On Tuesday Rob Bell celebrated the release of the paperback version of his missive on universal salvation. In honor of that celebration I thought I would re-post my review and response. It’s been reviewed and downloaded tens of thousands of times, and for a while it was on google’s front page for “love wins” searches. I’m pleased with my review and pleased with its reception, both positive and negative. I hope it helps you wade through the important issues raised in this distracting, damaging book.
A word of warning: this post is nearly 7,500 words. It is more than double what I expected. Because I wanted to do justice to the ideas in the book and because I think these issues are just too important to ignore without an adequate response, I spent time doing this right. I also realize I’m supposed to be fasting from blogging, but I’ve been encouraged to give voice to a response now, because these issues are just too important.
I hope it is helpful as you engage the issues this book raises. Here is a physical copy if it is easier to read and digest: love_wins_response.pdf.
This is a distracting book.
It’s distracting in the way Rob frames the discussion.
It’s distracting in the way Rob uses Scripture.
It’s distracting in the way Rob talks about the Christian faith, which is a deeper conversation than universalism.
Ultimately, it’s distracting in the way Rob trades the gospel of Jesus Christ for something else.
Before I explain, let me share—and actually answer several people who’ve asked—why I have a so-called “dog in this fight.”
You see I live in Grand Rapids, MI, about 5 miles from where Rob Bell lives in East Grand Rapids and 11 miles from his church, Mars Hill. I remember when Mars Hill started back in 1999 and the ensuing controversy in 2001 when they made the decision to ordain women—which I believe was the right one, by the way. I attended the church off and on while on break from university and enjoyed the different atmosphere—both worship and teaching—it brought to the Grand Rapids area Church.
In 2005, I read Velvet Elvis shortly after it came out, a book that was extremely influential at the time during my own personal crisis of faith while in Washington, D.C.. Our family owns every single nooma, having watched most and used many of them in sunday school. I even remember defending him to my parents several times!
I’ve also have had minor personal experiences with him. I was invited to participate in a 3 hour-long sermon preparation group in July 2009 on a series he taught on forgiveness. I even wore the hat of the annoying seminary dude who questioned his perspective on the passages he was teaching through. Yes I was THAT guy! I also was invited by his publisher, Zondervan, to live-blog his Poets, Prophets, and Preachers event, which actually gave me great vision for the art of the sermon.
I share this to say that I am very aware of Rob Bell. I’ve read him, watched him, talked/interacted with him. I’ve even appreciated things he’s said about the Church and Christian faith.
And as someone who has come into, through, and beyond spiritual/theological disillusionment myself, I understand how enticing he and his church is for our area. I understand that for so long the types of questions Rob raises and the type of environment Mars Hill has crafted is extremely attractive—I would even say intoxicating—in light of our overly Christianized culture, one that can indeed be difficult.
I also have a so-called “dog in this fight” because I am a pastor-theologian in the city who is at the early stages of planting a church in Grand Rapids, called Church of the Resurrection. We want this to be a place that is as missionally inviting as his church,while also being theologically rooted and biblically uncompromising. While we care to reach the same type of culture as Mars Hill and create similar experiences, we also care deeply about the historic Christian faith and take every ounce of the Holy Scriptures seriously.
As a Grand Rapids pastor, I care deeply about the lives of the people in my city who will be influenced by Rob Bell and Mars Hill. As a Grand Rapids theologian, I care deeply about what people in Grand Rapids believe and the ways in which their beliefs will be shaped and influenced by Rob Bell and Mars Hill.
This past weekend I read Love Wins before its release date, one of the most troubling books I’ve read from someone within the Church. Through this book, Rob Bell has unleashed a massive spiritual and theological tsunami on my community—let alone America—one that will create division within and confusion among the Body of Christ.
So that’s why I am stepping into the fray and publicly interacting with and responding to Rob Bell and the type of gospel that he is suggesting in his book: I interact as one who has appreciated Rob, someone who has had a crisis of faith myself and gets his appeal, and a pastor who cares deeply about my community, the Holy Scriptures, and the historic Christian faith.
