On March 15th, 2011 a book titled Love Wins was published by HarperOne. The book was authored by Rob Bell, a popular emergent pastor and the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Even before the book was officially released, it has sparked a controversy throughout the Evangelical landscape. Evangelical leaders such as Al Mohler and John MacArthur have responded and many lesser known Evangelicals have done so as well, in an historic moment for Evangelical Christianity in which the internet is used at an unprecedented scale as a means of responding to a theological controversy. The controversy can be understood in light of the book’s subtitle: A book about Heaven, Hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.
In fact, the controversy began before the book was even officially published, when the publishers released a promotional video clip for the book featuring Bell walking and asking questions. The controversy has caught the attention of the secular world. Time Magazine even devoted their April 25th, 2011 edition to Love Wins and had their front cover asking the question, “What If There’s No Hell?”
In light of the fact that many Conservative Evangelicals have already responded to Bell’s book, one might asks why another essay on Love Wins. The purpose of this essay will offer a critique of the theological method behind Bell’s soteriology. Since there are debates as to what exactly Bell believes concerning salvation, the first section of this paper will construct Bell’s position from his own writings in print, as opposed to being dependent upon secondhand sources in understanding Bell’s position. This essay will attempt to accurately portray and interact with Bell’s position rather than a straw man. After documenting Bell’s soteriology, it is important to understand and interact with the method of how Bell arrives at his conclusion. The second section of this paper will explore some of the Scriptural references Bell offers, noting how the proper interpretation of these passages fail to lead to Bell’s conclusion. In examining Bell’s biblical data, this section will argue that that the basis for Bell’s theology is not the result of an overarching hermeneutical scheme of interpreting Scripture, it is more likely that Bell’s scriptural arguments were an ad hoc attempt to gather proof texts to have tacked on after Bell has already arrive at his conclusion through other means. The root of Bell’s theological methodological behind his soteriology seems to originate from his precommitments made prior to his reading of the Scripture. These theological and meta-religious precommitments are the subjects of scrutiny in the third and final section of the paper.
Rob Bell’s Soteriology
There has been concern that Bell subscribe to universalism in his soteriology. In his book on an Evangelical theology of religion, Todd Miles provides the common definition of universalism: “universalism (or universal reconciliation), describes those who believe that in the end, all will be reconciled to God.” There are more than one form of universalism, such as the pluralistic or inclusivistic strand. The inclusivistic subset of universalism sees the importance of Christ’s work on the cross for the salvation of people which pluralistic univeralists would deny. This inclusivistic universalism is also called Christian universalism. Miles provide a helpful working definition for Christian universalism:
Christian universalism, sometimes called universal reconciliation, is the doctrine that the final holiness and happiness of all humans will be brought about by the grace of God through the life and work of Jesus Christ. The work of Christ is decisive and necessary to bring about the consummated end for all.
In an MSNBC interview on the day the book was officially released, Rob Bell was asked by interviewer Martin Bashir, “So are you a universalist who believes that everyone can go to heaven regardless of how they respond to Christ on earth?” It was helpful that Bashir did not just used the label universalist but also specify what he meant with the term in his question. Bell’s answer to Bashir was, “In regards to the question, ‘Are you a universalist?’, I would say first and foremost, no.” For some, Bell’s denial of being a universalist is surprising.
The definition of universalism includes the fate of everyone in the end will be saved. In tackling this question of whether all will be saved, Bell in Love Wins believed that the answer is currently a mystery: “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.” According to this citation from Love Wins, Bell pleads ignorance to the question of whether all will be saved. Bell’s statement here resonate with his denial on MSNBC that he is a universalist, since he cannot say everyone is going to heaven when he does not know.
