Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part III

You can read the introduction for this series here, and the overview of Love Wins here.  Now onto the two significant flashpoints that arise from Bell’ teaching.

What is Universalism and is Rob Bell a Universalist?
First, I want to address a common charge that has been made about Rob Bell – that he is a universalist.  Some say he is. In his interviews, Bell claims he isn’t.  Which is it?  What is universalism and is Bell a universalist?

First, it can be slightly complicated to define universalism, because not everyone holds tightly to the same definition. Ted Peters, a professor of systematic theology at Pacific Lutheran Seminary, sees the difference as two paths or one.  “According to the double destiny positions, when we die we enter one of two everlasting realms, heaven or hell.  According to belief in universal salvation, only one destiny awaits us beyond death, namely, salvation in heaven” (Placher 2003:361).  Peters defines universalism as the idea that, in the end, by the time we get to final judgment, all will be won to Christ, thus hell is not the final destiny of any human being.

The Global Dictionary of Theology, edited by Dyrness and Karkkainen, define it this way: “Universalism is the belief that eventually all human beings will be saved” (Dyrness, 2008:914).  That seems consistent with what Peters has said. But then they go on to make a distinction between hopeful universalism and convinced universalism.  They say, “Hopeful universalism finds reason in Scripture to be hopeful that everyone will be saved, but they do not believe that we can be certain of this.  Convinced universalists, on the other hand, are certain about this, despite of the fact that Christians have traditionally believed that the Bible clearly teaches that some will be eternally condemned” (Dyrness 2008:914).  They mention a number of significant theologians who fit into a hopeful universalism.  When it comes to Protestants, they put Kierkeggard, Blumhardt, Maurice, Farrar, Barth, and Brunner in this camp, as well as reformed pastor Jan Bonda and evangelicals such as Donald Bloesch.  When it comes to Catholics, they mention Balthasar and Rahner.

So are there two kinds of universalists or just one?  I spoke to Dr. Marèque Ireland, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, about this matter, since she teaches on ecclesiology and eschatology.  When I mentioned the term “hopeful universalist” to her, she didn’t find it very helpful, because in her understanding the primary distinction between a universalist and a non-universalist is that, ultimately, a universalist does away with human choice. Thus when it comes to defining a universlist, the best definition for a universalist is that there is only one ultimate destiny.

So what does Rob Bell teach on this matter in Love Wins? If we understand universalism as “the belief that eventually all human beings will be saved,” that “only one destiny awaits, namely, salvation in heaven,” then Rob Bell cannot be called a universalist.  In Love Wins, Bells passionately declares that God’s love is universal, yet he never does away with people’s freedom to choose, because he states that love “can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced.  It always leaves room for the other to decide.  God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins” (Bell 2011:119).  Since God is love, and love requires freedom, Bell continues to hold to the fact that people have a choice. So Bell teaches the universality of God’s love without becoming a universalist. In this regard, he seems to live within the Biblical tension.

The next flashpoint that arises from Bell’s book Love Wins is: Does God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave?  This is a more complicated issue that we will take a little more time to dive into in the next post in this series.

28 Responses to Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part III

  1. Matt heerema says:

    I’d also like to examine the major premise that “love requires freedom”… That’s an ambiguous statement that is the foundation of his entire argument… I’m not even sure I know what it means.

  2. JR Woodward says:


    I think that is a totally fair question to ask. It seems to me that part of what it has to mean is that though we are shattered Eikons we still have the ability to either accept or resist God’s love. It probably brings up elements of the old Calvinism/Arminianism debate. What are your thoughts on the matter?

  3. Joe Paparone says:

    JR, thanks for this. I have not had a chance to read the entire book yet, but from my extended skim in the store, this was my impression as well. I just don’t think Bell is saying what he’s being accused of saying.

    In terms of ‘love requiring freedom’ – I think of it in terms of my marriage. I cannot force my wife to love me. There’s nothing I can do that will make her love me. I can do lots of things that she will appreciate and be thankful for and that might cause her to CHOOSE to continue and to grow in love for me, but I could easily do all those things and she could choose not to love me. Anyone who’s ever pursued a high school crush and been continually rebuffed knows what that feels like. If I could take away her freedom and force her to love me, it would cease to be love. She’d just be an object like any other object I own. Freedom is just bound up in the definition of love.

    Thanks again for this series, JR.

  4. jason smith says:


    Glad you are addressing this. It seems to be missing from the conversation. The Gospel Coalition seems to define Universalist differently than this. Therefore, their willingness to keep calling Bell one.

