And Now, Rob Bell's Rebuttal to Some Early Reviews

An alert student of mine, Jason Myers, pointed me to a rebuttal from Mars Hill Church — you can read it here.

I find the endorsement from Eugene Peterson impressive – and Peterson explained his endorsement to Patheos’ Timothy Dalrymple.

Finding Jesus– Review of Part One
Forward Thinking about “Reading Backwards’ Conclusions
Finding Jesus— Reboot
Uncommon Sense— Part One
  • JoeyS

    I don’t think Bell nailed his interviews. Could he have been more assuring that Jesus is the “way, truth, and the life” in his life interview in NY? Sure. He, like I’m sure many would, has difficulty when trying to communicate to both a faithful and secular crowd. His “soft-edge” when speaking with atheists might be due to a belief that for post-moderns hearing a statement has very little bearing on any change we may go through. We “hear” lots of things and are a skeptical bunch – you can thank modernity! So maybe proclamation is less effective for post-moderns, myself included. This FAQ seems to clarify things that he did not clarify well in person.

  • Michael

    Dr. Witherington,

    Impressive can be somewhat neutral. Can you clarify your thoughts on Peterson’s blurb?

  • bw

    he clarifies some things, leaves others dangling. is it really true that God’s word is silent on the mechanism by which people are brought to salvation through Jesus (cf. acts 16:31, romans 10:9)? does bell’s concept of ‘purifying’ hell-fire do justice to passages that talk about people being tormented? and i note in his list of atonement metaphors that none talk explicitly about substitution; i agree that this is not the only biblical metaphor, but with the furor over the subject, why omit it?

    bottom line: is christian orthodoxy quite as wide as bell makes it out to be?

    i’ll hold off on a determination until i actually see the book. interesting that both mouw and peterson have come out so strongly in favor…

  • Jimmy

    I find it interesting in the FAQs that Mars Hill puts out that they say there is salvation after death. In essence, he is stating that the atoning work of Christ extends to hell and people have the hope of escape. Doesn’t that go contrary to Scripture? Isn’t our only hope of salvation before we go to hell and not after we get there and find out that it is not the place we want to be? If you can be saved out of hell after death then why do we concern ourselves with evangelism at all? What about the parable about the rich man and Lazarus?

  • Sharon

    In response to Jimmy…. Scripture clearly states that God’s love is universal. We are beloved before we are conceived and are loved after we die. So why should we question God’s love or try to place limits on it? As for the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man did not repent for his sin. He only wanted to be spared the pain of hell and to save his family from a similar fate. That isn’t repentance. As for your evangelism question, I don’t think faith is just about getting into heaven; it is about getting through the day. It is also about making the world a better place. As a United Methodist my charge is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, not make disciples so they can get into heaven. I understand and respect your point, but I think it goes deeper than that.

  • Randall

    Honestly, if we assume the hypothesis that the parable depicts the Rich man in hell, the parable doesn’t record him asking to be free from hell and it doesn’t suggest he couldn’t be. Both assumptions get smuggled in by the reader. What is explicit is Abraham’s suggestion that it can’t be made more hospitable. Speculation beyond that is just that, speculation. Parables were told to make a point, the point of this one probably isn’t the afterlife. I think Jesus is correcting the idea that material blessing demonstrates whether you’re in or out.

  • aaron

    After reading the mars hill position I am a lot more convinced that Bell is espousing universalism. Even though they say he is not a universalist he talks just like one. if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

    The blurb talks about ‘purifying’ fire. Universalism doesn’t say that no one goes to hell. It says that everyone, eventually, gets to heaven. Hell is then seen as some sort of purgatory where we go till we repent and believe.

    Also, the bible is not clear on the specifics? really? If we are not supposed to go out and preach the good news of our salvation through the death of Jesus what are we supposed to do? What is our commission?

  • ben witherington

    But in fact Rob is not espousing unversalism if by that you mean everyone ends up being saved. And no, Rob is not backtracking in these comments at Mars Hill.

    Here BTW is what Eugene Peterson says about his endorsement of the book—-

    What are your thoughts regarding Rob Bell’s book and the controversy it ignited? What inspired you to endorse the book?

    Rob Bell and anyone else who is baptized is my brother or my sister. We have different ways of looking at things, but we are all a part of the kingdom of God. And I don’t think that brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God should fight. I think that’s bad family manners.

