Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Rob Bell On Trial: The Hell-Acious Response Of Conservative Christianity

I saw a couple of Rob Bell's short videos about 5 years ago when I stayed in Chicago for a brief spell. I remembered something about him being filmed in a small cafe' setting, talking to the camera (as if you were the person he was having coffee with.) They seemed to me like solid, compassionate efforts at communicating God's truth to those who are struggling to understand why bad things happen in this life.

Bell's forthcoming book "Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived" has sparked a brouhaha before it has even hit the shelves. Mostly it's centered around not the book itself, but the "Trailer" for it, shown above. No surprise that Justin Taylor, (who's also in the publishing business as vice president of editorial at Crossway Books) has along with John Piper and a few others, already condemned Bell as a universalist. I've come to expect this kind of knee-jerk outrage from the more Conservative theological camp & Calvinist Good 'Ol Boy Network.

Jason Boyett in his Beliefnet blog articulates the scope and complexion of the debate:

From the publisher's copy about the book:
In Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith--the afterlife--arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic--eternal life doesn't start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.
Sound controversial? It is. It's supposed to be. And we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but on Saturday influential blogger Justin Taylor (who's also in the publishing business as vice president of editorial at Crossway) decided to judge the book based on its cover description. Citing that and a short video provided by the publisher, Taylor outed Bell as a universalist. While he admitted that he hadn't read the book yet (!), he felt OK making this statement about Bell:
It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.
And this one, too, in an explanatory follow-up statement:
If Bell is teaching that hell is empty and that you can reject Jesus and still be saved, he is opposing the gospel and the biblical teaching of Jesus Christ. You may think that's judgmental to say that; I think it's being faithful. I would encourage a careful study of 1 Timothy to see what Paul says about false teaching and teachers.
As of this morning, Taylor's post has more than 20,000 Facebook recommendations and 1,000 comments. But that's not all. Highly respected author and pastor John Piper read Taylor's post and recommended it to his Twitter followers with a link and this simple line:

Farewell, Rob Bell.

Piper's tweet got retweeted and passed along and pretty soon, #robbell was in Saturday's top 10 trending topics, which is usually reserved for Middle East unrest, dead celebrities, and Justin Bieber.

Read more: http://blog.beliefnet.com/omeoflittlefaith/2011/02/thoughts-rob-bell.html#ixzz1FNyYUZAF

Denny Burk begins his strawman attack on Bell by quoting from the above trailer and responding (of course, Bell isn't there to answer if Burk is or isn't correct in his presuppositions, but never mind that.) Here's Burks "phony debate" in part:

Bell: Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?

Answer: The Bible teaches that there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). The Bible also teaches any person who does not believe in Jesus falls under the judgment of God (John 3:18). Anyone (including Gandhi) who refuses to trust Christ alone for salvation will die in their sin and will not be able to follow Jesus into eternal life (John 8:21).

Hello??? I happen to know Christians who would say the same thing as Bell, and they believe in eternal punishment. They would agree with him about Gandhi, because Jesus said not to judge.

Nothing in that Bible passage can tell us exactly where Gandhi is with God. (Duh, because it was written some 2000 years prior to Gandhi's life on Earth!) We know E Stanley Jones, the great 20th century Methodist Theologian, witnessed the Gospel to him. At one point Jones wrote to him and expressed that although he previously though Gandhi had "gotten it," (saving faith in Christ) he had to admit he had not.


But that's IT! That's ALL we know! Anything to the converse is pure speculation because we don't know the guy and have no idea if he ever later reconsidered his views!

Can God communicate with us telepathically? Can he so so in a speed faster than light? DUH, what do you think? Perhaps something like this happened:

*Sound of Gun Shot*

Gandhi: "Oh no... no..." (according to the movie anyway!)

Holy Spirit: "Hi Gandhi this is God. You have just been fatally shot and unfortunately, this is it for you. Your mind will soon be going blank and your body will be entering the process of rigor mortis after that. Before your soul completely vacates your body, I just have one question for you. I see my servant E. Stanley Jones took the time out to explain The Gospel to you. What do you think. Do you believe my Son Jesus died for your sins, or no?

