Thinking Out Loud

March 1, 2011

Rob Bell — Straying From Traditional Evangelicalism: How Far is Too Far?

On January 21st, I mentioned that through a series of circumstances I had obtained a very advance copy of Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived (March 29, 2011, HarperCollins, Hardcover.)  In that brief article, I suggested that by the end of March, social media are going to have a field day with this title because of its controversial subject.

I was wrong.

According to this article posted at Christianity Today over the weekend, the fur has already started flying even before key players are getting their hands on advance print copies of the book (something I’ve been told to expect in my mail within the next two weeks.) In fairness, I need to say that I doubt any of this has come as a great surprise to Rob Bell himself. I don’t see him sitting at his computer in Grand Rapids saying, “Oh, look at this! These guys apparently don’t see it this way.”

On the other hand, many of those entering into the discussion are doing so solely on the basis of the brief publisher blurb online.   Well, actually that’s been online for awhile. The weekend brought the promotional video, which you can view at Justin Taylor’s February 26th post, along with an update that the topic of  Bell’s book — and a discussion of Bell himself — has been added to the agenda of The Gospel Coalition’s April national conference, a constituency whose orthodoxy is rarely questioned, but a constituency that is probably among the easiest to offend. (They probably considered burning him in effigy, but couldn’t get the local fire department to grant a permit.) Apparently Bell has been official designated a “problem” to be dealt with.

First of all, for the two or three of you who don’t have Flash Drive and can’t watch the video clip; and the two or three hundred of you who didn’t bother to  click, here is the text of the video that’s causing the stir, plus a few extra paragraphs:

Several years ago we had an art show at our church. I had been giving a series of teachings on peacemaking and we invited artists to display their paintings and poems and sculptures that reflected their understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker. One woman included in her work a quote from Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling.

But not everyone.

Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece

of paper they had written: ‘Reality check: He’s in hell.’


Gandhi’s in hell?

He is?

We have confirmation of this?

Somebody knows this?

Without a doubt?

And they decided it was their responsibility to let the rest of us know?

Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person will suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?

Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few, finite years of life?

This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God, it raises questions about the beliefs themselves-

Why them?

Why you?

Why me?

Why not him or her or them?

If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape? How does a person end up being one of the few?



Random selection?

Being born in the right place, family, or country?

Having a youth pastor who ‘related better to the kids?’

God choosing you instead of others?

What kind of faith is that?

Or more importantly:

What kind of God is that?

And why is it that whenever someone claims that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed-and everybody else isn’t-why is it that the people who make this claim are almost always part of the group that’s ‘in?’

Have you ever heard somebody make claims about a select few being the chosen and then claim that they’re not one of them?

I recently heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high school student who was killed in a car accident. Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died was a Christian. She said that he told people he was an atheist. This person then said to her: “So there’s no hope then.”

No hope?

Is that the Christian message?

“No hope?”

Is that what Jesus offers the world?

Is this the sacred calling of a Christian: to announce that there’s no hope?

~ Rob Bell, from an unedited copy of chapter one “What About the Flat Tire?” from Love Wins

Since I intend to return to this a few more times in the next few weeks, I’ll just point out a few of the other comments from the weekend:

Aaron Armstrong (after whom the 1.5V batteries are named)  at Blogging Theologically writes:

In his previous books and tours, Bell has often been… squishy regarding his take on the wrath of God (even going so far as to reinterpret God’s wrath as a feeling of grief mixed with a desire to reconnect and restore). Indeed, he’s been so ambiguous that it’s caused a great many pastors and theologians to ask the question: Is he a universalist?

With this book it seems we might have an answer, in much the same way Brian McLaren dropped his pretense of trying to remain orthodox in A New Kind of Christianity.

However, I don’t know if it’s safe to say that for certain because, well, the book hasn’t been released yet. Because the material is in Bell’s typically ambiguous style so it can be taken one of two ways:

  1. He is playing “Devil’s Advocate” (oh, how I loathe that term) and presenting legitimate questions
  2. The trajectory he’s been on for years has reached it’s destination and he’s outright abandoned the gospel

Meanwhile Jeremy Bouma writing at Novus Lumen and living himself in Grand Rapids hasn’t received his advance copy yet, but decided to revisit some of Bell’s earlier works. He writes:

While some have speculated that it is universalism through and through—I have on good authority that this is the case—a recent re-read of Bell’s first book, Velvet Elvis, suggests this has been his trajectory for at least 7 years.

