More on Love Wins

The controversy surrounding Rob Bell and his new book “Love Wins” continues to boil in the Evangelical world. Here is a video from Bell discussing the book. I’m mid-way through the video.

The Gospel Coalition supplied a lengthy review that makes a clear case for disagreement with Bell over his use of scripture, his view of Christian history and his conclusions.

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51 thoughts on “More on Love Wins

  1. “Shame on you” – and this is the scolding we get from the dialogue guru.

    Though I will have a little more patience and empathy with C.S. Lewis, this particular post doesn’t get my respect, Jack.

  2. I have a confession to make: I find a certain perverse pleasure in reading all the evangelical scorn directed at Rob Bell’s writings.

    I have long observed that the evangelical mainstream has long found plenty to attack in LDS beliefs — even those LDS beliefs that are accepted by some evangelicals or at least by non-evangelical Christians who don’t get the non-Christian label. So I’m not unhappy to see that when someone, Bell in this case, spouts some doctrines that in places sound downright LDeSque (in particular, that the door to salvation remains open after death) that he at least isn’t held to a lower standard than Mormons seem to be.

    I enjoyed seeing the Gospel Coalition article using some of the same arguments and tactics that some evangelicals use against Mormons. For example, when Mormons prooftext from the Bible (a practice I’m not really defending), one common response is: “The Bible doesn’t really say that, even if it appears to.” That happens, for example, in the GC’s critique of Bell’s use of 1 Timothy 2:4, which, in context, does indeed appear to say that God wants all people to be saved. GC’s response — it doesn’t really mean all people, it means all kinds of people. Says who? Where do they get that? Who’s the eisegesist now?

    And while the Gospel Coalition article falls short of calling Bell a non-Christian, it might as well, for it suggests that Bell is a blasphemer and one who worships a different God.

    Yeah, I’ll probably need to repent about this, but I do enjoy seeing someone else getting the brunt of this sort of thinking.

    That said, I like a lot of what Bell apparently has to say (I haven’t read the book, so I’m basing my judgment on reviews written by those who have). My experience with evangelical Christianity growing up is exactly the type of evangelical Christianity that Bell finds so troublesome — the teaching, for example, that a God who is supposedly so kind and loving changes instantly when we die, becoming a vengeful God if we haven’t prayed the right prayer and sending us to torment for time ever after, and, at the extreme, the teaching that the Mother Teresas of this world will burn in eternity because they didn’t have a proper understanding of grace vs. works.

    If it hadn’t been for that kind of evangelical teaching (and I am not saying this is what all evangelicals believe), I would have never given Mormonism a second thought. If Bell had been the face of evangelical Christianity 30 or 20 years ago, I might have been happy to stay in that Christian tradition. I think he’s basically right in the way he views the love of God; for me as an LDS Christian, the temples are a symbol of the type of fatherly love that Bell is talking about, for they provide part of the means whereby God can continue to show his love to us even beyond the grave.

  3. I just finished watching the video I posted and I was kind of disappointed with it. I think he found a clever way not to really say anything. He sort of side stepped tough questions (that have explicit answers in the Bible) and instead talked about warm fuzzies.

    I think there’s a place for Bell’s point of view within Christianity and I might even be there with him but there’s something smarmy and evasive about how he’s stating it. And I don’t think it’s appropriate to cast everyone who disagrees with him into the Westboro Baptist camp.

    Aaron I appreciated the Bashir interview in that he didn’t allow him to bob-and-weave to something more comfortable. (Though I’m not excited with an interviewer saying “that’s not true” without offering a reason.)

  4. Todd ~ I’m not sure I understand here. Mouw isn’t allowed to feel repulsed that anyone would automatically assume Mother Teresa is going to hell?

    Eric ~ I know exactly what you’re saying, and I understand your feelings of schadenfreude.

    @ the topic ~ I generally like Bell, and I think that he’s asking relevant questions that need to be asked and explored, but he loses points with me for not providing adequate engagement nor attempting to provide clear answers to those questions. No, I haven’t read the book, but it’s disconcerting to me that several men who are not predisposed to criticism of Bell (Boyd, Mouw) have read the book and still express levels of uncertainty about what Bell believes.

