Is Bell’s Universalism
Worse Than Calvin’s?
Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins,” recently hit the market, or maybe I should say the fan, based on the maelstrom that followed. It’s really making people think.
Not “believe” but think and I’m certain that’s a good thing. Only a thinking person can believe, right?
Even before the book was released the flurry of accusations, disavowals and condemnations – proclaimed, of course, with “hear I stand” affirmations of Rob’s unquestionable infidelity – made one think the anti-Christ had surely arrived. And these responses were based on nothing more than a pre-release video ad.
The ad was provocative, yes, but not the basis for laying criminal charges.
That didn’t matter though. With little evidence and no identifiable crime, stake burning mobs began gathering.
And after the release? Whooooooooooa! The barrage of heated acrimonious remarks was enough to melt glaciers.
I try to avoid universal everybody’s-doing-it statements but it definitely seems like “everyone” took aim at Rob. For all the right reasons, naturally. I don’t doubt a few hangers-on will keep the firestorm fueled for some time to come.
The question is how do you make sense of all the noise?
Providing a list of every naysayer or attempting to analyze every contrary remark would take an endless amount of time so I won’t go there. I will, however, focus on one review for discussion purposes. The writer is Kevin DeYoung who is reformed (lower case “r” for me – talk more about that just now). His remarks are representative of the negative reactions so he is a good place to start.
His first response – I feel more might be coming – was posted on The Gospel Coalition and I will excerpt a few remarks to illustrate the presumptuous ranting manner in which Bell’s ideas are being attacked.
My purpose, by the way, is not to encourage anyone to agree or disagree with Bell or DeYoung. These two men don’t represent the opposite ends of the good vs evil spectrum. Thankfully, one isn’t absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong.
There are more than just two possible conclusions and according to what Bell said in the book he understands that. The problem is DeYoung doesn’t. He and those like him allow for no divergence on certain ideas and assume Bell must be “completely” wrong because he opened up discussion on ideas that are “absolutely” fixed. Like so many others, his write-up is laced with the language of assumed-understandings from beginning to end.
His title reads: “God Is Still Holy And What You Learned In Sunday School Is Still True…”
And to mimic Rob’s approach to such absolutist remarks…
Really? Which Sunday School is that? The American one, the English one, the Scottish one, the Irish one, the Italian one, the German one, the one in Switzerland or Spain or the Eastern Orthodox one? Was it the Stone Age one or the Iron Age one or the Middle Ages one?
Let’s be clear. From what I understand some of those Sunday schools agree with Bell.
Truth? DeYoung, like so many others, speaks from a very narrow, near history perspective – mostly opinion – and quotes people who endorse that perspective. I’m being generous to call it perspective, a word that implies a long broad view.
His introduction provides a very generalized, hazy rendering of Rob’s primary point and includes a summary of his accusations, on which he expands in the interminably long exposé that follows:
The theology is heterodox. The history is inaccurate. The impact on souls is devastating. And the use of Scripture is indefensible.
I’ll talk more about it later but for the record, long winded statements are typical of reformed teachers and there is good reason for it. The heart of their teachings is so irrational, illogical and flaky they resort to long drawn out twist-and-turn, hard-to-follow discussions just to give the appearance of intellectual superiority. Taking this approach diverts attention from their senseless confusion to what seems to be excessive cerebral activity.
Who can argue against that?
However, not only is the good news better than that, as Rob would say, it really isn’t so complicated either.
DeYoung repeats or alludes to his accusation points ad nauseam throughout the article but only as assertions. Any proof he offers is from people whose opinions mirror his. At one point he says:
If Bell is right, then historic orthodoxy is toxic and terrible. But if the traditional view of heaven and hell are right, Bell is blaspheming. I do not use the word lightly, just like Bell probably chose “toxic” quite deliberately. Both sides cannot be right.
Several thoughts come to mind, if you’re thinking:
- Can’t both sides be wrong? DeYoung assumes he must be right if Rob is wrong. Even his use of terms like “historic,” “orthodoxy” and “traditional” assumes history is on his side, as if “truth” historically ran on only one track and it happens to be the one he is on. Sorry Mr. DeYoung. I’m not sure Rob is absolutely correct but it is certain you are neither absolutely right nor orthodox.
