Rob Bell Stirs Up Controversy (Again)

3 months ago, I wrote a blog post on Rob Bell’s new book, “Love Wins“.  What I said in that post (essentially) was that there were some indicators that Bell was going to say that everyone was going to Heaven. I’m not comfortable with this idea, but I was comfortable with the main idea of his sermon on the topic where he stated that, “The cross is God’s way of saying, ‘Love Wins.’”  I left my full endorsement of the book OR writing it off completely, to wait until I read the book.  That seemed to make the most sense.

So I figured this would be my last thoughts on the matter until reading the book that releases next month UNTIL Rob Bell became a trending topic on twitter Saturday night.

Do you know how difficult it is to become a trending topic on twitter?

You have to start a revolution in Egypt. Or have a huge show like The Grammy’s or the Oscars. Or be Justin Bieber and get a haircut.  But these are (typically) the only ways you get to be in the top 10 talked about things on twitter at a given moment.

So how does a Christian writer, who did not say or do anything on the internet on Saturday night (nor participate in any scandal), get propelled to such a highly talked about topic?

By having John Piper bid you a goodbye.

If you are unaware, John Piper is a conservative, Reformed pastor at a large church in Minnesota.  Piper tweeted “Farewell Rob Bell” along with a link to Justin Taylor’s post on Bell (Justin runs one of the most prominent Christian blogs on the web and is the VP of editorials for CrossWay).  What Justin says in reference to Rob Bell is:

It is better for those teaching false doctrine to put their cards on the table (a la Brian McLaren) rather than remaining studiously ambiguous in terminology.

So on that level, I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to be lay his cards on the table about universalism. It seems that this is not  just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.

Sounds fair, right? If someone were to question orthodox Christianity and say that no matter what, you go to Heaven, this would be a problem.  And probably an interesting blog post.

But this wasn’t what actually happened.  Rob Bell never made universalist claims (even if he intentionally flirts with the idea – this is what the world calls “marketing”), yet was called a false teacher before Justin even read his book.  In fact, he even whipped out the Corinthians verse about “Satan masquerading himself” and that his servants in the end will “get what they deserve” (2 Cor. 11:14-15) when referring to Bell.  Yikes. To watch a video on a dude and jump to servant-of-Satan is a big jump (verse is now removed due to complaints). And it’s an even bigger jump for Justin, who openly admits in the post to reading snippets of the book and the publisher’s note, who he says is not even written by the author.  He also said he watched the following video, which “shows that [Bell] is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.”  Here is that video:

So, as a result of this nonsense, here are my thoughts:

1.) It’s scary what Piper can do with a tweet. I mean think about it – a Christian book being that highly talked about online is crazy.  There’s 25,000 facebook recommendations & over 1200 comments.  Those numbers don’t even include blog posts or twitter.  That’s nuts.

2.) Rob Bell loves controversy. I wrote about this in my last post and essentially what I said was that Rob Bell frames questions to make us uncomfortable.  He did it with the Virgin Birth in Velvet Elvis and he did it with his other titles in Sex God or Jesus Wants to Save Christians.  Now normally people who start up controversy annoy me, but in Bell’s case, I think he ends up creating very meaningful conversations about a difficult topic.  Which leads me to the point that…

3.) Universalism is one of the biggest questions being raised in Christianity today. People (reasonably so) are uncomfortable with thinking that people like Ghandi or Anne Frank are burning in hell forever (as Rachel Held Evans pointed out today).  I think it is quite OK to question that and I think that should make us as Christians a little uncomfortable!  And what if we as Christians were more offended by the idea of everyone going to hell than everyone getting into Heaven?

4.) Maybe there is room for latitude in Christian thought.  It was annoying to see Justin Taylor/John Piper make such bold statements about how certain they were that they were right.  This is annoying in and of itself, but when it is paired with an assumption and not a full reading of a text, the annoyance level raises substantially.  What if a Christian didn’t HAVE to be Reformed and believe in predestination? What if you could be an Arminian and believe in free-will?  Or what if you could be a Roman Catholic and still inherit the Kingdom of Heaven?  Or what if you could be a peace-lover, or a Pentecostal, or a female pastor?  I could be reading this wrong, and as Jason Boyett pointed out, I hope I am wrong.  But the arrogance in the Christian Right is getting old.

