Rob Bell, “Love Wins,” & Universalism

Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, author of "Love Wins" and propenent of universalism

Most people are so absorbed in everyday life that they rarely lift their gaze to eternity.  Rob Bell changed this recently, at least for the thousands of members of his church as well as the endless responders to his splashing new revelation: God will save everyone in the end.  It’s called universalism, an erroneous philosophy that is hardly new but manages to resurrect itself from time to time through well known religious leaders such as Rob Bell.

Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, author of "Love Wins" and proponent of universalism

Eminent scholars, denominational leaders, and pastors have weighed in on the recent controversy, which was provoked by Bell’s bestselling book, Love Wins.  I was content to watch from a distance, though I did take the opportunity to deliver a Sunday evening sermon on why universalism is wrong, a devastating lie born in Satan’s diabolical mind.  But after reading last week’s Time Magazine article (Is Hell Dead?, by John Meacham – April 14, 2011; read it at: http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2065080-1,00.html), which is devoted to Rob Bell and his universalism stir, I can hardly keep my pen still!

 

Allow me, if you will, to select a few quotes from Meacham’s article to see if I can expose the lie of universalism and Rob Bell’s latest spin on it.  But first – in case you are unfamiliar with Bell – he is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is a bestselling author, sought after speaker, and leader in a movement known as the emerging church.

 

"Is Hell Dead?" by John Meacham, April 14, 2011

Now to the article’s quotes and Rob Bell’s sad embracing of universalism.  Meacham, as seen in this first quote, wastes no time in opening the proverbial “can of worms.”

 

“The standard Christian view of salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is summed up in the Gospel of John, which promises ‘eternal life’ to ‘whosoever believeth in Him.’  One either accepts this and goes to heaven or refuses and goes to hell.  Bell begs to differ.  He suggests that the redemptive work of Jesus may be universal — meaning that…‘every person who ever lived’ could have a place in heaven, whatever that turns out to be.”

 

Meacham then quotes Rob Bell: “I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian.  Something new is in the air.”

 

Bell’s “massive shift” actually represents the question plaguing the American church today: who occupies the position of center stage, God or man?  The Bible answers this question easily, as if there is no dilemma.  Scripture presents the universe with God sitting at the center of everything; He is God, by definition.  In other words, He created and sustains everything.  He is all powerful and is in charge of His universe.  Like it or not, His purposes prevail, and all creation – including mankind – is subservient to Him and His will.

 

What this means when it comes to salvation is that God’s plan of redemption

Michelangelo's famous painting, "The creation of Adam," clearly depicts God in his traditional role as Creator, with man as a subservient creature

is His plan; not ours.  It was His idea, not ours, that mankind must repent and place his belief in the Gospel.  Whether we like God’s plan of salvation or think it is unfair is irrelevant; again, it is His plan, not ours.

 

So I simply must take issue with Bell, who says, “I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian.  Something new is in the air.” Actually, I cringe at his audacity.  Who is Bell – who is anyone – to suggest to almighty God that we humans are worthy to weigh in with our opinions?  How can a Gospel minister speak with a straight face about “a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian”?  It seems to me that when one questions God’s fundamental deity by usurping His right to make changeless decrees, he has either departed the faith or has grossly elevated his own status.

 

 

The next quote which caught my attention came from deeper in the Time Magazine article.  Meacham writes:

 

“[Bell] believes that…the prospect of a place of eternal torment [hell] seems irreconcilable with the God of love… What comes next has to wait. ‘When we get to what happens when we die, we don’t have any video footage,’ says Bell. ‘So let’s at least be honest that we are speculating, because we are.’”

 

Is the prospect of a place of eternal torment irreconcilable with the God of love?  Bell believes it is, which is why he claims that God will, in the end, save everyone.  Hell, to Bell’s thinking, is too evil for God to be associated with.  We could forgive Meacham, a secular journalist, had he uttered this erroneous statement, but he didn’t – Bell did.  We could forgive almost anyone in the pew for making the comment; perhaps their faith and knowledge of Christ is still infantile.  But church members didn’t raise this dangerous point; Bell did – Bell, a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

So what is wrong with Bell’s assertion that eternal torment is irreconcilable with the God of love?  For starters, it suggests that God is only love.  But what about His manifold other attributes He reveals in the Bible?  What about His wrath, which is the necessary opposite of His love?  If God is love, then He must exercise wrath against whatever opposes His love.