The following review and response is about dealing with Rob’s ideas. While I realize many will take this as a personal attack against Rob Bell and Mars Hill—and consequently perhaps themselves—that’s not what this is about. While Rob tried to play the “I’m not a theologian or biblical scholar” card in an interview earlier this week, he doesn’t get to. Rob Bell has proposed theological ideas and has created ideas in his interaction with the Text; he is acting as a theologian and biblical scholar. By the very nature of writing this book he is asking us to take his ideas seriously. So I am.
Rob Bell has proposed a number of ideas, so the Church has every right and duty to theologically engage his teachings and respond. Because folks: the stakes are extremely high because the real lives of real people are involved, especially in my Grand Rapids community which is why I took time to write this review and response.
First, the way Rob frames the discussion is distracting.
In the preface, Bell launches into his rhetorical tour de force with both guns blazing when he frames the discussion thus:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (viii)
He then tells the story at the beginning of the first chapter of an art showing at Mars Hill where someone attached a note to a Gandhi painting that read, “Reality check: He’s in hell.” He then proceeds to ask a set of rhetorical questions about whether Gandhi is in hell and how people know this while asking even more pointed, potent questions:
Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God. Does God punish people for thousands of yeas with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (2)
And then the kicker: “Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story.” (110) This is Bell’s thesis, this is what the book is about. What’s more, Rob wants the reader to believe the way he is charactering—or rather caricaturing—the Christian faith story is actually real and true. Because of this story, “That’s why the Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties” (179).
Instead of this story—the one in which God creates people and tortures them—Rob wants you to believe the one he’s telling: “everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story. It is a bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes.” (111)
The problem is the way Bell frames, I’ll call it the traditional Christian faith, is unfair and a gross caricature.
First, Bell claims that “There are those who put it quite clearly: ‘We get one life to choose heaven and hell, and once we die, thats it. One or the other, forever.’” (103) This is simply not the true. This dualism is not the traditional Christian faith, but a made-up version of it. The Christian gospel is not about a choice between heaven and hell, but a choice about faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Messiah. Jesus Christ and He alone is the one through whom people can be rescued and put back together again, and people in all corners of the world are called to come forth and totally commit themselves to Him.
This is the choice. Not heaven and hell. Rob should know better, yet he falsely frames the conversation as if its about heaven and hell when it’s really about Jesus.
Second, while traditionalists do believe in literal hell—which I frame as the negative consequences to judgment—this is certainly not a place about which Christians are gleeful as Bell seems to suggest! And the words he chooses “torment,” “torture,” “anguish” are pitted over against a Christian view of a “loving” God in away that makes Him appear schizophrenic: Well which is it: Is God loving? Or is God a torturer? Does he want all people to be rescued or not? What Christians does he know who talk “about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell,” as if Christians are consciously parsing who is in and out?
These questions are rhetorical devices create a false dichotomy between the love and justice of God, between the reality of rescue and judgment. The reader is left to choose between either of the two extremes, instead of realizing they can choose both: God is both loving and holy, righteous and just; rescue is available for all and all will be judged and receive either positive or negative consequences to that judgment.
But the way Rob frames this discussion paints his opposing story with such an extreme brush that those who hold to the above views feel as if they themselves are the one’s torturing and sentencing people to eternal anguish. What’s more: this framing using false dichotomies twists the Scriptural portrayal of God Himself and is dishonest about the clear passages which teach judgment.
Unfortunately, Rob’s use of Scripture itself is as problematic as the way he frames the discussion.
Second, the way Rob uses Scripture is distracting.
It’s so fascinating the way Rob uses the Holy Scripture in this book: he quotes Scripture so often I thought I was reading Rick Warren! Not only does he proof text verses entirely out of context to support his positions, he also quotes them in amazing literalness that betrays their interpretation.
I cannot attend to every single use of Scripture. I will use 2 instances to illustrate.
The first use is his defense of a universal salvation—Yes, Bell is some form of a universalist. In a chapter called “Does God Get What God Wants?” Bell quotes several OT and NT passages to suggest that not only does God want all people to be saved, but that it will actually happen. To support his thesis about “the kind of love that pursuses, searches, creates, connects, and bonds. The kind of love that moves toward embrace, and always works to be reconciled with, regardless of the cost,” (99) he quotes, among many, Ps 22, 30, 65, 145; Ez 36; Is 52; Zeph 3; Phil 2; Ps 22; Job 23; Ps 145; Col 1; 1 Cor 15; and Rom 3, 5.
