Rob Bell Controversy – Your Questions, My Answers OR Why this is a Pastoral Issue!

Rob Bell Controversy – Your Questions, My Answers OR Why this is a Pastoral Issue! March 2, 2011

The following questions are from my original response to Justin Taylor about Rob Bell’s new book: Love Wins.

Why do you feel the need to defend Rob Bell?

Let me be quite clear.  I do not feel the need to defend Rob in the way that some assume.  Do I like his books? Yes.  Do I like his preaching more than his books? Yes.  It is easy to admit that Rob has made an impact on my spiritual journey.

That said, I want to address this question with clarity.

For me, this is a pastoral issue.  So many people in my own sphere of influence have only heard the negative press about Rob’s writings and teachings.  Through the evangelical gossip train, people that I love and respect condemn Rob as a heretic.  The effect of this is that those of us in the church who appreciate his work get our integrity questioned.  I cannot tell you how many times my commitment to Christ and my ‘evangelical-ness’ has been questioned simply because of Rob Bell.  The problem with this is not Rob Bell though.  It is an issue caused by the quote extractors, the narrow minded, the “our way or the highway” = orthodoxy, the folks who believe that they alone have the ‘rights’ to the term evangelical; it is these groups that cause the problem.

Consider a possible scenario.

Awesome follower of Jesus comes across Justin Taylor’s post on Saturday and mourns that Rob Bell is now a Universalist.  Said person then goes to church on Sunday and tells a few friends: “Did you hear that Rob Bell ‘came out’ about his belief in Universalism?”  Such uncritical commentary then spreads throughout the congregation until someone says: “…but our pastor has quoted Rob Bell and we show his Nooma video’s in some of our small groups.  Is our pastor a Universalist?”  Then, this spreads through the Gossip train and the poor pastor is hung up on a tree as a piñata to beat up for leading the congregation to resources that were produced by such a heretic. What happens next?  Pastor gets 10’s and possibly 100’s of email calling for him to repent of the Bell heresy.  Some, even call for this pastor to resign.  Then the Elder board gets involved and has to decide if the rumors are true or if they will stand behind their leader.  All the while, the pastor is emotionally exhausted, all because of an article (or set of articles) that caricature a committed Christian Bible teacher: Rob Bell.

So, why do I ‘defend’ Rob Bell?  I do so with the hope that I can give well meaning Christians in the pew another perspective, in hopes to level the playing field for those of us who think that he is a biblically sound evangelical.  Good people deserve all the information.  This is a pastoral issue, not a defense for the sake of helping the guy out.  Rob Bell doesn’t need me.

Are you doing this because you have an ulterior motive of narcissistic self-promotion?

No.  See the above answer for my actual motive.  I do all I can to not be a narcissist when it comes to social media.  I have implemented fasts and on the day I posted the Rob Bell Universalist post, I walked away from it all evening.  I didn’t even check comments until Sunday afternoon.  Also, my last name is currently not listed on the blog.  Only my FB / Twit friends know that.  So, no, I did not have any self-seeking motive… but yes, I knew that it could potentially become my most read post of all time and indeed it has.

Conditional Immortality and Inclusivism are not biblical, are they?

Let me make something clear:  I am not fully convinced that Conditionalism and Inclusivism are in fact the best options as I still feel the need to explore these areas more fully.  My point is that both of these views are within the realm of solid conservative evangelical scholarship.  Eternal torment is not the only option on the table.  In fact, conditionalism was the view that our number 1 reformer held to: namely, Martin Luther.  I certainly hope he is not a heretic 🙂

Also, it should be noted that these views may not be exactly what Rob’s book lands on, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some such themes arise.  In other words, I do not expect him to use the terms “conditional immortality” or “inclusivism” but that perhaps some of his commentary on relevant passages may be influenced by such.

Kurt, did you watch the video clip? How can you hear his statement about Gandhi and not think he is a Universalist?

Here is an important quote from the video:

“Will only a few, select, people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?”

If you come to this video believing that the only evangelical option is eternal torment, then you will hear this question and apply it to universalism.  The problem is that the option of conditionalism could be a more logical conclusion to come to.  In such a view, the reality of hell – separation from God for all eternity – is still the judgment of God against such a person.  The only difference is that such people will not “burn forever in hell” but will “perish” for eternity.

If Rob Bell’s book reveals that he is a “all roads lead to God” or “everyone will eventually be saved in the end” Universalist once the book comes out, will you call out such as unbiblical?

