John Walker's Electronic House

Rob Bell: Universalist, Or Man Who Thinks About Things?

by on Feb.27, 2011, under The Rest

Goodness me, I get back from a peculiar day of splendid time with friends, and the miserable destruction of my car, to find that the internet (well, Twitter) is alight with anger and confusion about Rob Bell. Because he said… well, nothing whatsoever.

Rob Bell is the leader of Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, Michigan – an enormous church that is often described as being part of the “emerging church” movement, although never uses that description of itself. He has become an enormously popular figure in the modern church, recognised both for his fervent evangelical approach to the Bible combined with a consciousness of the real world and living in reality. His book Velvet Elvis was a phenomenon amongst Christians, breathing exciting ideas and stirring up entertaining controversy. Despite its awful name, it’s a superb book. His NOOMA video series made his name even more widely known. A strangely modest man, he has yet to visibly demonstrate any of the diva attitudes of so-called Christian celebrities, and he has this odd tendency not to to demand everybody’s money for a yacht-based ministry. Seeing him speak last year on his Drop Likes Stars tour, it was odd that it took place in a medium-sized church building, rather than a large theatre or perhaps even arena. Afterward he sat at a small table, saying hello to those who wanted to chat, like a stand-up comic at the end of a gig.

And with all this popularity came the obvious backlashes. Any of his ideas that are either complex, confusing, or perhaps just simply wrong, are hailed as the proof that he’s a false prophet, the devil in disguise. He upsets two sides of the church: the traditionalists who worship their religion rather than their God, and the megachurch-leading televangelists, who fear his popularity combined with his lack of money-grabbing. People are hunting for reasons to shoot him down, to deflate his rise.

What’s so strange about this is the notion that it’s unacceptable for Bell to get something wrong. As if his saying one idea out of place, or musing on one notion, is the evidence needed to demonstrate that he’s leading the blind sheep into the wolves’ cave. As if changing one’s mind is a sign of devilry, rather than a beautiful moment of modest revelation. Meanwhile we don’t hear a peep from these detractors about the latest uber-church leader who was caught with his pants around his ankles, or his hands in the offering basket. It’s tempting to say, when he’s upsetting those people, he’s doing something right.

Getting home to find that he’s trending on Twitter, that people are expressing their horror at his fall, that the bottom has fallen out of the Bell stocks, I was very concerned to find out what he’d done. Someone whose teaching has changed my mind on so many occasions, and challenged me in so many interesting ways – I didn’t want to learn that he’s been caught in some terrible act, or announced that he’s a big fan of devil worship. So what was it that he’s done?

It all points toward this article. A website called The Gospel Coalition has posted a strangely tabloid headline,

“Rob Bell: Universalist?”

as if they are discussing the possibility. But it’s no such thing, the question mark is entirely erroneous. The article goes on to state that Bell is unequivocally a universalist, and they’ve got proof. It’s the blurb from his forthcoming book, “Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, And The Fate Of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”

Fans flock to his Facebook page, his NOOMA videos have been viewed by millions, and his Sunday sermons are attended by 10,000 parishioners—with a downloadable podcast reaching 50,000 more. An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

It’s certainly tacky publisher writing – boasting about his Facebook page is a little grotesque. But that’s not the point of contention here. Instead it’s one suggesting that a loving God would not send people to hell for all eternity.

It’s not exactly the most contentious point. It’s something most teenage Christians have said, or debated, or struggled with, let alone internationally famous church leaders.

What’s so strange is somehow taking this unattributed statement and leaping to universalism.

Further “proof” comes in the form of a video promoting the book. This one:

Which asks the same questions, except for with pretty pictures. Again, this is enough proof for a planetful of Christians to abandon him as a heathen, declaring their disgust to the internet. Of course this includes the frothing Christian right, as they leap with delight on a reason to condemn this seemingly hateless man to the hell they so want to see everyone else suffering in. But it’s also the Christian left reacting so strongly, dumping their spokesperson instantly, because he dared to, um, do what exactly?

