Bell in the Dock, Part 1

I finished Rob Bell’s Love Wins last week, and I have been mulling over some thoughts since then that I am now ready to express in writing, which I will do over the next several posts.

In a previous post I acknowledged how serious a charge it is for me to make against Rob Bell by claiming (based on his public statements) that he is proclaiming a false gospel.  In light of the gravity of such a charge, I decided to give Mr. Bell a more complete hearing on the issue by reading through his book.  In order to help me attain clarity on what I am trying to accomplish in these posts, I am imagining this scenario: if I were a member of some kind of ecclesiastical body charged with judicial procedures, and Rob Bell were brought before me with the allegation that he was proclaiming a false gospel and should be defrocked, how would I vote on the issue?  Obviously, I realize that such is not the case, nor am I fantasizing about what I wish could be true.  I am a committed Baptist, which means I am committed to congregational authority.  On biblical principles, I oppose ecclesiastical courts that wield super-congregational authority.  So this whole scenario is merely a heuristic device, not an assertion of any kind of authority that I falsely perceive myself to have.  In other words, hear what I say and then take it or leave it.

If Bell were in the dock before me, the first thing I would consider when coming up with my decision would be his stated intention in the preface of his book.  He begins by setting the stage in this way (unfortunately, I cannot provide page numbers for documentation because I have the Kindle version of the book):

There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do.  The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.

This is strong language.  Jesus’ story has been “hijacked” by other stories, stories that “have nothing to do” with his mission.  The true story of Jesus’ redemptive work has not been merely misunderstood in some ways or taken slightly off course.  No, the entire plot has been lost.  What false gospels could Bell have in mind when he makes this charge?

You don’t have to read far to find out.  Bell goes on:

I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to church, and their heart to utter those resolute words, “I would never be a part of that.”

You are not alone.

There are millions of us.

This love compels us to question some of the dominant stories that are being told as the Jesus story.  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.

The false gospel that has hijacked the true Jesus story is none other than the historic Christian faith.  Essentially, what Bell does here is describe the story of Christian orthodoxy (although I would argue that the words “select few” doesn’t quite do it justice) as a story that causes the heart rates of millions of people to rise, their stomachs to churn, and their hearts to utter the words, “I would never be a part of that.”  In other words, historic Christianity, including its robust doctrine of Hell, is something that drives people away by the millions.  When they behold it, they loathe it and want no part of it.

And here’s the key point: Bell is one of them.

You are not alone.

There are millions of us.

Bell’s purpose in the preface is to explain why he has written this book.  I do not think I am being unfair in any way when I say that Bell’s purpose, according to his own words, is to refute the false gospel of Christian orthodoxy and propose his own version of the story to take its place.

Those who chastise John Piper for tweeting “Farewell, Rob Bell” should keep in mind that Bell previously accused Piper–and all others who hold to the historic position on Hell–of hijacking the Jesus story with a despicable falsehood that has nothing to do with Jesus’ mission and is better described as “misguided,” “toxic,” and ultimately subversive of Jesus’ message of love.  The first person to throw down the gauntlet in this controversy was not John Piper.

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6 Responses to Bell in the Dock, Part 1

  1. Layne Perkins says:

    Thank you, Aaron, for making the time to write this series. I really look forward to reading it.

  2. Bill says:

    Bell is arguing that the interpretation of the gospel he gives fits well within Christian orthodoxy. You are defining the term “orthodoxy” to only describe your theology, or at least something very close to your theology. That way you can force him out. You should at least acknowledge this if you wish to be fair.

    You’ve taken his comment out of the context of the rest of that chapter when he lists of these “Jesuses” we should get rid of – many of them I’m sure you would also see as misrepresentative. Instead though, you give the impression that he’s unilaterally against the historical faith – that is ridiculous. How biased can you be?

    I agree that Bell needs to be more clear in what he is challenging. You are right to take issue with his overly strong language here, but you miss the mark but overreacting in equal measure.

    Bell is challenging exclusivism. He’s pointing out that inclusivism fits within even a relatively generous orthodoxy, which you seem to have problems with. Mark Galli at Christianity Today, for instance, gave a very critical but more or less fair review of Bell’s book that Justin Taylor himself recommended. Galli did not condemn Bell, whereas you already are condemning him. Galli knew better than to criticize Bell for being an inclusivist. Instead he found other more legitimate grounds – much of which I agree with.

