Rob Bell and the Need for a Magisterium

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, β€œin 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.
Clearly, Protestants can say “Bell’s view on Hell disagree with my own, and I think he’s wrong, and I think he’s wrong on a very important doctrine for Christians to hold.”  But is there any principled basis for Protestants to go beyond that, to start speaking of Bell’s “heresy” and Christian “orthodoxy”?
Brantly Millegan made this same point on his blog, noting that not only is it impossible for Evangelicals to hammer down what “heresy” and “orthodoxy” are objectively, there’s also no one in a position of authority to denounce Bell as a heretic.  That is, Bell is the pastor of his church, Mars Hill.  He’s as high as the authority structure goes.  So Matthew 18:17-18 doesn’t work here (a sure sign that we’re not dealing with a Biblical system of Church governance).  For that matter, John MacArthur is the highest level of authority in his church, Grace Community Church. So when the two men agree, because they’ve got a system of church authority that stops with them, it becomes impossible to settle theological disputes objectively, short of one side simply saying “you know what, you’re right!”


  1. I don’t see how you can bow to the Magisterium merely because you find it useful or helpful! And this is especially true since Christ in the Bible clearly denounces such a body. Think about:

    1) The whole tenor of his mission on earth was anti-Pharisaical. That is, against the oppressive system that says “we and we alone know the truth and you don’t”. And this same Christ set up a system virtually identical to it called the Church? I don’t think so.

    2) God the Father vindicated this mission in no uncertain terms by ripping the temple curtain at the crucifixion. What did that mean but that the hierarchical, system of religion was no more.

    3) The NT teaches that we don’t need a mediator. In the OT they needed a high priest. In the NT, Christ is our high priest. We can go directly to him. Nobody has to go to God for us anymore, we can go to God ourselves. Nobody has to forgive us but him. And this same Christ set up a system virtually identical to the OT mediator system called the Church? I don’t think so.

    Christ hated “systems of religion”. It doesn’t matter if they are useful. If they are denounced by Christ, Christians should avoid them.

  2. Anonymous,

    I’m hesitant to even respond, because I sort of doubt you’ll stick around for any serious discussion. After all, you’re anonymous, clearly read only one post before concluding that was the only reason I was Catholic, and I’ve been burnt more than once preparing thought-out replies to Protestant drive-by commenters who were only blowing off steam. I’ll try again with you, and hopefully you’ll prove me a cynic:

    I don’t “bow to the Magisterium merely because [I] find it useful or helpful.” I’ve showed numerous times on this blog that it’s the Scriptural model. For example, I just did a five part series on Peter’s primacy laid out in Scripture. Part I is here:

    And showed the Scriptural authority for the Church here ( In that post, I noted that Hebrews 13:17 explicitly orders us to submit to these earthly authorities within the Church.

    The Pharisees were bad, but Jesus vindicated even their authority (within Judaism) in Matthew 23:1-3. Same with St Paul in Acts 23:3-5. The tearing of the Temple curtain doesn’t mean what you think it does- the Book of Hebrews explains the actual meaning. Read the post on the Sign of Jonah for more on his this showed the beginning of the end of Temple Judasim.

    I suppose I should also note that Catholics don’t think we can only talk to God through a priest’s mediation. If that were the case, we wouldn’t pray the Our Father.b And as for that “oppressive system,” John 14:6 and 1 Timothy 3:15 make clear that there’s no Truth but Christ, and the Church is the pillar and foundation of that Truth. The second link above provides a slew of Bible verses showing quite plainly that God invested the full Truth in the Church. But the Pharisees never taught that they were the only ones with the truth, anyhow. So your argument seems to be:

    1. Distorting what the Pharisees believed,
    2. Distorting what Catholics believe,
    3. Trying to show they believe(d) the same things, and
    4. Claiming Christ rejected everything the Pharisees stood for.

    All four of those premises are false. If you want to seriously engage this question, I’d be happy to (and have begun to already:


  3. Thanks for your reply.

    I’m sorry I’m anonymous I signed on through AOL, and don’t know why it showed up like this. I’m now trying a different login service to avoid the issue. And I’m sorry I put words in your mouth. A rude mistake.

    Your response was thoughtful and I appreciate it. In some sense, I see why you think the way you do from reading through the posts you linked to.

    On to the argument: You say on one of those pages: The Pharisees were claiming to be justified they were observant Jews.

