Is Rob Bell a Universalist?

Our 2011 conversation with Rob Bell.

Editor's Note: In the latest issue of RELEVANT, we talked to Rob Bell about his life today, his continued work as a pastor and the controversy surrounding the release of his book "Love Wins" back five years ago.

The “Love Wins” controversy first started in the spring of 2011, when some critics said that the trailer for Rob Bell’s book, "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived," implied that he was a universalist. Before anyone had even read it, a firestorm of erupted over content. Since then, the book has been criticized, praised and debated.

After sharing the latest story on Facebook this week, more debate erupted among readers about Bell’s writings and teachings.

Here’s a look back at an interview we conducted with Bell back in 2011 in the aftermath of controversy, in which he explains his vision for "Love Wins", and his views on eternity, salvation and orthodoxy.

You can read our latest conversation with Bell here.

Are your feelings hurt by the response and what has been said about you and your ideas?

When you give your life to trying to share the Good News of Jesus with a world that I believe desperately needs to hear it, and then somebody very passionately and defiantly announces you are in fact working against the very thing that you have given your life to, that takes you into a deep, deep place of trust in God, because you are forced to confront your powerlessness.

It takes a person on a journey deep into the trust and love and security of God. That’s a personal thing. That’s an intimate thing. That’s a mystery, that you can go there and you’re OK.

So yeah, there is a deeply personal component to it, and that’s about as much as I can say about that right now.

And, I have a choice. Because we all have a choice when we are spoken of in negative terms. You can throw rocks back and become equally mean and nasty, or you can allow that pain to shape you into the kind of person who loves your enemies and who is more open and more expansive and more humble.

It shapes you.

It shapes you one way or the other; there is no third place. You either become equally bitter and fearful and angry and mean, or the pain pushes you into this place where you’re broken, and because you’re broken, God can fill you in new ways.

How has your theology of heaven and hell evolved over the years?

One of the things I traced is that heaven and hell in the Bible are present realities. They are dimensions of existence. They are choices we can make every day. And I assume that those choices and those realities extend on after we die.

I grew up like a lot of people, [thinking] heaven is somewhere else, sometime else, mainly after you die, and Jesus is how you go somewhere else, sometime else. And so all of this arises out of my studies of the Scriptures and my interactions with people from across the depth and breadth of the Christian conversation, and my growing awareness that Jesus, in the world that He lived in, the issue was not evacuation. The issue was not, “How can I get out of here?”

The dominant story of the Bible is a God who wants to restore and renew and reconcile and redeem this world, which is our home. And that is a different narrative arc, that is a different understanding that lots of people were taught. And I believe it is the way to understand what these writers are giving us and what Jesus came to give us.

So I start there. In the book, I explore: “Here is every verse in the Bible in which hell is mentioned. Here are the actual Greek words. Here is the word 'forever.' Here are the actual words.” And I try to sort of help people [see]: “This is what the Bible actually says. Now, you’re free to believe whatever you want, but don’t make the Bible say things it doesn’t say.”

One of the main points of controversy is that people feel you’ve embraced universalism. Most evangelicals believe once you die, there are no more decisions to make. Do you think your position is controversial?

It fits squarely within the orthodox, historic, Christian tradition. Lots and lots of people have raised these sort of questions from across the spectrum. It’s not outside the tradition.

In the book, what I’m mostly interested in is just showing people, people answered these questions. Serious, faithful, devout followers of Jesus have wrestled with these questions and have entered into the speculation and have all sorts of ways they thought about this and talked about this.

I’m not interested in dying on any one of those hills, I’m interested in dying on the hill that says, “There’s lots of hills, and there’s lots of space here.” That’s what interesting to me.

Based on your understanding of universalism, do you consider yourself a universalist?

No, I don’t.

And you see the difference being what?

My observation would be that people mean lots of different things with that word.

I think for some people, apparently the word means nothing matters. It doesn’t matter what you believe, it doesn’t matter how you live—nothing matters. And I simply don’t believe that.