5.) Shame on us as Christians.  Haven’t we done this before?  Beaten each other up over a false assumption?  I liked what Scot McKnight had to say:

Frankly, John Piper’s flippant dismissal of Rob Bell is unworthy of someone of Piper’s stature. The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.

My friend Chris tweeted a song from old school Relient K called “Down in Flames” that I think wraps this all up the best:

Christians– we’re all afraid of fire.
We prefer to suck on pacifiers.
Baby pacifists, we’re throwing fits.
We don’t shake hands, we shake our fists.

We’re cannibals.
We watch our brothers fall.
We eat our own, the bones and all.

Finally fell asleep on the plane
to wake to see we’re going down in flames.

We’re going down, down, down in flames.
We’re gonna drown, drown, drown insane.

We see the problem and the risk,
but nothing’s solved.
We just say, “Tisk, tisk, tisk,”
and, “Shame, shame, shame.”

Christians– we mourn, the thorn is stuck
in the side of the body watch it self-destruct.
The enemy is much ignored
when we fight this Christian civil war.

We’re cannibals.
We watch our brothers fall.
We eat our own, the bones and all.

Finally fell asleep on the plane
to wake to see we’re going down in flames.

We’re going down, down, down in flames.
We’re gonna drown, drown, drown insane.

Finally fell asleep on the plane
to wake to see we’re going down in flames…

Let’s extinguish the anguish
for which we’re to blame,
and save the world
from going down in flames.

Let me pause to clarify
(’cause I’m sure you’re asking, “Why?”).
I stand before you and proudly claim
to belong to what this song complains.

I’m part of the problem,
I confess,
But I gotta get this off my chest.

Let’s extinguish the anguish
for which we’re to blame,
and save the world
from going down in flames.

“The enemy is much ignored when we fight this Christian civil war” indeed.

What do you think about the “controversy” or the idea of universalism?


  1. Wow do we see eye to eye on that. I get so sick of Christians bashing each other, or even worse, Christians making such bold statements, ones we have no way of knowing or proving if they are true… ie. calling Bell a servant of satan. This is kind of what Bell is saying when he talks about Ghandi isn’t he. We know for sure that Ghandi is in hell? Such narrow mindedness is ignorant, and I think why most non-christians thoroughly dislike christians or at least the idea of christianity. Actually I am pretty sure Barna has statistics that say the same thing. Read the book Unchristian? Good thing Piper doesnt have a gigantic following that would now think that it is okay to make such bold claims about people, right? Hmmm….. cool.

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly, Siggy. Thank you for this post and thanks for the shoutout too. I heard “Love Wins”, as it turns out, is really just a cookbook. Who knew!?! This was all just blown out of proportion.

  3. An important step in clarifying your beliefs is to talk about and even defend them. So the fact that the publicity campaign for Rob Bell’s book has provided an impetus for Christians to actually do theology (to figure out what they think about God) is a positive thing. Even if you disagree with Bell, it’s important for Christians to wrestle with what they believe. Another great resource on heaven, what it’s like and who will be there is “Heaven Revealed” by Dr. Paul Enns, released this week by Moody Publishers. I recommend it. Here’s the amazon page:

  4. I really agree with the premise that Christians should learn to coexist and accept their differences. If we could do that, then we could work together so much more efficiently as the body of Christ. However, there are some matters that must be considered “salvation issues.” One of these is that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven. He says that “I am the way, the truth and the life. None comes to the father except through me.” We have to open to contemplation of modern issues and to considering new interpretations of scripture in a judgement-free manner. But why be a Christian if we believes that anything other than Jesus can save us? Especially since he makes this very clear?… As influential as Ghandi was, he was vocally unaffiliated with Christ. I don’t claim to know where Ghandi is right now. I’m just saying in the same manner of their being an arrogance in the Christian Right, there is an arrogance in trying to finagle our way out of scriptural truth because we want to believe something different because it is nicer.

