My Time at the Rob Bell’s Love Wins Event at the NYC Ethical Society

Monday night, my wife, Susan and good friend Tim Nye and I went in the city to see Rob Bell talk about his new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell And the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  If you have little/no idea what I am talking about, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding this book as many have been eager to label Rob a universalist. Here’s a link to a previous post to fill you in.

It was streamed live and you can watch it right now (every so often some great-looking people show up in the crowd too :)

Let me describe the vibe of the room – it was buzzing and once again it reminded  me of that line “Rob Bell is a rock star in the evangelical world”. Don’t take it  out on Bell, it was similar to that when we went see NT Wright at Wheaton too  and that crowd was a bit older, established, educated even, etc.  Indeed the room  was filled with many appreciators of Rob. I wondered beforehand how many  critics were there given the firestorm but even during the Q&A, I didn’t get the  sense that many had come. I thought all the questions were honest (though they  may not have been great) but certainly appropriate for what everyday people are  thinking like, “Will God force an atheist into heaven?”  And for those  wondering, the questions were selected randomly.

That said, the room was a bit frustrated too. We may have laughed at the right moments, we may have all bought the book and got it signed by Rob (yep we did) but we were all hoping at some point that we could stop shrugging our shoulders. There were sighs that hoped some of the answers would start coming together and he’d offer a concise Cliff Notes summary of it. I haven’t got far in the book yet but it will be interesting to see how I feel about that after finishing it.

To some extent, we expected that. Rob has never been super-direct and while his answers are not quite as entertainingly brilliant as say, Bob Dylan, they always offered insight. When he was being interviewed by Lisa Miller (who writes for Newsweek), she asked outright, “Are you a universalist?” He laughed a little and said “No” and mentioned especially not in the sense that a gigantic arm was going to swoop up everyone (again you can watch for yourself for the exact lines).

Soon after he was asked another direct question (around the 28 minute mark) that was something to the effect of “Coming from a Jewish family, we would find it offensive for you to imply that our salvation has to come from Jesus.” I seriously wonder if anyone in evangelicalism could have had a better a Christian answer and not come across as offensive to her. It was probably my favorite moment of the night. He refereed to Moses striking the rock and providing water for the Israelites (Numbers 20) and said later, Paul describes the water from this rock as Christ (I Cor. 10). Paul does not offer much commentary there but the implication is that God has always been rescuing people. He mentions that it’s good for us to be generous when talking about such things, Jesus comes and makes the Torah speak, shows compassion, love, etc. concluding that Jesus is a paradox that we have been wrestling with for thousands of years. She seemed sincerely satisfied with that answer and frankly, I am not sure many other evangelicals could have done better in the sense of serving the asker and honoring the Lord.  Some may dismiss that as tightrope walking, others may see it as a powerful and truthful moment.

As the night continued, I saw two things. One was Rob’s pastoral heart. I believe he really cares more about people than theology (not a bad position for a pastor) and it started making more sense that this book is not theological but more pastoral (like all his other ones.  Also, know that I am not implying that he does not care about theology, clearly he does, but people seem to matter more to him. Which is a bit of a relief because NT Wright’s Surprised By Hope seems to fill that void for many of us). Two, is that I appreciated Rob’s insistence that no one really knows what’s going to happen in the next life but we trust that God is loving and just. There was a lot of talk on the Biblical character of God and you cannot blame someone who is arguing for a big, generous, loving God. He supported free will, spoke of sin and evil, spoke of the here and now of heaven and hell (I understand that he does believe that they are places in the afterlife but not in a traditional evangelical sense. This is similar to many now and many throughout church history as well) and he spoke of how he was evangelical and orthodox to his bones which I hope people took more as a profession than a cool sound byte.

Obviously so much more to say, I’ll probably watch the interview again at some point but I am more interested in the fruit of this conversation and this is not the only conversation we need to have. I know these conversations are exhausting for some and others find them senseless. I feel that they are very much worth talking about and while I probably won’t agree or understand everything that Rob is saying in this interview and in his book, I think these conversations have the potential to be very edifying for the church. If you want to read with me, grab a copy, read a bit and let’s grab a drink. Let me know.

Watch the livestream here.

And there’s a lot out there to read, here’s the Christian Post article, “Rob Bell Denies Being a Universalist”.


  1. “I seriously wonder if anyone in evangelicalism could have had a better a Christian answer and not come across as offensive to her. It was probably my favorite moment of the night.”

    I wholeheartedly agree. That moment was amazing. I gasped a bit and held my breath when she asked that… I was like “oh crap, she went there, what’s he gonna say?”

    And he handled it SO well, it was amazing.

    Looking forward to reading the book soon.

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