Bell doesn’t say anything about what he believes hell to be in the video. He makes no statement at any point that he believes everyone will go to heaven. He doesn’t make any absolute statements at all. So what on Earth is going on?

Because there’s a completely different understanding of everything Bell says in that video, and all that is implied in the book blurb, and it’s an interpretation that is far more Biblical than any of the fire-and-brimstone theology that seemingly most Christians in the world have invented for themselves.

I’ve not read anything of Bell’s book, and nor indeed has anyone else who’s commenting on this matter. Because it has not been published yet. I have no idea what it may say. It may well say that Jesus was an orange for all I know. But I’m more interested in basing my thoughts on what he has said, rather than what a website has decided he might have said.

I’m not interested in having the debate over heaven and hell on my blog. It’s always about people’s fear, anger or disgust, rather than a discussion of the possible theology, and so I’m not going to over-incite it by getting into too much detail about what I believe is another possibility for what Bell might be arguing. But briefly, on the extremely few occasions the Bible talks about hell, it tends to use words like “use up”, “destroy”, and so on. Not exactly words that imply eternal torture. And these references tend to be in a particular context, that’s eagerly ignored by the torture fans. An incinerator near the city, where the fire burned eternally, but that which entered it was gone. Not a nice image, certainly. But a figurative one, seemingly one describing the notion that individuals would die forever while eternity continued beyond them. Those who choose to be with God are, those who choose not will die. It’s not a conclusive argument – the Bible seemingly contradicts itself quite heavily with regards to hell. It’s a matter for continued debate, discussion, and thinking. I imagine it’s a debate Bell intends to fuel with his new book.

My point is, that’s an equally valid understanding of the words Bell uses in that video, and the description about the book. It’s one that many won’t like, some because they seem to gain some sadistic pleasure from the notion that those not as great as them will receive an eternal punishment (I suspect those who enjoy the thought so much have never given much consideration to what eternity is), and others because they believe it denies the perfect nature of God (a peculiar perfection that requires he have infinite hate for those who failed to interpret the really bloody obscure clues and massively obfuscated texts he left behind). As Bell seems to imply, neither understanding seems to have room for the God of love that is preached in the next breath. But that’s my take on the subject, and good grief, I don’t want a discussion about it in the comments section on a blog.

Calling him a universalist on the basis of these couple of crumbs is laughable, and watching literally thousands of people tweeting it every few minutes is a sad sight. He may well be a universalist. It seems enormously unlikely given his oeuvre, and statements such as this, which would just about entirely contradict every accusation being thrown. He may well be an eternal-torture denier. It seems slightly more likely. The point would be: maybe wait until the flipping book?

PS. This notion that “eternity begins now” is one of the most important concepts Christians need to grapple with. It changes everything.


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21 Comments for this entry

  • Cassi

    Wait that video is what people are so upset about???

    And anyone who hasn’t questioned God is love and how that reconciles with the teaching of hell either isn’t being honest or isn’t thinking enough.

  • John Walker

    I’d love for the people so bemused/terrified by Bell’s video to read some Peter Rollins.

  • Joel

    First off, I wholeheartedly agree that we should wait for the book before making any judgments. I appreciated your post and I liked your thoughtfulness and tone… I respect your opinion, but I wanted to challenge your view that the Bible does not use words which lead people to believe that Hell is a place of eternal torture. Mark 9:43-49 uses words like “unquenchable fire” and their “worm doesn’t die” to describe Hell. I would also be interested to here your thoughts on Jesus statement about Judas from Matthew 26:24. Jesus said of Judas “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” If Hell is a place where people are simply annihilated (cease to exist) or if it is just a place of temporary punishment, why would Jesus say it would be better for Judas’ never to have been born?
    Just some thoughts… No disrespect or frustration intended. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter.

