Rob Bell Is (Not) a Universalist: How Much Freedom Do Humans Have?

Rob Bell Is (Not) a Universalist: How Much Freedom Do Humans Have? April 7, 2011

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.

A couple weeks ago, I mused about a theme that has come up in several interviews that Rob has done since John Piper started the kerfuffle surrounding this book.  Rob has said repeatedly that human freedom is pivotal to his thesis in the book.  In fact, his premise regarding freedom seems to be more philosophical than theological:

Love requires freedom

So, the first question to ask is, Is it true that love requires freedom? The converse way to ask this is, If someone does not have the freedom to love another, is it really love?

It does seem, on the face of it, that love cannot be compelled.  Forced love is the metaphorical equivalent to rape, and no one thinks that rape is love.  So I can see how Rob comes to conclusion that love requires freedom.

However, I am left with two questions.  First, what I asked previously: Does Rob overestimate human freedom?

One of my favorite bloggers, theo-psychologist Richard Beck, has tackled this in a wonderful post, “What I Don’t Get about Greg Boyd (and Rob Bell).”  Therein, Richard avoids the question of determinism (Piper) versus free will (Boyd and Bell), and instead proposes categories of strong versus weak volitionalism.  That is, we all believe that we have some freedom of choice (even Piper), but how much freedom is up for debate.  Richard thinks that Boyd and Bell afford human beings too much freedom, and he writes,

If I could ask him, here’s the question I’d ask Greg Boyd: Why would you build your entire theological system upon a historically recent, non-biblical, philosophically contested, scientifically disputed, and perennially controversial anthropocentric abstraction?

For it seems to me that for Boyd’s theology to come out right free will has to come out right. (Which is why he’ll never agree with me on this as he’d have to start over, theologically speaking. Back to square one. And who would want to do that?)

This is a great question for Rob, too.

As is this question: You say that God always gets what God wants (eventually), and you say that human beings have the freedom to choose for God or against God (even after death). How do these two premises jibe?

Augustine, in his Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints, argued that foreknowledge equals fore-causation.  In other words, if God knows that something will happen, then that thing will necessarily happen.  It can’t not happen.

As far as I can tell in Love Wins, Rob doesn’t argue vehemently for God’s foreknowledge of the future.  In fact, he may be going a bit more in a Hegelian/process theology direction, in which God and the forces of time and history are inextricably intertwined.

It seems to me to be a contradiction to hold that God gets what God wants, and that human beings have near-absolute freedom to love or not love God. Except that process theology may be a way around that (Tripp?).

Finally, there’s this: Rob speculates (and he makes clear that any talk about what happens after death is speculation) that human beings will get more chances to accept God or reject God in the afterlife.  This is an idea with which I concur — it seems quite ridiculous that God bases our eternal destiny on just a few years on this spinning rock.  But Paul writes that we currently only see as through a foggy glass; in the afterlife we will see God’s glory fully and clearly.  When confronted with God’s fullness, it seems reasonable to think that everyone will embrace God (even the “Hitler types” that Richard Mouw thinks will continue to reject God).  And if you find this reasonable, then I think that you’re probably a functional universalist.

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  • Brian

    I appreciate your post very much, Tony.

    It seems inevitable, though, that we run into some contradictions in our theology at some point, regardless of the theologian. Packer discusses antinomy in his book “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God”…a prof said to me once, “antinomies…we all have them.” I’ve never engaged in a process to verify that claim, but it seems true enough on the face of it.

  • Tony,

    As is this question: You say that God always gets what God wants (eventually), and you say that human beings have the freedom to choose for God or against God (even after death). How do these two premises jibe?

    Could it not be possible that (1) God has time (eternal?) to mold you into shape to choose Him eventually? Could not God use hell as a reformation of the soul to break the bonds that have enslaved us in such a way that we ultimately cry out to God for deliverance?

