More Thoughts on Rob Bell
This post was written by Mel Lawrenz
I thought that the dust may be settling in the controversy stirred up by Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, but with this as a cover story of TIME Magazine–“What If There’s No Hell: A Popular Pastor’s Best-Selling Book Has Stirred Fierce Debate About Sin, Salvation, and Judgment”–it is apparent the dust storm may just be getting started.
I read Love Wins the day it came out and wrote a blog post that got some reaction. In the post I thought I was pretty careful to indicate I was not reviewing the book that early on, but rather, linked to some pretty incisive critical reviews by some real experts. I also suggested that there is nothing wrong with wrestling with the idea of hell. Abraham, after all, wrestled with the judgment of God, as did many other writers of Scripture. I don’t mean rejecting it, but sensing the severity of the doctrine. Of realizing what eternal separation from God really means.
I also suggested that the far-too-easy way to deal with this book is to put the label of “heretic” on Bell, relegating him to some outer darkness, whereas the word “heretic” has a specific historic meaning that is usually the culmination of long deliberations and debates about what a person exactly means. To call Rob Bell essentially a non-Christian right out of the gate (and presumably his whole church and tens of thousands of people who follow his ministry) is to do that one thing that the church has seemed to have a real talent for over the centuries: to divide and sub-divide and sub-divide further. Christian witness to a lost world would be so much more effective without this internecine warfare that we so casually enter into.
Is it possible for us to actually talk through the issues?
Having said all that, I do have disagreements with several of the major tenets of this book. I respect Rob’s years of service as a pastor, and in the book his pastoral motives come through strongly. I have visited his church numerous times, and have good friends who attend there. I first met him when he was an intern with Ed Dobson and later interviewed him after he wrote his first book. I remember talking with him about the inherent dangers of a rapid rise to fame–and frankly, I wonder how he is going to negotiate the highly artificial world of celebrity and controversy. When the book first came out I had wondered whether an intelligent discussion could come out of it, and that perhaps even Rob could write a year later about how he has adapted or changed his thinking as a result of the discussion. I don’t know if the atmosphere will even make that possible anymore.
But, back to the book, there seems to be one significant flaw that has resulted in some peculiar conclusions within the book. There are many points to discuss, and I think Scot McKnight in a nine-part review of the book has done about as careful a job as could be done (and the comments on Scot’s blog are informative as well). Read the reviews here, but it really is best if one reads the Bell book first.
I’m not going to retrace the dozens of points McKnight makes in his critical review and biblical analysis. I will just make two comments:
The best thing one can say about the Bell book is that he has identified an issue that we need to deal with. Evangelicals have not had a broad-based thoughtful, biblical discussion about the nature of eternal judgment. We know that because a significant percentage of Christians have said in surveys that they just don’t believe in a God of malicious and vindictive never-ending torture. They think that is one alternative, and the other is that there is no such thing as hell, when actually both are an exaggeration of what Scripture actually says. God’s wrath and judgment against evil are real. But that does not make him malicious. Evangelical Christians, in general, have no refined thinking on this.
The worst thing one can say about the Bell book–and it is a dangerous position–is that he is muting biblical authority by talking about what is “a better story” than the traditional view. Frankly, I’m surprised that Rob would go through the trouble to lay out key biblical passages, and offer his interpretation of them, and then seemingly make it all moot by saying that one construction is a “better story,” than another. The same thing holds with his reasoning about the atonement when he says that a substitutionary view of the atonement pits Father against Son, another “story” that he thinks falls short. Is substitutionary atonement a difficult reality? Yes it is! We should feel the pain of it as when we contemplate the crucifixion tomorrow on Good Friday. But this is what makes “the scandal of the cross” a scandal. It is not the story we would come up with. But it is what Scripture says is true of the hard and mysterious reality that is the death of Jesus.
Finally, one last appeal on this day which we call “Maundy Thursday.” We get “maundy” from the Latin mandatum, which means commandment. In his final talk with his disciples on the night he shared the Passover with them, Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
The debate is going to go on. It should. But this is not an internal discussion anymore. TIME Magazine has now put the spotlight on believers. The question is, as the discussions and debates unfold: will we obey the “new command” as the solemn dictate of our Lord, so that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”?
I shudder to think of what Jesus will think of us if we do anything less.
What do you think?
This entry was posted on Thursday, April 21st, 2011 at 1:11 pm and is filed under Christian Thought.
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