The rumors were flying fast and furious a couple of weeks ago. "Has Rob Bell gone completely off his rocker? Is he a (audible gasp) Universalist?" I couldn't wait to get my hands on the book "Love Wins" and see if it lived up to its title and Rob Bell had joined the ranks of us heretical universalists. My question was "Is Rob Bell one of us?" The answer? Well, keep reading...
A little background in case you don't know Rob Bell. He's the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church a megachurch in Michigan (but, I won't hold that against him). He's a young (40 years) pastor who in addition to having a way cool look produces videos called Nooma that are cutting edge in their production and appeal to young people. Bell was raised in a traditional Christian background, but his view of God seems (to me) to have expanded quite a bit. I read his book Velvet Elvis several years ago and enjoyed it very much. Bell has been described as a "rock star" in the Christian world. So, when it was rumored that he might have given up on the belief in hell, people really got their panties in a bunch.
The book, like Bell's other book I have read is written in a very casual, easily accessible style. It took me all of two days to complete the entire book. Bell asks a lot of very important questions we should all be asking ourselves, encouraging people to not just take his word for things but to think through them for themselves. I like that about his books. Bell asks most of the questions I asked. Questions, whose answers led me away from believing in the God I was taught about in Sunday School, a cruel and hard taskmaster who could hardly wait to throw me into Hell, unless somehow Jesus managed to save me from Him.
If you want to be kept in suspense about how Rob answers the questions about hell and whether love actually wins or not, you can stop reading now and know that the book is worth getting. If you're not afraid to think or confront these questions, pick up the book and don't be afraid to read a "heretic's" point of view. If he's wrong, you can say "He's wrong." and put the book down. No harm done.
So, what is the answer to "Is Bell a Universalist?" If I had to give a one word "yes" or "no", the answer would be "no". Bell has not gone so far as to say there is no hell (as has been reported). Bell does not go so far as to say that all will eventually be saved (or get to heaven). So, in the strictest sense, Bell is not a universalist. What has got some so upset though is Bell has expanded the love and grace of God way beyond it's traditional limitations. Bell says that Jesus (Christ) is accessible to all, even to those who have never heard His name. Bell believes that all are saved through Christ. But, Bell points to Paul's story about the water flowing from the rock that Moses struck with his staff. Paul says that water was "Christ". Bell reasons if Paul can see Christ everywhere, including in the desert hundreds of years before His birth, others can have access to Christ- others who are not Christians. Bell also says that God gives us what we want. I don't agree with that. We get a lot of things we don't want and don't get a lot of things we do want. But, one thing we do have (and I think this is what Bell is talking about) is we have choices. Bell doesn't think it makes sense that those choices end at the moment of death. The picture of God as all loving and willing to do anything to save us before death and turning into a monster that casts us into eternal torment the moment we die, Bell rejects.
In a sense, I guess Bell is a universalist. He believes salvation is available to all. But, he does not go so far as to say that all will choose salvation. He points to the picture in Revelation of a new city where the gates are never closed. He says that there will be a judgement day, a day of separation where God puts everything right and says "No more, here." Choices will still be available. Choices that can lead us farther from God or choices that can lead us closer to God. Some choices will not be available to those who choose to stay "here". God will say "You can do what you like. But, you can't do it here." (I paraphrase). This part of the book reminded me of my friend Bob Edwards who just can't get all the way to universalism. He says that God allows suffering here. So, why should we believe that God will not allow people after death to make choices that continue to cause suffering? He points us to the new city in the book of Revelation where the gates are never closed. Never closed might mean those outside the city can enter. It would also mean those in the city could leave (so, I guess in heaven, we'll have the choice to make those choices that disqualify us to remain there). Like C.S. Lewis in the "Great Divorce" (reference in the Further Reading in Bell's book), Bell seems to think if there is a lock on hell, it's locked from the inside. Bell talks about those who continue and continue and continue to make choices that lead them further and further from God. Do they eventually give up their humanity entirely? Is the image of God so distorted in them that it's irretrievable? If the answers to those questions are "Yes." Then, I'd say the title of the book needs to be changed to "Love wins, sometimes." or "Love wins, most of the time."
Many of the people slamming Rob Bell (most?) have not read the book. I know because their criticisms came before the book even came out. But, Rob Bell is not a universalist. According to his critics, he's still a heretic. Some of them still think he's a universalist. It's also not true, even though it's been widely reported, that Rob Bell believes there is no hell. He's expanded the grace of God and the reach of Jesus far beyond what makes some people comfortable. But, according to Bell, it's still possible to outrun the reach of God. God's love is not inescapable, as others of us have concluded. Rob Bell is not one of us, yet.