No Love for Universalism
Shannon L. Smith
Theological debate over the eternal persistence of hell doesn’t make the
mainstream news every day, but that’s what played out when Rob Bell, the
popular and charismatic pastor of the Mars Hill megachurch outside of Grand
Rapids, published Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of
Every Person Who Ever Lived. Released in March, the book triggered
heated debates within Baptist and wider evangelical circles, eliciting news
coverage by the New York Times and ABC News, and a Time
magazine cover story that ran with the headline, “What if Hell Doesn’t
stirred the pot was not so much whether hell exists but who
goes there and do they stay forever?
answers, for Bell, are, hopefully, they don’t. According to Love Wins,
there is hope that even those who have rejected Jesus Christ during their
lifetimes will have the chance to be saved, even after death. This is a view
that many evangelical leaders call “universalism” and it is, in their eyes,
many of the liveliest religious controversies of recent years, this one
began in cyberspace, with prominent evangelicals condemning Bell’s book on
their blogs and Twitter accounts even before Love Wins was released.
February 22, Bell posted a promotional video for the book on the
video-sharing website Vimeo that explained the inspiration for his
questioning. His church had hosted an art show that showcased works on
peace-making, and one of the paintings featured a quote from Gandhi. One
day, an anonymous viewer posted a note to the painting, “Reality Check: He’s
In Hell.” This jab expressed the bedrock evangelical belief that salvation
comes only to those who accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.
images of swirling paint hues and brushes striking canvas, the video shows
Bell walking along a snowy path in a turtleneck and glasses that wouldn’t be
out of place on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The he stops and asks the
audience: “Gandhi is in Hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure? And
felt the need to let the rest of us know? Will only a few select people make
it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in
asking what it takes to be among the select group of the saved, Bell offers
a critique of the central evangelical message: “What gets subtly sort of
taught and caught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of a God
is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God?”
doesn’t consider this “good news.” The real good news, Bell explains as the
video ends, “is that love wins.”
days after the promotional video was uploaded, a blogger for the evangelical
online network Gospel Coalition named Justin Taylor put up a post that
began, “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.”
Taylor went on to charge Bell with being a “full-blown
same day, the prominent pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis,
John Piper, linked to Taylor’s blog post via Twitter with the snide message,
“Farewell Rob Bell.” As far as Piper was concerned, Bell’s universalism was
grounds for excommunication.
Theological debate may be difficult in a format that limits contributions to
140 characters, but Piper’s tweet generated an outpouring of responses, with
“Rob Bell” eventually becoming a “trending topic” on Twitter. According to a
February 26 Christianity Today blog post by Sarah Pulliam Bailey,
within 24 hours, 12,000 people had shared Taylor’s post on Facebook, and it
had received over 600 comments.
noted other pastors’ responses to the Piper tweet and the Taylor post. John
Harris of Covenant Life Church also linked to Taylor’s blog post on his
twitter, but with a slightly more compassionate message, “There is nothing
loving about preaching a false gospel. This breaks my heart. Praying for Rob
everyone agreed with Piper’s reaction. Christian blogger and author Matthew
Paul Turner tweeted, “For a moment I was afraid that Rob Bell had died. But
then I realized it was just a few Calvinists hating him into a trending
Turner’s tweet named and blamed a resurgent Calvinism within the Southern
Baptist Convention (SBC), still the nation’s largest Protestant
denomination. As instituted by the 16th-century French reformer Jean Calvin,
this theology dominated American Protestantism until the end of the 18th
century, but has been a distinctly minority view since then.
Calvinist thought upholds double predestination, the doctrine that an elect
group is predestined by God to salvation, while the rest are predestined to
damnation. In this model of God’s relationship with humanity, human beings
are seen as “totally depraved” and sinful, but God’s mercy and grace are
irresistible to those whom God has chosen to give it.
model that doesn’t leave much room for human free will, emphasizing instead
God’s omnipotence and omniscience. A theological idea that far predates the
Protestant Reformation, it is powerfully associated with the 5th-century
theological titan, Augustine.
