The son of a prominent American judge, Rob Bell is a young (born in 1970, now 40 years old), media-savvy and very “cool” dressing graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary. He is a rock musician, and now an evangelical pastor who founded and leads a large, new church (Mars Hill Bible Church) in suburban Grand Rapids, Michigan—the American Midwest home of numerous evangelical publishing houses.
Rob Bell is a captivating speaker who has attracted consistently large crowds to a number of well-organized national and international speaking tours. His innovative short video clips on spiritual themes circulate widely, and since 2005 he has written an impressive list of books that until just recently were almost all published by Zondervan, one of the larger evangelical presses right in Grand Rapids. He has a gift for arresting titles, which include Velvet Elvis and Sex God. But his most recent book, Love Wins (2011), published for a more mainstream market by HarperCollins, Zondervan’s big market parent company, is by far his most important and already his most controversial.
A significant cohort of gifted younger evangelical leaders has emerged today. They are all intuitively aware that the church cannot continue to do “business as usual” and hope to survive, let alone flourish in the years ahead. Already the trend lines for religion and culture have been clearly documented by social researchers: America continues toward greater secularization and pluralism, and church attendance and loyalty has been in steady decline now for decades. A loose, eclectic and subjective “spirituality” is popular, but fewer and fewer spiritual seekers are looking to “organized religion” to find satisfaction of their gnawing soul-hunger.
Rob Bell belongs to this cohort of emerging leaders, like Brian McLaren, to name just one other, who are convinced that the evangelical church status quo is simply unsustainable. Their disdain for numerous twentieth-century church practices and traditions is huge.
It is hazardous to make sweeping generalizations about the ethos and outlook of this group. But having acknowledged this risk, it is true, and potentially helpful, to observe that leaders within this group often share the so-called postmodern suspicion of organization and hierarchical structures of power. They prefer generous inclusion to the tight drawing of boundaries. They prefer humility to triumphalism. They tend to be more iconoclastic than reverent. They are often more in tune with the times than they are aware of history. They care less about doctrinal formulations and more about how faith is lived out. They like Jesus a lot, but are grieved by what they perceive as the gross dissimilarity between Jesus as the Bible portrays him and the behaviors and values of so many of those who “follow” him today.
Christians that are more conservative, in both doctrine and temperament, tend to perceive these younger leaders’ proposals for corrective change as risky and threatening. Understandably, they push back against these innovators and their radical ideas. Perhaps two of the most outstanding virtues of this group of provocateurs are their determination to be honest and their esteem of authenticity. They don’t want to play games. And that’s precisely what often gets them in trouble with their more conservative brothers and sisters.
And that brings us back to the book before us, Love Wins. On the flyleaf, Greg Boyd, another young pastor and scholar who is himself no stranger to controversy, comments that he doesn’t know of any writer “who expresses the inexpressible love of God as powerfully and as beautifully as Rob Bell.” That’s quite a commendation, and if true, quite a gift. Bell is particularly impatient with any religious structures, doctrines or attitudes that obscure the glorious, liberating, biblical vision of God’s relentless, extravagant self-giving love for every one of his wayward and suffering human creatures. With that passion fueling his ministry, he has to be considered a bona fide evangelical at heart. Celebrating and effectively communicating God’s redeeming love has always been the core genius of the evangelical tradition. It’s all too easy to get caught up in debates and controversy and lose sight of the main thing.
Rob Bell has a feisty suspicion of any traditional Christian beliefs or assumptions that appear to undermine the reality of God’s incredible love and resolve to win back his wayward children. In his own way Bell is also jealous for the reputation of God. He wants God to be perceived as perfect, winsome and compelling as in fact he is. This causes Bell to take a second look at some uncomfortable doctrines that most Bible-believing evangelicals assume are non-negotiable elements of Christian orthodoxy.
It is sad when the first reaction of many evangelicals is to try to vote Bell “off the island.” Some would rather just silence him or get rid of him than have to deal thoughtfully with his proposals and claims. This is, of course, a very anti-intellectual kind of response, and it probably reflects a fear that orthodoxy beliefs may not be able to survive sustained scrutiny. If our confidence in Scripture and the tenets of orthodox Christianity are strong, however, we will not be frightened. Rather, we will try calmly to follow (without spikes to our blood pressure) the apostolic exhortation to “test all things and hold on to the good” (1 Thess. 5:21).
