The Anatomy of A Question: Rob Bell, Kevin DeYoung, and A Lesson In “Doubling Down”

Posted on March 7, 2011. Filed under: Apologetics, Atheism, Religion, Rob Bell, Universalism |

This subject should make me giggle.

I should be sitting back basking in the splendor of watching the faith that I grew up in-the faith that I taught and brought to people for a decade- the faith that I left in no small part due to instances like this one- humiliate itself by drowning in it’s own hubris.

I’m not laughing….and I don’t know why.  Perhaps it’s because I have a friend who will be publishing a book on Universalism in the next

That's right...I asked questions!

month, and watching the vitriol makes me overly protective of her.  Perhaps it is because I’m not as good at schadenfreude as I want to think I am.  Perhaps it is because I see a faith castigating a pastor for something he didn’t even say- something that I myself considered strongly before rejecting it and my faith years ago.

Universalism, right or wrong, is the elephant in the room in Christian circles today.  Whether it is biblically grounded is beside the point.  I’m not here to argue for Universalism-I’ll leave that to my friend and her forthcoming book.  What I am arguing for is a faith that asks and answers the tough questions instead of publicly crucifying someone for giving these questions their due.  Especially when all available evidence suggests that this someone, pastor Rob Bell, does nothing more than use questions about Universalism in order to clarify traditional Evangelical theology in his new book  LOVE WINS.

Universalism is not a fringe idea.  It is an idea that is gaining traction among young Christians, again- biblical or not- it is based on “evidence that demands a verdict” (to glibly use another apologist’s words).  There are, without a doubt, bible verses that seem to support universal salvation.  There are, without a doubt, bible verses that seem to contradict universal salvation.  The facts bear witness that it is not a subject that RealChristians™ will get away from by simply yelling “HERESY” loudly over the voices of dissent.  Rob Bell knows this.  He is taking the issue head on.  He’s answering the questions of those Universalists, and from the reports of all those currently in the know, he’s telling them they are well intentioned….and wrong.

If you doubt that this is an issue that needs to be addressed, I direct you to the words of Dr. Scot McKnight, Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University (Chicago, Illinois).  In his recent post “Waiting For Rob Bell”, McKnight says:

“My own estimation is that somewhere near 75% of my students, many if not most of them nurtured in the church, are more or less (soft) universalists. They believe in Jesus and see themselves as Christians but don’t find significant problems in God saving Muslims and Buddhists or anyone else on the basis of how God makes such decisions. The Baylor Study of Religion, if my memory is correct, asked a question or two that reveals that an increasing number of American evangelical Christians think the majority of humans will be saved. That’s the issue and Rob Bell had the moxie to write a book about it. He’s rattled cages with his promo video and he will undoubtedly stir the waters in the book.

Many in the evangelical church have happily lived as if universalism is not an issue for good ol’ evangelicals. Those of us with our ears to the ground know better, and that is why I addressed this issue in a chapter in my book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow.”

The point that should be obvious to any Evangelical is that this is an issue. Whether you want it to be or not- whether you feel it is misguided or not- it is an issue.

To throw accusations and vitriol at someone who has the “Bells” to deal with it head on is a horrible mistake.  It is a missed opportunity.  It is a chance to have a substantive discussion about the nature of God and what young (and some older) Christians intuitions about that nature are.  To drive the discussion to the poles is to steal from possibility.  It is stealing from Jesus, it is stealing from yourself.

Not considering or debating the merits of an argument takes away from the completeness of your own opinion, whatever it might be.

There is substance to the Universalist arguments.  Again I will pilfer information from Dr. McKnight, this time from “Waiting For Rob Bell-Part 2”:

“I begin with Jesus, whose parable of the Prodigal Son should make us stop in our tracks, from Luke 15:28-32:

28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

And now to Paul, beginning with 1 Corinthians 15:20-28:

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

And especially Colossians 1:15-20:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

And this line from James:

Mercy triumphs over judgment (2:13).”

So instead of addressing these biblical verses (and others) and facing the questions head on, how do you suppose a Christian would react to Universalism?

Enter Kevin DeYoung, Dr. Larry Dixon,  Justin Taylor, John Piper and others.