    In my view, that’s bad form for a Christian pastor. Evangelicals have the pastor-theologian dynamic for a reason. I do think pastors should do theology, and I don’t think pastors should toss out provocative soteriological questions and not attempt to take a solid position on them. Even a position of “we don’t really know the answer to that, but these are some options” is better than an evasive answer that can be interpreted any number of ways.

    I’m also disappointed to hear that Bell was apparently sloppy with some of his historical sources. For example, this made me wince.

    I’ll have more in-depth thoughts on DeYoung’s review when I get the chance.

  5. Related to what Eric said:

    The outrage from traditional Christians is actually a pleasant surprise (see Gospel Coalition, not John Piper’s tweets). I enjoy seeing consistent arguments – even if I disagree with them.

    Concerning Bell: IMHO, the issue raised is the biggest problem with traditional views of the Gospel of Jesus and I’m always glad when someone raises the question (even if its been asked before). Still need to read the book, but the reviews seem to punch some valid holes in his arguments – which is disappointing.

    Speaking of traditional Christians and their answers, theresurgence dot com recently linked to a previous piece by Mark Driscoll, “To Hell with Hell?”. In it is an interesting answer to the question, “Do people who have never heard about Jesus go to hell?”

    Driscoll’s answer:

    Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Peter preached, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The conclusion is simple: there is only one way to the Father and that is through Jesus Christ. All other religious roads lead to false gods and a real hell.

    But there are many ways to Jesus. While the norm is responding to the preached Word of God, there are biblical examples as well as life experiences where God gives special revelation of the Messiah to unsaved people in other forms, including direct speech, dreams, and visions. God called Abraham directly. He gave Pharaoh dreams. He spoke to the treacherous prophet Balaam in a vision so that he prophesied about the Messiah. He appeared to Cornelius in a vision, which resulted in him being saved.There are many such stories. The reality is that anyone who is searching and willing to respond to the goodness of God as Cornelius did will receive special revelation. God is perfectly able to bypass the “normal” channels to accomplish his purposes.

    From what I know about Driscoll, this answer really surprised me.

    Is this a common answer given by theologically conservative Christians?

  6. I’m surprised to hear that answer from Driscoll as well. I’m a conservative Christian and that would be an answer I’d be willing to stand by (and perhaps even one a little more open).

  7. CJD said in response to me:

    The outrage from traditional Christians is actually a pleasant surprise (see Gospel Coalition, not John Piper’s tweets). I enjoy seeing consistent arguments – even if I disagree with them.

    Despite my schadenfreude, I agree with you. To the extent that the debate/discussion remains civil and is grounded in ideas rather than personalities, it’s probably healthy for the evangelical movement.

    And if the debate/discussion encourages people to read, study and ponder the scriptures for themselves, rather than merely relying on what the megapreacher of the day has to say, that’s not a bad thing at all.

  8. And if the debate/discussion encourages people to read, study and ponder the scriptures for themselves, rather than merely relying on what the megapreacher of the day has to say, that’s not a bad thing at all.

    LIKE. But you know, Evangelicals are always saying “when the megapreacher speaks, the thinking has been done”

  9. I’m trying to think of a snide retort to that, but I’m failing. In any case, you can guess where I stand on what you’re alluding to.

  10. Aw snap Tim! No you di’nt!

    Its a fair jab – Mormons have little room to talk in this area. I would add, though, that Eric’s critique works quite well with a small alteration…

    “And if the debate/discussion encourages people to read, study and ponder the scriptures for themselves, rather than merely relying on what Luther and the reformers had to say, that’s not a bad thing at all.”

  11. I don’t think Bell was avoiding anything–his categories are just different from those of the interviewer’s. I think he was answering openly, within his own categories.

    Jack, about evasive answers that can be interpreted any number of ways–I have to confess my bias here, because that tends to be both how I talk and something I tend to appreciate when other people do. Not to be provocative, necessarily, but because that’s just how things come out of my mouth these days. I don’t think it’s good or bad. But I do disagree with you when you say it’s bad form for pastors not to take a solid theological position. Jesus was the king of throwing out provocative questions and not taking solid theological positions.