I want to specifically address the Pauline passages Bell uses to support his claims: 1 Cor 15:22, Rom 5:18-19, Phil 2:10-11, and Col 1:20. They read as follows (BTW you can download a more exhaustive exegetical treatment of them HERE):
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Cor 15:22)
For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Rom 5:19)
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:10-11)
and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col 1:22)
The problem with proof texting and a literal reading is you miss the surrounding context and interpretive point. Sentences pulled out and placed alongside arguments—especially without any scholarly, primary source support—is no way to read the Scripture, let alone teach it. I have seen Bell do this time and time again: he uses Scripture in a way that serves his agenda, rather than letting Scripture itself set that agenda.
He does the same here with these and other passages.The surrounding context in each of these 4 examples in no way, shape, or form supports a universal salvation.
I’ll say it again: a universal salvation hasn’t been revealed to us. There are no revelatory grounds to argue for a universal salvation. Universal salvation is not argued for in the Holy Scriptures and has never been part of the historic Christian faith. Therefore, someone like Rob Bell has no business promising or proclaiming it to anyone.
1 Cor 15:22 argues that those who are in Christ can be assured that since Jesus Himself has been raised from the dead, so too will believers. Rather than referring to the same universal humanity who are dead in Adam, Paul places Christ in parallelism alongside Adam as a representative to indicate those who are in Him are also raised to new life and will participate in His new humanity.
Similarly, Paul employs this Adam-Christ parallelism in Rom 5:18-19 to assert that the status of all believers—Jews and Gentiles—who are in Christ are part of His new humanity. Like 1 Cor 15:22, the context is clear the believers are in mind, as they are the ones who have received God’s abundant provisions (v. 17) for new life in Christ. That all people are in the epoch of Adamic condemnation is clear from 12-14; that all people are in the epoch of Christic salvation certainly is not. Where 1 Cor 15:22 and Rom 5:18-19 emphasize the typological parallel between Adam and Christ, ensuring that believers will be resurrected along with Christ and both Jews and Gentiles are included in Him, Phil 2:10-11 and Col 1:20 are both hymns of praise announcing the authority and sufficiency of Christ as both Creator and re-Creator.
In Phil 2:10-11, Paul emphasizes the universal rule and authority of Jesus as Lord over all of creation, a rule and authority that will be acknowledged by every good and evil being whether they want to or not. Rather than arguing for a universal salvation, these verses fit into the broader context of 2:6-11 that reveal to us the exalted, authoritative Jesus who Himself is God. Paul’s language of bowing and confessing does not mean all people will willingly acknowledge salvation in Jesus or convert. Instead Paul emphasizes a final acknowledgement that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).
Paul continues these Christological thoughts in Col 1:20 by sketching for us a powerful portrait of Christ as both Creator and Reconciler. Just as “all things” were created through Christ, so too are “all things” re-created through Him; just as Christ is the only one through whom all creation finds birth, He is the only one through whom creation finds re-creation. Paul’s point is that God has brought his entire rebellious creation (“all things”) back under the rule of Creator Christ. While Christian universalists like Bell interpret Phil 2:9-11 and Col 1:20 soteriologically, these hymns are instead majestic Christological statements on the person of Jesus.
In short, then, these Pauline universal salvation passages have little to do with salvation, much less a universal one. The first two examples (1 Cor and Rom) have believers in mind and are meant to assure them of their participation in Christ’s literal, physical resurrection. The later two (Phil and Col) are glorious, majestic—hymnic!—statements about the literally resurrected, exalted Creator-Rescuer Jesus Christ.
Speaking of Jesus Christ, the second example illustrates a far more troubling and puzzling use of Scripture: his use of 1 Cor 10:4 in parallelism with an event (Ex 17) in the Exodus narrative. Here is 1 Cor 4:1-4:
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.
