The first issue is whether Bell a universalist. A universalist is a person who believes that all people are saved in the end. In the Christian perspective, this can take the approach that the blood of Jesus is for all humanity, whether they accept it or not. Bell clearly answers, "No." He is not a universalist.
But here is what Bell appears to be teaching.
He is a person that will accept a universalist as a brother or sister in Christ.
So the second issue is whether a universalist can be right with God. Can a person be off on this issue and still have a relationship with Jesus? In the interview, Bell was clear. Our choices in this life are extremely relevant when we die, but he claims there is room in the Christian tradition for universalists. He is not a universalist but will not condemn those who are.
For some reason, people can't separate the first issue from the second. If Bell is going to be condemned for anything, it would be for accepting universalists as brothers and sisters in Jesus. Maybe the issues shouldn't be separated because they might be equal "heresies." Let's look at it.
It is similar to the baptism issue in Church of Christ/Christian Church circles. For some it is an issue of division. For most, it is not. I fall into the it is not an issue of division camp. I accept people as brothers and sisters in Jesus if they show fruit yet have not been baptized. This does not stop me from teaching believer's baptism and its importance to all people who claim to be followers of Jesus. Bell seems to be taking a similar approach with universalism.
The pickle Bell finds himself in is that the anti-Bellers want him to defend being a universalist when he is isn't one. Due to this unfair situation, his answers appear weak because he is not defending what they have already concluded that he believes, universalism. What he defended through the interview was that people can be universalists and still be Christians. Again, I will have to wait for my copy of the book that is scheduled to arrive today. I am just going off of the interviews and publisher's hype. But I bet Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived won't even touch on Universalism. That subject was what the neo-reformed started attacking Bell on and Bashir went with it, but I wouldn't be surprised if the book doesn't even go there.
At the core, Bell is fighting for a principle that we, as Christian Church/Church of Christers, hold dear although we have a historical tendency to ignore. There is only a minimal set of essentials. It's not just our tradition. The phrase "In essentials, unity. In opinions, liberty. In all things, love" goes back throughout church history and is not exclusive to our movement, but for a systematic theologian, that idea can be frustrating. For them, all parts of a system of theology are important. A systematic theologian develops a grand, comprehensive belief system that reaches the point where all teachings must be adhered to on all points in order for it to make sense. It is like a house of cards. You cannot just take one card out and have the house; it all crumbles because they were all constructed together depending on one another. That is the way doctrine works in systematic theology. It all builds together and the more irrelevant teachings must be adhered to because a few relevant teachings along with many more irrelevant teachings have been built on top of them. Biblical theology takes a different approach. It just takes the Bible at face value and refuses to construct a house of cards. If one thought needs to be removed after further study, it is willingly removed because we don't have a whole system built using that belief. Each belief must stand on its own in Scripture.
The real Bell/Love Wins/Universalism debate should be on whether rejecting universalism is essential? Universalism goes against a few Scriptures. But I think most of us have changed views that we have held because we have been corrected by Scripture. I'm sure it will happen again some day for you and me. If we have to have perfect theology to be saved, then all of us are screwed. Where is grace in that view? Bell is not asking if universalism is right; he's asking whether it is an essential. I think that is a good question.
I accept people as brothers and sisters who clearly go against some Scriptures I hold dear. One of our core convictions at Riverside Christian Church is, "We believe in a minimal set of essentials in order to foster unity and freedom in Jesus." There are a few issues there is absolutely no budging on. Those are the essentials. But the rest can be disagreed on for the sake of unity. This is a thought that we have to always keep in check because we have this tendency to broaden the important issues until we have developed a scatterbrained systematic theology where everything is important. From our beliefs at Riverside, we have two that stand against universalism. "Forgiveness of sins and the promise of a meaningful and eternal life are available as a free gift of grace to those who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord" (John 3:16). "Jesus Christ is the one and only Son of God, who showed us how to live life to the fullest, died for our sins, and arose from the dead" (1 Corinthians 15: 1-8; John 3:16; John 10:10). Those are essentials that we won't budge on. But that does not mean that one cannot be a universalist and be saved. A universalist, despite believing otherwise, can only be saved through surrendering their heart to Jesus. Many universalists have done that, but they can do that and still be wrong on universalism.
It would be teaching false teaching to teach that everyone would go to heaven. But that is not what Bell is teaching. He appears to be teaching that people who believe everyone goes to heaven can be accepted as a brother or sister if they are in a relationship with Jesus.
Churches have a tendency to make too many issues essential and that continues to divide us. Bell seems to be fighting that. To that, I say, "Keep up the good fight."
(For further study on universalism, verses universalists use are Isaiah 45:15-25, Jonah 2, Matthew 12:40, Acts 3:19-26, Romans 5:12-21, 8:18-22, 10:8-18, 14:11, Ephesians 4:8-10, Philippian 2:10-11, I Peter 3:19, 4:6. Verses against universalism are Isaiah 55:6-7, Matthew 11:28-30, Luke 18:18-30, 19:1-10, John 3:16-18, 6:37, 7:37, Acts 2:37-39, 3:19, 5:31, 17:30, Romans 2:4, 10:9-10, 2 Corinthians 5:19-20, 7:10, Ephesians 2:8-9, Hebrews 7:25, James 2:17, Revelation 3:19)
For the post that led up to this one: Rob Bell Dodged Only One Question.