    It seems to me that for these to be mutually exclusive you would have to presume:
    (1) God doesn’t try to redeem you eternally and
    (2) the soul would have to be empowered to refuse God eternally


  • JoeyS

    Well to be a “functional universalist” one would have to be willing to say that what happens after we die is more than “speculation” – otherwise they are a hopeful universalist or a strong inclusivist.

    It seems that Bell is comfortable with the paradox, which probably doesn’t satiate minds as well as some might desire. Your analysis is dead on – he suggests that God gets what God wants, but that our ability to choose extends beyond this life. How that works itself out there are lots of theories – annihilation, etc. It just so happens that Bell is comfortable not knowing exactly how those seemingly contradictory ideas work themselves out.

    Doesn’t Boyd hold to Augustine’s Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints in some ways? As in, God may not know specifically and meticulously all details of the future (as it is unknowable) but that what He desires to take place will take place and, “Can’t not?”

  • Kenton


    I’d love your response to this answer. (And I know – TWICE in a week is waaay beyond the pale.)

    Perhaps one “builds an entire theological system upon a historically recent, non-biblical, philosophically contested, scientifically disputed, and perennially controversial anthropocentric abstraction” because that’s where the paradigm of the conventional wisdom is. Love Wins is not an academic book for a group that’s already rejected the free will/determinism dichotomy. It’s a book for a broad group that accepts the dichotomy and doesn’t want to rethink it.

  • Harald

    I have a background in the Adventist church, a tradition that is just as focused on human freedom as Rob Bell seems to be. So regarding your last paragraph I would just like to note that in the traditional Adventist eschatology, all the unsaved will be allowed to see the New Jerusalem and the fullness of the grace and love of God. However, instead of embracing this grace they will be filled with rage towards God and the saints, thus proving the judgement of God to be just. It seems that this is more of an opt-out view of salvation than an opt-in view.

  • Tony,

    To comment on Rob’s the seemingly contradiction of God getting what Gid wants while humans have complete freedom…

    If I remember correctly at the end of that chapter, “Does God Not Get What God Wants”, doesnt Rob end up concluding that there is no way of knowing if God gets what God wants, but rather that God ultimately gives us what we want?
    Of course he seems to heavily lean towards the idea of God getting what God wants in the end (or at some point in eternity).

  • I’m a (not-so) good Methodist, which makes me a Wesleyan-Arminian. Or, at least I thought I was; now, you telling me I’m a functional universalist. Actually, I can’t blame this on you, I came to this conclusion several years ago, after reading “If Grace is True”. I just didn’t know what to call it then.

  • I have never believed Augustine’s premise that foreknowledge is necessarily equivalent to causation or predestination. There are all kinds of things that I know will happen in the future, and I have no hand in the mechanics by which they occur.

    If we assume an omniscient God (and I am not saying that we must), then God is the perfect weatherman. By knowing every facet of existence in more exquisite detail than humans can ever know anything, God can know every variable, predict every interaction. By knowing the current position (AND the current momentum!) of every electron in the universe, God can know where each of them will be five years, five hundred years, five million years from now, without any need for transcending time itself — only a perfect understanding of math and the ability to graph every molecular interaction with perfect elegance and accuracy.

    That is still stunning, and well beyond not only human ability but perhaps even human imagination, that a being could contain that magnitude of knowledge, but if God is all-knowing, then it is possible to do without moving a single electron, with no causation entering into the equation.

    And if it’s true of electrons… sometimes I know what a friend is going to say, and I can finish their sentence for them. Sometimes I know my wife is going to hate a dumb joke in a TV show before we watch it together. When we are close to someone, and we know them well, we can be weathermen for their behavior. Of course, we can’t predict everything, and not all our predictions are right.

    But an all-knowing God would know every memory, every desire, every thought of every person. Every irrational bias, every quirk, every firing of every neuron. God would always know what jokes we won’t laugh at, but that doesn’t mean God has caused our sense of humor. It just means God knows us well enough to always guess right.

    So if God knows every being in the universe that intimately — their positions, their minds, the lifespan of every cell in their body — why couldn’t God predict, with perfect accuracy, everything about our future? And it what way would that prediction make our choices less our own? When I finish a friend’s sentence for them, they never complain that I *made* them speak that sentence.

