Two Thoughts on the Rob Bell Brouhaha
Well, my ruminations got the best of me. I think there is something more to say about the Rob Bell brouhaha. Yes, even before the book comes out.
Actually two somethings. Consider this an effort to clear the underbrush so we might see the forest and trees.
Good Verse, Wrong Time
One, it needs to be stated again that this is not a Matthew 18 issue. No one is obligated to respond in private to a promotional video that has been put out in public. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matt. 18:15). Rob Bell has not sinned against Justin Taylor or John Piper. This is not a personal offense or an interpersonal squabble that should have been left in private. The general rule of thumb, supported by Matthew 18 and sanctified common sense, is we should not make a matter more public than it has to be. But by definition, YouTube videos and Vimeo clips and books and blogs are meant to be public. That’s the whole point. The Love Wins trailer was not a private email correspondence intercepted by the Reformed Gestapo. It was deliberately made public and can be commented on in public.
Look at how the apostles handled false teaching in the New Testament. There’s nothing to suggest Paul sat down to talk with Demas (2 Tim. 4:20), Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Tim. 3:17), or Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20). And even when Paul opposed Peter “to his face” he made a point to do it “before them all” (Gal. 2:11, 14). No one is required to talk to me before they criticize my books, and no one was required to call up Rob Bell before commenting on his Love Wins video.
Not Might, But Did
Two, the bigger complaint is that Justin Taylor or I or any number of bloggers and tweeters have completely jumped the gun in criticizing Bell for a yet to be released book. This would be a fair critique had we attempted to write a book review for a book we hadn’t read. But our deep dismay and the reason for issuing an urgent warning is not based on what he might say in the book. It’s based on what he did say in the video.
Here’s what Bell says after the story about Gandhi and the piece of art:
Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe or what you say or what you do or who you know or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these few?
Then there is the question behind the questions. The real question [is], “What is God like?”, because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?
This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, why would I ever want to be a part of that? See what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like. What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, beautiful, that whatever we have been told and been taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine.
The good news is that love wins.
This is not back cover copy from the publisher. This is not a promo blurb written by an intern at HarperCollins. This not what Brian McLaren gave for an endorsement. This is what Rob Bell said.
And he is saying something. Don’t think for a second the questions don’t communicate something. These are not “let’s explore together and see what the Bible says about these hard issues” kind of questions. Everyone agrees Bell is a remarkable communicator. He is not unaware of the effect of these three minutes. Words mean something and words do something. Whether the sentences end in question marks or not, the force of these sentences is to undermine—nay, to ridicule—the reality of eternal conscious punishment, the wrath of the God, and penal substitutionary atonement.
Imagine I do a video like this:
Will God save everyone? Does everyone go to heaven no matter how bad they were and no matter what they believed? Is Hitler there next to Bonhoeffer enjoying the same eternal bliss? What kind of God would that be? How would we make sense of Jesus’ strong language about hell or the chilling scenes in Revelation? Would that God still be holy and just?
And what would that do to our understanding of the gospel? Would Jesus’ death still be necessary? Would faith in him really be that important? Why would we still send out missionaries and evangelists? What would be so good about the good news if, in the end, there is no bad news? And if there is no hell, or we can’t really be sure anyone is there, why have almost all Christians in all of history believed there was such a place of eternal suffering? Have we found something that historic orthodoxy has missed all these centuries?
What if the things you’ve heard recently are not the truth about Christianity? What if the warnings in Scripture are real warnings? What if God is purer than we thought, we’re worse than we imagined, and hell is as real as the nose on your face? What if the “only way” means the only way? What if God is glorified in salvation and judgment? What if the God of love and the Father of mercies is also a righteous Judge, a holy Sovereign, and a conquering King?
Nothing but questions. Not a single indicative proposition. Yet who could think for a moment that I am not teaching something? This is not mere provocation. It is not an expression of searching inquiry or humble wrestling. My questions pack a rhetorical punch. They tell you what I think is foolish and what is wise. They suggest that some beliefs are noble and others are not. They tell you what God is like and what you should believe about him. My questions teach. And only a teacher with stunning naivete or remarkable cowardice would suggest they didn’t.
Please note, that last sentence is not about Bell. He has not stepped back from the questions saying they were only questions (maybe he does in the book, I don’t know). But some folks claim that the video cannot be critiqued because he’s only asking questions. Maybe he’s just trying to sell books? Maybe he’s just messing with us and in the book he will sound much more orthodox?
As to the former question, it doesn’t matter if it’s meant to be promotional, devotional, or confrontational, the fact is he’s teaching. And false teaching of this depth and breadth needs to be addressed. This is not a conflict of personalities or an intramural turf war. This is about the gospel–what it means, what it accomplished, and what’s at stake if we do not believe its good news.
I know many young evangelicals barely have any stomach for controversy, let alone strong words about a serious topic. But if there is no way to be simultaneously bold and humble; if there is no way to be a gentle, caring person while still speaking in clear tones about hurtful error; if there is no way to correct those who oppose sound doctrine without being a moral monster; if there’s no way to love truth and grace at the same time, then there’s no way to be a biblical Christian. Judgmentalism is a sin and Calvinists can be jerks. But not every judgment is sinful and not every truth is cruel just because Reformed people teach it.
And as to the latter question, if Bell ends up espousing a traditional view of hell, the wrath of God, and penal substitution, that would mean McLaren’s blurb was misleading, the publisher’s description was misleading, and Bell’s video was misleading. Love Wins can be the second coming of Jonathan Edwards and it still doesn’t change that what was communicated in the video was untrue to the Scriptures, inconsistent with historic orthodoxy, belittling of the cross, deceiving to unbelievers, and a tragic distortion of God’s character.
Chasing After the Wind, But Maybe Not
I realize this post will not make universalists, inclusivists, and non-Christians change their minds. But perhaps there are some Rob Bell fans who have enjoyed the Noomas and learned from the books and you aren’t quite sure what the fuss is all about. Why is everyone ragging on your favorite preacher? My exhortation is to watch the video again. Read through the words and see if they line up with the hymns you sing. See if the questions sound right next to Isaiah 53, John 3, and Revelation 20-22. Look into Gandhi’s Hinduism and see if that seems compatible with Christianity. Explore the giants of church history (e.g., Augustine, Luther, Calvin) and see what mainstream Christians have believed through the centuries. Read through some of the confessions or catechisms you may have grown up reading. Above all, search the Scriptures and see what God says. You may just conclude your old Sunday school teachers knew a thing or two.
Rob Bell is right about one thing: what you believe about heaven and hell says a lot about what you believe about God. That’s why theological error of this magnitude cannot go unchecked. The God of the Vimeo clip is not a God of wrath, not a God of eternal recompense, not a God who showed us love in sending his Son to be a propitiation for our wretched sins, not a God whose will it was to crush the Suffering Servant in an exercise of divine justice and free grace. Indeed, says Bell—even if he says it with a question—such a God could not be good.
We don’t have to guess if Bell will say something dreadfully, horribly, disgracefully wrong.
He already has.