Category: Rob Bell

‘We do not endorse the subject matter and stock it [100+ copies] purely as a service…’

Interesting disclaimer on the website of one Australian Christian bookstore concerning Love Wins:

Despite stocking it only as a service, there are quite a few copies available:

I haven’t noticed any other books with a warning like this on their website. I suspect there may be slightly more dangerous books in there though…

Still, I understand their dilemma. They hardly want to be ostracised by the evangelical community or tarred with the same brush as Rob “Antichrist” Bell.

For the record, I do not endorse the contents of any of the books by John Piper on the shelves of my library. I stock them purely as a service for people who want to know what the author is writing about. Same goes much more strongly for Richard Dawkins, just in case you thought I was an atheist.

(Actually, I do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of the books on the shelves at all – they’re all there purely as such a service.)

Love Wins: A Review

Love Wins generated heated denunciations before it was even published. It is Jesus-filled, hopeful, and inspiring – and just as the conservatives warned, it points toward a (Christocentric) universalism – without quite unequivocally endorsing it.

In typical Rob Bell style, Love Wins is a generous pastoral… ramble (in the best sense) through salvation and eschatology… or ‘heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived’. He has written this book because

A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it, is in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (4)

Bell pulls apart this idea – what qualifies you to be one of the few? Does your salvation depend on having a youth pastor ‘who relates better to the kids’ when you’re a teenager? On the missionary who is coming to bring you the good news not having a flat tyre? If we grant that God might show mercy on children (because even most conservatives find it impossible to send children to hell) who die before the age of responsibility, wouldn’t the most loving thing to do be to kill every child? (8)

Bell goes on to set out his understanding of Christian hope for eternal life (‘the life of the age to come’) and the bringing of heaven to Earth. It will require judgement, the banishing of evil and injustice. He imagines heaven as a place of ‘learning how to be human all over again’ (29), a place of soil and rewarding toil as the prophets looked forward to. He writes:

It’s not about a life that begins at death;

It’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death. (33)


The flipside of this is hell, which Bell says we know is true because we see it in the world today. Examining the sayings of Jesus about hell, he says that rather than talking about hell to convert pagans, Jesus ‘talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love.’ (44) Judgement, Bell says, precedes restoration; the prophet Ezekiel even has a vision of a time when God ‘will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters’ (Ezekiel 16) – the story isn’t over even for Sodom and Gomorrah (45).

Chapter 4 is called “Does God get what God wants?”, and Bell demonstrates God’s universal salvific will  – ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2). He draws on the picture of God as the shepherd seeking out the lost sheep –

The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever. (52)

Bell uses a similar style of teaching to Jesus – a lot of questions, which point in the direction of universalism, without insisting on it. He tells of no-one less than Martin Luther being open to the idea of a post-mortem opportunity for salvation; Bell goes on to ask:

And then there are others who ask, if you get another chance after you die, why limit that chance to a one-off immediately after death? And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. As long as it takes, in other words. At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. (55)

As if he hadn’t tackled enough big issues, Bell moves on to suggest that God is at work in Christ everywhere, beyond the boundaries of the church. It is an inclusivist perspective, finding God at work wherever there is truth and goodness (as opposed to exclusivism) and that God’s work is through Christ (as opposed to pluralism which would see religions as independently valid) – he calls it ‘exclusivity on the other side of inclusivism’ (78).

Bell’s most confronting words come in the context of a chapter about the prodigal son’s older brother –

And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians. They don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable. (85)

This is the god, Bell says, who loves every person so much but will eternally punish someone in hell without any hope if they die in a car accident without accepting Jesus. ‘Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die?’ (85) Many Christians’ conviction that God does leads them to be secretly terrified of God. He sums up the entire book well in this passage:

When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity.

Life has never been about just “getting in.” It’s about thriving in God’s good world. It’s stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it’s about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy in the same good world. (87)

He goes on to say that we do not need rescuing from God and his wrath; God is the one who rescues us from death, sin and destruction (89).

