“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)