Inside Out 58: The Rob Bell Controversy

03.08.11 | Kurt Goff

Have you been following the Rob Bell controversy? It very well could be the first big theological firestorm started, fueled, and fought on the Internet. Bell is the popular pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan.  He’s got a new book coming out called “Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”

Recently influential Christian blogger Justin Taylor posted a trailer clip for the book featuring Bell. Taylor also shared a blurb from the publisher describing the content of the book:

"In Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith-the afterlife-arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic-eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins."

Obviously concerned, Taylor posted some thoughts. Those thoughts led to a Twitter comment on the blog from Pastor John Piper: “Farewell, Rob Bell.”

Cue the perfect theological storm. 250,000 hits on Justin’s blog in the first couple of days alone.

Does Bell believe everyone will eventually be saved and hell will be empty (Universalism)? Or is this just a ploy to get people talking or sell some books? Are we jumping to conclusions before reading the book? Taylor shares many interesting observations on these questions in our conversation. But this is also part of the bigger conversation: the fight for the faith delivered to the saints. That’s our frame of reference.

I should mention that we’ve also requested an interview with Rob Bell through his publisher. We’ll keep you posted on that.

io-comeback - Don't Call It A ComebackThis isn’t a matter of splitting theological hairs. This issue strikes at the heart of the Gospel. Controversy for the sake of controversy is pointless and harmful. Controversy that sharpens our biblical convictions can help us know why we believe what we say we believe.

Speaking the truth in love still means speaking the truth. It’s the fine line we walk. Grace and truth. God help us all.

For further reading: Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day.


Your Comments(please keep them on topic and polite)

on 03.08.11 Stefani commented

I just read the article and saw the video and I am grieved in my spirit for the people who are being mislead intentionally or un-intentionally; when the bibal is vey clear about the ONLY way to be saved, through Jesus Christ, and that there IS a hell for those who reject Him.
I will pray that if this book and the teachings of Rob Bell is going the way that it seems, then that yes God have mercy on him & that he may not infect those who follow him and those who are looking for God, but instead bump into this idealism that everyone goes to haven, happy happy joy joy. May the Holy Spirit convict and guide those who are truly looking for the truth in Jesus Precious Name. AMEN and God Bless. Thank you Justin Taylor for standing for truth in a world who just wants everything to be sugar coated!

on 03.08.11 debbie commented

We know our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers of this dark world. To that end - I say let's keep the focus off Bell and on the Word of God which is living and active and powerful!

In the little blurb I heard Bell raises the question of what kind of God is He if we need to be rescued from Him by Jesus. The question isn't valid and isn't answer-worthy. Let the Bible speak for itself. We don't need to be rescued from God by Jesus, God sent Jesus to rescue us from ourselves. I would not get into a debate but rather keep stating the Truth of God's Word over and over and over until it sinks in. And who will receive it? Those who have ears to hear....
John 3:16
1 John 4:9

on 03.09.11 Deb commented

I have to agree with Debbie. The Bible is very clear and Mr. Bell's question inferring that God the Father is the bad guy; making the Son save us from Him is irrelevant.

Hell was created for the Devil and his angels. Those who have chosen not to be with God through the propitiation of His Son have directed their own paths. There are promises in the Bible that we are assured that we will not be deceived, that every person on earth will knowingly choose where they will spend eternity. I guess it boils down to the question "Do we trust God to do what is right," and if we don't, why are we following Him?

That being said, we who know the Truth are now bound by it and are without excuse. If there were no Hell, then Jesus' sacrifice was for nothing, which is an unspeakable travesty of justice. I Peter 3: 18, 19 speaks of Jesus descending to Hell to preach 'to the spirits in prison'. We are beginning a study at my church called "23 Minutes in Hell" based on the book by Bill Wiesse that is most profound. It is well worth looking into. Jesus spoke more about the reality of Hell than of Heaven. That being said, I think it would behoove us to be very sure... The consequences are too severe to be wrong in this.

on 03.09.11 Chris commented

I wonder if we are judging the book by the cover. No one who has put this book down has read it. I am not taking either side. Just wondering if we arent shutting the door before we know whats on the other side. I believe everything deb and debbie have said. Maybe by reading it, God would open up our hearts to a better understanding of what He is. Sometimes its not what we read but what we do with it.

on 03.09.11 Tony commented

I’ve listened to your actual broadcast the other day, read what is posted here, and finally read Taylor’s blog that is referenced. There sure is a lot of commentary going on and Rob Bell has received a lot of attention. I am prompted to think a few things regarding this discussion.

