“Rumors of Rob Bell’s Heretical Universalism
Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”
A review of
Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell,
and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
By Rob Bell.
Review by Adam Ellis.
The fact that Rob Bell’s new book is considered controversial is as much a testimony to the marketing prowess of HarperOne (not to mention the unintentional marketing prowess of some critics), as it is to any theology contained in the book. The first lesson that can be derived from all of this is that if you want to publish a successful book, HarperOne isn’t a bad way to go.
To begin with, let’s look at two things that shouldn’t be surprises, but (based on the more angry reviews I’ve read) apparently are:
- Rob Bell is not a Calvinist (“New”, “Neo”, or otherwise). He doesn’t write like one. He doesn’t adhere to exclusively Calvinist doctrine. He doesn’t see the terms “non-Calvinist” and “Christian” as mutually exclusive.
- Rob Bell writes almost exactly like he talks. That means that there will be
With that being said, there is much about this book that is worth discussing. I’ll go ahead and go on record as saying that the vitriol-fueled rumors of Rob Bell’s heretical universalism have been greatly exaggerated. Bell’s critics claim that the arguments in his book fall outside of historical Christian orthodoxy, while Bell himself claims to be saying nothing new, and that everything he argues for can be found within the stream of historic Christian orthodoxy. So, who is right? Well, that all depends on who you are asking, doesn’t it? In contemporary use, the term “orthodox” is quite subjective, though almost no-one attempting to employ the term as a theological trump card will admit this subjectivity. (Additionally, it should be noted that all reformers were technically heretics when they initially proposed their reforms, and that the way that the term “orthodox” is normally employed today seems more like a power game than anything else…but I digress) Frankly, there isn’t much theological content in this book that you wouldn’t find in the work of N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, and anyone who advocates a “restoration of all things” eschatology. Even on the particular subject of Hell and eternal punishment, Bell doesn’t say anything that isn’t in the same spirit of what N.T. Wright argues in his chapter on Hell in Following Jesus:
“First, it must be said as clearly as possible that as soon as we find ourselves wanting to believe in hell we find ourselves in great danger. The desire to see others punished–including the desire to do the punishing ourselves–has no place in a Christian scheme of things. There is, of course, a right and proper desire for justice, for the victory of right over might; the desire to punish, however, must be sharply distinguished from this.”
And later, Wright goes on to state:
“[M]ost of the passages in the New Testament which have been thought by the Church to refer to people going into eternal punishment after they die don’t in fact refer to any such thing. The great majority of them have to do with the way God acts within the world and history.”
If you’d like to see those ideas teased out and backed up, I’d recommend that you read Bell’s book and Wright’s work on the subject. I don’t offer these quotes from Wright as a sort of “trump card” here (Indeed, for some, Wright’s name won’t carry any weight at all). I’m merely attempting to show that Bell isn’t alone in his arguments and that it isn’t accurate to claim that only someone who doesn’t take the Bible or history seriously would make such an argument. It is simply not the case that in Love Wins, Bell is ignoring scripture and making an unbiblical argument. In his chapter on Hell, he actually lists and discusses every passage in the Bible that directly or indirectly discusses Hell. One may disagree with Bell’s interpretation of the Bible, but (particularly on this point) an accusation that he’s ignoring scripture is laughable.
It’s not that I don’t have any criticisms of the book. In his chapter on Heaven, Bell states:
“Jesus often referred to the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ and he tells stories about people ‘sinning against heaven.’ ‘Heaven’ in these cases is simply another way of saying ‘God’.”(82)
There is a sense in which this is sort of true, but, at the same time, it is so oversimplified that it is utterly unconvincing as it is stated. The fact is that the Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as using the term “Heaven” in this way, which is made all the more obvious when these texts are compared to the parallel texts in the other Gospels where the same term is rendered “Kingdom of God.” This comparison would make Bell’s case much more convincing than simply claiming that Jesus often used the word “Heaven” as a euphemism for the word “God” (while offering no more detail or supporting information).
Additionally, in his chapter on Hell, Rob cites Jesus warning to Capernaum in Matthew 10, and says:
“[Jesus] tells highly committed, pious religious people that it will be better for Sodom and Gomorra than them on judgment day?
There’s still hope?
And if there’s still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah, what does that say about all of the other Sodoms and Gomorrahs?” (84)
My problem here is that it’s just a weak supporting argument. The fact is that Jesus’s message here is directed at Capernaum, and Sodom and Gomorrah are brought in to the discussion for comparison’s sake. Jesus is also well known to use hyperbole as a rhetorical device in precisely this kind of scenario. Again, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with the point Bell is making here, I just don’t think he does himself any favors by using this particular text in this particular way.
This is not an academic book, and it doesn’t claim to be one. Rob Bell is more pastor than professor, more artist than engineer, and more conversation partner than debate opponent. He asks questions, not to undermine the Bible and/or faith, but rather because he thinks the Bible and/or Faith are so important…and because he thinks the people that God loves (read that as “everyone”) are so important. If you think that theology is best done by engineers and that “Christian books” should always and only reinforce what you already believe, then this isn’t the book for you. If you think theology is more art than science; if you believe that neither God nor truth are threatened by questions; and if you suspect that there may be more reason to hope than you’ve dared to hope for, you’ll really enjoy Rob Bell’s exploration of how “Love Wins”.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com