    I don’t agree with everything Rob Bell says. But I think they’re worth saying. I think he puts a voice into the whole evangelical world which, if people will listen to it, will put you on your guard against judging people too quickly, making rapid dogmatic judgments on people. I don’t like it when people use hell and the wrath of God as weaponry against one another.

    I knew that people would jump on me for writing the endorsement. I wrote the endorsement because I would like people to listen to him. He may not be right. But he’s doing something worth doing. There’s so much polarization in the evangelical church that it’s a true scandal. We’ve got to learn how to talk to each other and listen to each other in a civil way.

    Do evangelicals need to reexamine our doctrines of hell and damnation?

    Yes, I guess I do think they ought to reexamine. They ought to be a good bit more biblical, not taking things out of context.

    But the people who are against Rob Bell are not going to reexamine anything. They have a litmus test for who is a Christian and who is not. But that’s not what it means to live in community.

    Luther said that we should read the entire Bible in terms of what drives toward Christ. Everything has to be interpreted through Christ. Well, if you do that, you’re going to end up with this religion of grace and forgiveness. The only people Jesus threatens are the Pharisees. But everybody else gets pretty generous treatment. There’s very little Christ, very little Jesus, in these people who are fighting Rob Bell.

    Peterson also says— if Jesus were asked, would he condemn Rob Bell? Peterson’s answer is no.


  • Jimmy

    Sharon – I agree. I think the point does go deeper than that but that is not what is talked about in the Mars Hill FAQs. I was just trying to address that issue in particular. I don’t question whether or not God’s love is universal. I believe it is. I believe that God does love us all. I also believe that Salvation through Christ is not just some kind of “eternal fire insurance” and that we no longer have a responsibility to live out our faith on earth. I firmly believe we are to make a difference in the world. I am a United Methodist but I believe it is the charge of every Christian to make disciples. I also believe it is the charge of every Christian to point out teaching that is heretical and anit-Biblical. I believe that what is listed on the Mars Hill FAQs is contrary to the teachings of Scripture. Are you suggesting that if the Rich Man had of repented he could have gotten out of torment? I believe his chance of repentence came before his death and not after it. I know this is a parable but Jesus used parables to teach a truth.

    Randall – Honestly, do you think this parable is about the rich man wanting to make hell more “hospitable” and Abraham just saying “no”? I understand that Jesus was trying to share with his listeners about the misuses of wealth but he also in this parable makes a very definite statement about 2 destinations after death. He also states that those who are in these two places cannot change places. Check out Luke 16:26.

    What about John 3:16 and Matthew 10:28? Or Matthew 25:46 where the Scripture says “…they will go away to eternal punishment , but the righteous to eternal life”? Jesus did not say “temporary”. He said “eternal”.

    If a person can go from hell to heaven then I guess a person could also go from heaven to hell, based on the teachings from Mars Hill.

    I want everyone to accept the gift of Salvation and live a Christian life and then receive a reward of heaven because they believe. But I believe, according to the teaching of Scripture, that the choice is made before you die and not afterward. The truth is that God does not send anyone to hell. He has done all he can to keep everyone from hell. When people go to hell they do so against God’s will and by their own choice.

    Finally, don’t you think that if there had been an easier way for us to be saved that God would have done it that way instead of sending His own Son to die for us? If we can go to hell and then repent when we get there and get out, then what is the purpose of Christ dying on the cross? Why go through that painful ordeal?

  • Craig


    There is a difference between Universalism and Rob Bell’s position. Universalism, or what is sometimes more technically referred to as Pluralistic Universalism, is the belief that everyone regardless of their faith (or lack thereof) goes to Heaven, or that all religions are merely different paths ending with the same saving result (e.g. John Hick’s philosophy).

    Rob Bell’s position, on the other hand, is better understood as Universal Restoration (or Universal Reconciliation). This position affirms the reality of Hell, but proponents argue that God’s love can still save people in Hell (although really bad people may have to spend a long time in Hell before they are “purified”). Some (e.g. Thomas Talbott) argue this position as Christian dogma, while others, including Bell, merely hold out an eschatological hope. That is, Bell is not dogmatically saying that everyone will eventually be saved, but rather, he is hoping that everyone might be.

