By Angela Abbamonte
“Will only a few select people make it to heaven and will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?”
This question is posed to readers and viewers of the promotional video for the book “Love Wins” by Rob Bell, released March 15.
Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., has attracted much attention in evangelical circles for his controversial take on important theological questions. “Love Wins” is no exception, receiving criticism even before its publication and leading many to accuse Bell of being a universalist.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., held a live-streamed discussion to answer some of the key questions about Bell and his theology.
“In my engagement with this book, as in my engagement with the larger question of the Emerging Church, I want to make the point that I am not questioning their motivation,” said Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., seminary president. “What we have to deal with is the message.”
Mohler led the panel discussion that included three seminary leaders and one publishing professional and focused on many issues surrounding the book, focusing on the question, “What is Rob Bell’s central argument in ‘Love Wins?’”
According to the panel, Bell seems to present two “absolutes” in his book — the first is that God is love and therefore not a God of wrath and the second is that humans have total freedom because a loving God could not force someone to stay in hell forever.
“Paul says in Romans 12:19, ‘Leave room for the wrath of God,’ and one of the fundamental errors of (Bell’s) book is that there is no room for the wrath of God in his theology,” said Dr. Denny Burk, dean of SBTS’s Boyce College.
Dr. Russell D. Moore, dean of the SBTS School of Theology, added that Bell is “defining God by love rather than defining love by God.”
The panel emphasized the importance of coupling God’s love with his justice and wrath, and seeing God in a biblical sense instead of having a one-dimensional righteousness. The seminary leaders continued to point out how God demonstrates love by showing mercy to his followers instead of the justice they deserve. The panel agreed that Bell’s idea that God is all love and no wrath neutralizes God’s mercy.
“We all agree that God is love, but the difference is that we feel constrained to understand God’s love by the whole biblical storyline,” said Justin Taylor, Crossway publishing executive. “It seems like Rob Bell is taking a true affirmation but then constructing his own storyline.”
Another topic of discussion was the advertising of the book, including the video and the resulting press.
“The very idea of raising questions against the character of the God who has been believed by every generation of the Christian church in this way and to leave it hanging, even if he were to then come back to say, ‘All of my answers are biblical orthodoxy,’ it still would have been an irresponsible thing to do,” Taylor said. “Even if Rob Bell were to come out and produce an entirely orthodox book — which he didn’t — the publicity strategy was cynical.”
The panel said it believes Bell’s persuasive writing, creative marketing and attractive message of a wrathless God all pose danger to those Evangelical Christians who are not well-grounded in their faith and who have become disenchanted by the idea that God sends people to hell.
“We are not having this conversation just because we found a right target for a juicy conversation,” Mohler said. “Rob Bell has a tremendous influence, especially with younger Evangelicals, and that’s why we have to talk about this. We are very concerned about the loss of the Gospel.”