Is Rob Bell a Universalist? Is the recent cyber maelstrom ignited before the publication of his latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, an indication of the resonance this topic inspires or of the dangers of reviewing a book you haven’t read? Can a loving God condemn billions of people to a literal hell? Is the instruction of Matthew 18 applicable when the perceived “sin” is committed by way of a promotional video on YouTube? Can posing everything as a question protect the poser from ever having to lay out his true opinions?
There are a great many facts which are not in dispute. Rob Bell is the pastor of the 10,000 member Mars Hill Church just outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan. His podcasts reach another 50,000 people. While an early Christianity Today article on Bell notes that he puts the “hip” in discipleship, Bell’s upbringing includes a Bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College and a M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary.
He is the featured speaker in a series of short NOOMA films (NOOMA is an English variation of the Greek word pneuma meaning breath or spirit) seen by millions. He is the author of several books including, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith and Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality. Time magazine has called him “a singular rock star in the church world.”
After Love Wins publisher HarperOne released a description of the book along with a short promotional video featuring Bell questioning whether Gandhi was really hell bound, conservative Christian blogger and V.P. of Editorial at Crossway, Justin Taylor, warned that Bell was heading towards Universalism, the theological belief that everyone goes to Heaven and that there is no hell. Evangelical leaders on both the left and right were quick to weigh in with their support or concern for Bell’s theology. In a now infamous tweet, John Piper, himself a best-selling author and Reformed pastor, tweeted a succinct, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”
The intensity of the resulting controversy convinced HarperOne to move the release date up several weeks and the actual book was available to critics and supporters alike on March 15. Love Wins is the first book of Bell’s published by HarperOne. Much was made of reports which indicate that Zondervan, publisher of Bell’s first four books, passed on the proposal for Love Wins as not being consistent with their mission. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Al Mohler, termed the publicity about the book the “equivalent of a theological striptease” on his blog at AlberMohler.com.
Further evidence of the heights to which the frenzy leapt was that even another Rob Bell, this one a web designer in England and the inadvertent recipient of some of the heated exchanges at @robbell, was the object of an interview on his take on the controversy. His advice to the warring evangelicals? Confirm who is on the other side of the “@” before tweeting. Rob Bell, the pastor, tweets at @realrobbell and yes, there is even a @fakerobbell.
As John Dyer noted in a guest post on Christianity Today.org entitled, Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers, perhaps as interesting as the fervor of the theological debate was its platform – social media and the blogosphere. Although the theological questions regarding Heaven and Hell have not undergone significant change over the centuries, Dyer divides time into pre-2004 Christianity (and the advent of Facebook) and post-2004 Christianity, where everyone with a blog and the inclination can see their opinions published for all to see. Gone are the days where a lifetime of measured scholarship earned the writer the opportunity to contend for the faith. As the title of his post intimates, Dyer applies the warning in James 3:1 to those presuming to be teachers as equally applicable to those producing Facebook, Twitter or blog posts.
At one point in the pre-publication flurry, it was suggested that criticism of Bell’s theology should have followed the progression laid out in Matthew 18 and begun with a private communication with Bell. That in turn gave rise to a debate of whether Bell’s purported sin was a public or private one since his views were expressed in a public video.
In the weeks since its release, the prevailing consensus appears to be that Rob Bell’s latest project raises more questions than it answers, perhaps fulfilling its singular purpose. What is the nature of God? What can be known of Him by examining the biblical evidence for the after-life? Is Bell a heretic or a man of courage willing to ask the hard questions? Perhaps the passion displayed by both sides of the controversy is more a recognition of the eternal impact of the answers than an indication that absolute truth can be found within the pages of the next best-seller.