Discussion of whether Bell is a universalist must also take into account Bell’s unique conception of heaven and hell. For Bell, heaven is not so much a description of physical location or a specific era as it is a state of being in relations to God: “when Jesus talked about heaven he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come. Heaven for Jesus wasn’t just ‘someday’; it was a present reality. Jesus blurs the lines, inviting the rich man, and us, into the merging of heaven and earth, the future and present, here and now.” Likewise, hell does not describe a location as it is an individual’s state of being: “Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.” “Again, then, we create hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of our story.” Bell rejects a literal hell in which God is punishing sinners. Asking the question of whether or not Bell believes everyone will one day be rescued out of a physical place call hell and moved to a new location call heaven does not make sense in Bell’s framework, since his eschatology presupposes that those who are in the mental state of “hell” and “heaven” are actually going to be in the same physical place when they die, before the joyous presence of God. The picture of eternity is this: “We’re at the party, but we don’t have to join in. Heaven or hell. Both at the party.” Hell is being at the glorious party of God after one’s death but “refusing to join in the celebration. Hell is being at the party. That’s what makes it so hellish. It’s not an image of separation, but one of integration. In this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined interwoven, bumping up against each other.”
In light of Bell’s understanding of what hell is, one might say that Bell is a universalist since there is no doubt that everyone will arrive at the same physical destination of God’s blessing (what traditionally has been called heaven or the new earth). In Bell’s view the question is what one’s attitude would be upon arriving at the same location where everyone else is at in the afterlife: will the individual join in with all the festivity of God, or will they chose for themselves not to enjoy the party? Within Bell’s framework, when an individual dies, the issue is not whether that person will be separated from God (a question of salvation), but whether the individual is going to have a loving and obedient response of joy before His Heavenly presence (a question of sanctification). The mystery for Bell is whether everyone in the end will give up their own self-imposed hell and trust in God’s love instead. Bell’s eschatology seems open to post-mortem ability to exit this hellish state, given how strongly Bell reacts against the idea that there is no hope for reconciliation for the unrepentant sinner after death.
Again, though on the one hand Bell appeals to mystery with the question of the “fate” of all who have died, this does not mean Bell has nothing else to say on whether or not everyone will be reconciled to God. Bell in Love Wins asserts that universalism is part of the historic Christian faith going as far back as the “first church” itself, and even presents arguments for universalism:
At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God. To reflect on these perspectives we’ve briefly covered, two observations and then a picture from the end of the Bible.
Notice from the quote above how Bell believes universalism to be “at the center of Christian tradition” early in the church’s history. The two “observations” and one “picture from the end of the Bible” Bell gives are actually arguments for universalism: he appeals to the need of pluralism, gives an abductive argument that account for universalism as a “better story” than other soteriological positions, and an argument based upon Revelation 21:25. It is important to realize that these arguments are presented favorably by Bell and nowhere in Love Wins does he express his problems with them. In fact, the three sets of arguments are quite similar with his arguments given throughout the book against exclusivism. Exclusivism in soteriology refers to the belief that only one faith actually brings an individual into contact with God. Bell’s soteriology explicitly rejects exclusivism, believing that there is room for a more “generous” Christianity:
Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about ‘hell and torment and all that.’ Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christian will ‘go to heaven’ when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it. One place or the other, no looking back, no chance for a change of heart, make your bed now and lie in it…forever. Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives.”
Similar expressions by Bell appear throughout Love Wins, such as the following:
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 change 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 Christianity. 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.
Note in the excerpt above, Bell rejects Christian exclusivism being the “central truth” of the Christian faith, which should be understood in light of his view that universalism have enjoyed the status of being at the center of Christianity since the first church. Note also how Bell expressed his view that exclusivism is “misguided,” “toxic,” and subversive to Jesus’ message.
Bell’s rejects exclusivism since his soteriology embraces a modified form of Christian inclusivism. Inclusivism is the belief that while one religion is ultimately true, others outside of that faith might be able to attain salvation. While Bell states that he does believe John 14:6 to be exclusive, he believes it is exclusive in such as a way as to be “on the other side on inclusivity,” whatever that might mean. Though Bell suggests that he believes John 14:6 indicates Christianity to be “exclusive,” in actuality Bell subscribes to an inclusivist type of soteriology when he commented further about the verse:
This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum. 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. Not true. 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.
When Bell stated in the above that Jesus has left all sorts of possibilities for salvation, it seems that he was quite literal about it. Bell has also commented on John 14:6 and the means and mechanism of salvation:
What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claim that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.
According to Bell, the means that God brings people to salvation through Jesus might not even result in people knowing the name of Jesus:
At the same time, there are Christians who have raised support, gathered supplies, traveled thousands of miles into the farthest reaches of the globe to share the good news of Jesus with ‘unreached people,’ who upon hearing of Jesus for the ‘first time,’ respond, ‘That’s his name? We’ve been talking about him for years…’ As Jesus says in John 10, ‘I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen.’
