Love Wins? The Irony of the Rob Bell Universalism Controversy

LOVE WINS from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

Few spiritual leaders have mastered contemporary communication tools like Rob Bell

Theology books rarely create pre-release Twitter-trending firestorms. Yet that is exactly what has happened in advance of next week’s (3/15) release of Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Of course, Rob Bell is no ordinary theologian. Heir to a solid evangelical heritage, Rob graduated from evangelicalism’s “Harvard,” Wheaton College, planted a hip 10,000+ member mega-church in evangelical mecca, Grand Rapids, MI, became a best-selling author, filmmaker, and rock-star evangelical celebrity, all by the age of 40.

Rob is also rocket-science smart and extremely adept at using new media to recast traditional evangelical concepts in socially contextualized messages. It is why I like using books like Velvet Elvis in my theology of ministry classes. However, the culturally cutting-edge approach that makes Rob’s books such great conversation starters also makes them controversial.

He seems to delight in skating the razor sharp edge between contextualization and syncretism. Anyone who has followed his previous books and videos wouldn’t be surprised if dancing on that cutting edge eventually results in some nasty cuts.

The ironic contrast between the title of Rob’s book and the acidic pre-release rush to judgment of some heresy hunters is hard to miss

Is Love Wins the book where Bell finally goes too far? I don’t know, and neither do most of the people who have rushed to judgment… BECAUSE THE BOOK ISN’T OUT YET!  However, that hasn’t kept Bell haters and Bell lovers from chiming in.

Having watched the supposedly controversial three-minute book promo video and read a  plethora of opinion pieces about it (most by people who have not read the book) I can conclude only two things:

1) Rob’s brilliance as a provocateur and marketing genius is even greater than I ever imagined. The video that sparked this entire controversy makes absolutely no declarative statements.  It does what Rob does best, ask questions (far better than he ever answers them.) In fact, I venture to say that if John Piper had done exactly the same video, it would have produced nothing, but a yawn–except for those who cheered because Piper had taken the next step in his own growing savvy with new media.  Bottom line, it will sell a lot of books, and I don’t think Rob had any other goal when he made it.

2) “Love Wins” may be the most ironic title in the history of Christian publishing. No matter how you slice it, love is the one thing that is NOT winning in this advance publication chatter. Watch the video (above) and then gauge the intensity of the battle raging on the internet and it becomes immediately obvious that something else is a stake than asking whether or not Gandhi is in hell. The Evangelical movement appears to be at war with itself along battle lines that have already been drawn.  Rob certainly could turn out to be a heretic someday, but it is no excuse for the outrageous recriminations evoked this week.

Will love ever win among Christ’s followers in North America? It was Jesus’ highest prayer on earth (John 17) and is supposed to be our greatest apologetic to a doubting world (John 15).  Yet after a week of armageddon-level internal cat fight over a measly three-minute promo video, it still seems an eternity away.

Here are the best three articles I have read regarding the controversy… and, just for the record, I HAVE PRE-ORDERED MY OWN COPY OF ROB’S BOOK and plan to read it thoroughly before rushing to judgment. Who knows, maybe I will come up with something intelligent to say about Love Wins, which is more than I can say about most of the comments I have read so far.


Update: New Top Rob Bell Related Posts

The Current Controversy and Christian-Christian Relationships in High-Tech World:

Does Love Even Have a Chance of Winning? by Margaret Feinberg

Good Will Hunting and the Rob Bell Controversy by Mike Friesen

Bellapalooza: A bit more on the Rob Bell Love Wins controversy and Civil Conversations


Book Reviews more or less FOR “Love Wins”:

The Orthodoxy of Rob Bell, by Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Seminary

Rob Bell is Not a Universalist, by Greg Boyd


Book Reviews more or less AGAINST “Love Wins”:

Love Wins: A Review of Rob Bell’s New Book, by Tim Challies, in Crosswalk

Review of Love Wins, by Louis in Baker House

Love, Holiness, and Eternity: Some Reflections on Rob Bell, by Ed Stetzer

God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of “Love Wins”, by Kevin DeYoung in Gospel Coalition