Certain paths are destructive. Certain paths are wrong. Certain paths cause all kinds of toxic harm to other people and it’s not loving your neighbor. So if by “universalism,” people mean it doesn’t matter—it doesn’t matter what you believe, it doesn’t matter what you do—that’s just complete rubbish. So, no.

Secondly, sometimes when people say the word “universalism,” I think they mean that at some point God just swoops everybody up into heaven. Like, “Come on, everybody—everybody is in.”

And the problem with that is, I believe love wins, and the very nature of love is freedom. So if at any point God co-opts your ability to choose, we no longer are dealing with a loving God. And if there are people who are in heaven who don’t want to be there, then it’s not heaven. Like God is saying, “It’s a party—and you’re going to like it!”

The question that I do think is terribly interesting, and which as a Christian we must wrestle with, it is written in a letter to Timothy, “God wants everybody to be saved.”

Now this is fascinating. God wants everybody to be saved. So perhaps the important question is, is God a universalist? And I do think as a Christian it is our duty to long for the things that God longs for, and to want the things that God wants.

The people who disagree with you believe they are right. They go to bed at night 100 percent believing there is no room for discussion. Is there a chance you could be wrong?

Wrong about Jesus? That He isn’t our salvation, and He isn’t the way, the truth, and the life?

No, wrong specifically about your reading of Scripture on heaven and hell.

Wrong about the importance? The absolute necessity of understanding the reality of heaven and hell and the urgent invitation Jesus offers us and warns us to choose heaven now? That part?

I’ll ask more specifically. Do you think you could be wrong that you don’t get a second chance to choose heaven or hell—that, as evangelicals believe, your one decision on earth is the only one that matters?

Of course. We have no video evidence that I know of. We have no video evidence of somebody who died and came back. So, we are speculating.

We are speculating about exactly how it unfolds. And that’s what we are doing. So the most important thing is to be honest about what we are doing. And we have to begin with humility.

Sometimes the question simply is, “Well, if that’s true, we’re all actually really screwed.” We will have far larger problems than some pastor from Grand Rapids saying some stuff, if in the end God turns out to be something other than love or goodness, and love doesn’t win, and we don’t have choice.

And I believe people will; people choose hell now, I assume people, when you die, you can choose hell. So there is no denial of hell here. There is a very real awareness that this is a clear and present reality that extends on into the future. But the real question is essentially if millions and millions of people who have never heard of Jesus are going to be tormented forever by God because they didn't believe in the Jesus they'd never heard of, then at that point we will have far larger problems than a book by a pastor from Grand Rapids.

Top Comments

Brennan Skip Schilperoort


Brennan Skip Schilperoort replied to 's comment

Wow - couldn't stinkin' agree more. While reading Love Wins I got so sick and tired of the misquotes - especially when he tries to use Martin Luther to say the exact OPPOSITE of what Luther actually says about universal salvation & chances to accept Christ after death. *I elucidate below....

Bell is the most confusing non-conclusionist I've ever come across.
When he says on page 19 of my version of Love Wins:
"But this isn't just a book of questions.
It's a book of response to these questions."

Yes - Bell responds but does so in a way that offers no conclusions for one who's actually reading carefully to then apply in their life.

For the person who came with questions in their heart in the first place - I find he just aggravates their confusion all the more and even gets them to question some of the bedrock of what it actually means to be a believer in a dangerous way.

Never does he present all the contradictory concepts in his book and then tell the audience:
"Ok guys and gals - we've come a long way in our inquisitive journey together; now here's what the Bible says about all this:............"

Nope - doesn't do that, ever. Instead he presents his own convoluted logic that I don't find mirroring scripture.

SEE: pages 107 & 108 and then contrast them with 113, 114 and 115:

So: Bell says that we DO have free choice and “we can have all the hell we want.” (pg 113) And a few pages earlier on 107 & 8 said there is NO way we can resist God.
Ok but then he says the opposite of his certain claims on Page 115 as he makes this admission:

“Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions…we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.”

Please see what Martin Luther had to say about this very topic ~ 500 years ago (who Bell grossly misquotes to say the opposite).