- Therefore, his choice of the word “blaspheming” is silly if not stupid and typically ungenerous, arrogant even. Exactly what you would expect from someone with a toxic mindset.
“Blaspheme” doesn’t really apply anyway. We use it to characterize actions or words intended to impugn God’s name or affront His person. Bell might be attacking ideas but he clearly isn’t defying God. He believes the Bible and works from it not around it. However, in the heat of the moment, with so many egging him on, how could DeYoung resist.
The history DeYoung learned, which he assures us Bell got wrong, is an interpretation sanitized by the religious institutions of the American west, which not only trained him but continually monitor his acceptance.
Does anyone who knows how the system works think he can be entirely honest? Even publicly considering a different – not new – idea, would immediately trigger disbarment proceedings. His (their) interpretations of history and the Bible are “inspired” and therefore set. There is no room for discussion.
But, for me, here is the real issue. DeYoung is a dedicated “calvinist.” So dedicated in fact that his seminary peers referred to him as Calvin’s clone.
For those who may not be aware of it, calvinism – not the Bible – teaches that God preselected certain individuals to go to heaven while assigning everyone else to hell and these selections were made before the universe was created. In case you didn’t know, “calvinism” is slang for “reformed.”
According to calvinism, no person chooses Jesus or salvation. Salvation is imposed on the preselected whether they want it or not, are prepared or not, thinking or not, looking or not and it all happens because the Holy Spirit forces salvation on the unsuspecting:
- He makes the preselected repent.
- He makes the preselected believe.
- And then He single-handedly regenerates the soul.
The Bible actually teaches the regeneration part so there is no debate there but the first two ideas are inanely stupid. Hence the reason calvinistic writing is so obsessively ingrown. Long winded, deep furrowing discussions that smack of academia are a good camouflage for illogical nonsense.
That represents the short version. To be fair there are variations but it’s been my observation that they all end up in the same place, that is, if you don’t fall asleep before getting to the end. It’s a marathon of words requiring many stops to get your mental bearings. Calvinists are the only people I know who write encyclopedic discussions for each word in the Greek language.
Here is the point. Rob Bell is not a calvinist and he makes it quite clear in his book from beginning to end. It was one of the first observations I made and I loved it!
The brilliance is, he makes the point without using the word “calvinism” or making direct reference to their pet beliefs. I doubt that the calvinists who read the book missed the point. They might entertain senseless ideas but they aren’t stupid. In fact, they more than anyone demonstrate how to “write between the lines” so I’m sure they know it when they see it.
Therefore, it is no wonder that one of the most vitriolic attacks comes from a calvinist and it is pertinent that this particular calvinist is otherwise quite gentle in his criticisms. He can write “nasty” about as nicely as anyone and even in this review I did detect a breath of caution but in spite of himself, the hackles were up, the fangs were showing and the claws were out. Not because Rob is wrong but because his arguments stand in direct opposition to clavinism’s theological cornerstones.
Keeping this juxtaposition of ideas in mind, there are several questions and/or observations to consider before we judge Rob too severely:
- If Calvinism is true how could the writings of Rob Bell or any other person have a devastating impact on souls, as DeYoung claims?
Please, if the fate of the elect was settled once and for all in eternity past by God’s own hand, Rob nor any other person can say, write or do anything to change that! How can DeYoung justify making accusations like this when the outcome is irrevocably settled?
The idea makes good preaching but it contradicts calvinism’s central concepts. But that is the nature of delusion. Repeat contradictory nonsense over and over and eventually it makes sense.
- Why is Rob’s universalism worse than Calvin’s?
That’s right. Calvinism is just another version of universalism. The difference is, with Rob’s version everyone is elected with one condition. Each person has a choice. Anyone can go to heaven, no one has to go to hell and every one gets a choice.
Calvinist universalism has less character. Every elected person goes to heaven or hell because God made choices which cannot be altered and the believing part is easy. God induces unsuspecting, unknowing souls into a state of faith while they aren’t looking. No one gets a choice and everyone goes where they are told – willingly or not. Some go to heaven and the rest get flogged forever.