First, I think Chris is right and maybe we all should read what Bell actually wrote instead of reacting to interpretations of what he wrote.

Second, Bell, as a postmodernist, is raising some legitimate questions. Do we believe what the Bible says on any topic simply as it is or is it filtered through the culture we live in? I am convinced that much of what we as individuals believe is actually filtered through the culture and not sola scriptura. We must constantly come back to scripture and let God speak and not carry our interpretations along and hear what we want to hear. With regard to hell, how much of our understanding of the reality of hell has been influenced by Dante’s Inferno or even Hollywood? I have been told that John Calvin was certain that no one, including himself, was more than 80% correct in doctrine! We need to constantly search Scripture and allow it to renew our thinking.

Third, the question; “Would a loving God send people to hell?” is a legitimate question to ask and often is, especially by non-Christians. Bell is correct in saying that how we ask that question and answer it does reflect our personal theology. I think the inference though is that the ‘right’ answer to that question is ‘no.’ However, God is more complex than one question can describe. For example another question can be asked; “Would a just God allow anyone into heaven?” Maybe I dwell a little too much on this later question and ask further; “Why would God let anyone into heaven; especially me!?”

Forth, there is a great statement in the publisher’s abstract; “…eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now.” How true this is! No one said anything about the good stuff that may be there.

Fifth, “love wins.” Isn’t this what John talks so much about in both his gospel and epistles?

Finally I should offer a disclaimer. I do think the Bible speaks of eternal separation of people from God and also of eternal relationship between God and some people. It seems that God is very busy calling a people unto Himself. Jesus came to earth for a reason and more importantly, He went to the cross for a reason. Eternal life does begin when we rest in the work of the cross. Jesus calls us to follow Him and that is perhaps the hardest thing to do!


on 03.09.11 Tony commented

For those who are interested here is a worthy commentary on a different part of Bell's book. This regards a quote of Martin Luther that appears in the book. The quote would appear to support Bell's thesis but Ligon Duncan does an excellent job of showing the flaw in the quote.

on 03.11.11 Mark commented

I can’t help but reply to a couple of statements. I am not trying to be contentious so please don’t read it that way.

With regard to Chris' comment of "... shutting the door before we know what's on the other side..." is exactly the problem. We don’t do that when by all rights that exactly what we should do.

Consider: if we carefully examine that thought, the pitfall is easy to spot - let's expose ourselves to error, and consider it and allow it to permeate our thinking, with the predictable result that we are desensitized and move away from biblical accuracy and truth. The error is perhaps subtle, and this is most dangerous kind of error because it is difficult to see. It’s a very simple Satanic ploy. Introduce just enough error to make people question the Bible. Then step by step we are miles away from the truth.

I think I understand what you’re driving at but a couple of thoughts come mind…

Your point #2 - Postmodernist? Yes, Bell is, and that’s a good enough reason to not delve into what he is selling. The notion to think that we are sophisticated enough or at some higher level of thinking such that we ultimately call into question what the Bible clearly teaches is utterly ridiculous.

As you say “… I am convinced that much of what we as individuals believe is actually filtered through the culture and not sola scriptura.” Agreed! And Bell’s so-called “new” perspective is plain wrong. It’s in direct contrast to what the Bible teaches – end of story. That’s enough for me to reject what he is saying. I don’t need to expose myself to perhaps persuasive arguments that cause me to doubt the Bible.

your point #3 – a loving God? How about the attributes of Perfect and Holy and many others? Let’s be very careful not to over-simplify the issue, or make it a one issue point. There isn’t a person that has ever lived, except Jesus Himself that doesn’t deserve eternal separation from God (=Hell). We (humans) have earned that (Hell). Should God elect to spare even a single person shows His love, grace, and mercy. Yes, I get that people want to dredge up the issue of “fairness” but just exactly what reference point are we using?!! Who are we (sinful, limited creations) to call God’s (the Creator) perfect judgment into question? Lucifer was banished from God’s presence for exactly that reason, wasn’t he?

Our personal theology? Didn’t you just (correctly) say it’s sola scriptura? What does personal theology have to do with anything other than re-interpreting the Bible to fit OUR view of what we want it to say?

Your point #4 – yes, isolated that is agreeable. But then that’s really the problem, isn’t it. Put in just enough truth with the error to make the error sound right or believable. Very, very dangerous and that’s what many people miss.