When Someone Shows Why Your Argument Sucks…..Double-Down

The first onslaught was to call Rob Bell a Universalist- in defiance of evidence and without reading his book.  This rightfully prompted a strong reaction from Christians and Non-Christians alike (including me),  who implored these people to wait for Love Wins to be released before jumping to conclusions and convicting Bell of any potential wrongdoing.

You might expect that realizing their hasty judgment, these folks might have quietly apologized and waited for the book before going any further.

You might expect that- but you would be horribly wrong.

You should have guessed that they would “double-down”.   The Double-down is a term we use in cyberspace for someone who was reproved but, instead of admitting their mistake, proceeds to commit to their argument even stronger.  To explain it from a card playing analogy (from which it is borrowed)- The odds are on another player, you should fold, but you raise and hope they second guess themselves.

What the Double-Down shows us time and time again is that people do not like to own their mistakes.  When these guys were rightfully called for jumping to conclusions, for not reading the book before passing judgment, what did they do?  They went to the video.  They subtly changed the focus, said the video was promoting Universalism…not the book, the video.  Do they have a point then?  Is the video a piece of Universalist propaganda, designed to introduce Universalism by subterfuge?

Well, no.  At least I don’t think so.  I think Kevin DeYoung’s post which turns the attention to the video is faulty logic on multiple levels.  I’ll let him explain in his own words (quoting from Bell in red):

“…..our deep dismay and the reason for issuing an urgent warning is not based on what he might say in the book. It’s based on what he did say in the video.

Here’s what Bell says after the story about Gandhi and the piece of art:

Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe or what you say or what you do or who you know or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these few?

Then there is the question behind the questions. The real question [is], “What is God like?”, because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?

This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, why would I ever want to be a part of that? See what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like. What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, beautiful, that whatever we have been told and been taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine.

The good news is that love wins.

This is not back cover copy from the publisher. This is not a promo blurb written by an intern at HarperCollins. This not what Brian McLaren gave for an endorsement. This is what Rob Bell said.

And he is saying something. Don’t think for a second the questions don’t communicate something. These are not “let’s explore together and see what the Bible says about these hard issues” kind of questions. Everyone agrees Bell is a remarkable communicator. He is not unaware of the effect of these three minutes. Words mean something and words do something. Whether the sentences end in question marks or not, the force of these sentences is to undermine—nay, to ridicule—the reality of eternal conscious punishment, the wrath of the God, and penal substitutionary atonement.”

DeYoung then decides to argue that unanswered questions are instructive- they are teaching even if they are unanswered.  I agree.  100% without doubt, I agree.

What is wrong then?  What is wrong is that this excerpt he is quoting from is not a NOOMA script.  It is not a sermon, it is not a whole book.  It is a description of questions he aims to answer in his forthcoming book.  Those questions are, as DeYoung states, instructive.  They are instructive of the subjects in his forthcoming book.  Where I do not agree is where he insists that these questions can stand independent of the context of Rob Bell’s book.  In short, I do not agree that these questions are never answered by Bell.  They are answered.  In the book.  You know, the one that this video was made to promote….  Yeah…that one.

What DeYoung is saying is that the content of that video should be considered alone, not as part of the theme of a book that may or may not answer all these questions in the negative.  He knows now that it was wrong to jump on Rob Bell about Love Wins before it was even published.  So now the goalposts shift to the video.

When DeYoung asks his readers to consider the video as a stand alone statement, he argues that not only can we pull information out of context (which speaking as an atheist didn’t really surprise me- I have encountered the “pull a rhetorical question out of context and use it to ‘prove’ your point- see Charles Darwin’s ruminations on the eye), but he also argues that those questions are insulting and ridiculous and unworthy of being spoken.

If Bell just addresses Universalism from a traditional evangelic rebuke, or if he comes “out of the closet” as a full blown Universalist, it really doesn’t matter.  What DeYoung, and Dixon, Taylor and Piper want you to know is that you are not even allowed to ask the questions. They don’t need to hear other points of view, or listen to uncomfortable questions, or consider someone else’s arguments.  They can put a whole epistemology to bed if it uses or even considers the validity of one simple word.


‘That’s right, you can’t even think about universalism, and if you do, shake your head and shut your lips-’cause we RealChristians™ don’t roll like that.”

