With the release of his most recent book, Love Wins, Rob Bell and his theology have been a hot-button topic. Quickly after the book’s release prominent pastors and church leaders came out against Bell’s position on heaven, hell, and the eternal destiny of all people.
Being called a “universalist,” Bell firmly denied the accusation and affirmed his belief that in every human heart God’s love will win out in the end. What has been interesting about Bell and his teaching is that he sounds Scripture saturated, even with devoted study. Yet, with a well-rounded perspective firmly planted in a high view of Scripture, one can discern that Bell starts with his own agenda then redefines theological terms to both avoid heresy and appear stanchly orthodox.
Down With Universalism
Bell is clearly not a universalist; but that is only slightly true. Traditionally universalism is the teaching that all people will go to heaven, no matter what. This is strongly denied as heresy by easily addressing the exclusive teachings of Jesus as being the only way to God. Bell does not think that anyone can go to heaven without knowing Christ, which affirms Jesus’ teaching.
Yet, the big difference is that he teaches that everyone will go to heaven because everyone will be swayed by the awesome love of God either now or in the next life. Puts me in mind of some sort of netherworld where lost souls wait until they come to some sort of realization and finally concede to let themselves be loved by God. It could not be purgatory because that would not be an expression of God’s love for all people. Perhaps it is more like Disney World with an open bar.
I can hear the internal dialogue:
Good people go to hell; Really?
Everybody has good in them. God must love all people, because God can be solely defined as love.
But Jesus said that he is the only way to God, and if I deny that I will be called a universalist and unorthodox.
I know someone who didn’t believe in Jesus when he died.
OH! I know! Maybe they get another shot after they die. Like, maybe, like, Jesus shows up and talks to them and gets them to believe! Oo, that would work. I mean he has the rest of eternity to convince them, right?
Thus Rob Bell becomes the M. Night Shamalan of theology: you think you know what is going on, just wait for the twist. He can take any number of theological concepts, flip it 90 degrees, and then rightly re-label it as a new concept that seems to incorporate a number of well-known passages to give it a sheen of legitimacy.
Love Wins could just as equally be seen as a new kind of Calvinism, smoothed over to make it more palatable to the masses. Bell’s suggestion that God’s love will convince everyone in the end sounds much like unconditional election. Everyone on the planet is elect, so God creates hell as one among many strategies to convince people to love him. In that perspective God can appear to be ultimately sovereign because he thinks outside the box of time, which unbinds any need for coercion and opens the opportunity for ceaseless patience.
The real twist is that Bell’s perspective on unconditional election is contingent on each individual’s exercise of free will. If Christ died for all people and our lack of faith in this life (assuming that faith is some sort of work and something that we have to be convinced of) makes no difference to our eternal destiny, God simply has to win a cosmic game of Chicken. We all know, therefore, that no one’s will can hold out for all eternity and as more and more people get bored outside heaven’s gates the fewer people will be left to talk to. Perhaps reluctantly the final holdouts will concede and God can finally know how Rocky felt.
Without Bell’s exquisite packaging, the flaws of this perspective are very clear. In this perspective, if God is to be called “sovereign” it is laughably so. Even with the passaged of eternity those who would resist his call would still have the upper hand, making God subject to the will of those who would not choose him and accept his love.
There is something that happens in the heart of a man that is completely outside of himself. God speaks into the heart of a man or a woman and as his words did at the beginning of time, creates something in them out of nothing. God revealed it to Ezekiel as dry bones coming back to life and Christ spoke of it with Nicodemus as being born again. Whatever the language, faith becomes the work of the Sovereign Lord who softens hearts, gives faith through his Son, embues with the power to repent, and drives our very existence by the locomotion of the Holy Spirit. Thank God that he never waits for us to come to a decision, instead he “will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:11 ESV).