Rob is looking better all the time!
Calvinists think their version is better because they get to irrevocably assign people to hell.
But if God is doing the choosing anyway, why is it “conservative” to think He would force only a few into heaven and “liberal” to think He will eventually do that for everyone?
Just so you know, I’m asking not saying. I don’t believe anyone is preassigned, preselected or forced anywhere. Everyone chooses one way or the other.
- God’s glory in both cases is invoked to justify the teaching.
When someone is brave enough to ask a calvinist how God could be so insensitive as to assign anyone to hell without giving them the option of heaven, the answer is…
It glorifies His name.
And it is interesting that Rob cites historical leaders who used the same argument to suggest the “possibility” that all people would eventually be reconciled to God. Their conclusion was: damning people to hell without recourse does not glorify God’s name.
The leaders Rob referenced were prominent and lived at different times throughout history so he said this concept had a “long” history. Not a “wide” history as DeYoung slurred, misrepresenting the point.
And despite all the comments to the contrary, Rob endorses personal “choice,” a four letter word in calvinistic thinking.
About the only real change Rob suggests is the idea that a person can make a choice after death. And, of course, because God is loving, He never stops wanting them to make the right choice.
So, which system do you believe glorifies God? Actually, if neither is absolutely correct which one do you think makes more sense?
- One that says every person, qualified only by God’s determination, will definitely go either to heaven or hell and no human decision, desire or action can change the predetermined outcome under any circumstances before or after death.
- Or one that says because God is love, He makes salvation possible and allows every person to choose either heaven or hell, in this life definitely and maybe in the next.
I won’t say more. The questions and options are rhetorical.
But naturally, there is one more question to ask.
Disregarding your preconditioned perspective on these ideas which one do you think reflects God’s truth and the Bible more closely? Not exactly, but more closely.
Before you answer, remember that calvinism has been a philosophical stay for many political and social injustices. The “in-crowd” or “clique” or “us vs them” mentality – the secular version of calvinism – is inherent in human nature. We love to see ourselves as “In” and everyone else as “Out” and this attitude has influenced many social trends and political decisions. Many people have been hurt because of it.
Doesn’t sound very nice, hey? It’s hard to see this fallacious belief for what it is when layered with theological wrappings.
One reason Rob’s ideas seem so strange is because the tendency to be socially elite has been bolstered by the tendency to be theologically selective and the ideas are so entrenched they are difficult to unseat.
Again, I’m not arguing for Rob, I’m arguing against the mind lock associated with popular religious ideas.
- Is Rob’s use of Scripture really that different to the Calvinist approach?
Calvinists love to claim the academic high ground when it comes to interpreting Scripture but when faced with words like “whosoever will” their semantic juggling becomes the greatest show on earth.
“Whosoever will,” they tell us, refers to the preselected ones whose “will” the Holy Spirit hypnotically overrides in order to induce “belief.” You know, fall asleep now and when the fingers snap you wake up a believer. Under their skillful touch, simple straight forward everyday words take on a completely different meaning.
If, according to DeYoung types, Bell is guilty of “naive, literalistic biblicism” – whatever that is – calvinists are guilty of over mining plain and simple words to extract meanings that support their doctrines. In most cases the targeted words fly in the face of their pet ideas if left alone. Again, the reason for the academic exercises. They need to look smart to be convincing.
If I was calvinist-like I would write a treatise proving the word-wizardry used commonly in calvinistic dissertations is a close cousin to witch craft and anyone found using it should be burned at the stake. But, I’m not that insecure.
I can’t say Bell is absolutely right but “Love Wins” comes as a refreshing change from calvinistic thinking, the heresy which we have graciously tolerated for over 500 years. Forget heaven in the next life, many people have died at the hands of calvinists or under the influence of calvinism in this life. John Calvin wasn’t shy about executing those who disagreed with him and even in American history some have committed suicide under the influence of this damnable teaching.
I doubt “Love Wins” will have the same effect. We should give Rob an honest hearing.
But, don’t believe me, don’t believe DeYoung, and don’t agree or disagree with Rob till you’ve read “Love Wins” for yourself.
And, of course, THINK!AboutIt. Contending for the faith is at least an act of deliberation.