    This is not quite right. The Pharisees said that morality was essential and that Jewish rituals were essential. And Christ rebuked them for the latter part, but it seems to me that Catholics are doing the same thing today. They say that if you do not do this or that Catholic ritual (attend weekly mass, yearly confession, etc.) then you can’t be saved. This is just like the Pharisees. Substituting rituals for God. The only difference is that they are different rituals. Yes, I know that there is a small loophole for those who aren’t Catholics in good faith, but this doesn’t seem to change the the essential issue.

    And it seems to me that Protestants are in a bit of a catch 22 when it comes to the authority issue. On the one hand, if they did claim to be the holders of truth, then it seems that Christ rebuked them for aggrandizing to this position. And so it would be anomalous for Catholics to do the exact same thing.

    But, if “the Pharisees never taught that they were the only ones with the truth”, then God didn’t think a teaching authority was necessary for thousands of years. And then all of a sudden implements one and barely mentions it except in a couple ambiguous statements? That doesn’t stand to reason.

    Rather what makes more sense is the Protestant understanding of Paul in 1 Tim 3:15: That the “church” means Christians in general just as Israel meant the Jews in general in the OT. Yes there are a few stragglers who preach false doctrines, but those who seek after the truth honestly find it. Mt. 7:7 This is just like it was in the OT. There God would speak of Israel doing right, finding the truth, etc. That is, He spoke of Israel in general, even though, surely, there were some Jews who weren’t doing the things He said were happening. And this is what Paul meant when he said that the church was the pillar of truth. Not that a hierarchical structure was the infallible pillar of truth, but that those who seek the truth find it. Mt. 7:7.

    Thanks again for your response. You seem to have really thought through these issues and I appreciate you hashing it out with the likes of me.
    Austin Jordan

  4. Listening to Rob Bell promote his book, I was struck by the notion that it almost sounds a bit like Von Balthasar taken to an extreme. Catholic theologian Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar proposed a similar theological opinion in his book Dare We Hope “That all Men be Saved”?. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles, while disagreeing with Fr. von Balthasar’s interpretation, states that his interpretation is not contrary to Catholic doctrine, and as such can be freely held. As Catholics, we hold to the doctrine that Hell is real, however we are free to believe that no soul is locked in the state of Hell.

  5. Tremble,

    I think your correction from “believe” to “hope” is a correction from Rob Bell to Fr. Von Balthasar — or, as Poppy notes, Fr. Barron.

    There’s at least one narrow sense in which Von Balthasar is correct. We shouldn’t hope anyone’s in Hell, so we should hope everyone is saved. But we shouldn’t hope no one dies an agonizing death, either — that doesn’t mean we “believe” no one dies an agonizing death, or that no one goes to Hell.

    Von Balthasar and Fr. Barron are both closer to the edge of what’s acceptable when they speak of this as a “reasonable hope.” There was a great debate in First Things on this subject between Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Edward T. Oakes, S.J., which lays out the two sides better than I ever could.

    The Catechism is clear on this point (e.g., CCC 633), so my default is to take that over an over-optimistic view of the afterlife. In any case, why not simply hope that all are saved, and behave in such a way that recognizes the reality of Hell? To presuppose that God’s Mercy will prevent us from falling into Hell (no matter what we believe or do) is precisely the sort of presumption the Church has always warned against.

  6. I’m with you after “In any case”, so this is a purely academic question: Do you mean that CCC 633 is clear in foreclosing the Barron/HUvB position? I’m not sure I see this. It does mention “the damned”, which implies (but does not necessitate) a group with greater than zero members. If that’s what you mean, do you think Barron/HUvB would get back from the ledge if they said that we can reasonably hope that only one soul is in hell (and hope–albeit unreasonably–that none are)?

  7. Sorry, I wasn’t very clear there. All of this turns on the phrase: “He descended into Hell” from the creed, and the references to this event from 1 Peter 3. Historically, Christians haven’t believed Jesus was suffering there, but proclaiming salvation to the righteous dead. Von Balthasar views Christ as bearing the weight of damnation itself.

    Von Balthasar raised the possibility that Christ brought salvation to all, not just the righteous dead, and that He did this by allowing Himself to be forsaken by the Father (hence His words on the Cross in Mark 15:34). That is, Christ suffered not only the temporal consequences of sin for us (pain and death), but the eternal consequences of sin (Hell), such that there was no further demands on God’s justice for the recalcitrant to be damned.

    And since “Hell’s principal punishment consists of eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC 1057), a Hell graced by God the Son functionally ceases to be Hell.

    So by Christ entering not only Sheol but the Hell of torments, Hell’s chief torment ceased, and arguably, Hell ceased to be.

