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.