Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak: Thoughts on the Rob Bell “Universalism” Drama

While I was enjoying my day at the 2011 ETS Northwest Regional Meeting it appears that Rob Bell was declared the greatest of contemporary heretics. At least that is what I gather from the legions of blog posts, subsequent comments, and tweets that were written in response to this promotional video by Harper Collins for Bell’s forthcoming book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

As I gather it the drama began when Justin Taylor wrote a blog post (see here) asking if the video shows Rob Bell to be a universalist. For those who are unfamiliar with universalism it is the belief that God will eventually “empty hell” and everyone will be saved. There have been many people who have been accused of this ranging as far back as Origen and even in the last century as regards Karl Barth.

I have two thoughts on universalism: (1) I do agree that it is a dangerous doctrine, mostly because I don’t see much evidence for it in Scripture. (2) I sympathize with those who want it to be true. Who wants anyone to face eternal punishment? I don’t. That being said, I trust God is good and righteous. God will not make a mistake in his judgments and God is not obligated to any one of us in how he determines the fate of the humans he created.

Anyways, I should get back to Rob Bell. Kevin DeYoung, another personality associated with The Gospel Coalition, wrote a less detailed but similar post questioning Bell (see here). John Piper tweeted something that made it sound like Bell had died (here). Of course, this resulted in all kinds of fun. People who love Bell went crazy attacking the evil Calvinist and the monstrosity known as The Gospel Coalition (remember, The Gospel Coalition has people like Tim Keller and Charles Mahaney….i.e., not everyone in this group is a fighter). Those who follow Taylor, DeYoung, and Piper loyally defended their orthodoxy against Bell’s heresy.


Remember, this video has to grab your attention. It is designed by people who do marketing. People who do marketing have a job to do: sell things. Well, someone at Harper Collins is a genius!

Taylor says he has read a few chapters, but that isn’t the full book. Tom Batterson, a book seller, says he has read the whole book (read here). He is convinced that a lot of people will be eating humble pie soon.

I think we all should be eating humble pie, now! Jesus said that the world would know us because of our love for one another. Oops.

Now if Bell is a universalist then I don’t blame Taylor, DeYoung, or others for taking him to task. But we don’t know anything right now for sure. I think Christian charity demands we give Bell the benefit of the doubt. And then, even if he does come out to be a universalist (which the aforementioned Tom Batterson says he does not) we should balance outrage with love for a sibling in Christ.

As I read the blog posts and tweets one thing came to mind, “What about being quick to listen and slow to speak?” In the Book of James we read, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for a man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires.” (1.19-20, NIV)

We have been slow to listen and quick to speak. Shame on us. Our anger toward each other has not resulted in the righteousness of God. It has only, once again, made it evident to the world around us that we do not love each other like Christ commanded us to love each other. We don’t, we don’t, we simply don’t.

I end by quoting Scot McKnight who wrote this in response to an email from Sarah Pulliam Bailey that I think is the best response so far (from here):

“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.”

May it be said that the next time we have the opportunity to listen quickly while speaking slowly that we take advantage. I think we failed this time. There is a lot of apologizing that needs to take place.

31 thoughts on “Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak: Thoughts on the Rob Bell “Universalism” Drama

  1. As I said on Craig’s blog post on this issue, perhaps it is not the “heretics” that the Gospel Coalition needs to pray for, but maybe for themselves, for their theological arrogance, and inhospitable attitudes towards difference (um, check the post on Clark Pinnock when he died). Yeah, I’ll side with the heretics on this one, even though I have a number objections to Universalism.

  2. Well said, Brian. This story has irked me all day. The comments on Piper’s Facebook thread, my FB stream, Twitter feed…

    ” Rob is tapping into what I think is the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today…” No kidding!

    And IF Rob Bell struggles with the doctrines of final states… IF he does… “FAREWELL?” Really? He has already been hog-tied and dragged behind a pick-up for “sorta hinting” that he’s had doubts — you know the type that humans have sometimes…

    There are also a few different types of Universalists — and then you throw in Annihilationists and you have a party pack. This made me think back to your “heresy” post. Evidently, from the comments I’ve read, this is a heresy worthy of the hot place, and one that causes one to be estranged from God (at least according to those who know these things).