    The Catechism, on the other hand, expressly teach that Hell continues to exist (CCC 1056), and denies that the Creed teaches that Christ entered the Hell of torments (CCC 636). Cardinal Schönborn, who wrote CCC 636, acknowledged it was targeting Von Balthasar’s teachings, and said:

    “The brief paragraph on Jesus’ descent into hell keeps to what is the common property of the Church’s exegetical tradition. Newer interpretations, such as that of Hans Urs von Balthasar (on the contemplation of Holy Saturday), however profound and helpful they may be, have not yet experienced that reception which would justify their inclusion in the Catechism.”

    I admit that Cdl. Schönborn leaves the door open a crack, but the Catechism (even the paragraph in question, which he wrote) does not seem to.

  8. Ok, I think we were talking past each other by my using “Barron/HUvB” as the same position when they are actually quite distinct.

    Barron does say something along the lines of “I think vB had it basically right.” But he portrays this position as being one in which hell certainly exists as the condition of the fallen angels and humans who, like the fallen angels, “who have freely refused to serve God and his plan”. He is clear that hell did not cease to be upon the descension. He just says that it is reasonable to speculate that no human soul has in fact “freely refused to serve God and his plan” and entered hell.

    So he seems to have articulated the position taken by Fr. Neuhas about universal salvation, namely “In sum: we do not know; only God knows; but we may hope.” Do you find this position (so long as it does not include the bit about the descension) dangerously close to heretical?

  9. I think that Fr. Neuhaus’ formulation in particular was orthodox. Specifically, he said that the graces sufficient to be saved were freely given to all sinners, that no one is beyond the reach of Christ, and that we may firmly hope that all sinners accepted the free gift. God desires all men to be saved, so we rightly desire this as well.

    There remain numerous passages talking about those who do not inherit eternal life, but those are largely descriptive rather than predictive. So, for example, when Scripture says that those who commit X sin don’t inherit the Kingdom, there remains the implicit promise throughout the Gospel, unless they turn from sin towards the life of Christ.

    In the end, we have a Good Shepherd who will go to incredible lengths to rescue even one lost sheep. Scripture seems to suggest that despite this, some (even many) will reject His overtures and His graces. We hope it isn’t so.

  10. Robert,

    I talked to one of my priests about the Fr. Barron video at Men’s Group last Wednesday, and again on Sunday. He raised the point that whatever one thinks of the merits of the argument, this is “out there” theologically (either on the cutting edge, or fringes, of orthodoxy, depending on your view). Von Balthasar is by no means the mainstream of Catholic thought. His point was that it was probably imprudent of Fr. Barron to bring it up in Word on Fire, given the mission of that ministry. What are your thoughts on that point?

  11. I should admit up front that I haven’t listened to the video in a while and I may be misremembering. But if I remember correctly, I still think that each side is talking past the other one when we are strictly limiting ourselves to the issue of whether we can have a “reasonable hope” that everyone is saved.

    I think it was unfortunate that Fr. Barron said “reasonable” and that, if pressed, he would admit that the adjective does no work (i.e. he meant only “we can have a hope”). This is because I don’t get the impression that he thinks it is at all *likely* that all are saved. I think he thinks it is possible that all are saved and, as such, it is “reasonable” for one to hope that all are saved. In other words, he thinks it is a reasonable hope to maintain but does not think that it is reasonable in the sense of being reasonably likely.

    If so, I think he is just saying what Fr. Neuhaus is saying and its not so cutting edge. In fact, this is the position I took you to be staking out a couple responses ago.

    As such, I think Fr. Barron’s fault was only lack of clarity. This is a problem, but its difficult to overcome when you are limiting yourself to 10 minutes on YouTube. And, perhaps, Fr. Barron knew that he faced multiple risks with this video. Yes, some people might misinterpret him as advocating a view that it is reasonably likely that all are saved. But, given his audience, it seems that the risk is greater that people would misinterpret him as confirming their suspicion that Catholics are certain that only a few are saved. So, perhaps he tried to compensate for that and overcompensated.

    That’s sheer speculation, obviously. But, regardless, I still get the impression that Fr. Barron is swimming in the mainstream on this issue.

  12. But I should add that I concede that stating that his position agreed with someone who “is by no means the mainstream of Catholic thought” was a mistake, given the mission of WoF. Certainly, if my interpretation is right, he would have been better served by quoting Fr. Neuhaus or someone else similarly mainstream.