  • Munken

    ChristFinance©! Compound interest really mounts up when you live forever I guess.

    From a non theist perspective I really can’t see what the fuss is about, he seems fairly lovely.

  • Jambe

    You Christians are silly… some more so than others, apparently. While I certainly prefer you God of Love types to the Old Testament crowd, I don’t think you’re any less delusional when it comes to deriving oughts from old scraps of paper. It’s the same fluff, modernized.

    On topic, I like how both the right and the left seem to view the term “universalist” as something of a slur – it indicates to me how narrowminded they are (either you do it our way with Jesus or you don’t get to God).

    It does cut to a logical consistency problem with absolutist religion, though. If you make concrete claims such as “spiritual closeness with Dude_X leads to betterness” you’re necessarily being exclusive, leading to questions like “well what about people who buddy up with Dame_Y or Dude_Z instead?”

    Yeah, silly. I still like you though.

  • ColdSpiral

    Thanks for posting this, John. I’m a believer in the Sophia Perennis and therefore myself a universalist. I see nothing wrong with what Rob is saying.
    And yes, if that video has shaken people up, I’d love to see the apoplexies caused if they picked up Guenon, Schuon, et al.

  • Mrs Trellis

    What’s a universalist? Could you explain for a he’ll bound heathen who can’t be bothered to google?

  • Trellism

    Oh, I’ve looked it up now.

    Sounds reasonable to me, you lot should stop squabbling amongst yourselves, you know.

  • dirk

    I bet cliques also develop in Broadmoor.

  • John Walker

    Joel – I say that the Bible contradicts itself, thus acknowledging the other descriptions of hell (although those you quote aren’t them), AND I explain that the “unquenchable fire” in no way implies that that which goes into it never dies.

  • Mike McQuaid

    @Joel: And you also say “The Bible says…” when you mean “my chosen English translation says…”.

    John, thanks for this. I really can’t understand what the fuss is about here either with the blurb or the video. He doesn’t seem to be doing any more than asking questions and, who knows, the answers could be the very ones the foaming-at-the-mouth types want to hear. I was prepared for something far more controversial. This type of situation just makes me sad for Christianity when so many people seem to think even exploring other answers to an issue is worse than simply believing without really understanding.

  • Kristean

    That video at the end, is that the new Pulp video? Wondered where Jarvis Cocker had gone.

  • Tiffany

    Thank you! For this thoughtful blog. I believe Bell is merely asking questions as he always has. Often those questions are threatening and when others are threatened it is easier to blame and detract from the situation rather than honestly look at the questions.

    Thank you for being a voice of reason in the crazy blown out of proportion “issue”.

  • Dozer

    “Be worried when everyone is saying good things about you” – the Bible, somewhere.

    I hope Rob Bell takes this in his stride!

  • Nick Mailer

    My goodness, Rob Bell is camp. I don’t mean that in a bad way.

  • Xercies

    He’s a lovely man, and he’s the kind of person that would make me say that Christians can be really lovely and nice…the other Christians that are blowing this out of proportion though just make me go back to my original idea that there just so horrible.

  • Daniel Rivas

    Sort of expected him to start telling us about G4 processors, firewire and innovative unibody enclosures.

    Didn’t realise Universalism was so hated. Makes sense to me, if you’re going to believe in that stuff.

  • John Walker

    I don’t think it’s that Universalism is hated. Rather it’s that if one believes in it, one denies the authority of Christ, blah-de-blah. So to declare Universalism is currently the big heresy, if you’re previously thought to be a Christian. Although there really isn’t a scrap of evidence that Bell is a Universalist.

  • Ian

    WAS Jesus an orange? Because that would be an interesting take.

  • EthZee

    Of course he was. Don’t you remember Matthew 21:12?

    “Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and also he was an orange but we really should have mentioned that earlier.”

  • MrsTrellis

    I suppose if you accept universalism you have reasoned Christianity out of existence so you don’t need to bother.