Initial Thoughts on Rob Bell Interview

As you know, I defended Rob as not a universalist from the beginning of the controversy. Based on his interview (still, having not read the book) here are my thoughts…

  • Rob has a big vision of God’s love and grace.  He is convinced that God is not primarily a God of wrath, but of love and restoration.
  • He does believe in Hell, but certainly not eternal punishment.  Rob seems to be quite influenced, as I predicted, by CS Lewis in the Great Divorce.  Lewis has this interesting concept that hell is locked from the inside.  People that want to experience hell, will get exactly that… in this life and the next.
  • Where Rob did not help himself out was in the ambiguity about the question of if hell is real after this life.  He was very articulate in describing the reality of hell in the present time… we see hell all around our yet to be restored world.  I agree with his earthly / here-and-now point of view.  I do think that he could have been a bit more direct in dealing with the afterlife issues that many of us want to hear about.  In this way I am frustrated with his approach to some extent.
  • That said, I think Rob does simultaneously present the fact that the Bible is a book of tension and ambiguity, which is his primary motivation (I assume) for not wanting to make strong declarative statements.  He did in fact affirm that hell in the afterlife is for those who want to be there, but in a CS Lewis kind of fashion, also pointed out that the Gate of the New Jerusalem in Rev 21-22 is always open.  In other words, perhaps those who do not submit to the Lordship of Jesus initially will have the chance to change their mind.
  • On that point, freedom… complete and un-coereced freedom of humanity is at the core of Rob’s beliefs.  If humanity if free in this life, it seems that they have a choice to make in this life… will I live in light of heaven or will I bring hell to earth.  The continuation of this freedom is what happens in the life to come.
  • Rob was speaking to a general audience and is trying to build bridges into the larger culture rather than to perpetuate the cycle of defining religious bounded set types of approaches to Christianity.  Jesus and his good news is the center, not our dogmas and ability to sniff out “who’s in and who’s out.”
  • Rob affirms the radical exlusivity and inclusivity of Christ and the good news.  Again, he wants to live in the tension between these two rather than simply to lean towards the exclusive as many evangelicals have done. 
  • Finally, I think it is safe to say that Rob is NOT a universalist, but that he is hopeful that everyone will eventually choose to be gathered into the New Jerusalem.  If I were to “label” him, which he hates and I personally am hesitant to do, I would label him a radical inclusivist.

What are your thoughts on the Rob Bell interview?

PS – My brief observations are not based on the book but on my personal impression of the interview.  I will review the book asap.

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  • Eng_martha

    may I be out of point , but after watching it I feel that i am in need to improve my English . I need it just because I think and believe that Rob bell thoughts are so heavenly so connected what God has in mind .

  • I appreciated his definition of universalist.

    • Jonathan, As did I… If you mean the idea that God forces everyone to eventually be saved. Thought that was a good clarification.

      • Jason Smith

        Me too, because the folks reviewing Bell critically right now are defining what a universalist is and they aren’t getting it right. They keep saying, “Bell says he’s not a universalist, but he is, because anyone who doesn’t believe in our version of hell, i.e. eternal punishment, is a universalist.” I think this is unfair.

  • Gary

    Might want to read this 20 page review from someone who has read the book. Shocking how much violence Bell is willing to do to the Bible in order to promote his agenda.

    The interview was filled with Bell dodging left and right. He is a universalist, he has just chosen to go the Barth route instead. I am sure once you read the book you will see where he talks about everyone eventually giving into God’s love. So though not right away, and maybe it will take eons, Bell seems to believe that everyone will eventually change their attitude toward God and enjoy his love in Heaven.

    As Lisa Miller put it, “Aren’t you just a liberal mainliner pretending to be an evangelical?” Don’t be so naive to not see what even a secular Jewish woman can see.

  • Initially, I thought Rob’s evasive to the “literal hell in the afterlife” question was a misstep, but now I’m suspecting that was an intentional strategy. If he had answered that question in the Q&A tonight, it would’ve removed a major motivation for people to buy (and read) the book. I wouldn’t be surprised if the publisher coached him not to answer that question directly/definitively.

    His other major gaffe (in my opinion) was when Miller asked him, “Isn’t heaven really about being with God?” — which would have been a great opening for a Piper-ite to dive into some “desiring God” stuff — Bell’s “Well, yes, but …” answer was pretty weak.

    Overall, it was a really fascinating discussion to watch. Miller did not “lob softballs” at Bell entirely, as some were predicting (and as you’d expect at an event sponsored by the publisher of Bell’s book!). Her question about the offensiveness of “Jesus as the mechanism” for salvation, to her as a Jewish person, was quite compelling. I think Bell answered her well, but then he tacked on the, “So how’d I do?” banter that became sort of a running joke and got a little annoying. Nevertheless, fun to watch, while keeping one eye on the Facebook/Twitter stream for all the “yeahs!” and “nays!” flying in realtime.

