Rob Bell: Love Wins -Theology Loses

Do you ever get frustrated when someone preaches a liberal universal doctrine and then tell you the only way to know that universal is through Orthodoxy? When everyone, especially those who are non-religious, already accept a universal ideal but it is claimed to be only available to the faithful. Well we get that full force in a new book by Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne).

Bell teaches that God’s love is greater than Christianity but one needs to be an Evangelical to know that about God. His book is turning into the biggest print and internet controversy in a while. Many clergy spoke about him last week or will speak this week. The internet is spreading this controversy rapidly.

Bell who draws 10, 000 to his service at his Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids but all across North America he has a big constituency. His liberalism seems to be where many Evangelicals are currently at in their faith. But that is why there is a controversy. Bell speaks liberalism even though he is a card carrying Evangelical. Bell teaches that religious belief wont affect afterlife. He offers a warn, kind, and comfortable version of Christianity. All the tenets are palpable. His theology can be seen as overcoming a strict Evangelical upbringing. Once upon a time people sorted themselves out by liberal and evangelical and knew the categories. But now that liberal and evangelical refer just as much to schools, seminaries, summer camps and neighborhoods, we have people raised in the Evangelical world who are completely liberal.

Evangelicals have condemned him and liberals have found him too parochial by saying that universalism is only in the Church. What I find interesting is the nature of the arguments. Most of his critiques and critics have not actually read his book outside of the press release, blogs, and a chapter or two. Bell is called a heretic by the Evangelical right and called names but one see little actually engagement with the theological issues.

Only Martin Bashir of MSNBC took Rob Bell apart as lacking theology. Bashir himself said about most interviews:

One Christian radio program interviewed Bashir about his questions… Bashir begins, for instance, by pointing out that most people who do interviews such as this haven’t even read the book. He says he did read the book, also went to two academic libraries, and interviewed three scholars (including two with no religious affiliation) and found the book to be evasive, disingenuous and ahistorical. Much of the interview gets into discussions of theology, history, the challenges with the type of evangelicalism Bell was raised in, etc. The questions aren’t the most interesting but Bashir’s answers do give lots to think about journalism and how it is practiced h/t getrelgion

Watch the video to see Rob Bell squirm.

Mark Galli of the Evangelical magazine Christianity Today tears Rob Bell to shreds from an Evangelical perspective here.

The prepublication buzz centered on Bell’s flirtation with universalism. He makes the universalist case most fully in one chapter, while avoiding the word universalist. He points out the many New Testament passages that point in this direction,

It’s rhetorically compelling, but he misleads at points.

In fact, he says, both Jesus’ death and resurrection can be understood in ways that make perfect sense to modern ears. For Bell, the Cross is “a symbol of an elemental reality, one we all experience,” and the Resurrection is not a new concept, but “something that has always been true. It’s how the world works.” He’s referring to that pattern of death and rebirth.

One has to ask, then, if Jesus’ death and resurrection are merely an expression of “how the universe works,” why all the bother? Why do we need Jesus to come and die and rise when this is something we see daily in the fabric of the universe, a knowledge that, as Bells suggests, we have instinctively sensed all along?

He correctly notes in the preface that many have taught what he teaches or hints at in the book. Names that come immediately to mind include Friedrich Schleiermacher, Albrecht Ritschl, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich. Schleiermacher was keen on mining our innate religious sensibilities (the things we’ve intuited are true) to ground Christian faith. Ritschl celebrated the kingdom ethics of Jesus. Bultmann argued that first-century metaphors and worldviews should be abandoned. Tillich wrote of faith as accepting our acceptance. All these themes run through Bell’s book, sometimes in compelling ways.

These thinkers, of course, are all representatives of the tradition called liberal Protestantism. By associating Bell with this tradition, I’m not suggesting that he is beyond the pale or that he holds no orthodox views. I’m trying to place him in theological context.

Most Christians grasp that to demythologize one doctrine is to make the others less coherent. They recognize that a Christianity that teaches about “a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross” (H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic summary of liberalism) does not reflect the thickness of biblical revelation nor lived reality. And they see that when all is said and done, there is no painful contradiction between the love and justice of God. That in the end, not only does love win, but justice, too

From an Evangelical blog asking: why is this is about groups of liberal and conservatives and not about theology?:

Taking Evangelicalism’s Temperature By Trevin Wax
The furor over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, shows no signs of subsiding. The development of the discussion has caused me to reflect on what a fever is and what it represents. Fevers don’t show up without a cause. A high temperature points to a bigger problem. It’s the sign that the immune system has kicked in and is fighting off an infection of some sort.
Response #1: The Fever is the Problem
When bloggers and pastors began responding to the promotional materials for Love Wins, many evangelicals used the occasion to point out their disagreement with the young, restless, and Reformed instead of dealing with the substantive issues Bell’s book brings to the surface. Conservative evangelicals sounded the alarm that Bell’s book was unorthodox, and a number of evangelicals threw stones at the messengers: You’re an alarmist. You’re just a bunch of heresy hunters. You can’t get along with anyone you disagree with.
Imagine being in a crowded building when the fire alarm goes off. Instead of looking for the fire or heading for the exit, everyone stands around the alarm and begins discussing its shortcomings:
“Wow, this alarm sounds so shrill. It hurts my ears. Someone should change the tone!”
“Who pulled this alarm anyway? I don’t smell any smoke. I don’t see a reason for the warning.”
“Well, I can smell smoke, but I’ve got to tell you – these alarms just go looking for smoke. Who do they think they are anyway?”
In other words, fevered discussion of theological truth and error is the problem. The fever is the issue. Why not take a Tylenol and some Dramamine and chill out?

