Rob Bell discusses themes in new book with New York audience

March 15, 2011

NEW YORK (ABP) -- On the eve of the release of his controversial book on hell, Rob Bell sat on stage March 14 opposite Newsweek editor Lisa Miller under a wood-etching that read, "The Place Where People Meet to Seek the Highest is Holy Ground."

Dressed in black denim and high-top sneakers, Bell stood and faced the
crowd who gathered Monday night at New York's Society for Ethical
Culture on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The cameras that connected those
streaming via Internet were rolling as he spoke.

"I believe that God is love," he began, "and I believe that Jesus came
to show us this love, to give us this love, to teach us about this love,
so that we could live in this love and then we could extend it to
others."

It is difficult for a moment to believe that the soft-spoken man who
uttered these words is the same who has been at the center of the latest
controversy of Christian orthodoxy and a frequent mention in the
blogosphere for the past two weeks.

Bell, 40, is pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church (a Grand Rapids
mega-church) and a prolific author. He is also the creator of the
popular video series entitled "NOOMA."

Bell has stirred much interest since the introduction of a viral video
to the Internet two weeks ago. The video introduces Bell's new book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,
and created so much immediate interest that HarperOne, the publisher of
the book, decided to move up the release date by two weeks.

The video offers a new way to think about eternity and questions the
ultimate fate of Gandhi, implying that he too may be among the redeemed,
and gives opportunity for Bell to wonder aloud if the message that is
often conveyed in Christianity is that Jesus was sent to save sinners
from the wrath of God and eternal damnation (rather than from sin). That
message, he said, is one that keeps millions from wanting to have
anything to do with Christianity.

This three-minute video inspired other popular figures of evangelical
Christianity to respond. John Piper tweeted, simply, "Farewell, Rob
Bell." Reformed Pastor Kevin DeYoung penned a 20-page diatribe that, by
its length alone shows the vehement concern in the orthodox community
over Bell's ideas. Other writers went a little easier on the pastor.
Greg Boyd blogged, "Rob Bell is NOT a Universalist (and I actually read
Love Wins)."

"I never set out to be controversial," Bell said. "I actually don't think it's a noble goal."

"I don't think that God honors it when people set out to be to be
shocking or dangerous or provocative," he said. "My interest is in
what's true and where is the light and where is the heart and what
inspires."

Many who came seeking answers to specific questions may have left a bit
frustrated. Throughout the hour-long interview, Bell seemed purposely,
and characteristically, vague. Met with a question about physical heaven
and the location of those presently who have died, he responded that
there is endless speculation about that and said "it's very important to
not turn speculation into dogma."

In an effort to answer the question that everyone was waiting to hear,
Miller asked Bell specifically, "Are you a universalist?"

"No," he said, "if by 'universalist' we mean there's a giant cosmic arm
that sweeps everybody in at some point whether you want to be there or
not." Bell went on to explain that the love he espouses involves a God
who would never violate free will. God, he said, is one of love, and
love involves choice and freedom.

Bell's caveat is that there will be all sorts of different kinds of
people in heaven, citing passages where Jesus warned that "all the
people who are in might be out and all the people who are out might be
in."

Regarding hell, Bell explained that he believes in hell because he sees
it around him every day through the human suffering in the world. He
further said that he sees no reason that hell will not be extended into
eternity.

In the final moments of the discussion, a question came from the
audience regarding the Great Commission and what is the responsibility
of Christians given Bell's views. He responded that there is a biblical
mandate that has been adopted by evangelical Christians and churches,
and that mandate is to proclaim God's love to everyone and invite those
people into community with other Christians.

While there are many who attend church each week and participate in the
activities that are expected of them, they nevertheless have no real
understanding of what faith is, how to practice faith, and how to share
the great story of salvation.

The challenge then for Christians regarding evangelism, Bell said, is
whether or not Christians believe that the story really is great enough
to tell.