ROB BELL AND CHRISTIAN UNIVERSALISM

 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self,… For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 3:1-2; 4:3-4)

Rob Bell Rings Very Loudly For An Entire Generation Of Ill-Taught Evangelical Youth

As I open this important subject, by way of introduction, I will first mention someone I have often referred to here at Apprising Ministries. Dr. Walter Martin (1928-1989) was:

a recognized authority on religions having their origins in the United States. The late Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse, named by Billy Graham as one of the foremost Bible Teachers of the 20th Century, once wrote of Dr. Martin, “I know of no one who equals him in this field.” He is widely accepted as the “father” of the Counter-Cult Movement… Dr. Billy Graham has said of him, “He is one of the most articulate spokesmen for evangelical Christianity that I know.”

Walter Martin’s radio ministry expanded in 1965 with the addition of “The Bible Answer Man” program, a two-hour live telephone talk show in which Professor Martin answer[ed] questions about the Bible and related subjects. The program was recognized by the National Religious Broadcasters as “one of the newest and most controversially stimulating programs in Christian radio!” “Dateline Eternity” was another radio program, developed by Dr. Martin, which included the best Bible questions and answers from the live “Bible Answer Man” program. He was the Founder and President of the Christian Research Institute, located in Southern California. (Online source)

Also author of the classic textbook The Kingdom of the Cults, it’s simply beyond question that Dr. Martin was recognized within the Body of Christ as a foremost defender of what he would so often call “the historic orthodox Christian faith.” And it’s in that capacity to which I appeal now to his expert testimony concerning the state of the Christianity, and the Church, in the following quote circa 1975:

Christianity today is in conflict; in conflict against the secular world; in conflict with world religions—which are hostile to us—in conflict against the Kingdom of the Cults—and the Occult; in conflict against corrupt theology in our theological seminaries—and oftentimes in our pulpits; in conflict against all forms of evil surrounding us on all sides. And it is a foolish person indeed, who does not recognize that the Church was born in conflict; lives in conflict, and will triumph in conflict. We have been called to be soldiers of the Cross.

And if we’re going to be soldiers of the Cross that means that we have to be attired to fight. That’s why Paul could say here in 2 Timothy, chapter 4 — I have fought the good fight [v. 7]. He did not say, “I have taken the long vacation.” I have fought the good fight, I finished the course, I kept the faith. But the problem we are facing today in Christianity—and one of the reasons why we are in crisis—is this: A large section of the Christian Chruch simply will not come into conflict with the world. And that, is one of our greatest drawbacks. (Christianity In Crisis, CD Rom)

This is the necessary background against which I need to paint this piece some thirty-plus years later because the Christian faith preached within much of evangelicalism today—particularly that of the postliberal Emerging Church—bears virtually no resemblance whatsoever to that so capably defended by Dr. Martin. In fact, it sounds exactly like the “large section” he is criticizing above. So as we begin a look at this important issue as it relates to Rob Bell you need to understand that Bell is every bit as popular an icon in the Emergent Church as Elvis Presley was in pop music to an older generation.

His Nooma DVDs, essentially an introduction to Bell’s skewed version of Christianity, are now standard operating procedure within young adult ministries even within more mainstream evangelical churches. With all of this in mind then I will point you to the post Rob Bell: The gods Should Be Angry by Jesse Johnson at Pulpit Magazine, which “began in 2003 as the online magazine of the Shepherds’ Fellowship,” associated with Dr. John MacArthur.

The reason I that out is to show those not under the spell of Bell that  Johnson is a reliable primary source who will recount below his own testimony about what he personally observed while attending Bell’s “The gods aren’t angry” tour at “Wiltern Theatre in Hollywood” about a year ago now. Pastor Johnson tells us:

this was basically 20th century liberalism. There was not much here that you would not get from Harry Emerson Fosdick. Except for this: the early liberals clearly stated what they believed, and where they differed from orthodox theology. Bell was not so kind to us.

Instead, he walked around an alter for 90 minutes, without talking about the wrath of God against sin being poured out on Christ. He did not say, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.” He did not say, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Instead, he said, “Anytime someone makes you feel guilty about how you are living, that is part of the old system (pre-Christ).”

He did not say he is a universalist. Instead, he just said, “the only Christian ritual is to help you tap into the peace that God has already made with the world.” He did not tell them “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Instead he said, “The gods are not angry anymore.” (Online source, bold his)

Again, those of us who are familiar with the rather nebulous teachings of Rob Bell will second Johnson’s impression that Bell, unlike the liberal forebears he does draw from, really is quite vague in what he’s teaching. This is easily documented in countless comboxes around the blogosphere where in comment after comment each person postulates what they think Bell is saying. And men and women, this alone is cause for caution in allowing Rob Bell’s teaching materials inside evangelical churches.

Bell’s position as a teaching pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, an ostensibly Christian church he planted, absolutely requires that Bell hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9). And for the Christian pastor this is not simply a helpful suggestion; or just a good idea, it is a command from Jesus Christ to all those who would function in the role of pastor-teacher.

