On Feb. 22, Rob Bell released a “trailer” for his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. It didn’t take long for a firestorm of controversy to begin. The central question seemed to be: Is Rob Bell a universalist? The controversy hasn’t died down with the release of the book. So we decided to talk to him to find out why he wrote the book, what led to the creation of Love Wins and, yes, if he’s a universalist.
Last time I talked to you, you were a Christian. Then I went online and the Internet said something different.**
I think I may be even more of a Christian than when we last met. I think Jesus is actually more compelling and interesting than when we were last together. I think I’m going in the other direction than apparently what you’ve heard.
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 art, 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.