  12. I understand what you’re saying Sarah, but I’ve been reading Lisa Miller for years and she totally uses the exact same categories as Bell. He was even evasive with her.

  13. I don’t know how you can be sure Lisa Miller, who is not even a Christian, has the same categories as Bell. She clearly did not believe either in Jesus or a resurrection, and she kept not getting what he was saying–toward the end of the interview, she was still saying (saying he’d said it) that people get to heaven by helping old ladies across the street, which he wasn’t. Also, I didn’t think he was being at all evasive, so this is fascinating to me. What did you find to be evasive about it?

  14. “Jesus was the king of throwing out provocative questions and not taking solid theological positions.”

    Jesus didn’t take a solid theological position on hell?

  15. one thing I consistently hear in all these interviews

    Q: do you believe in a real place called Hell?
    A: I believe people bring hell into their lives all the time here and now.

    I don’t disagree with what he is saying in his answer, but that’s not an answer to the question that’s being asked. That’s a dodge.

    The listener could assume “So you don’t believe there is a place in the afterlife called Hell” and that’s not helpful to them if Hell is indeed a real place that they may experience.

  16. Thanks for the specifics. I don’t think it’s a dodge, and here’s why. It’s pretty standard for evangelicals to answer the question “What is hell?” with “Separation from God.” Rob Bell is translating that for a culture for whom that means nothing. What does separation from God look like? Abuse. Rape. Despair. And we can and do have it right now.

    He was clear that he believes hell is also something people experience (separation from God is, at its core, an experience–a way of being that is as miserable as possible) after death. Hell exists, and people will choose it, he said.

  17. He was clear that he believes hell is also something people experience after death.

    This is the only place I disagree with you. I don’t think he’s being clear. (in his interviews)

  18. and in case I mislead anyone, I don’t think Hell is something we need to lead with, nor do I think it’s a good motivator to invite people into faith in Jesus. But if someone asks me about it directly I’m not going to seek ways to make the hard words of Jesus more palatable.

  19. This is the only place I disagree with you. I don’t think he’s being clear. (in his interviews)

    In his interview with Martin Bashir, he defines universalism as the view that “given enough time, God will win everyone over” and says he doesn’t believe that. How do you interpret that?

  20. Also Tim, I didn’t write my blog post in response to you, in case that’s what you were thinking of when you wrote your last comment. 🙂

  21. “That’s not what I said.”

    Sorry, I hastily connected some dots. But it’s worth saying here that Jesus seems to be far more solid and forthright on his view of hell than Rob Bell. Bell doesn’t have Biblical warrant to not take a solid theological position on hell.

    “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)

  22. Aaron S. said:

    But it’s worth saying here that Jesus seems to be far more solid and forthright on his view of hell than Rob Bell.

    Was he?

    If you’re looking for a place in the four gospels where Jesus says that those who don’t accept him as savior will burn in hell for eternity, you won’t find it. It’s just not there.

    Jesus doesn’t mention hell (gehenna in Greek, the name for the place where garbage was burned) all that many times. And when he does, it’s not in the context of those who don’t accept him as savior, but in the context of behaviors such as calling a brother raca or being the downfall of a child. It’s not clear in all those cases that he’s necessarily talking about a punishment that does not end.

    Without using the word gehenna, though, Jesus does talk a few times about an everlasting punishment and/or fire, such as for those who haven’t fed the hungry or who have blasphemed the Holy Spirit. But in the former case, an argument could be made that he’s talking about a judgment of nations rather than individuals. (I’m not saying that’s the case, just questioning whether these passages are always as clear as sometimes we hope they would be.)

    I think it’s easy to take the times where Jesus spoke of or alluded to hell and put our own present-day understandings (based on, among other things, what our churches teach us) into what he said. Sometimes we like to frame our beliefs in terms of easy-to-understand propositional statements, but I’m not sure that in the case of hell we can do that so easily with what we have record of Jesus saying.