Bell believes that some people even “come to Jesus” despite being unwilling to identify that the person they met was named Jesus:
People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways. Sometimes people bump into Jesus, they trip on the mystery, they stumble past the word, they drink from the rock, without knowing what or who it was. This happened in the Exodus, and it happens today. The last thing we should do is discourage or disregard an honest, authentic encounter with the living Christ. He is the rock, and there is water for the thirsty there, wherever there is. We are not threatened by this, surprised by this, or offended by this. 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.’
The last two quotes above indicates the extent of what Bell means when he said Jesus had opened up all kind of possibilities to bring people to salvation. Bell believes the means Jesus employ to draw people to Himself include means which allow people not to know His name or even to acknowledge that the person they met was named Jesus. Evangelicals would hold that knowing Jesus’ name is important for salvation and also knowing His blood atonement made for sins. For Bell, not only is the name of Jesus not important for Jesus to save people, even Jesus’ vicarious atonement is not that important. In fact, Bell questions the relevance of this doctrine for our day and age:
There’s nothing wrong with talking and singing about how the ‘Blood will never loses its power’ and ‘Nothing but the blood will save us.’ Those are powerful metaphors. But we don’t live any longer in a culture in which people offer animal sacrifices to the gods. People did live that way for thousands of years, and there are pockets of primitive cultures around the world that do continue to understand sin, guilt, and atonement in those ways. But most of us don’t.
To be fair, Bell does not deny substitutionary atonement, affirming many metaphors for Christ’s work on the cross though he believes no explanation or metaphor should be elevated other the others. Just as Bell question the relevance of Christ’s blood to atone for sins in order to receive salvation in today’s culture, sin itself is irrelevant to his gospel message: “Your deepest, darkest sins and your shameful secrets are simply irrelevant when it comes to the counterintuitive, estatic announcement of the gospel.”  Bell adds, “It simply doesn’t matter when it comes to the surprising unexpected declaration that God’s love simply is yours.” Here, the core of Bell’s gospel comes down to God’s love. Such a gospel then is more about God’s present love for all than about Jesus and His blood sacrifice for our sins. The ramification of Bell’s gospel leads to a dramatic shift in terms of what missions looks like:
Missons then is less about the transportation of God from one place to another and more about the identification of a God who is already there. It is almost as if being a good missionary means having really good eyesight. Or maybe it means teaching people to use their eyes to see things that have already been there; they just didn’t realize it. You see God where others don’t. And then you point him out.
Have you ever heard missionaries say they were going to ‘take Jesus’ to a certain place? What they meant, I assume, was that they had Jesus and they were going to take him to a place like China or India or Chicago were people apparently didn’t have him. I would ask them if people in China and India and Chicago are eating and laughing and enjoying things and generally being held together? Because if they are, then Jesus, in a way that is difficult to fully articulate, is already present there. So the issue isn’t so much taking Jesus to people who don’t have him, but going to a place and then telling them who you believe is the source of all that.”
Bell’s gospel message of God’s love means that Bell believes missions and evangelism is more about telling people of Jesus who is already present in their lives, who is the source of everything and that the proof of Jesus already being among them is found in their eating, laughing and enjoying things.
Here one needs to understand that though Bell is inclusivistic, it is not the standard Christian form of inclusivism. The typical form of Christian inclusivism acknowledges that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the basis for true salvation, though the recipients of salvation might not be aware of it. For Bell, there seems to be less the centrality of the cross as the true basis of salvation and more of God’s love in general. While not denying Christ’s work on the cross, this facet is not what is most important in Bell’s gospel message, which mainly is about God’s general love. The likely message Bell would deliver to an unbeliever is that Jesus already is in his or her mist, rather than the story of Jesus’ rescue of sinners by dying for their sins. In fact, for Bell the discussion of Christ’s work on the cross to rescue sinners can pose a problem to the main point of God’s love:
Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sins, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God.
