“Love Wins” the blogosphere – thoughts on Rob Bell, universalism, and Christian cyber-fights

Either you only follow tweets for TMZ.com or ESPN Sportscenter or live under a rock away from the din and clang of the blogosphere if you haven’t heard the rumblings about Rob Bell’s upcoming book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011) which will hit bookstores on March 29th.  For those following the flurry of activity, the basic issue that arose this weekend started when Justin Taylor posted a blog posting entitled Rob Bell: Universalist?  and later John Piper, the grandfather of neo-Calvinism, Synod of Dort extreme sport TULIP revivalism mentor for Mark Driscoll, and author of Desiring God, offered a rather snarky and damning (pun intended) tweet that simply read “Farewell Rob Bell” in relation to claims that Bell’s new book espoused a universalist view of salvation and Bell has finally been shown to be in league with the devil.   There have been claims from neo-Calvinists for a while that Bell and his NOOMA videos were merely drawing people away from orthodox Christian faith.  Swords began to rattle and the blogosphere exploded.  As reported in Christianity Today’s blog this weekend, Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter Saturday… that is the top 10 trending of ALL Tweets globally. As of Saturday evening, about 12,000 people had recommended Taylor’s blog post on Facebook, which posts the article on readers’ personal pages. The article had about 680 comments as of this morning.  Taylor, who is a VP for Crossway Books which publishes some of Piper’s work, has since revised his article, softening the blows he delivered originally including aligning the fate and character of Bell with II Corinthians 11: 14-15 –  “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” [to be expected, this is from the ESV which is the authorized version of neo-Calvinist Piper fanboys (yes… boys) everywhere since, as we have been told, other translations such as the ill-fated TNIV are too “gender-inclusive” and leading to the feminization of the Bible].  As many have pointed out, Bell’s book has yet to be released and these comments are coming from people who have either only seen the book jacket copy or a promotional video that Harper Collins has begun to circulate in promotion of the book.  In short, the blogosphere is offering a premonition of things to come akin to the movie “Minority Report” where people are charged and convicted of crimes they haven’t committed but *might* in the future – taking them out now will save collateral damage.

Some passing thoughts on this bit of cyber rumbling:

1. At its most base level, these type of fist fights in Christianity only serve to remind the world that Christians are seriously wounded, angry people with too much time on their hands to muse about this stuff, are more interested in winning fights on grounds of certainty rather than faith (the fate of souls can be known with certainty?!) and seeming lack of critical faculties in regard to self-reflection so as to see how much damage this type of snarking does in the name of Christ.

2. As Scot McKnight recently noted in a recent Christianity Today blog, this type of activity serves the book publishers best – in this case Crossway and Harper Collins are the winner –  as the church burns itself to the ground and should be a warning to leaders who choose flippancy rather than true compassion and reconciliation as their response in the very public age of social networking:

I’ve not seen anything like it. And, yes, the quickness of social media have made this such a big issue … today … and in a week it will all be gone. Justin Taylor once generated almost 100 comments by quoting a blurb of mine that was on the back of IVP’s book by Tom Wright on Justification.

Justin may be right about what Rob believes, but if he is wrong then he owes Rob Bell a huge apology. I want to wait to see what Rob Bell says, read it for myself, and see what I think of it. Rob is tapping into what I think is the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today, and this fury shows that it just might be that big of an issue.

The publicity approach of HarperOne worked perfectly. They got huge publicity for a book. They intended to provoke — and they did it well. I think it is wiser to wait to see the real thing than to rely on publicity’s provocations. Justin bit, and so did many of his readers.

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.

3. I will ‘out myself’ as someone who respects what Rob has done, how he thinks, and frankly his deep and abiding concern for the well-being of all people who Christ died for – and I do mean *all* people as testified to in Romans 5:18.  True, I don’t find all his theology to be my cup of tea, but that is what makes him real to me… Rob actually has the humility to say he doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t try to offer a one-stop shopping for everything.  Quite refreshing actually.  I will certainly read the book and look forward to seeing what Rob actually says… not what people who haven’t even read the book think.

4. On whether universalism is something worth a theological fist fight about, I suppose it matters as far as our dialogues move us toward humility before a God who is as mysterious and unknowing as He is revealed and apprehendable.  As a theologian I work with students who struggle with the final end of things all the time.  As a pastor who has performed many funerals for children, adult suicides, and family members who are atheists and well as asked the ultimate fate of those who don’t profess a faith in Christ nor have prayed the sinner’s prayer per our traditional understanding and therefore I get asked the questions of heaven and hell quite a bit.