Repainting A Generous Orthodoxy Where The Global Family Is Already Saved 

Now according to the Bible, as opposed to the numbers-mad evangelical community, we don’t get to be excused from correcting and rebuking (see—2 Timothy 4:2) because we happen to be exceptional communicators and extremely popular with young people. Leaving that aside for now, we return to our subject of Rob Bell and Christian Universalism (CU). Bell appears to be leaning toward a Christian Universalism, which is also known as Universal Reconciliation/Redemption (UR). Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry gives you a good basic working definition of CU/UR:

“Christian Universalism” is the position that all of mankind will ultimately be saved through Jesus whether or not faith is professed in him in this life. It claims that God’s qualities of love, sovereignty, justice, etc., require that all people be saved and that eternal punishment is a false doctrine. Salvation is not from hell, but from sin. (Online source)

We’ll return to this another time but it’s also important to note that many Christian Universalists do believe in a literal Hell as you can see in the AM article Spencer Burke: I’m A Universalist Who Believes In Hell; they just hope that one day it will be empty.  The key point for you to keep in mind right now would be what the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology enlightens us to here: “A universalist believes that the efficiency of the Atonement in not limited and therefore extends to all” (1232). In other words in CU/UR we’re not far from what a practitioner of the New Spirituality aka New Age would call “at-one-ment.”

As Milliard Erickson puts it in his Christian Theology:

The theory of universal reconciliation maintains that Christ’s death accomplished its purpose of reconciling all humankind to God. The death of Christ made it possible for God to accept humans, and he has done so. Consequently, whatever separation exists between a human and the benefits of God’s grace is subjective in nature; it exists only in the human’s mind. The message they need to be told, then, is not that they have the opportunity for salvation. Rather, they need to be told that they have been saved, so that they may enjoy the blessings that are already theirs. (1027)

This should now help you make a bit more sense as to what it is Rob Bell is likely saying, by what he doesn’t say, about repentance and forgiveness of sin. AM now points you to a short post called The Gods Are not Angry {But I Am!!}. In this piece Benji Magness, “Teaching Pastor at Country Bible Church in Kaufman, Texas,” also shares his own personal eyewitness testimony: 

Just got back from seeing Rob Bell on his “The Gods Are Not Angry” tour. I went as a pastor precisely because I was concerned that he would end up saying that God was not angry at sin. Bell lived up to my expectations. His closing words were: “God is not angry because God is love.” [Bell's] message was simple: Don’t feel bad about yourself and all your shame and guilt because you have peace with God. This message was offered to all without the mention of repentance, trusting Jesus as the sacrifice for our sins and satisfying God’s wrath. (Online source)

Bell’s message above then, if he does hold the view of CU/UR, really couldn’t be clearer. In a followup post A Critique of Rob Bell’s “The Gods Are Not Angry” what Magness and friends will tell us below would also line up with one holding to CU/UR:

My good friend Rob typed up a response to Rob Bell’s message that we heard last week:

Rob Bell spoke Friday night at Nokia Live and titled his message “The Gods Are Not Angry.” I attended with two senior pastors who are my dearest friends from seminary. They are tracking with the Emerging Church movement and have sharp minds to discern truth from untruth. After Rob Bell spoke, we processed his talk in community and came to the same conclusion. I really appreciate Bell’s writings (like Velvet Elvis), and I think he has several great concepts and insight around 1st century culture and correlating it to the gospels.

But after Friday night, our community of three came to the conclusion that Bell denies a substitutionary atonement model of Christ’s death, and is a functioning Universalist. Substitutionary atonement in a Christian model is the idea that Christ died in your place (as a substitute) in order to cover your sins (atonement). Universalism is the belief that all men are saved apart from what a person believes and typically accompanies an understanding that God is Love without emphasizing God’s anger or wrath. (Online source)

In closing this for now let me remind you that in Rob Bell Says “All-ee In Free…Almost” we did show you that Rob Bell does indeed appear to be preaching a kind of universal atonement, like that expressed above, where just as in CU/UR everyone is already reconciled to God. In Velvet Elvis (VE) Bell writes:

So this is reality, this forgiveness, this reconciliation, is true for everybody. Paul insisted that when Jesus died on the cross, he was reconciling “all things, in heaven and on earth, to God.” All things, everywhere.

