Rob Bell created a firestorm of controversy recently with a promotional video about his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Rob Bell is a pastor, bestselling author and creator of the popular “Nooma” video series. The promotional video and the blurb from the publisher, Harper Collins, have led several evangelicals to accuse Bell of being a universalist, that is all people will eventually end up in heaven. Justin Taylor is an editorial vice president at Crossway Books and a popular blogger. Taylor wrote his thoughts on Bell’s promotional material (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2011/02/26/rob-bell-universalist/) and John Piper dismissively wrote “Farewell Rob Bell” on his twitter account.
Author and theologian Maggi Dawn wrote a blog post about the Rob Bell/Universalism controversy. She takes aim at Taylor, Piper and everyone else who is accusing Bell of being a universalist because they have not read Bell’s book yet (it will be released in a few weeks). Dawn defends Rob Bell, not on his supposed universalist views, but on his ability to communicate and what he is trying to do. Bell is seeking to connect with disaffected Christians and “seekers” so he is purposefully simple and is not much of a theologian in his communications, whether written or spoken.
She writes: “As far as I can see, it’s this, rather than theology per se, (communicating) that is Bell’s real gift. His writing and broadcasting actually covers very little ground theologically, and does so imprecisely, but what he does par excellence is capture the imaginations of those who have become disenchanted with Christianity, and haven’t enough patience or emotional energy to re-examine it … he is reductionist in his theology, but that seems to me to emerge from his deeper longing to communicate at the level of an evangelist and pastor. Once people are interested in theology the finer details can be worked on with theologians who – precisely because of their concern for the finer details – fail to communicate in quite the way Bell does. But if people never get interested in the first place, they will never hang around long enough to examine the finer details” (emphasis mine).
A question is raised concerning her understanding that pastors and evangelists do not need (nor should they) be concerned about theology. As one studies the Gospel preaching of some of the early “evangelists” in the book of Acts, they seem rather concerned with theology. Peter seems very theological in his preaching. He doesn’t sugar coat his message (or isn’t reductionist) as he tells his listeners, “You crucified him,” and that salvation is found in no other name (Acts 3.13-26; 4.8-12). Peter also mentions that Jesus is a “judge.” Paul, even in a Greek context is not reductionist when he tells his Gentile listeners that a day of judgment will come and that all people should turn from their “ignorance” (Acts 17.22-31).
The point is that if ever there was a need for “seeker sensitive” messages, it was in the early church when Peter and Paul were speaking before either antagonistic audiences or audiences who did not know the entire back story. Yet, these “evangelists” were not reductionist in their theology and Paul on several occasions urged his pastoral representatives to guard their doctrine closely (e.g. 1Tim. 4.15-6). Paul even connects pastoral love to strong theology (1 Tim. 1.3-11). Those wishing to communicate with “seekers” need to be thoughtful and understandable, but at the same time, they should not avoid deep theological truths. If preachers are reductionist in evangelism, they could be accused of using a “bait and switch” technique when they start to discuss issues like election, atonement and the concept of Hell or an eternity apart from God. No pastor or evangelist who seeks to communicate the truth of the Gospel should ever be accused of being reductionist.
Bill Victor, Ph.D.
Regional Collegiate Ministry Coordinator Missouri Baptist Convention