Speculation? Of course! And so is dogmatically stating that Gandhi is in hell.

Come to think of it, wasn't there someone in history, in the Bible as a matter of fact, who was saved by God without a Bible, Evangelists, or any adherence to 5-Point theology? Why yes, his name was Abraham!

I don't know if Rob Bell is a Universalist. I do know he's a breath of fresh air compared to the trend that permeates much of modern Christianity where some just read books by Piper, Horton, Sproul, et. al. rather than a broader cross-section of authors. But what disturbs me more than anyone's conclusions is the insinuation that the questions are ipso facto wrong to have. I once heard Charlie Peacock say that God is not afraid of our questions, but He is more than capable of shutting you up.

Someone who knows the Pastors who are criticizing Bell has shared with me that they have previewed chapters of his book in advance, and at his request. However, one Blogger has read the entire book, and disagrees with the conclusions being drawn by others. Here's also a good collection of thoughts on the topic.

But getting back to the controversy, I have to say that I've seen this movie before. The Reformed Good 'Ol Boy network gets to unilaterally decide for everyone else what is or isn't orthodoxy. And then they congratulate each other for a job well done not listening. I remember when decades ago, Tony Campolo had a heresy trial (that he asked for,) and J.I. Packer was one of the judges. I'll believe something is wrong with Bell when I hear people from other Theological Stripes weigh in on it.

John R.W. Stott whom many Evangelical Conservatives quote as an authority, isn't Orthodox on this issue, either. And yet I don't recall very that many people got their undies all in a twist over it! Hypocrisy? I'll let the reader decide for his or her self.

And why should they? I sometimes wonder if the Evangelical Covenant denomination might be right after all. They require no one to believe in anything that is not in and of itself Salvific. I'm sure many will staunchly disagree. But I think the unity of people in Christ as a reflection of Christ is more important than propositions *about* Christ.

I take NT Wright's definition of the Gospel to heart here and I am comfortable limiting it as such the same way he does:

When Paul talks about “the gospel,” he means “the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world.” Now, that’s about as brief as you can do it. It’s very clear in Romans. Romans 1:3-4: This is the gospel. It’s the message about Jesus Christ descended from David, designated Son of God in power, and then Romans 1:16-17 which says very clearly: “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God unto salvation. That is, Salvation is the result of the gospel, not the center of the gospel itself.”

The Gospel is: the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world. Why not limit our boundaries of fellowship to that? Then all of the folks at differing levels of Orthodoxy don't have to be ostracized! Or are we too in love with Ostracization to be persuaded otherwise?

The only Ecumenical Council that was ever convened that had any Biblical Authority behind it was in Acts 15. In that scenario, thorny issues were hashed out, a decision was made that all were in agreement with. No one was kicked out.

I think we should start affirming whether these things are done Well in God's sight not so much by their words, but by their outcome.

And are we bold enough to imagine a Christianity free of differing over anything that will not intrinsically bring salvation? Perhaps we misunderstand the way Jesus intended to lead his flock, and how that's devalued into orgainizationalism & sectarianism.

Trevin Wax is another Bell Basher, but this time I'm not going to quote his blog, but the comments section. A respondent named Mason offers the most clear-headed thinking I've heard so far:

I guess my “issue” with heaven and hell is the idea of eternal punishment (of course I understand that God really does not care if I have an issue with it or not, nor does my issues make it any less Biblical).

In the OT God is quite clear that the punishment should fit the crime. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth type stuff. You sacrifice children to Moloch and I wipe you out. God’s judgment is proportionate to the crime. But God is not seen as giving out more punishment than is necessary or deserving. God is just. having said that where is the justice of taking a sincere religious person who gives to charity, supports efforts for justice and mercy to widows and orphans and basically “behaves” maybe even better than most Christians and when that person dies God places that person in eternal torment forever and ever just because that person did not accept Jesus as Lord??

