Upcoming book by Rob Bell ignites debate over Universalism

Mars Hill pastor Rob Bellone of the leaders in the supposedly leaderless Emerging Church movement — has become the subject of a heated online debate regarding his forthcoming book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. [Kindle editionoffsite | Buy a Kindleoffsite]

The discussion erupted on Twitter and many Christian blogs after Justin Taylor, vice president of editorial at Crossway, published a blog post titled “Rob Bell: Universalist?

Taylor writes:

It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.

But it is better for those teaching false doctrine to put their cards on the table (a la Brian McLaren) rather than remaining studiously ambiguous in terminology.

So on that level, I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to 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 … full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.

In case you’re not familiar with this theological term, CNN explains:

Universalism, in its broadest terms, preaches that everyone goes to heaven and that there is no hell. Critics say it represents a break from traditional Christianity, which they say holds that heaven and hell are very real places. In most Christian circles, universalism is a dirty word.

Taylor continued his blog post by quoting from HarperCollins’s description of Bell’s book:

[I]n Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

Taylor admits he has not read the book itself, and notes that a publisher’s description usually is not written by the book’s author. However, Taylor says, “this video from Bell himself shows that he is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity:”

In response to Taylor’s comments, Bethlehem Baptist Church pastor John Piper (129,000+ followers on Twitter) tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell. http://dsr.gd/fZqmd8” linking to Taylor’s post.

That’s when the discussion took off.

CNN notes:

Bell is not the first prominent Christian pastor to be recently accused of wading into theologically troubled waters. […]

But it’s rare that theological arguments become top ten trending topics on Twitter, as Rob Bell did on Saturday.

Comments have run the gamut from implicit or explicit support for Bell to outright denouncements and declarations labeling him a heretic.

Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary responds:

The publicity surrounding Bell’s new book indicates that he is ready to answer one of the hardest questions — the question of the exclusivity of the Gospel of Christ. With that question come the related questions of heaven, hell, judgment, and the fate of the unregenerate. The Bible answers these questions clearly enough, but few issues are as hard to reconcile with the modern or postmodern mind than this. Of course, it was hard to reconcile with the ancient mind as well. The singularity of the person and work of Christ and the necessity of personal faith in him for salvation run counter to the pluralistic bent of the human mind, but this is nothing less than the wisdom of God and the power of God unto salvation.

Universalism and the various inclusivisms are exactly what Justin Taylor suggests — distortions of the Gospel that deceive the people of God (and non-Christians as well).

But what if all this is just clever advertising? What if Rob Bell’s book turns out to be an affirmation of the truth? Did Justin jump the gun?

There is good reason to doubt this. The most powerful argument about the book comes in the form of a video offered by Rob Bell himself. In the video, he pulls no punches. In his clever and artistic way, ever so artfully presented, he affirms what can only be described as universalism.

We must await the release of the full book in order to know what Rob Bell is really saying, but his advance promotion for the book is already saying something, and it is not good. The material he has already put forth does demand and deserve attention.

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.

Christian apologist Rob Bowman describes heresy as:

[d]octrine which is erroneous in such a way that Christians must divide themselves as a church from all who teach or accept it; those adhering to heresy are assumed to be lost, although Christians are unable to make definitive judgments on this matter.

Indeed, the doctrine of Universalism goes to the very heart of Christianity in that it violates an essential doctrine of the Christian faith, namely that salvation is only obtained by faith in Jesus Christ.

Theologian H. Wayne House says:

Christ and the apostles were constantly warning people of God’s wrath and judgment on sin and urgently calling them to repentance. Hence if universalism is true, Christ and the apostles were either ignorant or grossly deceptive.

The Emerging Church movement, in which Bell plays a major role, is noted for its disregard of traditional, Biblical doctrine and its preference for ‘feel good’ niceties such as Universalism.

In response to the online publicity bonanza HarperOnes has moved up the release date for the book to March 15. The publisher will present an interactive, live-stream event at which Bell will address the controversy (March 14 at 7 p.m. at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in New York City).

Christianity Today has detailed the controversy in a blog post titled, “Rob Bell’s Upcoming Book on Heaven & Hell Stirs Blog, Twitter Backlash on Universalism

Also in Christianity Today: Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context, “He’s not the first to try to resolve old biblical tensions in new ways.”

Meanwhile, Taylor has both edited and updated his post.

Research resources on Universalism

Postmodernism and the Emerging Church Movement

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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday March 4, 2011.
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