    I think Bell’s position warrants a critical eye, especially his biblical exegesis, but it is not fair to simply dismiss him as a Universalist.


  • Kyle Nolan

    I just have to ask, why the two-face picture?

  • Jimmy

    By the way, I am not questioning Rob Bell’s salvation nor am I even questioning what he has written in Love Wins. I am questioning what is contained in the Mars Hill FAQs. I have not read the book yet so I don’t feel I can question anything nor agree with anything Rob has written in that book with any integrity. I can question what Rob has written or stated in a public forum or interview.

    I agree with Eugene in so much as we do need to have an open line of communication and we need to engage others and not be afraid of the questions. The questions do not bother me. False teaching does bother me. But we also need to remember that 2 things that disagree cannot both be true.

  • Randall

    Jimmy, no sir, I wasn’t suggesting that, sorry if I wasn’t clear. I was suggesting that the parable isn’t about the afterlife. Certainly not as it is discussed in this dialogue. Really, I think it would be a grave error to build afterlife doctrine on this parable. Abraham appears to be in what we deem heaven and never professed Christ. Doesn’t that give the Christian exclusiveness a bit of trouble? Why is Lazarus in heaven too? He never beleived on Jesus that we are told. As a matter of fact, if Rob Bell uses the parable we’re discussing, you’re point is seriously defeated. Faith in Christ is nowhere in view in this parable. It leaves one wondering if rich christians would be there as well.

    Brother, I not arguing for Rob Bell at all, I just think the objections to what people have leveled at him is proof-texting run amuck. Perhaps I lead the way in this, I am sorry if I do.

    If I took your bait, I see a parable of 2 people in heaven that NEVER heard of Jesus Christ and YET are in heaven. Isn’t this in opposition to those folk beating on Bell for being more inclusive?

    The parables are subversive and are meant to insult your sensabilities. Your take on it is plausible reward/ demerit eschatology. This isn’t what is the topic they were discussing. Jesus is correcting there love of money here as a sign of being in Abraham.

    I will admit there are depictions of torment for the unbeliever, I don’t think this is one the way everyone seems to think it is.

    But friend, if you really think I’m wrong, let it pass.

  • graham veale

    One of my frustrations is that evangelical scholarship isn’t getting from the academy to the pulpit and the pew. Too many pastors rely on celebrity pastors, like Piper or Bell or Warren. Or they become constrained by the fashions of a particular seminary or evangelical publisher. So mcuh evangelical scholarship that could pass secular peer review we have an embarrassment of riches. And we’re discussing “The Shack” and Bell’s disappointment that he can’t believe in universalism

    Maybe if more evangelical scholars leaned into the camera, and looked intense but concerned, they would get a wider readership…

    This is all very depressing


  • graham veale

    That article was a defence????

    For crying out loud, I still don’t know what he’s defending! That maybe some kind of universalism might be true?
    That’s it? That’s what we’re arguing over?

    Can I make a suggestion? Can we wait until this guy makes his mind up, and then discuss/debate with him? Until then, he can just repeat, “that’s not what I meant” to any objection. Because, quite clearly, he doesn’t know what he believes.

    If that article is a clarification of the books message, then the question should not be “is “Love Wins” heretical?”

    The question should be -

    “is this book an unconscionable waste of the Churches time?”

    Sheesh. Can I be a celebrity pastor when I grow up?

  • Ken Silva

    “There is a difference between Universalism and Rob Bell’s position… Rob Bell’s position, on the other hand, is better understood as Universal Restoration (or Universal Reconciliation).”

    This is also known as Christian Universalism, which I covered two years ago in “Rob Bell and Christian Universalism”:

  • ben witherington

    Hi Kyle. The picture is something a student had done of me and used on his blog as he linked to a review I had done of one of Rob’s earlier books.

    And Graham I feel your pain. One of my great, great frustrations as Biblical scholar is how few Evangelical pastors of any kind do detailed reading of commentaries or the Greek text of the NT before they spout their maxims. It is depressing. But on the other hand, there are some who take their vocation seriously, realizing that in fact for their own people they are the experts in the Bible, or at least should be.


  • Chad

    Hi Ben, let me first say I’ve very much enjoyed reading your published works and recommend them to others. My question is, in your view does teaching a post-mortem opportunity for repentance and salvation fall under “generous orthodoxy” as Mouw suggests? How bad of an error is that? I’m looking forward to reading your review on the book.