Bell says in the preface that there’s nothing in his book which hasn’t been taught before; the historic, orthodox Christian faith is ‘a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years’ (6). He’s right, of course, and his book popularises ideas recently presented by Gregory MacDonald in the Evangelical Universalist as well as some (but not the universalism) from Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope. But the suggestion of universal hope is not one which has been flowing in the evangelical stream, not by a long shot, and Rob Bell has become a major evangelical figure. Nineteenth century devotional writer Hannah Whitall-Smith has routinely had chapter 22 of her autobiography excised for its embrace of universalism. ‘Gregory MacDonald’ wrote under a pseudonym to protect his position at an evangelical publishing house. When conservative pastor John Piper tweeted ‘Goodbye, Rob Bell’ and sparked the pre-publication frenzy, he was surely farewelling Bell from evangelicalism. I think there are many middle of the road or slightly right of centre evangelical churches which will farewell Rob Bell, adding him to the suspicious list and no longer playing Nooma DVDs in their youth services. Of course, he is already on the suspicious list for New Calvinists, the evangelicals in the mould of John Piper. But there will also be many of Bell’s readers who have felt so blessed by his deep love of Jesus and communication of God’s love that they will stick with him, and feel both challenged and liberated by this latest book.

‘Love Wins’ – the start of an evangelical debate about universalism? (1119 comments and counting!)

Bell’s book isn’t out till the end of the month, but already it’s generating buzz. ‘Love wins’ – everyone ends up reconciled with God. Hell is emptied. Apparently that’s the substance of his book.

I understand why conservative, moderate and even many progressive evangelicals find this disturbing or dangerous. At stake for them is motivation for evangelism and the integrity of the Bible.

Universalism has not been on the radar enough to register as a serious option for evangelicals. I wonder if this book will bring it onto the radar as one (to the chagrin of opponents) or whether it will widen the gulf between postmodern (post)evangelicals and the rest. A new test of orthodoxy? ‘Do you deny the heresy of an empty hell?’  “Gregory Macdonald” put forward a biblical case for universalism several years ago, and recently followed it up with a collection of writings from univeralist theologians over the years, called All Shall Be Well.

I don’t see much chance of this debate being irenic. There is much at stake on both sides. May there be an irenic converation in the middle and may all of us be ready to be wrong, be ready for God to speak truth through someone we least expect.

Ben Witherington on Rob Bell

New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has excellent reviews of Velvet Elvis, Sex God and the first ten Nooma DVDs.  His main criticism of Bell is some sloppy exegesis and some misunderstandings of the New Testament context. Witherington is very convincing! Overall, he is extremely positive about Bell. Witherington’s comments on Bell on homosexuality attracted 75 comments; I didn’t read them all but the conversation seems intelligent and well mannered. (Probably a lot of moderating went on.)

 For a standard Reformed kneejerk reaction against the Nooma videos, visit Ed’s Fallible Thoughts. His basic contention: he doesn’t talk about the Bible or Jesus enough. (Not true!) I like one of the responses to this – ‘You mean he doesn’t talk about substitutionary atonement’.

BTW, this blog is not going to be about Rob Bell forever! I’m just very excited by his work.

Nooma DVD 012 – Matthew : a short review

This Nooma sees Rob Bell in sombre mode; he doesn’t reach those heights of joyful intensity I saw in the previous Nooma I watched – Breathe – instead, he talks about grief and loss.

He tells the story of a friend of his who died – Matthew – and then he goes on to talk about the effects grief can have on people. The way we may find it impossible to move on.

He brings in the story of Jesus coming to see Lazarus and weeping, and how sometimes we just need to ‘get it out’.

Finally, Rob finishes by presenting God’s promise in the Bible that things will be set right one day, that we will be reunited with our loved ones.

I think the topic of grief is a good thing for a church or small group to devote time to, and this DVD (and the discussion booklet) are a good way to start people thinking and hoping.

