Rob Bell’s written a book called Love Wins. I haven’t read it, but it’s been clear — both from the video he made promoting the book, and from the reaction of those who have read it (h/t Phil Naessens), it sounds like Bell’s promoting universalism – the notion that everyone is saved and goes to Heaven, at least eventually. If that’s what’s going on, Bell’s promoting heresy.
From a Catholic perspective, that’s easy to say. The Catechism lays it out really clearly in CCC 1035:
1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
So hell exists, and it’s eternal. Those who enter hell enter eternal separate from God, and since God is the only Good, separation from God is the worst experience imaginable. To the extent that Bell says anything contrary to CCC 1035, he’s preaching something that’s both false, and contrary to clear Church teaching. We have a name for that: “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same” (see CCC 2089). So Bell promotes heresy, Q.E.D.
But what can you say about Rob Bell from a Protestant perspective? This was hammered home to me in a very real way a few weeks ago, when a group of Evangelicals and Calvinists at a party I was at started arguing about Bell, and John MacArthur’s response to him (these are the sort of “parties” I go to — I can’t complain). A few things became clear:
- Everyone likes the axiom, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” None of the Protestants could define which things were objectively essential and which were objectively non-essential. As one of the women at the party pointed out, if you quiz 150 “born-again” Evangelical Christians (of which she readily included herself) on this question, you’ll get varying answers as to which doctrines are and aren’t fundamental. I added that if you quiz two Evangelicals, you’ll likely get different answers.
- If there’s no way of knowing if Hell is even a fundamental doctrine (is there any logical reason one has to believe in Hell to go to Heaven?), how do we know whether we should even be concerned with what Bell says on it? After all, if it’s a non-essential, he’s got liberty to explore, which is what he seems to be wanting to do.
- Bell teaches something that’s contrary to the interpretation of Scripture taken by most or all of the people at the party. But who’s to say that their view is right, and Bell’s is wrong? Sure, it may seem obvious to us that Matthew 18:8 teaches what Bell denies, but it seems just as obvious to me that James 2:24 teaches what Luther denies. “Seems obvious to me” is obviously not the standard for determining orthodoxy, or which doctrines are fundamental.
- Bell’s teaching is also contrary to the historical and traditional beliefs of the Church. But so are a whole slew of beliefs that every Protestant at the party held. It’s true that if you hold this view as authoritative (as Catholics do), Bell is a heretic. But so are Luther and Calvin.