Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part I
John Piper, an elder statesmen for The Gospel Coalition tweeted three simple words and linked to a blog post by Justin Taylor. Within moments, accusations flew and debates exploded among Christians on the Internet for the whole world to see. Within a week there are stories about this event on virtually every major media source, including The New York Times, CNN, The Huffington Post, and ABC.
What set off this firestorm among evangelicals across the twittersphere and blogosphere and gained the attention of the world? Three simple words from John Piper: “Farewell, Rob Bell” and a link to Justin Taylor’s blog, –“Rob Bell: Universalist?” While the blog title was tentative, the accusations seemed clear. “It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.”
While the book was still unreleased, and only partially read by Taylor, who formed many of his opinions based on a promotional video by Bell himself, Taylor leveled the accusation that “he is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.” Now that the book is out, it seems that at least one tribe – those representing “The Gospel Coalition” have made their judgments.
Kevin DeYoung, whom Justin Taylor and others point to, says, “There are dozens of problems with Love Wins. The theology is heterodox [another way to say heresy]. The history is inaccurate. The impact on souls is devastating. And the use of Scripture is indefensible. Worst of all, Love Wins demeans the cross and misrepresents God’s character.”
So is Rob Bell a heretic? Will Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived become a classic, a passing fad, or a textbook example of heresy? As Christians in general, and as evangelical Protestants in particular, how are we to consider the doctrine of love and unity as we examine the doctrine of hell? History has demonstrated that we Protest-ants have a proclivity to protest and divide, and sometimes cut off the roots to “save” the branches. How do Protestants discern heresy from orthodoxy? Is there a “protestant pope” (either historically or currently) or a council of bishops who determine what is orthodox and what is heresy?
My goal in this essay is to review some of the more controversial parts of Love Wins and examine heresy and orthodoxy to shed light on whether we should divide over hell. Division should not be taken lightly, for God in Christ has been in the process of creating a new humanity, consisting of insiders and outsiders, of high and low people living in unity. Those who are too quick to call others “fools,” may find themselves on the wrong side of judgment. And those who are too quick to spurn orthodoxy may find a wrong turn leads to darkness.
The thesis of this essay is that by analyzing two controversial issues brought up in Love Wins, we can better discern if hell is worth dividing over. First, I will give an overview of Love Wins to understand Bell’s primary argument. Second, with the help of various scholars and writers, I will address two controversial questions that the book has stirred up:
- What is universalism and is Rob Bell a universalist?
- Does God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave?
While there are undoubtedly more issues that could and should be addressed, these two issues are significant flashpoints for evangelicals. I plan to address them meaningfully, but not exhaustively. Third, I plan to examine Bell’s teachings in these two areas to discern if he is heretical or within orthodoxy. Finally, I will conclude the essay with some practical advice on how our orthopraxy ought to inform our approach to orthodoxy, if we want to be orthodox. But before looking at those two questions, let’s start with a short summary of the book.