Friday, April 8, 2011

Has Bell Been Understood?

The newest viral video that supporters of Rob Bell (and presumably the theology in Love Wins?) have been circulating apparently is from a recent event with Bell speaking. At the end he throws in a jab about not reviewing books before you read them. Interestingly, the internet furor wasn't over the book, it was over the blurb and the video that accompanied the blurb. One supporter of Bell's calls this video "the clearest no nonsense, non-confusing rhetoric I've ever heard Bell speak."

Notice that in this long list of things that Rob Bell affirms, at least half of them are (in his book) redefined so far from the historic Christian definition as to be nearly unrecognizable. "I believe in heaven...hell...the bible is God's word...salvation...a whole new creation right here in our midst..." He certainly does believe in Heaven and Hell, although he doesn't mean what you and I mean when we say it.

Many of the things he says he is in the video are not contested by most of his critics (such as myself). I have never said that he was not a Christian or even denied that he believed in Hell (per se). I understand that there are a lot of sloppy mis-statements of the ideas Bell presents in his new book, and I'm noticing them more and more as the book begins to be read more widely by Calvinists in the blogosphere.

This leads me to Michael Horton. I don't want to take issue with most of what Michael Horton said in his 9-part review of the book, because he did a much more in-depth analysis of the book than I did, and he was quite skillful and could theologically trounce me in a heartbeat. However, one thing that I noticed was that in part two of his review, when he summarized Bell's view of God, he said the following:
God: God’s attributes are reducible to love; Love requires the best outcome for the greatest number of people. Therefore, God’s nature requires universal salvation.
I would feel like I was nitpicking Horton here, except that this particularly unique view of love which Bell has can only be understood in the context of libertarian freedom. And his view of love is central to understanding the whole book. For Bell, it isn't necessarily that love demands "the best outcome for the greatest number." Rather, for Bell the most important thing about love is that it is free and uncoerced. In a sense, for Bell, whether love winning means heaven or hell is inconsequential. What is most important about the success of God's love is that God has to keep his hands off of the beloved.

Now, Horton's not completely off in understanding Bell. After all, Bell does seem to think that God's love implies wanting everyone to be in heaven (or the heaven realm or in the heavenly state of mind or however it is that he sees the postmortem state existing). But if Bell were to read part 2 of Horton's review, I really do think he would not recognize his views in the particular section I quoted from Horton. Bell argues that God always gets what God wants and that He wants all people to be saved, but he also confusingly enough makes the success of love contingent on freedom. As long as humans can will autonomously, then LOVE WINS (hence the title of the book). For Bell, even though God supposedly always gets what God wants, God really wants the human will to operate under its own weight and will hang the "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" banner on the deck of His aircraft carrier, so long as God leaves everyone alone in their perverted wills without coercing them or changing their hearts.

This means that in Bell's universe where God always gets what God wants, this "sort of great" God (his words) may not get what he wants because of human freedom. Hence his repeated claims to not be a universalist. I defend him in this respect. We ought to stop focusing on claims that he is a universalist and deal with the deeper assumption of Bell's that there are repeated (infinite) post-mortem opportunities at salvation. That's the really concrete claim that Bell makes. He can honestly evade claims of universalism by repeatedly pointing to human autonomy. He does exactly that around the halfway point in the video posted above.

If we do not address accurately the views that Bell sets forth, then it will be a perpetual cycle of talking past one another. And anyone who really gets what Bell is saying will have more and more reason to stop listening to us Calvinists in our criticisms of the man's views.


  1. Adam,

    I appreciate the link. If I may, one particular note about linking me as "one supporter of Bell's." I've been as careful as I know how to make clear distinction between my "defense" of a literary principle like Bell mentioned at the end of the video clip above, a principle I wholeheartedly embrace and Bell's theology proper or his ministry praxis with which I decidedly take much exception.


    With that, I am...

  2. Thanks for the clarification, Peter. I should have been more careful in my description of you.


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