It is a bad argument.  It is an argument that rests on willful ignorance.  Ignorance of English rhetoric, ignorance of theological duty, and-most damningly– ignorance of the truth.

That a man with a doctorate who is charged with educating our children would rather have a misinformed opinion vindicated than reprove an obviously faulty argument should tell you of the dangers of doubling down.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

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8 Responses to “The Anatomy of A Question: Rob Bell, Kevin DeYoung, and A Lesson In “Doubling Down””

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George, you’re missing one very important fact of life for a lot of evangelical Christians: asking questions is just plain DANGEROUS. You’re not supposed to investigate things, because to seek knowledge is wrong. One is only supposed to reflect on the teachings of God, and those are given to you every Sunday service, Thursday prayer meeting, and Friday youth group by your spiritual leaders.

Lip service is paid to the importance of reading the Bible fervently, but if you notice any scriptures that are inconsistent with standard evangelical theology, you must take your inquiry to the pastor or an elder and accept their response unquestioningly.

It’s important to foster the illusion of independent thinking, so that a Christian can self-delude themselves (it makes for a much more convincing testimony) into believing that they follow Christ because they’ve considered the evidence and made a rational decision to worship the one true god.

I can no longer speak with you. Every RealChristian(TM) knows that you have prayer meeting on Wednesday-AFTER Harp and Bowl….
Thursday service is just plain BLASPHEMY!
I said I don’t really know why this is such a big issue for me. I do.
It is because this is exactly the attitude that in large part drove me away from the Church….It’s bloody stupid.
I can’t stand being told that belief without question is “non-negotiable”- that my questions are not worthy of an answer.
As I said, I should be giggling with shadenfreude.
Somehow, like telling your wife “I told you so”, the intellectual victory gives me no joy.

…but if you notice any scriptures that are inconsistent with standard evangelical theology, you must take your inquiry to the pastor or an elder and accept their response unquestioningly.

This is really what I see as the biggest obstacle to a reasoned faith. Most pew sitters don’t feel qualified to think or really study for themselves, and that’s because they’ve been trained to rely on their pastors. Your pastor is your “shepherd, the guardian of your soul,” and he has been to seminary. Therefore, if you have questions he can’t answer, it’s because these things are not supposed to be understood. And if you assert that you might have insight into something that he doesn’t, out come the big, intimidating words and volumes of scholarly tomes to make you feel like you couldn’t possibly know.

I know all this, because I have experienced it time and again with pastors and seminary graduates who make it obvious that they are the only qualified ones to help me navigate my questions, and that I should stop trying to figure it out myself.

What’s ironic is that Jesus called fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes–almost all illiterate people–to be his followers. And I never once heard him pull the word hermeneutics or exegesis on them. He mostly just told them to love.

Several points come to mind which I want to bring up:
1. Evangelicals, at least some of us, are not afraid to deal with universalism and arguments in favor of it. I’ve done so in my chapter in “The Other Side of the Good News” (which I will be posting on my blog:
2. Several of us have provided evidence of Bell’s previous work that suggests he leans in the direction of universalism. Must we completely suspend judgment (evaluation) until his book comes out? Are you not minimizing the points he makes in his promo video?
3. Please help me understand which of my arguments in directly quoting what Bell said are faulty?
4. I’m sorry that you’ve abandoned the Christian gospel at some time in the past, but isn’t the issue fairly substantial? Why poke fun at Evangelicals for taking the issue seriously.
Larry Dixon

Firstly Larry, I want to thank you for taking the time to respond to my criticism. I have made some very strong criticisms of you specifically in the last few days that I want you to understand are not personal.
If you will allow me to digress for a moment, I’ll explain why with a personal anecdote:
My father used to own a successful business. He had several employees, some good and some bad. I worked for him for many years, and managed his business for a time. At one point, my dad came down especially hard on me for taking an especially long break for lunch. When I pointed out to him that many of his other employees had done the same thing at one point or another, and my father had failed to so harshly reprove them, my dad said to me “yes, but I have expectations of you that I don’t have of them, you are privileged in your place here, and that privilege requires a greater responsibility”.