He includes a couple of quotations from that book that are worth re-examination through the filter of recent developments.  His article also links to the blog Signature Entertainment, which has a more tempered view of things:

I’m not sure if Rob is going to take it as far as “hell is non-existent”, but the one thing that Bell seems to do well is walk the line of controversy, yet remain a consistent voice that challenges the Evangelical community. The best example of this is in Velvet Elvis where Rob Bell uses the example of questioning the Virgin birth to make a case for deconstructing one’s faith, even though he doesn’t actually make the claim that Jesus was not born of a Virgin.

I would agree that Bell loves to tease his audience. The following may or may not be part of the final manuscript, but certainly causes the reader to wonder which afterlife is up:

The apostle Paul wrote in one of his letters to the Corinthians that ‘the Day’ the prophets spoke of, the one that inaugurates life in the age to come, will ‘bring everything to light’ and ‘reveal it with fire,’ the kind of fire that will ‘test the quality of each person’s work.’ Some in this process will find that they spent their energies and efforts on things that won’t be in heaven-on-earth. ‘If it is burned up,’ Paul wrote, ‘the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved, even though only as one escaping through the flames.’

Flames in heaven.

And while we’re teasing you, here’s a direct copy of two sentences in the version I have:

Do I believe in a literal hell?

Of course.

…But I need to tell you that I’ve cut and pasted that totally out of context. (I mean, you don’t want a bunch of spoilers, do you?)  And in case you’re wondering, yes, Chapter Three, “Hell,” does address the story of we know as “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”  It’s a different response than you’ve heard in other sermons to be sure, but at the end of the day, Bell does indeed affirm “… the very real consequences we experience when we reject all the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.”

Chapter Three is in many ways the cornerstone of the entire book, and I’m reluctant to provide more of it here; and frankly, once the book is in the stores, I hope others won’t excerpt bits of it either. I say that simply because Bell’s argument has a rhythm and cadence of its own, and to just edit bits of it for a review is akin to editing a few bars out of a symphony. I’m not saying that I agree with all its conclusions, or even that its conclusions are overt and plain, but there is a passion to this particular argument that you need to experience in its full context.

You’ll probably not agree with everything, but you won’t be the same after you’ve finished reading.

Note to the 99.99% of people who won’t get an advance review copy of the book:  All of this discussion is valid and needful. But make sure it stays focused on the issues. Some of those who you will read online have come into this discussion with their minds already made up about Bell and have been looking for an opportunity to run him, figuratively speaking, out of town. The issue of Christian Universalism is a very serious and crucial issue and we need to stay on that issue, and not allow the personality or preaching style of an individual pastor to sidetrack us from gaining deeper understanding of what the Bible might be saying.

Other pre-reading comments: Josh Reich at Missional Thoughts, the blog Episcopal Café, the blog Arminian Today which sees Bell as deliberately provocative and publicity-seeking, and Maggie Dawn who relegates Bell to someone “engaging people with Christianity at entry level.”

Related post: John Shore uses an XtraNormal text-to-video to bring the conflicting views into sharp focus.

This blog post contains elements of an early version of the book which may not be part of the final copy.


  1. Hey Paul, thanks for your thoughtful response on this issue, particularly as one who has engaged in the discussion. As an aside, I’ve managed to obtain an advanced copy & am looking forward to reading the argument.

    Comment by Aaron Armstrong — March 1, 2011 @ 6:39 am

  2. I have a question for Rob Bell to add to that long list
    “If there was any other way to be right with God, why then did Christ die?”

    Indeed,Christ himself asked God in intense agonized prayer if there was any other way. To that question the Father answered “No”

    Rob Bell is perhaps the result of too many paraphrases, in which the Word of God has been allowed to be diluted and interpreted rather than translated.

    One door. Christ.
    Good works outside of that?
    Filthy rags.

    Comment by Cynthia — March 1, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    • The question I’ve often heard asked of Universalists, and one I’ve asked myself is, “Then why do we need a Savior?” To which I’ve been told, “We don’t.”

      However, in Christian Universalism, the redemption of mankind is still accomplished by Christ’s work on the cross, and that’s where it gets tricky and where it seems like those who hold to this view are talking out of both sides of their mouths.

      For Bell, this isn’t a “doctrine,” but part of a “systematic theology.” In other words, for him, the puzzle pieces all fit, and to hear him speak of the finished work of Christ on the cross might seemed juxtaposed to the topic under discussion this week.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — March 1, 2011 @ 9:26 am

  3. Thank you Paul for your clearheaded response to a ever growing insanity, if only we all could have the patience to wait and actually get the whole story, and while we are at it, maybe be more concerned for honest debate of issues and ideas than for condemnation.

    A friends blog on this book was spot on in my opinion…

    Comment by Chris H — March 1, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

  4. Awesome post, Paul. I’m excited to read this too. I’m glad you weighed in, ESPECIALLY as someone who has already read the book.

