Rob Bell and Liberal Christianity

In the span of about 24 hours, Rob Bell blew up on the internet last weekend. After a quote from his publisher and a personal video went online about his new book, Love Wins:A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, blogs across the country went viral claiming the man had exposed himself fully as a heretical universalist by what seems to be his argument that God sends no one to Hell. You can view the quote and the video below:

“Fans flock to his Facebook page, his NOOMA videos have been viewed by millions, and his Sunday sermons are attended by 10,000 parishioners—with a downloadable podcast reaching 50,000 more. An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.”

Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of Rob Bell. I’ve never understood (1) why he’s famous in the first place and (2) why people flip out over his teachings. However, these recent events are beginning to sway me on the latter. The guy has a weekly attendance of over 10,000 people in his church, 50,000+ who listen in through podcast, as well as a handful of books that have been published. His approach to teaching is often controversial as he questions theological beliefs about Christianity to the point where it seems he’s gone off the deep end, but reels it back at the last minute to a safe zone of discussion. What really caused me to pay attention to this new situation was a tweet by John Piper last Saturday night.

“Farewell, Rob Bell.”

I found no humor in that statement when I read it. Rather, it sobered me up to the reality of the situation. Now, I don’t want to go on a diatribe about whether or not Rob Bell is a heretic. I would prefer to read his book before doing that, but he certainly isn’t helping himself through his publisher’s synopsis or his video. And it’s dishonest to claim that he isn’t teaching just because he’s asking questions.

My attention has been on the reaction of believers to the news. On one hand, I’m encouraged that people still recognize a false gospel and are willing to speak up about it. We should not take that lightly. I don’t in any way blame John Piper or anyone else who sees a false gospel for what it is and makes it explicitly known to be wayward. On the other hand, the online reactions have revealed to me what I can only think to call Liberal Christianity.

I cannot count the times I have read articles and blogs in which John Piper and Justin Taylor have been accused of heaping secular hatred upon the Christian faith due to their “mean” statements about Rob Bell’s new book. Over and over I have seen people call them religious idolaters and the reason is always something like this:

“Just because Rob Bell doesn’t preach the same thing you do (John Piper/Justin Taylor/anyone else saying it’s a false gospel) does not make him a heretic.”

The fundamental idiocy of these claims is that they miss the point entirely. Neither of these men are considering Bell’s words heresy because they disagree with their perspectives, but rather because they don’t line up with Scripture. Here’s a solid formula for you to follow:

If someone opposes the words of man, it’s a disagreement.
If someone opposes the words of God, it’s heresy.

Theological conviction posed in opposition to false gospel DOES NOT equal religious idolatry. And silence in the face of a false gospel DOES NOT equal love. It is especially the responsibility of these men in pastoral and shepherding positions to care for the flock and protect them from wolves at all times.

Have they jumped the gun by making these comments before the book has been released? Maybe, but Bell has given us plenty of reason to doubt this.

The evident grace is that it has opened people up to questions about Heaven and Hell. Thank God for that. But the Truth of Scripture is too precious to be used as bait on a string. Questioning such tremendously important pieces of the Christian faith without providing appropriate answers is irresponsible. Heretic or not, Rob Bell should know better.

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5 thoughts on “Rob Bell and Liberal Christianity”

  1. Collin,

    First, I want to say that the whole inter-blogosphere mess over this is alarming to me. Not because people shouldn’t espouse their heart-felt viewpoints but because of the manner in which this has been done. Watching people respond back and forth with short quibbling tweets and one paragraph comments helps me understand why the non-Christian world stigmatizes the church as dismissive so often. Is everyone responding in this manner? No. Are many? Unfortunately. The way the church handles issues of disagreement is and will continue to be immensely important in the level of receptivity the world has to our message. Paul says we should try to be “winsome” as possible in his first letter to the Corinthians:

