Rob Bell, Justin Taylor, love fails, and the meaning of salvation

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Jim Hoag has highlighted an intemperate reaction by Justin Taylor on the Gospel Coalition blog to a yet unpublished book by Rob Bell entitled Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and a response by Kurt Willems arguing that Taylor’s critique is premature, speculative, irresponsible, and possibly mendacious. Taylor’s accusation appears to be that since Bell argues either that there is no “hell” or that hell is empty, he must be a universalist. That is, of course, a very poor argument—even if on publication it turns out to be true. Kevin DeYoung also has something to say on the matter, which I may come back to later.

Willems thinks that Bell will take the “conditional immortality” line that death and destruction, rather than eternal conscious torment, are the final judgment on the human sinfulness, which certainly does not amount to universalism. I would agree with this, but I think his account of “salvation” needs tweaking in a narrative-historical direction.

In an attempt to second guess what Bell will say about the “fate of every person who ever lived” Willems suggests that he will advocate a fairly common evangelical position known as “inclusivism”, which draws on Paul’s argument in Romans 2 about the judgment of those who do not have the Law.

This is a belief that answers the question: “What about those who never heard the Gospel, will they be condemned or lost for their ignorance?”  The answer from this viewpoint is a qualified “No.” Salvation is provided only through the atonement Jesus accomplished; but reception of salvation by an individual does not necessarily depend on knowing or believing this. In other words, the Inclusivist wants to keep salvation, ultimately in God’s hands. Please note, this is RADICALLY different than Universalism. Jesus is the only way to God and not everyone will in fact be saved into the renewed creation. It simply leaves open the possibility that God will deal with everyone in accordance to the knowledge and opportunity given.

A couple of comments here…

First, the judgment of the Gentiles in Romans 2 is not simply “in accordance to the knowledge and opportunity given”. It is a judgment on the basis of whether Gentiles have acted in accordance with what they know to be right and good. Judgment is according to works. I argue in The Future of the People of God that this is not actually a final judgment: it is a judgment on the pagan world that opposed, sometimes violently, the people of God; it is a judgment enacted socially and politically, as judgment always is in the Old Testament, which is why concrete outcomes matter. But it is important to keep in mind that the judgment of Revelation 20, which certainly is a final judgment, is also according to works.

Secondly, Willems makes the common assumption that salvation coincides with a final judgment and incorporation of the “saved” into the new creation—in other words, that the real purpose of salvation is to enjoy life after death. But salvation in the New Testament is not a final category. It is what happens to people and peoples in the course of history. Through his atoning death Jesus saves the people of God from final annihilation, from a final redundancy: a remnant through faithfulness is preserved. Gentiles are “saved” in that they escape from a pagan civilization destined for destruction and become part of the commonwealth of the family of Abraham (cf. Eph. 2:11-22). We are saved today in that we are liberated from the power of our ingrained sinfulness and incorporated through no merit of our own into a people that has found favour with the true creator God through Jesus.

Salvation is a historical experience, and what this forces us to prioritize is not the final destiny of every person who ever lived but the continuing, concrete existence and witness of the people of God. Willems’ approach is still stuck in a modern evangelical worldview that must always translate the contingent narrative categories of scripture into universally applicable abstractions.

Because we are a sinful people we are constantly and existentially in need to “salvation” in order to fulfil our calling, in order to live up to the standards of love and justice that have been required of us. The vicious caricaturing of people like Bell by the neo-Reformed is evidence that more often than not in the church love fails rather than wins. But we are all culpable, and I fear we will all be held accountable.

donsands | Sun, 02/27/2011 - 18:39 | Permalink

"The vicious caricaturing"?

Justin is anything but vicious Andrew. bad choice of words my friend.


Bell has a lot of theological problems. He certainly could be a a false sheep. Jesus said there would be those who could deceive even the chosen of God.

We need to be very discerning. And also note any who teach a twisted gospel, and who distort the Scriptures as Peter tells the saints in his day:

"There are some things in them [Paul's epistles] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability"


Satan came to Eve and said, "Did God really say?" We need to watch out for this clever adversary. Much to clever and subtle for us, but not for God's truth; His Word, and the Spirit of truth and love.


Don, I didn’t say that Justin Taylor’s pre-review of a book he hadn’t actually read was “vicious”. I think he has put himself in a very precarious position, but I’m sure you’re right that he is “anything but vicious”.

