The Theology of Rob Bell: Making Evil Good and Good Evil?

There has been a lot of buzz on the internet about Rob Bell’s new book titled “Love Wins” in the last several days.  Justin Taylor just released a blog posting on The Gospel Coalition titled Rob Bell: Universalist?  

Furthermore, there has been a lot of buzz on Facebook and debate on whether or not we can jump to conclusions when the book hasn’t even been released thus far. 

For the record, Rob Bell is a very gifted communicator and skilled writer.   I have read a book from Rob Bell and several from his contemporaries, such as Brian McLaren.  I have also watched and used Rob Bell’s Nooma videos before.  With that said, my following critique is not coming from a blind eye nor from an ill-informed perspective but from a gentle/concerned theological disposition.

The issue at hand is whether or not the accusation of Universalism towards Rob Bell is justifiable?  Can one call Rob Bell a Universalist upon information on a book that hasn’t even been released yet?  While it is wise to not jump to conclusions about Bell’s book I think we can raise several different cautions from the promotional video that he has released for his new book.  The video is posted below. 

The section of the video that causes me the most distress is where he says,
“What is God like?  Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus.  So what gets subtly taught is that Jesus rescues you from God, but what kind of God is that, that we need to be rescued from this God?  How could that God ever be good?  How could that God ever be trusted? How could that ever be good news?”
What is so disturbing about this comment above is that this comment is viewing God through what Luther called a Theology of Glory.  Luther tells us in the Heidelberg Disputation that the problem with glory theology is that a theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil.  This is exactly what is being said above.  The comment calls God’s holiness and justice evil, consequently making mankind morally good.  Furthermore, the comment also makes God’s salvific atonement of Christ essentially evil when it is in reality... really good news.

This theology is essentially rooted in the theology of the 16th century theologian and humanist named Erasmus.  In layman’s terms, it seems as if Rob Bell’s main problem and issue, as laid forth above, is with God and not mankind.  In other words, when one starts with the presupposition that mankind is morally neutral, good and free then the inevitable result is to shift blame for this sin problem upon God.  “Mankind isn’t at fault, therefore, God is too strict, can’t be trusted and is indeed a moralistic monster.  God is the problem!”  However, how does this whole ideology change when we reverse the presuppositions and make mankind the problem rather than God?  Think about this for a moment…  mankind is the one that sinned in the garden; mankind is the one that continually turns away from God to self; mankind is the one that runs from God; mankind is the one that has made war with God due to sin.  Mankind is not the victim but the instigator.  The problem of sin is mankind's problem not God's.  Viewing things through this lens changes everything! 

If mankind is the instigator then God is totally just to punish sin; it means that God’s holiness is good not evil.  If mankind is the instigator it also means that God is good in that He maintains His holiness yet sets out to pursue His creation for reconciliation through the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.  On the Cross, Christ made the problem of sin His problem; this is good not evil!  Because of Christ, God’s holiness is maintained and mankind is reconciled... this is so good and is the Theology of the Cross.  This is how Love Wins!  Let's hope this is where Rob's book will be taking people.

While it is premature to assess Rob Bell's stance on Universalism, we wave a red flag and bring up concerns over the theology raised and presented in the video.    

For More Reading See:
We've Got A God Problem
The Captivation of the Will


Anonymous said…
"The comment calls God’s holiness and justice evil, thus making mankind morally good."

Anonymous said…
God Bless you Matt, Rob Bell's colors will soon show to all those watching & reading, whatever those colors are...
Matt said…
In that quote you have there Rob is just questioning how we present God and the Gospel. He's saying that at present what people seem pick up from us Christians is that God is bloodthirsty and we need saving from him and of course Rob is saying that clearly we need to communicate God & the Gospel better to people who don't know him.
Unknown said…
Thanks for this post. I have to agree that his words in the video disturb me too simply based on what he says about God. Seriously off - he is. I also feel concern for the fingerpointing that is going on. There will be a lot of feelings getting in the way of theology coming to the forefront. We are called to be the unified Body yet we're called to root out false-teachers. In our post-modern culture, to call someone a false-teacher is big, bad and ugly.

Doctrine is so very crucial. People are watching us. Let's show truth in love.
Chicago man, age 38 said…
I appreciate what you said here. I hadn't thought of his "good/evil" inversion, but it makes a lot of sense the way you have described it. The truth of the matter is, it is the unregenerated man's natural bent to bring God down not only to our level, but to sit in judgment of Him. I am sometimes disturbed at how I can subtly do this myself, even though I am aware of this dangerous tendency. The anger in Rob Bell's eyes truly scares me (in this video). It is not a righteous, God fearing anger. It is an anger born of resentment and denial of truth. So incredibly disturbing, especially coming from a person who many see as a priest who will faithfully lead them to God.
Anonymous said…
I agree 100% Matt, very well written.

Anonymous said…
If his goal is to clarify the gospel, then why would he muddy the water so bad? Calling to question a Hindu's eternal destiny is NOT pointing him in this direction. Jesus was VERY clear on this point.

He started something in his Elvis book when he talked about the springs on the trampoline. Doctrine is irrelevant. Really? Well, here comes the next step.

I bet I can tell you where he is going. Sadly, many will follow.
Pastor Scott said…
Bell also fails to note that God is rescuing humankind through Jesus and the cross, taking us from where we are naturally conceived and born (Satan's kingdom) into God's kingdom. Failure to recognize that then leads naturally to a misunderstanding of good and evil, it seems.
Anonymous said…
Hi Matt,

Your response to Rob Bell's video is right on.