  • Kwesi Adarkwa

    Hi Ben!

    Where does this leave us with respect to evangelism? Is there any need, then?

  • graham veale

    I’m not sure that Bell’s clarification allows us to assert that he is a Christian Universalist. There’s at least one document now which claims to define his position; and that position is “I dunno”. (Frankly, this is now a farce!) Bell seems to be saying “I hope this is true. And it might be true”.

    I believe that Hell is real, a place of punishment, ruin and separation for those who have shut themselves out i ofthe Kingdom of God. And I do not believe there’s a way out of Hell. (Freedom is a cruel joke played on humanity if we do not have the ability to say “no” to divine love).
    Now, if I’m honest, I’ll admit to thinking “I might be wrong about Hell. Wouldn’t it be good if I was. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone makes it into heaven.” But I’m convinced that Universalism is wrong.
    Could someone tell me how my position differs from Bell’s? He seems to have wondered a little more, and insisted that everyone pay attention to him thinking out loud. Beyond that, I can’t see a substantial difference. There’s nothing to critique.


  • Pennoyer

    There is a time and a place for a Eugene Peterson. His gifts include breaking down barriers to the gospel and expanding us out of narrow categories of thought that cut us off from other believers both now and in history.

    However, when we are approaching a theological cliff, we do not need a Eugene Peterson with his “expansive” vision. We scholars and theologians (including pastors) whose gifts can penetrate the fog and show us the consequences of where we are heading.


  • Pennoyer

    Correction: We *need* scholars and theologians

  • graham veale


    I think that Bell might be approaching a cliff; but I don’t see evidence that he’ll drag evangelicalism over with him.

    I think that there are three tasks before Conservative/Centrist Evangelicals – Wesleyan, Reformed, Charismatic -
    1) to judge just how much flexibility we can tolerate on our boundaries. We need some definition of “Evangelical” – a few shibboleths if nothing else.
    2) we need to judge what is and what is not essential to “Mere Christianity”. What is and is not heretical? Or better – what beliefs would prevent a person from having a justifying faith? (It is one thing never to have heard about the Incarnation. It is quite another to hear, to begin to understand, and to reject that belief.)
    3) Once we have a grasp of boundaries, we need better ideas on how Evangelicals should deal with Mere Christians. Suppose De Young’s review of Bell is correct. That would leave Bell outside evangelicalism, but inside Mere Christianity. So how would we deal with him? (Assuming he ever arrives at a final, convinced position…)


  • billyv

    “But the people who are against Rob Bell are not going to reexamine anything. They have a litmus test for who is a Christian and who is not. But that’s not what it means to live in community.”
    But I have seen some detailed discussions of Bell’s arguments. They (like Kevin DeYoung) examined his arguments and found them wanting when it came to rigorous exegesis and Bell’s examination of historical views. I think Peterson is being unfair and painting anyone who is critical of this book as being close minded.

  • Jimmy

    Randall – I am enjoying our extended discussion. I think this is what we as believers need to do in order to help clarify our beliefs and to find a way to better explain our beliefs to those who are not Christ Followers. I would like to ask you to clarify something your wrote so I might try to understand where you are coming from. You wrote: “The parables are subversive and are meant to insult your sensabilities.” I am not quite sure where you are coming from or what your intent is with this statement. I must admit that I have never heard a parable from Jesus described in such a way.

  • David

    I loved the book, not for it’s answers but for the questions it asked out loud. God’s love for us transcends language, location, and culture.
    The book challenged me to know that God loves us and He is available to everyone regardless of race, status, location, age, or education.
    The simple truth that anyone can know God without any help from others is powerful and answers many of my questions.
    Does this truth diminish our need to love others and to take care of them? Not for a heartbeat. It does say that for those of us who have had the message of Christ spoon fed to us are not the only ones that will rule with Christ in heaven.
    For that I am grateful. This book did not give me an excuse to stop caring, sharing, and reaching out to others any more than an iodine pill keeps me from helping those in need in Japan.

  • Randall

    Good question Jimmy,

    What I meant by that statement regarding the parables is that if we watch, listen to, or interact with most any oriental and sagacious teacher, and I beleive Jesus did play that play often, we will see that they teach not by transmitting ‘facts’ but by revealing truth. I realize that suggesting a slight antithesis between facts and truth insults good scientific western though, but I beleive you have to see this in Jesus’ method, and it is most definately a method He chose. Parables fly under our radar steathily to escape rational objections until they find a bit of ,’good soil’.

