Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Kurt Willems, "If Rob Bell is a Universalist, then maybe I am"

I posted some material by Kurt here a while back. His post on Conditional Purgatory was pretty interesting. I love Kurt's love of thinking, even if I don't agree with everything he writes.

For the past couple of months I have been excited about the forthcoming release of Rob Bell’s latest book: Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

This will be a book where Bell takes on some important topics that need to be addressed in the larger evangelical community.  Unfortunately, a pious wing of conservative Christian faith, the neo-Reformers (often represented by folks like – John Piper (who I like theologically on a rare occasion), Kevin DeYoung, Mark Driscoll, and others – are hell-bent on caricaturing evangelicals that do not fit their mold.  Case in point, Rob Bell.

This crowd, for no justified reason, has given Rob a bad rap.  Certainly, he is not immaculate and may have said a thing or two here and there that is not perfect, but who hasn’t?  But, to accuse him of being a universalist without even having read his book (because, well, it isn’t out yet!), is not only over-the-top, but is irresponsible and should be cause for the larger evangelical community to be up in arms.

This is another indication about how narrow neo-reformed views have become and how much they often are not even willing to give the “benefit of the doubt.”  Basically, I am going to accuse Justin Taylor (of the reformed site: Gospel Coalition) of being guilty of the sin of lying.  I am sure Justin is a great guy and obviously passionate about Jesus, but the following quote is a bit frustrating.
For the rest of Kurt's post, click HERE.

I guess for what it's worth,  I think I agree with much he has said. It should be mentioned that this was written several months ago during the height of "Bell Gate" so this is nothing really new. I do think several things are worth mentioning.

1) Rob Bell is, in my eyes, fully within Christian Orthodoxy, but I tend to define Orthodoxy as a pretty broad stream. Meaning, I tend to view Calvinists and Arminians and Universalists as rollicking in the same water, though possibly in different sections of the river. I've always wondered, as many other Christians have, why Calvinists/Arminians will tolerate each other (some more generously than others), but somehow Open Theists and Universalists are excluded from the table.

1a) As a good friend of mine told me, the fate of the unevangelized is and will always be a hot topic withing Christendom. This explains the debate over exclusivism (which I hold to) and inclusivism (which I argue that Bell, and someone like Roger Olson, holds to). It is a rough debate with much grey area and middle ground, and I doubt it will ever be settled, at least within our lifetime.

2) Arminianism is, as I will tentatively define here, as "Conditional Universalism." Meaning, universalism is quite indeed possible under an Arminian system, but it is condition upon faith in Christ. Rob Bell is an Arminian, and thus could be considered a "Conditional Universalist" but I tend to do a few things when people comment about their beliefs:

2a) I pull a Mike Licona and say that, "if Bell says he isn't a Universalist, then we take his word for it." I think this is a valid approach and is the more humble of the options I am presenting.

2b) The other is to argue that, while one may not think Bell is a Universalist, his theology leads there. Now, since Arminianism is conditional and doesn't necessarily lead to Universalism, he cannot be considered a Universalist. I use the example of Karl Barth in a moment.

3) Karl Barth says he wasn't a Universalist. I take his word on that he believes he wasn't. However, his theology, in my research, closely leads to Universalism. So he isn't a Universalist, but he mostly certainly COULD be one. That is where a great debate has gone on.

4) With Arminianism, you have "Conditional Universalism." With scholars like Tom Talbott and Robin Parry, you have "Unlimited Universalism." Lots of U's in there, and I'm still trying to discern between "hopeful" Universalism and "hopeful dogmatic Universalism" as Robin Parry has used the term. Do not consider any of this set in stone, as I am now just putting some random thoughts down.

5) Finally, since I do not think Bell has EVER outed himself as an Unlimited Universalist, this means that the Gospel Coalition, in the spirit of humbleness, should offer a repudiation of their comments, which some of them offered *if* they were wrong. If they have offered such an apology, consider this point moot and forgotten and forgiven. But, I wouldn't hold my breath. If Christians are shown to be wrong, we're often very stubborn.

This includes me, especially when my girlfriend has me by the logical short hairs. :)

God bless.



  1. interesting post. I'd like to know where reformers and neo-reformers differ though (because i have no idea which i would be classified as...)

    yeah, some christians just don't practice grace as they should. but then again, it's hardly appropriate to point out the error in christians without pointing out the error in many other belief systems outside christianity (including atheism)

    fact is, humanity at large don't practice the type of grace that we keep expecting from people other than ourselves...

    i got no issue with rob bell, and don't care much if we differ on some points. he sounds like an amazing guy with good insights despite any differences we'd have.

    peace out ;)

  2. Hey Nick, Great post.

    An important term is "hope of universalism" or "hopeful universalist." For example, Moltmann and Balthasar are hopeful universalists. In Balthasar's case, he explicitly encouraged hope in universalism while he also explicitly stated that we cannot know for sure about universalism during earthly life.

    I recall a blogpost or reply by Olsen where he was more sympathetic to the hope of universalism compared to dogmatic universalism. In fact, he said that the hope of universalism should not be called universalism at all.

    I suppose that Bell is a hopeful universalist, but he did not state that, as a far as I know.

    I suppose your term "conditional universalism" always refers to something along the lines of Arminian conditional election, but might include (1) Bathasar's view, (2) a view of somebody undecided about universalism and also undecided about Bathasar's view that we cannot know about universalism during earthly life, and (3) somebody like me who conjectures that all will eventually accept Christ's salvation.

    1. Hey James!

      I think I agree with "hopeful" universalism, which Robin Parry stressed in TEU. I do wonder if a better term could be used.

      Exactly. I think most/all Arminians are conditional universalists in that all "could" be saved, but it is conditional upon faith. Most would say in this life, I would disagree. Bell hopes, but doesn't seem confident in it.

      God bless and thanks, as always, for your thoughts. ;)