  • Aaron

    Thanks for the excellent post, Tony. Its the first one that I’ve come across which raises the question of Bell’s philosophical conclusions on Free Will. I appreciate you citing Augustine as well for this one. It strikes me that a Pelagian view of Free Will would be similar to Bell’s (with regard to the necessity of real choice and not with regard to motivation)

    One aspect of all this that I haven’t heard addressed yet (and I don’t know if Bell covers in his book) is the implication on the other side of the eternity coin. That is to say: If in order to express genuine love, God is necessarily bound [sic] to provide free will to people (read “free, non-predetermined choice”), and therefore people must always be free to choose God now or in the afterlife, wouldn’t it also follow that God must allow people to choose to reject him in the afterlife as well? That people could reject God’s love in Heaven and choose to leave? (“Pull a Lucifer” as I like to call it)

    It would seem like that’s another logical conclusion of Bell’s theology, but we don’t really want to go there, because that messes with all kinds of Biblical and Theological conclusions that we feel confident in.

    In any case, that’s my two cents. Any thoughts in response?

  • Korey

    If free will is an illusion then our philosophical musings, theological musings, and entire notions of self…basically our entire consciousness is illusion. In that case, my religious faith is determined or random. If I thought it true, I’d probably just “choose” secular determinism over religious determinism (Piper). Why go about building a theological system on determinism as Beck apparently advocates? That’s been tried and I find it wanting.

    I guess I’m really curious what limits to human freedom are being proposed that you think Rob Bell and Greg Boyd reject? I wonder if they really reject constraints on freedom? Perhaps they would only balk at effectively embracing determinism.

  • Harald


    I think the question you’re raising here is what was the main issue in the development of the view of salvation history in the Seventh Day Adventist movement (a Wesleyan-Arminian/Neoanabaptist movement). If love requires giving people freedom, how can a loving God deal with sin in a way that ensures that this issue will never return?

    I’d love to hear you guys’ take on this. Maybe the question doesn’t even make sense anymore, frame as it was in a 19th century context?

  • Korey

    Another nitpick. I’ve come to chafe at comments like you make when you say “it seems quite ridiculous that God bases our eternal destiny on just a few years on this spinning rock.” My problem with them is they can be extended to so many things (like the problem of evil–there is way too much evil for there to be a god) and they basically require alternatives. How much evil could there be for there to be a God? How many years on this spinning rock or multiple rocks or what have you are enough for eternal destiny sorting?

    On the other hand, acceptance of the status-quo theological system under some God’s ways chicken soup for the soul crap is often not worth much either.

  • Griffin

    You know, I’m a Reformed Calvinist. I don’t agree one word with what you wrote in your last paragraph. But I will say this: I respect that you said it. Your cards are on the table. Unlike Mr. Bell, you don’t attempt to redefine every classical term out there so that you can be unique or an ‘individual’. You come out with it: I’m a functional universalist. And although I greatly disagree with your theology there, I respect that you believe it. My biggest worry with Rob Bell is that he is misleading people into thinking he is something he’s not. To me, his outright denial of universalism is dishonest.

  • Dan Hauge

    Well, color me a functional universalist. Actually, a few years ago I just had to come to the realization that whether I had universalism all worked out, practically speaking I must believe it based on how I was actually living my life. I also think that the speculation that people could somehow respond to God’s love after death is biblically defensible, even with a very evangelical hermeneutic (wrote a small paper on it back in my MDiv days). This position, that people will have some chance after death, is not exactly the same as universalism, which I think technically insists that all will eventually respond to God’s love no matter what. So I’m a quasi-universalist, or something.

    Tony, I agree with the question you pose to Bell regarding human freedom vs. “God getting what God wants.” But I’d really like to hear more about your views on the limitations of human freedom (or our volitionalism). After your first post on it a couple weeks ago, I went hunting for some post-structuralism to read (so far I’m still at the level of reading introductions rather than the primary sources). But even so far, it seems like many say that post-structuralists themselves allow for a certain amount of freedom, to challenge the systems we find ourselves in and introduce society to new possibilities. (while fully affirming how our contexts shape our thoughts and put limits on our choices for how we see the world). Any further thoughts on this?