 

The Bible depicts Christ's Second Coming as a frightening event filled with judgment for everyone who rejected Jesus as Savior and Lord

Consider the relationship between God’s love and His wrath, as revealed in the Bible.  God loves sinners so much that He sent “His only begotten Son” to die in their stead.  Jesus endured the wrath of His Father, which sinners deserve.  Seen in this light, what, then, is the logical outcome for sinners who reject Jesus’ redemption for them?  Is it not the wrath which their sin earned to begin with?  If people reject Jesus as their Substitute, will they not quite naturally receive the just penalty for their rebellion against God?  According to the Bible, they most certainly will.  Those who reject Christ’s atonement will endure God’s wrath.

 

Universalism is, therefore, a gross misunderstanding of God’s nature and His Gospel.  The Gospel begins with God’s hatred of anything remotely less than His holiness.  The Gospel begins with the statement from Almighty God that we are all sinners: “For all of sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  “All we like sheep have gone astray – each to his own way” (Isa. 53:6).

 

The Gospel ends with the individual decision – person by person – to respond to Jesus’ command, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).  Romans 10:13 says, “Whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Do it now, because “it is appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgment.”

And judgment is harsh.  Jesus is pictured during His mighty return to earth as wearing a white robe, stained with the blood of His victims.  He wields a sword of judgment.  Actual judgment is portrayed, with a clear separation of humanity into two groups: those saved by Jesus’ blood and those who were not.  Those who were not are cast into hell, which is shown to be eternal, horrific, literal, and individual.

 

The Gospel is glorious and full of grief, all at the same time.  The Gospel is God’s love for sinners but also His wrath against sin.  The key is for people – one by one – to admit their sin and plead for Christ’s mercy.  The love and the wrath are equal parts of the Gospel.  One without the other destroys the integrity of God’s eternal consistency and cheapens His costly grace.

 

 

The next quote to which I would draw your attention finds Meacham quoting Bell directly again: “At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number[of people] who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.”

 

I cannot deny that we all wish this sentiment was true.  What right-minded person would not want hell to be temporary and for God’s powerful love to win everybody over in the end?  This “Happy Ever After” ending plays well to our Hollywood-influenced culture, but it is simply not true.

 

Further, Bell’s claim that a belief in universalism has sat “at the center of the Christian tradition since the first church” is a complete fabrication with no substantiation from reliable history.  Our ideas and opinions do not become true merely because we wish strongly that they are true.  Neither are they true just because we say they are true.  Bell does not seem to be a simpleton or an outright liar; therefore, I am shocked to hear him make such rash, untrue comments.

 

Bell’s ignorant comment is symptomatic of America’s growing disregard for history as well as its willingness to rewrite history (i.e., revisionist history) to suit one’s desires.  We cannot reach back into history and force it to say what it never said.

 

I say that we cannot, but this is exactly what our culture is doing today.  The

The original $100 bill, showing Franklin wearing a fur coat

U.S. Treasury Department, by way of example, removed Benjamin Franklin’s fur coat from the face of the hundred dollar bill and replaced it with a nicer, less offensive style.  This is a classic case of modern man forcing his views backwards upon history.  The fact of the matter is that Franklin wore fur coats to ward off cold winters.  He had no idea that America of two hundred years later would “evolve” to see the killing of animals to use their fur to stay warm as cruel.  Probably, he would have viewed our modern attitude as nonsense, against nature and logic.

 

Today's, revisionist, $100 bill - Franklin's fur coat has been removed

Whatever Franklin may have thought, we cannot undress him and redress him to suit our ethics.  He wore what he wore.  But ours is now a day when we rewrite history without embarrassment.  We do so with the arrogant idea that we know better than the ancient, unenlightened simpletons; they need us to steer them in the right direction.

 

Rob Bell seems to have been heavily influenced by revisionist history.  He shows no regret at rewriting history or even forcing his desires upon people of history, when they never thought the way he suggests.  Bell apparently feels justified in this approach, because he sees himself as more enlightened and evolved than his ignorant predecessors.  Had they been alive today, he must think, they would think my thoughts, so I will make them think them on behalf of both of us.

 

 

The next passage from the Time Magazine article finds the author himself launching off into utter nonsense.

 

“The dominant view of the righteous in heaven and the damned in hell owes more to the artistic legacy of the West, from Michelangelo to Dante to Blake, than it does to history or to unambiguous biblical teaching. Neither pagan nor Jewish tradition offered a truly equivalent vision of a place of eternal torment; the Greek and Roman underworlds tended to be morally neutral, as did much of the Hebraic tradition concerning Sheol, the realm of the dead.”

“Like the Bible — a document that often contradicts itself and from which one can construct sharply different arguments — theology is the product of human hands and hearts. What many believers in the 21st century accept as immutable doctrine was first formulated in the fog and confusion of the 1st century.”

 

Wow!  Meacham takes off his gloves and doesn’t even attempt to hide his true feelings!  He portrays the Bible as self-contradictory, the product of “human hands and hearts.”  Its teachings, he suggests, were formulated by ignorant, unsophisticated ancient minds.  Doctrines which the church has taught as truth, Meacham claims to be the products of a blending of pagan and philosophical thought.