  3. Interestingly enough, I had heard nothing at all about this hullabaloo (a tempest in a very small, and very inconsequential, American Evangelical teapot, I might add — and that includes Bell, of course) until I read this post.

  4. @Brian: Well said indeed. I wrote something earlier, but I think this gets at my sentiments about the issue much more effectively.

    @Rod: I’m right there with you.

    @Taylor: Very interesting about the quote. I think if we had that before Bell’s video was released about the book, I think most evangelicals would attribute the quote to any of those authors first. It’s amazing what might happen if we actually read the book first before spouting off our judgment of the man.

  5. Great POST! I am sure the GC are convinced this all began when Bell decided to read the tNIV! ;)

    I am calling it – The Gospel Coalition (Those whom you mentioned) are themselves the false teachers Paul warns against.

    This doing my head in. How can so much be said about so little?!?!

  6. I just read somewhere that it seems as if Bell takes the conditional immortality position, which, of course, is not universalism. It’s still wrong, but I guess it’s a better kind of wrong.

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  10. I have come to hold to the Annihilationist position after many struggles with it. John Stott also holds to this position and he isn’t condemned as a heretic.

    I guess the GC see anyone not off them as being a type of Servetus.

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  13. Fine words, my friend. I am distressed by much of what I see in us when we mount our steeds to slay dragons so we can drown out the guilt and shame that clamor inside of us.
    To raise a fine point, @Craig Benno, my recollection is that Stott sees annihilation as the end of judgment to be biblically defensible, but he chooses finally to remain agnostic on the point. I can’t take the time to chase this down in the book in which he was interacting with a liberal Anglican, I believe. I’d be happy to be corrected on that.

  14. @Larry: You are onto something there. I think when we are aware of our own shortcomings and faults we are much more cautious as concerns pointing out those of others. When we do point them out it should be in love with the intent to heal. This whole thing has shown little love or grace.

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  19. If there is such a ‘place/state’ as eternal torment in hell, than poor, insane Andrea Yates had it exactly right and all the rest are just B team player wanna be’s.

    If eternal torment in hell is real, we need only one page in the Bible and it says TURN OR BURN. I mean, why complicate things? (gee, thanks God!)

    When did “if you eat you shall surely die” morph into “you shall surely burn forever and ever in the torments of an eternal hell”?

    As far as universal reconciliation being an unBiblical, heretical, minority opinion goes … http://www.amazon.com/Universalism-Prevailing-Doctrine-Christian-Hundred/dp/1165797968

    I think what is fundamentally at issue here is the concept of free will. Personally, my will didn’t have a shred of freedom until God boxed me in a corner and “made me” choose Him. Self-will, yes, but free? Not in the slightest.

    Why do humans demand they have a free will? Aren’t there more than enough scriptures that prove God is the one in ultimate control of everything, even the hearts of the kings? Why not just accept that and go for the ride?

    Oh, perhaps because of the hell issue? How can one relax and enjoy the ride if one believes there is such a thing as eternal torment in hell? Most would *have* to come up with elaborate “free-will, choice” scenarios in light of that.

    All I’ve seen the belief in a free will do in the evangelical community, is give them the “right” to manipulate and pressure folks into “choosing” Jesus.

    The real issue is, what happens at THE END? The scriptures on my website GreatestStoryTold.com bear out that GOD WINS in the end through Christ Jesus. If there is a ‘hell’, it can not be ‘eternal’. End of story.

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  23. I haven’t read the book so I cannot say Rob Bell is wrong as I haven’t heard enough to know fully what he believes but I can say with confidence he is right God is very loving and love wins. BUT as a result of freewill from a God that wants to be loved by willing creatures there are those to paraphrase C.S. Lewis that have chosen a path that is so against love that to them Heaven would be a sort of hell. God will not violate their freewill and force them into heaven. Christ died for ALL – Yes. But not ALL want him or to spend eternity with him. So they will not.

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