Yes.  In my opinion, such a view is unbiblical.  I will at that point disagree publicly with Rob Bell or any fellow Christian.

With all honesty, I doubt such a recant on my part will be necessary.  My hope is that the Gospel Coalition will be willing to eat some humble pie and seek Rob’s forgiveness.  From all I have read and heard from Rob, he believes in the need for someone to experience personal salvation from their sins.  Here is a link that demonstrates Rob’s clear commitment to the need for people to be individually restored to right relationship with Jesus.  His example of a preacher who ‘gets it’: Billy Graham.  Listen from 33mins forward.  The end of the message includes a traditional altar call and they even sing the old hymn “Just as I am.”  I don’t think an “all paths lead to salvation” universalist would feel the same kind of urgent need to make such an evangelical call.

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  • Dorothy Gillstrap

    Kurt, It is so important for you to share your views no matter what others say. I hate when I share someting profound from Rob Bell and I feel that I can't say his name or the person will automatically reject it. Its wonderful that people can come across your opinion and see another side of all this mess going on. Rob's teachings have changed my walk for the better… I would never go back to my old way of thinking!

    • Even though I haven't read any of Rob Bell's stuff, this is such an annoying thing about Christianity in general; we're too quick to assume. When I've told people that I read a book by Brian McLaren or I'm thinking about picking up something from Bell, immediately my integrity in Christ is questioned.

      And yet Jesus says that we will know the false teachers by their fruit, not by their books and videos…

      I think that if we're so focused on being evangelicals, we should understand something about listening before we start speaking. Here's a post that really hit the nail on the head with the Bell controversy:

  • Thank you for the clarifications, Kurt. I appreciate them and, while I supported your earlier post, this helped assuage any doubts that may have arisen in my mind from the PLETHORA of comments… (do you have a plethora of pinatas, I wonder?)

    • Kurt

      Im Glad Robert!!!!

  • JM

    Excellent post, brotha! You approach this EXACTLY the same way I do…it's bigger than a "who do you like" issue; it's a John 17 unity among believers issue.

    Reposted with joy,

    • Kurt

      JM – Thanks a ton bro! Your a great 'brother from a distance!'

  • Kurt, I applaud your defence of Rob Bell, not because he is right but because it's right to defend him. I love your awesome follower scenario. Jesus encouraged his followers to drink human blood and eat human flesh – Rob is tame in comparison.

    It's said that history repeats itself because nobody listens. Can you hear the reformers condemning the Anabaptists for their unorthodoxy? Too focused on their Sola Scriptura.

  • jason

    Excellent post Kurt! I really liked your analogy of the church and how these issues can become very real and damaging for pastors like you. I feel the same way.

    • Kurt

      Thanks Jason… I like that you keeps it real!

  • Brad

    I am not against theology, but I can't help thinking that all this controversy over one man's views in a book he wrote about his take on stuff simply accentuates the problem Jesus spoke of on numerous occasions and Paul wrote about in his letters (i.e. Romans) regarding what Peterson in the Message translates as the "religion scholars" or the "religious" or the "insiders." I do not feel the need to defend Rob Bell or criticize Rob Bell, unless Rob Bell himself wrote me or asked me for my view. What I DO think and feel IS important is WHO I am in Christ and WHAT call he has placed on me to work thorugh me. Maybe that's taking care of orphans and widows or helping the poor and oppressed, and we're all poor and oppressed. Maybe it's standing up for the voiceless, the armless, the powerless. Perhaps Rob Bell feels that God has called him to write this book. Perhaps Justin Taylor feels God called him to write a critique of Bell. Wisdom is proved right by her actions, right? Only God knows why Rob Bell wrote this book. Only God knows why Justin Taylor wrote what he wrote. Only God knows why I am writing this. I'm not even sure I know! God knows Rob Bell's and Justin Taylor's heart. God knows this "afterlife" – whatever that means – plan. I'm of the view that LIFE begins NOW in Christ. I have my opinions based on what I've read, lived, and experienced, etc. And so does Rob Bell and Justin Taylor. I may agree or disagree with Rob or Justin but it is neither here nor there because, as Kierkegaard writes we will all stand before God individually (in fact we're doing that right now). I am simply called to witness and love, to let Christ live in me, to die to my SELF and listen to the Spirit, to see others with the same eyes that Jesus sees others – ALL OTHERS – through the lens of mercy, of grace, of love, and to do everything I can to love others one person at a time forever. Loving God is loving others, and as far as I can tell – while Jesus spoke the words of life – he simply became absolutely nothing, a servant, naked, washing feet, naked being put to death, this is the glory of God. Whether ALL PEOPLE "get to heaven" – "get" is a funny word here (I think of the Rich Man Jesus encountered) – I cannot guess or know. I know what I think the Bible says, and I know what the Spirit has IN-formed me with, and I am glad to share this when given the venue or asked the question. As Gandhi said (I know I may alienate some people by quoting him), "We are all such sinners, we should leave the judging to God." I like Rob Bell's imagination, creativity, and from what I've seen and read, his "story" on THE STORY. One of the things my dualistic mind struggles with is that possibly those I don't agree with and find to be judgmental from my perspective also have a role to play. I trust God enough to believe this, and I trust God enough to speak when the Spirit speaks and to be silent when the Spirit is silent, and when I don't, and I mix those two things up, I trust that I have the humility enough to admit it, apologize, and make it right as best as I can, understanding that we're all broken and integral to THE BODY (John Donne – Meditation 17). I hope I'm quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. I've probably just violated that second one, so I beg your forgiveness.