  23. I am going to agree with Sarah on this. The Gospels do not present Jesus as a theologian. And the theology that he did teach was not explicitly Evangelical.

    It doesn’t take more than a few sentences to explicitly lay out the “You are bound for hell, and If you don’t accept Jesus in this life you will go to hell for eternity” doctrine.

    That fact that He didn’t make it explicit or the fact that the Gospels don’t say this explicitly should mean something.

    Granted it may be easier to work with what is in the Gospels rather than what was intentionally left out but I think those in the inerrancy camp should consider that if the what is said is not in error, silence was not an error either.

  24. Granted it may be easier to work with what is in the Gospels rather than what was intentionally left out but I think those in the inerrancy camp should consider that if the what is said is not in error, silence was not an error either.

    Someone’s breaking out their Constitutional law analytical skills.

  25. Also, when you wrote “I am going to agree with Sarah on this” I first scanned it as “I am going to agree with Satan on this.” PS I thought that was totally awesome.

  26. Maybe Rob Bell is being intentionally vague so that he can raise this issue while at the same time assuring that if everyone in the Evangelical community turns against him, he can say “That’s not what I really meant.” He has a lot to lose if the Evangelical community abandons him.

    Some may call him a coward. Others may say he’s making a smart political choice. In either case, I think he is setting up the parameters of his argument to allow himself some maneuverability in debates.

  27. My brother said this

    I’ve decided Rob Bell is like the final season of Lost. He avoids answering any of the big questions and makes sure everyone gets a happy ending.

  28. Maybe Rob Bell is being intentionally vague so that he can raise this issue while at the same time assuring that if everyone in the Evangelical community turns against him, he can say “That’s not what I really meant.” He has a lot to lose if the Evangelical community abandons him.

    I sincerely doubt this is the case. He’s already an extremely controversial figure among Evangelicals and is identified with an extremely controversial movement. Those who are likely to “abandon him” for preaching universalism and denying the existence of hell never embraced him in the first place.

    It sounds to me like you are vastly overestimating the extent to which “the evangelical community” is some kind of cohesive whole.

  29. The Evangelical community doesn’t have to be a cohesive whole for there to be a major shift in support. Obviously Rob Bell has some pull within the Evangelical community or else they wouldn’t be making such a big deal about this book. You don’t see Pat Robinson reminding everyone that Jim Wallis isn’t a Fundamentalist because everyone already knows this. If this book was just par for the course for Rob Bell then the Conservative Evangelicals would have denounced him years ago and this book wouldn’t be news. It is only capturing people’s attention because some people are shocked that he would write this. As such, people may reevaluate where they think Rob Bell is on the spectrum of Evangelicals. And a shift on the spectrum will make him more or less attractive theologically depending on where the viewer is on that spectrum. If he loses support from one side of the spectrum, he needs to work to pick it up on another part of the spectrum if he wants to remain culturally relevant and financially supported.

  30. Yeah, sorry, I’m going to stick with my previous point–I honestly just don’t think you’re reading the lay of the land right. Have you read Rob Bell’s previous stuff? Have you read what Evangelical commentators have previously said about him, Brian McLaren, et al? It really sounds like you haven’t.

    Conservative Evangelicals are leveling criticism at Bell over this book not because they haven’t leveled the same kinds of criticisms before before, but simply because he has a new book out that may be appealing to Evangelicals, and Conservative Evangelicals think that, like basically everything else the emergent crowd writes, it’s dangerous heresy.

    Pat Robertson (a charismatic fundamentalist politically aligned with the Right) and Jim Wallis (a liberal evangelical politically aligned with the Left) don’t swim in the same sea, so Pat doesn’t have to call Wallis out by name every time Wallis puts out a new book. Pat’s flock wouldn’t buy Wallis’s book anyway. And I’m willing to bet Pat calls out religious liberals plenty enough and in no uncertain terms without naming names.

    In contrast, Bell and McLaren deliberately try to avoid being nailed down on the liberal-conservative axis, and their stuff is marketed heavily toward the evangelical mainstream. The same people might be interested in a book by Rob Bell as a book by Tim Keller, for example. And conservative evangelicals don’t want that, because Bell is definitely not preaching conservative evangelical theology, and he’s not pretending to.

