Mars Hill pastor Rob Bell is the subject of a heated online debate regarding his recently published book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. [Kindle edition | Buy a Kindle]
In the book Bell challenges traditional Christian views of heaven, hell and eternal damnation. Critics says he appears to to promote the heresy of universalism — the notion that all humans will eventually be saved regardless of whether or not they made peace with God by accepting Jesus Christ as their savior.
Bell never uses the term in his book, and some people — mindful of the fact that the pastor is a savvy marketer — have wondered whether the issue, pushed with the help of an ambiguous promotional video made by Bell, was just a clever form of advertising.
Prior to the book’s publication Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary noted:
The Emerging Church movement is known for its slick and sophisticated presentation. It wears irony and condescension as normal attire. Regardless of how Rob Bell’s book turns out, its promotion is the sad equivalent of a theological striptease.
The Gospel is too precious and important to be commodified in this manner. The questions he asks are too important to leave so tantalizingly unanswered. Universalism is a heresy, not a lure to use in order to sell books. This much we know, almost a month before the book is to be released.
Bell is widely viewed as one of the leaders in the supposedly leaderless Emerging Church movement. That movement has turned into a sect of Christianity due to the fact that many of its followers reject or reinterpret biblical doctrines on the basis of their feelings and emotions rather than sound principles of interpretation.
On Monday night, dressed in black and sporting his trademark black-rimmed glasses, Bell strolled quietly into the auditorium of the New York Ethical Culture Society. This was his chance to hit back.
“I never set out to be controversial,” Bell told CNN before the event. “I don’t think it’s a goal that God honors. I don’t think it’s a noble goal.
“What’s interesting to me is what’s true. And what’s interesting to me is what’s inspiring. And what’s interesting to me is where’s the life? Where’s the inspiration? That’s what I’m interested in. If that happens to stir things up, that was never my intent, but I’ll accept that.”
Bell said he was surprised by the controversy around his book. Critics said he was preaching universalism, a theology that suggests everyone goes to heaven and hell is empty.
“I’m not a universalist. So that’s just not true.” He reiterated that again in the event that evening where he expounded on that idea and said that he didn’t believe God reaches down and sweeps everyone to heaven.
He will tell you he again and again he is a pastor, not a theologian or a biblical scholar.
But for a guy who dresses in black, Bell has made his mark examining the gray areas of Christianity. His questioning of traditional approaches without always giving answers has brought him fans and made his critics gnash their teeth.
Bell was in New York City to sit down with Newsweek’s Lisa Miller for a conversation on stage and take questions from the 650 audience members and thousands more watching the event streaming live on the Web.
Before the crowds arrived, a contemplative Bell settled into a pew to talk with CNN about the book and to answer his critics.
The book began, he said, five years ago. “As a pastor, you interact with so many people [that] some of the same questions keep coming up. And ultimately you keep bumping up against what people really think about God.”
In his church and around the country, he saw what he considered a misrepresentation of the Christian narrative in the Bible.
“At the heart of the Christian story is [the message that] God loves the world and sent his son Jesus to show the world this love. So that’s fundamentally first and foremost the story. God is love and God sent Jesus to show this love.
“In our culture Christians are known for a number of other things. … Rarely do you hear people say, ‘Oh yeah, those are the people who never stop talking about love. Oh a Christian church – that’s where you go if feel beaten down and kicked and someone has their boot on your neck. You go there because it’s a place of healing and a place of love.’
“I’m passionate about calling people back to [Christianity’s] roots,” Bell said. […]
“The fundamental story arc of the Bible,” he said “is God is passionate about rescuing this world, restoring it renewing it. So discussions about heaven and hell … for many people are irrelevant and esoteric. … But what happens is, what you believe about heaven and hell deeply shapes how you engage this world now.”
Bell said if a believer has their eyes on heaven, they can miss the opportunities to bring people a taste of heaven here on Earth – and they can miss seeing the hell around them.
For Christians who see salvation and heaven as crucial elements to their faith, Bell’s message can be abrasive – which in part led to so many people pouncing on his book before it was released.
What stirred many critics was a promotional video in which Bell asks whether Mohandas Gandhi, India’s non-violent leader, was in heaven. Bell’s answer offers a good insight into his view of salvation.
Bell would not be surprised if he saw Gandhi in heaven. “Jesus was very clear. Heaven is full of surprises. That’s central to Jesus teaching.”
Bell insists there is room for mystery in salvation and that Christianity is open to discussion.
“The historical orthodox Christian faith is extremely wide and diverse,” Bell said. “No one has the last word other than God. I am taking part in a discussion that’s been going on for thousands of years. Everyone can play a part in that discussion.”