    “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

    Unfortunately, the world isn’t receptive to people who cursively dismiss one-another’s viewpoints because they oppose “truth” (which is to say what someone believes) through dismissive and curt tweets and smug four-line paragraphs such as the ones that occurred quite often this past weekend. So, do we bow to every viewpoint and say they are equally valid? No, that is not what I am saying at all. I am saying that the world (or at least the intellectual, academic world that I live in at UT) expects people to rigorously defend their positions and thought processes. The world doesn’t live with the same standards of grace as the ones that Christ calls us to. I know that John Piper’s tweet was ultimately founded in his desire to spread what he perceives as the truth of the Gospel. Seeing it under attack and knowing that many people listen to Rob Bell he felt that it was necessary to alert others to what he perceives as false teachings. However, the tweet doesn’t build in his theological tenets into it. The world doesn’t go and look up people’s theological ideas and enter into active debate with them on the underlying premises that found their dismissal of ideas if someone doesn’t first offer them a substantive reason for doing so by offering an argument in the first place.

    How can we be winsome to this world. By offering substantive points of argumentative entry and engaging with people on their terms. If Christian doctrinal debate is going to happen in a public place like the internet, it must be done transparently and referentially by exposing the underlying thought processes and beliefs that found the ideas inherent in an argument. If we are a community of believers who truly want to glorify God in all that we do, this means this desire must spill over into the way we season our words in doctrinal debate in public spheres.

    Mr. Piper’s tweet reflected the love he has for people on his own terms. I very much doubt he meant it maliciously. He has incredible heart of Christ for this world. This is evident in work. However, this doesn’t make him above reproach or make his doctrine immune to criticism.

    In lieu of this, Mr. Piper’s tweet wasn’t winsome in the way that I see Paul defining it in the passage above. (You can disagree with my interpretation, but that is what theology is, isn’t it? Disagreements about interpretation?)

    Many blogs after the smoke settled were winsome, but his tweet wasn’t. Nor was Justin Taylor’s (the link Mr. Piper posted in his tweet) blog until he updated it.

    Second, so I don’t have to eat my words. I wanted to give you some more thoughts in responsive dialog with your blog. In a sense, I have already responded to part of the quote below, but I will add some more thoughts:

    “The fundamental idiocy of these claims is that they miss the point entirely. Neither of these men are considering Bell’s words heresy because they disagree with their perspectives, but rather because they don’t line up with Scripture. Here’s a solid formula for you to follow:

    If someone opposes the words of man, it’s a disagreement.
    If someone opposes the words of God, it’s heresy.

    Theological conviction posed in opposition to false gospel DOES NOT equal religious idolatry. And silence in the face of a false gospel DOES NOT equal love. It is especially the responsibility of these men in pastoral and shepherding positions to care for the flock and protect them from wolves at all times.”

    As is probably already clear, I think your dichotomy between “mere perspective” and the “Scripture” as being the only two ways to think about evaluating argumentative claims.

    This is because Scripture, like any other text, is inherently interpretive. Does this mean that any interpretation is valid? No. But defending the value of a claim by saying it is scriptural doesn’t help us. People need to articulate why their particular interpretation of a text is a good one and why it is worthwhile to use any text as a place to pull truth-claims in the first-place.

    Christians think the Bible is a good place to pull truth-claims from. However, not everybody agrees on how much of it is a good place to pull truth-claims from. Rob Bell gives some thoughts on this process in his book Velvet Elvis. (As a side-note, he says in it in a foot-note: “Read everything John Piper has ever written, beginning with “The Dangerous Duty of Delight.”) I should say his thought process on how scripture is to be interpreted is slightly different than Mr. Piper’s and the rest of the reformed school of theology’s perspectives on this matter but that only highlights the vast amount of different interpretive opinions over scripture available in the history of the church.

    By saying “If someone opposes the words of God, it’s heresy,” you fix one interpretation as being correct over all others by invoking the defense of God (again, this is not to say that any interpretation is a right one; only to say it is rather difficult to actually know the right interpretations of things). Not only that, you label prematurely all other view-points as being outside the grace of God.

    Perhaps Mr. Piper is right and Mr. Bell isn’t. I think you are right to say Bell is making a move to distinguish his theological viewpoints from those of Reformed Calvinism just by paying attention to his teaching-intended questions in the video even if we don’t know exactly what his opinion is (we will know more when we read the book as you say).

    Perhaps Mr. Bell is right and Mr. Piper isn’t.

    Either way, the reasons for saying one is right needs to be articulated.