Love wins? I guess, depending on the reference point of “love”. If a parent tells their child “no” because they know better, is that love? Sure. But the child probably doesn’t think so. The analogy applies… we must be very, very careful not to limit God by our definitions or perceptions. I see Bell trying to change scripture to fit his personal viewpoints.

on 03.11.11 Chris commented

Mark, I have a question for you. Would you write off anything that Rob has done in the past then based on what he is pushing now? Would you not show a nooma video at a small group or a sunday school class? I am not trying to stir up anything. I am just curious because I have a small group that has watched many of the nooma videos. I agree with much of what you and Tony said. I feel I am kind of stuck in between both of you. Wanting to grow in Gods grace but not limiting how much translations, culture, and media have skewed heaven and hell.

on 03.15.11 Tony commented

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Maybe as points of clarification I would say something in return. Yes, I agree we need to be cautious with regard to postmodernist thinking and how it can conflict with biblical doctrine. However, shouldn’t we be just as cautious about modernist thinking? I am going to guess that you, like me, fit into the modernist category and as such have our understanding of the Bible corrupted by modernist thinking. I do not know that the “new” perspective is completely wrong and that the “old” perspective is completely right. I suspect that both are wrong at points and right at other points. The problem is finding what is right, or rather, biblical.
Another issue about postmodernism is that this is where the majority of our young people are. There is a point at which we need to be able to relate to the younger crowd in order to share the gospel with them. And I might add that this is more than just the old “that younger generation doesn’t understand…” argument. There really has been a shift in overall philosophy. I am a college professor and I am working with the about 20 age group all the time both in the classroom and also in campus ministry. They are different from me and I find it hard sometimes to find the common ground. For me there is some value in trying to understand the postmodern ways so that I can be relevant to the kids I work with.
Lastly my comment about personal theology is really just meant to be how each individual understand God. I do truly believe in the principle of sola scriptura. How that plays out in my life and yours will not be identical and therefor your personal theology and mine will differ even if we both approach scripture with identical tools and principles. So, I do not mean personal theology to be our reinterpreting of scripture to suit our needs just that my understanding of scripture will never be 100% accurate this side of eternity.

on 03.17.11 Susan commented

Thank you all for such thoughtful responses.

Rob Bell is my pastor, has been for over 10 years. Sunday night he held a private party for members only of our church. Security was tight.

Rob stood and began by denying that he is a Universalist, that he does believe in heaven and hell. He got a huge hand and a big "We love you Rob!" from the crowd. He was asked some questions that he answered in a round about way, but I never got a sense that he answered a clear message of what he actually believed. His promo video disturbed me much, so this meeting made me feel a little better about what my pastor believes. Then the book came out and I am grieved.

I watched the interview by Martin Bashir and I found myself wanting to jump through the screen to ask Rob those same questions. I don't know what this is going to do to my church. Lots of members have left in the last few years as Rob's teaching has changed. He still has lots of followers that will continue to follow as long as he is preaching there, no matter what his doctrine is.

My week has been spent reading, praying, and grieving. This is my pastor you all are talking about, it seems as if someone I knew and loved for a decade is not who I thought he was.

Jesus is my closest friend and it seems that my pastor has denigrated His death on the cross as unnecessary or at least unimportant to our salvation. How sad.

