If Rob Bell is a Universalist, then maybe I am – along with many prominent evangelicals? (A response to Justin Taylor)

If Rob Bell is a Universalist, then maybe I am – along with many prominent evangelicals? (A response to Justin Taylor) February 26, 2011

UPDATE: After you read this original post, please also read the follow up post where I answer some important questions!


Have you ever been fed up?  Today, I am fed up.

For the past couple of months I have been excited about the forthcoming release of Rob Bell’s latest book: Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

This will be a book where Bell takes on some important topics that need to be addressed in the larger evangelical community.  Unfortunately, a pious wing of conservative Christian faith, the neo-Reformers (often represented by folks like – John Piper (who I like theologically on a rare occasion), Kevin DeYoung, Mark Driscoll, and others – are hell-bent on caricaturing evangelicals that do not fit their mold.  Case in point, Rob Bell.

This crowd, for no justified reason, has given Rob a bad rap.  Certainly, he is not immaculate and may have said a thing or two here and there that is not perfect, but who hasn’t?  But, to accuse him of being a universalist without even having read his book (because, well, it isn’t out yet!), is not only over-the-top, but is irresponsible and should be cause for the larger evangelical community to be up in arms.

This is another indication about how narrow neo-reformed views have become and how much they often are not even willing to give the “benefit of the doubt.”  Basically, I am going to accuse Justin Taylor (of the reformed site: Gospel Coalition) of being guilty of the sin of lying.  I am sure Justin is a great guy and obviously passionate about Jesus, but the following quote is a bit frustrating.

Justin states:

“I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to be lay his cards on the table about  universalism. It seems that this is not  just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.” (Rob Bell: Universalist?)

He hasn’t read the book, but in one paragraph and based on an ambiguous trailer for the book, he can assume that Rob is a universalist?  That seems like terrible discernment and again demonstrates that these folks have a chip on their shoulder.  I doubt that others at the Gospel Coalition will reprimand Justin and correct his false assumptions, but lets look at the evidence a bit.

Ok, so I am going to assume the best about Rob and give you my best GUESS at what he will say on these topics.  I MIGHT END UP WRONG ON THIS AND REALIZE THAT I RUN THE RISK OF DOING WHAT JUSTIN DID IN HIS POST, BUT WANT TO HAVE A “POSITIVE” VOICE IN THE WEB CONVERSATION.

That was me admitting that I may end up being wrong, but based on what I know about Rob and our similar theological mentors, let me give you my hopeful guesses about some of the major themes of Heaven, Hell, and Every other Person.  Let me add, that these are not my ‘strong theological views’ (less, the Heaven stuff) but a solid direction that Rob might go:

Heaven – Rob is going to argue for an inaugurated eschatology (“already/not yet”).  He will state a clear belief in heaven, but in the tradition of N.T. Wright will make clear that this is not the end of the story.  The end will be “new heavens and new earth!”  Heaven will come down to earth and God will reign from a fully renewed Jerusalem.  All suffering will cease.  Evil will be judged!!!!!!  And the shalom of God will penetrate every crevice of reality.  Those who have chosen to follow Jesus will be resurrected and will reign with God forever and those who have not, will be left to the just judge, who will deal with them accordingly.  Here is a helpful resource by NT Wright.

Hell – Rob will probably argue for some version of an evangelical perspective of Hell that is more influenced by CS Lewis and NT Wright than Jonathan Edwards and the middle ages.  He will, in my estimation, expound some version of the view of Greg Boyd (who enthusiastically endorses the book!) that is called “Conditional Immortality.”  In this view, those who have not chosen to follow Jesus are indeed punished.  The difference is that instead of being tortured in a place called hell for eternity, after the final judgment, these folks simply will (as the Bible says) “perish” for eternity.  Their fate, their eternal punishment so to speak, will be that they will essentially cease to exist.  Death will be final.  Immortality is conditional, meaning, it is only given to those who are “in Christ.”  Immortality, in this view is a free gift from God.  Here is a helpful resource by Greg Boyd!

The fate of every person who ever lived (ok, those who don’t know Jesus or never heard the gospel) – Rob, if I was to take a strong guess at it, will argue a perspective that evangelicals call: Inclusivism.  This is a belief that answers the question: “What about those who never heard the Gospel, will they be condemned or lost for their ignorance?”  The answer from this viewpoint is a qualified “No.” Salvation is provided only through the atonement Jesus accomplished; but reception of salvation by an individual does not necessarily depend on knowing or believing this.  In other words, the Inclusivist wants to keep salvation, ultimately in God’s hands.  Please note, this is RADICALLY different than Universalism.  Jesus is the only way to God and not everyone will in fact be saved into the renewed creation.  It simply leaves open the possibility that God will deal with everyone in accordance to the knowledge and opportunity given.  Many, many, many, evangelicals hold to this view in the scholarly world and in the pew! Here is a helpful resource.

Ok, my neo-reformed brothers in Christ.  Please quit being quick to “cast the first stone.”  No, you will not agree with everything that Rob Bell has to say in this book, but lets be clear – you do not speak for all of evangelical orthodox belief.  Please quit acting as though you do.  It is damaging the larger body of Christ.  May we choose to “bear with each other…”  I believe that the reformers of today have much to offer the body of Jesus, and hope that we can move past these wild divides.

A bit of a PS – Here are two endorsements that are more than worthy of mention.  One by Eugene Peterson and the other by Greg Boyd.

“In the current religious climate in America, it isn’t easy to develop an imagination, a thoroughly biblical imagination, that takes in the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ in all people and all circumstances in love and for salvation. Rob Bell goes a long way in helping us acquire just such an imagination. Love Wins accomplishes this without a trace of soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction in its proclamation of the good news that is most truly for all.” – Eugene H. Peterson, Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology, Regent College, and author of The Message and The Pastor

“Love Wins is a bold, prophetic and poetic masterpiece. I don’t know any writer who expresses the inexpressible love of God as powerfully and as beautifully as Rob Bell! Many will disagree with some of Rob’s perspectives, but no one who seriously engages this book will put it down unchanged. A ‘must read’ book!” – Greg Boyd, senior pastor at Woodland Hills Church and author of The Myth of a Christian Nation

UPDATE, March 1st: Here is a list of “Other Voices” that I put together for you to explore!

Simul Iustus et Peccator | Greg Boyd (read the book!) | Dale Best | Near Emmaus (Brian) | Near Emmaus (Mark) & here | Tim Neufeld | Religion at the Margins | Igneous Quill | Unsettled Christianity | Tony Jones | Matthew Paul Turner | Rachel Held Evans | Jason Boyett | Undeception | Scientia Et Sapientia | Cheese-Wearing Theology | Homebrewed Theology | Political Jesus | Christianity Today | Brambonius | Cushman’s Chronicles | Solar Crash | Chris McAlister | Covenant of Love | Carson Clark | EckSermonator | What the Dirty | New Ways Forward (Mason) | Peedy Postings | The Sacred Life | JR Woodward | Eugene Cho | Theological Scribbles | David Fitch | Ian Ebright @ Broken Telegraph | Matthew Yoder | Ben Witherington III | Jarrod McKenna | Scot McKnight | Andrew Perriman | Being the Body (he read the book!) 1 & 2 –> He states this about my blog post: “Anyway you come very close to the heart of where Rob goes in much of his book.”

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