Now what does Rob do with this passage? He relates it literally and absolutely to the event in Exodus 17 (142-144). Here the Israelites are wandering in the desert post-Egypt and complaining about not having anything to drink. Moses cries out to God on their behalf and God instructs Moses to strike a rock with his staff. He does so and out comes water to nourish the people and quench their thirst.
Here is what Bell says of 1 Cor 10 in relation to Ex 17:
That rock was…Christ? Jesus? Jesus was the rock? How is that? Paul, however, reads another story in the story, insisting that Christ was somehow present in that moment, that Christ was providing water they needed to survive—that Jesus was giving, quenching, sustaining…Jesus was, he says, the rock. According to Paul, Jesus was there. Without anybody using his name. Without anybody saying that it was him. Without anybody acknowledging just what—or more precisely, who—it was.” (145)
Bell makes the claim—without any exegetical or scholarly proof that this is the case—that Jesus was literally in this rock, that he was present in the rock doing for the Israelites what Jesus does for everybody. It’s a rhetorical device to argue that Jesus is bigger than anyone religion or culture, especially Christianity (150-151).
The problem is, this is simply not true. The way he reads, interprets, and uses this passage is not the point of what Paul is saying. Paul is not making a theological point, here, but instead a hermeneutical and interpretive one: Christ is the source for salvation in the way God was the source for the physical needs—hunger, thirst—for Israel. And set in the broader context of the passage it acts as a warning to believers because the passage goes on to say—which Bell conveniently leaves out—that “God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness,” (1 Cor 10:5) which should serve as a warning and example to believers in Christ to “keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.” (1 Cor 5:6)
Bell, however, uses this passage to actually make claims about the nature of Christ, ones that will be addressed further below. It is important to note here how he uses this passage to make claims about Jesus. He says:
“There is an energy of the world, a spark, an electricity that everything is plugged into” (144)
“This energy, spark, and electricity that pulses through all of creation sustains it, fuels it, and keeps it going. Growing, evolving, reproducing, making more.” (145)
“…the energy that gives life to everything is called the “Word of God,” and it is for us.” (145)
“In Jesus, [the first Christians] affirmed was that word, that divine life-giving energy that brought the universe into existence.” (146)
The profound theological implications of what Bell is saying about Jesus Christ will be explored further below. What’s important here is to see that Bell misuses this passage from 1 Cor 10 to make claims that the Christ is an energy, spark, and electricity that invades, permeates, and is in/part of everything. Not only is this just a plainly wrong misuse of Scripture, it is a wrong view of Jesus Chris; his view of Jesus has profound theological implications!
Both examples illustrate the way in which Bell uses and misuses Scripture to make rhetorical points; he makes the Holy Scriptures do and say things that they are not doing and saying to bolster his rhetorical arguments. This is not fair and this is not right. Claiming that he is no “theologian or biblical scholar or not very smart” (as he did in a recent interview) does not cut it. When you make theological claims, statements about the bible, and expect people to take your ideas seriously you can’t play the ignorance card.
Speaking of theology…
Third, the way Rob talks about the Christian faith is distracting, which is a deeper conversation than universalism.
Let me say from the outset this book argues for a universal salvation. Even though he denied being one on TV, he states quite the opposite in his book:
And so, beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody, because Jesus says in Matthew 19 that there will be a ‘renewal of all things,’ Peter says in Acts 3 that Jesus will “restore everything,” and Paul says in Colossians 1 that through Christ ‘God was pleased to…reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.’ In the third century the church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius believed this as well.
Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory.
To be clear, again, an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts.
At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God. (107-108)
Rob makes this claim—completely unsupported by any documentation and footnoted support, by the way—to help his own case that everyone will in the end win. In contrast to those who believe “‘We get one life to choose heaven and hell, and once we die, thats it. One or the other, forever.’” (103), Bell proposes there will be “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God. At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.” (107)
This is universal salvation, albeit with a post-mortem salvation thrown in! I’m confused why Rob doesn’t own the fact he is arguing for universal salvation and defend it.
I actually think the way this conversation has gone toward universalism, however, distracts from the deeper issues of the book: Rob’s understanding of the nature of God, Jesus, and salvation itself. To be sure Bell is arguing for a universal salvation—no, Rob you can’t redefine the term universalist like you’ve done in every interview so far! The bigger issues in this book are about God, Jesus, and the nature of salvation itself.