on 04.11.11 Daniel M commented

As soon as I heard this broadcast I knew that I felt the need to submit my 2 cents into the matter. Aside from the digital media era we are now engaged in, which was the general overall topic that led to the specific topic of Rob Bell’s book, I feel this one alone needs to be addressed specifically.
This, like another issue, dealt with recently on your broadcasts, such as the new statistic regarding more and more Christians today that have a Christianity that is more based on their experience rather than on scripture, the more I hear, the more I am convinced that something more dangerous than all of the cults we have grappled with over the years is emerging. It isn’t just like when you are speaking about Jesus with a Jehovah’s Witness and you need to know that Jesus to them is entirely different than the Jesus we speak of, which you need to consider when dealing with them. No, this is far worse, because like scripture says in the last days, they will have a form of godliness, but be denying the power thereof.
Like liberal progressives in the political arena, there is a new movement within the Christian arena that is slowly gaining ground, mostly because so many are putting more faith in their Christian experience rather than in scripture, and these I fear, will most likely slide into what is being called Progressive Christianity. Such followers of it, could well be like that of our President, in that if you go to their website you will be met with a universalism of welcome, exchange of ideas, “inclusiveness”, informed perspectives, etc. See their 8 points at the site, #4, being “Inclusion”. The reason it is so much more dangerous, is that it looks like our Christianity, but is a complete demonic farce.
As biblical Christianity, we know that everyone is welcomed at the foot of the cross, well, they take it to mean that essentially, everyone is welcomed, but you don’t need to change to be accepted. Of course we cannot change ourselves, otherwise that would be a point of justifying ourselves or doing it on our own strength instead of recognizing that it is God who changes us. But they look at such a dogma or even what scripture would indicate to be a real conversion by surrendering to Jesus, as a demand by traditional Christianity, not our understanding of the scripture.
They are redefining everything Jesus and scripture say, relaxing any mandate or command, except perhaps for their version of love, to simply be whatever you decide it means for you, and essentially blessing it with their organizational standards of approval, giving one the sense that this is a new era in Christianity. Contrasted by scripture, which essentially would say, yes, you can come as you are, which is what our Christianity says, but it is not to stay that way. They say, whatever it means for you, even if different from me, would be fine in their view. Taking it momentarily back to the political, so much for “change”, as it essentially welcomes you as you are and you don’t have to change, if you’re happy with where you are. Jesus died for a purpose, and to give us the power to turn around, not to stay with whatever we come with.
So you have a version of it as seen a This site welcomes the gay, lesbian, etc. community to Christianity, without any imposition to change, but welcomes these, redefining the “bible bashing” scriptures used often to show that these lifestyles are wrong to show how they have been misinterpreted. It emphasizes that if your relationship is a loving one, even if gay, then it is not one that God is after, though it avoids that fact that getting it that level, had to first start with violating law in the first place. Much like the dilemma with illegal’s entering the US, now that they have established themselves, is it now okay, looking at it from the political realm? I would like to see how they would handle an example of a choice made, that once God’s view is revealed, that they had to make a change in repentance, like that of the people and priests in Ezra 10, where I am sure they loved their wives and the children they had, but to correct or mend their ways, it was imperative that they put away their wives and perhaps their children. Was God fair? Was it right or wrong? Regardless of how they may have personally felt about it, did they have to adhere to what God expected?
Well, anyway, this could go on. I was excited that you even challenged one who endorsed Bell’s book, whom you respected over the years, and I would love for you to take on the challenge of this new progressive Christianity which isn’t Christianity at all but a complete denial of all that Jesus did and said, which they have redefined in this bold “New” world of Christianity, in their eyes anyway. Some of it is our fault as so many have left the church because of legalism, and mismanaged handling of situations, and for sure, a lack of love, but to have altered everything to appease the masses, we now have a dangerous false faith on our hands which could certainly represent a kind of universal one world religion of sorts as anyone who would oppose it, would come across as being more of the same of what they have left, and you could probably never get a fair hearing. So many now rely more on their experience than the ignorance of scripture, these are the ones who would find this “New” Christianity a welcomed breath of fresh air, but duped into believing it is what Christianity always was or should have been. Sure it is by the word of our testimony but also by the blood of the Lamb. Maranatha, Lord come quickly and God help us.

on 04.12.11 Daniel M commented

Further my thoughts on this, as I contemplated this, I realize, though proponents of progressive Christianity would think the opposite, this view of hell or anything else coming out of this thinking, cheapens the grace of God and what Jesus died on the cross to do. In America, sure this thinking is comfortable to those who can sit back and ponder, but for the thousands, no millions around the world who have a martyred sense, appreciation or perspective on faith in Christ and His gospel, my guess is that they would be appalled by this comfortable, smug and wishy washy approach to our faith and hell, given that they have had to dodge bullets, machetes, rape, etc. for certain earthly peril to their faith, and in contrast, even if just to avoid the gnashing of teeth for a hell that maybe doesn’t exist as the scriptures declare? What is there to fear, or what reason is there to live right, if there is no hell as the scripture declare or a redefining of what it means? Granted, I haven’t read the book to see where its logical or illogical conclusion leads, so maybe it is not fair to judge it, but just to suggest what I have heard is what the book says, I am wondering if Mr. Bell is setting us up for another book where he will declare some personal choice he’s made of an alternative lifestyle to which this apparent demonized view of hell he is eliminating, will allow him a justified place where he will be comfortable. Should I be so judgmental? Perhaps, I shouldn’t be. But if by virtue of redefining what the scriptures say is their way of side stepping rewriting scripture, then in defense of my faith and scripture, I say, sure let’s have the conversation, but let’s come out in the open with where you are taking us, because if this is a gospel other than the one we have come to believe, then…God forbid…Sorry for being so harsh, but I think God would be more so…if what I believe is true… though His kindness hopefully will lead me and anyone else at least to repentance… but for what? If the bad place doesn’t really exist, then who cares?




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