    • Steve, you make an excellent point here! I think that there probably was some intentional evasion as you suggest. And I think I am with you on the weakness of his response to the question about heaven being with God… that was a fairly weak answer.

      I also agree with your last paragraph in its entirety!

  • I’d agree that he’s not a universalist, but he should have stepped up and said that hell actually is a place.

    • Gabe,

      I get your irritation… but, perhaps the book will have more to say.

  • Stephen Parker

    Is there a link to the interview so I can watch it or listen to it?

  • Anonymous

    Right now there is a great sense of ambiguity concerning what view Bell holds, thus, the problem of labeling. Even if the book does come, after reading through, we would still come out asking. I think thats the whole point of Bell’s stuff, who is an artist in my point of view. People can come out reading the book and presenting excerpts than conform to the universalistic label but other leaders in the Christian world can also call Bell’s views orthodox. Thanks for this Kurt, awaiting your review of the book. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to read this book myself.

  • Michaeldise

    I really have to congratulate you Kurt on being so quick to write a blog on this interview. You were probably the first.

    • Michael,

      Well, I just wanted to get my thoughts down while they were fresh 😉

  • If you didn’t catch the live video you can watch the recording here I am pretty sure:

    • Thanks, Kurt, for providing that link. I have now watched the interview, and must say that I am quite impressed with Rob’s ability to keep holding out the “hope” of God’s love conquering all, without actually dogmatically affirming that such will be the case. The “gates into the city” are always open, without affirming absolutely that everyone will eventually enter through those gates.

      I personally am more dogmatic than Rob; I have no hesitation in stating my absolute conviction that God’s desire that all men be saved will not prove to be ineffectual. The God who, in the Biblical story of Saul of Tarsus, is able to win over the persecutor without violating his “freedom of choice”, is able to do this with everyone else – and will. Paul even said that God had set him apart from his mother’s womb, and called him at the appointed time – yet Saul/Paul freely responded to that ‘call’.

      That leads me to say that Rob’s definition of ‘universalism’ was defective – and if he denies being a ‘universalist’ based on that defective definition, then he still might be open to being a ‘universalist’. Universalism does not affirm that God takes everyone to ‘heaven’ whether or not they want it; it just means that God is so wonderful that He is able to overcome all of our objections to His ways and bring us willingly to embrace Him. His loving call involves persuasion, corrective punishment, consolation, and blessing. But His love really overcomes and subdues the rebellious hearts of everyone ultimately. Eventually all will be brought into the knowledge of God, and all will come willingly.

      In a ‘universalist’ definition of the fire of hell, the fire is seen as CORRECTIVE punishment; it burns away all that is corrupt until all that is left is pure, holy, and loving. Each person endures that fire as long as it takes to achieve that purpose, and no longer. A ‘universalist’ can acknowledge the reality of hell without accepting either “eternal torment” or “annihilation of the wicked”.

      Still, I admire Rob’s willingness to see this as a hope, without actually fully accepting it as a certainty.

  • PennyPaige

    Kurt! Thank you for summing up the interview. You did it a lot more clearly than my attempt.
    There was so much I loved about the interview and there were some low points where I was hoping he would have given stronger answers, but I can’t even imagine what a difficult format this must have been to communicate such a robust picture of God’s love.

  • Lon

    great summary – i was considering live blogging this one, but i knew you and many others would be on it. I think he stumbled in a number of places to really get where I think his heart is. It’s a really tough job and the pressure’s gotta be on. I wish he tackled the – ‘de-emphasis of hell question as it relates to evangelism’ a lot better… one he missed answering it really, and secondly he could’ve talked about god’s great love being motivation for evangelism much more than fear of punishment…

    anyhow, still definitely an interesting interview.

  • He takes “tension” to the extreme! LOL
    I think he was ambigous in many of his responses because he was being sensitive to Miller (a non-believing Jew). I like his coined phrase, “inexclusive”. I also appreciated what he had to say about how wide the stream of orthodoxy is (Calvinists want to claim exclusive rights to the Gosple and the Orthodoxy East think they alone are the body of Christ: and both want me to join their club).

  • Very good summary, Kurt! The only answer that made me cringe a bit was the idea that we ultimately get what we want. Yes, love is not coercive but the reason why “hell” exists both now and for an indefinite amount of “time” in the future, is not that people outright reject it but that they’ve created a reality in their minds where this love is not seen for what it truly is. So it’s not just a matter of the human will but about the way we are influenced by the lies we believe and consequently what we can grasp or not. C. S. Lewis was much clearer in the “great Divorce” on that particular point.