Regarding his view of God, I’m not exactly sure if Bell believes in a real Being God, “the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth,” as the historic Christian faith insists. It seems as though Bell believes God is simply our word for a universal presence that undergirds life.
For instance, Bell makes the claim—with NO scriptural or scholarly support—that “In Jesus’ day, one of the ways people got around actually saying God’s name was to substitute the word ‘heaven’ for the word ‘God.’” (42) Aside from the problem that Bell doesn’t actually support this claim by identifying who said this, does Bell himself believe that God is heaven? That God is simply “the way things are supposed to be” in existence? He even makes the claim that Jesus Himself simply used the word “heaven” to refer to the word/concept “God” (58), which is extremely troubling as this perspective would lean toward believing God is simply a concept of the way things are supposed to be, a universal presence of all that is good and true and loving that permeates the world.
This is not a Christian view of God. A Christian view of God believes God is an actual being that is ontologically separate from creation, not an experience within it. Again, I’m not saying Bell denies God is an actually Being, but he is not clear in his book and has actually created more confusion with his recent public interviews.
Later Bell speaks of Jesus speaking with God “as if God was right here…Jesus lived and spoke as if the whole world was a thin place for him, with endless dimensions of the divine infinitesimally close, with every moment and every location simply another experience of the divine reality that is all around us, through us, under and above us all the time.” (60-61) Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, but I want to know what does Bell mean by “endless dimensions of the divine” and our “experience of the divine reality that is all around us, through us, under and above us all the time.” What does he mean by the divine? This seems to enhance the argument that God is simply an experience that invades all of reality, which is both theologically liberal and also panentheistic.
Also when he states “God is love” (e.g. 177, 178) does Rob mean love is a characteristic of God or that God equals Love, as in Love is god? Unfortunately, the latter appears to be the case and I would welcome a statement of clarity from Bell and even Mars Hill.
In a recent interview with Lisa Miller, an editor at Newsweek, Rob answered several questions regarding his theological views. One of those questions came from a member of the audience. Like me, he wanted to know his views on God, if God was a real Being or simply an action of love:
(Question asker) I like idea God is love. A question for me is does God become the act of love or just an action, or is he an actual being. Does the understanding that God is love remove him from being a Real Being.
(Bell’s Answer) At the heart of the Jewish understanding of the world out of which the Christian understanding emerged is that God is a divine being separate from creation but also moving and present in history. The Exodus. King David.
The Scripture endlessly speak of actual history, real people in real places in real times encountering the Divine.
Sometimes God becomes an esoteric man detached from history… But the Scriptural consciousness is God at work in history. And the Christian story is God at work in history and coming among us. A great book by Heshel (“God in Search of Man) makes the idea that God pursues people in history.
The experiences you’ve had when you had the sense that you weren’t alone. The moments you had a total coincidence but it felt more than a coincidence. You heard a song and the song struck a chord within you, like the world’s ok. Or someone made an off-handed comment and it was a kind, nice, comment, but later you realized that it lifted you up and carried you for the day. The sense you have almost like a radar that keeps pinging.
That is God in search of people. And it is an experience that people have witnessed to for thousands and thousands of years.
Either Bell isn’t being clear, I am misunderstanding him, or he is being very clear. While he seems to affirm God is an actually being that is separate from creation, he seems to believe that God is much more of a divine universal presence and experience in the world. He says the the “Scriptural consciousness is God at work in history.” While I absolutely believe and affirm that God is not an absent deistic God, but instead involved in the lives of real people, this seems to suggest God is simply an historical universal presence like theological Liberals—Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Tillich—have argued for decades.
The final paragraph especially doesn’t help his cause, as since when has the Christian faith ever described God as an experience. So God is a human comment, human song, and human feeling?
A recent quotation in an article on Bell’s book by our local newspaper, the Grand Rapids press, further complicates things, or perhaps makes it even clearer: Bell says, “God is love. Love is the ground of our being. Jesus came to give us and show us this love.” On the surface this seems innocent. Understanding Bell’s “Love is the ground of our being” comment directly reflects the existential theologian Paul Tillich, however, is very concerning and perhaps answers our questions about his view of God.
