Bell in the Dock, Part 8

“For from the least to the greatest of them,

everyone is greedy for unjust gain;

and from prophet to priest,

everyone deals falsely.

They have healed the wound of my people lightly,

saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” — Jeremiah 6:13-14

Jeremiah was an unpopular fellow.  Day after day, month after month, year after year, he confronted the people of Jerusalem with the news that they were desperately wicked sinners, adulterous covenant breakers, presumptuous rebels upon whose heads the wrath of God would soon come crashing in the form of an invading army.  As each day went by, as each month went by, as each year went by, Jeremiah went on proclaiming this message for forty years.

During the course of such a long ministry, scoffers had plenty of opportunity to ridicule the prophet.  Can you imagine the way people whispered about him when he walked by?  “There goes that doomsday prophet.  He’s been saying these same things ever since I was a kid.  It’s so sad to see him out there, still believing his crazy message that Yahweh will judge us.  Yahweh will judge us?  How silly!  We are descendants of Abraham!  We are loyal to the house of David!  We have the temple standing right here!  I wish that prophet would get a clue: Yahweh is not that kind of God.  He chose us to be his people.  He’s not going to cast us off now!”

Not only did the people hate him, ridicule him, and persecute him, but a whole cottage industry of anti-Jeremiahs rose up to proclaim a different kind of prophecy.  They came with the message, “Peace, peace!”.  They came announcing God’s favor on Jerusalem.  They came announcing that God would hand over the enemies of Israel into her hands.  Most of all, they came to convince the people that Jeremiah was dead wrong about God, about Israel, and about the future destiny of the nation.

Rob Bell is a contemporary incarnation of the anti-Jeremiahs.  Not satisfied with the message as it has been given throughout the history of the church, he comes to paint a rosier picture:

– A picture in which we cannot define the boundaries between those who are “in” and those who are “out” of God’s favor (“Peace, peace!”)

– A picture in which Hell is defined, not as the expression of God’s intended punishment of sinners in defense of his justice, but rather as the natural consequence of human rejection of God’s love (“Peace, peace!”)

– A picture in which the opportunity to receive God’s love is an endless opportunity, meaning that multitudes will be able to migrate from Hell to Heaven after death (“Peace, peace!”)

– A picture in which hearing the message of the gospel is not a prerequisite for faith and salvation, but instead God mediates saving revelation through virtually anything in creation, including non-Christian religions (“Peace, peace!”)

– A picture in which God has already forgiven us all, and thus the message of the gospel comes to us, not to warn us of the coming wrath of God and give us the promise of escape from it, but in order to tell us that there is no coming wrath, and that we only need to believe what is already true of us (“Peace, peace!”)

– A picture in which sin is not regarded as an act of cosmic rebellion against an infinitely holy Creator and thus worthy of eternal punishment, but rather as a mere tendency toward self-destruction (“Peace, peace!”)

– A picture in which there is no divine wrath to speak of…..even in a book about Hell (“Peace, peace!”)

– A picture in which the vast majority of the human race, and even quite likely every single person, will eventually end up in Heaven (“Peace, peace!”)

The anti-Jeremiahs had a bad theology.  They had a false understanding of God, coupled with a false understanding of his people.  They viewed God’s commitment to Judah as one of unconditional blessing.  They pointed to the temple as evidence that God belonged to them.  As a result, they did not see the idolatry, the oppression, the greed, and the selfishness that pervaded their wicked city as any reason for concern.  “After all, we’re Israelites.  We have the temple standing right here.  We are immune from judgment.”

