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Bell is featured in a short series of direct-to-DVD devotional films called NOOMA, from the phonetic spelling of the Greek word pneuma, which means wind or spirit.
His latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. [Kindle edition | Buy a Kindle] is controversial in that Bell appears to teach universalism -- the heretical belief that ultimately all people will be saved (reconciled to God) through the atonement of Jesus, regardless of what they believe - and regardless of whether or not they accept Jesus Christ.
At the very heart of this controversy, and one of the reasons the blogosphere exploded over this book, is that we really do have two different Gods. The stakes are that high. If Bell is right, then historic orthodoxy is toxic and terrible. But if the traditional view of heaven and hell are right,
Bell is blaspheming. [...]
Bell’s god may be all love, but it is a love rooted in our modern Western sensibilities more than careful biblical reflection. It is a love that threatens to swallow up God’s glory and holiness. [...]
At bottom, Bell’s vision of heaven and hell doesn’t work because his vision of God is false. [...]
Bell’s god is wholly passive toward sin. He hates some of it and says no to it in the next life, but he does not actively judge it.
One of the main points of controversy is that people feel you’ve embraced universalism. Most evangelicals believe once you die, there are no more decisions to make. Do you think your position is controversial?
It fits squarely within the orthodox, historic, Christian tradition. Lots and lots of people have raised these sort of questions from across the spectrum. It’s not outside the tradition. In the book, what I’m mostly interested in is just showing people, people answered these questions. Serious, faithful, devout followers of Jesus have wrestled with these questions and have entered into the speculation and have all sorts of ways they thought about this and talked about this. I’m not interested in dying on any one of those hills, I’m interested in dying on the hill that says, “There’s lots of hills, and there’s lots of space here.” That’s what interesting to me.
Based on your understanding of universalism, do you consider yourself a universalist?
No, I don’t.
According to Mr. Bell there are two ways to approach doctrine: as a brick or a spring. The brick approach to doctrine is solid, unmoving and unchanging. It has no life. It is the wrong approach. A spring has life; it is flexible, and it is constantly changing.
Rob Bell believes all doctrines are springs. By embracing such a view of doctrine and truth Mr. Bell drives a wedge between reality and doctrinal truth. He creates a paradox where there isn't one. Bell views doctrines as "statements about our faith that help give words to the depth that we are experiencing." He makes a false distinction between the experience of our faith and the truth. The subjective trumps the objective. Experience is the reality. Words are incapable of conveying absolute truth. There is absolute reality in experience but no absolute reality in words.
There is no concept in Rob Bell's teaching that part of the experience of God is knowing, by faith, truth about God and His works revealed in the words of Scripture. He writes, "Our words aren't absolutes. Only God is absolute, and God has no intention of sharing this absoluteness with anything, especially words people have come up with to talk about him.
In a videotaped interview with Sally Quinn of The Washington Post, which was posted online this week, Bell responded to a question posed through Twitter and asked by Quinn: If there is no hell, then why did Jesus die for our sins?
“I believe in hell now, I believe in hell when you die,” stated Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. “I believe God gives people the right to say no, to resist, to refuse, to reject, to cling to their sins, to cling to their version of their story.
“So the Bible, there’s a whole chapter in the book about hell, and I think we should take hell very seriously. I think it exists, and so, there being no hell isn’t something that I believe.”
Bell has been accused of being a universalist (all will be saved in the end) and for being a heretic.
Usually, Bell gives evasive answers when asked about hell. But in this video interview he was notably clear in his answer on the subject.
The prepublication buzz centered on Bell's flirtation with universalism. He makes the universalist case most fully in one chapter, while avoiding the word universalist. He points out the many New Testament passages that point in this direction, like "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Cor. 5:19), and Jesus' statement, "When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32). He adds to that verses about God's omnipotence and God's desire that all should be saved. And then he asks the arresting question, "Will God get what he wants?"
It's rhetorically compelling, but he misleads at points. He says this theme has a "long tradition" and "an untold number" of devout Christians have believed it. Well, only a tiny minority of Christians have espoused it in 20 centuries. The church has consistently rejected it because the arguments for it have never been compelling. Bell doesn't wrestle with counter-arguments, other than to suggest that to believe in eternal judgment is to believe that history is tragic and that God doesn't get his way. But of course, proponents of eternal judgment think no such things.
After reading the book, it's hard for me to believe that Bell doesn't espouse universalism, but to be fair, he never formally affirms such belief. And in later passages, he does allude to hellish consequences for unbelief. In the end, he says he is raising the issue only to show that we "must leave plenty of room" for that possibility.
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.
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. [...]
2. It eases our conscience. [...]
3. It keeps us from having to come face to face with our own evil. [...]
Senior pastors of local churches usually don't know very much about Bell other than is a younger guy who "can help reach the kids." No doubt he is reaching kids, but the grave concern here is the skewed social gospel of the neo-liberal cult of the Emergent Church that Bell is feeding these kids. However, when the youth minister introduces Rob Bell's warped and toxic teachings his language is interpreted as orthodox because Bell is using the same words we'd use.
Rob Bell and others within the Emerging Church movement represent what can only be described as a new form of cultural Christianity. Bell plays with theology the way a cat plays with a mouse. His sermons, videos, books, and public relations are often more suggestive and subversive than clear. They are also artistically and aesthetically superior to most of what is to be found in the video section of your local Christian bookstore or on the Web.
Time is running out on the Emerging folks. They can play the game of suggestion for only so long. Eventually, the hard questions will be answered. Tragically, when the answers do come, as with the case of Brian McLaren, they appear as nothing more than a mildly updated form of Protestant liberalism.
Critique on Rob Bell, by Tim Martin, of Watchman Fellowship:
An MSNBC reporter's interview with well-known pastor Rob Bell has gone viral in the evangelical Internet realm, no doubt because the interviewer -- Martin Bashir -- asks Bell a series of tough questions that many orthodox Christians believe have been unanswered.
"What you've done is you're amending the Gospel -- the Christian message -- so that it's palatable to contemporary people who find, for example, the idea of hell and heaven very difficult to stomach ... That's why you've done, isn't it?" Bashir asks Bell at one point.
At another point, Bashir asks Bell if it is "irrelevant" for someone to follow Christ in this life if -- as Bell argues -- non-Christians will be saved anyway.
The YouTube video has been viewed more than 35,000 times in the wake of the March 15 release of Bell's book, "Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived." In the book, Bell denies a literal hell and argues that people who have never professed Christ will unconsciously be saved through Christ.
Bell's evasive answers to questions have frustrated Christian leaders. Even in the interview, he denies he is a universalist, and then proceeds to make universalistic arguments.
Late last month, a veritable maelstrom broke out in the national Christian dialogue. The object of debate was an upcoming book, but underlying theological issue was the question of hell. At Mars Hill Church, we believe in hell, and it’s a doctrine we don’t want to take lightly. Yesterday, Pastor Mark wrote a piece on the Resurgence, “To Hell with Hell?” part of which we’ve excerpted below, which lays out and responds to some of the most common questions and objections raised about hell.
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