    Here’s the skinny on my meaning, Jesus gives a parable suggesting that some have been blessed graciously and some have seen privation, don’t get po’d when the situation is reversed as it will be in less than 35 years from now. I think diaspora is, largely, what the parable means but, that would destroy our world to “know” ,”hey, the jew is gonna get scattered and the gentiles are gonna be gathered”.

    Jesus plainly, I hate using this word, repeatedly said, I speak to them in parables because they wouldn’t accept the message, ‘straight up’. Jesus told parables that put an oblique rounded edge to a truth that would assault the expectations of hearers usually.

    “Subversive?” I meant when they ‘really’ understood His message to the point it was undeniable they killed Him. He knew that and largely drives the interchange by increasing becoming plainer to His disciples and less communicative to His detractors.

    As an aside, the doctrine of Hell doesn’t rise or fall or, I think, even shift on this parable, the scripture develops it elsewhere and I wasn’t speaking to that.

    N.T. Wright mentions in Jesus and the Victory of God that parables aren’t about the props in the story, the props are used to convey meaning with word pictures and rely on our mental associations and experiences to grasp.

    I said subversive also because I think this parable has a national and political implication that is so very volatile they would have killed Him immediately if they heard it like history seems to fit with it and they wer able to kill him.

    Yes, Jimmy we’ll have to exchange emails or something

    Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a woman cleaning a house looking for a coin. Why doesn’t anyone teach that we will see her come by with a broom asking if we have seen it? It’s because that picture seems too funny. The parables aren’t straight doctrine they are meant to correct attitudes rather than makes us smarter.

  • Edwin

    DeYoung misrepresents Bell on several points. For instance, he simply dismisses Bell’s repeated insistence on the uniqueness of Jesus (Jesus of Nazareth, God incarnate) by claiming that Bell’s belief in the Logos at work throughout all time and space makes Jesus irrelevant. DeYoung is critiquing what his own theological presuppositions make him think Bell must be saying rather than what Bell is actually saying.

  • JoeyS

    Well said, Edwin. It seems that DeYoung has a history of doing that.

  • graham veale

    “I realize that suggesting a slight antithesis between facts and truth insults good scientific western thought”

    I don’t mean to be harsh, but I’m a tad confused…

    a) You can’t have a slight antithesis.
    b) “An antithesis between facts and truth” doesn’t mean anything. It’s analogous to insisting that the number 1 is pink.
    c) This is not a “Western” or “scientific” way of thinking. At least, I see no evidence for this massive historical and anthropological claim. And given the difficulty in defining “science” I doubt that a compelling case will be forthcoming.
    In any case, the evidence from Cognitive Science indicates that humans seek a match between their ideas and the external world (the evidence is so strong I think it leads to confused notions about “folk psychology” and “theory theory” in philosophy of mind). In any case, the evidence is based on cross cultural studies.

    Now I think you mean that the parables do much more than communicate true propositions. I agree; they challenge, provoke, rebuke etc. There are correct and incorrect responses to a parable.
    But that does not mean that parables do less than communicate true propositions. If they don’t, then there cannot be correct and incorrect responses to a parable.

    If that’s what you mean, great. Amen. If it isn’t can you clarify?


  • John Anders

    Rob’s interview in NYC said it all. You need to listen to what he said and what he didn’t say. There is no mention of the cross. Rob’s version of “heaven” is too inclusive to include a cross. The cross for Rob becomes a barrier for too many people, including the Jewish woman who was interviewing him. Listen to how he answered the question from the young lady about Matthew 7. Rob does not take the Bible literally or Jesus seriously. His new age approach will lead people astray in a similar way that Mormon theology and Jehovah’s Witness theology lead people astray. (those 3 new religions actually are quite similar in many ways) They redefine terms that the Bible and Christians use. This is why Rob Bell is just as far, if not farther, from Christianity than those who subscribe to Mormon doctrine and JW doctrine. Those who want to believe that a person’s sincere efforts are all that matter will be comforted by Rob’s theories. Those who believe the Bible and take it seriously will see him for what he is – a false prophet.

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