Is Jesus the Only Way? Universalism, Rob Bell, and the offense of the Gospel

I’ve been reading with great interest the last few days about the controversy surrounding the forthcoming book by Rob Bell, “Love Wins.” Granted, we should be careful about bringing charges and making assertions before the full book is even available. It is also entirely possible that the promotional material released from the publisher of the book has as its goal a controversy in order to sell more books. However, if you watch the promotional video that Bell has made, it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion than that he is a universalist. Take a minute and read Justin Taylor’s post on this controversy here:

Rob Bell: Universalist?

In essence, universalists do not believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved and have eternal life. Some have said that Bell is merely asking questions in the video, but even in such a format we can clearly be teaching something. Watch Bell’s video about the new book here:

Rob Bell- “Love Wins”

Bell is a very popular pastor/speaker/author who wields considerable influence representing the emergent church movement. This is not the first time controversy has been associated with Bell. His book, “Velvet Elvis,” called into question his affirmation of key, non-negotiable doctrines of the Christian faith such as the virgin birth. I remember having a discussion with some of the students in my seminary class about Bell and if he was really advocating what many accuse him of believing. If you have read his books, he is skilled in the way he states things and can often be hard to “pin down.” Apparently, “Love Wins,” is going to make it clearer than ever that Bell is moving away from the mainstream of evangelical doctrine.

The notion that faith in Jesus alone is the only way to have salvation and go to heaven is, and has always been, one of the most offensive things about Christianity to non-believers. Bell states in the promotional video it’s the reason so many want to have nothing to do with Christianity. Yet, the exclusivity of Christ in salvation is a doctrine that is clearly articulated in Scripture (cf. John 14:6; Acts 4:12 and many others that could be listed). I don’t have space in this blog to cover all of the arguments for, and those that have been posited against, the exclusivity of Christ (but see my letter below). Suffice it to say, the necessity of faith in Christ and not faith in good deeds or other deities is increasingly becoming a scandalous and offensive position to hold in our society. This recent news about Bell shows that it is now becoming more and more offensive even within the Christian ranks.

Recently, the local newspaper in our community has been publishing letters to the editor concerning this issue of the exclusivity of Christ. I was surprised to see multiple letters from those who would identify themselves as Christians defend universalism and deny that faith in Jesus is necessary to go to heaven. Below, I have posted my letter in response to these letters, which was published in the paper.

Dear Editor,

I have read with interest recent editorials on the issue of Jesus Christ being the only way to salvation. Too often, we interpose our 21st century understanding of truth on to the Scripture, thus making the Bible say what we want it to say rather than what God wants to say. This seems to be a difficult thing for many to accept when it comes to the topic of salvation. Our postmodern/pluralist culture finds absolute truth (the belief that one thing can be true for all people at all times) offensive. Yet, the Bible is clear in its claim to the exclusivity of Christ in salvation.

Recent editorials have attempted to deny Jesus is the only way to salvation on the basis of context. Yet, the context affirms the contrary. For example, Peter’s words to Cornelius in Acts 10:34 do not imply that those outside of belief in Christ could be saved. The verses that follow articulate what “fearing God” and “doing right” truly mean- that peace with God comes only through Jesus Christ. There is no doubt in the mind of Luke (who wrote the passage) that what saved Cornelius was not his religious belief outside of Christ, but rather his faith in Christ that made him right with God. Incidentally, if a multitude of religious belief systems are efficacious (able to save), why does a large portion of the Apostle Paul’s writings condemn any teaching that contradicts the exclusivity of Christ? The wonder of salvation is not that any belief system can save us, but that any of us can reach out to Christ for redemption.

Readers have stated the assumption that doing good can result in salvation. The Bible is clear that good deeds can never save us, but only faith in Jesus can save (Eph. 2:8-10). Good deeds are the result of salvation, never the basis for it. The message of Jesus’ gospel is not that we need to become better versions of ourselves, but instead we need to die to ourselves and become new in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17-18). In regard to salvation, the Bible says we can know with certainty how we are saved and should never place this doctrine under the rubric of “a poor reflection” (1 Cor. 13:12). In fact, John stated this as the reason for writing his Gospel: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

If we are going to accept the Bible as God’s Word and not force it to die a thousand deaths at the hands of postmodernism, we need to accept the biblical claim that faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved. Christians should not wield this truth in a spirit of judgmentalism and sanctimony, but rather engage people with the love and hope that only Christ can bring.

More and more people in the Christian community are abandoning the doctrine of the exclusivity of Christ in salvation because the world is offended by it. Adherence to this doctrine appears to be close-minded, irrational, and intolerant. Yet, faith in Christ is necessary. Only Jesus could serve as our substitute on the cross, a perfect and unblemished sacrifice, to satisfy the righteous demands of God and pay the penalty and punishment of our sin. As the world grows more and more hostile to this crucial doctrine, I hope you will stand fast. In no way should we be mean, arrogant, or judgmental about it. People may claim that about us, but let’s encourage others to embrace Christ through authentically living out our faith, loving people, and communicating the gospel of Jesus.

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2 Responses to “Is Jesus the Only Way? Universalism, Rob Bell, and the offense of the Gospel”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. It will be interesting to see how the evangelical community responds to this book. If the hype is true it will definitely present Christian leaders with an opportunity to respond to his arguments and clarify the Biblical position to those who might be tempted to follow Bell’s teachings.

    Keep up the blog posts! I enjoy reading them.

  2. Watching that video made me shiver. I read “Velvet Elvis” a few years ago. If I remember correctly, Bell stated “Hell is full of forgiven people” in that book. His point was there were people in Hell for whom Christ had died and they were only there because they rejected Him. I wonder if Bell is changing his stance on this issue. Hell can’t be full and empty at the same time.