Christianity vs. Rob Bell – The Bigger Picture

This post is a response to the firestorm initiated by Rob Bell’s video promo, which you can watch by clicking this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODUvw2McL8g You need to watch this, and get caught up on the issue before reading this post. If you don’t, you will be confused, read this without proper context, or both.

That being said…I have not been this anxious about a piece of writing in a long time, and certainly never about a blog post. So before you read this post, please consider these things first:

1. Pray that God calms your heart and mind, and reminds you of His grace before reading this. I’m serious.

2. I would venture to guess that if you are reading this post, then you already have your opinion on this matter set in stone. Additionally, a good number of you may be reading this post for the sole purpose of correcting me, condemning me, or to justify taking everything I say with a grain of salt from now on. Those are consequences I must accept since this is a public venue. However, I beg you to put down your pitchforks, theological or otherwise, and just read this with the knowledge that I am not angry or irrational…but I am heavily concerned.

3. I have received some heat since letting people know that I would be writing this. Most of it has been sarcastic or joking, but some of it has been serious. The most serious came in the form of messages from people who are “praying for me because of the position [I] have taken,” and even go so far as to question my salvation. I had to sleep on this before writing the post, because I did not want to blow up and say things that I would come to regret. I know my salvation is secure, and that’s all that needs to be said about that. I have been tempted not to write this post because of the heat, but I’m not that easily intimidated.

4. This purpose of this post is not to be cruel, but I am going to be honest about how I feel. I am not the type of person who makes bold and condemning statements while hiding behind my writing. Anyone can do that, but I urge you to speak to me personally before engaging in online debate with me. The better writer usually wins, and minds are never changed in those scenarios anyway; the point is typically to make yourself look good. However, I feel this method is best for expressing how I feel. Take it for what it’s worth.

If you have read everything up to this point, I hope you take my caveats sincerely. Here we go.

What is a fundamental aspect of discovering information? I just gave you an example, asking a question. Essentially, asking questions has gotten Rob Bell in trouble. At least, that’s what the major consensus is from the several responses on the issue given from well-known Christian leaders. I agree that Bell’s question were subjective, that is to say, they were certainly asked from the influence of personal feelings, opinions, or beliefs. However, I have the opinion that Rob’s personal beliefs are not those of a Universalist. I think they are quite the contrary, and the questions he asks are extremely relevant questions which resonate from the culture regarding one of Christianity’s toughest parts of reality…and are not meant to tell the world that he is a Universalist.

Bell’s accusers are actually labeling him a “Christian Universalist,” or a “Biblical Universalist.” People who claim these identifying titles hold the belief that the sacrifice of Jesus will save every human being who ever lived, and that no one will end up in hell. Historians have found archeological evidence that these ideas were discussed and taught from Christian theologians between the first and sixth centuries, and the historical record also shows it being taught in Europe and America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This differs from the classic definition of universalism, which is basically religious pluralism (all roads lead to God, all religions and spiritual beliefs will bring us all to the same place).

My mind is bursting with the countless directions I could go, and the numerous things I could talk about. So I’ll do my best to be clear while striving for brevity.

Justin Taylor’s blog has been the most visited site throughout this fiasco. Taylor, a member of the blogosphere found at The Gospel Coalition, claims that Bell has “laid his cards on the table” about representing “full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.” The publisher’s description of the book is then pasted in the text, and the next thing Taylor says is:

“I haven’t read the whole book yet and was hesitant to say something based on the publisher’s description (which usually isn’t written by the author). But this video from Bell himself shows that he is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.”

I’m glad most of the responses from other noted people have at least discussed why they still choose to criticize Bell, even though they haven’t read the book yet. However, Taylor labels and dismisses Bell based solely on the video. He does go on to update his blog, and say that “I should have been more careful in my original post not to imply that Bell is definitely a universalist.” But, he says this in his update first: “I think that the publisher’s description combined with Bell’s video is sufficient evidence to suggest that [Bell] thinks hell is empty and that God’s love (which desires all to be saved) is always successful.” Taylor then states that if the book shows Rob to not be a Universalist, then he’ll change his tune via correcting his blog.