  • Mike

    On the question of love and freedom: Bell’s book and Tony’s post both seem to address it in the context of romantic love, in which case any form of coercion would invalidate love itself.

    However, another context to consider is the family. Most people choose their spouse or life-partner, but few people can choose their family members. And sometimes we wouldn’t choose the ones we already have if we had been given the option. Yet, we love them anyway.

    Just another way that our freedom to love seems to be determined by historical circumstances.

    Of course, this could also be spun out as a theological metaphor: the god we worship and religious tradition we practice are determined largely by who our parents are and where we are born and raised.

  • Okay, Tony, I’m no PhD or DMin, though I did go Ivy for seminary, but I’ll bite (and I wouldn’t mind a reaction). I’ve finished Love Wins, and I find it a powerful example of pastoral theology – not hypothetical-theoretical academic theology, not ivory-tower speculative theology, but real rubber-hits-the-road responses to real people’s real questions. In fact, I see strong similarities to Paul’s letters, in that Bell is writing to a “church” (boundary-less though it is) in crisis.

    I see you and others trying to find all the contradictions or gaps in Bell’s argument, or force him to fit into a grand and internally consistent systematic. And over the years I’ve become less and less enamored of systematics because it seems artificial and even hubristic – to know, categorically and completely, all answers to all questions about God? I don’t think so.

    Bell may not have followed “the guild’s” rules and formats, but he’s done something a lot more powerful, accessible, and life-changing than (I would dare to argue) even Barth’s 14 volumes. He has removed yet another barrier between people and Christ, allowing multitudes to come to a transforming knowledge and experience of him.

  • Tony Jones

    Mike (15) – Great point. I don’t know that love actually requires freedom, but Rob is unequivocal in claiming that it does. I think that, as a philosophical axiom, that claim is open to the very kind of scrutiny that you’re giving it.

    Steve (16) – Yes, of course you’re right. His is a book of pastoral theology. But it also takes on one of the most hotly contested doctrines in the history of the church. I agree with you about the hubris of systematics, which is why I’ve chosen practical theology as my academic field (actually, practical theology chose me, and systematics rejected me). I hope that you and others see my posts, not as attacking Rob or his book, but as showing honor to him by really dealing with the issues therein. I would love it if so many interacted with the premises of one of my books.

  • Tony Jones

    Griffin (13) – I didn’t say that I’m a functional atheist, though I might be. I just said that those who hold those views are.

    Kenton – you’re pushing your luck! 🙂

  • Harald

    Tony (18) – Maybe you too need to give up atheism for lent 😉

  • Scot Miller

    My two cents on process theology:

    I think process theology would affirm that human beings have near-absolute freedom to love or not love God, but they would deny that God gets what God wants. God may be the greatest possible being, but that means that God only has the knowledge that is possible for any being to know, and God has all power that is possible for any being to possess. If there are free beings other than God, then God cannot know their free decisions until after they are chosen. If there are free beings other than God, and freedom is the power of self-determination, then God’s power is limited by the power of other beings (i.e., to the extent that I am free, I possess power that God cannot metaphysically possess). It is my essence, my nature to be free according to process thought, and so my choices cannot be known until after they are made, and my freedom cannot be constrained without destroying who I am.

    God may have eternal aims which draw actual entities to greater states of harmony, intensity, and freedom, but the power to achieve God’s eternal aims is the power of persuasion, not coercion. That means that if a finite actual entity could survive death–which Whitehead and Hartshorne would deny–then to the extent that freedom is part of my nature, freedom would entail the possibility to respond positively or negatively to God after death. So I’m not sure that being in the very presence of God would entail that everyone would embrace God “once and for all.” In fact, process theologians like David Ray Griffin argued that as God draws actual entities into greater freedom, there is the possibility of greater harmony and intensity of experience, but simultaneously the possibility of greater disharmony and triviality. Good (harmony and intensity) and evil (disharmony and triviality) are metaphysically linked, according to process.