Rob Bell’s theology runs along the same contours.  He is not Israel-centric the way the false prophets were, but he is certainly anthropocentric (man-centered).  He does not see God unconditionally bound to the temple, but he does see God unconditionally bound to the entirety of the human race.  He does not speak of sin, judgment, and wrath as though he feels the weight of them at all, and he routinely ridicules those who speak of them as weighty matters.  Instead, he allows his understanding of love to dominate everything he believes about God, about humanity, and about our eternal destiny.  He paints a rosy picture because he cannot stand the harsh reality of the Bible’s story.  “The good news is better than that,” he says.  It must be better, because as it is, it makes his stomach churn.  And if Rob Bell’s stomach churns at something, then for Rob Bell it cannot be true.

Rob Bell is averse to bad news.  But he simply does not understand how gloriously good the good news is when we see it against the backdrop of the bad news.  If Sauron’s threat against the whole of Middle Earth had not been so dire, I can’t imagine that the destruction of the Ring would have been so wonderful.  If we cannot see that we justly belong in Hell (the Hell of Scripture, that is, not the demythologized “hell” of Rob Bell), we will never know the fullness of the redemption that Christ purchased for us on the cross.  The less severe the threat, the less impressive the rescue.  Rob Bell’s gospel is a mile wide and an inch deep.

I began this series by wondering what I would do if I belonged to some kind of fictional ecclesiastical court, hearing charges brought against Rob Bell.  Would I vote to defrock him?  Yes, I would.  I would do it in a heartbeat.  He not only proclaims a false gospel, but he openly and proudly ridicules the truth.  His teaching is dangerous the church, and no one who seeks to hold fast the gospel of Jesus Christ should give him an audience.  He needs to listen to the voices of those older and wiser than he, the voices of those who have drawn attention to how dangerous his teaching is.  He should listen humbly and seek to be corrected.  He wrote Love Wins at least in part to pick a fight.  That much is clear.  Now that he has the fight that he wanted, he should stop playing the martyr and seek the Lord in repentance.

It was a long time coming, but the anti-Jeremiahs and the multitudes who listened to them were eventually proven wrong, and Jeremiah was vindicated.  In 587 BC, the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, captured, humiliated, and imprisoned King Zedekiah, and took much of the population of Judah into exile.  The wrath of God had come, in spite of all the cries of “Peace, peace!” from those who thought they knew better.  Make no mistake: it will come again.  The destruction of Jerusalem was but a foretaste of the coming destruction of a rebellious, unrepentant humanity under the wrath of God.  False prophets will continue to proclaim, “Peace, peace!” and multitudes will continue to live as though a day of reckoning will never come, calmly patting themselves on the back as they continuously ignore the summons of the gospel to repentance.  And the likelihood is that some of them will do so with echoes of Love Wins ringing in their ears, giving them the calm assurance that they have already been forgiven, and they have an endless amount of time to clean up their act, either in this life or the next.

But God is not threatened by this, nor should we be.  In the words of the apostle Paul, “Let God be true, though every one were liar.” (Romans 3:4)

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3 Responses to Bell in the Dock, Part 8

  1. Bill says:

    Aaron – It seems that the primary criticism of the Israelites by Jeremiah was not so much for their belief that God would not judge them – a peripheral fact – as their idolatry and tendency to oppress the poor rather than to live justly. This is the most predominant theme throughout the prophetic literature. Interestingly enough, Rob Bell himself wrote extensively about this in his book, “Jesus Wants to Save Christians,” wherein he strongly criticized our complicity as American Christians with consumerism, comfort, neglecting the marginalized, and imperialism in general. I think the comparison you’re making here between Bell and the “anti-Jeremiahs” is a bit of a stretch.

    Furthermore, the Lord of the Rings illustration is similarly limited. Middle earth is the place where a dualistic battle happens between the forces of good and evil, the outcome of which is not guaranteed until the ring is destroyed. This does not correspond at all with your deterministic theology, wherein God set up the human situation from the beginning, knowing full well that the human beings he created would rebel and be deserving of punishment for it. Your theology also requires that that many, many of these people be predestined for such punishment, without any hope for the chance to “shuv”, return, or repent – another chief theme in the prophetic canon.

