In 2003, I was a college student in Romania in need of some encouragement from pastors and teachers back in the U.S. An American pastor friend of mine recommended I listen to the preaching of two pastors: Rob Bell and James MacDonald. (Amazing that just eight years ago the ministries of these two men were seen as complementing each another!)
I downloaded dozens of Rob’s sermons from his early years at Mars Hill. I liked his preaching style and enjoyed his sermons from Leviticus. His most memorable message, “The Goat Has Left the Building,” ended with a powerful illustration of the truth that Christ bears our sins.
Two years later, I was less impressed with Rob’s teaching. I read Velvet Elvis as charitably as I could, but I was concerned by some of Rob’s affirmations. Rob likes to ask questions that appear to lead in one direction; he then pulls back and says something more akin to Christian teaching. (The “virgin birth” section, for example.)
The last time I listened to a Rob Bell sermon was in 2006. Rob had come under criticism because some were saying he denied that Jesus is the only way to God. Answering the criticism, Rob told his congregation: Let me set the record straight. Jesus is our only way. After that, I tuned out. “Jesus is our only way?” That was Rob’s way of having his cake and eating it too. He sidestepped the question in a way designed to deflect criticism, but leave the door open for pluralism.
Is Bell a Universalist?
In 2008, I read The God Who Smokes: Scandalous Meditation on Faith by Timothy Stoner. In the book, Tim recounts a conversation with some friends about Rob’s view of people without Christ:
“Okay,” I said, “I get that it is important to listen to other ‘stories.’ I get it that other points of view need to be given dignity. And I agree. But” – and here I took a breath for dramatic effect – “at the end of the day, is Rob saying that there are other stories that can lead to God? Is he just creatively repeating that old line from the 1900’s that led to the split between liberals and fundamentalists? Does he believe, down deep, that those who sincerely follow other roads, who pursue justice and compassion, even though they reject Jesus, will be saved?”
There was the moment of silence that inevitably follows explosive verbal gambits. What I didn’t expect was the fervor of the response.
In our small coterie, there was a young man who knew Rob personally. He had been a founding member of his church, had served in leadership roles, and so was on a first-name basis with him. After that split-second of quiet, he blurted out, “Of course that’s what he believes!”
The statement was not to be derogatory. It was an affirmation…
Rob’s newest book, Love Wins, promises to tackle the heaven/hell issue. The promo video is classic Bell: provocative, edgy, designed to start discussion.
Until the book comes out, I don’t think we can accurately label Rob a “universalist.” Based on Rob’s tendency to ask edgy questions and then pull back, I expect that somewhere in the book, Rob will affirm that people who don’t want to be part of God’s kingdom won’t be forced to. In the end, Rob will land somewhere between optimistic inclusivism (most everyone will be saved) and universalism (all will be saved).
Rob’s optimistic inclusivism will lead to a redefinition of Christian teaching. I suspect that in the book Rob will redefine evangelism as telling people what is already true about them (that they are forgiven, God is not angry). Conversion will be refashioned as “coming to terms with your state of forgiveness. Salvation from God is about realizing that you don’t need to be saved from God.
The Attractiveness of the Judgmentless “Gospel”
Whenever theological discussions like this erupt, it’s always a good idea to think about why certain views are popular. One of the six counterfeits I discuss in Counterfeit Gospels is “The Judgmentless Gospel” and in that chapter, I point out three reasons why it is attractive:
1. It removes an emotional barrier to Christianity.
Let’s face it. One reason we are attracted to this counterfeit is because it helps us get past a significant emotional barrier to sharing our faith. If we remove the obstacle and offense of eternal judgment, we will be in a better position to make Christianity more palatable to a society that has no room for judgment in its understanding of God.
Unfortunately, when we downplay or deny judgment, we lose one of the reasons to share our faith in the first place. Our desire to remove the obstacle actually removes the urgency.
2. It eases our conscience.
Another reason this counterfeit is attractive is that it eases our conscience when we fail to evangelize. It would take a load off my shoulders to affirm, along with Origen, that all will eventually be saved, including the devil. But the Bible doesn’t let me go down that road. Adopting the counterfeit also helps us deal emotionally with the fact that we have unsaved friends and family members who have died. We don’t want to imagine that Grandpa may be in hell. Downplaying judgment helps us cope.
3. It keeps us from having to come face to face with our own evil.
Most of us in the West have been shielded from the atrocities of humanity. If we were to have experienced Cambodia’s killing fields, or Auschwitz, or Rwanda, we might be more concerned about justice. Os Guinness quotes Winston Churchill as saying that the evidence that God exists was “the existence of Lenin and Trotsky, for whom a hell was needed.”
Once we admit that justice is necessary, we open the door for our own sins to be dealt with. Perhaps this gospel is attractive because there is a part of us that would like to suppress justice rather than admit justice and thus indict ourselves.
The Beauty of the Biblical Gospel
In the end, though, the judgmentless gospel is no gospel at all. It leaves us with a diminished God and no need for grace:
Take away the notion of judgment and you rob Christianity of any hope of satisfying our longing for justice, a longing built into us from our just and wise God. The judgmentless gospel fails to deal with the problem of evil and the detrimental way that we humans treat each other (and by extension, God). Once we take away judgment, we lose the gravity of our sin. Once we lose sight of our sinfulness, we short-circuit our experience of the powerful gratitude that comes from receiving grace.
What the judgmentless gospel leaves us with is a one-dimensional God – a sappy, sanitized deity that we can easily manage. He nods and winks at our behavior, much like a kind elderly man who is not seriously invested in our lives. But the evil of our world is much too serious for us to view God as a pandering papa.
The picture of God in the Bible is much more satisfying. He is angry because he is love. He looks at the world and sees the trafficking of innocent girls, the destructive use of drugs, the genocidal atrocities in Africa, the terrorist attacks that keep people in perpetual fear, and he – out of love for the creation that reflects him as creator – is rightfully and gloriously angry. Real love always wants the best for the beloved.
The God who is truly scary is not the wrathful God of the Bible, but the god of the judgmentless gospel, who closes his eyes to the evil of this world, shrugs his shoulders, and ignores it in the name of “love.” What kind of “love” is this? A god who is never angered at sin and who lets evil go by unpunished is not worthy of worship.
The problem isn’t that the judgmentless God is too loving; it’s that he’s not loving enough.
I pray that Rob will once again preach the glories of the God who truly loves, the God who upholds his own glory at all costs, the God who loves us despite our sin, the God who takes on flesh and dies for us in order that we might find eternal satisfaction in him. In the words of Tim Stoner, Holy love wins:
… The love that wins is a holy love.
The love that won on the cross and wins the world is a love that is driven, determined, and defined by holiness.
It is a love that flows out of the heart of a God who is transcendent, majestic, infinite in righteousness, who loves justice as much as he does mercy; who hates wickedness as much as he loves goodness; who blazes with a fiery, passionate love for himself above all things.
He is Creator, Sustainer, Beginning and End.
He is robed in a splendor and eternal purity that is blinding.
He rules, he reigns, he rages and roars, then bends down to whisper love songs to his creatures.
His love is vast and irresistible.
It is also terrifying, and it will spare no expense to give everything away in order to free us from the bondage of sin, purifying for himself a people who are devoted to his glory, a people who have “no ambition except to do good”.
So he crushes his precious Son in order to rescue and restore mankind along with his entire creation.
He unleashes perfect judgment on the perfectly obedient sacrifice and then pulls him up out of the grave in a smashing and utter victory.
He is a God who triumphs…
He is a burning cyclone of passionate love.
Holy love wins.