Sunday, February 27, 2011

Measuring Our Response to Rob Bell

After Justin Taylor shared his post "Rob Bell: Universalist?", I was immediately ready to throw the good book at Bell. Believe me; I'm as eager as the next guy to condemn Rob Bell for being a false teacher - if, in fact, that is what he is.

The problem, as I see it, is that while at first I saw no ambiguity in the book's blurb (which you can read at JT's blog), and while at first I saw no ambiguity in the video that accompanies the blurb, I have since changed my mind.

You see, the only definitive statement I can find from Bell in all of this is that:
  • "[A] loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering."
If this were a heresy trial, I'm not sure that the verdict would be guilty, simply based on this one line. The problem with hanging our hat on this sentence is that Bell may, in the end, be taking the line that "God isn't sending people to Hell - their sin is."

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

Someone might argue that his rhetorical flourish regarding Ghandi's presence in Hell is likewise an indicator that he is outright denying the biblical teaching on Hell. The problem is, there's still wiggle-room. He might be questioning the presumptuousness regarding one's attitude toward the eternal fate of another when, in fact, we don't really know. As an example of the type of wiggle-room that might be going on: "You don't know about Ghandi's soul; maybe he was saved before he was assassinated" or something like that.

The video itself certainly looks definitive at first glance. But it is composed of 95% rhetorical questions. Typical Emergent stuff - you know, questions are the only real answers (blah blah blah). Anyway, it has certainly been presented to make Bell look like he denies that any are damned; but there are a lot of possibilities here about what is really going on. He could be an annihilationist (which we must grant is awful, but still not the same thing as universalism). He could be a pluralist (i.e. John Hick). He could have some sort of Barthian universalism in mind ("God's 'yes' is stronger than man's 'no.' "). He could just straight up believe that Jesus died for every man, and that thus every man will be saved (true universalism). And of course, there are a host of other horrifying possibilities as well. The possibilities are so varied that I would be embarassed to go on record about this until we know more, although the second we know what is really being taught, we can get to work picking apart, critiquing, and condemning, if necessary.

Part of my reaction here is that I have many friends who are diehard Rob Bell fans - they listen to all of his sermons and read his books. I asked them point blank what they have heard the man teach on the subject of Hell. They told me that he has taught on heaven and hell before and that he most definitely did not teach from a universalist perspective, so all of this is very surprising to them. As such, this book would represent a watershed moment in Bell's constant theological development. Considering that universalism is not in line with his past teachings on the subject, I think that charity may be the best approach until we know what sort of theology he's actually going to be presenting.

It may be that everything is as it seems, and Rob Bell has, in fact, outed himself and abandoned the faith once delivered. But I am one of those voices who is patient enough to wait a month and see what's really going on. The alternative is, he ends up not being a universalist, based on the possible loopholes I just presented, and we Calvinists and Reformed-types end up looking like the caricature that has been created for us - judgmental, knee-jerk, irrationally paranoid and the like. I don't think those caricatures are fair or accurate, but we could be playing right into them if we aren't measured and cautious in our response to Bell - especially considering that this is a life-or-death, heaven-or-hell issue. Literally.

At the end, the point of this post is simply: it may be wise to wait until Rob Bell's new book comes out and we read it before we consign him to the Hell he might be denying.


  1. Hm, I was referred here by a friend and was really surprised at your attitude towards moments within Christ's Bride "Typical Emergent stuff - you know, questions are the only real answers (blah blah blah)"...God's working there brother, don't be speaking against it. I also think that perhaps we should reserve all judgement until God judges at the end of all things, cause hey, who are we to truely know if Bell is wrong or not. Maybe we are the ones with the flawed theology, maybe We Reformed need to be reformed. Just a thought.

  2. Adam,

    I agree that Bell has left himself loopholes, and Reformed Christians should be careful and compassionate when responding to the video posted. However, I still believe the video, and that rhetorical strain of preaching, is harmful. Hiding truth in ambiguity in order to encourage growth is still hiding truth.