In addition to what you already mentioned, one of the troubling things about the video is Bell's appeal to human experience, questions and reason. He talks about the Bible, but I do not recall one phrase of God's Word actually being uttered in those 178 seconds. No doubt that was intentional upon his part, perhaps in an effort to draw in, and not cause immediate offense to, his target audience.

Even so, isn't it the Word that is to shape and inform our words (I Cor. 2:1-16 & Romans 12:2)? We depart from the Way and step on to a divergent path when we let our corrupted human words/reason displace The Word. I know this for a fact because: 1. the Word declares it (see previous refs.) and 2. more than once I've stepped on those divergent paths and have seen the negative consequences.

You are right to reserve judgment on the totality of what Bell is actually teaching until all the facts are presented, but I agree with you that given what already has been presented in the video, there is definite reason for concern.

Thanks for your ministry to our Lord's Body.

Thanks for your posting Pastor Matt. It was indeed insightful. It always seems that there is something deeper than what we see at the surface. Actually, this was what was going on during the Reformation with Martin Luther. While justification by faith (Sola Fide) was the "material" of the debate, the form, or "formal" debate was authority. Who had final authority? The church? Or scripture?

With Rob Bell, the "material" that appears to be going on are things like universalism, goodness of God, whether man is inherently good/neutral or sinful, etc; but the "formal" that is going on is ALSO authority. Rob Bell appears to be coming from a Neo-orthodox viewpoint (much like McLaren and others). Is the bible itself the final authority? Or are experiences?

An excellent series of lectures on the issue can be found from Ligonier Ministries with R.C. Sproul, titled "Hath God Said?"
JeedBe said…
Either you didn't approve of my posting or your preview option doesn't work properly. Whatever the reason, I spent more than a few minutes on the post and don't feel like redoing it. Please check your site options.
JeedBe was your posting just recently?
Anonymous said…
Of course there is nothing "good" about a God who would punish a being He created in an eternity of suffering! You can quote whatever philosopher, etc. but that is just common sense that a loving God would not punish anyone by tormenting them eternally. Where is the Love in that? If someone can explain where the love in that is I would be more than happy to change my mind.
Anonymous said…
The fact of the matter is that any God that who would punish one of his own creations so brutally and ceaselessly in Hell would be a God who is, or has a side of Him which is, incredibly cruel. How could a God capable of such cruelty even know what love is? I was raised Catholic, I know all the teachings, but I see things way differently than what is classically taught.

It sounds to me that your ‘common sense’ is rejecting a misinformed view of God. God is not like a child with subjective rules. "You need to know that my rules are my rules and if I don't get my way then I'm going to make you pay." If this is how God perceives things I will also join you in having concerns!

So who is this God? It is hard to discern from your comment so I will be gentle here… are you taking into account God’s character of Justice? It sounds like your view of God is shaped by a modern American sentimentalism rather than the scriptures. Check out God’s description of himself in Exodus 34:6-7? In this passage and countless other ones we see that God is Love but He is also Just.

In thinking about God’s Just nature, would God be all loving by not being just? Surely you would not say that God should let people like Hitler and his atrocities slide because He is love? How could God be love if He were to brush off the atrocities in the Sudan?

Just as God is Just, he is also love. His justice towards sin is unleashed on Christ and Christ receives this condemnation on the cross because he loves us. Thus at the cross, justice and love collide… thus the gift of the Gospel for you and me. However, apart from this sacrifice of sin (i.e. unbelief) one must rely on their own record and meet justice.

Finally, please keep in mind that hell is a punishment but it is not a punish(ing). In the Bible we see hell as a separation or eviction from God. It is an exclusion from God. Hell is not only a punishment for sin but is also the natural result of people living in rebellion. It is the result of mankind saying, “I don’t care, I want it my way and I want to be the King of my life… I don’t care if I am separated from God.” Thus they are given what they desire, being separated from God for eternity.

I would suggest to also read:

Grace and Peace.
Anonymous said…
Thank you for replying, I think I was writing to you while you were writing back to me--sorry about that.
I appreciate what you have written and respect your views. I believe that sin is very real and that a person does separate themselves from God when they sin. But that is very different than a God who is punishing.
As far as the example and question you asked about Hitler and would God let those atrocities slide, the unfortunate reality is that whether he punishes Hitler or not, what happened on earth already happened so punishing Hitler in and of itself will not heal what happened on earth or the people it happened to.
God, if he created this world, I believe he is hurt if we do not appreciate what he has created and do not respect it. I believe his love is shown in the beauty he has created in nature, in love etc. But also life has pain in it whether or not one is separate from God. God didn't put us in a perfect paradise but yes humans do create a lot of the suffering, not all of it though. I believe if God loves us ultimately he will want to heal us and that desire to heal us will not end when we die. God's patience would extend to us beyond death I believe and therefore I believe that he would seek to continue trying to heal people. That is one quality of Jesus--he was a healer. There are many accounts of this. The people he healed didn't necessarily do anything to deserve healing they were normal humans afflicted by some handicap or disease. Maybe too God can heal people with spiritual sicknesses. Don't know. Interesting discussion.
Mrs.M said…
DEAD ON BROTHER! This is great!
Anonymous said…