Response #2: The Body is Okay with Infection
Rob Bell’s universalistic tendencies are nothing new. In fact, we’ve always had a segment of evangelicals who lean in this direction. So let’s not get too worked up about universalism. After all, the denial or redefinition of hell isn’t that big of a deal in the long run.
To be fair, this kind of evangelical isn’t denying that universalism is heterodox. Returning to the sickness metaphor, I believe this group sees universalism as problematic. But the underlying message is this: This problem isn’t life threatening.

Evangelicalism has always been a big tent. The question before us today is, How big can the tent be before it caves in? How big can the tent be before “evangelical” means nothing more than “a professing Christian who is serious about what he/she believes”?

From the New York Times treating it as a media craze”
Pastor Stirs Wrath With His Views on Old Questions By ERIK ECKHOLM
Published: March 4, 2011

His book comes as the evangelical community has embraced the Internet and social media to a remarkable degree, so that a debate that once might have built over months in magazines and pulpits has instead erupted at electronic speed.

By that same evening, “Rob Bell” was one of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. Within 48 hours, Mr. Taylor’s original blog had been viewed 250,000 times. Dozens of other Christian leaders and bloggers jumped into the fray and thousands of their readers posted comments on both sides of the debate, though few had yet seen the entire book.

“Rob Bell is tapping into a younger generation that really wants to open up these questions,” he said. “He is also tapping into the fear of the traditionalists — that these differing views of heaven and hell will compromise the Christian message.”
While sliding close to what critics consider the heresy of “universalism” — that all humans will eventually be saved — he never uses the term.

From a pdf manifesto of an Evangelical conservative. This one phrased the controversy in terms similar to Orthodox Judaism.

Love Wins has ignited such a firestorm of controversy because it’s the current fissure point for a larger fault-line. As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural environment, they are breaking in one of two directions—back to robust orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors.

Finally, those who want to give an informed theological sermon from the range of Evangelical thought should see Four views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World Four Views on Hell and Four views on Eternal Security. These books give a range of kosher Evangelical opinions, from orthodox left to engaged right.

4 responses to “Rob Bell: Love Wins -Theology Loses

  1. the protestant church has the ability to split itself infinitely over infinitely small and revealingly irrelevant matters of doctrine. To me it does not look very healthy. It reminds me too much of chasidut.

  2. Bashir is one tough interviewer, and Bell very gracefully took all the fast paced attacks. At the end, however, we are no closer to understanding either Bell’s views or his opposition’s, since Bashir seems hopelessly stuck in a certain mindset that is overly simplistically binary. Many either or questions, when the answer is or should be subtle.

    That said, I think that Bell took the Christian doctrine of unconditional love to its absurd logical extent, which is that if ultimately his god loves all regardless of their beliefs and actions, why be moral, ethical and pious, IOW why adhere to the religion? (This question, by the way, also emerges from taking Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz to his logical absurd extreme. A couple of years ago Tradition published a nice article on this.)

    More orthodox Christians will probably and sensibly qualify their understanding of the Christian doctrine of Agape, but the real culprit here is probably an unbridled agape doctrine, not Bell per se.

    Separately, several of Bashir’s questions are Jewishly relevant, too, and there are well established answers to many of those questions (example: even if everyone goes to heaven, cf. yesh qone ‘olamo besha’a a’hat, even so, one’s extent of heaven may still be function of one’s values in life, and heaven and hell don’t cancel each other out, rather, they are for most subsequent experiences; answers that are ethically compelling and sufficiently universalist). I am surprized none such kind of answers were mentioned, which does strengthen at least one of Bashir’s accusations, namely, that Bell has created a theology for the theologically lazy, looking-after-warm-fuzzy-spirituality Facebook generation. It is namely theologically demanding to become subtle enough to understand these answers; perhaps they don’t fit on the Facebook “wall.”

  3. I’m wondering what ‘evangelical’ is taken to mean in this context. It seems to have become a term ripe for equivocation. Is it now, as Dr. Brill suggests, simply a cultural identifier?

    Also worth thinking about is what ‘heaven’ is doing so prominently in the discussion. For some people heaven just is the place where people who accept Jesus get tot hang out and bask in the eternal love. For others, heaven seems to signify that your life was acceptable to god by some moral standard.

  4. Which Afterlife?

    In his new book “Love Wins” Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from “the greatest achievement in life,” my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote “In God we all meet.”

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