 

How puzzling to see an educated journalist, whose credentials include being published in Time Magazine, fall for such unscholarly drivel.  Mankind’s greatest minds – both secular and Christian – have sought to prove or disprove the Bible, in terms of its historical authenticity and internal consistency.  As expected, God’s Word has passed man’s strictest literary tests, time and again.  To throw out statements such as Meacham’s only reveals that he is grossly misguided or ill informed.

 

What’s worse, Meacham is dead wrong when it comes to his contention that the Bible does not teach the literal existence of hell, where unsaved people will spend eternity, and heaven, where Christians will live forever.  To narrow the view to a single passage (Luke 16), Jesus opened a window into both heaven and hell.  An extremely wealthy man, now in hell for eternity, is shocked to discover that a poor beggar, Lazarus, is in heaven.  The rich man’s unending agony in hell prompts him to beg that Lazarus can come and dip his finger in cool water and touch it to his burning tongue.  Further, he pleads: “Send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment” (Luke 16:27-28).

 

The Abbaye St. Pierre de Moissac in France (founded in the 600s) prominently displays this bas-relief of the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Two dogs lick Lazarus' wounds; the rich man dines to the right. On the left sits Abraham with Lazarus in his bosom.

This passage not only poignantly captures heaven’s and hell’s reality but also humanity’s timeless existence in either of these two places.  So to say that Christianity’s ideas on heaven and hell are rooted in “the artistic legacy of the West, from Michelangelo to Dante to Blake,” represents a gross misunderstanding of the Bible’s actual content.  Whatever Michelangelo, Dante, and Blake wrote or painted about heaven and hell was shaped by the Bible’s content, given that it significantly predates the work of these artists.  Sure, their works are well known and have no doubt influenced people’s notions of the afterlife.  But to say that the Church’s ideas on heaven and hell are dominantly shaped by these men’s legacies is utter nonsense!

 

 

The next quote which draws my attention is one in which the author directly quotes Rob Bell again.  Meacham misinterprets a few Bible passages, which Bell claims to teach universalism; then, he says:

“So is it heaven for Christians who say they are Christians and hell for everybody else? What about babies, or people who die without ever hearing the Gospel through no fault of their own? (As Bell puts it, ‘What if the missionary got a flat tire?’).”

 

Bell’s and Meacham’s thinking here follows the tired, worn out line against God’s sovereignty in election.  The Bible clearly reveals that God is in charge, from first to last, of His plan of redemption – nothing is left to chance.  Christ, for instance, does not offer His substitutionary death for sinners, giving them the choice to choose or reject Him at their whim (though this plays well to our consumer-driven society).  No, Christ died particularly for those whom the Bible frequently refers to as the “elect” – those people whom God chose to rescue from hell.  God leaves nothing to chance, ever.  He sovereignly governs His universe, including – specifically including – something as important as redeeming sinners at the cost of the suffering and death of His Son.

Christ died for those whom His Father gave Him out of the world, not everyone. He prayed: “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world… Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me…and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:6-10).

 

When people such as Rob Bell suggest that a remote jungle dweller cannot be sent to hell, because the “missionary got a flat tire” and therefore could not deliver the Gospel story, they severely undermine God’s authority in redemption.  Again, salvation is God’s realm; not man’s.  If a jungle dweller “slips through the cracks” due to the flat tire, this does not catch God off guard and prompt His loving heart to break His own rules of redemption and therefore allow the poor man to enter heaven even if he continued to rebel against God’s rule in his life.

 

Had Bell or Meacham merely read the apostle Paul’s great discourse on redemption in the incomparable book of Romans (see Romans 1), they would have discovered that the remote jungle dweller not only knows of God’s existence, but he also knows deep down (because God created him and fashioned him to know) that he owes allegiance to this great God.  Meacham and Bell would also have learned from Paul’s pen that the jungle dweller is not a “noble savage,” almost sinless, but is stained by sin just as much as you and me.  He, just like his ancient parents – Adam and Eve – longs to be a god unto himself.  He has no interest in bowing the knee to God, so he runs as fast and far away from God as he can, sinning his way happily into hell.

 

This Amazon shaman from Brazil knows deep down of God's existence and of his need to honor God. Should God set his saving sights on him, he will come to faith in Christ.

What a sad state of affairs, but it describes us, one and all – it is the human condition (“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – Rom. 3:23; “All we like sheep have gone astray – each to his own way” – Isa. 53:6).  Only the grace of Jesus Christ is sufficient to save the jungle dweller, or you and me.  And should God set His saving sights on you or me, or the jungle dweller, then the missionary’s tire would not go flat.  Or, if it did, he would find strength of resolve to press on, on foot!  God’s love would compel him, and God’s love would sustain Him, and God’s love would save the precious man in the jungle…because God chose to do so.