  5. “what if we as Christians were more offended by the idea of everyone going to hell than everyone getting into Heaven?”

    Nah, I say what if Christians would actually simply believe what the text of the Bible clearly states about heaven and hell.

    1. Hey Jonathan, new to your site here and enjoyed reading your thoughts on all of this. I didn’t want to, but I’ve gotten involved in a few conversations about this whole thing once the interviews started. I wasn’t going to say anything until the book came out either, but then he started doing interviews and made his opinions known. I still don’t think it’s clear what he really believes – he claims not to be a universalist, so I guess he tends to be a “second-chancer” if you had to pin him down. Still think the Bible’s clear on that, but at the end of the day I think it’s been healthy to have this discussion and bring it to light again. It’s unfortunate certain people made fools of themselves in the process (on both sides) and yet again “tainted” Jesus’ name. As God instructs us to, we should always take everything someone says back to Scripture. When I do that in this particular scenario, I can’t agree with Rob’s philosophy – however, it has reminded me of our true purpose on this earth, to be salt and light and help point others to Christ.

      1. I’m new to your site as well, Jonathan. Thanks for your thoughts on this issue. The book is now out and I haven’t yet read it, but I will. I will reserve any comments on the content until after I have done so.

        However, I will comment on one thing that you say, Nathan. “…it has reminded me of our true purpose on this earth, to be salt and light and help point others to Christ.” I can’t agree more. Although the scripture is full of the great mysteries of God, He is clear about His purpose to save lost mankind and how that is done. I find my task, as I follow Christ, is to share that truth and make it as clear and plain as I can…not to confuse the matter with questions and detractions.

  6. I’ve read Bell’s book. It is a piece of heresy that will hopefully cause the Church to refine and chisel its doctrine. I agree with Justin Taylor 100% and find no comfort in accepting Bell’s god, whose superlative quality is love instead of holiness. Also, Kevin DeYoung has written a great review on the book. Jesus’ words are even more evidently clear on the finality and importance of the life after death. In Luke 12, he presents a message to a large crowd and warns them to fear the one who has the power to throw you into hell (God). And later in Luke, Jesus shares the story of the rich man and Lazarus, showing that there is distinction in death. This is something that is muddied in Bell’s book. It is unfortunate, we should pray earnestly for Bell. Hopefully, he will turn from his this false view of God and recant his book. There is great hope for Bell. But we should never back down from the absolute reality of heaven and hell that Jesus himself proclaims, only to appease our superficial sensibilities. Heaven and hell are real. God is holy. And we are justified by faith alone through Christ alone. It is appointed for man to die once and then judgment.

    1. Thanks for that word Josh. It is vitally important that as we sink more and more into wishy washy theology in this “christian” nation that we cling tightly to the Word of God. Let us not become arrogant and judgmental, but pray earnestly for Rob Bell to come to a true and biblical knowledge of the Lord-specifically his holiness and righteousness (without which there would be no need for the cross).

      1. i agree Josh. Jesus didn’t come down so that people will be more well behave and be lil angels. He came down to reconcile us with God. So to universalism i disagree, although a sad truth.
        John 14:6 – wasn’t clear enough?

    2. Hi Josh! Well, I kind of liked the book. Granted, it’s a really watered-down take on some ideas Robert Farrar Capon tackles in The Parables of Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment.