So what is Love Wins really all about? The subtitle offers one answer: it is a book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived. When we dig into it, we quickly discover that Bell is acutely aware that certain traditional doctrines are hard to reconcile with the infinitely powerful and incredibly gracious and loving character of God. One that really stands out as problematic is the traditional conviction that eternal, conscious torment is the certain destiny of the overwhelming majority of the human race. Another such historical Christian assumption is that heaven will still be a tolerable, let alone joyful, experience for believers even if this dark, alternate reality of hell will simultaneously be playing out in the background for everyone else. In fact, Bell is pretty sure that it would be impossible to consider such a scenario, with hell smoldering on, as a really complete victory for God at all.
Rob Bell is not the first, nor will he be the last, evangelical Christian to raise this awkward issue. It wasn’t that long ago (2005, to be precise) that Brian McLaren, in his book The Last Word and the Word after That, put forward the same problem and registered the same criticism. That book evoked a strongly negative response from many conservative evangelicals, and McLaren’s reputation has never been quite so strong in such circles since then.
For his part, Bell does not defend the character of an all-powerful, infinitely loving God by following two popular lines of response, viz., either to propose an eventual annihilation of sinners, or to suggest that beneath the frightening metaphorical descriptions of hell is a more benign reality—a sort of kinder and gentler damnation.
Instead, Bell invites readers to consider the plausibility of a final victory of God in which no one is ultimately left behind. Here Bell plays the “mystery” card, and claims agnosticism about how God is going to pull this off. But among the possible scenarios he envisions, even some post-death probation for the more stubborn sinners is at least on the table. In other words (so the speculative scenario goes) God will allow as much time as each free and sinful individual may require before choosing God and his grace, but eventually all will be saved by God, because in the end love, not evil, must win out. Call it what you will—universal redemption, or whatever—that’s where Bell is headed, and he is quick to point out the many passages of Scripture that some have taken to suggest a final, universally positive outcome. This is not pluralism; he is not suggesting that all paths lead to God. Instead, he is advocating Christ-centered universalism. All will ultimately be saved through the merits and Spirit of Christ.
One of the curious features of Bell’s book is that in a sense he wants it both ways. He writes in a way that scornfully caricatures all options except for Christ-centered universalism, but then pulls back and says he is only arguing for humble agnosticism about the afterlife, and tolerance of a breadth of possible end-time scenarios. But if you read the book carefully, you find that there is only one view that the author portrays in a positive light.
Let me offer one comment about Bell’s coy proposal of a Christ-centered universalism as the only scenario fully consistent with the power and love of God. This is far from an original idea. In fact, it has been around since the beginnings of the Christian era, but to be honest it has always been for the most part a relatively fringe idea. However, under the influence of nineteenth-century Romanticism, which gave feeling and sensibility a high priority over reason and religious authority, and Victorian optimism, which anticipated brighter days ahead, many modern Protestants in Europe and America came to expect the complete future redemption of all humanity through Christ. This became something of a sine qua non for many theologically liberal Christians. Perhaps John Caird of Glasgow epitomized the liberal spirit and sensibility when he famously declared that he would rather spend eternity in hell than spend a single day in heaven with a God who would allow human beings to suffer eternally in hell. Even today, some conservative evangelicals remain suspicious of the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, believing that underneath his clever, and sometimes deliberately oblique, prose in defense of the Word of God lurks the old bogeyman of Christ-centered universalism.
Why all the conservative angst about Christ-centered universalism? Doesn’t it help rehabilitate God’s reputation for love and fairness? Wouldn’t any compassionate person want it to be true?
Of course they would. The problem for many biblically informed Christians is that it does not line up with all that Scripture teaches about the eschatological future.
And while universalism makes God look loving, it also implicitly relaxes the urgency of evangelism and of deciding for Christ in this life, since one way or the other it will all work out positively for everyone anyway in the end. If eternity really is perilous for the unbeliever, then universalistic notions can lull him or her into complacency. To encourage such views would then be irresponsible, even criminal. A lot is at stake here.
What then would be the chief benefit of conversion to Christ? I suppose it would be the benefit of getting an early lead on the blessings to eventually come our way; it would be to begin experiencing now the salvation that will inevitably be everyone’s through Christ. It would certainly be a significant blessing to begin to experience “now” what would otherwise be deferred to “then.”
Nevertheless, to convert now in response to the Gospel becomes optional rather than imperative and urgent. One lesson of the last century of Christian history is that churches that espouse such scenarios as end-time universalism tend to atrophy and decline. They are unable to sustain themselves. The reason seems obvious. What they offer as Gospel is optional aid, rather than vital provision, for human beings. They cease to be, in the spiritual realm, an essential service. Obviously we shouldn’t choose doctrinal positions on the basis of which ones are most likely to insure our own institutional survival. But I mention this correlation between doctrine and flourishing to underscore that a great deal is at stake in this debate.
