Few events in recent memory have caused as much controversy and confusion among evangelicals as the latest book by well-known pastor Rob Bell, who in "Love Wins" denies hell and affirms universalism -- all the while claiming he has done neither.
Bell's Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., is nondenominational, but his books, "Velvet Elvis" among them, are popular among young evangelicals of all denominations and his Nooma videos -- well-produced and thought-provoking -- are used in even the most conservative of churches.
Bell -- a key figure in the emerging church movement -- often has flirted with controversy, such as the time in 2007 when he was asked about homosexuality and danced around the issue, refusing to take a historical biblical stand. Nothing that Bell has written or said, though, has been as controversial as Love Wins. The publisher, Harper Collins, intended to release it on March 29, but moved the date up two weeks after Justin Taylor, a blogger and executive at Crossway book publisher, wrote a critical review of the book's premise. Bell's former publisher, Zondervan, apparently refused to publish Love Wins, which is subtitled, "A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived."
Bell's views are nothing new and, in many ways, simply mirror liberal Protestantism. It is, though, extremely rare for a Christian leader with such a following among evangelicals to begin espousing views that contradict historical Christianity. The fact that he is such a gifted communicator makes his beliefs even more dangerous, his critics say.
Even the book's endorsements have been controversial. Eugene Peterson -- who wrote "The Message" Bible paraphrase -- endorsed it, as did Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary.
With Peterson's and Mouw's endorsements, there appears to be a brewing debate within evangelicalism on whether universalism is a denial of historical Christianity.
Most evangelical leaders, though, say the exclusivity of the Gospel and a literal heaven and hell are at the heart of Christianity. Yet in Love Wins, Bell redefines all three. He says the Gospel is exclusive -- but also inclusive in that people worldwide will be saved even if they have not professed Christ. He affirms heaven -- but says that Scripture sometimes defines it as the present day. He says he believes in hell -- but then says it's not a literal place but simply a synonym for suffering in the modern world.
In recent days, Bell has denied he is a universalist, but his book says otherwise. Technically, Bell may be more rightly defined as an "inclusivist," which is a cousin of universalism and teaches that people who don't even know Christ -- including Muslims and Hindus -- will nevertheless, unconsciously, be saved through Christ.
"From a pastoral perspective, this is the very definition of a wolf in sheep's clothing," Denny Burk, dean of Boyce College in Louisville, Ky., wrote on his blog in reference to Bell's denials.
In a chapter titled "There are Rocks Everywhere," Bell quoted John 14:6 -- where Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" -- and then proposes an unorthodox interpretation.
"What [Jesus] doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him," Bell wrote. "He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him."
Sometimes, Bell said, people who are saved use Jesus' name but "other times they don't." Jesus, he said, "is bigger than any one religion."
"As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn't matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn't matter what you believe, and so forth. Not true," Bell wrote. "... What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe."
But evangelical leaders say one's views on hell and salvation will have a wide-reaching impact not only on their faith but their practice. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Daniel Akin, on Twitter, said, "If theological inclusivism & hypothetical universalism is true [then] any rationale for missions is gutted. Why go? They do not need the gospel."
Jeff Iorg, president of Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, Calif., said universalism "denies the Christian faith."
"Redefining heaven and hell to explain away the reality of God's judgment contradicts clear biblical teaching affirmed by orthodox Christians for centuries," Iorg told Baptist Press. "Making the Gospel more understandable in our culture is a worthy goal. Amending the Gospel to make it more palatable is not."
On hell, Bell argues that Jesus -- in his many warnings about punishment -- was not referencing a literal hell in the afterlife, but instead evil and suffering on earth. At one point Bell anticipates the reader's question and he asks, "Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course." He then defines what he means: "Have you ever sat with a woman while she talked about what it was like to be raped? ... I've seen what happens when people abandon all that is good and right and kind and humane."
Bell later writes, "So, when we read, 'eternal punishment,' it's important that we don't read categories and concepts into a phrase that aren't there. Jesus isn't talking about forever as we think of 'forever.'" Bell elaborates, saying humans need a "word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God's world God's way."
Rustin J. Umstattd, assistant professor of theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Bell's views are "nothing more than a slickly packaged, well scripted rehash of Protestant liberalism."
Page Brooks, assistant professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said Bell's book is "filled with exegetical gymnastics, historical inaccuracies, and eschatological knots that would even make John the Revelator have a headache." Bell may say he believes in heaven and hell, Brooks said, "but not in the historical, orthodox senses of the term."
"The primary theological issue with Bell's book is his emphasis on love as the primary attribute of God," Brooks told Baptist Press. "While this is true, the Bible also teaches that justice and holiness are attributes as well. God's love is also a just love, and his justice is also a merciful justice. In other words, we must see God's love through His holiness and justice. It is not merely a 'love' that wins, but rather it is a 'just love' that wins. It is this 'just love' that we proclaim in the Gospel. If we exalt love as the only virtue of the Gospel, we undermine the reality of sin, which is an inaccurate representation of salvation and a disservice to the full offer of the Gospel to sinners."
Thomas White, associate professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Bell and anyone else who denies hell and supports universalism "falls into a long line of heretics serving the ruler of this world -- asking, 'Has God said?' and then twisting God's Word with an intellectual sleight of hand that is neither creative nor unique." White added, "We know Jesus spoke of hell often. If the Bible is true, so is hell."