Many people who I have seen reviews from haven't read the book yet! They have seen the promo video from the publisher, or they've read some review or article somewhere (usually on the internet) and have decided to throw their opinion into the fray. In my case, I have read the book, and am actually reading it again for the second time as I wanted to be sure that I didn't post before I had a better understanding of what it is Rob is trying to convey in this new work. Let me start off by saying that I'm no theological expert, and what I do know of theology has been self-taught. Well, I'm hoping that it was more Spirit-taught than self-taught!
In the next several posts, I will go through Bell's book chapter by chapter and leave you with my thoughts (for whatever their worth). Before I begin, though, I'd like to lay out just one ground rule: Whether we agree or disagree with Bell on any of this, we are called to be charitable, and to speak to and about our Christian brothers and sisters in love. I have seen pages and pages on the internet by men who are supposed to be leaders, teachers, and mentors in the Christian faith who seem intent on bashing Rob Bell and throwing him under the bus in front of the world. Jesus says 'As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.' (John 13:34-35). I would ask that if anyone replies to my postings, that we show the kind of love for one another that Christ calls us to.
So as I read Bell's book, and the many reviews, discussions, Facebook postings, and text messages I've received, the two underlying questions seem to be: Is Rob Bell a universalist? And if he is, is that a heretical viewpoint? What it comes down to is this: Is Rob's new book teaching something that goes against the teachings of the Bible?
In order to answer the first question, I guess we need to understand what a universalist is. And we also need to understand that there is more than one kind of universalist philosophy. Here is a brief primer I found on Scot McKnight's blog on that subject before we dive into Rob's book:
Universalism is the general belief that all will be saved, regardless of religious beliefs. The Muslim and the Christian are on the same basic path – and for universalists all will be saved.
Universalism needs to be distinguished from pluralism though as I have sketched “universalism” above there is precious little difference. Pluralism focuses on the legitimacy of each religion and belief system and that each of them prepares a person for final existence with God. For pluralists, there’s no unique saving place for Jesus Christ.
Christian universalism is a bit different: Christian universalism denies pluralism and balder forms of universalism by contending that all can or will be saved, but only through the saving work of Jesus Christ. While many who advocate this fail to recognize that those in other religions simply don’t believe such a thing, and in fact may say they don’t want to be saved through Christ, the Christian universalist confidently trots out the idea that whether they know it or not, God saves through Jesus Christ. But the big point here is that all can and will be saved through Christ.
Evangelical universalism is newer on the block and argues that God saves exclusively through Christ and that those who deny Christ, or who have not heard of Christ, or who have rejected God’s natural revelation to them, will be judged and will experience hell. In other words, these folks believe in hell – though they believe “less” (or as they might say “more”) than the traditionalist. But they believe hell is not eternal but instead temporary and once one has experienced judgment for one’s sins one will have, by the grace of God and through the merits of Christ, the opportunity to respond to the gospel – and this news is so good and God’s offer so gracious that eventually hell will be emptied and all will find redemption in Christ to enjoy God’s salvation forever.
There is yet another version: annihilationism or conditional immortality. This view is traditional in its appeal to evangelism and to the gospel of salvation through Christ alone – it is an exclusive claim – and that those who don’t respond to the gospel will be judged and will experience hell, but that eventually their punishment will run out and they will be utterly destroyed and annihilated and cease from existence. Here one has both a traditional view of hell and, at the same time, some kind of correlation between temporary sins – say 75 years of utter rejection of all things pertaining to what they know of God and Christ – and the experience of justice. When that justice runs its course that person will be utterly extinguished. Instead of an eternal consciousness of separation from God, these folks believe only in an eternal consequences.
Then there’s the traditional view: those who reject Christ, and some believe God’s mercy will be wide enough to include those who have never heard of Christ but have responded to the light they have comprehended (inclusivism) – and there’s latitude here for variations of several sorts, will be judged on the basis of that light. For traditionalists and some inclusivists their number is few so that billions who have not responded to Christ will suffer eternal and conscious separation from God. Some inclusivists would contend that many, if not most, humans will be finally saved.
I'd like to make a disclaimer before I begin with the review. Most of you that know me know that I've read and watched most of what Rob Bell has put out over the last five years or more. I enjoy the questions he poses, and the way he has made me think about things as I walk with Christ. I've participated in and led many of the Nooma studies we have done both in classroom Bible studies as well as in small groups. I like Rob Bell. At the same time, though, God does call us to be like the Bereans, and to examine the Scriptures to see if the things we hear and read are true (Acts 17:11). My intent is to approach Rob's book with that kind of Berean-like determination and to stay true to the Word of God.
In my next post, I'll begin with the Preface to Love Wins....