Read the Book, People: My commentary on Rob Bell

From 2007 to 2010, LifeWay Christian Stores (the bookstore of the Southern Baptist Convention) put warning labels on books written by authors like Rob Bell.  The labels said that these books should be "read with discernment" (because, obviously, other books can be read with blind acceptance).  The reason given on these warnings labels was that the author "may have espoused thoughts, ideas, or concepts that could be considered inconsistent with historical evangelical theology."

Rob Bell just published a controversial new book called Love Wins.

Here's the big question:  Does the book represent views that are inconsistent with historical evangelical theology?


Does the book represent views that are inconsistent with the Bible?


Key difference.

I'm told that some pastors have gotten fired for entering this fray.  One Methodist pastor says he was fired for recommending that people read Bell's book.  So you need know is that I'm supposedly risking my job by reading and responding to a controversial book that few opponents have read and in which Rob Bell says nothing new in terms of the history of theology.  What a farce this whole thing has become.

If you need to catch up, I hesitatingly would point you to the TIME magazine article where Rob's book is featured.  It will explain the controversy, but I hesitate because even the title of the article is a clear attempt to get ratings and already gets it wrong: "What if Hell Doesn't Exist?"  Rob's book is about much more than hell, with only one chapter dedicated to the subject.  Strangely, "hell" has gotten the most press.  Rob raises just as many questions about traditional views of heaven.  But apparently, the most important thing to Rob's opponents is that their understanding of hell stays in tact.

I'm not going to summarize or "give away" this book.  I'm tired of the hot air from people who haven't read it.  Go read the book.  God is a little too much like a power-hungry, low-self esteem bully if He's threatened by your reading different perspectives.  But I will offer some straight answers to some straight questions:

Does Rob Bell say that hell isn't real?  NO.  He challenges the modern notions of hell, and does so using the Bible, but he never says or suggests that it's not a very real thing.

Is Rob Bell a universalist?  NO.  He makes it very clear multiple times in his book that people can choose hell.  As he has rightly pointed out in interviews, universalism takes away human choice.  Or, as I like to say it, universalism is just Calvinism with one less destination.

In fact, before I move on, let me just allow Rob Bell to speak for himself in this awesome 40-second response he gave:

Two full disclosures:  1) I like Rob Bell.  I have read all his books and watched all his videos, and more often than not, I connect with what he says and how he thinks.  2) I'm not his press agent, and I will say that Love Wins is not his best piece of writing and that I did find some things in there to be a stretch.  I did not fully agree with his perspective in the book.  But what I'm more interested in is this fascinating phenomenon of Christian outcry against a book with the title Love Wins and this reaction to a challenge of their thinking.  For Christians to read in their Bible verses like, "God is love," and then become irate with charges of heresy against a book that says "love wins" is comical at best and troubling at worst.  Even a reviewer for Christianity Today, a conservative evangelical publication, applauded Bell for the assertion that "love wins."  And even a professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary who wrote Christ Alone: An evangelical response to Rob Bell's Love Wins, says that he likes and respects Rob Bell and thinks he raises very important questions.

Here are the two major things that have gotten Rob Bell in trouble.

1) He asks questions that millions of Christians are thinking but are afraid to ask in public (because they are afraid of how their families, friends and pastors will react...fears that are apparently founded).  In this day and age, we come across people of other religions every day.  They're often average people like us.  They're often  loving, generous and sincere people.  More and more Christians, especially young ones, are becoming less and less able to accept the idea that such people will suffer forever for not believing the right things.  It eats away at any sense of justice we have.  Millions are thinking and asking, and many have been met with a response that more or less says, "You can't question this."  Rob Bell voices this and many other questions that come to mind:  Is there an age of accountability before which no one is consigned to hell?  If so, wouldn't it be more merciful to kill children before they grow up and not take the risk??  What if a "missionary gets a flat tire" (that is, what about people who never hear about Jesus)?  What about people who grew up with a dysfunctional, judgmental view of Christianity and have simply rejected the only version they know?  What about people who act and live the way Jesus told us to but just can't intellectually bring themselves to believe in the supernatural?  In fact, the entire first chapter is almost completely filled with questions....questions millions are asking.

2) He very honestly deals what the Bible actually says - and doesn't say - about heaven and hell.  Even then, he only does a partial job of it, leaving out some important related concepts.  What DOES the Bible say? Answering this question requires some in-depth analysis that not everyone may be interested in, so I have reserved this for a separate blog post.

But I'd like to raise my own third point that Rob doesn't really get to in the book.  Some people say they ardently believe in hell...but do they?

In traditional Christian doctrine, the most prominent version of hell is a place of eternal, conscious torment for those who did not believe in Jesus during their earthly life.  Eternal, conscious torment with no way out.  First of all, we need to stop and realize what a terrifying, awful thing that image is.  People have undergone physical torture and not lasted a full minute.  We're talking about something that's worse than that and lasts forever?

I'm calling foul; I don't think people actually believe this.  Our priorities and behavior reveal what we actually believe, regardless of what we say.  If I say I believe a chair will hold me up but I won't sit in it, that's pretty good evidence that I don't actually believe it.  And people who are the most ardent about their belief in a place of eternal, conscious torment can often be found living their lives much in the same way as everyone else.  They're doing house projects, they're going to baseball games, they're taking vacations.  But if you actually believed in a place of eternal, conscious torment for any non-Christian, you would spend every waking hour - you might even use manipulation - to keep your friends and family out of eternal, conscious torment.  An online reviewer very aptly articulated it this way:
"It is easy to speak of all this theoretically, but our lifestyles give us away. If we really believed in the 'hell of Jonathan Edwards,' how could we live like we do knowing that our neighbors and millions of people we know and don't know will suffer burning napalm for eternity? Wouldn't every waking minute be devoted to 'pulling them back from the brink?' Wouldn't every spare dime above our bare bones needs for simple existence be given for the purpose of "saving the lost" before they are thrown into torment forever? I dare say that a pastor, or seminary professor will not be so quick to comfort a family member, who has lost a rebellious 14 year old daughter before she 'accepted Jesus into her heart,' with the words that a God of unchanging love is demonstrating His goodness to your deceased child right now by allowing her to be tormented in the flames of hell...and this demonstration of love will continue on forever."
So is it just our modern sensibilities that have led some to question traditional doctrines and be O.K. with the kinds of questions that Rob Bell raises?  No, there's another very important thing that raises all kinds of questions about how we think today.

The Bible. 

That's what makes the response to this so amazing.  Pastors have gotten into trouble for wrestling with the text as it is instead of how we've interpreted it?  Pastors have found themselves on the firing line for leaving space for the questions many people are asking?  Pastors have been terminated for merely suggesting that people should read a book before criticizing it?  I actually find it hard to believe.  I've told myself that some of these pastors must have gone about it in the wrong way or caused more controversy than needed.  But maybe not.  Maybe some churches really are that isolated and anti-intellectual.  If any other organziation or group in society behaved that way, they would be closing their doors within the year.  But because it's religion, it gets a pass, and massive amounts of money are pumped into individuals and organizations that are on a mission to squelch anyone who is so much as rumored to have challenged "historical evangelical theology."  Critics charge them with doing so out of a concern for modern sensibilities, but they are actually heavily engaged with the Bible and challenge modern thought on the basis of the Bible.

If you're up for an in-depth Bible study and a look at what the Bible does and does not say about hell, see my corresponding post entitled "Where's the Fire?:  A survey of the concept of hell in the Bible."

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