  • M.Nikkanen

    “Where Rob did not help himself out was in the ambiguity about the question of if hell is real after this life….I do think that he could have been a bit more direct in dealing with the afterlife issues that many of us want to hear about. In this way I am frustrated with his approach to some extent.”

    You find it frustrating? To someone whom he caricatures as somehow wanting non-Christians to go to hell, it is somewhat offensive.

    What I found interesting about the interview was when pressed on whether a charitable Atheist will go to heaven, he appeared compelled to explain that everyone still needs Jesus. To me, this indicated he really does believe in the exclusiveness of Christ, but as he continued he appeared uncomfortable and tried to make up for it by saying that there will be surprises. Yes, there will be surprises, but should you advise someone to count on it?

    What’s offensive about that is he treats scornfully those who don’t mention the “surprises”, as if it’s the same as a promise. If he believes that hell exists for a time so that people can change their mind, then implicit in his belief is that a person who has conscientiously rejected Christ will likely go to hell for a while. I don’t hear him saying this, so why doesn’t he mention that side of the surprise? Unless he thinks the experience of hell is inconsequential (which I don’t think he does, given his descriptions of hell on Earth) he ought to be telling people clearly about it. Either he doesn’t realize this implication and is simply incoherent, or he does realize it and is a coward for not mentioning it. You are exceedingly gracious in giving him the benefit of the doubt by attributing this to “living in the tension”. This wouldn’t be so insulting if he didn’t insinuate so much about how unloving Christians are who believe in eternal damnation.

    Universalism is the belief that everyone will eventually go to heaven, regardless of what they believe in life. Rob Bell believes he is not a Universalist because he believes no one is coerced to turn to God. That is moving the goal-posts, as it is just one kind of Universalism. I think Rob Bell is a Universalist, but that is not his (biggest) problem. His biggest problem IMHO seems to be that he is so afraid of being labeled that he sacrifices coherence, and thus having a consistent message to tell believers and non-believers alike.

    God’s Peace, and my regards.

  • I think the broadcast reminded us that salvation as discussed in the Bible is way more complex/mysterious than saying a formulaic prayer. Sometimes Jesus tells people the way to salvation is by loving their enemies or giving to the poor. Once he forgives a man’s sins on the basis of his friends’ actions (as Rob noted). More often than not, “repentance” seems to be involved. But the point is, maybe we’ve oversimplified the categories when talking about heaven, hell, and salvation.

    There were a couple places I wished Rob had been more exegetically careful, like when talking about Luke 9:50 and Revelation 21:25. Read in context, I don’t think either passage speaks to the whole universalism debate.

    In any case, even if I disagree w/Rob at points, I should hope he’s right and I’m wrong. Hell is not something we should wish on anybody. Even if we think lots of people will end up there, we should mourn the fact.

    I posted the rest my thoughts @

  • Ben

    I’m just glad the book is finally out today (released on Kindle this morning) so that I don’t have to worry about others opinions on what he might say anymore and can just let the man’s book speak for itself.

  • A N Hughes

    I haven’t read the book or analyzed the whole discussion to say a ton, but I would say that anytime we say God is “primiarily” anything, we may begin to run into dangers. It can be reductionistic to subsume the myriad of God’s characteristics into a “key” or “defining” one- whether that love, wrath, or justice.

  • Peter Bylen

    God is love; heaven and hell is our experience of God’s presence. See

  • I think Rob came off very well. I’m not sure if his “public persona” is 100% who Rob is “behind the scenes.” However, having not attended Mars Hill and not knowing Rob personally I’ll go ahead and assume he’s being sincere. That being the case I thought he was very honest with his opinions and his willingness to openly say “I don’t know.” I find that I’m infinitely more drawn to an honest lack of knowing than I am to the arrogance displayed by the Pipers, et. al. and their assumed “rightness.” I’m still more interested in what Lewis had to say about Hell than Bell’s version, however, I do admit that Bell has done a fantastic job stoking the PR flames and if it manages to make more folks interested in honestly examining the rhetoric of hell-fire and brimstone that is fine with me.

  • Barry Anglin

    In light of some of the comments here, I have a personal question for you, Kurt? While characterizing Bell’s concern with freedom, you said, “If humanity is free in this life, it seems that they have a choice to make in this life…will I live in light of heaven or will I bring hell to earth?”