Predestinarian Calvinism was a foundational theology for American
Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists (all “Reformed”
Protestants), and even many Anglicans. But as the Great Awakening revivals
took hold at the end of the colonial period, so did the idea that humans
have a capacity to respond to God’s grace and accept salvation.
first great generation of revivalists, led by Jonathan Edwards and George
Whitefield, were Calvinists, but as revivalism underscored personal
affirmations of faith along with Jesus’s “Great Commission” to make
disciples everywhere, doubts about very limited atonement and predestination
took hold. The growing consensus was that God intended to save not a few,
but very many.
early 19th century, most American Protestants had rejected or modified the
doctrines of Calvinism that would limit human free will and stand at odds
with evangelism. Some, like the Methodists, did so entirely. Others,
including Baptists, did so more selectively, retaining such elements of
Calvinism as the doctrines of total depravity of unredeemed sinners and the
“perseverance of the saints” (the idea that a genuinely converted Christian
cannot and will not slide back out of salvation).
far end of this movement, some even began to preach that God intended to
save everyone; hence, universalism. Very few American Protestants were
willing to go that far. The hope that Bell himself expresses is that God
will save everyone out of the abundance of his love, not as a matter of
fact, in recent years, an acceptance of full-blown Calvinism in the SBC has
been growing far faster than universalism in the SBC—especially in its
seminaries. In February 2008, Christianity Today noted that while
only 10 percent of SBC pastors identify as Calvinist, almost 30 percent of
recent seminary graduates do.
many prominent Calvinist Baptists, such as John Piper himself, also consider
themselves to be “evangelical,” the debate about how to reconcile God’s
sovereignty and human free will has been brought back to the forefront. It
is now fought on questions like this: “If God has already elected a select
few for salvation, then how does Jesus’s command to ‘make disciples’ fit in?
If humans have the ability to choose salvation for themselves, then doesn’t
that limit God’s power and authority?”
questions were stewing in the SBC when Rob Bell entered the arena and
proclaimed, “Love Wins.” For Bell, the capacity of human free will to
respond to the gift of grace is crucial. Hearing the good news of Jesus
Christ may be essential, but he was also led to ask, “What happens if the
missionary gets a flat tire?”
those involved in the controversy turn to Scripture to answer their
questions. As with many theological debates, however, the problem is that
the vast compendium of the Bible includes many different passages concerning
hell, salvation, and eternity. Some suggest that salvation is for a tiny
remnant, others call all to conversion.
happened repeatedly in the history of Christian thought, when forced to
choose, religious thinkers like Bell have tended to argue that the best way
to summarize what is known about God and his disposition is to say we have
grounds to hope that eventually all have the opportunity to be saved. Bell
is willing to go so far as to say he hopes and expects that God will do that
even for people who reject Jesus in this life.
neo-Calvinists that’s outright heresy: Salvation can only come from God and
it must be made manifest during a person’s lifetime. So it is hardly
surprising that Calvinist Baptists, already on the alert for “liberal”
attempts to soften the stark realities of the divine-human relationship,
should be quick to issue condemnations.
Echoing John Piper’s contemptuous tweet, the anonymous blogger behind “The
Contemporary Calvinist” simply dealt Rob Bell out without any theological
debate. On March 16, he (or she) wrote, “The fact that this man is taken
seriously by professing Christians boggles my mind.” Then, on April 4, the
blog linked to a spoof of Bell’s promotional video in which a Bell
impersonator pontificated, “I know I’m a pastor and all, but I could make a
lot more money puzzling over silly questions than I could preaching actual
put in their own theological two cents. Albert Mohler, president of the
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville—a seminary
Christianity Today called a “Reformed [i.e. Calvinist] hotbed”—found
Bell’s alleged universalist views “a massive tragedy by any measure.” In a
March 16 post on his blog entitled “We Have Seen All This Before:
Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology,” Mohler argued that Bell
had drifted away from the “evangelical circle” and now “moves solidly within
the world of Protestant Liberalism.”
portrayed Bell as picking and choosing among Biblical passages to form his
arguments, replacing the doctrine of hell with something he sees as better,
and creating a gospel he believes will be more attractive to nonbelievers.
“Rob Bell takes his stand with those who have tried to rescue Christianity
from itself,” Mohler wrote.
DeYoung, pastor of the University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan,
and another blogger for the Gospel Coalition, was also harshly critical of
Love Wins in a March 16 blogpost titled “God is Still Holy and What
You Learned in Sunday School is Still True: A Review of Love Wins.”