In summary, Bell’s soteriology at a superficial glance seems to deny universalism, but in light of his understanding of heaven and hell, his position is universalistic in the sense that there is no literal physical hell and everyone will be at the same place of God’s blessing when they die, though the heart attitude of each individuals will be different when they get there. Bell’s soteriology explicitly deny exclusivism, taking on the form of an inclusivism that believes the reality of Jesus saving people involving many means with the basis of salvation found in God’s love in general.
Rob Bell’s Proof Texts
Space does not permit a lengthy treatment of all the passages that Bell quotes or referenced in Love Wins. The task of responding to common inclusivist or universalists proof text is put in perspective by Miles when he writes: “Defending the uniqueness of Christ and the necessity of gospel proclamation and belief in Christ does not allow for much creativity. Many excellent books have been devoted to the defense of exclusivism, arguing for the necessity of conscious faith in Christ for salvation.” Certainly there are good Christian works responding to the common proof texts used by inclusivists and universalists. What follows is a survey of some of the verses Bell use to support his soteriology, for the purpose of demonstrating that Bell’s position does not enjoy Biblical support and to make some observation of his general hermeneutics in Love Wins.
The hermeneutics that leads Bell to believe that the Bible suggests universalism is based upon an unspoken principle that every time Bell finds an “all” in the text it must be understood as referring to universal redemption of every individual. Verses that Bell believes imply universalism include Matthew 19:28 which talks about the “renewal of all things” and Acts 3:21 which refers to a “period of restoration of all things.” The best approach in understanding these verses and other similar proof texts for universalism is to situate the verses first in its immediate context, then the context of the book itself and the entirety of the canon of Scripture as well.
The reference to the “renewal of all things” in Matthew 19:28 cannot refer to a universal redemption of all souls since two and three chapters later Jesus gives the parable of the wicked tenets (Matthew 21:33-44) and the parable of the marriage feasts (Matthew 22:1-14). Both parables describe the judgment of God and the later even include a reference to a physical place of separation and suffering (Matthew 22:13). Jesus ends the parable of the marriage feast by stating “For many are called, but few are chosen.” This exclusion is also evident in Matthew 7:21-23, where Jesus stated that not everyone shall enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 7:21) and some will be excluded (Matthew 7:23). Considering the context of Matthew, it does not seem likely that the best interpretation of Matthew 19:28 favors universalism.
The interpretation of Acts 3:21 that “the period of restoration of all things” implies an inevitable future universal salvation does not follow from the immediate context of the verse. Two verses later Peter states, “And it will be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people” (Acts 3:23). This verse indicates that it is possible for some not to be saved. The possibility that not all people will be saved explains why the Apostle Paul would preach to the Athenians to repent in light of God’s coming judgment in Acts 17:30-31. Interpreted in light of biblical theology, the Bible elsewhere contradicts the possibility of universalism. Interpreting Acts 3:21 as favoring universalism is incompatible with its immediate and larger canonical context.
Bell’s soteriology also states that the gospel has already been made available to everyone in every culture and every religion. His soteriology then entails a theology of religion that views other religions favorably. As he articulates it, he finds this support in Colossians 1:23:
The gospel, Paul writes in his letters to the Colossians, ‘has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven’ (chapter 1). Every. Creature. Under. Heaven. As wide as creation. Including everybody. The whole world. This is crucial for how we understand the current state of world religions, with its staggering number of religion themselves, let alone the multitudes of splinter groups and subgroups and denominations and factions and varied interpretation.
There are problems with this interpretation. First, the verse itself does not talk about other faith and religion in relations to the gospel here. Second, the rest of the book of Colossians does not teach a favorable view of other religion or theology when they are contrary to the teachings of Christ. Paul warns the Colossians not to be taken captive by philosophies, empty deceptions and the religious traditions of men (Colossians 2:8) and informs his readers that the religious teachings of self-abasement and angel worship are wrong (Colossians 2:18; 2:20-23). There are some religious experiences which Paul sees as being disconnected from the “head” which is Christ (Colossians 2:18b-19). Bell cannot derive his theology of religion based upon Colossians 1:23 when one considers the context of the rest of the book of Colossians.
Another proof text for Bell’s theology of religion is John 10:16. It states, “I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.” Again, the context does not support Bell’s interpretation that this verse imply that people in other religions and culture already know Jesus before missionaries share them the gospel. Nowhere does this verse state that. The context of the book of John makes it clear that salvation requires believing in the person of Jesus Christ. This is repeatedly affirmed in John 3:16, 5:24, 8:24, 10:25-26, 11:26 and 20:30. In light of the context in the book of John, John 10:16 cannot be used to imply that God has saved some apart from belief in Jesus Christ.
