Rob Bell, Celebrity Culture and Univeralism(?)

February 28, 2011 at 7:58 am

I wasn’t feeling well on Saturday so I laid down for a minute and browsed the social networking blogosphere. As is often the case, everyone was talking about the same thing. This time, it was Justin Taylor’s post: “Rob Bell: Universalist?” Taylor wondered aloud whether Rob Bell had crossed outside the bounds traditional orthodoxy, embracing Universalism. Taylor laments:

So on that level, I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to be lay his cards on the table about  universalism. It seems that this is not  just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.

On the publisher’s page for the book, Brian McLaren endorses it saying:

In Love Wins, Rob Bell tackles the old heaven-and-hell question and offers a courageous alternative answer. Thousands of readers will find freedom and hope and a new way of understanding the biblical story – from beginning to end.

Taylor also included the promotional trailer for the book:


LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

The reaction in many of the circles I travel was loud and almost universal, with people saying things like: are you really surprised Rob Bell isn’t a Christian after all, or At least Rob Bell is honest about his move to heresy. Now, let’s be clear: the book is not even out yet so we don’t exactly know what his argument will be. Couple this with the fact that Bell has a habit of making very provocative statements and then somewhat backing away from them, back towards orthodoxy and there is some reason still to be hopeful. However, with the endorsements of Brian McLaren and Jay Bakker recommending the book on Facebook, that hope may be for naught. Couple this with the fact that, for years, Bell has been vocally downplaying the wrath of God and the picture looks bleaker still.

What are we to make of all of this? After all, we’ve got a lot of internet controversy about a book that hasn’t even been released yet. On one hand, we have people crying “Heretic!” and on the other, saying things like: “it’s about time Christianity was rescued from the ‘far-right.” Here’s some random thoughts:

  • Bell Is A Master Performer

Whatever Bell’s theology may or may not currently be, he sucked us all into his PR machine. He does what he does extremely well and here we all are, discussing a book that hasn’t even been released yet because he had it endorsed by Brian McLaren and he released an “edgy” video. To be honest, this is a book I probably wouldn’t otherwise have read, but now, as a pastor, I probably will, just so I’m aware when people ask me what’s in it. Well done, Mr. Bell.

  • We/I Are/Am Far Too Quick To Judge

Bear With me here. I’m not defending Bell but neither am I ready to burn him at the stake as a heretic. But, I must admit that my tendency is to make judgments without having all the facts. I haven’t read the book yet and I was ready to make theological conclusions about an argument that hasn’t even been made yet (at least explicitly).

This often seems to flow (at least for me) from an air of superiority. We are quick to judge because we are so sure we are right. It’s easier to pronounce judgment than it is to listen. This can manifest itself in daily conversation (have you ever stopped listening to someone because you were already sure where they were wrong and you were just waiting for the appropriate time to cut them off so you could tell them where they were wrong? No? That’s just me?) and is most often displayed in theological conversation. Again, I’m not saying Bell is right, just that we should read the book first.

Though I am extremely wary of where it seems Bell is heading, I have been humbly reminded that I am far too quick to speak and much too slow to listen. This is all the more important when dealing with such important issues. I fell into Bell’s publicity-making trap and I should have known better. For all his quiet demeanor, he certainly likes to stir things up and that seems to be exactly what he intended to do with this video. If anything, he succeeded in reminding me of my quick-natured tendencies.

  • Theology is Inescapably Important

It’s telling that so many people (on both sides) of this issue are so vocal. But the truth is that theology matters. As A.W. Tozer famously said: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Bell is making arguments of eternal importance. As Bell points out in the promotional video, the “question behind the question” is what kind of God we worship.

Though we are probably too quick to judge, it is encouraging that so many people are so passionate about theological issues. When I grew up, deep theological consideration was often downplayed in the midst of anti-intellectualism trends in Christianity. That trend seems to have subsided and it is encouraging to see people asking lots of hard questions. Let’s pray for the humble discernment to answer them according to Scripture and now our own sentimental interpretations of what a “loving God” should be like.

  • The Cross Is The Center of Theology

Bell’s assertions are not just about eternity but ultimately about the Cross. If Bell is truly arguing that everyone will be saved, then he must either argue that the Cross is not necessary or that we are all somehow saved by the Cross. As C.S. Lewis argued: if the Cross pays for all sin, then it also pays for the sin of unbelief. What was or was not accomplished at the Cross?

Bell is also asking a fundamental question (at least in the promotional video) about what salvation is or is not. He almost half-handedly (though with Bell, everything is intentional) asks whether or not someone must be “born again” to enter Heaven. This is more than just a passing comment and it seems to question clear Scriptural teaching (John 3:3, etc.). Bell seems to be questioning fundamental issues of traditional, orthodox Christianity itself.

  • Gandhi Really Trips People Up

It’s interesting that Bell begins his promotional video by gasping at the fact that someone had the audacity to assert that Gandhi is in hell. After all, here we have a man who embodied more Christian ideals than many Christians and yet famously noted that, though he liked Jesus, he didn’t care much for Christians. We’re often left wondering what to do with him.

But, as Bell might say, the “question behind the question” of Gandhi is: who are we to say that “good people” don’t go to Heaven? There is an exclusive element to Christianity that makes many of us quite uncomfortable. We don’t like to think of someone like Gandhi facing God’s judgment. After all, look at all the good he did, right?!

  • Christian “Celebrity Culture” Makes This All The More Sticky

Let’s be honest, if Rob Bell wasn’t a “celebrity pastor,” this wouldn’t be an issue for anyone outside his immediate sphere of influence. But as it is, his beliefs have impact for people all over the world. Though Christians should strive for equality, our tendency to want our own celebrities makes a single person’s theological beliefs ripple across the world.

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