His liberty-taking is plainly evident when he performs utter contextomy on Martin Luther’s letter to Hans von Rechenberg:
“And then there are others who can live with two destinations, two realities after death, but instist that there must be some kind of “second chance” for those who don’t believe in Jesu in this lifetime. In a letter Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenberg in 1522 about the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: “Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?” (pg 106)

Luther by no means insisted this when we read what Luther actually wrote; quite the opposite in fact:
“It would be a completely different question to ask whether God could grant faith to a few at the moment of their death or after death and thereby save them through faith. Who would doubt that he could do this? But no one can prove that he does do this. For we only read that he has already raised the dead and given them faith. No matter what he does, whether he grants faith or not, it is impossible for anyone to be saved without faith. Otherwise all preaching and the Gospel and faith itself would be futile, false, and deceptive, since the entire Gospel makes faith necessary… Because he commands this of us and wants us to do these things, St. Paul speaks the truth: it is God’s will that everyone be made well – for without his will it does not happen. But it does not follow from this that all people are saved. And if more verses are brought up on this point, they must be considered accordingly. Otherwise the providence and election from eternity, which St. Paul stresses so emphatically, would be brought to nothing.”

Martin Luther stresses that even though God clearly has the power to do something – this does not then prove He does it! That would be a non-sequitur as Luther affirmed there is no way we can prove this – not via the Bible; not via Nature. Nor is Luther using these statements as they relate to universal salvation but in regard to whether someone can be saved without faith. Luther strongly cautioned Rechenberg on this:
“That is, when dealing with the judgment of God, we should renounce ourselves, until we are completely strong and secure. Otherwise any thoughts that we can write and say about it are futile and harmful… For just as strong wine can be deadly to children, it can be a quickening of life for adults. Therefore one cannot discuss every doctrine with just anyone.”


Dave commented…

I have never read someone so utterly confident about a point of view he was so unclear about, as Rob Bell is about his universalism.


Kayleen Steele


Kayleen Steele commented… question is though, what is the point of crucifying Jesus then? Why didn't God just further establish Judaism in the world, or any religion for that matter? If honestly just seeking truth and rightness with God is only what God is truly looking for, then why did Jesus have to die? Whether I like it or not, God does have a real problem with sin. For Him, it is literally a matter of life and death. So, is Bell simply stating that the choice to accept Christ's sacrifice for sin will be offered to those who haven't heard The Gospel even after their physical death? It seems to me that the Bible is clear that the blood of Jesus is essential to entering into eternal life, whether that life (ideally) is begun now or (in Bell's theory) perhaps chosen "later". Otherwise, Jesus died for no good reason. Perhaps I just need to read the book, but I would be curious as to what he has to say about the necessity for sin atonement in the life of a person. Personally, I refuse to marginalize the death and weaken the resurrection of Jesus. It was too high a price to be taken so lightly.

How the necessity of Jesus' sacrifice fits into Bell's theology...that is the central issue here. I welcome any discussion....

Lord Jesus....teach us Your truth, for your ways are higher than our ways.



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ken commented…

Relevant magazine has become a supporter and advocate for Rob Bell. Let is all say good by to this publication.

Marc Shepherd


Marc Shepherd commented…

I'm not onboard with everything Rob Bell would believe. His stance on homosexuality is one that I just can't understand how he could come to that conclusion. After all, could I not make the same argument for cheating on my spouse? After all, "Love wins." And as for his views on using a 2000 document to convince people simply means I can throw away anything that it says. I also believe his foundational statement of "love wins" is lackIng some stones. God does love us. But the bigger question is do we love God?

However, I do whole-heartedly believe he has made some very good points especially on trying to open us up more to the spiritual life found in Christ.

Jesus promised us life here on earth and not just after we pass through death's door. Evangelical Christianity has seemed to forgotten that, and has seemed to solely focus on getting people "out of hell."

I say we take what he says, investigate it cautiously but without some of our blinders, and come to a good and accurate conclusion of who God really is.

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