Controversy surrounds the release of the new Rob Bell book, Love Wins, due out on March 29 but actually released two weeks early. Forgive me if I choose to hold onto my 11.95. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite writers are those who think differently than me… those who make me squirm. Piper has made me squirm, and Francis Chan has made me think, but Bell is no Piper, unless it is the pied variety. Not trying to be smarmy or cruel. Rick Warren is correct in recently Tweeting that every moment we spend attacking one another in the Kingdom is time lost serving God. But Bell’s particular approach to the gospel seems reckless, and has generated enough talk among my congregants that jumping in with my two cents seems prudent. Then, I see where a local pastor was ‘removed’ by his church for embracing Bell’s take on the subject of hell, which in turn has drawn even more attention from Fox News, among others to all of this… so here we go with my take…
For those unfamiliar, Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, and is a well known Christian author and speaker. He is famous for his deconstruction approach to all things Christianity… Let’s tear down this monstrosity and its vestiges and see what emerges from a less “black and white” gospel… a more contemporary and socially in tune “gospel.” In case you’ve been under a rock, the current controversy mostly is generated by Love Wins‘ YouTube release trailer which teases you with vague references to Gandhi perhaps being given a get out of “hell” pass by God, even though Gandhi frequently made it clear that he did not view Christ as his Lord. I take no delight in thinking an enlightened soul like Gandhi might be in hell, or for that matter anyone else, including my worst enemy. But Bell’s view, it would seem, is that since hell is such a culturally unpopular concept, and after all, mentioned only about 12 times in the New Testament, perhaps Christians should let their Dark Ages attitudes about hell fade away. Turns out people will buy into just about anything if it is packaged articulately, sports dark framed horned rims, (the intellectual type, not the geeky type), and a shaved head. I think a soul patch might have put this book over the top. Personally, I am trying the “goatee” right now, but it just makes me look older, not smarter or more relevant.
Bell has always managed to keep at least one small toe in evangelical circles… and that is what all the fuss is about. We evangelicals tend to claim that the authority for faith and practice is an inspired Word of God. Yet, Bell has made a career out of claiming that an evangelical gospel or at least what is emerging out of evangelicalism ought to be able to engage contemporary culture, and somehow no one should have to come out of that collision too bruised. His constant references to the orthodox view of “hell” being a stumbling block to the advance of the Kingdom, and the vague allusions to a wider truth… or at least a wider admittance than “Christ alone” have been a mantra Bell wears proudly on campus and talk tours around the globe. Making the after life, and Christianity, safe… even for non-believers! Especially really cool non-believers, like Gandhi.
As I study through Acts 4-8 the most dominant and remarkable aspect of the story of that pure gospel emerging into a pagan world is how immediately and violently Authentic Christianity collided with its culture. Who knew that the truths Jesus, Stephen, Peter, Paul, James and others died for were really just relativistic inconveniences? Bet those guys feel silly now that they realize all that was necessary was for a guy like Gandhi to be enlightened, peace-seeking, and care about the poor and oppressed. Sorry, I get sarcastic when my brain hurts. And that is ultimately why I will hold onto my $11.95 in regards to Love Wins. This idea is not the result of breaking new exegetical ground… no mind bending case to be made from solid interpretation. The problem is not that I disagree with Bell’s premise though I do. We can learn much from those we disagree with… it is his approach… how he arrives at his prey. This feels like neo-universalism, left vague enough to attempt to keep that toe inside the evangelical family, and placed in the shiny wrapping of God’s amazing love, which is pretty amazing by the way.
Bell’s approach, though he would and has denied it, is really just the same old rationalized idea that Origen put forward. Motivated by an inability to rationally reconcile the concepts of Hell and God’s loving nature, Origen questioned the reality of hell, or at least the view that it was the eternal destination of the typical unredeemed soul. Bell will likely never go as far as Origen. When pushed on the subject in interviews recently, he has deflected, dodged, and generally fallen back on the retreat position of ‘our focus should be elsewhere, not on hell, but on God’s love..’ (that’s my filtered summary of what I hear). But opening the door for this dialogue to occur in the context in which it has occurred, even if it is just to sell books (as if that some how makes it better?), is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle. And we can’t eliminate the existence of uncomfortable and unpopular truths by focusing elsewhere.
Most would agree that a steady diet of “hell” talk is not the most effective way to convey the biblical Jesus to this or any generation. Most would also agree that those who seem to gleefully put hell forward as “God’s ultimate get even strategy” are frankly a little sad and tragic. The Kansas nut jobs that travel around screaming at the widows and children of deceased US Troops during their funerals come to mind. Most would agree that in the end love does indeed win, as Bell asserts, but love wins because of Calvary! Not because we managed to re-route the faith around our most unpopular stumps. Also, anyone who has heard Bell, (my main exposure is the Nooma series) knows he is a very talented communicator. His thoughts on deconstructing the established structures of 21st century Christianity, or the practice thereof, have been an important voice in a necessary dialogue. But Bell goes much further than simply pointing out our malpractice.
My opinion is the error for Bell is one of worldview. The idea that somehow if we phrase our gospel just right and present ourselves a certain way, our winsome words, especially if combined with acts of charity will sway over a cynical world. And that end will justify the means that were required. It is a formula for failure…. even if we build a crowd on that premise, will we really be building a Kingdom… Besides, it is not my Kingdom to build or his… it belongs to the King, Jesus Christ. He gets to set its parameters.
So to wrap, instead of long rambling blogs like this one, I thought John Piper had the best and most appropriate response after viewing Bell’s Love Wins book trailer… a three word Tweet, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” Far be it for me to try to decode Piper, but I suspect he was not saying farewell from the ranks of evangelicalism… that chicken flew the coop a while ago…. I suspect he was saying farewell from the ranks of relevance. And if there is another way beyond Jesus into this Kingdom, it isn’t just Rob Bell that can kiss his relevance good bye, it is all of us. Farewell, Rob Bell.
You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free!