    You bash Bell for his inclusivism. While you’re at it, why don’t you include the majority of Christians in the world today (not to mention C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, etc.) rather than making it sound like that is something uniquely “blasphemous” (could there be a more unedifying word?) to Bell’s theology.

    You continue to make it sound like Bell has no concept of justice simply because he explains hell to be the natural consequence of rejecting God. But if God created the world in such a way that he allowed for human freedom, couldn’t we also say that the “natural” consequences of abusing that freedom is precisely one major avenue through which God has chosen to punish and judge sin, just like he used the Babylonians to judge Israel, or perhaps the Romans in 70CE? Bell makes this same argument in his previous book.

    You are criticizing Bell based on what he has NOT said about God’s judgment in this particular book – something he simply wasn’t addressing in the book – rather than based on what he DENIES about God’s judgment. Bell does not deny that God is going to punish sin somehow. Nor does he deny that God already did in fact punish sin on the cross through penal substitution. In fact, he affirms this. What he denies is that God will punish people for their sin without giving them a chance to repent (those who haven’t heard, or who have heard in such a way that did not give ample opportunity for genuine response).

    Rape, genocide, starvation, adultery, people getting away with murder and torture – these are some of the consequences of our sin – very serious consequences. Bell maintains that God will fiercely judge those who commit these atrocities. God created the world so that people could make decisions leading towards or away from this kind of behavior. The hurt that comes from sin is severe (not watered down). God will absolutely judge these deeds, and Bell affirms this. You give him no credit for this.

    When Jesus talks about who’s “in” and who’s “out” – a idea you reference – he’s not talking about who has the right theology. This is another argument Bell makes that you obviously overlook. Instead, when it comes to who’s “in,” he’s usually talking about people who have broken spirits or people who are the economically and socially downtrodden, as those who will be first in the kingdom, as opposed to those who are the leaders of the religious institutions of the time, who tend to be the gatekeepers of the right “interpretation” of the law – those who are quick to condemn others for their “blasphemy.”

    One last point: I noticed something that was overlooked when we were talking about Bell “looking for a fight” a while back: Bell never says that traditional, exclusive Christian views that maintain conventional ideas about hell are toxic. Rather, he says that the CONDEMNATION ITSELF of all other views as heretical EXCEPT for this one – that is what is toxic – not the theology as such. Go back and look at it. This is a KEY distinction that was never made in your treatment of that quote from the beginning of Bell’s book. In other words, Bell is not condemning “your” theology. Rather, he calls your view toxic for condemning his.

    Besides Kevin DeYoung’s highly reactive 20-page diatribe, this is the ugliest, most condemning and unChristian review of Bell’s book I’ve read so far. I believe that no good can come from this kind of talk, even if you’re right. To top it all off with a sweet touch of irony, your final words claim “we shouldn’t be threatened.” Well, if you weren’t feeling threatened – much like DeYoung – I doubt you would have written a 7-part, hyper-critical, polemic response.

  2. Hi, Bill. I am going to let you have the last word and let Part 8 be my last word on the subject. It’s time for me to move on to other things.

    Thanks for the dialogue. I always enjoy talking theology with astute minds. I hope you’ll keep checking in to engage in discussion on other things. I have a couple of different things in mind for later this week.

    God bless.

  3. Oh, I do have one word of response to your comment, though it’s not about Bell. It’s about “The Lord of the Rings.”

    If you read Tolkien’s “Ainulindale” in his book “The Silmarillion,” you can see the larger background of the story. It is definitely not dualistic. The all-powerful God in Tolkien’s world is never mentioned by name in “The Lord of the Rings” (the elves call him “Illuvatar” in “The Silmarillion”), but his predestining purpose is evident throughout the story of the Ring. Go back and reread Gandalf’s conversation with Frodo in the chapter, “The Shadow of the Past.” It’s clear there is a higher power at work, a power far greater than that of Sauron.

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