Bell’s theology of religion as it pertains to soteriology is influenced by his view that Christ is already present in every culture in every place. Recall earlier that this had profound implication for how Bell believes what missions ought to look like. Bell appeal to 1 Corinthians 10:4 for biblical support, which was Paul’s summary of an event with Moses during the Exodus: “And all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” Bell believed that Moses’ rock that sprang forth water was Jesus because “Paul finds Jesus there, in that rock, because Paul finds Jesus everywhere.” From this insight Bell titles a chapter in Love Wins, “There are Rocks Everywhere” from which he developed his theology of religion. Though Bell might wish 1 Corinthians 10:4 supports the idea that Christ is already present in every culture, there are some problems with his interpretation. Bell’s hermeneutics is defective here. To begin with, Bell believes on the basis of this verse that if Paul could find Jesus in that rock, it somehow leads to the conclusion that Paul’s theology would have found Jesus everywhere. This does not logically follow since Bell assumes that what is the case in one part of God’s creation (the rock) must be true in the whole. This is a fallacy of composition. Secondly, Bell commits a categorical fallacy. If one were to assume upon the basis of this verse that Jesus is present, this does not mean that Jesus is present in every culture. Though Christ in His Divinity will be all present in created space, this is not the same as saying that every culture has Christ redemptively. They are two separate categories, and the distinction must not be muddled.
Though Bell has chide Christians for being narrow and keeping people “out,” it is unfortunate that Bell’s discussion failed to interact with any arguments offered by the other side. Apart from telling anecdotes of silly Christians, Bell failed to interact with any serious teacher or scholar that does not share his view. Love Wins failed to take into account verses that are commonly cited against universalism and other aspects of his soteriology with the exception of Bell’s discussion of John 14:6.
According to Bell’s interpretation of John 14:6, he does not believe that the verse provide the means and method of how individuals would receive salvation through Jesus, and conclude from this that there are many possibilities when it comes to the means of getting saved. Apparently these methods of people “coming to Jesus” include ways which does not require an individual to admit that they know Jesus. This is contrary to what the following verse teaches about the requirement of knowing Jesus as a way to the Father: “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.” Furthermore, just because John 14:6 might not say how to receive the salvation Jesus provides this does not mean then that there many methods possible. Bell commits a logical fallacy of argument from silence here. In addition, Bell does not consider the input from the rest of the book of John that affirms the means Christian receive Christ’s saving work is by believing in Him.
Given that Bell’s soteriology must also be understood in light of his unique understanding of heaven and hell one must also analyze the verses he gives to support his position. Bell turns to the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32 to support his idea that hell is an inner state of an individual rather than an actual physical location separated from God. He believes the parable show that those in “hell” are actually with everyone else physically in the afterlife, though in their inner state they fail to participate in all the heavenly excitement. Bell explains,
Jesus puts the older brother right there in the party, but refusing to trust the father’s version of his story. Refusing to join in the celebration. Hell is being at the party. That’s what makes it so hellish. It’s not an image of separation, but one of integration. In this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined interwoven, bumping up against each other.
Bell’s argument rests upon the interpretation that the older son is “right there in the party.” However Luke 15:28 reveals how this older son “became angry and was not willing to go in” to the party. The fact that the older son was not there physically at the place of celebration is clear when “his father came out and began pleading with him” (Luke 15:28b). The son who chose not to celebrate and those who were celebrating were not physically in the same place “bumping up against each other.”
Bell’s view of hell in the afterlife leads him to suggest the possibility (however slight) that one can escape this “hell” even postmortem if the individual changes his or her heart. He bases his argument upon Revelation 21:25 with the following explanation:
We read in these last chapter of Revelation that the gates of that city in that new world will ‘never shut.’ That’s a small detail, and it’s important we don’t get too hung up on details and specific images because it’s possible treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process. But gates, gates for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go.