So far we have focused on one main issue—whether Christ-centered universalism is what the Bible teaches, and what is most compatible with the loving, powerful character of God. But there are a number of other theological issues raised in Rob Bell’s book, and one of those is how we are to understand the death of Christ as an atoning event. For years, evangelicals have assumed that the doctrine of penal substitution was secure—almost on automatic pilot. While you were debating biblical inerrancy, or predestination, or how much God can know of the future, the death of Christ was locked in and safe. This is not so anymore.
The main reason the cross is under scrutiny again is the same reason the doctrine of hell has come up again. It is about apologetics—defending and commending the character of God in an age that is suspicious of violence, punishment and notions that any suffering can somehow be “redemptive.” And so we find that the sacrificial imagery of the Old Testament temple, and the messianic vision of Isaiah, and some of the apostolic teaching about the vicarious suffering nature of Christ’s death to be, well, problematic. Today some are dismissing traditional understandings of the death of Christ as an intolerable instance of “divine child abuse.” Since the landmark work of Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen in the 1950s, entitled Christus Victor, most evangelicals have come to appreciate how themes of moral influence (from Abelard) and victory over evil and death (early church) broaden and deepen our grasp of the multi-dimensional power of the cross. But most conservative evangelicals, steeped in the Pauline literature of the New Testament, see these perspectives as secondary and supplemental to the core biblical emphasis on the cross as an event of costly payment in order to restore the moral symmetry of God’s universe.
The debate among evangelicals has taken an interesting turn of late. It is a turn that has been influenced by, among others, the work of Mark Baker and Joel Green in their book entitled Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (2000). A revised edition of this book is just being released by IVP this year. With a nod toward the ideal of contextualizing theology, these evangelical authors argue that every atonement theory one can deduce from Scripture is actually a metaphor or a preaching device designed to commend the mystery of the cross. Metaphors are not doctrines, and cannot be treated as such. They are arbitrary and non-binding efforts to communicate the ineffable wonder of an event that changes lives. No one’s faith needs to be tethered to something like the concept that Christ necessarily paid the righteous punishment for our sins. If you have problems with that idea of a divine requirement of payment, dump it. It’s only a metaphor anyway. Pick one that works for you.
Admittedly the logic of penal substitution is increasingly foreign, even offensive, to twenty-first century people in the West. But unless the death of Christ constituted a real and necessary payment for sin, such that without it the forgiveness of sinners would be impossible, why was the cross so absolutely necessary in the first place? When Jesus pleaded for exemption from this ordeal, why did not the Father let him off the hook? The answer must be: Both the nature of God himself, and the structure of the moral order he has created on earth, require nothing less. God is indeed love, but his love is always consistent with all the other aspects of his character, which means that the love of God is always just love—or, as George McDonald called it, “burning love.”
Our time is limited, and we want to have time for discussion, so I will end my remarks with this reminder. Rob Bell, and a cohort of others like him, is among the most gifted young evangelical leaders we have today. We must not cannibalize them or drive them away. We must differentiate between viewpoints we disagree with, and brother and sisters in Christ with whom we are family. We need their gifts and we also need them to challenge us and at times to keep us honest.
Our engagement with them will not be complete if it consists only of evaluating their innovative ideas, and rejecting any notions inconsistent with Scripture and classic Christian orthodoxy. That is important business, to be sure, since we are, as I said earlier, to test all things and hold on to the good. But after we close our copy of Love Wins, and put it on the shelf to gather dust, we have one huge remaining obligation. That is to winsomely proclaim the character and actions of a God who may not have Rob Bell’s ideal future scenario in mind, and who may very well have found a way through the cross to reconcile his justice and his love without compromising either.
It was 1976 and I was attending my very first Urbana Missionary Conference in the dead of winter on the campus of the University of Illinois. I remember it very well, because after the final communion service, out in the freezing parking lot, shivering in her green Camaro, I kissed my future wife for the first time. I felt warm all the way back to Canada. But I also remember that the conference theme, taken from Psalm 96:3, was “Declare his glory among the nations.” That’s a biblical description of our vocation of global evangelization. An echo of that theme found its way into our wedding ceremony a year and half later, also from the Psalms (34:3): “O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.”
Those who choose to hold fast to biblical orthodoxy on such issues as the sobering destiny of the unconverted, and the necessarily costly dynamics of the cross, also have a solemn duty to present God in ways that are worthy of him and appealing to others. It’s part of what we mean when we pray: “Hallowed be your name.”
We must do this by both word and by deed, of course. It will require all the fervor and grace, and all the creativity and imagination, we can muster up. May God set our spirits free to declare his glory among the nations.