Book Reviews more or less MIXED in their evaluation of “Love Wins””

Review of Love Wins: A Deeply Moving and Deeply Frustrating Book, by Ryan Hamm in Relevant

Review of Love Wins, in Hearts and Minds

Rob Bell’s Bridge Too Far, by Mark Galli in Christianity Today

Exploring Love Wins, by Scot McKnight

Rob Bell and C.S. Lewis, by Jeff Cook


Parodies of Controversy:

Unintentional Parody: What if Rob Bell and His Critics Had a Sing Off? 168 Film Festival Winner ‘Love is Good’

Intentional Parody: Justice Wins, by Jeremy Grinnel (Note: There is not video, only audio)

My Review of Love Wins, by Donald Miller



N.T. Wright Video on Heaven, Hell, and Universalism



Pastor Stirs Wrath With His Views on Old Questions

By Erik Eckholm in The New York Times, March 4, 2011

Rob Bell addressed the issue of heaven and hell in a video about his book, “A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”

A new book by one of the country’s most influential evangelical pastors, challenging traditional Christian views of heaven, hell and eternal damnation, has created an uproar among evangelical leaders, with the most ancient of questions being argued in a biblical hailstorm of Twitter messages and blog posts.

In a book to be published this month, the pastor, Rob Bell, known for his provocative views and appeal among the young, describes as “misguided and toxic” the dogma 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 chance for anything better.”

Such statements are hardly radical among more liberal theologians, who for centuries have wrestled with the seeming contradiction between an all-loving God and the consignment of the billions of non-Christians to eternal suffering. But to traditionalists they border on heresy, and they have come just at a time when conservative evangelicals fear that a younger generation is straying from unbendable biblical truths.

Mr. Bell, 40, whose Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., has 10,000 members, is a Christian celebrity and something of a hipster in the pulpit, with engaging videos that sell by the hundreds of thousands and appearances to rapt, youthful crowds in rock-music arenas.

His book comes as the evangelical community has embraced the Internet and social media to a remarkable degree, so that a debate that once might have built over months in magazines and pulpits has instead erupted at electronic speed.

The furor was touched off last Saturday by a widely read Christian blogger, Justin Taylor, based on promotional summaries of the book and a video (below) produced by Mr. Bell. In his blog, Between Two Worlds, Mr. Taylor said that the pastor “is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.”

“It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine,” wrote Mr. Taylor, who is vice president of Crossway, a Christian publisher in Wheaton, Ill.

By that same evening, “Rob Bell” was one of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. Within 48 hours, Mr. Taylor’s original blog had been viewed 250,000 times. Dozens of other Christian leaders and bloggers jumped into the fray and thousands of their readers posted comments on both sides of the debate, though few had yet seen the entire book.

Continue reading…


Waiting for Rob Bell

by Scot McKnight in both Patheos and Relevant, March 2, 2011.

Whether evangelicalism was paying attention or not, it is now. Universalism, or at least the prospect of it, is the single most significant issue running through the undercurrent of evangelicalism today. This all became clear Saturday when some decided to accuse Rob Bell of universalism on the basis of excerpts of his (not yet released) book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived and on the basis of a video and the book’s description at HarperOne. So, while this new story is about Rob, I want to contend it is even more about the significance of universalism.

My own estimation is that somewhere near 75% of my students, many if not most of them nurtured in the church, are more or less (soft) universalists. They believe in Jesus and see themselves as Christians but don’t find significant problems in God saving Muslims and Buddhists or anyone else on the basis of how God makes such decisions. The Baylor Study of Religion, if my memory is correct, asked a question or two that reveals that an increasing number of American evangelical Christians think the majority of humans will be saved. That’s the issue and Rob Bell had the moxie to write a book about it. He’s rattled cages with his promo video and he will undoubtedly stir the waters in the book.

