Love Wins: Rob Bell may be an inclusivist but he’s not a universalist

Author: Rob Bell.
Love Wins: a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived” (HarperOne, 2011).

I liked Rob Bell’s Nooma series and have used it, but this book has stirred so much controversy that the evangelical and protestant world is still reeling from the aftershocks.  There was a lot of controversy when it came out earlier this year and I thought: “What’s the big fuss all about?  I’ll have to read it myself.” Many bloggers have already blogged about this so I’m a late-comer adding my two cents worth to this discussion. This is definitely not an indepth review but just a few of my thoughts.

In his book, Bell is trying to simplify the Christian faith by removing, or (and I’ll borrow Bultmann’s terminology) “demythologizing” the theological images of the Christian faith that may be out-of-touch with today’s postmoderns. Take the cross for instance; it was used for capital punishment in the Roman Empire and has become the prominent symbol of the Christian faith for the past twenty centuries. Today, the equivalent of this symbol might be the electric chair or lethal injection in some U.S. states where capital punishment is law.  So why stick with the “cross” terminology/imagery? That’s a good question. Bell’s demythologizing of the cross can be useful and easier to stomach, but his demythologizing of hell has definitely not been welcomed. This is what the fuss is all about. It is heresy to most evangelicals and traditionalists including myself, initially at least.

As an evangelical Christian, I try to simplify the Christian faith as much as possible.  The Christian faith can be as complicated or as simple as one makes it.  Theology can be complex, but a simplified interpretation of one’s theology can make religion a little easier to grasp and take a hold of. Furthermore, simplicity of faith makes spirituality easier to receive and embrace. Perhaps, this is what Bell was trying to do in his book.

Personally, I feel this demythologizing of the cross isn’t as bad as the demythologizing of hell (which was really a garbage dump just outside of old Jerusalem called “Gehenna”).  Most Christians interpret “hell” in the traditional sense of the word.  To many of us, hell is a place of eternal fire and brimstone reserved for the evil one, his demons, and his followers.

To interpret hell as anything other than this would definitely invite accusations of blatant heresy.  Then, it’s no wonder Zondervan rejected Rob Bell’s book.  They knew this would spark such a controversy that it might affect Zondervan in the negative way…and it would have.  Zondervan’s rejection of Bell’s book is a benefit to HarperOne’s benefit….but doesn’t Harper Collins own Zondervan anyway? (In the end, “Harper Wins” 😉 )

Despite these controversies, Bell’s book has, and will, help its readers expand their interpretation of theological ideas and images of the bible with a wider lense.

Personally, I don’t think Rob Bell has become a universalist, as some evangelicals may have accused him of being.  So has all this big fuss gone overboard?  I think so.  His language may sound universalist but I have my doubts whether he has actually converted.  I think he is more of an inclusivist, which is in-between an exclusivist and a pluralist.  He probably leans closer to that of Clark Pinnock’s than Karl Rahner’s; so his theology should still be within the bounds of orthodoxy.   It kind of sounds like he has drawn his theology from Pinnock because he used some similar language.  Now I’m defending Bell.  Where Bell went wrong was his vagueness and lack of clarity in language, which only added to people’s misperceptions of him.  A few of Bell’s statements in his book might be interpreted as universalist, but I think they can also be interpreted as being inclusivist (however, I could be wrong).  But if so, why hasn’t Bell defended himself as an inclusivist or made reference to people like Pinnock?  If Bell is actually an inclusivist, his theology is nothing new; it has been taught for decades by teachers like Clark Pinnock (Baptist), Karl Rahner (Catholic), and others.

On numerous television interviews, and as some of you already know (here, here, plus many more), Bell intentionally avoided answering some questions, for fear of being misinterpreted by his fellow evangelicals.  I am not certain about Bell yet but I am certain that he has not been clear-cut and straight-forward in speaking about his theology of hell as we would like him to be.  He seems to like to keep it vague… and probably intentionally so.  Let’s hope Bell’s theology hasn’t veered too far from orthodoxy.

Thanks to HarperOne for sending me this book to review.

Might be going minimalist

I occasionally run into a few blogs that are life-changing. Here are a couple by the same author on minimalism that has just influenced me to think about making a change in my life.  It fits well with, and lends to my previous post (or rant) on materialism. To me, this is kind of a spiritual issue in life.

Enslavement to materialism vs freedom for the human spirit

I’m sitting here in Starbucks enjoying a cup of coffee (Pike Place roast). This relaxing [in]activity gives me an opportunity to do a little self-reflection. Seems like it’s not often I get to do this these days.  While on vacation in Vancouver (my birth place), I noticed some changes since I moved away from this city many years ago: old buildings and houses torn down to make place for new buildings; increased real estate prices; lots of fancy cars; good food; and etc–all the fanciful things one would want to satisfy a carnal life.  What has not changed are things like: damp weather caused by rain-cloud covered skies; green trees & grass; the rush of people and traffic; and the beautiful mountains and ocean sitting in the background.

What seems to have changed the least and also the most, are people’s self-perceived need for material things.  On one hand, materialism has always been prevalent in the heart of humanity.  On the other hand, materialism has never been as popular as it is today.  When lives seem empty, we try to fill it with things, and more things.  Such things might be things-to-do and material things—all to satisfy our need for affluence, status, and pleasure.  Why?  Someone once said:

“Much of our activity these days is nothing more than a cheap anesthetic to deaden the pain of an empty life.” – anonymous-

Mahatma Gandhi said:

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”

How true?!  We  try to spend money to buy things to impress people and/or gain status.  We think that status, affluence and pleasure come from having more material things.  This is a deception.  When human beings chase after the material things of this life, this chase can take forever and never have an end to it.

The sad thing is that the Christian church has also fallen prey to this deception.  Many of us Christians have grown up listening to the false and twisted gospel of prosperity—that God gives to those who help themselves.  Some actually think this is a quote from the bible.  What has happened to our Christian understanding that discipleship involves suffering and sacrificial giving?  Jesus’ message of the cross has been forgotten.

How did we become so ignorant of what brings true happiness and freedom?  When we began to believe that our security comes from having enough money and material possessions.  Rather than being liberated and free from material things, we have become enslaved to it.  Materialism, the idol of the 21st century, is an endless and futile chase for things that can never satisfy our human spirit.  When our inner human spirit (which is immaterial and created for spiritual things) becomes dependent upon earthly things (which is material), we become self-enslaved to an insatiable desire for more material things.

The love of money and material things is a distraction to the kingdom of God. Regarding the kingdom of God, St. Paul the Apostle said:

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10).

The love of money and material things is a distraction to the kingdom of God.  If Christians are to have a clearer understanding of the kingdom of God, we must realize that our spiritual nature was created to live in fellowship with the Spirit of God.  Such is the will of God.  Holy Scripture also says:

“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for [Jesus] has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

The Spirit of Christ wants to fill humanity with himself in order that we may live in unity with our Creator God.  When Christ enters our lives, the Spirit of God becomes our endless source of joy and freedom.  God is humanity’s only and final source to true fulfillment.  Spending more time to contemplate upon such things of God’s kingdom affords one the opportunity to seek the things of God.  Allow the Spirit of God to fill you with more of God’s Self.