Rob Bell Is (Not) a Universalist: Who Is this God?

All this week, I’ll be posting about Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins. And this Sunday, April 10, I’ll be guest hosting Doug Pagitt Radio from 12-2pm CDT, talking with Keith DeRose, Michael Horton, and a special surprise guest! The entire two hours will be devoted to a discussion of the book, in advance of Rob’s appearance the following night at Wayzata Community Church.

In response to yesterday’s post, Patrick Marshall commented,

I’m getting a little tired of constantly hearing, “Rob Bell is not a theologian.” I have loved Rob and his work for years, but I was really disappointed to hear him say this in the interview with Lisa Miller (and several other interviews). I think it’s a cop out. I also think it’s deeply damaging to Christians who are NOT pastors, because it only serves to reinforce this idea that theology is done by “someone else.”

Patrick’s point is that, of course Rob Bell is a theologian.  I agree, Patrick, and I said as much in The New Christians:

Most human activity is inherently theological, in that it reflects what we believe to be the case about God—who God is, what God wants from us, how involved God is in the world, and so forth. The house I buy—where it is, how big it is, how much it costs—is a theological decision. It reflects what I believe about the following questions and more: Does God care where I live? Does God care how I spend my money? Does God favor the city or the suburbs? Does God care about energy use? Does God favor public transportation? Maybe I believe that God cares about none of these things, in which case my decision to purchase the biggest house I can afford in the nicest part of town reflects my theological belief that God is not concerned with such things. Similarly, decisions that are much more mundane also reflect our beliefs about who God is and how God interacts with us. Some people pray for a good parking spot when they’re driving to the mall. Others ask, “If God is allowing genocide in Darfur, why would he intervene in the traffic patterns at my shopping mall?!?”

What Rob means to do, I suspect, when he tells journalists that he’s not a theologian is that he’s not attempting theology proper — that is, second-order discourse on first-order phenomena.  But even this isn’t quite right.  As Rob has also said (and Scot doubts), all talk of what happens after we shake off this mortal coil is mere speculation.  If that’s true, then any book that deals with such a speculative topic is clearly theology proper.

So, having agreed that Rob is doing theology (you do agree, right?), what can we say that Rob believes about God?

First of all, I am impressed with the fortitude with which Rob avoids referring to God with a male pronoun.  I usually do verbal backflips to avoid this in my writings, but Rob seems to do it with ease.  I noticed at least once where he substituted “[God]” in a Bible verse for a “he,” although he lets the male pronoun stand in other biblical quotes.

It’s no surprise to those of us who’ve been listening to Rob for years, that he has a robustly Old Testament doctrine of God.  The deference with which he writes of God made me think of the Old Testament, and he refers at one point to his friends who write “G-d” in order to mimic the Jewish avoidance of saying or writing Yahweh.  I actually take Rob’s avoidance of the male pronoun for God to be a continuation of this same tendency, and it’s one that I deeply appreciate.

Secondly, Rob is clearly trinitarian.  However, as with many modern, American Christians, there is virtually no developed doctrine of the Holy Spirit evident in Love Wins.  I find this surprising, because I think that a robust pneumatology could get Rob out of some of the problems that he gets into with the book.  There’s a reason that at many seminaries (like Fuller, where both Rob and I received our MDivs), Systematic Theology 3 covers the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and of eschatology.  This isn’t simply a convenience, but a connection between the two most mysterious (and speculative) of the major doctrines.  That the Holy Spirit will ultimately “guide us into all truth” is not a cop-out, it’s an article of faith.

However, Rob does refer to the Holy Spirit as “she,” which could not be more awesome.

Finally, Rob believes that “God gets what God wants.”  He says this a few times in the book, and he has repeated it in subsequent interviews.  From what I’ve heard, this theme was even stronger in earlier drafts of the book, but it’s still there. I agree, and this is a very orthodox belief, both theologically and philosophically.  It accords with Aquinas.  The way that I usually say it is that God is the one non-contingent being in the cosmos.  Another way to say it is, God does whatever the hell God wants.

However, Rob does qualify this belief, basically by writing that, God gets what God wants, but this happens in God’s timing.  In other words, God will eventually get what God wants.

But this leads to a conundrum: Is God outside of time, or is God somehow bound to time as we experience time? In a short excursus into string theory (pp. 58ff.), Rob writes that we’re bound up in at least eleven dimensions, only four of which we can currently quantify: height, width, depth, and time.  Rob takes biblical words dealing with eternity (like aion) to mean the transcendence of time.

This would seem to imply that God transcends time.  But if God transcends time, what does it mean to say that God eventually gets what God wants?  Is God bound by time or not?  And, if not, what does “eventually” mean?

Tomorrow: Who Are We (Human Beings) in Love Wins?

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  • I enjoyed your review Tony. I was interested that you were convinced that Bell was a trinitarian. That was one of my critiques of Bell is that a robust trinitarian doctrine of God might have made his point much better. I agree you that his lack of pneumatology is a little concerning. I probably have just read to much Moltmann and Boff though. Thanks for the review.