Many in the evangelical church have happily lived as if universalism is not an issue for good ol’ evangelicals. Those of us with our ears to the ground know better, and that is why I addressed this issue in a chapter in my book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow. I called that chapter Eternity.Life. I begin by saying I believe in hell, but I want to believe in hell the way Jesus does. And I believe in heaven, but I want to believe in heaven as Jesus does. What Jesus believed about heaven and hell diverges at times from what many Christians think about heaven and hell.

As I wrote that chp and as I listen to this new round of volleys, some of them embarrassing and some of them so over the top and so many of them without having read one word of the book, I keep thinking we need once again to define some terms so I want to sketch a set of simple options. (Then I’ll say a few things about Rob Bell. By the way, we won’t know which of these categories fits Rob until we can read his whole book.)

Which of the following views do you think are “unorthodox”?

Universalism is the general belief that all will be saved, regardless of religious beliefs. The Muslim and the Christian are on the same basic path – and for universalists all will be saved.

Universalism needs to be distinguished from pluralism though as I have sketched “universalism” above there is precious little difference. Pluralism focuses on the legitimacy of each religion and belief system and that each of them prepares a person for final existence with God. For pluralists, there’s no unique saving place for Jesus Christ.

Christian universalism is a bit different: Christian universalism denies pluralism and balder forms of universalism by contending that all can or will be saved, but only through the saving work of Jesus Christ. While many who advocate this fail to recognize that those in other religions simply don’t believe such a thing, and in fact may say they don’t want to be saved through Christ, the Christian universalist confidently trots out the idea that whether they know it or not, God saves through Jesus Christ. But the big point here is that all can and will be saved through Christ.

Evangelical universalism is newer on the block and argues that God saves exclusively through Christ and that those who deny Christ, or who have not heard of Christ, or who have rejected God’s natural revelation to them, will be judged and will experience hell. In other words, these folks believe in hell – though they believe “less” (or as they might say “more”) than the traditionalist. But they believe hell is not eternal but instead temporary and once one has experienced judgment for one’s sins one will have, by the grace of God and through the merits of Christ, the opportunity to respond to the gospel – and this news is so good and God’s offer so gracious that eventually hell will be emptied and all will find redemption in Christ to enjoy God’s salvation forever.

Continue reading…



Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context

by Mark Galli in Christianity Today | posted 3/02/2011.

Rob Bell is not the first to try to resolve old biblical tensions in new ways.

If your God is perfect and all powerful and loving, then why does he not give everyone on this earth a fair chance to know him and accept him? An example of this is a kid in Iran born into a Muslim extremist family and taught that Islam is the one true religion and that Christianity is a lie. These kids do not get a fair chance at knowing God, and they go to hell and suffer for it eternally. That is extremely unfair, and if that is the case, God is not perfect but cruel.

This recent letter to Christianity Today suggests some of the issues at the heart of this week’s blogosphere explosion over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins.

In case you’ve been living in a cave without Wi-Fi, one popular blogger who read a couple of advance chapters of Bell’s latest book, announced that Bell was probably a universalist. This set Twitter on fire with both speculation and condemnation. One famous Reformed theologian simply tweeted, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” One does not imagine that he had kicked Bell out of the Reformed theology club. Bell hasn’t been considered a member in good standing for some time. Now, the tweet implies, Bell is no longer evangelical, or orthodox, or maybe even Christian.

A great many of the responses to Bell assume that there is only one right way to think about the destiny of people who do not put their trust in Christ in this life: they will experience eternal, conscious punishment in hell. Despite the cultural stereotypes, people don’t think this because they are cruel and vindictive, because they relish the thought of people roasting in hell. No, they are trying to take seriously the teaching of Scripture, especially the words of Jesus. As Tim Keller has pointed out, Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. So if you take Jesus seriously, you are going to have to take hell seriously.