    Greg Boyd has helped me define the the Love Requires Freedom issue. This is a key issue for his version of Openness. It is based on Universal Love. As I read Bell’s book, I have a feeling he and Boyd are very close in their theology. I might be wrong, but I think not. I saw Scot McKnight say that he knows of no church connected to evangelicalism that affirms a “second chance” but Boyd affirms this as his personal position and I have heard him preach it in sermons as a biblical option. Although, Woodland Hills seems to take an approach which affirms the traditional orthodox positions but than also affirms viable options as Boyd sees fit to throw them in?

  5. Chuck Wynn says:


    The assertion, as I understand it, is that while Rob Bell believes that some will go to hell, he leaves open the possibility that eventually even they will choose Heaven, and have the opportunity to go there after spending time apart from God in hell. Thus, even though everyone may not go directly to Heaven, eventually the new Heavens and Earth is the final destination for all.

    As to whether this assertion is true or not, I cannot comment, because I have not read “Love Wins”. But to say that Rob Bell thinks that people do go to hell; therefore, he is not a universalist, does not really resolve the matter.

    The question is not, “Does Rob Bell think people go to hell?”, but rather, “Does Rob Bell believe that the people who go to hell, stay in hell forever as objects of God’s wrath and judgment?” Or does he leave the door open and suggest that hell is only temporary in duration, and that eventually all will be saved?

    That, my friend, is the crux of the matter.

    What say you? What are your observations from your readings?

    Your friend,

  6. JR Woodward says:


    Thanks for your comments and your thoughts on choosing or refusing love were helpful.

  7. JR Woodward says:


    How have you understood the way the Gospel Coalition defines universalist? I was just wondering. I know they call Bell one, I just don’t know how they actually define it.

    I think you are right in regard to Boyd and Bell and probably one of the reasons Boyd is one of the endorsers to this book. I think that more people affirm “second chance” ideas than just Boyd. In fact, I will be addressing that issue in my next post. So if it poses more questions, let me know and we can interact on that.

  8. JR Woodward says:


    Hey bro. It’s good to hear from you again. It’s been a long time. I have read the book, and what Rob says consistently throughout the book is that God will never violate our freedom to choose, thus he opens up the possibility for people to choose hell forever, thus he cannot be correctly called a universalist.

  9. Matt Heerema says:

    Actually wasnt thinking along the lines of calvinism/Arminianism (and actually I think that’s a mis-labeled debate, even Arminius and all classical arminians taught/teach the necessity of prevenient grace)

    I was thinking more along the line of my 2 year old…

    If she rushed headlong into oncoming traffic while playing, what would love require of me? To preserve her freedom of choice to pursue her game? Or to save her life, against her will? (this is not a hypothetical question)

    In another sense, I certainly could not force my wife to love me (nor, for that matter can i force my chldren to love me, which I think might be a clearer picture of the type of love we’re talking about)

    My question was more along the lines of “Does love ALWAYS require allowing freedom of ‘choice'”?

  10. Matt Heerema says:

    Oh, ya, and lest it come across that I’m coming out the gates guns blazing against what you are saying with rhetorical questions, thanks for this discussion, I do find it helpful and it is a topic that interests me greatly. I tend to run in circles that border on echo chambers… Helpful to get out of that box from time to time..

  11. JR Woodward says:


    You bring up a good philosophical question: Does love always require “choice”? Your example above, at least when it comes to your 2 year old, it seems like it is example when love acts in ways which violate choice. Which may be the reason that when it comes to choosing for or against God, many have held to an age of accountability for people’s choices.

  12. Matt Heerema says:

    So then to turn the actual situation into an analogy, it seems like the assumption is that, spiritually speaking, we are older than 2…

    This analogy breaks quickly, but the way I read the old testament… NO ONE obeys perfectly (remember that perfect faith-filled obedience is required)… Isaiah, jeremiah, and ezekiel are pretty clear here… (as was Paul…)

    So, if no one chooses, then what?

  13. JR Woodward says:

    Matt H,

    Let me see if I am following you here. If not, let me know what you are saying. I think we would all agree that no one obeys perfectly, which is why all are in need of God’s grace. And because freedom involves choice, we have the choice to accept or resist his grace and gift of eternal life. Anyone who holds to universalism, does away with this choice, but because Bell doesn’t, he can’t be called a universalist in this classic sense. What are your thoughts on that? Or were you trying to address something else?

  14. Matt Norman says:

    It seems that the paradox of Christian faith is that “human freedom” is bound to interdependence. We become more “fully human” as we bind ourselves to interdependent relationship with others and creation all rooted within a God in relationship within God’s self. It is within such relationship that we discover our individuality—not as a self-centered person, but as a God-centered human being.