 

We cannot deny the reality of God’s saving love just because we do not understand precisely how it works.  We cannot arrogantly claim that it is not fair – God is not fair, according to our sin soaked notions of fairness.  We cannot re-write God’s plan of redemption to include the jungle dweller merely because this makes us feel better.  We cannot erase the existence of eternal hell and redefine God’s love by eliminating His wrath, thereby slamming hell shut and swinging wide heaven’s gates to everyone.  We cannot do these things merely because our hearts long for them to happen.  We fashion ourselves into gods when we make these grandiose statements and thereby knock God from His throne.

 

 

The article’s next quote is intriguing.  Deep into the article, Meacham turned his attention to Bell’s upbringing, wondering how his parents and his childhood shaped who he is today.  Bell spoke of his first sermon, of how he removed his sandals before approaching the pulpit.

 

“I took off my Birkenstocks beforehand.  I had this awareness that my life would never be the same again.”

 

Meacham picked up on the comment:

 

“The removal of the shoes is an interesting detail for Bell to remember. (‘Do not come any closer,’ God says to Moses in the Book of Exodus.  ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’)  Bell says it was just intuitive, but the intuition suggests he had a sense of himself as a player in the unfolding drama of God in history.”

 

Isn’t it just a bit showy?  Is Rob Bell identifying himself with Moses?  No one was there, mind you, when Moses took off his sandals; he did it in response to God’s command.  There was no audience.

Isn't it a bit showy to draw attention to oneself so overtly, hoping to appear humble while performing such a public act?

Bell’s Birkenstocks aren’t a huge deal, but they are a perfect example of what many of us aspire to: public notice, something unique to set us apart, something big.  Removing his sandals is a barely concealed attempt at false humility – “Notice me, people, as I do something publicly to humble myself.” True humility doesn’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.

 

Meacham’s words are spot on: “[Bell] had a sense of himself as a player in the unfolding drama of God in history.” Rob Bell is a celebrity.  He pastors a church which draws seven thousand worshippers every Sunday.  He is a leader in the movement known as the emerging church.  His latest book, Love Wins, raced to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.  He is a sought after conference speaker.  Bell has a voice, and people listen.

 

There is nothing wrong with any of these things, but few of us are strong enough to resist seeing ourselves in response to such public notice and acclaim as more than human.  At our worst, we tend to believe too much of ourselves.  Clearly, Bell sees himself as “a player.” What is dangerous is the rest of the quote: “…a player in the unfolding drama of God in history.” Bell apparently sees himself as standing (barefoot) in a position to effect great change for God.

 

Regrettably, the change he hopes to bring is not godly nor God honoring.  In fact, Bell is offending God in the worst possible way.  He is saying, in essence, that God’s Son Jesus is not needed.  He is teaching that Jesus is not the only way to heaven, in spite of Jesus’ claim that “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No man comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  He is saying that Jesus’ sinless life, agonizing death, and glorious resurrection were unnecessary.  Nothing could be as offensive to God the Father as these suggestions, but Bell is suggesting them nonetheless.

 

In the end, Meacham’s closing words to his article frighteningly sum up the issue: “This much is clear: Rob Bell has much to say, and many are listening.”

 

Indeed, they are, which is the tragic dilemma, for those who listen to his message will conclude that salvation is not found in Christ alone, by grace alone, and through faith alone.  Bell will open heaven to any viewpoint and every philosophy, which will, in fact, send countless people to hell.

 

Bell’s beliefs render the entire mission and ministry of the Church

Members of Winnetka Heights' mission team packing and giving away beans & rice in Nicaragua

irrelevant.  Why evangelize with boldness, when everyone, as Bell says, will go to heaven anyway?  Why obey Christ’s Great Commission to “Go!,” when everyone will find their own way?  Why feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison as if we are doing these things for Christ Himself (see Matthew 25), when God will allow these people into His heaven anyway, despite our efforts?  Why go to Nicaragua – as our church does every summer – to conduct medical missions, when we can leave these poor, hungry, desperate people to their suffering, knowing that God will rescue them in the end anyway?  Why support over five thousand full time Southern Baptist missionaries, each of whom is serving across the world, when every person from every people group will find the kingdom of God anyway?

 

You get the point: Rob Bell’s universalism does not open heaven to everyone.  It kills the Church’s mission and therefore sentences masses of people to hell.  His misguided heart fools him into thinking he is showing love, when he is personally chopping down Christ’s cross – the only means of salvation.  His ill informed influence opens hell even wider, if that is even conceivable.