If Taylor does end up changing his tune, what does that say about him and everyone else who may have prematurely tossed Rob Bell to the wind? What does that say about people like John Piper, who’s three-word tweet (“Farewell, Rob Bell.”) has been re-tweeted by people who may be unaware of the ramifications it’s caused? If Rob Bell IS a Universalist, is HE going to hell???

I have spent all week having good conversations with great people, worrying that I’ll say something really offensive, trying not to lash out at people who now think I am hell-bound, and even having dreams about hearing Dirk Nowitzki talk about theology in a Catalyst theme park. Here is what I want to say about this whole issue. I have good news, and I have bad news.

The good news is that Rob Bell, contrary to hyped-up accusation, still appears not to be a Universalist. A few people have read the pre-published book, including a local Dallas blogger named Scott (thetenthleper.com) who is posting a review on each chapter or two. In the book, Bell affirms his belief in hell being a real place where people go who do not accept Jesus, and references verses like John 14:6 to support himself. If any of you have ever read Bell’s books before, you know his style. Incredibly rhetorical, and seemingly unbalanced in the supply of concrete answers compared to the large amounts of questions. Additionally, this is not the first time Bell’s orthodoxy has been criticized. If someone picked up Velvet Elvis and read a line or two, it would appear that Bell denounces the virgin birth of Christ. If the same person read the lines in context, they would discover that Bell is giving a scenario of doubt, and goes on to see Bell completely affirm of the virgin birth a few pages later. I have read all of Bell’s books, and watched all of his NOOMA videos. I feel like I understand him decently well. If the reviews I’ve seen from the few people who have read the book are even half-true, I’m not too worried. The book appears to be filled with questions about how salvation occurs, down to tiniest detail on every level. The questions also seek to answer how a God of complete love could allow his image-bearing creation to suffer eternal separation from Him. Pretty tough questions, wouldn’t you say? Sure, I have seminary answers…but that doesn’t mean these are not tough questions. Of course, I can never be positive that Bell is not a Universalist. I suppose I’ll have to wait until a published, finished copy of the book is on my shelf before I can make a more substantiated claim about Bell’s current orthodoxy. I realize that this is my own opinion, and I will never force it on anyone, or expect you to believe it solely because of any reasoning I make.

Here’s the bad news. I think everyone throwing mud at Bell, Taylor, Piper, DeYoung, and the rest have been unfair, and perhaps misunderstood in return. Heck, I’ve already been unfair and perhaps mistakingly assuming in this post. John Piper may have had a few conversations with Bell at this point. Maybe he even got his hands on a pre-published version of the book too. That goes for everyone who has written a post about Bell’s video; they may have more information than any of us do. So, I’m unable to really give decent critique, because I have no legitimate proof to go from.

Okay, so here’s the really bad news. I started off as a member of the crowd that I am writing this blog to. I started throwing insults and assumptions at people without looking into anything of depth for myself. You have already seen what I have picked up from hours of reading and thinking about this issue. I really hope that everyone who has used incredibly condemning words like false teacher, Universalist, and heretic have also done significant thinking and prayer about the issue. In case they haven’t, then this next portion may hit a little closer to home.

Communication and influence of every type has reached astounding heights in the twenty-first century, with much of the rise stemming from social media. People now possess an unprecedented ability to create, comment on, and interact with information…instantly. Consequently, this allows people to pass judgement without the need for a relevant basis. It’s instant, and it’s out there for all to see and respond to.

Without purposefully offending anyone, I fear that everyone witnessing this online lynching of Rob Bell may have seen these kinds of comments, and in large amounts. People who claim to follow Christ have said some pretty bold and hurtful things about a number of people, and they tack sacred terms like biblical, orthodox, and Jesus in the midst of statements which appear as reactionary, rage-filled banter. Granted, they may have a calm spirit and good intentions, but how are people to know for sure? Especially unbelievers, who have had the opportunity to sit back at yet another online Christian civil war-type meltdown?