    Newbigin writes about this well in his book, The Open Secret, “Interpersonal relatedness belongs to the very being of God. Therefore there can be no salvation for human beings except in relatedness. No one can be made whole except by being restored to the wholeness of that being-in-relatedness for which God made us and the world and which is the image of that being-in-relatedness which is the being of God himself” (:70)

  15. JR Woodward says:

    Matt N.,

    Love those thoughts. Thanks for adding something rich to this conversation.

  16. Tony Stiff says:

    I think this is a fair answer to Jason’s question about how the Gospel Coalition defines a universalist;

    1) the Gospel Coalition is like every other group, it doesn’t speak with a single voice so there isn’t a single answer to this question;

    2) BUT because Justin Taylor is referring people to Kevin DeYoung’s review of Bell’s book I think DeYoung’s own approach can be used as a foil for there’s in a general way as long as people charitable allow for difference among the Gospel Coalition community. Here’s what DeYoung says,

    “In the blog buzz leading up the release of Love Wins, there was a lot of discussion about whether Bell is or is not a Christian universalist. After reading the book, I see no reason why the label does not fit. Now it’s true, Bell believes in hell. But he does not believe that God pours out his wrath on anyone forever (I’m not sure he thinks God actively pours out wrath on anyone at all)…So why do I say Bell is a universalist if he believes in hell? Because he does not believe hell lasts forever. It is a temporary “period of pruning” and “an intense experience of correction” (91).”

    I think JR is right here and DeYoung and the Gospel Coalition is wrong. Bell does allow for hell to be a perpetual existence if someone continues to abide in their choice against God, against Love. He says that clearly in his book toward the close of Chapter 4. I believe the sticking point for the Gospel Coalition isn’t that hell is a place that for some is perpetual. I think their sticking point is that Bell doesn’t speaks of hell as an “active judgement” on the part of God. Because he abandons that language they draw a line to universalism.

    Is that fair? Not if we use the definitions of universalism JR has provided. I believe the definitions JR has provided us above are standard and the added definition Gospel Coalition is supplying are not.

  17. JR Woodward says:


    Thanks for your thoughts here. I think we need to hold to the standard definition of Universalism, and recognize that for Bell “Love Wins” because God’s love and human freedom are both held intact. And love requires freedom.

  18. They asked the man if he was—he said “no”

    Unless people are willing to call him a liar—I’m not sure why people in the Gospel Coalition are even still debating this?? Does one group has the right to define others— as something he is not willing to define himself as.

    Perhaps this is the argument…that one specific group has the exclusive right to interpret the Bible and define everyone else?

    He has decisively claims he is not a universalist.

    Which btw…I don’t consider only more heterodox than saying everyone is predestined for hell. Both represent the two sides of the same coin theologically. You can’t with philosophical integrity call Reformed predestination orthodox while labeling universalism heterodox or vise versa.

    Hola from the Windy City 😉

  19. JR Woodward says:


    Thanks for your thoughts bro. As you will see later in this series, while the majority view has always been the traditional view of hell, universalist have had a minority opinion throughout church history, which is important to understand. Thanks for your thoughts.

  20. Matt Heerema says:

    (sorry to keep jumping in and out and not engage with the rest of these good comments)

    JR – I think I agree with you that Bell is not a universalist according tot the definition you have provided, though I might not entirely agree with your definition. 🙂

    I just wonder if we are being too charitable with the nature of people’s choices.

    Yes, we all agree we need grace, that’s sorta the whole point of the scriptures,ya? :). But who is it that chooses grace? Who is it that “decides for Christ?”

    …you probably won’t like my position here.

    My point about my two year old is that mankind, left to choose, chooses to run into traffic. Every time. But unlike the two year old, we should know better.

    This gets into a lot of complex problems pretty quick.

    Now things I (currently) probably agree on:
    – hell being separation of relationship with God, rather than some sort of active, firery, smokey, torture chamber in the sky (ground?)
    – that people go to hell because they chose to and God is (in a sense) “giving them what they want”
    – that people don’t go to hell simply for not having “decided for christ” (rather: people go to hell because they reject God, the difference is subtle but important)

  21. JR Woodward says:


    Of course working from the same definition is helpful, but if you don’t entirely agree with the definitions that I have provided (from others who have some expertise in the area) how would you define universalism then? Just curious. It is helpful to me to understand what other people’s definition of universalism is and on what basis.

    If humankind is like a two year old, then I would say that scripture understood well, talks about a God who is more loving than any earthly Father, thus because God’s love is according to scripture is universal in scope and reach, there is a basis for optimism in regard to salvation.

    Another way of looking at hell, as borrowed from the Orthodox, is that there is no place to escape from God’s love, not even death, for his love is omnipresent. So for those who love the Triune God, his love is like light and warmth, and those who hate the Triune God or reject him, or close their eyes to his light, his love is like a consuming fire. This would be on the basis that God from Garden pursues us like a loving Father would. We see Jesus pursuing the woman at the well, the prostitute, the businessman who takes advantage of people etc.