Larry, you are an educator. You are the possessor of a doctorate. Yet on more than one occasion I have seen you turn your back on what I believe is a greater responsibility to the people who respect and trust you. To make matters worse, you teach divinity. You are raising the next generation of spiritual leaders in your country.
Being that I am an atheist, you might suggest that I should mind my own business. “You have no cock in the ring”, so to speak.
Larry, many of my closest friends are Christians, and as a former one myself I understand well enough the stakes.
I also harbor no ill will toward the faith of my parents, friends, colleagues, and my past.
Perhaps you might say that I wish for your faith that which it was unable to be for me. Open. Inquisitive. Furiously seeking truth.

With that said, here is how I answer you:
1. The reality, whether you want to concede it or not, is that Evangelicals as a group have been woefully inconsiderate toward Universalism. Again, I’m not saying universalism is biblical. But you must reasonably admit that there are more than a few passages in the bible which seem to give it lipservice. If you read McKnight’s two articles, you will see that this is something that deserves more than just a flippant comment like “non-negotiable doctrine”. If you wish to address universalism, you must make your biblical case, allow the universalist to make theirs, and be prepared to hold your evidence to the same standard you insist they hold theirs to. I caution that appealing to tradition is not a biblical argument; if God exists, I doubt He is too concerned with human tradition.
2. Here again, I see a problem emerging. You are quietly shifting the goalposts again. I’ll happily concede that Bell has made controversial statements in Velvet Elvis- and you should be recognized for pointing this out in your first post about Bell. But the castigation in your post certainly takes as it’s nexus the Taylor article about Love Wins. I also take issue with how that one sentence from Velvet Elvis can serve as a blanket acceptance of Universalism. The critique seems a little eisegetical. I wonder if Rob, in this passage, isn’t talking about grace not as universal, but as universally undeserved. That is how I read his passage. I see him saying that Jesus paid a wage which none of us earned, that salvation was a gift, not a reward. That is horribly close to a universalist sentiment, I agree. But the differences are as great as the similarities.
I think we must suspend judgment until the book comes out. His previous statements were ambiguous, his video has a context (the book), and you shouldn’t address an argument based on the prospect of a possibly misplaced theology.
Am I minimizing the points made in the video? I don’t think so. The video does not and should not stand outside of the context of the book it is promoting. Those are undoubtedly universalist sentiments in the video. Yet they are only questions. Questions that I think (and I hope you think, too) ought to be asked by any thoughtful follower of Christ. Those questions, again based on my understanding of a biblical grounding of universalism (which I tentatively reject, at least till I read my friends new book), are questions that need to be asked and for the most part answered in the negative. But we must, if we are to have a fullness of opinion, be prepared and willing to ask uncomfortable questions. If Bell left us hanging, if he didn’t have the potential answers coming in his new book, I would agree with DeYoung and you- the questions are designed to introduce ideas by subterfuge. Yet, context is soooo important.
3. The fault I attribute to you is based on numerous things. First, in your original post you asked the discussion question “What steps should be taken with Bell, do you think?”. You didn’t say “with these ideas” or “with Bell’s apparent line of argument”, you said “with Bell”. You made a remark that was personal, and taken in a way I’m gracious enough to assume was unintended, quite threatening. People should never be castigated personally for their ideas. Ideas need to be questioned, yes. Ideas are deserving of criticism, yes. But that comment was dangerously personal.
When, in SIN WINS, you said:

He challenges the idea that Jesus died to save us from God. He says that the very idea that the biblical God could send anyone to eternal punishment is only one of a string of absurdities which sane non-Christians reject.”