  • j

    Kurt, I've read your take on the issue at hand concerning Bell and it does put the cards well balanced on the table rather than plowing through with misguided assumptions. Let all wait for the book and read it to find out. But I hope people don't just buy the book to look for mistakes but read it to learn something if possible.

    On the pastoral issue that you touched upon, this is true. Sometimes people equate the things I or someone reads leads them to the path of liberalism or some other labels. It like there is a rule on what to read that makes one evangelical. What does that make those who reads the news papers and novels? Do these reading material corrupt the evangelicalness of someone? I don't think so!

    • Kurt

      Jon! Home-run my friend. Excellent commentary!

  • Ed

    Kurt, your take on this subject has really helped me make some sense of the whole issue. I have trouble understanding how Taylor and Piper can come to the conclusions they do without having even seen the book. Strikes me as reactionary. I enjoy reading and listening to Rob Bell; he has formed me in more ways than I can mention. Do I agree with everything he says – No. But then I never agree with everything any author writes. I read to become informed and formed. Sometimes it requires that my understanding becomes stretched but that is what is needed to grow.

  • brambonius

    Very interesting move to hide your last name while you are at the center of attention! Inspiring in a world of self-promotion!

    • Kurt

      Bram, if I ever get a book deal or eventually feel the need to change my profile to be more 'public' I will. But at this point, I am content to simply let my network of people know more of the personal details of my story.

  • Penny

    Kurt, I can't even begin to thank you for your voice in all this. Both of your posts on this topic have been spot on.

  • Thomas Newell

    Nothing worse than a young dude in seminary with a blog. Filled with hubris and calls for those who are much more seasoned in life, theology, and ministry experience, to eat "humble pie."

    Looks like you should spend some time in humble repentance instead of looking to score theological pelts, against men who have the right to voice their opinion on content released by an influential pastor saying troubling things.

    Good thing they have better things to do than spam the internet with their blog posts and try to raise their pedestal to better throw their barbs. Why don't you give it a rest in trying to be heard and lodge your biased complaints against others and go memorize some Greek paradigms.

    • Charlie

      Kurt, I would share with you as appropriate the words of Paul to the young Timothy, (1 Tim 4:11,12) “Let no one despise your youth but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (5:1,2) Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as to a father, to younger men as brothers, to older women as mothers, to younger women as sisters—with absolute purity.”
      Thanks for all you do, for your blog and speaking from your heart and the heart of your studies in following God’s leading. I am enjoying the results of your service.

      P.S. a good piece of advice from Jan Hus which I enjoy and try to follow, ‘In the important things, unity, in the debatable things, liberty, and in all things, love.”

      • Kurt

        Charlie, thank you for your wisdom and encouragement!

    • ok so let me understand this….

      you are attacking Kurt for attacking people for attacking Rob Bell in a callous manner?

      You don't think that this is a little ironic?

  • Given the uproar that happened on the social networks on Saturday and the possible Sunday morning scenario you posted here, the timing of Justin Taylor's post and Piper's tweet made your scenario all the more likely to happen.

    Thanks for you amazing perspective, Kurt. Check out Jarrod McKenna's post for a good read…

    • Kurt

      Dale… I read it and loved it!

