It has been hard to discern what the real story of the last week or so has been. Is it that Rob Bell has questioned the doctrine of hell, or is it that Calvinists like John Piper and Justin Taylor have overreacted to him in their narrow-minded zeal to defend orthodoxy?
These kinds of things happen every once in a while, and this is almost always how the narrative unfolds:
(1) A theological revisionist questions orthodoxy and offers his own muddled, I-don’t-have-this-all-worked-out-yet-but-I-know-that-what-the-church-has-always-believed-is-wrong response, loaded with a heavy dose of obscurity, suggestion, and lingering questions.
(2) Some orthodox believers respond by saying that said theological revisionist has moved far away from the gospel.
(3) A controversy ensues in which the orthodox believers who have expressed this concern are berated for their unwillingness to allow questions, for misrepresenting what said theological revisionist said (even though said theological revisionist was intentionally trying to be unclear and thus, should not be surprised if people misunderstand), and for being unloving and unlike Jesus.
(4) Some voice arises that pretends to be above the fray and calls everyone’s attention to the fact that what matters is that we be nice to each other, for orthopraxy matters more than orthodoxy. This voice assumes that what the orthodox believers did was unloving.
I have seen this so many times that I felt compelled to address it. Is it wrong to be theologically defensive? Is it wrong for a Justin Taylor or a John Piper to see serious theological dangers in the suggestive theological striptease (as Albert Mohler called it) that someone like a Rob Bell is putting forward and to draw attention to those dangers in the interest of helping to promote theological discernment? I will give an answer to this question, but before I do, let me offer these observations about the current Rob Bell controversy.
(1) Rob Bell did not raise these questions in a vacuum. He is known for questioning, challenging, and reworking orthodoxy. That is his brand. He portrays himself as a theological innovator, one who defies the received tradition, and thus it is no surprise that his tantalizing preview for his book is being received as another attempt at theological innovation. He does not raise these questions as one deeply committed to the historic Christian faith. He raises them as one deeply committed to revising the historic Christian faith.
(2) The history of the church since the Enlightenment is replete with attempts to accommodate the God of the Bible to modern sensibilities. Those attempts have consistently led to the abandonment of the historic Christian faith. It should not be surprising that those who are aware of the history of theology should see the same thing coming again.
(3) The New Testament is replete with warnings and condemnations of false teachers. Think of how many New Testament epistles were written, at least in part, specifically to combat some kind of false teaching that had either infiltrated a church or was threatening a church: 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter, Jude, 1 John. The threat of false teaching is something that is addressed over and over again in the New Testament. Paul says that those who are to be appointed as pastors must know sound doctrine so that they may be able to refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9). The posture of the New Testament toward false teachers and their teachings is decisively defensive. If Piper and Taylor are to be berated for their stance toward theological revisionism, then we must make sure that we save a good bit of criticism for the apostles too.
(4) The questions raised by Rob Bell pertain to the most weighty and significant issues one can imagine. Heaven and hell are, literally, on the line here. How we think about them will have a massive impact on how we view the church’s mission and message. I can imagine that those inclined to agree with Rob Bell will view the church’s mission as one of left-leaning social action. The gospel as proclaimed by the apostles will not be treasured, proclaimed, and handed down to the next generation with clarity. The urgency of sending the gospel to the unreached peoples of the world will not be felt. And ultimately, if his critics are right about heaven and hell and he is wrong, then many more people might end up in hell as an indirect result of Rob Bell’s own teaching. If anything must be approached with seriousness, caution, and an unwavering concern for the truth as revealed in Scripture, this issue must be.
Coming from one who is theologically defensive, I commend theological defensiveness as the necessary posture we must assume toward a world that has little patience for the offensive message of the cross. And we must be doubly defensive when we are dealing with a wolf dressed up as a shepherd.