Tillich’s word for “God” was “ground of being” or “ground of our being.” For Tillich that which gives meaning to life, that is of ultimate concern in life actually is God. He consistently refers to God as an idea, an existential idea in which God is the foundation (ground) of meaning and existence (being); “God” is that which is meaningful and gives our being and existence meaning. As Tillich says, “The word ‘God’ points to ultimate reality.” In other words, God is a symbol for that which is ultimately meaningful in existence.
Is this what Bell means by “God is love?” Is this what Bell means by Love itself? Does he equate Love with God as that which gives life meaning, that which is the foundation to our existence?
These concerns make more sense when one considers what Rob says about Jesus.
Here is the Jesus described in this book:
Jesus is “the very movement of God in flesh and blood.” (78)
Jesus is described as “The divine in flesh and blood. He’s where the life is.” (129)
Jesus “is the source, the strength, the example, and the assurance that this pattern of death and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires.” (136)
“In Jesus, [the first Christians] affirmed was that word, that divine life-giving energy that brought the universe into existence.” (146)
“The insistence of the first Christians was that when you saw Jesus…you were seeing the divine in skin and bones, the word in flesh and bones.” (147)
“Jesus for the first Christians was the ultimate exposing of what God has been up to all along.” (148)
“Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion…He will always transcend any cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity.’” (150)
“He is for all people, and yet refuses to be co-opted or owned by any one culture. That includes any Christian culture. Any denomination. Any church. Any theological system. We can point to him, name him, follow him, discuss him, honor him, and believe in him—but we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he’s anyone else’s.” (152)
“[Jesus] holds the entire universe in his embrace. [Jesus] is within and without time. [Jesus] is the flesh and blood exposure of an eternal reality. [Jesus] is the sacred power present in every dimension of creation.” (157-158)
Here’s my question: Are these adequate ways of defining Jesus? Anything you see missing? No where in this book does Rob give a positive statement of Jesus’ deity. He describes him as ‘divine in flesh and blood’ or has a special oneness with the divine or is ‘one with God’ (178) But he never says that Jesus is God. Why? And why does he describe Jesus using the terms “for the first Christians” or “the insistence of the first Christians” as if Jesus is the Christ only because he was received that way by his followers.
The manner in which he describes Jesus is as a teacher and a liver of divine goodness, peace, and love. Jesus the man simply showed the world what it means to be human, what it means to live a meaningful existence on this earth that’s “heavenly” rather than “hellish.”
The picture becomes a bit clearer when considering what Bell does with the cross and resurrection, which appear to simply be symbols in his theology.
First he insists that his early followers, the ones that wrote about Jesus and his death, “set out to communicate the significance and power of it to their audience in language their audience would understand…What happened on the cross is like…a defendant going free, a relationships being reconciled, something lost being redeemed, a battle being won, a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again, an enemy being loved…What the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand. ‘It’s like this…’ ‘Its like this…’” (128-129)
For Bell, then, the early followers of Jesus that wrote the earliest descriptions of Jesus’ death used “images and metaphors” (129) to simply communicate what was happening. So words like justification, substitutionary sacrifice, reconciled, and redeemed aren’t literal descriptions of what objectively happened on the Cross through Jesus Christ’s death. Instead they act as symbols pointing toward a higher “mechanism,” one that also involves the symbol of the resurrection.
As Bell writes, “What gave the early Christians such extraordinary fire and fuel was the insistence that Jesus’ death on the cross was not the last word on the rabbi from Nazareth. What set all sorts of historic events in motion was his follower’s insistence that they had experienced him after death. Their encounters with him led them to believe that something massive had happened that had implications for the entire world.” (131)
On the surface this seems to suggest Bell believes in a literal resurrection, where God physically raised Jesus Christ from the dead as the early church witnessed and believed and testified. It’s important to note that Bell uses specific words here to describe what “happened” post death: the disciples insisted that they had an experience of Jesus.
Insisting you have an experience of someone is not the same thing as actually physically experiencing them in the flesh as the apostles proclaimed. Liberal theologians believe Jesus was resurrected spiritually through the memory of the community of Jesus-followers. Existentialist theologian Paul Tillich argues that Jesus became the Christ after his disciples received him as such; their experience of Jesus’ message and teachings after his death was communicated through their use of the symbol resurrection.