  • Benjamin

    Piper and Taylor have come to a position on the issue because of what Rob DID actually say. Yes, someone can definitively say that Ghandi is in hell for he himself rejected Christ as his savior. Scripture tells us that to do so is to suffer eternal punishment. As far as being 'saved from God', that's not the case. We are saved from eternal damnation (ultimate separation from God). I don't see how skirting the issue is being helpful and how giving him the benefit of the doubt is doing anybody any favor. Rob is denying that one must profess Christ in order to be saved. That's how we become one of the 'chosen ones'. That's the gospel. That's Scripture. That's what Jesus said.

    • Kurt

      Benjamin… I am pretty sure you missed the last paragraph. Altar calls and accept Christ to remove the sinful nature. hhhmmm….

    • Actually, Jesus said "follow me." It is his followers' followers' (generations later) that said one has to "profess Christ" or go to hell. If Jesus weren't so omniscient, he would not even recognize his influence in what Christians preach today. Check your sources!

    • Blair

      Benjamin…you are so right! At least someone is being Biblical 'round these parts.

  • Irony of ironies. The very theology which holds Paul above Jesus, Evangelicalism, is blind to Paul's own universalism in such important passages as Rom 5:18, 1 Cor 15:22 and 2 Cor 5:14 not to mention Col 1:20 and Eph 1:10-11. Just shows what a selective reading of the Bible can produce: anything you like.

  • Way to go, Kurt. This stuff isn't restricted to Rob, of course. I get called out for quoting "that heretic, Greg Boyd" once in a while too.

    Besides, a careful reading of your previous post would suggest that you were not "defending" Rob at all…you were calling out a decidedly un-christian attack by those who purport to be your, and Rob's, brothers in Christ. You were making the "hubristic" claim that one ought to hear out a man's argument before attacking it. These are perfectly reasonable things to do in a public forum.

    Blessings bro!

    • Blair

      Kurt and Dan, you have both just done the same thing that you both so adamantly accuse the Gospel Coalition guys of doing. It is absurd to call their post(s) a "decidedly un-christian attack." You've done the same as they did, only yours was done with more name-calling, whining, anger, and immaturity. The post by JT was not done angrily or mean-spirited, that is clear. They desire truth above all things, and called out something that is in opposition to the truth of the Bible. Retaliating by angry attacks and unnecessary jabs are not only immature, but completely ridiculous. Heresy, and the support of such, now that is "un-christian." Try reading Matt. 7.

      • Kurt

        This is a disappointing comment. I said nothing out of a mean spirit. I believe that universalism is a false teaching, therefore to call out Rob as believing such is to insult him. I am simply offering another perspective.

        Blair, I have a feeling you are not going to like this site too much 😉

  • Blair

    Nah, I don't like it too much. Just came across it, since you started following my boyfriend on twitter. Who, by the way, you probably won't like too much.

    But it was clear in the last post you were upset and angry. You called names and picked JT's post to death, all the while doing the very thing you called him out on. Rob Bell made it clear where he stands. While it may not be universalism, it's certainly something that doesn't agree with eternal torment. He left open only a few options, all of which are not Biblical, and that is why Justin Taylor is going to shoot that down immediately.

    I'm just saying–you all want to accuse Justin Taylor (and other awesome guys who are agreeing with him) of doing and saying things un-christian, but I don't see you acting any better than what you claim he is doing.

    • Kurt

      Blair.. Do did you miss these statements?

      "I am sure Justin is a great guy and obviously passionate about Jesus…"

      "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."

      I have never insulted (intentionally) anyone on this blog. No anger, just frustration. No bitterness, but urgency to offer another option.

      Anyway, I hope you remember that we are all Christians here and we all belong at the same table together in spite of our disagreements about theology.

      Grace and Peace.

      • Blair

        Saying one nice statement about someone doesn't counteract your whole attitude. I honestly don't care what you believe, if you want to stick up for Bell, cool. But there's a right and wrong way to do it, and there where a lot of unnecessary things said.

        • Kurt

          Blair, sorry you read it that way. I was told that I was gracious and balanced in the debate.

          I argued the issues and the people attached to the issues. I did nothing further.

          have a great rest of the week.

  • Micah H.

    I'm just curious because it's interesting and I hadn't heard it before: What are your sources for saying that Luther was a conditionalist?

  • Kurt – I've waited a good while to make a comment; but I'm another one of those who greatly appreciate your article on Rob Bell and his book. I found nothing angry or mean spirited in what you said.

    Since I myself am one of those 'feel good universalists', my position is obviously different than yours. You believe that universalism is a 'false teaching' and you have not been hesitant about saying so – yet you have never seemed to me to be insulting in presenting your position. Thank you.