As Bell himself admits, his argument here might not be as strong as he would like. While the gates here are describe as never being closed, two verses later the function of the gates are specified. These gates are for the purpose of exclusion rather than inclusion. The apostle John in Revelation 21:27 make it clear that “only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” will be able to enter into the gates. Prior to Revelation 21, Jesus would have already judge all those who have ever lived (Revelation 20:11-13). Not everyone’s name would be found in the book of life (Revelation 20:15a). Thus, if they were not already named in the book of life, they would not qualify at the outset of entering into the gate. There is no post-mortem hope. Those whose names are absent from the book of life are described as being cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15b). These people will be at a physical location separate from the city of God, which fits more the description of the traditional concept of hell rather than Bell’s conception of hell.
One cannot help but to notice that Bell’s hermeneutics at times assume certain things that were read into the text rather than from the text. From the examples above, Bells used Colossians 1:23, John 10:16 and 1 Corinthians 10:4 to support his theology of religion but the subject of these verses were not about other religions per se. Bell cites the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32 to support his concept of hell, but the passage nowhere talks about hell. If the interpretation of these passages stray so far off that the interpretation is not even the subject (theology of religion, hell, etc) of the text at all, one has to assume that the interpretations were read into the text rather than from the text, even if one believes Bell sincerely believed in his interpretation. Since Bell’s interpretation of the text of scripture is heavily shaped by things prior to his reading of the scripture, it is important to interact with these theological pre-commitments.
Rob Bell’s Theological Pre-Commitment
The central theological pre-commitment that shapes Bell’s soteriology is his concept of God’s love. Early in the book, Bell identifies this as his first and foremost principle: “First I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.” It is the basis of Bell’s understanding of God’s love that “compels us to question some of the dominant stories that are being told as the Jesus story.” Bell strongly believe that God is love, and question whether the Evangelical presentation of God as judge who send sinners to hell for eternity would be compatible with the understanding of God as a loving Father. Bell’s reaction towards the portrait of God in the Evangelical gospel is expressed with very strong words:
If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good. Loving one moment, vicious the next. Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye. Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die? That kind of God is devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can. 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.
Bell’s concept of God’s love makes him susceptible to reject hell as traditionally understood and to doubt whether God will only redeem those who make a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Due to God’s love, Bell believes God has no desire to inflict pain on anyone.
Given the priority that Bell places on his doctrine of God’s love, it is the least negotiable pre-commitment in Bell’s theological system. Other doctrines are subject to scrutiny. The acceptance, rejection or modification of doctrines would be based upon it’s relationship to God’s love as Bell conceives of it. Therefore, due to Bell’s understanding of God’s love, he is led to believe that the Evangelical’s story of Jesus has been hijacked: “There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.”
Bell gives a theological argument to justify his understanding of why God’s love is so great that He won’t send people to hell. He argues that God’s glory is robbed when He sends people to hell: “Restoration brings God glory, eternal torment doesn’t. Reconciliation brings God glory, endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return causes God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn’t.” But this would not be the understanding of the Apostle John in Revelation. After witnessing the vision of God’s destructive punishment upon Babylon in Revelation 18, the Apostle of love saw “a great multitude in heaven, saying, ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God” (Revelation 19:1b). A glorious worship of God ensues in heaven, even praising God for his judgment (Revelation 19:2). Those in heaven are praising God for His glory. God’s judgment of sin does not rob God of His glory. He gets glory even when He does not reconcile everything to Himself. This same passage reveals that God is able to get glory even by hurting sinners. And this was a story about God that the Apostle John was interested in telling.
Bell correctly identifies that God’s love is based upon the fact that God Himself is love.  There is a relationship between Bell’s doctrine of God and his soteriology, where his theology proper shapes his doctrine of salvation. Throughout Love Wins, it seems the only attributes of God that is mentioned is God’s love. Bell does not say whether there are any other attributes of God and if there are how these other attributes of God inter-relate with God’s love. This elevation of a single attribute of God without considering the unity of the rest of God’s attributes contribute heavily to the problem in Bell’s soteriology. When it comes to soteriological questions, Bell does not interact with the relationship of God’s love with His holiness, righteousness and wrath. It is appropriate to say that God’s attribute of love is the only thing that matters to Bell. This should not be. In his discussion on the unity of God’s attribute, Wayne Grudem writes, “Moreover, the doctrine of the unity of God should caution us against attempting to single out any one attribute of God as more important than all the others. At various times, people have attempted to see God’s holiness, or his love, or his self-existence, or his righteousness, or some other attribute as the most important attribute of his being.” These words are sobering corrective for Bell’s theological method.
