Rob Bell is Not A Universalist, and Love Really Does WinBooks, Featured — By Emily Timbol on March 17, 2011 at 8:00 am
It says even more that many of the people initially claiming he was, (or at least bidding him farewell) hadn’t even read his book. Well, I read it. And I’d like to clear some things up.
Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, And The Fate Of Every Person Who Ever Lived, does not make any claims that reduce the power of Jesus’ death on the cross. It does not deny the existence of hell, nor does it deny the existence of heaven. It does not make claims that any person who isn’t deeply rooted in the idea of a vengeful, vindictive, angry God should be unnerved by. Rather, using scripture (lots and lots of scripture) and historical context, it seeks to solidify and better define these realities of heaven and hell. Rob Bell doesn’t deny hell; he’s trying to warn us not to go there.
Where things get tricky, is where, “there” is. According to Bell,
“Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.”
“We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting that love, which creates what we call hell.”
“…that’s what we find in Jesus’ teaching about hell – a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experience and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity. “
You probably noticed that those descriptions of hell don’t point to a place. There is no literal fire, no pitchforks, and to paraphrase Bell, no horned man listening to Pink Floyd albums backwards, standing guard. It’s not the hell we grew up fearful of, and Bell argues, not the hell Jesus warned of in Matthew 5. These aren’t wild unsubstantiated claims that Bell makes, but ones rooted in the historical meaning of the Greek and Hebrew translations of the actual words Jesus used to describe hell, and the words used to describe hell in every mention of it in the Old Testament scriptures.
Make no mistake, Bell doesn’t shirk away from the Bible in this book, he relies heavily on it. His interpretation of scripture might make people uncomfortable, but to claim he is anything other than Biblically-based, is blatantly untrue.
Bell warns us of hell, not to scare us into believing in Christ, which he (rightfully) says does not paint an accurate picture of the gospel, but because when we turn away from hell, we get closer to seeing heaven come to Earth.
Heaven. Because after all, it’s not just the book’s take on hell that is causing people to tweet Bell goodbye. It’s his take on heaven. How could a view of heaven cause so much controversy? Well he says things like this:
“The dominant cultural assumptions and misunderstandings about heaven have been at work for so long, it’s almost automatic for many to think of heaven as ethereal, intangible, esoteric, and immaterial…somewhere else…but for Jesus, heaven is more real than what we experience now. This is true for the future, when Earth and heaven become one, but also for today.”
Heaven when we die, but heaven also….today? No wonder the blogosphere has been so active. To believe what Bell claims, that heaven isn’t just a where but also a when, forces us to stop focusing purely on our reward in the afterlife. Instead, it causes us to think about how we’re bringing heaven to Earth, now. It’s a little scary, to put it mildly.
Not that he claims that there isn’t a heaven we will go to to be with Christ someday after we’re dead. Bell uses a beautiful analogy to try and explain what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 13, by saying that on Earth, it’s as if we’re trying to play the piano while wearing oven mitts. The elements for heaven are all here, but there’s something in the way inhibiting us from fully experiencing the beauty of the song (I interpret that inhibitor as sin.) We’re not going to fully be able to see (hear) the beauty of that song until we’re with Jesus.
You would think that with all that discussion of Heaven and Hell, no one would still be claiming that Rob Bell is touting Universalism in this book. Just in case anyone needs extra convincing, he says:
“When we say yes to God, when we open ourselves to Jesus’ living, giving act on the cross, we enter in to a way of life. He is the source, the strength, the example, and the assurance that this pattern and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires.”
Rob Bell is not a Universalist.
He’s a pastor of a church that preaches the Bible, follows Christ’s teachings, and seeks to honor God. The fact that this well-written and compelling book caused the level of outrage and horror that it did, before it was even read, says more about our Christian culture than it does the man who wrote the book. If Christians are so scared of anything that questions the status quo, that they can’t even wait to see what one of their brothers say before they condemn him, what kind of witness does that present to the world? What kind of God does that portray?
The kind of God that Bell warns us against worshiping. Not the true God. Not the one who loved us enough to die for us. Not the one who conquered death, with love.
Because let’s not forget, Rob Bell wasn’t the first person who made a bold statement that love wins. God did – when Christ died on the cross.