This reality then isn’t something we make come true about ourselves by doing something. It is already true. Our choice is to live in this new reality or cling to a reality of our own making. (146, emphasis mine)

Interestingly enough, what Bell has just said in VE really bears a striking similarity to the following by Bishop John A .T. Robinson (1919-1983), whom Dr. Martin called “a living devil when it comes to Christian theology.” Robinson actually shared his own belief in universalism in a controversial 1949 article in the Scottish Journal of Theology called “Universalism—Is It Heretical?” Here’s Robinson from his book In the End God: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things:

THE TRADITIONAL position [is]…that God will be all in all despite the damnation…of many of his creatures…[T]he universalist asserts: “The God I believe in, the God I see in Christ, could not be all in all in these conditions: such victory could not be the victory of the God of love.” (as cited by Gregory MacDonald inThe Evangelical Universalist, 9)

Yes, you read that right: Evangelical Universalism, sometimes called Trinitarian Universalism and associated with Karl Barth. Men and women, I have said it in recent radio appearances, and I’ll say it again here; it’s as if the Emerging Church scours history for every piece of bad theology ever dismissed by the Christian Church and then drags it back in to reimagine. Gregory MacDonald, which is a pseudonym, would likely deny being part of the Emerging Church; but nevertheless, now that the evangelical camp has so openly embraced this Emergent rebellion against Sola Scriptura herein lies the grave danger.

One need only look at this week’s AM piece Phyllis Tickle and the Emerging Church: It’s Not If Sola Scriptura Ends But When to see just how bleak the road dead ahead is going to be for the apostatizing evangelical camp to try and maintain any semblance of orthodoxy. And tragically, at a time when the visible church most needs the anchor of God’s Word she has foolishly turned her back upon it in order to continue her sordid lust affair with corrupt Contemplative Spirituality/Mysticism pawned off as legitmate Protestant Spiritual Formation by anti-Protestant Living Spiritual Teacher and Quaker mystic Richard Foster.

Sadly, while these attacks on the very heart and meaning of what salvation is i.e. the Gospel continue advancing throughout youth groups in mainstream evangelical churches “name” Christian bloggers are content to waste the important medium of the Internet blogging about nothing. Right; and it’s those of us in online discernment ministry who are hurting the advance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Well you know, now that I think about it, maybe it is just about time for another bunch of posts on the cessation of spiritual gifts…like say, the discerning of spirits. That one really does seem to have vanished. 

But it’s not like God didn’t try to warn through one of your own evangelical Bible scholars. For here’s Dr. Walter Martin circa 1985:

There’s no such thing as a little bit pregnant. Got the message? No such thing as a little bit pregnant—you are, or you’re not. Well, there’s no such thing as a mild form of cancer; it’s cancer. You don’t get rid of it, you don’t deal with it, it gets you. And we have to deal with these things today; if we don’t, they’ll end up getting what’s left of the Church…

The form of godliness, but without the power; without the sound doctrine of Scripture. And what do we have today as the reigning school of [biblical] interpretation in Protestantism in our theological seminaries world-wide? I’ll tell you what it is: Bultmannian exegesis; named after Rudolph Bultmann, “the demythologizing of the Bible.”

And what did Dr. Bultmann teach, for forty-some years? He taught that you couldn’t rely upon any single thing—virtually—in the entire New Testament record; about Jesus Christ. It all had to be “demythologized,” and then the pieces put back together again. What does Paul say; “they will gather to themselves teachers who will tickle their ears, and the Truth of God will be turned into mythology.”

It’s here. The reigning school of American theologians has progressed from bad to worse. We only have to deal with Harry Emerson Fosdick in the 1920s; but then, it accelerated to Edwin Lewis, Nels F.S. Ferre, Reinhold Niebuhr, and on from Niebuhr to Paul Tillich, and crowned in Rudolph Bultmann. Not one single one of those men believed the historic doctrines of the Christian faith; but they were all the leading theologians of America.

[Episcopal] Bishop [John] A.T. Robinson cannot be unfrocked by the Anglican Church despite the fact that he is a living devil when it comes to Christian theology—denying everything and turning the faith of people into darkness. Do you know why they can’t unfrock A.T. Robinson; because [Episcopal leadership] is heretical as he is. Therefore they can’t touch him…

British theology was corrupted by German theology; by Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, David Strauss. Finally [it moved] to the United States in Walter Rauschenbusch; and from there to Harry Emerson Fosdick, Nels Ferre, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Rudolph Bultmann—and the school that’s emerging from them today. Where do you think we got the “God is dead theology” from? From historic Christianity; from Christian seminaries?

You did not. You got it from a good, solid Baptist theological seminary known as Colgate-Rochester in New York, which was absolutely orthodox and which sold out to liberalism. And when it did, they embraced the theology of Paul Tillich and ended up with—God is dead. It was called at the time, “the gospel of Christian atheism.” Did you ever heard such linguistic nonsense in your life? The gospel of Christian atheism, T.J. Altizer, Emory University. (The Cult of Liberal Theology, CD Rom, Walter Martin Religious InfoNet)

See also:

ROB BELL TEACHING UNIVERSALISM

ROB BELL ON HIS PRACTICE OF “MILITANT MYSTICISM”

IS ROB BELL EVANGELICAL?

DID ROB BELL FORGET THE CROSS?

ROB BELL ABSOLUTELY WRONG ABOUT SCRIPTURE

ROB BELL IN A NUTSHELL: THE BIBLE

KEN SILVA AGREES WITH ROB BELL