    One last thought. In the recently referenced (in debates on the internet) passage about wolves Jesus says:

    Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

    I personally have seen the Spiritual fruit from both Rob Bell’s ministry and John Piper’s ministry, most notably in my friends lives and in my own life. Particularly I have seen Mr. Bell’s work help change the hearts of many of my friends. I even had a friend come to know Christ after reading through Velvet Elvis with him. Personally, my style and call to non-believers (usually atheistic/agnostic intellectual types) tends to make Rob Bell a more winsome choice to use as a talking point. Is this the function that the Spirit is using Rob Bell for? You say:

    “Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of Rob Bell. I’ve never understood (1) why he’s famous in the first place and (2) why people flip out over his teachings. However, these recent events are beginning to sway me on the latter. The guy has a weekly attendance of over 10,000 people in his church, 50,000+ who listen in through podcast, as well as a handful of books that have been published. His approach to teaching is often controversial as he questions theological beliefs about Christianity to the point where it seems he’s gone off the deep end, but reels it back at the last minute to a safe zone of discussion.”

    Perhaps you have never been a fan because you have never been his intended audience as someone with at least the seeds of a founded belief in Jesus for your entire life. Rob Bell’s ministry tends to seem out of place in traditional religious circles precisely because he is trying to reach people outside of those circles or who have been injured by those circles.

    In my opinion, Rob Bell and John Piper are vastly different parts of the body of Christ. Reducing them to simple categorical markers like “winsome” or “heretic” makes everybody lose out on the work the Spirit of Christ is doing to reform and reclaim this world back to Himself through his body in the form of John Piper and Rob Bell.

  2. Thanks for the dialogue. You raise some great points. And just so you know, I didn’t notice any serious typos 😉

    I don’t disagree with you that much of the behavior being exhibited currently towards this situation is one of quick comments lacking any support to their claims. We can thank impulsive social media for that. If someone claims that a certain point of view opposes truth, then I agree, the truth should be presented.

    The problem with backing Scripture into the corner of interpretation is that it takes away from Its full purposes. It is not simply the ABCs of the Christian faith, but the A-Z. There are certainly theological points that we should approach with an open hand (i.e. infant baptism, credo/paedo communion, etc). However, there are others that are fundamental to the faith and have not been left open to debate. The existence of hell (and heaven) belongs to the latter category.

    This is why when I read accusations of ill intent being thrown at leaders calling out the heresy of universalism (regardless of whether or not Rob Bell ascribes to it), as is their responsibility it frustrates me. Christ talks seriously and often about the existence of Hell as a place that is real and eternal. He also speaks of it as a place where souls will go forever. Matthew 13:37-43, Matthew 22:11-14, Matthew 25:45-46, and Luke 16:19-31 are all descriptors of hell as well as affirmation of it being a physical place.

    I cannot find it in me to believe that the Christian faith has been wrong about the doctrine of hell for over 2,000 years. This is not a new issue. It goes back to the very beginnings of the church. Our faith, in many ways, is not one that has been left up to simple interpretation because it was founded with Christ as the cornerstone and the Apostles as the foundation (Ephesians 2:19-21; Revelation 21:14). So if it does come to understanding interpretation, we must start here and there’s not much room for doubt on this doctrine.

    Again, I can’t confidently say Rob Bell is preaching a false gospel. This is the first time I’ve really struggled with anything he has ever said. However, if he is denying the existence of a real hell as well as a God would justly and lovingly send those who deny Him to it, he is a heretic because that’s not a denial of interpretation, it’s a denial of the truth of Scripture.

    If in the end, he really does affirm that he believes in a real hell that will not be empty, I will be very disappointed in him. It’s a sad ploy to mystify the Word of God and clothe the convictions of many in doubt just to attract attention. But I will let him speak for himself on that point once the book is released.

    The doctrine of hell is not a comfortable belief to hold. It certainly doesn’t sit well with me. But without it, we have nothing from which we need to be saved and Christ’s death on the cross was without purpose.

    Thanks for the dialogue brother. I really enjoyed reading your response and I’m thankful for the way you consider topics deeply. Love you buddy.

  3. Collin,

    I appreciate your thoughts as well as the passion with which you articulate them.