    That would seem to be a fairly stark choice. How do you define what it means to “live in light of heaven?” Just how exclusive are you in your own personal theological understanding, Kurt? Is it possible to live in this light outside of certain theological beliefs about Jesus, or if assent to a belief system is a requirement, are you saying that all non-believers or adherents of other traditions are necessarily “bringing hell to earth?”

  • Here are a few more thoughts which I posted in reply to Margaret Feinberg’s comments:

    I understand how Rob’s answers come across for many as too vague and ambiguous. But is it really fair to expect straight forward answers in yes or no fashion when the questions themselves (no matter how accurate they reflect the same concerns many of us have) just don’t fit the biblical emphasis? How do you answer someone who thinks in a paradigm that sees heaven and hell as consequences God bestows either on behalf of right belief or right action? I would argue that neither fits what the New Testament teaches. And how can Rob give specifics about the afterlife when most of the NT teaching on the subject uses a wide variety of metaphors which actually contradict each other if understood literally?

    No, I would maintain that Rob Bell was clear where it truly mattered: God is love. Period. Hell is real – because love is not coercive. The kingdom of God is first and foremost about good news now and lives being shaped by God’s love and grace to bring restoration and healing to a broken world. This is is a different emphasis than the classical evangelical pitch which sees a future rejection by God in the last judgment as the actual problem that needs to be solved. N. T. Wright and a host of others have pointed out the same thing. Rob’s thoughts on the subject are nothing new in this regard.

  • “What are your thoughts on the Rob Bell interview?”

    I don’t “get” Rob Bell. Obviously, his teaching is very attractive to many people, but I don’t understand why. I’m sure there are good reasons why he’s popular, but could someone explain to me what makes him popular?

    As far as his theology, I believe everyone is going to heaven. I’m glad to see he might have that hope but I’d rather he have that faith and declare it boldly.

    • I know this is rather late, but I’d like to share why I find Rob’s teaching attractive. Rob has a very unique gift of connecting the ambiguity of everyone’s lives with a text from scripture. He goes to great lengths to unfold and understand scriptural context. He researches the culture in which a text was written, who the audience would have been and why certain things would have been said to that particular audience and in the original language the text was actually written in.

      He doesn’t “preach,” he teaches. When you listen to him you feel great compassion in his voice. How many pastors have you listened to and when you walked out you felt as if he/she was scorning you? This doesn’t happen with Rob. He doesn’t shy away from doubt and uncertainty that every single person lives with. He wrestles with the text. There are no absolute claims that he makes, he just lets the bible be the bible. Could the passage mean this? Or maybe perhaps it means this?

      He understands that whether or not the scripture is factually true is irrelevant. What matters is how does this passage affect my life now and what can it do for me? This is the gift that Rob gives to his listeners and it’s why I follow him. Subscribe to the podcast on itunes. It’s free and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about!

  • What I appreciate is the challenge to get folks to dig into what Scripture actually says AND to think seriously about how authoritative the Bible is on the nature of God and afterlife AND to challenge the way we interpret Scripture. Is it mostly narrative by which we deduce dogma and codify it and then measure everything by that dogma? Is it something more mysterious than that? Do we even think it’s authoritative at all, but rather just one in a a library of religious work that all gives glimpses into humankind’s overall vision of God?

    Regardless, it challenges. I’m kind of a liberal evangelical. I go to a Dallas Theological Seminarian pastored church, but I’m a little more open to the fact that God is pretty damn mysterious. Mr. Bell intrigues me.

    The only thing I know is this: We’ll find out at some point what is true and real. Whether I believe in a literal heaven or hell won’t make those places exist or not. They either do or don’t.

    • Barry Anglin

      I appreciate the candor of your comment, Brett. You said, “The only thing I know is this: We’ll find out at some point what is true and real,” In so doing, you’ve essentially admitted you don’t really know anything at all.

      You can’t genuinely claim to know whether there’s an afterlife or there isn’t. If in fact there is not, which is at least as likely a possibility as there actually being one, then we won’t exactly ever find out, will we?

      • Very true–if there ends up being no truth to heaven/hell and we all just (I can’t think of the technical term) end up as dust, then damn–think of the time we could have spent thinking about other stuff!

        I believe and have faith that what I read in the Bible is true. Mr. Bell always predicates his discussion on heaven/hell by invoking ‘it’s all speculation’, so as much as I believe in God, Jesus, crazy mythy biblical stories, in the end, there’s a lot of faith involved. We’ll either end up not knowing (i.e. become dust), or we’ll find out what the reality in the afterlife is. I tend to think that that reality will be what it is, regardless of what we believed it would be like. Our PLACE in that afterlife might be affected by what we believe or how we responded to God on earth, but the nature of the afterlife is immovable.