Rob Bell and Martin Luther (and Martin Bashir, too)


In chapter 4 of Love Wins, Rob Bell argues that universalism is a legitimate stream within the historic Christian faith (see pages 106-108).

Rob’s critics argue that he overstates his case.

For example, at least one of the early church fathers cited by Rob was later branded a heretic. Though of course, this begs the question of whether history is written by the winners — and, if so, whether the “losers” (i.e. those branded as heretics) get a fair shake.

Rob’s Martin Luther quote seems to have sparked the most outrage, though. Everyone from Justin Taylor to MSNBC’s Martin Bashir accused Rob of twisting Luther’s words.

On the one hand, Rob isn’t just making this stuff up. Luther DID write a letter in which he asked, “Who would doubt God’s ability to [save people after death]?”

On the other hand, critics point to the very next line (not mentioned in Rob’s book), which says, “No one, however, can prove [God] does do this.”

The neo-Reformed read the second line and declare victory.

And so they miss the point: Luther had an opportunity to say categorically that God will not save people after death, and he refused to do so.

Luther was writing to a fellow reformer named Hans von Rechenberg who wanted to know whether anyone can be saved without faith. Luther insisted this would be impossible; otherwise God would be a liar.

But then Luther says, “It would be quite a different question whether God can impart faith to some… after death.”

In other words, when asked about salvation without faith, Luther says absolutely not.

But he’s far less dogmatic when asked whether those already dead get a second chance. At the very least, Luther doesn’t find this idea is as objectionable as the prospect of salvation without faith.

But Luther goes even further and says:

God forbid that I should limit the time of acquiring faith to the present life. In the depth of the Divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future.

Those who want to believe in a second chance after death should, like Luther, acknowledge that there’s nothing in the Bible to explicitly support this idea. But even Luther stopped short of saying it definitely won’t be the case.
And to be fair, Rob Bell stops short of saying people in hell definitely get a second chance.
Rob may have overstated his case for the historical validity of universalism, but his critics are at least equally guilty of overstating their case.

2 thoughts on “Rob Bell and Martin Luther (and Martin Bashir, too)

  1. Which Afterlife?

    In his new book “Love Wins” Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from “the greatest achievement in life,” my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote “In God we all meet.”

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  2. I understood Luther’s letter to be discussing salvation after death WITHOUT faith. And Luther didn’t believe a faithless salvation was possible but agreed that God was able if He was willing. But, Luther clearly believed salvation was possible after death should the errant soul believe.

    So the difference between Rob and Luther is:

    After death faith is possible (Rob), required (Luther). Both agree that post death salvation is allowed.

    I reviewed chapter 4 also but wrote an additional article on the Luther quote: http://nowthinkaboutit.com/2012/02/carl-trueman-on-bells-reference-to-luther/

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