    I agree with you that there are fundamentals to the Christian faith and that these fundamentals shouldn’t be compromised. However, exactly what is fundamental and what is not fundamental is rather debatable; just look at the history of the church where these doctrinal debates have been going on for over 2000 years (I think you are misguided in saying that if we talk question the nature of hell we will be defying 2000 years of history; the church has coming up with many different answers to this question for 2000 years). I believe Scripture must play a role in the formation of the line between what is fundamental and what is not, but I disagree that scripture will always paint a consistent picture of what these fundamentals look like that we should believe. Hell is a case in point.

    I see judgment in some eternal sense as being part of the essentials. As you point out in your scripture references and your quote:

    “The doctrine of hell is not a comfortable belief to hold. It certainly doesn’t sit well with me. But without it, we have nothing from which we need to be saved and Christ’s death on the cross was without purpose,”

    judgment is in the cards for everyone. How could acting rightly in accord with the commands of God have any sort of weight to it if there weren’t consequences. However, the notions of hell, heaven, and judgment are incredibly complex. Just saying that we believe heaven, hell, and judgment are essential is not enough because it belies the complexity of the concepts that these words represent.

    I am first going to treat the individual word “hell,” aside from other words like “heaven” and “judgment” just to show how incredibly complex they are in scripture and therefore how many questions that scripture leaves open to debate concerning them. Most of the findings I am using are from my NIV new Greek/Hebrew/English Concordance.

    First, the word “hell” is never used in the old testament. Second, hell is used 14 times in the new testament (Mat 5:22; 5:29; 5:30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15; 23:33; Luke 12:5; 16:23; James 3:6; and 2Peter 2:4). The translation of the words from Aramaic to Greek (Jesus disciples writing the new Testament wrote his words in Greek but Jesus only spoke Aramaic) to English complicates these references because different words are used. Sometimes the word that was translated into English from Greek was a translation of gehenna (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gehenna) into Greek; sometimes gehenna isn’t translated into Greek; sometimes the word that is translated into the English “hell” is sheol; other times it is “hades” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheol).

    (Side point, I only widipedia to give you a quick background in these topics. If you want to give you more scholarly sources on this topic, I most certainly will do so.)

    All of these words meant slightly different things and had different connotations. Gehenna was a valley near Jerusalem often used as a trash/human refuse dump outside of Jerusalem. Exactly what Sheol is is incredibly debatable. Hades is the translation of sheol into greek, but it carries with it all kinds of Pagan influences that need to be discerned. Taken all together, these words make interpreting exactly what anyone meant when they were used even more complicated. Trying to construct a consistent picture of what “hell” is from all of them is even more complicated. Not only that, we have received views of hell that are further diluted by famous artistic renditions of it. For example, Dante’s Inferno often motivates the pictures that the word “hell” brings to our minds. Trying to use the word as if it forms a consistent picture that should then get put into the “essentials group” is overlooking vast webs of intricacies.

    So do we just say that hell’s complicated and then not try to make assertions as to what this place of judgment and torment is about? Well, no. But we can’t say that other propositions concerning it are all wrong either.

    Major questions that need to be answered:

    Is hell a spiritual/non-spatial place?

    Conversely is hell a material/spatial place?

    More interestingly in my opinion, is hell both a physical/spiritual place?
    (underlying this debate is the metaphysical question of materialism/dualism/idealism…)

    Also, is hell eternal?

    Is hell eternal in that people can leave/enter in?

    Is hell also right now? (this doesn’t necessarily deny that hell is eternal)

    Is hell a trash dump outside Jerusalem?

    Even more insoluble questions begin to arise:

    Does everyone go to hell who didn’t ever hear the name of Jesus? Aborted fetuses too?

    Doesn’t this question build into it a certain interpretation of what hell is?

    And the list goes on.

    Rob Bell might be wrong about some of his assertions about hell, but he most certainly isn’t saying it is empty (I haven’t got the book yet, but someone else has: http://www.gregboyd.org/blog/rob-bell-is-not-a-universalist-and-i-actually-read-love-wins/ ). Perhaps, asking questions might turn out to be the most productive way to talk about this. Questions have a curious way to produce real introspection that forces the hard work of searching for answers in a world that doesn’t have many firm foundations to stand on. Hopefully, many will find and accept God’s grace in the process of being humbled by these tough issues.

