Rob Bell, 40, is an author and the pastor of a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, reported to have 10,000 attendees each week. Over the years Bell’s writings and teachings have attracted a number of theological inquiries, too. But no previous controversy compares to the recent firestorm over his new book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book has sparked a new discussion about universalism, exclusivism, the love of God, the gospel, and the nature of heaven and hell.
Love Wins was released on Tuesday as the fourth most popular book on Amazon.com. But although the book is new, the controversy around the book has been developing for a while.
This is not another review of the book. In this post I’ll briefly explain the history of the debate, explain why it matters, and point you to an important panel discussion scheduled for this afrternoon.
The Debate So Far
The most recent controversy around Bell began on February 23rd when Bell and his publisher released this promotional video for Love Wins, which prompted Justin Taylor to ask whether Rob Bell was a universalist. (According to theologian J.I. Packer, a universalist “believes that every human being whom God has created or will create will finally come to enjoy the everlasting salvation into which Christians enter here and now,” a belief that is motivated by “revolt against mainstream belief in endless punishment in hell for some people.”) Taylor’s post generated over 1,500 comments in response, many of them heated.
Denny Burk, the dean of Boyce College, followed with a more detailed analysis of the message of the short video and arrived at the same disturbing conclusion. But was the criticism premature, given the book was still unpublished? Kevin DeYoung said no, and added a number of other discerning thoughts to the whole debate.
Albert Mohler jumped into the discussion to write that Bell’s promo video “can only be described as universalism." At this point the debate gained national news coverage from CNN, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Good Morning America, and others.
On March 8, CNN reported that Zondervan, the publisher of four of Bell’s previous books, had refused to publish Love Wins because, in their words, “This proposal doesn’t fit in with our mission." Love Wins was published by HarperCollins.
So what about the book itself? Is Bell really a universalist?
Reviews and direct quotes from Love Wins began surfacing online last week. On Wednesday the first quotes from an advance copy of the book verified the theological suspicions. Bell's theological commitment to universalism was apparent even from the opening pages.
Other reviews soon followed.
On Monday DeYoung published an excellent, thorough, and devastating review of the book. He writes, “There was a lot of discussion about whether Bell is or is not a Christian universalist. After reading the book, I see no reason why the label does not fit.” DeYoung’s review raised a number of other concerns and made clear that Bell’s book was actually worse than expected.
So what’s at stake? DeYoung writes, “If Bell is right, then historic orthodoxy is toxic and terrible. But if the traditional view of heaven and hell are right, Bell is blaspheming.” The stakes are high because the gospel is at stake, DeYoung says. Later in his review he writes:
Bell categorically rejects any notion of penal substitution. It simply does not work in his system or with his view of God. “Let’s be very clear, then,” Bell states, “we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer” (182). I see no place in Bell’s theology for Christ the curse-bearer (Gal. 3:13), or Christ wounded for our transgressions and crushed by God for our iniquities (Isa. 53:5, 10), no place for the Son of Man who gave his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), no place for the Savior who was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), no place for the sorrowful suffering Servant who drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath for our sake (Mark 14:36).
“The theology is heterodox,” DeYoung concludes. “The history is inaccurate. The impact on souls is devastating. And the use of Scripture is indefensible. Worst of all, Love Wins demeans the cross and misrepresents God’s character.”
Download DeYoung’s 21-page review as a PDF here: “God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of “Love Wins.” (Two days later he contributed a few additional thoughts on the debate.)
Also on Monday, Burk contributed an eleven-page chapter-by-chapter book review.
On Tuesday, Russell Moore responded with a pointed and provocatively titled blog post: “The Blood-Drained Gospel of Rob Bell.”
On Wednesday morning Albert Mohler published his own review titled “We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology.” He writes,
H. Richard Niebuhr famously once distilled liberal theology into this sentence: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Yes, we have read this book before. With Love Wins, Rob Bell moves solidly within the world of Protestant Liberalism. His message is a liberalism arriving late on the scene.
Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, agrees.
Meanwhile on Monday night, Bell’s book tour landed in New York City, where he answered questions before a live audience. It’s no stretch to say that his answers were quite evasive. Bell insisted that he is not a universalist and that he is an evangelical. “Do I think that I am Evangelical orthodox to the bone? Yes,” he said without hesitation.
On Tuesday morning Bell was interviewed by Good Morning America's George Stephanopoulos and the book publicity tour steamed ahead, even bumping into MSNBC’s Martin Bashir who straightaway told Bell, “You’re creating a Christian message that’s warm, kind, and popular for contemporary culture.” (Incidentally, Bashir voiced more criticism of Bell's book two days later.)
The tour and the debate continue on.
In addition to the written responses, two important panels have been planned.
Early in the debate, The Gospel Coalition promptly added a panel discussion at their national conference in Chicago that will begin at 7:30 a.m. CST on Thursday, April 14. The event will open with teaching from Don Carson, followed by a panel with Carson, DeYoung, Tim Keller, Crawford Loritts, and Stephen Um.
Today (March 17), from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. EST, Southern Seminary is hosting a panel discussion featuring Albert Mohler, Justin Taylor, Russell Moore, and Denny Burk. Video will be live streamed at sbts.edu, or if you’re in the area, you can attend the event in Heritage Hall. [Update: Recordings of the panel are now avaliable here: video, audio.]
So why should we care about this debate in the first place?
“There are a number of reasons this is important,” C.J. Mahaney says. “First, removing the doctrine of God's eternal punishment undermines multiple texts of Scripture. It also undermines the holiness and justice of God. Ultimately it undermines the Savior’s redemptive work on our behalf! So this couldn't be a more serious matter. These severe theological errors are not new with Rob Bell, and they are not uncommon throughout church history. But now these theological errors have been adopted by a man of influence and published publicly and broadly. Sadly, given the scope of his platform, these errors are sure to influence many people. This is a moment for pastors to take note, and to humbly and courageously contend for the faith (Jude 3–4).”
This is not the first time Bell’s theology has raised concerns. Three years ago a previous debate led C.J. to write and post some reflections on biblical discernment, why pastors should be concerned with Bell, and how to pray for him. That post remains remarkably relevant three years later.
For Further Study
In conclusion, here are a few other resources that surfaced (or re-surfaced) in the recent debate.
The first is a book published by Zondervan in 2004: Hell under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment. It includes valuable contributions by Mohler, Greg Beale, Sinclair Ferguson, Douglas Moo, J.I. Packer, Robert Yarbrough, and others. Most helpful is how this book addresses important questions about eternal judgment with clear exegesis of Scripture.
Also, it’s worth noting a trio of messages by Sinclair Ferguson titled "Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment."
Ligon Duncan’s new article “Speaking Seriously and Sensitively about Hell” is valuable tool for preachers.
And don’t miss DeYoung’s recent blog post “To Hell with Hell” on why we need the doctrine of eternal punishment.