    How does this relate to Bell (or to the general belief that choices are possible in the afterlife)?

    If process thought is correct, then heaven won’t be much different than the world we currently occupy. If anything, there will be possibilities for greater good and greater evils than we know. We may never cease having to choose to embrace God. Embracing God would be an ongoing process . Even in heaven at different times we would be more or less successful in embracing God.

  • I think process theology does offer an explanation for this. In process thought, God’s power is persuasive rather than coercive. This preserves choice while still allowing for God’s power to work.

    I’m more interested in his connection to patristic thought and therefore deeply disappointed to hear there aren’t footnotes in Bell’s book. I’m sure I’ll still read it at some point.

  • Tony, I’m curious how close you think Bell comes to Moltmann’s understanding of universalism?

    My sense is that most of the argument over Bell’s perceived stance comes more out of assuming all universalisms are like John Hick’s or others, which comes down more to a wishy-washy God and a wishy-washy theology.

    Moltmann comes at it from a ultra-high perspective of God’s sovereignty. God wins, or he’s not God. Which is, while not yet convincing to me, is at least significantly compelling. Or, maybe even more compelling is as Moltmann has said, he isn’t personally a universalist, but he thinks God might be.

  • Tony-
    So I’m not sure how Tripp will weigh in on this one, but I can say what struck me about Process was the openness of it–and, if I can go all Rob Bell and use popular-ish language/culture, I’ll try to avoid Whiteheadian metaphysics that make my head spin.

    Remember “The Neverending Story”? My favorite movie as a kid–even with the bad English overdub of the German original. But the kid (Bastian) doesn’t realize he’s playing a role in telling/imagining/creating the story until it all starts to crumble and the princess cries out to him. At this crisis point, he realizes that though the story is not actually his, he has an intrinsic role to play in this.

    Paul Fiddes’ “The Creative Suffering of God” got me here–basically God gets what God wants, but we’re along for the ride–like we were on Falcor, the giant dragon-dog thing. We get to co-create with God–which gives us the volition (I would say strong volition) to shut the book, run away and never come back–and the story would go on and on–perhaps in some crazy quantum physical way–until we come back–if we ever do, that is.

    Silly, maybe–crazy, possibly, beautiful, redemptive, and ultimately pretty reconcilable with everything from Hebrew worldview to post-structuralism? I think maybe so…

  • Jim Armstrong

    Speaking of spinning rocks, and tiny spans of human existence, it seems to me that these might argue against the idea that such relatively miniscule beings (in cosmic measures) are at once the ultimate creative objective of Creation, and the agents of its corruption (all of Creation having been declared “good” in Genesis). By and large, we don’t see the natural processes at work in Creation being modulated or redirected outside of natural causal explanation (I think with very good reason – else the “laws” of behavior we observe would not be, …well, …observable as reliable enough to characterize as “laws”!). As humans, …part of the living dimension of this corner of Creation, …we have something new, …volition! What would be the sense of that if such freedoms to change the local workings of Creation were to be constrained in some peculiar way, unlike the way that the rest of Creation seems to operate? Instead, this volition seems to intrinsically bear the capacity to create large numbers of new possibilities. What sense would it make if that “new” capacity in Creation were to then be artificially constrained (not free)? Doesn’t seem to compute to me, in part contributing to my leaning toward the sensibilities of process theology.

  • Dustin

    While I consider myself to be a process-oriented person, I would not consider Bell or Boyd to be of the same orientation. Rather, Bell, probably through Boyd’s influence, tries to hold on to the theological/philosophical idea of the openness of God while also simultaneously adhering to a pseudo-orthodox idea of free will. In a sense, the problem w/ open theism, of the type for which Boyd advocates and by which Bell has seemingly been influenced, is that it tries to affirm a high view of scripture while also integrating more philosophical ideas related to reality and such.

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