As I read the scriptures Jesus is clear that there are degrees of punishment…remember when Jesus says that it will be more tolerable for Sodom in the Day of Judgment than for other cities b/c the other cities rejected the Gospel. It appears that judgment is given out based on the sole judgment of God.

Also, when you do a study of “hell” in the OT and NT people are often surprised how little the word Hell is actually used. Sheol is not hell neither is Gehenna. Sheol is the holding place of the dead similar to Hades. Gehenna is a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where children were sacrificed to Molech during the OT. some could argue and i do not want to write Bell’s book for him, but that Jesus’ words concerning Gehenna are similar to Jeremiah’s warning to Jerusalem that if they did not repent then they would be subject to Gehenna..meaning they would be judged and destroyed in the fires of Gehenna, the city of Jerusalem would be leveled to the ground and bodies thrown into Gehenna, not eternal torment but consumed in judgment meaning perhaps and leaving open the possibility of nihilism, that they would suffer for a short time and then cease to exist.

Therefore Jesus’ discussion on Gehenna could be the same as Jeremiah (7.3). Jesus could be simply saying that if you refuse to be part of the Kingdom of God (which includes recognizing me as the one true Messiah and aligning your life in accordance with my kingdom) you too will be judged just as in Jeremiah’s day and be subject to the fires of Gehenna. Sure enough that is exactly what happened 40 yrs later when Titus marched on Jerusalem and leveled it and piled up all of the bodies in Gehenna.

Notice also in Revelation, hell is not mentioned. Death and Hades are mentioned, but those “places” are not hell. The only place that could be understood in the traditional since as hell is the lake of fire. But those thrown into the lake of fire are not said to burn forever. One could argue that they are consumed. Meaning they no longer exist. Some have argued that there is such a thing as “conditional immortality.” Meaning that humanity was created with the possibility of being immortal but they were not created inherently to be immortal.

There is only one immortal person and that is Jesus (1 Timothy 6.16). We are immortal as long as we are in the immortal one (Jesus). Without Jesus we are not immortal and we die. We cease to exist. Just a few thoughts…I think that we need to read Bell’s book before we jump to conclusions. All I am saying is that our traditional few of hell if correct should not fear challenges from those either inside of outside the church. If it is true it will stand the test of time. I would ask though that we make sure that our beliefs are shaped by the Bible and not by medieval literature (Divine Comedy).

Someone responds to Mason further down in the comments section with Eph 2:5, but I'm not sure if I can buy that persons' exegesis of it.

But I do like "Mason's" comment, and for this reason: He (?) goes right to the Raw Data of Scripture and wrestles with whats there!

Could he be wrong? Of course! But I think he's on the right track. The old "fret over that guy who could be going over the edge of what we consider Normal Christianity into heresy" tactic just doesn't cut it anymore. We should also ask: How faithful to Jesus has so-called "Normal Christianity" been?

In our 2000 year history: Crusades. Inquisition. Racism. Persecution. Misguided political agendas. Slavery to Salvation by Works instead of by Grace. Are these the hallmark of what Jesus had in mind?

It's not an unfair question to ask if we as a whole took a wrong turn somewhere, not at all.

And if your counter-argument boils down to a simplistic "because I said so" then you don't get it.

Because sometimes the "Traditional" view may be proven wrong. And if so, we'd better be prepared to abandon it!

And I might add: No one has shown me anything in Bell's video or the pre-publicity that couldn't go either way.

As an example, this from the Amazon.com Product Description:

Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

Arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering" is one of the buzz-phrases used in Pre-publicity for Bell's book that's being kicked around by Burk & others. And yet as I previously pointed out, many Christians use the apologetic that God sentences no one, only People sentence themselves to hell!

It could also turn out to be the result of premeditated "pre-publicity." An ad campaign has been brought forth to get people in on the Buzz. Everyone's beating the drum on this thing at the behest of HarperCollins (and possibly Bell himself) - who may have concocted this as a mere charade. But asking questions is not a bad thing, either.

But we won't know for sure... and none of us really do... until the Book itself has hit the streets.

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