    So, either Mr. Bell is a universalist, or he is disguising truth. If it's the latter, why is he doing that? At worst, it's a gimmick to sell books. At best, he's doing it in the hope of bringing someone to the truth through a word-game of some sort. The risk of failure is too high.

    If we believe the gospel, we should not hide the truth in games or rhetoric. We should offer it freely and plainly. Rob Bell is clearly not doing that.

  3. I'm absolutely with you, Jonathan. In fact, that possibility that there is deception going on for the purpose of piquing interest is to me almost as troubling an option. So yeah, there are two possibilities: 1) He's a universalist; 2) There is a concerted effort to make it appear that he's a universalist.

    Neither of these are happy choices.

  4. Hey Adam,

    I love the reminder that the world is watching. And I love that you've taken the stance that you have.

    I happen to be one of those people who listen to Rob's sermons regularly. I also happen to consider myself in the Reformed camp and a Calvinist. I'm glad that when Christians sense a threat to doctrine and Truth, there are leaders who will stand up and protect their flock. I think that is right, I think that's the example Paul set for us, and I'm glad there are Christians who want to do it with the restraint that you have shown.

    While I think that the response to a potential false teacher is rightly-motivated, given someone with such influence, I think the conversation has missed the point.
    In my opinion, I do not think that Rob believes "[A] loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering." I do not think he was intending to defend Ghandi's place in heaven or hell. And I would argue that as some are shocked at the idea that he would teach such things, and as others retort that he is only asking questions, I think he's doing something else.

    I have a number of close friends whose stories I've had the honor of listening to. In many of their stories, they have sat down and told me how the "Church" has hurt them, and how they could never believe in God. Of course, these are my non-believing friends for the most part - along with a few broken-hearted Christians too. One particular friend of mine told me this: "I'm Korean and it really bugs me to think that for thousands of years, my ancestors had been going to Hell because the Western Christian missionaries hadn't come to my country yet. Why does God have to require us to believe in a foreign set of rules in order to get to Heaven? If Christians keep insisting that's truth, that sounds terrible to believe in. Why should I believe all of these people are in Hell if that means I get to go to Heaven?"

    It was such an honest, painful question - one that has stuck with me.

    I think Rob Bell made this video for my friends like her. I think he wrote this book for Christians (like me) who struggle with these questions too.

    One of my mentors once said, "Great communication isn't when you are heard. Great communication is when the audience feels understood. Great communication is being able to explain someone's feelings better than they could."
    I think Rob Bell is attaching a voice to so many of those outside of the Church who want their lives to be defined by love - and don't see Christianity as the way to define their life by love. I think what he's doing is stepping away from a pulpit, and meeting my friend where she's at. I think he's trying to tell the watching world, "Hey, I've heard your questions. And it's not just that you have this theological fill-in-the-blank you need before joining up - I feel your wrestling. I understand that the question behind the theology is actually about the kind of person God is. I've heard your question. This book is for you."

    I don't think he's aiming this towards Reformed Christians who already know their theology. I think he's being a missionary to a culture where people's god is Loving Embrace - and not the God described in Scripture and lived out by Jesus. I think he's intentionally and creatively speaking their language - because my friends will watch this video and think, "Yeah, those are exactly the questions and oppositions I have against the so-called-gospel Christians spout at me."

  5. I think Rob is giving them a voice. I don't think he's legitimizing their stance theologically at all. I don't think he's saying that it's ok to have these questions unanswered and still be saved in the end. Very very far from it. I think he wrote this book because those questions, at least for my friends, usually ends in the conclusion of, "Well, I don't know. So I'd rather just not believe in that kind of God. I'd rather not believe in Jesus then. I'll get on with my day."
    Rob made a point of laying out these questions - and then does the right next step: he says that the Gospel has the answer. A "surprising and beautiful" answer.