Here is my advice to everyone involved, and I do mean everyone. Consider your thoughts and words carefully, especially when they are posted for everyone to see around the world in a split-second. Increase your caution ten-fold when you back up your comments “in the name of Jesus.” Christian theology and the Word of God are meant to unite the body of Christ, the church, as a fellowship of believers who are called to be examples of Jesus to a world who is unaware of the grace He offers through salvation and everlasting life with Him. These things are very important. Important enough for us to continuously ask ourselves serious questions about issues in culture today, and work through them with the help of our fellow believers. I have enjoyed the multiple conversations from this week with fantastic friends who are smart and love Jesus. This is the way it should be with issues like this. Use opportunities like this to reaffirm your own faith, because the enemy will surely seize every opportunity to make people cringe after reading or hearing the word Christian.

Does Rob Bell’s video base itself on a method of controversial questioning that may mislead young believers? Quite possibly. What if Rob does indeed turn out to be a Universalist? I would join a lot of friends in sadness. If Rob has accepted Christ as his Savior, and believes in every aspect of salvation as the Bible states, but still hopes that God will save everyone…is he going to hell? The same Bible tells me no.

Yes, I think it’s important for Christians to be informed, and discuss serious issues in our present day. I also think it’s important to value historical, orthodox theology…I value and believe it immensely. However, the most important piece of theology I look to is the promise of God fulfilled in the resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Without His resurrection, we have no hope and no point in wasting our time even reading theology…let alone getting up early on Sunday morning.

The aspect of this entire debacle that has worried me the most can be summed up in one question: what hill are you willing to die on? People have spent nearly a week slinging comments, casting judgement, and condemning “heretics,” and I’m worried that they did so in a hasty manner. Yes, people who publicly affirm, teach, and support things that are against orthodox theology are dangerous. But the way the Christian community has handled it has left more than a few of my unbelieving friends laughing, and it has saddened me. Statements have been made and understood that can never be taken back. Strangers have seriously insulted and attacked other strangers, with both parties claiming Jesus and the Bible as their source. No one’s theology is 100% identical to the believer down the pew from them, yet many of us are willing to stake our entire reputation on a single detail in the make-up of countless things we cannot fully understand. Where does our faith come in? I have been extremely humbled since coming to seminary, and I have more questions now than I know what to do with. However, my faith has grown exponentially, and I have nothing but awe for the might of our Savior.

You have read some opinions I have, but I take no one’s “side” in this mess. I honestly started off wanting to defend Bell at all costs, but I realized the selfishness and futility of that position. Besides, after praying and talking with others, it was hard to ignore the elephant in the room of the Christian community tearing itself apart while our “mission field” watched. Even if Rob does end up being a Universalist…I feel like we have sacrificed incredible amounts of integrity and reason for hope, and expelled all the brimstone-breath we could muster in what could have been remedied with rational, sensible, mature conversations with others. Swatting one Universalist for the cost of possible thousands who may now have extremely hardened-hearts toward anything that sounds or resembles “Christian.” Is that really a victory?

Following Jesus is the most difficult thing anyone can choose to do, and it demands a level of thinking and commitment that will continue to intimidate me. Jesus was radical, and so are his followers. Theological issues that are not salvific, that is, not necessary to know and understand for salvation, are always dicey when debated in public. Be secure in the eternal hope you have, and extend grace to those who differ. God loves the worst of our society as much as he loves the best. “Love Wins” because He first loved us, and gave Himself up for us.

I’m having trouble ending this post. Maybe it’s because I feel like it could honestly never be finished. So I’ll just end with this. Remember Who you represent, don’t stop asking questions, and don’t stop loving and praying for others. Even people with black-rimmed glasses.

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…”

 

1 Corinthians 15:1-4

 

Amen.