    Bell may indeed be hedging, but it’s not because he’s afraid of being called out and “losing support.” Bell is much too deliberately provocative for that. He’s ambiguous on purpose. It’s part of the emergent paradigm. It’s how they roll. Bell is not concerned about being called a heretic because the people who buy his books aren’t the type to be scared off by that anyway–the emergents are definitely writing to the unchurched, the disillusioned, and the vaguely unsatisfied. But to conservative evangelicals, emergent theology is insidious–the worry is that Bell is leading people down the path to hell who might otherwise be saved.

  31. Kullervo, speaking of Bell, said:

    He’s ambiguous on purpose. It’s part of the emergent paradigm. It’s how they roll.

    I don’t claim to much about emergent theology, but I think you’re right about there being a different paradigm. As I mentioned in the earlier topic, his church doesn’t have a statement of faith like many other churches have, namely a list of beliefs (kind of like the LDS Articles of Faith). Instead, the church provides what it calls a narrative theology — a story that describes who God is and what he’s up to and how people relate to that. It doesn’t really get into those issues that sometimes are used to classify churches — and by its nature, a narrative is harder to pin down on various issues than a traditional statement of faith would be.

    It really is a different way of looking at theology, and it’s definitely a perspective that makes beliefs more difficult to classify (coming from a traditional perspective). I’ve looked around the web a bit this morning, and I found various sites that describe emergent theology being “like nailing Jell-O to the wall.” Where have we heard that before?

  32. It really is a different way of looking at theology, and it’s definitely a perspective that makes beliefs more difficult to classify (coming from a traditional perspective).

    Eh, only if you try to imagine it as a standalone, systematic theology. I think it is most clearly understood as a movement-within-a-movement, a kind of post-evangelicalism that incorporates Evangelical Christianity by reference.

  33. Warning: this is a totally knee jerk, uninformed opinion. . . but: It seems Rob Bell often takes the same tact as the LDS apologists. He wants His to be seen as a legitimate interpretation of the scriptures even though the “orthodox” Evangelical community rejects him, but he also doesn’t want to come straight out and say that they are misguided, even though he thinks they are, or explain why his “new” interpretation isn’t an unauthorized revision. He doesn’t want to wade into the tricky explanations of post-modern deconstruction that allow him to reasonably conclude that he is not a heretic, for similar reasons that LDS apologists often don’t want to wade into the fact of Joseph’s role as a new revelator in a public debate about whether they are interpreting the Bible correctly, i.e. both of these ideas make commensurate discussion with Evangelicals very difficult.

    He, like many LDS, takes a questioning posture to rouse people out of traditional modes of thinking, but he can’t really argue for his position from quite the same foundation as Evangelicals.

  34. good knee-jerk Jared.

    Here’s the deal with Rob Bell and the Evangelical community. He’s generally liked on the popular level. He’s a fantastic communicator and he’s great at pulling people into a deeper conversation. But every once in a while he’ll say something that seems to come out of left field, leaving everyone scratching their heads and wondering “why did he choose to say that? In that way?”

    So then, people say “why did you say it like that?” and he makes whatever vague assurances that he didn’t mean what they might be inferring from him. The problem with that is that everyone feels like they went down the same path with Brian McLaren. It was always vague and posed as questions or conversation pieces. . . . then 8 years later he finally comes out and clearly says what everyone was worried he was saying.

    All the talk about a “different paradigm” or “new categories” turned out to be a smoke screen for “I’m really interested in the liberalism the main-line denominations embraced.” McLaren was the clearest, most visible example of a non-mainline protestant embracing mainline liberalism.

    Both McLaren’s and Bell’s messages of “a new tone” are welcomed words in Evangelicalsim and that’s why their books were embraced. It’s the other stuff that finds it’s way into their “conversations’ that has people upset.