    From all of the sermons I've heard from Rob Bell, here's what I think the book will be about. It's going to start with what's expressed in the video. It's going to ask blasphemous questions about the character of God because those are exactly the questions non-believers have about God. It's going to put God on trial because the world sees the Problem of Evil and has no answer. A few (hopefully more) non-believers will read those sections and say, "YES! I've been wondering those same things!"
    And then he's going to start slowly painting a picture of the Gospel that we Reformed would be proud of. He's going to take the question of sending people to Hell and answer that not from a universalist point of view, but from a fellow human who struggles with that question. He's not going to tell a non-Christian, "Hey, well here's what Scripture says and that's that." He's going to affirm their question and then point to Romans 5:8. He's going to show that throughout the Scripture, God has pursued us in our sin. He's going to paint a picture that the primary story of God is not fire and brimstone, but of love and grace that saves us from sin. "Love Wins" because Jesus conquered the grave, death, and sin. "Love Wins" because in the end, Jesus brings us home with Him and the party is at His place.

    I don't know how he will exactly answer the question, "Why did God have to create a universe where the default was for everyone to go to Hell unless criteria X was fulfilled?" Yes, there's the Reformed answer to that - but I doubt that's what he has in mind. At least, not in the language we're all used to.


    So, my opinion is that Rob is not trying to push forth a universalist theology. And he is not trying to disguise truth.
    If we could take one step back and entertain the possibility that Rob is not acting as teacher, but as missionary, maybe it'll cast a different light on him. Maybe we'll allow the possibility that he is not setting down his doctrine or theology with the video/book. Maybe he's trying to be a Hudson Taylor to a culture that is drowning in these questions.

    If he is, my Korean friend would watch this video - and if God has chosen to soften her heart at this point in time - she'd respond, "Yeah, I'd read that book." And perhaps, one more could be added to the harvest and that she would come to know the surpassing love of Jesus and the power of His resurrection. And it wouldn't have been because of Rob Bell's clever cultural contextualization. It'll be because the Spirit decided to use a sinful and broken man like Rob to bring her closer to Him.

    Do me a favor. Watch the video again, but as soon as Rob asks, "Ghandi's in Hell?" pretend that he's one of our friends who has heard the Gospel story but still chooses not to believe. Pretend it's that guy asking these questions and not Rob.

  6. Last thoughts. No, Rob is not preaching the Gospel in this video. Not because he is preaching a false one, but because if the Gospel is our bread and wine, this video is pulling the chair out for someone to come to the table. Not every preacher preaches the Gospel with a random 3 minute snapshot of their life. He didn't presume to lay out what the Gospel was in this video, so Jonathan, please don't dock him for that. I think as you said, he wants to offer the Gospel plainly and freely, but the problem is that some Christians have mistakenly thought that "Reality check: Ghandi's in Hell" was a good enough substitute for the Gospel. It isn't.

    Let's value the journey of our non-believing friends and let's value the possibility that one of our human, sinful brothers in Christ is trying to do what he can to help people hear the good news. Let's say our prayer for Rob Bell and then actually move on to praying for those who need it much more than he does. I feel like of all the places where this conversation is taking place, at least the people who agree with this one post can get on board with that.

    As for me, I'll be praying for my friends. God bless.

  7. Peter, I appreciate the time you put into this. As someone who has previous exposure to Bell's teachings, I highly value what you've had to say here. We can only hope that it is as you are suggesting. At this point, for me, the possibilities seem so varied that reading the book (but a public statement from Bell to clear things up would be nice) may be the only way of getting clarity.

    The scenario you are outlining is to my mind a very real possibility, as far as I'm concerned. Looking at the book as a missionary work instead of as a polemical work may make all the difference. Let's hope.

  8. Ken Silva at Apprising Ministries has begun a series of posts reviewing his advance copy of the book. Silva demonstrates that Bell teaches universal reconciliation. In other words, unbelievers will go to hell, just not forever. In the end, they'll be reconciled to God. In other words, in the end, everyone will be saved, even those who reject Jesus in this life. Just a variation of the theme of universalism.


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