In 2003, I was a college student in Romania in need of some encouragement from pastors and teachers back in the U.S. An American pastor friend of mine recommended I listen to the preaching of two pastors: Rob Bell and James MacDonald. (Amazing that just eight years ago the ministries of these two men were seen as complementing each another!)

I downloaded dozens of Rob's sermons from his early years at Mars Hill. I liked his preaching style and enjoyed his sermons from Leviticus. His most memorable message, "The Goat Has Left the Building," ended with a powerful illustration of the truth that Christ bears our sins.

Two years later, I was less impressed with Rob's teaching. I read Velvet Elvis as charitably as I could, but I was concerned by some of Rob's affirmations. Rob likes to ask questions that appear to lead in one direction; he then pulls back and says something more akin to Christian teaching. (The "virgin birth" section, for example.)

The last time I listened to a Rob Bell sermon was in 2006. Rob had come under criticism because some were saying he denied that Jesus is the only way to God. Answering the criticism, Rob told his congregation: Let me set the record straight. Jesus is our only way. After that, I tuned out. "Jesus is our only way?" That was Rob's way of having his cake and eating it too. He sidestepped the question in a way designed to deflect criticism, but leave the door open for pluralism.

Is Bell a Universalist?

In 2008, I read The God Who Smokes: Scandalous Meditation on Faith by Timothy StonerIn the book, Tim recounts a conversation with some friends about Rob's view of people without Christ:

"Okay," I said, "I get that it is important to listen to other 'stories.' I get it that other points of view need to be given dignity. And I agree. But" - and here I took a breath for dramatic effect - "at the end of the day, is Rob saying that there are other stories that can lead to God? Is he just creatively repeating that old line from the 1900's that led to the split between liberals and fundamentalists? Does he believe, down deep, that those who sincerely follow other roads, who pursue justice and compassion, even though they reject Jesus, will be saved?"