As you may or may not know, Rob Bell is coming out with a new book called Love Wins. Justin Taylor wrote a blog post about this book based on the publishers promo video they put out. In essence, Justin’s argument is that Bell’s book looks like it will be promoting universalism (the belief that all will eventually make it to heaven). Many have responded to Justin’s post both at his site and at other blogs. With over a thousand comments and twenty-eight thousand Facebook shares, I seriously doubt Justin knew that it would cause this much of a stir.

The issue has not progressed yet to a debate over the doctrine of universalism, but is, as of 3.3.11, over whether or not it was charitable for a Christian to write a blog post accusing another Christian of universalism before the book was even published.

Of course, I think we should all go out of our way to be kind and gentle, even to those who depart from a central issue of historic Christianity. This is often hard to do. But Paul is clear:

2 Timothy 2:24
“The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

I, for one, do not think that Justin’s post was quarrelsome or uncharitable. After all, if you watch the video on the Justin’s site, you will see that the publisher’s intent is to be provocative. It would be naive to say that they were not attempting to at least suggest that Bell’s book is going to promote universalism. Just how much Bell had to do with this promo video is unknown. Either way, he had to have approved it. He directly (by scripting the video himself) or indirectly (by approving it) at least said “I want people to think I am writing in favor of universalism.” This alone is enough to instigate a response which informs people of Bell’s seeming departure from a cardinal truth of historic Christianity.

If in the book he comes out on the orthodox side of things, then the video was a manipulative trick which was created simply to sell books. You do with that what you will. If he comes out a universalist (or something similar), then the direction the video pointed was accurate.

Frankly, when I heard that Bell might come out on the side of universalism, I thought to myself, “Oh, I thought we already knew that.” I don’t expect much these days from popular writers who don’t screen their thought through historic Christianity and contemporary Evangelical scholarship. In fact, I am very surprised (and excited) when people do take stands on the more difficult issues of Christianity like hell, homosexuality, the exclusivity of Christ, or unconditional election. To go with the current of the culture on these issues is easy and takes little faith. To go against the cultural grain is difficult and breeds popular rejection.  

While there is a lot of Bell’s teaching methodology that I find amazing, I have never noticed him taking stands with historic Christianity on the difficult issues, so why would I be surprised when I see a video that suggests he is going to advocate universalism. He, like many of the progressive popular authors and pastors today (and, indeed, throughout church history), likes to think out loud. But as the old proverb goes:

“Think out loud. But don’t do it from a platform.”

Ben Witherington recently threw his hat in with those condemning the one’s who are (pre)labeling Bell a universalist before reading the book. He put his critique in the form of a blog post. Ben’s critique has me scratching my head a bit here.

In essence, he does not agree that the Rob Bell promo video was enough to warrant suggesting Bell may be a universalist. While I disagree, I am not so concerned about this. Witherington, in defense of Bell, goes on the offense against Piper, Driscoll, and (implied) Justin Taylor. Here is what he says:

“I must say I am hugely disappointed in people like John Piper and Mark Driscoll, who also haven’t read the book yet, and yet are prepared to condemn Rob— one even saying dismissively— ‘Farewell Rob Bell’.   Frankly this is all too typical of the hyper-Calvinistic wing of the Evangelical world. Shoot first, ask questions later.”

The first sentence is fine. He has voiced his opinion and disappointment. However, the second sentence is what disappoints me. Notice the labeling: “hyper-Calvinistic wing”. Notice the accusation: “Shoot first, ask questions later.” Defending Rob Bell against the possible (yet very unlikely) mislabeling of universalist, he handles many of those who stand with him on historic Christianity with some pretty harsh polemics. I know enough to know that Witherington knows that this “hyper-Calvinist” label is completely pejorative and would be outright rejected by these men. Not only this, but by using such ad hominem rhetoric, he ends up offending millions of others who, like me, love and identify with this “wing” of Christianity. In order to protect Rob Bell, Witherington sets fire to a bridge in his own town. I don’t get this.

Finally Witherington makes this judgment upon these men who are simply looking in the direction that the promo video was pointing:

“And even it it turns out there are some unBiblical ideas or thoughts in Rob’s new book, shouldn’t the approach to the matter be to first ‘go to the brother’ and gently talk to him personally about these things before  twittering, tweeting, or blogging about the matter?”

I don’t agree with this either. If someone is going on a platform with their views, sometimes the only response is from a platform. The video about the book was public. The warning about the book was public. Plus, I don’t think this situation qualifies for the private talk as that is only when your brother sins against you (Matt. 18:5). Plus, can you imagine all the millions of people who would be at Bell’s door asking for a private audience in order to fulfill this biblical method?

That debate set aside, I wonder if Witherington approached Taylor, Piper, and Discoll before accusing them of the offense of rash criticism? I don’t know. Maybe he did. But I would assume that he would have mentioned something about it if he did.

In the end, if it was the purpose of the publisher to release this video to sell the book, I predict some pay raises at Harper Books.

While I hope and pray Bell takes a stand for orthodox Christianity, I don’t expect it. However, I do look forward to this progressing to a debate about universalism and the orthodox understanding of hell. Contrast always presents opportunity for clarity. Any time people are stirred to speak about doctrine, love does win because truth is placed on the platform.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

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