But I would probably stand by my general view that the “caricaturing of people like Bell by the neo-Reformed” has sometimes been vicious—though I’m sure that there is bigotry, wrong-headedness and willful misunderstanding on both sides of this particular conflict. For the record, I’ve also commented critically on books I haven’t read here on the basis of what others had said about it—though in the case I’m thinking of (one of Scot McKnight’s books) the book had at least been published.


But the question, donsands, is: how do you know which side of Peter's statement you are on? How do you know that you are not the one who twists scripture to destruction? How do you know Rob Bell twists them to destruction?

Rob Bell has his theological problems. You do too, as do we all.

As far as I can tell, all Rob Bell is doing is asking the question of how we know for sure who's "in" and who's "out". Realizing there is precious little way for us to know, he then extrapolates an understanding of our final destination from the character of God.

What he is saying is neither new nor controversial. Whether he is better or worse in his argumentation does not secure or destroy this particular branch of theological thought he supports. I happen to think he is wrong on the subject, but at least he is honest enough to recognize that we don't know.

Hi Andrew.


I appreciate your article here about my response.  I think you may misunderstand me in some areas or are making some 'larger' assumptions about my theological paradigms.  In short, I was using language to engage the "stone throwers" on their terms, not my own.  I may have more to say on this matter in an upcomming follow-up article.


Also, you may be the first person to call me modern... not sure what to think of that ;-)


I will stay in touch on this (but must first beat a flu!).




donsands | Mon, 02/28/2011 - 18:26 | Permalink

"How do you know that you are not the one who twists scripture to destruction?"

Well, I guess one could say everybody twists them: Spurgeon, Calvin, Luther, etc.

But the Scriptures are for the most part fairly clear. There are deep things that good Christians differ on, but the Gospel is pure and simple, and we need to keep it that way. As Jude tells us to "contend for the faith".


And we do have wonderful teachers in the church, who are examples to the flock, not to mention the history of the church is an essential part of clearly recognizing the truth for what it is, and what it isn't.


And all this is impossible without the Holy Spirit, who lives and reigns within the Body of Christ Jesus, who is the Head.

I seriously wonder how many folks have seriously wondered what Jesus actually had to say about 'hell' and 'eternity'. A cursory examination of the subject in the original Biblical languages will probably confuse most and make them want to head for the hills. Just start with aion/aionion for fun.

The bottom line to me is, if there is such a ‘place/state’ as eternal torment in hell, than poor, insane Andrea Yates had it exactly right, her children are in heaven, and sorry, but all the rest of the hell believers are just B team player wanna be’s.

If eternal torment in hell is real, we need only one page in the Bible and it says TURN OR BURN. I mean, why complicate things? (gee, thanks God!)

When did "if you eat you shall surely die" morph into "you shall surely burn forever and ever in the torments of an eternal hell"?

As far as universal reconciliation being an unBiblical, heretical, minority opinion goes ...…

I think what is fundamentally at issue here is the concept of free will. All I've seen the belief in a free will do in the evangelical community is give them the "right" to manipulate and pressure folks into "choosing" Jesus.

The only issue to me is, what happens at THE END? The scriptures on my website bear out that GOD WINS in the end through Christ Jesus. Therefore, if there is a ‘hell’, it can not be ‘eternal’. My own journey into hell is linked there as well.

Many Christians have a problem with CU because they cannot accept that the redeeming work of the cross saves all mankind. Jesus meant what He said “It is finished”.

Redemption for all does not in any way diminish the work of the cross. Rather it makes it the singular, greatest act of love given to mankind by the God Of Love.

Twenty five years ago I had a personal encounter with God’s love that changed the course of my life, forever. Many people, sadly, will never experience the love and presence of God in their lifetime. Yet historical Christian doctrine is still not satisfied, God’s creations must suffer an eternal torment.

The current revolutionary uprisings happening in the Middle East are driven by people’s desire for freedom. There is no greater freedom than knowing the God of Love. CU expresses an understanding of the fullness of that love.

Mark my words, the day the Spirit of God reveals this truth to the world, His Glory will capture the hearts of humanity with such magnitude that it will realign Christianity and change the world as we know it.

Jim Hoag | Fri, 03/11/2011 - 15:19 | Permalink

David Fitch: "DaVinci Code" quality scholarship, as reported by Prof. Trueman concerning Rob Bell's book really does bother me": #fb