  • Michael Toddsworth

    However, Rob does refer to the Holy Spirit as “she,” which could not be more awesome.

    Why is this so awesome to you, Tony?

  • Griffin

    No offense, but to equate Rob Bell with Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, etc. in the way people have been doing are just flat out wrong. Just because you and Hitler both like peanut butter does not make you similar, catch my drift? I think it’s a tad dishonest.

    But I agree with the critique about time transcendence.

  • Kenton

    Did you book the man himself for the radio show, Tony?

    I know you hate responding to these things, but let’s just say I will read a *lot* into your silence. 🙂

  • Scot Miller

    I am also a bit confused about how God and time are related. Bell’s eschatology seems quite “open” to me, since it seems God continually extends grace and opportunities to free creatures, who eventually will be won over by love.

    To be honest, Bell’s idea about God is at least compatible with the model of God in process theology, where God’s eternal aims are offered to actual entities who freely respond in one way or another. (I think Charles Hartshorne called this “di-polar” theism… which I suppose is distinct from the bipolar theism of, say, Al Moher.) Of course, the old time process philosophers and theologians did not think that self-conscious immortality was possible, which Bell has to believe.

    Frankly, I don’t think Bell has a clear idea of how to relate God to time or eternity.

  • Kenton-

  • JoeyS

    Rob seems to understand time like Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse 5. Ben Witherington suggests that aion is best translated “eternal” while aidios is best translated “eternal.” One, then, is linear (aidios) while the other seems to transcend linear time (aion). Not sure what the evidence is for this, but Rob may be using a similar line of reasoning. Of course Sanders and Boyd would thoroughly disagree with this “outside of time” mentality (at least from my understanding of Open Theism).

    I think Rob is doing theology, the way that you (and Helmut Thielicke, first) suggest. But in another sense, his work is not primarily theology in the academic sense. His job, of course, overlaps with the work of theologians but it is not his primary responsibility or function any more than it is the mailman’s.

  • Dan Hauge

    I’m guessing that next time we’ll get more into the notion of human freedom? The issue of God getting what God wants does not just get sticky with the ‘time’ issue, but with the ‘freedom’ issue.

    I’ll just kick it off by saying that ‘God does whatever God wants’ and ‘God gets whatever God wants’ are actually two different things. Putting aside for the moment the question of humans freely choosing Jesus or not, does God get what God wants in all of our often destructive and violent choices and actions? And, how does this fit with the idea of God entering into relationship with us? In what kind of relationship does one party always get exactly what they want? (again, “doing” whatever one wants is quite different from “getting” whatever one wants).

    I suppose I should engage the actual topic of this post–I tend to think that God is not necessarily bound by time, but chooses to operate more or less in a sequential manner along with creation (I don’t really like referring to ‘time’ as a ‘thing’ that one can be inside or outside of–I like thinking of it more in terms of the idea that one property of creation is that it is sequential. But that may be mere semantics).

  • Kenton




    Your Slaughterhouse 5 reference reminds me of a question I was asked when I was reading that book. I was in London on a student work exchange program reading it on my commute. One of my co-workers saw the title and asked me if I had read the first 4.

    20+ years later it still kills me.

  • JoeyS

    Kenton, that is very funny!

  • Charles

    The brainiacs among us [I’m not one] are having a great time dissecting and pontificating on various theological theories of which Bell might embrace. For those of us who are non-brainiacs, the issue of Bell’s theology in irrelevant. What I liked about the book is it’s re-framing of the Christian metaphor so that it resonates with us common folk. If our relationship with our creator is the point [isn’t it?], getting serious about it becomes paramount. I think this book does an excellent job of focusing folks in that direction. “Love Wins” makes the personal effort of exploring that relationship attractive; as opposed to most of the other atonement based metaphors that present the seeker as unworthy, lost, a criminal, a sinner, in jail, etc. This book works for me.

  • about the Holy Spirit . . .

    when someone like Rob doesn’t develop and expand on a doctrine of the Holy Spirit, even though he has taught on the Holy Spirit clearly @MarsHill, it allows the dominant voice(s) about her to be from the loudest people.

    we can disagree about things like heaven & hell, the nature of salvation, etc. but once we start talking about the Holy Spirit, it seems that it gets a bit, um, squeemish.

    and if this book is about love, than how can we not talk about the Holy Spirit? it would seem that this must be a necessary part of the discussion.

  • Ben

    I tend to agree with Charles…
    I’m not a brainiac, dissecting and pontificating Rob Bell sounds gross… and the heart or essence of Rob’s book seems to be focusing people, especially those hindered by other theories of atonement, to enter into the unfolding story of God’s love and God’s hope for a fully restored, redeemed, reconciled creation.
    As far as time (God eventually getting what he wants), it seems to me that Rob speaks from the perspective of a created being who lives in time… for us the final restoration and redemption is not yet consummated. God who is patient awaits that time with us, even though he is beyond time (not constrained by time).
    Thanks for the great conversation.

  • Bill

    “Is God bound by time or not? ”

    Is Tony still bound by modernism or not?

  • I recently discovered that the Hebrew word for spirit, ruwach, is a feminine noun (as is Shekinah).

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