  13. If your interpretation of what he’s saying is right, that’s definitely defensible. I’m not totally convinced that’s what he meant, though, given how he contrasts his own view with Augustine’s and Aquinas’. That said, Father Steve Grunow’s response on the Word on Fire ( to the controversy generated by the video suggests you might well be right:

    “Some have excoriated Father Barron for advocating the position detailed by Hans Urs von Balthasar that while one cannot hold to the universalist position or reject the eternal duration of hell, one can hope that the Lord can accomplish the salvation of even the most wicked among us. How the Lord might accomplish this would be mysterious indeed. Note please, before writing your comments, that neither myself nor Father Barron nor von Balthasar are saying that God “must” or “will” act in such an audacious way as to save the worst of sinners, but that we can hope that God might do such a thing.”

    So rather than jettisoning the connection to Von Balthasar, it sounds like they’re interpreting him to simply be saying essentially what Neuhaus said. As an aside, I might also note that Fr. Grunlow made the same point as this initial post:

    “Rob Bell has no teaching Magisterium external to himself that would have, as their responsibility, the application of a standard like theological notes to his thesis. His co-religionists might protest, appealing to differing theological standards and systems of conviction, but there is no Magisterium recognized as authoritative by all that can serve to adjudicate the claim that Rob Bell is teaching what is contrary to what must be believed in regards to how salvation is accomplished.”

  14. Joe,

    Well, I admit I am giving him the benefit of the doubt a little bit. But I think that he has earned that.

    And here’s how I interpreted Barron vis-a-vis Augustine and Aquinas: It seems to me that he is dissenting from Aquinas and Augustine only insofar as they opined that the great majority of souls will be damned. He thinks we don’t have to think that. Rather he thinks that the best interpretation is that many are saved.

    And, then (as a gloss on this) he adds “one can hope that the Lord can accomplish the salvation of even the most wicked among us.” But he seemed to make clear that he didn’t know for sure how many would be saved and that there was room to disagree on the subject. In sum, he is saying only this:

    1) Rob Bell and the other universalists are heretics
    2) There remains a lot of room to debate within Catholicism (from Aquinas to Von B)
    3) And, I, Fr. Barron, fall on the Von B end of the continuum.

    I’m very interested to hear if you think my interpretation of Barron vis-a-vis Aquinas and Augusting is on the fringe of orthodoxy because, interpreting Barron that way, I found myself in total agreement with him.

  15. Robert,

    I agree with giving him the benefit of the doubt. And by the “fringe of orthodoxy,” I don’t mean that as a euphemism for heresy. I mean (1) that the position isn’t the majority-view within Catholicism, and (2) that you certainly can’t go beyond Von Balthasar’s position, or you’re in the territory of Origen and possibly, Rob Bell. I think your own comment reflects that reality in (2) – Von Balthasar is the end-point on the spectrum of acceptable Catholic thought. So it’s a fringe in both size and its position on the spectrum.

    I do buy the idea you forward that he may have been steering away from sounding like a Feeneyist, and ended up sounding sort of universalist by accident.

    It’s probably fine to hold that view, as long as it remains firmly a “reasonable hope” instead of a dogmatic belief. But I think that given Word on Fire’s mission, Fr. Barron would have done well to focus more on what the Catechism says than his own theological speculation.

    So the position as you’ve articulated it is certainly defensible, without calling into question your orthodoxy. For myself, I also suspect that many will be saved, and hope for the greatest number possible, since all things are possible with God. And I buy Fr. Most’s criticisms of Augustine’s massa damnata theory from Grace, Predestination and the Salvific Will of God. They can be found at [P.9] onwards here ( But while I hope for universal salvation, I suspect it will not be the outcome.

  16. Fair enough. If only to avoid frustrating his viewers’ curiosity, I don’t have any problem with Fr. Barron stating his position within a continuum of orthodox possibilities, so long as he is clear that he is stating opinion and not infallible dogma. I suppose he wasn’t clear enough here, thus the need for Fr. Grunow’s follow-up.

    Anyway, what would you say the “majority-view within Catholicism” is?

    It seems to me that it is fairly typical to punt on this issue and say “we have no way of knowing how many are saved, other than the Saints. From no others to all others, we just can’t know.” (E.g., introductions to the faith like Fr. Ker’s and Peter Kreeft‘s). So I’m not sure there really is a “majority position” per se.

  17. Thank you for this post! I have heard some Catholics trying to promote a view that was basically Universalist, and this had me confused. I don’t want anyone to go to hell, but saying no one goes there seems contrary to Scripture and Tradition. Any idea why a Catholic would go in that direction in the first place? Am I wrong to totally reject it?

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