Since God’s love is the only attribute that Bell brings to bear in his soteriology, what Bell has reclaimed as Jesus’ story ends up trivializing the blood atonement of Jesus Christ and the weight of sin in God’s eyes. Yet these themes rest at the heart of Christianity and the story Bell tells goes contrary to the story that Jesus and the Bible are interested in telling.
It is important for Bell that if it can be demonstrated that the severity of sin in God’s eyes and the blood atonement of Jesus Christ are stories Jesus told, Bell should submit himself to believe and to tell the Evangelical version of the Jesus’ story, though it might be hard for him in his natural mind to accept it. This principle is the basis for Bell’s own admonition towards unbelievers who wishes to have nothing to do with Jesus when Christians claim that Jesus is God:
This is an astounding claim, and one that causes many to get off the bus at the nearest stop. To often there, too mythic, premodern, or superstitious to be taken seriously in our modern world. Haven’t we evolved past such nonsense? God became a man? It’s a common protest, and it’s understandable. It is, at the same time, unavoidable. It’s the heart of the Jesus story.
Bell then proceeds to attack the autonomy of unbelievers in thinking that as finite human being in their own subjective mind can be the great arbitrator of what can and cannot be:
If you find yourself checking out at this point, finding it hard to swallow the Jesus-as-divine part, remember that these are ultimately issues that ask what kind of universe we believe we’re living in. Is it closed or open? Is it limited to what we can conceive of and understand, or are there realities beyond the human mind? Are we the ultimate orbiter of what can, and cannot, exist?
The same challenge Bell throws down to the nonbeliever is the same challenge directed towards Bell himself: if the blood atonement atonement of Jesus Christ and the severity of sin in light of God’s holiness is at the heart of the story Jesus told, though Bell might struggle with making sense of it in light of what he understands God’s love to be, Bell should nevertheless forfeit the office of adjudicating what can or cannot be, and accept what Jesus and the Bible has to say.
Jesus understood God’s righteous and through this understood the severity of sin in God’s eyes, something that Bell finds irrelevant to the gospel since God’s love would accept people anyways. In Jesus’ discussion about Galileans who perished under Pilate, Jesus warns His hearers that they were not to think of themselves as less sinful than those who perish, and He preached to them that unless they repented of their sins they will also perish (Luke 13:1-3). Using the same formula, He warned them again to repent of their sins (Luke 13:4-5). Sin to Jesus was not just simply irrelevant to the gospel, but it was all too relevant in His story since only repentance from sin through faith in Jesus Christ would lead to salvation.
The severity of sin in God’s eyes means God will bring judgment of sin even after one’s death. Jesus does not project the type God Bells believe in: a God that is “safe” for unbelievers. Jesus tells His audience in Luke 12:5 that God is to be feared, for He judges sins and has the authority to send people to hell: “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” Hell is not just something one brings about upon themselves in their state of mind. Jesus in Luke 12:5 indicates that Hell is not a mere self-inflicted misery but one that God has the authority to send people to.
This leads to the importance of Jesus’ blood atonement in the gospel story. In Hebrews 9:22 the Word of God states that without blood it would be impossible to forgive sins. Jesus in Matthew 26:28 identifies His own blood as that which will be poured out for the forgiveness of sins: “For this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” Instead of seeing it as irrelevant in the Christian message to our present culture, Christ saw it as very relevant if people are to be forgiven of their sins and be saved. To say that it’s not important to communicate today is to tell another story that is contrary to the story of why Jesus came on earth for.
If there is a theological spiral that is analogous to the hermenutical spiral when it comes to theological methods, the hope here is that Bell and his followers would reconsider their version of God’s love especially in light of the story that Jesus and the Bible have told.
This story of Jesus perfectly harmonizes God’s love with God’s righteousness and wrath. Since only God Himself knows what that perfect unity of His attributes look like, it is best that Bell obey his own stated principle of letting God be God and allow Him to determine what is and is not possible. Human knowledge of God is not original, but derive from God’s self-disclosure in the scriptures.