      1. Hey Tommy! Wow, it’s been a while since my post. I had to take a minute to read it again. Bell’s book is very watered down. The theology is very muddied and he does not represent the orthodox teaching of hell. Bell is an artist before he’s an educated theologian and this comes out in this book. Some may gravitate towards his concepts because it is a rejection of the strict fundamentalism they have experienced and rejected. We’ve got to be more discerning in the way we think. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves if what Bell says in his book is supported in the Bible. It really doesn’t matter what Bell think, or what I think, or what you think (no offense 🙂 )…what ultimately matters is what the Bible says. Love Wins, despite being very muddy in its theology is rather pronounced on some issues and Bell articulates a theology that has unbiblical premises and therefore has unbiblical conclusions. I’m not familiar with the book you referenced but his ideas are a form of universalism with a sense of a purgatory-type existence after death. What’s really at stake with this book is the depravity of our state in sin, the goodness of God, the beauty of the atonement of Jesus and seemingly most of all, the holy character of God. Without these elements represented biblically, we have to honestly ask if the god that Bell is speaking of is the God of the Bible or rather a deity of his own making.

        There are a few great articles on the book. I personally found Kevin DeYoung’s review very insightful. Also, to anyone who has read Bell’s book, I recommend the book Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul. This book provides a great context for those that frame a question like “How can a loving God send people to hell?” around a false premise, which is that God’s highest and most definitive characteristic is love and that we are not fully deserving of eternal punishment. It’s a great read that provides great biblical clarity to this issue.

        Hope this helps, dude.

  7. siggy! I really liked this post (even though I am a few months late to read it!). I think so often Christians balk at the questions before even reaching the answers. The system of analyzing the theology and then immediately inserting it into a certain category (“doctrinally sound” or “full of crap”) doesn’t quite work like it used to. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Sometimes, we can’t see the real issue because we’re so ready with the church-fed answer. That isn’t to say that the church answer is wrong, but how are we to know if we haven’t been challenged in some way? I like Rob Bell simply for the fact that he stirs things up and makes us ask the questions we need to in a very real way.

    1. Katie! Great to see you on here my friend! It’s been too long.

      I agree with what you said. Any time you challenge the status quo, and maybe even the empire someone else has built, it isn’t going to be well received.

      There are definitely things I disagree with in the book, but much of what he says is fresh language to beliefs I hold. I was encouraged reading it (still didn’t finish, but what I’ve read I enjoyed). Even if I don’t agree with everything, it is challenging.

      And for me, that is good art.

  8. The thing that is concerning to me is when we dismiss people as “unbiblical” over “clear” verses like John 14:6 or “the clear teaching of the Bible” when we are so often reading these passages through a grid of what we’ve been taught about them. I appreciate people like NT Wright, Scot McKnight, Brian McLaren AND Rob Bell who challenge/deconstruct some my previous understandings so that I might see the Scriptures a little more clearly. At least that’s my hope. Years ago, I went off to college with my readings of Scripture on the evils of the charismatic movement. Even as I was using my proof texts against my new charismatic friends, I was thinking, “Wow…I don’t even agree with me on this!”. This is when I first discovered that we need to constantly re-examine what we’ve been taught in light of Scripture, the Spirit and as we encounter new things/issues/difficulties and opportunities in the world around us. This is what was going on in Acts. As unsettling as it might be, I’m all for people who are re-reading Scripture with more Jewish and first century Greek understandings and trying to sift out some of what has crept in as solid theology which may not be who God is, what God is up to or where God is going. When Jesus says “I am the Way the Truth and the Life”, He may be referring to Himself as the New Torah. He may be saying that His WAY of approaching and understanding God is God’s way of coming into right relationship with God–not that He is in the way and you have to get past Him to get to God…or it may be as I was taught. I’m still trying to understand this because understanding and asking questions is part of my worship of the God who is bigger than me, my teachers and my questions. I want to be a follower of Jesus more than a follower of orthodox, reformed or evangelical Christianity, and if that leads me back to one of those camps– that’s fine! I believe reading Scripture in community is an important part of how we discern God’s mind/revelation. It will become difficult to BE a group if we continue to shoot those around the circle who disagree with us. I’ve learned that the person who most bugs me in that moment might be just “me” in the future–after I’ve wrestled a bit with what they’re really saying. As far as Rob Bell goes,…he’s my brother- whether or not I agree with him on everything- and I’m praying for GOOD THINGS to continue in his life and impact for the Kingdom.

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