The question that has been setting the twittersphere alight over the last few weeks is this: Is Rob Bell a Universalist? It was all started off by a rather uncharitable review of his latest book, Love Wins, by someone who had not read the book. This led to a spate of similar reviews, also by those who had not read it, and a lot of name calling.
Now a review has been written by Tim Challies, and he has actually read the book. Excellent. What does he have to say? Well, the first thing to say is that Tim’s review is not written in a spirit of triumphalism and one-upmanship that characterized so many of the other reviews. However, from what Challies has written it seems that Bell might actually be promoting a universalist position. Christianity Today’s Mark Galli who has also read a pre-publication copy of the book agrees, saying Bell advocates a universalist position and fits into the liberal protestant mould which has evangelism at its heart.
Here’s a relevant quote from Bell’s book that Challies quotes:
As soon as the door is opened to Muslims. Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth.
Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.
What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody.
And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.
People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways.
Sometimes people use his name;
other times they don’t.
Some people have so much baggage with regard to the name “Jesus” that when they encounter the mystery present in all of creation—grace, peace, love, acceptance, healing, forgiveness—the last thing they are inclined to name it is “Jesus.”
What we see Jesus doing again and again—in the midst of constant reminders about the seriousness of following him living like him, and trusting him—is widening the scope and expanse of his saving work.
Assuming that Challies representation of Bell’s book is correct, this raises some questions.
1. As Bell is advocating a universalist position, is he therefore saying that there is no need for the cross of Christ? Although one of Tim’s commenters seems to think so, it does not. Bell still claims that Jesus’ sacrifice is required in order for everyone to be saved. There is still only one way to God – through Jesus – Bell just believes that all people will eventually get to it. When people start saying that it doesn’t matter how people come to God, that is pluralism, not universalism, and only then does the death of Christ becomes irrelevant.
However, I still maintain that Universalism is wrong, but not heretical. It raises questions about why, if everyone is going to be saved, should we bother with evangelism? Why did Jesus give the great commission if he knew everyone was going to believe anyway? It can only be about a better life now, knowing God in the present, as it cannot be about life after death.
Nevertheless, the weight of scripture is against such a position. Only this morning I was reading through 3 chapters of Luke and came to 4 or 5 references to hell being real and people going there. Now, we can have a debate about what that hell is like or why a loving God would allow some to go there, but those are different questions.
2. Can God still speak through someone when we disagree on a couple of points? The answer has to be ‘Yes’. I like Rob Bell and have been greatly helped by some of his teaching. Because I disagree with him on this does it mean that I cannot hear what God is saying through him on anything else? No! When we look carefully there will not be a single other Christian teacher that we agree with on everything. Calvin – great reformer, but I disagree with him on double predestination. Roy Clements wrote some decent books before he ran off with another man. The books are still good even after his public fall. Steve Chalke still says some good things even though I think he is wrong by denying penal substitution. If we want to agree with our pastor or Christian teacher on everything, we will find ourselves in a church of one. Whomever were are listening to, we need to think and engage with their words and the scriptures and not just accept their words assuming they must be right. We listen with our brains turned on.
3. How do we react when we are right and someone else is wrong? One of the most distasteful parts of this whole debate has been the triumphalism. Many seem to be rejoicing because their view of Rob has been proven right. Others are talking about the ‘tragedy’ of all the people that Rob is going to lead astray, sometimes appearing arrogant and self-righteous in their prayers for others who follow Rob. We must remember that God is Sovereign and in control and that we are not. We may not even be right on everything ourselves. We must humbly examine ourselves, be willing to be wrong on some issues, and constantly pray that God will keep us close to him, true in our motives and clear in our understanding.
4. Is it essentially different from vast portions of the church throughout history? So, one Christian leader, albeit one with a huge church and a worldwide public ministry, has said something that the reformed orthodox position would disagree with. Shock Horror – has that ever happened before? Of course it has, all throughout history. And the church is still here, and people are still Christians. As i said earlier, we must humble come before God and try to teach his truth ourselves, and we must be willing to have a debate in a spirit of humility, but it isn’t the end of the church. God is in control.