    A couple of questions. What are you meaning when you say “decided for Christ”? And what distinction are you making in regard to whatever you might mean by that phrase and rejecting God?

  22. Matt Heerema says:

    This conversation would much better be served over a beer. I’d love to get out there sometime and buy you one. 🙂

    But since I opened my big mouth (fingers?) I suppose I ought to give this a shot…

    Universalism. We could probably all find some theological dictionary to define this term to taste. My understanding is that it entails every human soul eventually winding up in heaven. So, is Bell a universalist under this simple definition?

    I haven’t read his book. So I’ll trust your answer here.

    I did, however, watch that livestream interview with him. The answer I took away from that was “He doesn’t know *giggle giggle*”

    Fair enough. “I’m not a theologian, I’m not a scholar, I’m not even that smart…” was the beginning of his final statement in that interview. And if he doesn’t know… then why write a book about it!!??

    Is it fair to label someone a universalist when he denies that definition? Yes, if he doesn’t know (or refuses to follow) the logical end of his presuppositions.

    As for God’s love and pursuit of man continuing after death? I’m glad that many people have thought of how this could possibly work out. I love the tenderness of heart behind it. I just think it is shortsighted and flies in the face of the teachings of our Lord and his Apostles.

    Matthew 25…

    “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)

    “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:11-15)

    Everyone is judged by the deeds done in life. Incidentally, I take Rev 20 to mean that all are found guilty, (and the presence of their name in the book of life is the deciding factor on their entrance into the new Jerusalem. )

    So the natural question then in response: so what role does faith have… well, those whose names are in the book are the ones who believe. Where does belief come from? Hearing, and hearing from the Word of Christ. (Romans 10). Thus the absolute necessity of evangelism.

    Probably the more I type the more typing will become necessary at this point…

  23. JR Woodward says:


    I agree this is a conversation that is better to have over a beer. Thanks for your thoughts here. I really appreciate the interaction. I hope that you will continue reading the rest of the series of post, for I had multiple goals for this series of post.

    First, was 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, for 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 in unity. So 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 darkenss”. (From my introduction)

    Next, was to see if Bell’s teaching in these two areas was heresy in regards to a historical understanding of heresy. I have yet to make conclusions on this.

    Then, was to give my personal judgment on the matter, which is still forthcoming, probably tomorrow. So I hope you read that, as well as my conclusion the final day.

    In regard to Rob Bell’s interviews, I think some of them he was good, and others as you say left me wanting as well. I agree that if you are writing a book on something, don’t pretend that you are not a teacher or theologian. That is a bunch of garbage. We are all theologians, we are all teachers. I thought that response was simply stupid.

    I appreciate you laying your thoughts out, and I will do so later. But let me ask you: What about babies? What about people under the age of accountability? What about those who have never heard? Are they all condemned to the lake of fire in your understanding?

  24. Matt Heerema says:

    JR – will definitely keep reading. Thanks for taking the time with it.

    So the question of babies / age of accountability (same question, IMO), this is were I draw my own unsatisfactory “I don’t know”. It is here that I will, with Bell, rest in faith on my firm conviction in a righteous, kind (according to tre kindness), just, God. He will do the right thing, whatever that is, an whatever it is will also be the ultimately kind and just thing. I won’t pretend to know what it will be, but my hunch is optimistic.

    As for those (morally accountable) who have never heard, this bothers me far less, as I believe in a supremely sovereign God who promises all those who seek with a purely devoted heart the reward of finding him. (Though, I am less optimistic about whether anyone actually does seek him thusly.)

    The tacit assumption in the “those who have never heard” is that 1) they are innocent, or 2) they have some excuse or never having known about God, and I think this is Paul’s central point in Romans 1&2…

    The point of all this though is that we glory in our amazingly merciful God who has compassion on whom he will have compassion…. He sacrificed his own son to secure salvation for those believe, salvation from his wrath that we’ve incurred… That I’ve incurred… This astonished me daily…

    Humans can invent a system where “Love wins.” only our wise God could create a reality where both love AND justice win.

  25. JR Woodward says:


    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on this. I’ve appreciated the interaction.

  26. Matt Heerema says:

    (sorry for all the typos!)

    looking forward to your thoughts.

  27. Pingback: JR Woodward is writing the best series I’ve seen so far on Love Wins. « Jason Smith

  28. Pingback: Jim Pace » A reflective and historically balanced assessment of Rob Bell’s newest book, Love Wins… Part Three… » author of the book Should We Fire God

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.