This view has become the standard among contemporary evangelicals. Two evangelical books that have rested comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list are Crazy Love by Francis Chan and Radical by David Platt. Both are ardent pleas for more committed, sacrificial devotion to Christ and love for the world. And both motivate readers with the occasional mention of the huge numbers of people across the world who have yet to hear the gospel. For example, Platt notes anxiously “the 4.5 billion people, who … at this moment are separated from God in their sin and (assuming nothing changes) will spend an eternity in hell.”

Many faithful, devout Christians, then, assume the scenario criticized by the CT letter writer. But not all, and what is being lost in the anxious chatter is that faithful, devout Christians try to reconcile the love of God with the judgment of God in a number of ways. Many evangelicals who hold to the standard view assume, as one prominent blogger wrote yesterday, that the Bible’s teaching on this is “clear.” But especially in the last century, things don’t seem that clear to many of the devout.

To keep this article from wandering too far afield, let’s talk about one of a constellation of theological issues raised in this discussion: the fate of the person who has heard the gospel portrayed fairly, lovingly, and clearly, and yet refuses to respond in faith.

From Universalism to Annihilationism

The standard view has much to commend it, especially the words of Jesus. As Keller points out, he spoke of “eternal fire and punishment” as the final destination of both angels and human beings who reject God (Matt. 25:41, 46). He says that those who succumb to sin will be in danger of the “fire of hell” (Matt. 5:22; 18:8-9).  He depicted hell as painful fire and “outer darkness” (Matt. 25:30), a place of terrible misery and unhappiness. Add to this the logic of God’s holiness and the radical evil of sin and so forth, and you have a compelling argument for eternal, conscious punishment. No wonder it has been the nearly unquestioned doctrine of the church from the beginning.

Continue reading…


37 Replies to “Love Wins? The Irony of the Rob Bell Universalism Controversy”

  1. Many people in the evangelical world find Rob Bell’s style of asking more questions than giving answers unsettling. The idea that Bell might suggest something different than the modern “turn or burn” and “hellfire and brimstone” evangelism has caused quite a stir, including making Rob bell a trending twitter topic.

  2. Great blog in that you haven't past judgement. I know I'm hoping that their is some unforeseen twist in the book that turns what has become a controversial interview with the Good Morning show and Marketing video. Lets read the book and make a decision based on fact rather then heresay

  3. I don't see what all the fuss is about. It's an evangelical/fundamentalist problem…same, few loud people who arrogantly claim theirs is the only brand of Christianity (forgetting the Catholic, Anglican and other streams of theological thought). Same ones who seem to forget that in this narrow road there are enough room to move.

  4. I read this interview quote (below) on CNN. Sadly, it was titled Heretic Pastor Fights Back.
    Sheeeesh. Heretic? You'd think this was the middle ages.
    That is not to imply that there is not a right and wrong way of viewing things, but really, the word heretic is so premature it begs stupidity.
    In any case, my perspective has difficulty allowing Rob to be both rocket science smart and totally naive at the same time. Consider this quote from the article:
    “I never set out to be controversial,” Bell told CNN before the event. “I don’t think it’s a goal that God honors. I don’t think it’s a noble goal.
    Golly, that is an absolutely incredible statement to swallow. The guy went out of his way to spark controversy.

    1. John, AWESOME web link! Maybe the best I've seen in the whole controversy. Thanks for posting it! -Gary

  5. Gary,

    I am thankful to see you take a "wait and see" type of approach to this book. It almost seems as if a bunch of people have gathered around a tree that is growing out of the ground, and they're arguing about weather or not it will bring good fruit.

    "That's an apple tree, my father had an apple tree and it was no good!"

    "But my family loved our apple tree. Besides, this one comes from a good orchard!"

    And on it goes. Thus far, the only opinion I've formed is that you are approaching this wisely. Seeing your wisdom encourages me to do the same.

    We'll see!


    1. Thanks Matthew. I’m afraid that this entire incident is teaching us more about ourselves than about Rob.

  6. Margaret,

    Thank you so much for writing this. I've been up for hours because I just can't sleep. Horror in Japan and heartbreak in the church. True tragedy with heaven-and-hell consequences on a tiny island nation while so many of my friends and students are swept up in this Rob Bell hysteria.