you mistakenly infer that he answers the questions in that video in a Universalist way. You are attributing ideas to someone brave enough to ask the questions that are on so many young Christians minds today. Did it even cross your mind that this book, Love Wins, is in response to many young congregants who express these sentiments? That he wishes to use universalism as an epistemology as a teaching moment about what God’s message really is? That he is setting out to show many modern Evangelicals that they have forced a false dichotomy resulting in Universalism because they have made Hell and damnation too central a theme in their own epistemologies? You are assuming the worst, when we have no good evidence to do it.
You hold a doctorate. I assume, and correct me if I am wrong, that you are aware of the rhetorical device. That someone might ask a question that they intend to answer with facts and logic is what we call a priming question. They take the tack of assuming an interested third party’s questions and asking them in advance. It is a form of persuasion. It is an extension of the rhetorical concept of dissoi logoi, which has been a commonplace device for centuries. That you argued against this interpretation in ignorance of the totality of fact is, to my mind, inexcusable-both as a “doctor” and as an educator.
What is the logical extension of the “witch-hunt” you and others are perpetrating- what is “caught and taught” by people on the sidelines? It is that questioning is wrong. It is that thoughtful criticism of your own beliefs is unacceptable. It is that there are some things that are off-limits, that we shouldn’t try to biblically disprove, because they shouldn’t be expressed in the first place. It is that doctrine is not subject to biblical argument or reproof- to use your own words- it is non-negotiable.

If doctrine is not explicitly biblical- if it is eisegetical-if it is there to square our personal opinions and experiences with scripture…..then it is open to criticism and re-examination. I don’t care if that doctrine is Universalism, Justification, Free Will… whatever. Unless it is in black and white -over and over -that it is contrary to the word and spirit of the scriptures, it is always open to discussion- it is always subject to a well developed argument.
4. You, Larry Dixon, have nothing to be sorry for, at least as it relates to my apostasy. I’m quite content with my present situation. I’m also not poking fun at Evangelicals. I’m arguing logically, I believe, that Evangelicals need to take a very close look at what this issue projects and understand the gravity of their position. I believe this is a teaching moment, on many levels, for the Evangelical movement. You are surrounded by possibility- and with every misstep another possibility removes itself. You can take this seriously without abandoning logic for emotion.

George Waye

Since I am the friend who is publishing a book soon…I will add another penny. 😀

First let me make it clear that I really dislike labels, and though many will call my book a pro stance on universalism, that might not be a fair assessment. Universalism can mean so many different things to different people, and I don’t think I (or my message) fit into any clear cut mold.

I think that Rob Bell enjoys being controversial but not just for the sake of it. I think he is very passionate about calling people out to question and think, and I believe it gives him great joy to do so. I’d be willing to bet that he hasn’t had one moment of feeling put out or troubled by all the press and premature judgments (not to mention what it’s doing for his book sales). I imagine he loves what it is doing to get thoughtful people questioning and researching his position, and calling them out to dig deeper, go further than they have been able to before.

So much of the the “evangelical padded cell” is the power they have wielded over people by keeping them locked up in a place of “not knowing.” If you don’t know there are alternative views (views that make more sense of God’s character and Scripture than what you already know), then you won’t question what you are being taught in church. You many never know that Christianity has edited out a significant portion of it’s own voice of the past.

A prime example to me of this is the book by Hannah Whitall Smith, “The Unselfishness of God.” This is a book Hannah (a beloved turn of the 19th century author, often quoted from the pulpit) wrote on her discovery of the redemptive plan of God for every person who ever lived, or His plan of Universal Reconciliation. When Christian publishers got a hold of this book at some point, they cut out three primary chapters that spell out her discovery, one chapter even titled after the book. They edited out Hannah’s real message and testimony, and made the book fit for orthodox Christian audiences.

When I first learned this a couple years ago, I was outraged. Hannah has been one of my own favorite authors for over 20 years, yet I only knew part of her voice. The rest had been safely edited to keep me in line. This is what Christianity stands for to me now—smothering out people’s ability to think, to reason, to decide for themselves. Hannah is but one of oh so many such examples of how I—how we all—have been controlled to perceive things a certain way. The modern translation of the Bible is, without a doubt, the greatest example.

George, you said it so succinctly.

If Bell just addresses Universalism from a traditional evangelic rebuke, or if he comes “out of the closet” as a full blown Universalist, it really doesn’t matter. What DeYoung, and Dixon, Taylor and Piper want you to know is that you are not even allowed to ask the questions. [They don’t want you to] hear other points of view, or listen to uncomfortable questions, or consider someone else’s arguments.

Thank you for this post, George. It needs to be said. At times I have been so angry for how I have been deceived and controlled, but I am coming to terms with it in that 1. It is part of who I am becoming, and 2. I will be able to help others who want to be helped.

Oh yeah, and 3. Good can come from evil. 😉

Great job as usual!

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