  4. Stefan,

    Thanks again for another thorough response.

    I suppose the only way I know how to begin is by stating that I simply don’t share most of the same interpretive concerns as the ones you listed. For me, knowing that hell is something that exists and will be populated is enough. However, there are a few interpretive points you raised that I do feel a sense of concern about.

    I won’t press the point of history any further than to say this: Bell cites Origen in backing his questioning of hell – a man who was rejected both by Rome and Orthodoxy as a heretic. It seems like an odd use of history to me.

    The eternality of hell is a point with which I do not take much issue. When I read about the way Jesus spoke of it, He impresses confidence on me that it is a destination without end – specifically in Matthew 25:31-46 (*vs. 46).

    As for the use of “gehenna,” Jesus was painting a picture of the image of hell with this term. Just as worldly descriptions of Heaven will fall short of the glory of that place, the same can be said for a description of hell. They are eternal in nature. We are not. Thus our words will fail to satisfy our desire to understand or describe fully. However, the point he was making was not that hell will be a trash dump outside of Jerusalem, but rather it will be a place of decomposition. From what I understand, the word Jesus uses when describing the destruction of hell is “appolumi.” Though it is a debated word, it is commonly understood to mean, “rendered useless.” So it’s not that with the Final Judgment the lost will be annihilated and completely disintegrated, but rather they will be rendered useless and decomposed. The physical body does this after death. It loses its beauty, its usefulness, and its ability to function. Hence the word image of maggots in the trash dumps.

    This is only one of the descriptions Jesus uses for hell, others mention many other descriptions, but the use of “gehenna” and “appolumi” give an understanding that hell will be a place in which the human soul, one that God intended to worship Him and proclaim His Glory, will be rendered completely useless for that cause. It will be devoid of joy, purpose, and hope.

    “Does everyone go to hell who didn’t ever hear the name of Jesus? Aborted fetuses too?”

    I very much sympathize with you in this concern. There does not seem to be a great answer to it, but my hope comes from the promises of Scripture that man will be without excuse on Judgment Day (Romans 1:19-21). What that means for aborted fetuses and those who have not heard Jesus’ name, I don’t know. However, the salvation of an individual does not depend upon the abilities of man, rather the gift of grace from God alone. So I have to trust that what He says about Himself is good and true even though the concerns you stated are struggles for me intellectually.

    Which brings me to my biggest point in all of this. Questions about the Christian faith, Scripture, and God Himself are not bad things. You will not hear me say that. The only way we can properly find the right answers though is through a True understanding of who God is – and that comes through Scripture. We do not understand God by defining what love, forgiveness, mercy, justice, and wrath are, among other things. We understand what love, forgiveness, mercy, justice, and wrath are by understanding who God is.

    What I can say with confidence is that all of Creation is the result of an overflow of God’s Love. He created and that Creation turned its back on Him in arrogant rebellion believing that there was something better. How did God respond to this? By pursuing us. He satisfied His wrath and displayed His perfect love by killing His Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross. This Holy God who created all and would be perfectly just in killing every single one of us right now chose instead to kill His own Son that we might know life in Him. God, Who holds the universe in His hand, Who sustains our every level of life, Who gives breath and beauty to this world each second gave His Son for us, a rebellious, arrogant creation.

    When we understand who God is, we understand who we are – wretched, wicked, evil sinners who are absolutely deserving of punishment. We have offended a Being of eternal authority, a crime with consequences of eternal nature. By His grace, He gave His Son for us, taking upon Himself our punishment. For some of us, our lives have been transformed through His grace by that saving knowledge.

    This is when it makes sense to me. Not that I understand fully everything I read in Scripture because I don’t. And that’s when questions are important. We press into those mysteries and come to see more fully the transcendent and majestic beauty of God (Proverbs 25:2). He is not afraid of questions, but without a conscious recognition of His awesomeness, the answers that are afforded in Scripture can become offensive and we define who God is by our own understanding of His character (love, forgiveness, justice, etc). We are sorely misguided when we start down this road.

    “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
    Isaiah 55:8-9

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