DeYoung read Love Wins as appealing to those in the evangelical
community who have difficulty resolving the doctrine of hell with their
this as part of an important and lamentable trend in the modern evangelical
movement, writing, “Love Wins has ignited such a firestorm of
controversy because it’s the current fissure point for a larger fault-line.
As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural
environment, they are breaking in one of two directions—back to robust
orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical
consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors.”
Mohler and DeYoung equate “universalism” with “liberalism,” but are they
correct in doing so? Throughout his many interviews, Bell never strays from
his evangelical roots, especially when it comes to emphasizing the role of
Jesus in personal salvation.
“liberal” theology tends to begin by de-emphasizing Jesus’s divinity and
eschewing literal interpretations of Scripture. Bell still puts Jesus first.
In a March 6. 2011 interview with George Stephenopoulos on ABC’s Good
Morning America, Bell responded to accusations of heresy by saying, “I am
actually deeply compelled and fascinated by Jesus, and I think the orthodox
historic Christian tradition is a vast diverse conversation that’s been
going on for thousands of years and I think Jesus can handle the
indeed, a lot of influential evangelicals don’t view Bell as a heretic.
Richard J. Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary-—Bell’s alma
mater—defended Bell and discredited accusations that he is a universalist in
his blog, “Mouw’s Musings.” On March 15, in a post entitled “The Orthodoxy
of Rob Bell,” Mouw compared Bell’s “generous orthodoxy” to that of Billy
Graham is no universalist,” he wrote. “But he has come to a theology of
salvific generosity, a perspective that he combines with a passionate
proclamation of the message that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth and the
Life. For me—and I am convinced for Rob Bell—it doesn’t get any better than
didn’t take long for the commotion on Twitter and in the blogosphere to be
picked up by larger media outlets. On March 4, Erik Eckhold of the New
York Times contributed “Pastor Stirs Wrath With His Views on Old
Questions,” which summarized the Internet buzz surrounding Taylor’s blogpost
and Piper’s tweet. Bell’s “book comes as the evangelical community has
embraced the Internet and social media to a remarkable degree, so that a
debate that once might have built over months in magazines and pulpits has
instead erupted at electronic speed.” Eckhold wrote.
following month, Love Wins was on the cover of Time. In the
story, author John Meacham called Bell a leader in a movement within
Christianity that is “less judgmental, more fluid, [and] open to questioning
the most ancient assumptions.” As Bell said to him, “I have long wondered if
there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian.
Something new is in the air.”
Time cover drove Mohler back to his blog to worry about the church’s
response to the new universalist threat. “The real question is now whether
the church has sufficient biblical conviction to resist this doctrinal
seduction,” he wrote. “Otherwise, it may well be that Rob Bell’s ‘massive
shift’ is the shape of things to come.”
one to ignore a cry that the sky is falling, the SBC immediately ginned up a
damnation-affirming resolution for its annual convention in Phoenix in June.
With the temperature outside reaching fire-and-brimstone levels, the
delegates in the Phoenix Convention Center voted to designate Hell as an
“eternal, conscious punishment.”
Bell, on September 22 he announced that he would be leaving Mars Hill, where
he had spent the previous 12 years preaching, in order to reach a “broader
audience.” First up was a seven-city “Fit to Smash Ice” tour in November.
the release of Love Wins, “Fit to Smash Ice” drew its share of
criticism. “Speaking tours feed the ego—all applause & no responsibility,”
tweeted evangelical superstar pastor-author Rick Warren. “It’s an unreal
world. A church gives accountability & validity.”
Whether or not Rob Bell has truly sniffed something new in the air and can
capitalize on it, the controversy he has stirred up points to the divided
self of America’s largest Protestant denomination.
leadership cadres, rising Calvinism testifies to anxiety that the SBC is
losing its doctrinal edge, that too many of its members are succumbing to
the view that religion is more about what feels good to you than what gets
you into heaven. But at the same time, shrinking numbers have created an
urgency to freshen the brand and step up the outreach.
February, a denominational task force charged with considering a change of
name—the “Southern” in SBC had been deemed too parochial—decided against so
radical a move, but nonetheless proposed authorizing members to identify
themselves as “Great Commission Baptists.” Like it or not, that pushes back
into Rob Bell territory.