I am stopping short of suggesting Bell does not believe in a literal, physical resurrection. But it becomes far less clear when Rob writes that the idea of resurrection after death was not a new thing, but rather “this death-and-life mystery, this mechanism, this process is built into the very fabric of creation.” (131) For Rob the idea that “death gives way to life” is just that: an idea. He uses the example of nature and how plants throughout the seasons die and wither in the fall and through the winter only to come back again in the Spring: “For there to be spring, there has to be a fall and then a winter. For nature to spring to life, it first has to die. Death, then resurrection. This is true for ecosystems, food chains, the seasons—it’s true across all the environment.” (130) His lack of clarity causes confusion and distortion.
He goes on to suggest that “when the writers of the Bible talk about Jesus’ resurrection bringing new life to the world, they aren’t talking about a new concept. They’re talking about something that has always been true. It’s how the world works.” (131) We don’t know for sure what he believes, but it appears that Bell views the Cross and Resurrection as symbols that reflect a truism of reality. The early followers of Jesus simply borrowed from nature to describe the new good, peaceful, loving reality Jesus brought through his teachings and message.
It isn’t clear how Jesus’ actual death on the cross does anything for humanity, let alone creation. In fact, I wonder why he had to die at all since this event isn’t described by Bell as doing anything with the objective realities of Evil, Sin, and Death. It’s as equally unclear whether something literally happened after the cross by way of God (the real, Being, Creator God) raising His Son Jesus Christ to new life, and the significance of that actual event for our lives now and in the future.
Instead he describes the cross and resurrection in this way: “the cross and resurrection are personal. The cosmic event has everything to do with how every single one of us lives every single day. It is a pattern, a rhythm, a practice, a reality rooted in the elemental realities of creation, extending to the very vitality of our soul.” (135) I have no idea what Rob is talking about! Here he speaks of the cross and resurrection as a pattern, rhythm, practice and reality. In other words they are a symbol.
And they seem to simply be symbols for living well and they are powerful metaphors for existing as we ought to exist,: “When we say yes to God, when we open ourselves to Jesus’ living, giving act on the cross, we enter in to a way of life. He is the source, the strength, the example and the assurance that this pattern of death and rebirth is the way into the only kind of life that actually sustains and inspires.” (136) Again, Bell isn’t clear how this is the case and why this is the case in the way he uses the cross and resurrection.
This confusion is only heightened when one considers what Rob says about the idea of salvation, which he terms heaven.
It appears as though salvation for Rob—the gospel for Rob—is about pursuing the life of heaven now. He recounts Jesus’ encounter with the rich man, his promise to him of heaven meaning “he’s promising the man that taking steps to be free of his greed…will open himself up to more and more participation in God’s new world, the one that was breaking into human history with Jesus himself.” (47) He goes on to say that “When Jesus tells the man that there are rewards for him, he’s promising the man that receiving the peace of God now, finding gratitude for what he does have, and sharing it with those who need it will create in him all the more capacity for joy in the world to come.” (44) “Jesus teaches us how to live now in such a way that what we create, who we give our efforts to, and how we spend our time will all endure in the new world.” (45)
In other words: salvation, Rob’s gospel is about humanistic utopianism.
“Jesus calls disciples in order to teach us how to be and what to be; his intention is for us to be growing progressively in generosity, forgiveness, honesty, courage, truth telling, and responsibility, so that as these take over our lives we are taking part more and more and more in life in the age to come, now.” (51) While I certainly affirm these positive ethical actions, those ethics themselves do not change us, that is not the gospel.
The gospel says that Jesus Christ himself through His death and resurrection transforms us through faith in Him. Bell seems to say something entirely different, that as we behave as Jesus would behave then our behaviors themselves will change us and we will bring positive ethical living of heaven to earth.
