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I’m not sure what Rob Bell was doing on Saturday, but I wonder how long it took for him to realize that he had blown up the Internet. At least, the Christian twitterverse and blogosphere.
Bell, the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids and the author of Velvet Elvis and Sex God, has a fascinating new book releasing in March — at least, the title is fascinating. It’s called Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
From the publisher’s copy about the book:
In Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,
Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith–the
afterlife–arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to
eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and
his message is decidedly optimistic–eternal life doesn’t start when we
die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.
Sound controversial? It is. It’s supposed to be. And we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but on Saturday influential blogger Justin Taylor (who’s also in the publishing business as vice president of editorial at Crossway) decided to judge the book based on its cover description. Citing that and a short video provided by the publisher, Taylor outed Bell as a universalist.
While he admitted that he hadn’t read the book yet (!), he felt OK making this statement about Bell:
It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word
distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.
And this one, too, in an explanatory follow-up statement:
If Bell is teaching that hell is empty and that you can reject Jesus and
still be saved, he is opposing the gospel and the biblical teaching of
Jesus Christ. You may think that’s judgmental to say that; I think it’s
being faithful. I would encourage a careful study of 1 Timothy to see
what Paul says about false teaching and teachers.
As of this morning, Taylor’s post has more than 20,000 Facebook recommendations and 1,000 comments. But that’s not all. Highly respected author and pastor John Piper read Taylor’s post and recommended it to his Twitter followers with a link and this simple line:
Farewell, Rob Bell.
Piper’s tweet got retweeted and passed along and pretty soon, #robbell was in Saturday’s top 10 trending topics, which is usually reserved for Middle East unrest, dead celebrities, and Justin Biebers.
1. This is why people hate us. There is no meaner, more hateful person on Earth than a Christian who suspects you have gotten your theology wrong. Labeling that mean-ness as “being faithful” to the Gospel doesn’t make it less hateful. While Taylor’s post was fairly calm, the response to it by his readers was not. Bell got skewered in the comments, on twitter, and in other blog posts.
2. Really, John Piper? Your Reformed followers can be obnoxious at times, but I’ve always hoped you were above that. Sometimes you say things that make me roll my eyes. Most of the time, though, you’re way more gracious than your fans. But “farewell, Rob Bell”? What a disappointingly smug, arrogant tweet. It’s worth pointing out what Scot McKnight told Christianity Today about the matter: “The way to disagree with someone of Rob Bell’s influence is not a tweet
of dismissal but a private letter or a phone call. Flippancy should have
no part in judging a Christian leader’s theology, character or status.”
3. Unlike some, I’m not going to fault Taylor for pre-judging Bell’s book. I’ve ranted about books I haven’t read, too. In fact, publishers’ copy and marketing materials are designed exactly for that purpose: they are supposed to give you an idea of a book’s contents so that you’ll be intrigued and buy it.
4. I kind of wish Justin Taylor had gotten a copy of my latest book and called me names in a blog post.
5. But here’s where Taylor’s and Piper’s responses annoy and frustrate me: They are so absolutely certain that they are right. Because Rob Bell seems to be indicating that hell might not be a place of eternal suffering — or might not exist at all in the way traditional Christianity thinks of it — then they say he is flat-out wrong. Dangerously wrong. False-doctrine wrong. Opposing-the-Gospel wrong. But you know what? The Bible is really squishy on the subject of hell. The everlasting-torment hell of Dante and Jonathan Edwards doesn’t exist at all in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Jesus talks about hell a lot, but sometimes in ways that a reasonable person could interpret metaphorically (like when he calls it Gehenna, after a real-life burning trash heap outside Jerusalem). And for centuries, some Christians have tried to make the case that, when Paul says Christ died for all, he really meant it. Not some. All.
No, universalism isn’t an orthodox Christian position. Hell is. But are we not willing to admit that, maybe, over the years, we could have gotten something wrong? Is it so wrong to maybe hope that everyone gets saved? That hell doesn’t exist? Because I totally hope that to be the case.
The truth is this: In order to be an everyone-get-saved Universalist, as Taylor claims Bell to be, you have to elevate some biblical passages and ignore (or explain away) others. Because there are definitely some passages that seem to be about eternal punishment in hell.
In order to be a predestination-style, God-saves-the-elect reformed Christian — like Taylor and Piper — you have to elevate some biblical passages and ignore (or explain away) others. Because there are definitely some passages that seem to contradict predestination.
In order to be a free-will Arminian Christian, you have to elevate some biblical passages and ignore (or explain away) others. Because there are definitely some passages that seem to confirm predestination.
See where this is going?
In order to be an Evangelical Christian…
In order to be a Roman Catholic Christian…
In order to be a Pentecostal Christian, a cessationist, an End-Times date-setter, a female pastor, a pacifist Christian…
Reading and understanding the Bible involves lots and lots of interpretation. Not just in light of the world and culture around us, but in reference to other parts of the Bible. At best, there are things that are unclear and not easily harmonized from Genesis to Revelation. At worst, there are things that seem to be downright contradictory. That’s why I have doubts. That’s why theology can be so controversial.
And that’s also why theology is best done with humility and a recognition that certainty is very hard to come by. When we become so certain that our theology is ironclad and right, that’s when we become smug, arrogant, and dismissive of people who disagree with us. That’s when we do things like tweet that a thoughtful, hopeful, influential Christian like Rob Bell is dead to us.
Because that’s what “Farewell, Rob Bell” means, isn’t it? You’re dead to me. What I believe is right. If you oppose it, then I’m done with you.
At least that’s how I read it. Please tell me I’m wrong.