    …I’m still not over the fact he became a trending topic on twitter. Impressive!

    Comment by Jonathan Sigmon — March 1, 2011 @ 10:23 pm

  5. I concur with Miss Cynthia’s four paragraphs!——- Let us “run with patience the race that is set before us”!!!being faithful in all things—–respectfully JL

    Comment by Joe Lambert — March 1, 2011 @ 10:26 pm

  6. […] by the time you read this you’re looking at over 6,000 choices, right?  If you missed this blog yesterday, it’s got quotations from the actual […]

    Pingback by Wednesday Link List « Thinking Out Loud — March 2, 2011 @ 5:59 am

  7. “Bell does indeed affirm ‘… the very real consequences we experience when we reject all the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.'”

    Not sure how well-read in existential theology you are, but this quotation does NOT affirm Bell’s own affirmation in Hell. He is using Hell symbolically in the same we he uses the Fall on pg 139 of Velvet Elvis or even Resurrection in his sermons.

    This isn’t new. This is Paul Tillich a German Liberal theologian (I use the word here ‘Liberal’ as a literal description, NOT an ad hominem caricature.)

    What disturbs me slightly more than the content itself is people like Eugene Peterson endorsing the book and saying he does not give up an ounce of “evangelical conviction.” What evangelical conviction HASN’T Bell already given up?

    Bell is a words person who uses specific words and phrases on purpose, with new definitions, as witnessed in the above quotation. Whether its the Fall, Resurrection, or Hell, what Bell means by those terms is not what the historic Christian faith has meant…

    Comment by jeremy bouma — March 2, 2011 @ 8:03 am

    • You don’t need to know existential theology to see the dance that’s going on here. That’s why I used that particular quote; it’s typical of the whole book in that respect.

      I don’t know of anything I have read lately where I had to keep going back over paragraphs, sentences, phrases and individual words to try to get the full sense of what was being said and what wasn’t being said.

      And I cannot begin to fathom where this particular endorsement leaves Eugene Peterson. Time will tell if it impacts his reputation, though right now, most of what is being written online is not based on reading the full manuscript; so while I expect the charges of heresy to continue, I also expect a few (a minority, perhaps) will see whatever value in the book that Peterson felt made it worthy of his recommendation.

      Despite everything, I do consider this must-reading, if only because of the huge audience Bell has and the furor it has already created.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — March 2, 2011 @ 9:13 am

      • I agree that this is a must-read, especially for people like me who are trying to pastor in Grand Rapids!

        My advance copy should come soon. Until then I’m trying to hold of publicly judging, even though I believe its already clear where Bell stands from what he has already written and said.

        thanks for your thoughts here…

        Comment by jeremy bouma — March 2, 2011 @ 10:53 am

  8. There have been a lot of comparisons to Brian McLaren, so I found it interesting that McLaren himself has weighed in on this at his blog:

    What’s quite pathetic, as I see it, is that many critics won’t even begin to get Rob’s real point. (I’ve read the book, so I’m not just going by conjecture….) It’s not that he’s being given a multiple-choice test between a) traditional exclusivism and b) traditional universalism, and he’s choosing b) instead of a). Rather, it’s that Rob has come to see that the biblical story is bigger and better than a narrative about how souls get sorted out into two bins at the end of time.

    One can only hope that after the initial inquisitorial tsunami has crashed, more and more people will realize that a deeper conversation is going on, deeper questions are being asked, and something very powerful and important is afoot. Obviously, I’m eager to see these deeper questions be grappled with – I made my position clear in A New Kind of Christianity.

    Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — March 2, 2011 @ 9:33 am

  9. See, this is why I read Thinking Out Loud — Paul Wilkinson has the book!

    Comment by Jon Rising — March 2, 2011 @ 12:52 pm

    • At least in some form. It’s completely unedited, though. Can’t wait for the print copy.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — March 2, 2011 @ 12:59 pm

  10. Ben Witherington’s on the warpath now. I largely agree with Ben, but asked him a question that I believe we all need to think about.

    You can read Ben’s rant at

    Comment by Jon Rising — March 2, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

  11. […] Rob Bell – Straying From Traditional Evangelicalism – Thinking Out Loud […]

    Pingback by A Rob Bell Hell Link Roundup : Sunshine & Starlight — March 4, 2011 @ 10:59 am

  12. […] Here is a link to my “review” of the book a few days ago. […]

    Pingback by More on Rob Bell: Love Wins Chapter by Chapter « Thinking Out Loud — March 4, 2011 @ 11:45 am

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