A Framework for Understanding the Rob Bell Controversy

A Framework for Understanding the Rob Bell Controversy March 18, 2011

It’s taking me longer than I had hoped to write my own review of the famously hip Rob Bell’s famously controversial new book, Love Wins, but in the meantime I wanted to offer what I hope is a helpful framework for understanding some of the issues at hand.  I happen to believe that only 10-20% of the controversy is really about universalism.  The greater part of the controversy is about the questions behind the questions — progressive accommodation to contemporary culture versus conservative holding-fast to inherited theological tradition, selective reinterpretation of the Christian message versus a profession of the whole counsel of scripture regardless of its offensiveness to modern ears, etc; the other, central theological issues Bell reformulates — the character of God, the nature of the person and work of Christ, and the means of salvation; and the way in which Bell thoroughly and repeatedly casts doubt on, caricatures, and condemns what has been the traditional teaching of the western churches for many centuries now.

Bell is to be complimented and thanked for some things, and criticized for others.  But more on that anon.

For now, it strikes me that people are wrestling with the question, “Is Rob Bell a universalist?” in part because the terms have not been sufficiently clear.  Some say Bell is clearly not a universalist because he says that God will not forcibly save everyone, and some may continue to reject God even in the afterlife.  Some say Bell clearly is a universalist because he strongly implies that God’s loving pursuit of every individual — in the present life and in the life to come — must eventually prevail.  Still others say that Bell should properly be called a Christian universalist or an evangelical universalist, because he believes that all (can?) (will?) be saved but through the intermediation of Christ.

The most philosophical nuance I’ve seen in the online discussion so far has been Scot McKnight’s post on the variety of universalisms, but even this is confusing because these are not all positions on the same axis.  Let me explain.  The colors red, yellow and blue are all at different points on the electromagnetic spectrum.  So I can make a list — blue, yellow, and red — in which all three elements in the list are differentiated along one axis (in this case the axis of wavelength).  But if I create another list that runs thus — blue, yellow, red, red apples, red cherries — then I have created a a typology with two axes (colors or wavelengths, and types of fruit).  If I were making a graph, I could not just create a one-dimensional line, and locate the colors at different points along the line; I would have to create a two-dimensional grid, with colors along one axis and kinds of fruit along another.  If I added another axis, I would have to create a three-dimensional cubic graph, and so on.

I hope this is clear so far.  If a child asked me to hand her a kind of paint, and I said, “Do you want blue, yellow, red, or red apples?” (not apple-red but actual red apples), the child would look at me curiously, because I would have just confused different categories.  Well, I find a similar confusion running through some of these conversations about universalism.  There are actually several different axes at play here.

1.  The SOTERIOLOGICAL axis: What is the mechanism of salvation?  Is it known and confessed faith in Christ (exclusivist) — or might a person be saved by a kind of pseudo-faith even if he or she does not know or confess that this is through Christ (inclusivist) — or can a person be saved by a variety of religions through their own mechanisms (call this soteriological relativism)?

What becomes clear at this point is that inclusivism and universalism are not on the same axis.  One is a statement about how people are saved, and the other  about how many are saved.  To this point, one would have to say that Rob Bell is an inclusivist.  He believes that people of all religious tribes and none, whether or not they confess Christ or understand Christ or have ever heard of Christ, can be saved by the redemption God made available through Christ.  While this is not traditional Christian doctrine, and has not been evangelical doctrine, it is not terribly heretical either.  The Roman Catholic Church has held to a doctrine of inclusivism ever since Vatican II.

(It’s worth noting that there are sub-distinctions in each of these.  Some have begun to call exclusivism by a different name, particularism, and distinguish different varieties of particularism.  So, for instance, one could be an “agnostic particularist” if one believes that those who never had the opportunity to respond to the gospel in their lives on earth will have an opportunity to respond postmortem.  Traditional particularists believe that there is no such postmortem opportunity, but others have argued that God knows how each person would respond if given the opportunity, and saves those who would have responded in faith.  My point is not to advocate one of these, but to say that there is a whole body of philosophical literature on this, and many options within the options.  See Collin Hansen’s post here for some other varieties.)

2.  The EXTENSION axis: How far does God’s grace reach in effective redemption?  Are all people ultimately saved (universalism) — are most people ultimately saved (majoritarian) — or are the saved a relative minority (minoritarian)?

A universalist can be an inclusivist (all people are saved through Christ) or a soteriological relativist (all people are saved through various means).  And an inclusivist can believe that all, most, or still a relative minority are saved through Christ).  Rob Bell clearly rejects the minoritarian view.  He calls it “tragic” and “crushing” and “unbearable.”  He also presents the minoritarian view as the mainstream teaching of the church for centuries.  In the infamous promotional video, Bell evokes an exclusivist minoritarian view and suggests that such a God could not be good, and that such teachings have led many to reject Christianity as “an endless list of inconsistencies and absurdities.”

So where does Bell stand on the extension axis?  It’s not entirely clear.  The question is whether he is a majoritarian or a universalist.  He clearly states that some people will presumably reject God in the afterlife just as they did in this life.  But will they do so ultimately, forever?  He says that God would not force people into redemption, because God respects our freedom to choose.  But if God has an eternity to reach out to them, will everyone eventually surrender to the relentless, salvific pursuit of God?   The FAQ made available by Bell’s church, Mars Hill Bible Church, is clearer than Bell himself has been.  It says: Rob is not saying that “all will be saved, regardless of faith” — but he is saying that “all could be saved,” since “the invitation to God’s grace may extend into the next life.”

There are other possible refinements.  A person could be an actual universalist or a potential universalist, for instance, believing that all people definitely will be saved (actual universalism) or that all people may well be saved (potential universalism).

3.  This brings us to a third axis, the FATE OF THE REJECTORS: What happens to those who reject God?  Will they be tormented eternally in hell, decisively separated from God (for lack of a better word here, traditionalist) — will they be destroyed (annihilationist?) — or will they have an eternity in which to repent (eternalist)?

If you’re a universalist, you cannot be an annihilationist or a traditionalist, unless you believe that none reject God.  But an inclusivist could be any one of these three, and an exclusivist could be a traditionalist or an annihilationist.  Some Christians over the years have chosen annihilationism, in the view that it would be more merciful for God simply to destroy the unrepentant than to consign them to eternal suffering.  Bell is clearly an eternalist, who holds open the possibility that hell will eventually he shut because all people will ultimately repent and take refuge in God’s mercy.

In my reading, Bell is certainly an inclusivist and an eternalist.  The question comes on the extension axis: I would suggest that Bell is both a majoritarian and a potential universalist.  In some places he seems to prescind from judgment on whether all will finally be saved — who can say, after all, what people will freely choose?  In other places he suggests that God would not be fully great, or love would not fully “win,” unless all people are eventually redeemed.  So this, I think, is where one should press for clarity from Bell.

Again, ultimately, the disagreements and differences run far deeper than these questions.  But these are exceedingly important questions nonetheless, and evangelicalism is coming to terms with the fact that different people who call themselves evangelical are passionately committed to different answers to these questions.  I hope that the above offers some sort of conceptual framework that might be helpful.

UPDATE: Added the note above regarding different forms of particularism/exclusivism.

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