Interpreting the Bible in Velvet Elvis: binding and loosing

From an Anabaptist perspective, what excites me most about Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis is the way in “Movement two: Yoke” it talks about using ‘binding and loosing’ to interpret the Bible together.

In Jesus’ world, it was assumed you had as much to learn from the discussion of the text as you did from the text itself. One person could never get too far in a twisted interpretation because the others were right there giving her insight and perspective she didn’t have on her own. Jesus said when he was talking about binding and loosing that ‘where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.’

Community, community, community. Together, with others, wrestling and searching and engaging the Bible as a group of people hungry to know God in order to follow God. (52)

What was new to me was Rob Bell’s claim that a ‘yoke’ was a particular rabbi’s way of interpreting scripture (‘binding and loosing’) and that this is the background to Jesus’ claim to have a light yoke.

Different rabbis had different sets of rules, which were really different lists of what they forbade and what they permitted. A rabbi’s set of rules and lists, which was really that rabbi’s interpretation of how to live the Torah, was called that rabbi’s yoke. When you followed a certain rabbi, you were following him because you believed that rabbi’s set of interpretations were closest to what God intended through the Scriptures. And when you followed that rabbi, you were taking up that rabbi’s yoke.

One rabbi even said his yoke was easy. (47)

 This is wonderful stuff. In this chapter Bell:

  1. Uses the postmodern insight that no text interprets itself; instead, it is always interpreted by people.
  2. That we need to recover the Jewish and early Christian practice of interpreting the Bible together – and that this in itself is a safeguard against excesses and false teaching.
  3. That understanding the Bible is completely tied up with understanding what the Bible calls us to do. Ethics are where the Bible gets lived out.
  4. That Jesus told us to carry on this process together – Matthew 18:15-20.

Bell’s explanation of it is much more accessible than Yoder’s treatment, or even my simplification of Yoder’s treatment! I’ll be recommending people start with it to understand binding and loosing.

(He doesn’t cover the disciplining side of binding and loosing, but he doesn’t need to, not in what he is trying to do here.)

For the text of the talk I gave on binding and loosing at the 2007 Anabaptist conference, go back to here:

For my simplification of Yoder’s Body Politics – including binding and loosing, the first chapter, go to here:

Eschatology in Velvet Elvis

One of the things that Rob Bell touches on in Velvet Elvis is eschatology. He does a great job of explaining the ‘new heavens, new earth’ idea, countering the popular misconception that the afterlife involves being sucked off to a disembodied heaven.

One of the most tragic things to ever happen to the gospel was the emergence of the message that Jesus takes us somewhere else if we believe in him. The Bible ends with God coming here. God, in the midst of people who can imagine nothing better, celebrating the life that we all share. (171)

Importantly, he looks to the garden in Genesis 2 and the city in Revelation 21-22 as pictures of our Christian hope.

In Genesis 1 and 2, we are told of a garden, but in Revelation 21 and 22, we are told of a city. A city is more advanced, more complicated than a garden. If a garden is developed and managed and cared for, it is eventually going to turn into a city. If there was no sin or death, creation would still move forward because God doesn’t just want to reclaim things; God wants to seem them move forward. (161)

Maybe, just maybe it’ll catch on! I think a better understanding of our Christian hope will give Christians a better sense of purpose to this life here and now. It’ll help them see why environmental stewardship is so important and why peace and social justice matter. We’re part of the good news! The good news that God is coming back to rule the Earth!

I’d reached a real low point in my faith in 2000. I went to talk to my friend, Ian Packer, about it. I think he must have been inspired, because instead of dealing with all the immediate problems I had with my faith, he asked me what I thought happened when I died. And I made the mistake of saying I hoped to go to heaven!

If you would like to know more on this, N.T. Wright has written some good stuff – especially ‘New Heavens and New Earth’. And then, of course, you can also read Velvet Elvis, which is much easier to get hold of.