Having People “In” or “Out” is wrong
Another important theological pre-commitment that Bell has prior to his reading of the Bible is the idea that it is wrong to set up a situation in which people are either “in” or “out.” For Bell, the act of excluding others is morally wrong for God and man to do. This pre-commitment colors how Bell understands the gospel and his reaction towards Evangelicals’ gospel presentation. He sees the Evangelical gospel to promote a sort of elitism which reinforces Evangelicals to see themselves as being “in” while further excluding others as a result of seeing others as “out.” Bell writes,
A gospel that that has as its chief message avoiding hell or not sinning will never be the full story. A gospel that repeatedly, narrowly affirms and blosters the ‘in-ness’ of one group at the expense of the ‘out-ness’ of another group will not be true to the story that includes ‘all things and people in heaven and on earth.’
According to Bell, “Life has never been about just ‘getting in.’ It’s about thriving in God’s good world.” Hence, Bell questions about the gospel’s urgency for sinner to be right with God in order to enter heaven.
Again, one must ask Bell whether this was a story that Jesus told: that there are no “in” and “outs” whatsoever. Further, once again it is important for Bell to realize that if God dictates what is right and wrong, and he certain exclusion are allowed, then Bell cannot appeal to any higher transcendent standard than the God of the Bible Himself. It is the same principle that Bell challenges the nonbeliever once more: will finite man or God be the arbitrator of what ought to be and what ought not to be.
Jesus’ word during the Sermon on the Mount challenges Bell’s story of Jesus. In Matthew 7:13, Jesus opens with an exhortation to His hearers to “enter into the narrow gate.” Somehow Bell’s “Life has never been about just ‘getting in” crept into Jesus’ story, something that was not a part of Jesus’ original story. Jesus in the rest of Matthew 7:13-14 goes on to say, “For the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Jesus here teaches a sort of “in” and “out.” Jesus teaches that many will on the road to destruction while few will be in the path to life. However, Jesus demonstrates that it is possible to affirm some will be on their way to eternal life and others to condemnation without being immoral or self-promoting. Jesus shows love by appealing His hearers to enter into “the narrow gate.”
Having quoted Love Wins extensively, this paper constructed Bell’s soteriology as fairly and charitably towards Bell as possible. This paper argues that when one consider Bell’s understanding of heaven and hell as a state of mind rather than a physical place, Bell is a universalist in his soteriology. Bell is against exclusivism, his theology of religion shows favor towards other religion in a modified inclusivistic sort of way. While not denying Christ’s blood atonement for sins, Bell does not see it necessarily being always relevant in today’s western culture. A survey of some of Bell’s proof text reveals that the evidence does not support his soteriology, followed by the identification and criticism of two important theological pre-commitment in Bell’s soteriology which shapes his interpretation of Scripture and determine what answer can and cannot be possible. Bell has correctly stated in Love Wins, “What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God’s version of our story.” It is hope that this essay and others like it will challenge Bell’s story with a better story of how Christ’s love wins.
 Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every person Who Ever Lived, (New York: Harper One, 2011).
 John MacArthur, “Rob Bell: A Brother to Embrace, or a Wolf to Avoid?” Grace to You Blog, entry posted on April 12th, 2011, http://www.gty.org/Blog/B110412 (accessed April 29th, 2011).
 Todd L. Miles, A God of Many Understandings?, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), 17.
 Bell, Love Wins, 115.
 See Ibid, 173-177, see also chapter three of the book which treats the subject of hell, pages 63-93.
 David K. Clark, To Know and Love God, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2003), 321.
 Bell, Love Wins, 110.
 Clark, To Know and Love God, 321.
 Bell, Love Wins, 154.
 Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 87-88.
 Miles, A God of Many Understandings, 34.
 Bell, Love Wins, 182.
 Miles, A God of Many Understandings, 28.
 For a good concise general work on the popular Scriptural response to inclusivism, pluralism and universalism see John Piper, Jesus: The Only Way to God: Must You Hear the Gosepl to be Saved?, (Ada, Michighan: Baker Books, 2010).
 Bell, Love Wins, 107.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: AN Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, Michighan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 180.
 Bell, Love Wins, 146-147.
 Ibid, 175.
 Bell, Love Wins, 171.
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