Where we put the cross matters…

My short hand answer begins with where we have put the cross in our midst. For many the cross is iconically viewed every Sunday in church sanctuaries as something bolted to the wall at the end of the sanctuary, high above the ground and therefore beyond our grasp:

In this view there is only one way to approach the cross – it is a 2D thing in our 3D world that is unmovable, without blemish, and only reached through our reason since we cannot touch it or experience in any way that is existential.  There is a front door and no back door to this cross and there just one way to get there.

But what if we consider the cross as something that is truly in the center of our lives and not merely bolted to the wall? What if the cross that Christ died on and made the way forward for overturning the pattern of Adam as we hear in Romans 8 actually offers a new way, a new path, a new centerpoint for our lives that is truly 3D and in our midst:

Golgotha was a real place in the three-dimensional world with a cross planted in the midst of everything and in the presence of and for all people (Romans 5:18) that could be approached from all directions for this was a death offered for all the world (John 3:16) and not merely those who find the one aisle or doorway our small tribes might conjure as essential in phrase or practice.  This is a cross that is in the middle of everything we are about and everything God wishes for us.  What a shame to bolt that gift to a wall like a prized trophy head captured and preserved safely above all the muck and mire of real life.

Now, am I advocating for an essential universalism whereby everyone is saved and taken to paradise whether they like it or not?


I stand on the belief that my ability to choose is something God counts as so precious as to give me a choice to love or not and thereby I can opt out of relationship with God, deny the offer of paradise, and build my own Hell whether on earth or in the afterlife akin to Satan’s famous aphorism from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”: “For it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”  I say this with all the Reformed theology in my bones as one who affirms God’s sovereignty in all things, understands depravity as the result of being deprived of God’s grace in a broken world and twisting that which is good into a disordered and not ordered form of love.  To put it even more bluntly, if Heaven is akin to a junior high lock-in night where you can’t leave and I am locked in, then love doesn’t matter does it?  But if I am choosing to be embraced by the love of God as God is choosing to embrace me through the grace and mercy of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, then the last thing I am looking for is the proverbial door.  To put it bluntly, eternal security and damnation are code in neo-Calvinist rhetoric for simply not trusting in God’s ability to continually choose us and would rather have a once and for all “yes” that is final and ends the conversation so the relationship is always submissive to certainty in our own doctrine rather than God’s sustaining providence. Put that in your Piper and smoke it…

Is there Hell? Scripture and the tradition of the Church says that this is as real as the world in which we live.  In fact, Christ is fairly pointed in declaring that perhaps Hell is already here and we have a chance to do something about it for folks who are living in this very real and not imagined Hell everyday… and not merely blogging about it.  In this regard I believe in Hell because I can see, taste and touch its stench all around me in the lives of the marginalized and down-trodden, the broken hearts and afflicted, the ironic and the nihilistic.  To that end my thoughts on whether Hell is real have more to do with the hope and prayer that by the time we catch up to the action of Revelation 20 that God has already put into play that Hell will be as empty as freakin’ possible and that Satan and all the demons will be left alone and tormented by the reality of a cross that stands in their midst as well… a cross that is not impotently framed on a wall like an IKEA wall hanging but holds the door open for all time so that all who seek entrance to this place of separation have to try and get by it first.

As Scot McKnight wisely stated, this whole cyber spat will probably just blow over by the time we go to work on Monday and that is a shame in some regards since what we believe does matter… and it certainly matters more than making arguments about a book nobody has even read yet.

So… what are your thoughts on all this? Does it matter? Why or why not?


Leave a Comment

  1. I think your thoughts on the matter are quite sound Jeff. There’s a good deal too much polarization on the topic of salvation, which strikes me as the Lord’s business as opposed to ours. I think that ours is the business of hoping as much as we are able for the salvation of as many as possible without applying a mask of flippant certainty regarding the Lord’s decisions regarding the eternal fate of others.

    The issue obviously matters. I think the root of the issue is a fear of what you were talking about. Fear of trusting the Lord with the uncertain. TULIP folks and universalists alike want to decide for everyone else and lay claim to the high ground of certainty…but like so many issues it seems to me to be a tension between holding onto what we see in the biblical witness (and life, your thoughts on hell’s stench on earth were great) and our simultaneous acknowledgement that there are some things that cannot be fully known.

    I’ve heard people say “the thing isn’t the thing” I think this is a good example. Is the issue really about seeking a theologically honest perspective or is it a manifestation of our own inability to trust (as you said) in God’s providence and continual choosing of us and others?

    Perhaps both…I guess I lean towards the latter though, especially seeing as how an honest perspective ought to be more humble than either TULIP folks or universalists tend to be presenting.