  35. As far as the charge of “universalism” goes. I liked Jack’s initial suggestion that he was an inclusivist. The problem in his presentation is that he’s really clear on the points that inclusivists and universalists agree on and then really vague about the points where they disagree. He could have very easily set everyone at ease but that doesn’t make very good provocation. So now he’s left fending off charges of universalism. He says he’s not a universalist but no one’s really sure how or why he thinks he’s not.

    It’s a bit like Zell Miller saying he’s not a Republican.

  36. In a way, questions are more powerful than answers because they force your opponents to defend their views instead of attacking yours. Asking questions like “how could God send people to Hell for not accepting Jesus if that person had never even heard of him?” or “How could something a mere mortal does at one point in time be worth literally endless punishment?” will get him far more converts than him saying “I believe Hell only lasts until you repent.”

  37. Good thoughts by John Mark Reynolds (and that’s high praise from me–I have not been at all charitable in the past to JMR or what he writes).

    I think what John is missing or obscuring though is that, while it is true that Bell may not necessarily be saying something new or revolutionary in content, what makes Bell unique is that he is asking these questions from inside modern Evangelicalism. Sure, mainline protestant liberals might all believe there’s no hell and Jesus will save everybody, but the average Evangelical pays no attention at all to what mainline protestant liberals say, think or do. It’s just not inside their sphere of attention.

    Rob Bell on the other hand is coming from an Evangelical background and speaking and thinking from an Evangelical place, and he is asking these questions. The fact that the Pope, Billy Graham and the mass of orthodox Cristians for 2,000 years have considered the question and have decided that there’s a real hell of eternal fire and conscious suffering is relevant but not dispositive. It certainly doesn’t conclusively establish anything as a logical propositon. Which means there’s room to ask if maybe they have all been wrong.

    JMR says he constantly reexamines his assumptions, btu then he makes it sound like it’s a cursory process, the formality of examining his assumptions so he can say he did it before breakfast and then rubber-stamping his assumptions as valid because the Pope and Billy Graham do.

    Bell is not important because he is asking a new thing; Bell is important because he is asking an old thing to a new generation in a context where it does not usually get asked, which means a whole lot of people are going to start thinking about it who didn;t think about it before.

  38. I agree with most of JMR said also (grudgingly) – but don’t give him any points. Peterson’s (loose) argument was pretty weak (I hate to say).

  39. The NY Times weighs in on Rob Bell:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/24/books/review/an-evangelical-pastor-opens-the-gates-of-heaven.html

    An Evangelical Pastor Opens the Gates of Heaven

    “In 1868, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps published “The Gates Ajar,” a novel about a young woman named Mary Cabot whose brother Roy was killed in the Civil War. The bereaved Mary knows that she is supposed to be consoled by her Calvinist faith (personified by a minister with the unsubtle name Bland), but she finds her church’s teachings about the afterlife cold comfort. She does not like picturing her brother single-mindedly adoring God. Mary thinks this sounds dull, and she is horrified by the thought that Roy, in his rapturous concentration on God’s splendor, might forget her, his beloved sister. Through the ministrations of a widowed aunt, Mary ultimately adopts a new vision of heaven — one in which people’s primary end is not union with God, but being reunited with loved ones . . .

    [conclusion]
    . . .
    Historians of heaven will tell you that we tend to sort out our most urgent social concerns in part through our visions of the afterlife. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps described heaven for a generation saturated in Victorian idolization of the family and devastated by the carnage of the Civil War: for Phelps and her readers, it was impossible to imagine an afterlife in which intimate family reunion was not central. So, too, Rob Bell is articulating the concerns of a generation of Christians schooled in toleration, whose neighbors and coworkers and siblings are Muslim or Buddhist or agnostic, a generation whose pluralist social commitments are at odds with theological commitments to limited salvation. Bell speaks for those Christians who take the Bible seriously but can’t imagine their secular friends aren’t going to heaven, too. He speaks for that woman in the pew who can’t bear the thought of spending eternity apart from her atheist brother. The tweeting gatekeepers of conservative evangelicalism may also share these concerns, but for them, the solution is to convert the unbelieving neighbor. For them, confident optimism that Jesus simply saves everyone is evasive at best, and heretical at worst. But, then, the gatekeepers called Phelps an infidel, too.

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