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2 thoughts on “Christianity vs. Rob Bell – The Bigger Picture

  1. OrganicMama says:

    I watched Rob Bell’s video. It’s interesting that he doesn’t actually answer any of the questions he’s asking. Yet, he’s already been labeled and discarded by some Christians. I guess it’s because these aren’t the safe questions allowed by Christian doctrine?

    I’m not making any suppositions about Bell’s conclusions. But, he is voicing genuine questions asked by people unschooled in church doctrine/language/safe questions. The people who are supposed to be the target of the Church’s love & evangelism.

    How can the Church expect people outside the faith to want the God inside if the people without are rejected for honest inquiry? Is the God of Christianity too small/afraid to handle it? I don’t believe it.

    1 Corinthians 13 isn’t just a text for weddings. I think it’s a message about how powerful the love of God is. It’s not easily angered and there isn’t any fear in it.

  2. Robert Hohimer says:

    Let me preface this comment by saying I cannot believe I was pulled into this fray. I have strong opinions, but I usually share them with those who I know will not lose their tempers, their theology, or scream heretic regardless of whether they agree or disagree with me (i.e. I normally talk things out face to face). However, at the end of the day, I am not sure what those who read my response will think, either of my theology or me, so I am somewhat hesitant in commenting. Nevertheless, I will do so because I was asked to and am not ashamed of my stance.

    The video, which is the major source of controversy, seems to portray Bell’s inclusivist theology (I say seems to because Bell has never came out and said where he stands on this issue). While exclusivists, like me, see what Bell said as controversial, it is not a salvific controversy, nor an anti-Christian heresy, rather a soteriological distinction that neither endangers Bell’s salvation nor destroys his credibility beyond what he has already afforded himself.

    By the exclusivity of the Gospel, I mean that I see the proclamation of Christ as Lord as the most consistent view pertaining to the doctrines of original sin, total depravity, the incarnation and the atonement (otherwise they would be unnecessary), and the mission of the Church (at least as historically understood). Moreover, while I do not agree with inclusivism or everything Bell says and has stood for over the years, the bottom-line is that Bell’s inclusivistic view is still Christian because it is based on grace, through faith in Christ, even if the work of Christ is not known. However, further questions arise such as What about the universal salvific will of God? What about the uniqueness of Christ? What about benevolence, fairness, and justice? What about human freedom and equal access to salvation (part of their response to the problem of evil)? Yet these questions exist “in bounds” inside orthodoxy and do not make Bell a heretic.

    Regardless of the enormously understated fact that we should all wait to read Bell’s book before casting judgment, the lesson here is simple…receive one another as Christ has received us! We must proclaim the gospel with clarity! Likewise, it would serve us well to include a little sensitivity, in order not to diminish those to whom we are witnessing. Does your message reflect that of a marketer who pushes a sale or a former heathen who desires to see a change from death to life? The point is to be effective at planting and watering so that when the harvesters come along they might have a solid foundation to build upon and God will gain the increase. The Spirit of God uses the proclamation of the Word of God to breathe life into hearts of stone in order to make them flesh…sometimes we forget that.

    Lesslie Newbigin understood this message all to well when he wrote The Household of God and stated, “The Church exists, and does not depend for its existence upon our definition of it: it exists wherever God in His sovereign freedom calls it into being by calling his own into the fellowship of His Son. And it exists solely by His mercy. God shuts up and will shut up every way except the way of faith which simply accepts His mercy as mercy. To that end, He is free to break off unbelieving branches, to graft in wild slips, and to call “No people” His people. And if, at the end, those who have preserved through all the centuries the visible “marks” of the Church find themselves at the same board with some strange and uncouth late-comers on the ecclesiastical scene, may we not fancy that they will hear Him say — would it not be so like him to say — “It is my will to give unto these last even as unto thee?” Final judgment belongs to God, and we have to beware of judging before the time. I think that if we refuse fellowship in Christ to any body of men and women who accept Jesus as Lord and show the fruits of His Spirit in their corporate life, we do so at our peril. It behooves us, therefore, to receive one another as Christ has received us.”

    Robert Hohimer

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