  2. Thanks Chauncey – nice to have your thoughts here. I still go to the Reformed ‘Tulip’ Festival every Sunday as a PCUSA pastor with the elect, but these are gathered for everyone… and are to be cut and given away not merely guarded… just sayin…

  3. I guess I was referencing the neo-calvinist folks you were mentioning in the post more so than the PCUSA sorts…I’m in the same boat with you Jeff…I am a card carrying Presbyterian these days too. I should really take the time to learn what tulip stands for…

  4. It clearly hasn’t blown over since we’ve gone back to work, and that’s a good thing. In fact, between you, Eugene Cho and this morning’s post on CNN’s Faith Blog, there’s been lots of conversation about this, and it’s been great!

    Bell’s not-yet-on-the-shelves book (or the description of it, anyway) is causing folks to articulate what they believe about the eschaton, the purpose of this life we’re living, and perhaps at least wrestle with the idea that the security they have in some heaven (by virtue of being a ‘good’ Christian) is in fact up for debate.

    We’ve been having some of these conversations in Priscilla P-PL’s Eschatology/Doctrine of Christian Hope class. Moltmann has a lot to say on this idea of universal vs. double outcome (heaven/hell) salvation. If our theology and eschatological beliefs reflect a God who loves what he has created and condemns not just what is evil, destructive and godless in created beings but these beings themselves (as Moltmann would put it), what does this say about what we think of God? What’s the relationship between divine and human decision?

    All this aside, I’m more and more convinced that we are doing a disservice if we’re preaching and teaching that heaven/hell are places where we go, rather than spaces and states we help create because of complacency, inaction or whatever level of assurance we’ve talked ourselves into.

  5. Couldn’t agree more with your last “all this aside” statement and I hoped to make this point in my blog post. Thanks for evoking Moltmann – we could all use a dose of his ‘theology of hope’ in this conversation 🙂

  6. The whole thing just makes me sick to my stomach. It’s just gross and shows so obviously how out of touch – STILL?! – that so many Christians are with reality. And this kind of witch-burning behavior is has got to stop. Will it ever stop? Doubtful. In an age when Atheism is all the rage and “the kids” are turning away from God in record numbers – this is the strategy of the Church? – to eat their own? I don’t own any of Rob’s books. I’ve never heard him speak. He seems like a good guy who is trying to do the right thing. But he is just one guy with one book. How many crazy people are out there writing books that say REAL heretical things? I just don’t get it. Did they learn nothing from Marilyn Manson? If you disagree with something so strongly the best thing to do is for you to just stay on your message and ignore things like that. Instead they have helped promote the hell (ha!) out of a book they (supposedly) disagree with. Idiotic! Worst of all this was all over the internet at a time when the middle east is on fire, we were threatened with an imminent government shutdown and new rising gas prices in the US, etc. And the best Piper and his buddies can come up with is – Rob Bell might be a heretic if his book says what we think it says based on a blurb and a video promo.

    Why don’t they just get some matches and go burn down their Churches? I believe in hell and even I don’t want to be a part of what these guys are doing.


    • Thanks for your comments – I would encourage to continue to pray for this and for all us seeking to serve the world God has called the Church to be living for.

  7. Great to hear that these things are being talked about at SPU. As an alum of the mid-80’s, I can still remember the indictments of those in my church that wondered if my professors at “liberal” SPU were really Christians! As a Wesleyan (and FM pastor), I’m proud to have a “card-carrying” PCUSA guy like you keeping great conversations going. And as the dad of a current SoT student (who put me on to your blog!), it makes my heart sing to see you influencing the next generation by taking theology seriously but not reducing it to dead words on a page. By taking these grand things like faith and salvation and heaven and hell and kingdom (etc. etc.) and making them living “poetic” realities (and in 3-D to boot!). Blessings!

  8. Well said, well done. It is such a weary banter that American Christians think they must prove, defend, delineate any and all aspects of what is referred to as “faith” with such exactitude and seeming vengeance upon any that disagree with whatever opinion they hold… for it is ALL opinion in the end. Bell’s, Piper’s, yours, mine. As L’Engle once wrote, “We have a point-of-view. God has view.” And was it not the Rabbis that ask “How many people were present at Mt. Sinai?” Therefore there are at least that many interpretations of what God spoke then… and now. In a three dimensional Cross we each see a different perspective depending on where we are standing in the room. It is worth a few steps to the right or left to see from a different postion ever so often.

    After watching an interview with Rob on MSNBC, all I could think of is what a brilliant marketing plan was in play. The “controversy” alone will throttle books sales. I don’t think Rob has that kind of manipulative intent, it is the nature of the culture.

    I do not miss the irony of the books title and the lack of display within the entity that claims “they will know because of your Love for each other.” Thanks for drawing a distinction between rubbish and humanity among the Internets.

  9. Hey Jeff, this blog post and its discussion about where we put the cross (or more precisely, Jesus) really inspired, and I took you to task. This morning, I rearranged the worship space at my church so that our cross sat right in the middle of all the chairs! I hope it had the expected effect. Thanks for the thoughts!

    ben adam Climer

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