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?