When Jesus talks with the rich man, he has one thing in mind: he wants the man to experience the life of heaven, eternal life, now. For that man, his wealth was in the way; for others it’s worry or stress or pride or envy—the list goes on. We know that list Jesus invites us in this life, this broken, beautiful world, to experience the life of heaven now. He insisted over and over that God’s peace, joy, and love are currently available to us, exactly as we are. (62)
If heaven is Bell’s Salvation, then Hell seems to be his judgement, but not in the way the Christian faith has ever viewed it.
In recent interviews when asked if he believes in hell or that there is a hell he has consistently said, “Yes! I see people creating hell on earth everyday.” As he writes, “we create hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of our story.” (173) He even says that Hell is refusing to trust God, “it is the consequences of rejecting and resisting [God's] love, which creates what we call hell.” (177) He uses the Lazarus story, which he says affirms “that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next.” (79)
Not only does that last quotation suggest Bell believes hell is a symbol for the bad stuff we do now that is a rejection of our true humanity, he also suggests this same existential hell will happen in the “next life,” whatever that means. For Bell, hell is existential, not literal. In fact, he maintains that even this existential symbol called hell will not last forever, but instead will ultimately be conquered, crushed, and renewed. (86-88) Even when Jesus refers to eternal judgment, as with the parable of sheep and goats, Bell claims he refers to an intense experience of pruning—again he plays fast and loose with Scripture, but goes one step further: he misuses Greek word definitions to rhetorically support his arguments(91)
In short, the word hell works well for Rob because “we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious, word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and trust and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.”
Notice that the consequences we experience are here on earth and because we reject God’s life, not because we rebel against God Himself our Creator. Hell isn’t an actual consequence that results from individuals being judged by Jesus as God when He returns at the Day of the Lord as the Holy Scriptures and historic faith maintain. In the end there really isn’t justice for human rebellion, because humans get what they want.
Ultimately, Rob Bell’s teachings distract from the gospel of Jesus Christ by exchanging it for something else.
Roger Olson, a historical theologian wrote, “The story of Christian theology is the story of Christian reflection on the nature of salvation.” Throughout history many men (and women!) have wrestled with the pieces of God’s Story of Rescue which ultimately have bearing upon the nature of that rescue itself.
Rob is one of those people who is adding to the story of Christian reflection on the nature of salvation. That is what this book is: a reflection on the nature of salvation itself.
This discussion is not simply about institutional preferences. It’s not like the worship wars of the 80′s or women’s role in ministry convos of the 90′s—or even the 2000′s!—or the ongoing discussion of infant vs. immersive believers baptism. Discussing the nature of salvation is not window dressing, folks. It is the very heart of the gospel and center of the Christian faith, which has massive consequences for the real lives of real people and their real eternal outcomes.
After considering the nature of Rob’s reflection one thing is clear:
this is no gospel. It is fake.
What deeply concerns me is that the conversation of this book will affect real lives and real people. Because this book is neither honest about the whole Scripture nor rooted in the historic Christian faith, thousands of people could be taken for a ride and led to believe that they really are OK. That they’re in. They have nothing to worry about and all that’s necessary is to live your best life now.
Yes, Jesus died for them. Yes God loves them. Yes salvation is available to all. But an honest, rooted, Scriptural story recognizes humans have rebelled against their Creator Himself and are guilty before Him of that rebellion. All people are busted and not the way they were meant to be. All of us do things that were never intended at the beginning when our Creator crafted us. And what we earn because of our rebellion against God is death. Death in the existential sense, yes—oh how much our life, right now, is consumed by death and chaos; life bites sometimes!—but more significantly ultimate death.
Rescue from both existential and ultimate death is available by the grace of God and through “faithing” in Jesus Christ. But without faith in Jesus Christ, there is real judgment and real consequences to judgment, forever.
This book should be deeply troubling for anyone in Grand Rapids, because of the significant theological and biblical suggestions Rob makes regarding the nature of God, Jesus, and salvation itself. He has unleashed a spiritual and theological tsunami the likes of which will have lasting consequences for Grand Rapids, which deeply saddens me.
I for one am tired of Rob Bell getting a pass for the story he tells. At this point Rob is not simply asking questions, he is giving answers, ones that are far outside the historic Christian faith and compromise the Holy Scriptures. He is not simply adding to the conversation, he has hijacked it to the point where I wonder at what point is the conversation no longer even Christian.