    If Rob Bell came out as a universalist, naturally I would find that very encouraging. He would seem to me to be much more in keeping with Jesus teachings in Matt. 7 (and everywhere else, also) than the person who suggested that you and Rob ought to read that chapter. That chapter BEGINS with the exhortation not to judge others. The 'straight way' proposed by Jesus is a life of obedience to his teachings – not spouting 'orthodox' teachings. False prophets he spoke of are those who SAY the right things (and even do miraculous works), but whose lives are nevertheless not lived in obedience to the teachings of Jesus, God's anointed. Those whose 'house' will withstand the 'floods' are those who hear and DO Christ's teachings. And the great teaching of Jesus Christ is that 'new commandment' which is at the same time an old one: that you love one another.

    Mahatma Gandhi in hell? That one whose life exemplified Jesus' teaching about loving one another? The one whose 'extreme' nonviolence and pacifism was modeled probably more on the teaching of Jesus than on the Hindu Bhagavad Gita? As they say: "Gimme a break!' Just because he didn't say the 'right' words, some people think he obviously is now in hell; but he lived the right life, and that's what Jesus said was the important thing.

    Many years ago, in a personal conversation with a Baptist minister, he said that he himself was a premillenialist. But he knew some premils who seemed to feel that if Jesus did not in fact return before the millenium, they would rather he not come back at all. 😆 That's how some of these very "orthodox" Christians seem to me. If Gandhi and others they are convinced 'ought to be' in hell actually wind up in heaven, they would rather there not be a heaven at all! 🙄

    Once again, thanks for the couple of articles you've written on the subject of Rob Bell.

  • HK

    Kurt – It does not seam that you considered what Rob Bell wrote compared to what Martin Luther in its full context wrote. Rob Bell, his book, its claims and arguement “all are or will be saved” flys in the exact opposite direction of Luther’s meaning Saved By Faith and God’s Grace Alone. Claiming this one sentence out of context shows Luther believed the opposite is as low as an author can sink. 
       The full context of
    Luther’s in letter:

    Theological Seminary Professor Carl Trueman dug out what Luther
    actually said (with Bell’s quotation in italics) Red

        “If God were to save
    anyone without faith, he would be acting contrary to his own words
    and would give himself the lie; yes, he would deny himself. And that
    is impossible for, as St. Paul declares, God cannot deny himself [II
    Tim. 2:13]. It is as impossible for God to save without faith as it
    is impossible for divine truth to lie. That is clear, obvious, and
    easily understood, no matter how reluctant the old wineskin is to
    hold this wine–yes, is unable to hold and contain it.”

        “It would be quite a
    different question whether God can impart faith to some in the hour
    of death or after death so that these people could be saved through
    faith. Who would doubt God’s ability to do
        “No one, however, can
    prove that he does do this. For all that we read is that he has
    already raised people from the dead and thus granted them faith. But
    whether he gives faith or not, it is impossible for anyone to be
    saved without faith. Otherwise every sermon, the gospel, and faith
    would be vain, false, and deceptive, since the entire gospel makes
    faith necessary.” (Works, 43, ed. and trans. G. Wienke and H. T.
    Lehmann [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968], 53-54; WA 10.ii,


         Then John chapter 3 verse 17 is quoted for support by Rob Bell of his arguement
    but he omits and ignores John chapter 3 verse 18 which states “Who ever believes in
    the Son is not condemned but who ever does not believe is condemned
    already because he has not believed in the name of the only son of
    God.” Can an author be even be more disingenuous and deceptive?

  • Sean O’Cluaid

    Did anyone actually study what the Bible actually says about hell? I did a couple of years ago. It took six months to do the study and there was so much in it, speaking about my findings took about 7 hours. I was traditional evangelical, believing that hell was the place of eternal punishment of the unbeliever. I was at a Summer Bible School and the speaker was asked something about his background. In the reply he mentioned that students had untaken a survey of “Why People Change Churches” and having done that their thoughts asked, “Why do people give up on church altogether?” The evangelical belief of hell as the place of punishment was one of the reasons behind people giving up on church.

    I wondered if such topics upset any of our small number so I started a study on “Hell”. It became fascinating. I just looked at what was in the Bible. I didn’t try to prove what I believed already, I didn’t try to disprove it. I didn’t try to prove or disprove any other view. I did not look at thoughts like, “how could a good God have a hell?” If a hell of punishment is in the Bible, I have to go with it, if a hell of punishment is not in the Bible, I have to go with it.