The problem with Rob Bell’s method
It seems appropriate to speak on the biggest issue in Christendom right now (at least its North American wing), which is whether Rob Bell is a universalist.
I haven’t read much of Rob Bell. I couldn’t finish Velvet Elvis. I watched many of his nooma videos early on and initially loved them. However, eventually I found that something was off. It was extremely subtle. He was engaging, asking great questions, persuasive, seemed to capture the heart of God for people, etc. But there was one piece that first stuck after watching “Dust” for the third time. The line was something like, “You can be like me. You can do what I do.” He ended with, “May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.”
Over time, I have heard many critiques and have thought many of them were reactionary, overly harsh, and reeked of superficial dogmatism. At the same time, I haven’t bothered to read much more of Bell and I don’t really care too. In fact, I am upset I might have to read Love Wins in preparation for a sermon on hell this year. My thoughts have been that there is something many of the pundits are not really getting at. Bell quotes scripture and so do his opponents. Why is one side right and the other side wrong? That little move at the end of dust tells you what you need to know.
The move is the same move made by classic Protestant Liberalism. The move is that Jesus is our ultimate example and we should be inspired to be like him because of his self-sacrifice. What is not said outright is a denial of substitutionary atonement. It is simply understated and put outside as difficult for modern ears. The problem is a lack of clarity on what Christ’s atonement actually accomplishes objectively… our atonement for sin. We can’t be like Jesus because we are sinners. I think I can rightly say Jesus is only an example for those who place their faith in him and have received the indwelling Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 3:21). He becomes my example when he becomes my Lord who died in my place for me and accomplished for us what we could never do.
All of that is to turn you to the best explanation and critique I have read of Rob Bell’s erroneous theological method. If you want specific criticism of specific points and flawed exegesis just go to DeYoung’s 20 page review. I am sure he is thorough and I trust his exegesis. But here is a brief and well articulated article on why Rob Bell is in the tradition of Schleiermacher to Tillich.