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Rob Bell's Upcoming Book on Heaven & Hell Stirs Blog, Twitter Backlash on Universalism

Justin Taylor's blog post on a book that hasn't been released yet highlights a theological debate on universalism.

Mars Hill pastor Rob Bell drew significant attention on Twitter and blogs today after Justin Taylor penned a blog post titled "Rob Bell: Universalist?" on Bell's upcoming book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

Taylor, vice president of editorial at Crossway, has not seen Bell's book (though he read some chapters that were sent to him), but he expressed concern with a video. "[T]his video from Bell himself shows that he is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity," Taylor wrote.

Taylor pointed to the publishers' description of the book, which does not come out until March 29 from HarperOne. "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," part of the description states.

Bethlehem Baptist Church pastor John Piper tweeted, "Farewell Rob Bell. http://dsr.gd/fZqmd8" linking to Taylor's post. Here's the video in question:

"Rob Bell" was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter Saturday. As of Saturday evening, about 12,000 people had recommended Taylor's blog post on Facebook, which posts the article on readers' personal pages. The article had about 650 comments.

"I've never seen anything like this. The traffic explosion testifies to the power of blogs for hosting theological debate today," said Collin Hansen, editorial director for the Gospel Coalition. "But the tremendous interest also reminds us that we're dealing with life-and-death issues of eternal importance."

Taylor updated his post, changing some wording and deleting a reference to Cor. 11:14-15: "Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds." Instead, Taylor ended the post with the following paragraph:

Let's remember to pray. Rob Bell needs to know and teach the liberating gospel of grace—including that Christ absorbed the Father's wrath on behalf of those who trust in him and repent of their sins. And there are tens of thousands of folks who look to Rob Bell as a biblical teacher and leader. May God give much mercy.

Several other bloggers have also taken on Bell's book, including Denny Burk, Alex Chediak, and Kevin DeYoung.

I asked North Park University professor Scot McKnight if he had seen an evangelical book get so much attention before its released, and he e-mailed me the following response:

I've not seen anything like it. And, yes, the quickness of social media have made this such a big issue ... today ... and in a week it will all be gone. Justin Taylor once generated almost 100 comments by quoting a blurb of mine that was on the back of IVP's book by Tom Wright on Justification.

Justin may be right about what Rob believes, but if he is wrong then he owes Rob Bell a huge apology. I want to wait to see what Rob Bell says, read it for myself, and see what I think of it. Rob is tapping into what I think is the biggest issue facing evangelicalism today, and this fury shows that it just might be that big of an issue.

The publicity approach of HarperOne worked perfectly. They got huge publicity for a book. They intended to provoke – and they did it well. I think it is wiser to wait to see the real thing than to rely on publicity's provocations. Justin bit, and so did many of his readers.

Frankly, John Piper's flippant dismissal of Rob Bell is unworthy of someone of Piper's stature. The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell's influence is not a tweet of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have no part in judging a Christian leader's theology, character or status.

Here are a few other responses on Twitter that were listed higher as "Rob Bell" became a trending topic.

Covenant Life Church pastor Josh Harris tweeted, "There's nothing loving about preaching a false gospel. This breaks my heart. Praying for Rob Bell. http://bit.ly/gsE4Gl" Update: Harris has explained his tweet on his blog.

Jody Howard, an episcopal priest tweeted, "After hearing @donmilleris talk about power & control at the C3 conference, it's ironic & sad to see so many slam @realrobbell today." Author Donald Miller replied, "@adamantius satan's at work for sure."

Blogger Matthew Paul Turner tweeted, "For a moment I was afraid Rob Bell had died. But then I realized that it was just a few Calvinists hating him into a trending topic."

HarperCollins offers the following description for Bell's book:

Fans flock to his Facebook page, his NOOMA videos have been viewed by millions, and his Sunday sermons are attended by 10,000 parishioners—with a downloadable podcast reaching 50,000 more. An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls "a singular rock star in the church world," Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, 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.

It appears that several people on Twitter are mixing up the Twitter username robbell with @realrobbell. Robbell is a web designer based in West Yorkshire (U.K.). Some of his reactions to the publicity include the following tweets:

Dear Christians, I am not @realrobbell although I hear he does really great things. Please at least look before you 'quote' me as him

oh dear, my namesake is now a Trending Topic worldwide on Twitter, best get ready for fresh lunacy! What else is gonna go mad today?!?

@bethbeutler lol thanks Beth. Not as bad or as many as I expected when other Rob trended. I don't mind, I hear he's a thoroughly good bloke

@reverendjohnson do they? Why would an entire religion want to bash a simple Englishman like myself? I'm quite concerned...

@theonetruemyles who is this @johnpiper and why is he denouncing me? Did he not like a website I designed?

Update (2/28):

Several pastors and authors have weighed in further, including Trevin Wax, Zach Nielsen, Jason Boyett, Roger Olson, Eugene Cho, John Dyer, and Rachel Held Evans. JR Woodward says that Eugene Peterson and Greg Boyd have endorsed the book.

Tim Challies writes, "I am not going to comment on whether or not Bell is a universalist. To be honest, at this point I think it is a little bit too early to make that determination." Challies, who is promoting his own upcoming book, looks at how technology formed the discussion.

My guess is that in the end Bell will take a vague universalist position—not outright universalism but still something that is still clearly unorthodox (as Brian McLaren did in his earlier days before he got into the kind of outright denial that has been the core of his more recent books).

My interest at this point is less in what Bell believes and what his book is going to say—that will be clear in March when the book begins to hit store shelves—but in the speed at which information and opinions have been disseminated. As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about digital technologies, about how our lives have changed because of them, I see here a clear example of the ever-growing importance we place on speed, on immediacy.

Tony Jones describes Bell as the "Jason Bourne of Christianity."

In fact, I don't know Rob Bell. I've spoken to him only once, briefly, in a hotel lobby at the National Youth Workers Convention. It was probably in about 2002, and we spoke for about five minutes. Rob never joined up with Emergent Village — in fact, he has publicly disavowed the term "emerging church" in various interviews. But neither has he joined any other posse (Ecclesia, Origins, etc.). He's not, as far as I know, an adjunct prof at any seminary or on the editorial board of any magazine. In other words, I don't think he's a "joiner" — I think he's a lone ranger.

Last night, Saddleback pastor Rick Warren tweeted, "I believe in hell because Jesus says it's real & he knows more about it than anyone."

Of his 2,000+ tweets, Warren has tweeted about hell about 30 times. Coincidental timing?

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