual Conflict in the Bible, especially the New Testament… That’s quite a statement.

    If you don’t wish to find the book, see these two summaries:
    Old Testament Support for a Warfare Worldview
    New Testament Support for a Warfare Worldview

    Derek: Nice summary! I too was a bit puzzled with Rob’s inability to actually quote Jesus’ “exclusivist” statements… But overall, I was touched by his passion and glow!

  • Alex

    I too was very touched by Rob’s passion – it really seems to pour out of who he is. He has been blessed with a vision of God’s incredible love and he wants to share that. To him – God’s love is so incredible, so vast, so amazing that it doesn’t fit into our widespread pre-conceived concept of rejection because it just can’t. I totally get that! In hearing him speak I realize that my view of God’s love for me and all of creation may indeed be very limited – I think it takes someone whose mind isn’t analytical to get a glimpse of a different point of view. That said, I struggle with some of the cascading effects of what he’s written/said (I also can’t help but wonder if he’s feeling the same way?). It strikes me as a, “ready, fire, aim” sort of theory.

    I think it’s incredibly sad that the majority of first responses to this outpouring of his heart with joy for God’s love is the complete opposite of how our Christ teaches us to act. Instead of asking for clarity we’ve all jumped on the “what gives you the right” train. I applaud his courage – and hope to learn something from all this.

  • Diane L

    My question is “what did Jesus say”? This may sound simplistic, and perhaps trite to some, but Jesus taught and spoke specifically and frequently on heaven and hell in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). What did He say?

    • Derek Ouellette

      You’re right Diane, the question is not trite but very central to the discussion. I think the debate is not over what Jesus said, but what Jesus meant.