    Like you, I watched the livestream interview yesterday and could hardly follow Rob's train of thought. I don't know if that is intentional on his part or just his artistic nature (artists are nearly ALWAYS better at asking questions than answering them, aren't they?), but the whole thing still grieves my heart.

    You really summed up the totality of my conflicting emotions with your powerful metaphor of mud castles and storms followed by your haunting questions under the banner, "I find myself wondering who will really win from Love Wins?" Could Jesus still win in this battle? I think so. But his people sure don't seem to have any chance.

    I have been a strong advocate for Christians using the media to seize the day away from the pseudo-celebrity making industry. One could argue that this is exactly what Rob is doing. But I don't think I was trying to advocate for this kind of controversy (it feels so self-serving.) Yet, I find myself wondering if this isn't an inevitable consequence. Neither side feels very much like servant leadership to me. (I'd love your read on 'Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Servant Leadership in an Age of Self-Promotion' sometime.

    Anyway, thank you for your beautiful thoughts and metaphor. I so appreciate you, your moral courage, and your artistic vision.

    Grace and great mercy,


    PS My post for today ( is an attempt to use some of NT Wright's clear thinking to reduce some of the "murkiness" you mention.

  7. I agree with your high regard for Scot McKnight's perspective. I haven't read Paul Enns' book. I'll order it today. Thanks for the rec.

  8. I think Dr. McKnight's comments are spot on. 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:

  9. Thanks for your thoughts Gary. I think you have been very gracious and your warning about dancing on he edge of a razor is a fine analogy that still demonstrates restraint. I did blog on the trailer itself, to judge the trailer on its own terms and left judging the book for when it comes out. The one point I would disagree with you is your point that Bell makes no declarative statements. From a linguistic point of view, this is incorrect because the the piece is full of RHETORICAL QUESTIONS. A rhetorical question is in fact a declarative statement posed as an interrogative. That is not a personal opinion, but a universal fact of spoken language. Rhetorical assume a given answer which is what not only makes them a powerful communicative device, but also Bell's masterful use of them makes in a keen wordsmith. Finally, to be fair to some of is critics, he is delving into topics (in the trailer) that he has taken public positions on before, and so even here, they are not without context. At the end of the day, however I am in full agreement with you regarding the necessity of being compassionate and kind in our words. My post can be found here:

    1. " A rhetorical question is in fact a declarative statement posed as an interrogative."
      I would agree with that to only a point.
      Much depends on the voice inflections, body language, and what you already know about the person.
      As a teacher, I use rhetorical questions consistently, yet my stance is typically nuetral on most positions. I have even posed rhetorical questions against my firmly held positions.

  10. Gary, not sure if you made it back to my FB page or clicked the "more" on my response to my friend and thus saw that I responded to you in that same comment…so, I'll repost my thoughts here:

    I read your post earlier today and especially agreed with point #2 re: irony. I agree that he's good at asking questions and not sure that I agreed that he's not as good at answering those questions. (I think if we were to sit down and have a nuanced conversation on that last point you and I would be in agreement, though…but I'm not 100% sure.)

    Finally, I thought your question and comment at the end was most appropriate: "Will love ever win among Christ’s followers in North America? It was Jesus’ highest prayer on earth (John 17) and is supposed to be our greatest apologetic to a doubting world (John 15). Yet after a week of armageddon-level internal cat fight over a measly three-minute promo video, it still seems an eternity away."

    I've been asking myself a very similar question in the last week or so and that's largely what's kept me from posting more than a couple of links (on FB) that call for more measured responses. It's why I hesitate to even engage here.


    1. Brian, I've been following your Facebook conversation with great interest. In fact, I think you are doing a great job of modeling Christlike passion AND compassion.
      I'd love to have that nuanced conversation face-to-face over coffee next time I'm in New England. Miss you! -Gary

  11. I have been following this story closely since it erupted on twitter, reading the articles, watching the video. I am no theologian. I probably could not stand up in a debate with any of these people. And yet, like you mentioned, the absence of love is all too clear. Especially to a watching world.

