Rob Bell’s view on hell: bad theology or good marketing?

Rob Bell is promoting his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, with the video below. As is usual with Bell, the video has great production values, along with a tone and attitude that seem targeted to today’s young people. But what caught the notice of well-known bloggers like Justin Taylor, Josh Harris, Denny Burk, Kevin DeYoung and Phil Johnson, is what Bell seems to say about hell. As his publisher says, “Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.”

The aforementioned bloggers sounded an alarm (very graciously, for the most part) that Bell’s may have slipped into universalism. But in calling into question the author’s view on eternal punishment, all hell broke loose.

Many of Bell’s admirers flooded blogs with angry comments. Justin Taylor alone received more than 1,000 comments over the weekend. But as an advertising professional, I started to wonder: Is this an example of bad theology or good marketing? You might assume that the author would be upset that the bloggers have taken exception with his perceived beliefs. However, it’s entirely possible that the firestorm was ignited intentionally.

The effect has been that Bell has received a windfall of exposure. You might think that he would have to be crazy to invite criticism from this group of largely evangelical bloggers. But they probably have eyed Bell with caution for some time. And as the well-known adage about public relations states, “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” Criticism of the book (which no one has read, by the way) as served to bring Bell’s admirers out of the woodwork to confront the bloggers and express their support of him.

I may be completely wrong on this. For all we know, Bell may be intentionally drawing people in the a seemingly universalist view, only to reveal an orthodox view of hell when he has hooked them.

What’s your take on the controversy?

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13 Responses to Rob Bell’s view on hell: bad theology or good marketing?

  1. Jenn C says:

    I think it’s good marketing.

  2. I think it’s both bad theology AND good marketing.

  3. Dan says:

    Good marketing and To Be Determined.

    While it seems irresponsible of Bell to release such an ambiguous video that he knows will probably set people in a stir, we need to in the spirit of love wait until we hear his whole argument before leveraging any severe accusations of him.

    Note that Taylor and DeYoung are not just saying they disagree with him on a doctrinal point–they are accusing the man of heresy before they’ve even heard all of what he has to say. Now that, I would say, is very very irresponsible for two very prominent public figures.

    I’m extremely disappointed in Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung; even if they turn out to be right, they’ve prematurely accused someone of the most severe charge of heretic.

    (Note I’m not defending Bell at all. I really don’t like him, either. No person professing Christ, however, should be treated like that until they’ve had a chance to express their entire argument, in this case in the whole book.)

  4. David Wilson says:

    Hey Dan — Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

    The book will not be released for a month, so I would tend to agree with DeYoung that the content of the video should be examined for what it says or implies. And if the video communicates error, I believe that error should be addressed in a clear manner.

    Do you believe that in saying that Bell communicates error in the video that DeYoung brands him as a heretic? I’m not sure I took it that way.

    Dave

  5. Dan says:

    Hey Dave. Thanks for looking for clarification.

    I think in the link from DeYoung you have posted, he is more critical than I’d like, but stays within bounds. However, he posted a defense of Justin Taylor’s post where this is not the case.

    Is a month really too long to wait if we’re talking about basically charges of heresy? Discussion is one thing (I think your blog post was very constructive), but to make firm proclamations that someone is staying from the faith without reading the book… that’s scary.

  6. David Wilson says:

    Dan,

    I appreciate your desire to be gracious with one another. The challenge is how to express a concern about something distributed in such a public manner. Bell certainly invited scrutiny and I’d be very surprised was unaware of the type of response he received.

    How about this feeble attempt at a response”
    “I’m very concerned that Rob Bell is communicating a universalist position regarding salvation. I hope I’m wrong because the fact that Jesus’ death on the cross saved us from the justified wrath of God is a biblical truth that brings much glory to God. I’d hate for that glory to be robbed from Him, and for people to have a false idea that eternal punishment is some kind of fairy tale. Maybe Rob’s book will reveal that my concern about his video is unfounded. That’s my hope and prayer.”

    Thoughts?

    Dave

    • Dan says:

      Dave, that is a great response.

      I don’t think you ever were critical beyond the scope of responsibility in the least. I also think Josh Harris’ post and Kevin DeYoung’s first post are also within line. There is a world of difference between saying:

      “This seems like he could be saying X. If this is true, there is big cause for concern, because such a statement would be unorthodox, if not heretical. However, we can’t know for sure until we’ve read his book. If you do get to read it, take caution in case he does take such a position. However, look for my full review in a month!”

      and what Kevin DeYong says in his second post:

      “We don’t have to guess if Bell will say something dreadfully, horribly, disgracefully wrong. He already has.”

      I overall hate the blogging world, honestly, because it is generally lacking of accountability, is horribly divisive, and thrives on being critical of other people. (Your blog is a refreshing change from that, sincerely… thank you.) This whole shindig reinforces my distaste. Unless DeYoung and Taylor publicly reframe their take, I have lost most respect for both of their opinions and am gravely concerned that large portions of the reformed community turn to them for something resembling authority.

      Lest I sound like I am merely slandering, I have written both humbly requesting that they recant their posts until the book is published. I’d like to still think of them both as friends, but if this is going to be Salem–burning people with little or no real trial–then I want no part and hope others in the Christian community will share this view and speak up.

      All that to say, though, that I don’t have a problem with discussing these sorts of questions at all… but how the discussion is framed (seeking understanding before condemning vs. waiting for someone to possibly misspeak so we can condemn them) makes world of difference. Bell probably does cross acceptable lines, but we owe it to him to let him finish speaking before we judge.

  7. […] firestorm of controversy online because he seems to imply a universalist view on hell. I wondered (in this blog post) if it was more of a matter of good marketing than bad […]

  8. Jeanette says:

    I’m suspicious of Rob Bell. I just watched George Stephanopoulos interview him on GMA and he never gave GS a straight answer. I found him to be evasive and his answers unsatisfying. I’m beginning to wonder if it is not a publicity stunt.

  9. Di Andersson says:

    We are all created in God’s image, hence predestination is for all. However, since we are created in His image, we have the gift of “Free Will”. This gift of “Free Will” (or free choice) is what sends us to heaven or hell if we do not accept God’s gift of His Son Jesus Christ and His shed blood on Calvary. The Word of God is very plain on all this. Shame on Rob Bell for using the ways of the world in tickling ears to portray God’s love. There is nothing new under the sun. Matthew 24:5 is where Jesus tells us that many will come in His (Jesus) name saying He (Jesus) is the Christ and will deceive many. Part of end times brethren. Pray and KNOW God.

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