    Not to mention this nonsense comment of yours about Piper – Piper was making outlandish hyper-Calvinist and unnecessarily exclusivistic claims well before Bell was even a pastor. Sometimes Piper even likes to speak for God about natural disasters. He made that tweet before the book was even out. Piper’s was the preemptive strike. It’s a waste of time to defend what everyone knows was a flippant, “cutesy” comment on his part – nobody was impressed. One word – typical. He’s not perfect, even though for some reason every other conservative seems to idolizes his theology, as if it’s the only Christian option. It’s ok to be a Calvinist if you acknowledge that there are other legitimate views. One of my favorite professors in seminary was a Calvinist. Piper and others like him, however, give the impression that non-Calvinists are borderline non-Christians. This is sheer arrogance.

  3. I am defining “Christian orthodoxy” as the narrative that includes a large number of people going to Hell. That is not “my” view. That is the church’s view, and it has been from the beginning.

    There have been disagreements about the relative proportion of how many saved vs. how many lost (postmillennialists, for example, have said the saved will by far outnumber the lost), but the bottom line is still the same: those who die apart from Christ are irreversibly lost. Bell hates that idea. That is what he loathes, rejects, and wants to replace.

    Yes, Piper tweeted before the book came out, but Bell had already written the book and marketed it with the same kinds of statements. In fact, much of the preface was already contained in that promotional video.

    Rob Bell went looking for a fight. It should be no surprise that he found one.

  4. Bill says:

    The bottom line is not still the same – numbers matter, a lot, and to say that the church has always held that a” large number” of people are going to what you mean by hell is not accurate without much qualification. It’s important to clarify what you mean by a “large number,” because when say Augustine or Aquinas were writing, or even Luther and Calvin, for instance, they had a very different idea of how many people were in the world, and how many of them were Christian or potentially Christian converts. Your description of this view lacks historical consciousness. The globalized world and the fundamental inequalities in it has caused the church to rethink much of its views of the religious other, and necessarily so. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Scripture, prayer, reason, experience, and tradition (Wesley), we trust that this can be addressed appropriately now – always reforming, as you have affirmed, and of course without abandoning foundational principles.

    I agree with you that Bell went looking for a fight. I don’t like the way he did this either. This is a very valid point.

    Nonetheless, I continue to be baffled by how some seem to be so settled with the fact that the gospel is irreversibly, as you say, bad news for most people in the world – truly astounding . . . especially when there are perfectly defensible and genuine ways to understand Scripture as giving full allowance for the possibility of a much more inclusive soteriology without diminishing – at all – the urgency about the great commission. This requires getting out of a the empirical-biblical-idol box, which fundamentalism continues to be trapped in. And the defenses are strong!

  5. I’m not persuaded that the relative size of the numbers really matters. If Augustine thought millions of people would be in Hell, and I visited him from the future and told him about how, through both population growth and global awareness, we can now say that billions are dying outside of Christ, I doubt that he would say, “Well, I need to change my theology.” To argue otherwise is not to comment on what orthodoxy itself is. It is merely to speculate about what orthodoxy could or should have been if circumstances had been otherwise.

    With regard to inclusivism, I think it would be helpful if I introduce some new categories into our discussion. I mentioned somewhere else that there is actually a spectrum of inclusivist theologies. John Stott is an inclusivist of sorts, for he holds that there may be some wider hope for some who are outside the reach of the gospel, but he is ultimately agnostic about it. This kind of mild inclusivism is really little more than a sense of openness to certain possibilities.

    And then we have, as I mentioned somewhere else, Hans Kung inclusivism, where it is asserted as a theological truth that people are being saved constantly all over the world by means of general revelation and the work of the Holy Spirit in other religions.

    Let’s call the first kind of inclusivism “soft inclusivism,” and the second kind “hard inclusivism.”

    I submit that soft inclusivism has something of a theological pedigree within the bounds of orthodoxy. Hard inclusivism, however, has little more than Vatican II on its side in the history of theology (I’m not saying Vatican II lines up exactly with Kung; it is actually a bit more conservative, but in the same vicinity).

    Rob Bell is promoting hard inclusivism, combined with everlasting postmortem mobility, another unorthodox position. This is not the same kind of thing as the inclusivisms that have come before in the history of the church.

  6. Bill says:

    It would be significant to note that Aquinas was an inclusivist (though soft, as you say) – just saying . . . he’s only probably the greatest systematic theologian in history. And yeah, Stott is a good example, but I think a more exact description of his view would be hopefully agnostic – not just agnostic, and this is a very important distinction in my view. Furthermore, some corrections are needed based on what you’ve said: Bell is not promoting hard inclusivism. He is saying that it’s an option. Same thing with postmortem mobility. If you read him carefully, he never subscribes to either position himself. That said, you’re likely right in speculating that he probably leans in both of these directions, but he’s not interested in telling us what the “right” belief is. We would misunderstand his aim if we didn’t point this out. Again, he wants to make our orthodoxy more generous and hopeful – something I’m quite on board with, though we should still be critical of where he might be less than careful with Scripture, etc.

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