    I, too, will reserve my thoughts until after the book comes out. And if Rob Bell turns out to be Biblically errant, then it must be dealt with. But by whom? Who decides who is errant? Who is qualified to sit in judgement on man? It seems our common ground as believers continues to shrink and shrink. The enemy need not even worry about trying to destroy us, we are all too willing to try to destroy one another…

    Jesus said, By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.

    Seems to me that we have a much larger problem than what is or isn't in rob bell's book…

  12. Good thoughts Ron. If anyone wants to go higher in the food chain, you should see what Brian MacLaren and others say. Look up "emerging church" or "emergent church" and you'll find many people who are candidates to be stoned for heresy. The fact is, Rob Bell is not the only one with this view. But is that what Jesus told us to do? Go into all the world and identify those who are heretics, root them out and deal with them? No. You who are perfect in doctrine and have all your theology square should cast the first stone. You don't have to read his books if you don't like what he has to say. I am one who does not like his theology. But I have a list of people to pray for today who need Jesus and my list is too long to waste time bringing Rob's name up to debate if he's right or wrong. Friends – he is wrong. End of discussion. Jesus can handle his church and his servants without our help. Preach the truth in your world and adhere to sound doctrine yourself. Let the false and errant teachers lead the blind into the ditch – its their destiny. As Jesus said to Peter – "you follow Me."

    1. Neal, I love it. I'm still not sure Brian MacLaren is as far gone as some insist, but you will notice that I never use him in class. Rob strikes me as an "oldest child," pushing as close to the boundary of "evangelically correct" thought as possible without ever totally stepping over. Brian strikes me as a "second born," seeing how far over the line he can get before he gets burnt. (Wonder what their birth order actually is.) Anyway, the point is that you can't get at new declarations of (old) truths without a great deal of debate. If we try to cut off that debate before it is thoroughly explored, then we will NEVER move forward in contextualized conversation with a doubting world. Anyway, that's the way I see it. -Gary

  13. Part 1:

    I have been thinking about all this quite a bit lately.

    First off, here is a link:… to the blog post Greg Boyd wrote about Rob’s book and what is particularly good about it, is that Greg has actually read the book. He had received an advanced copy from the publisher.

    Greg also posted this a couple weeks ago on "Baby Universalism" which is a great read in light of all this:

    1. Thanks, Chris! I can't wait to dig into what Greg has to say. How's the land down under?

  14. The video is an excellent piece of work asking very good questions. I think Bell is one smart rascal, even if he does turn out to be off base. But Bell is just asking questions in the video. Bell makes no definitive statements to his beliefs on these issues.
    In any case, the controversy will make Bell’s book sell like hot cakes. Justin Taylor unwittingly gave Bell more readers than he would have had otherwise.
    I mean, that is just way too funny.
    What some people need to realize is that people often get saved on less than a perfect presentation of the gospel. I mean, really, who among us can lay claim that they have the perfect gospel message? In my mind, if Bell’s book is off base, but brings a skeptical remnant into a personal relationship with Christ, that’s cool. Get the fish in the boat, we can clean them later.
    My concern is how fast some in the academic community are going on a witch hunt before any real facts are in. This has always been a disturbing trend that amazes me. Credible academics should have all their ducks in a row before even starting an examination process. In addition, an authors writing is often an awkward vehicle to determine the heart of what that person really believes. For my part, discussion within the context of reconciling fellowship is the only way to get at the truth of the matter.
    This is the problem that Jesus’ disciples had. They were concerned that someone else might be preaching who were not part of the “club”. I like Jesus statement that if they were not against Him, they were for Him. I wonder if all these academics who think the sky is falling have considered that scriptural example.
    Anyway, that is my two cents.

    1. Excellent point! I love the "club" mentality comment. I think you hit closer to the point than you even know!

    2. Jesus actually said the opposite! "He who is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:30, Luke 11:23)

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