Saturday, March 05, 2011

When your wife tells you to comment about Rob Bell's new book

I did not intend to weigh in on the blog-troversy about Rob Bell's new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Livedbeing released now by Harper One on March 15th.

But when your wife tells you to write a comment about about something you do! Karla, my lovely wife of nearly 18 years, is not one to engage in theological debate. She has been my greatest supporter through my theological education, but her eyes glaze over within a few seconds of hearing a theological or biblical debate. She's practical and no non-sense. But on the issue of heaven and hell and God's will in allowing people entrance into heaven or sending people to hell she is always frustrated. She believes the Bible, she loves God, but she hates the doctrine of hell. and she doesn't understand the God behind it. She cannot understand how God could send a person to eternal torment because they did not accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. But she is not a universalist. She won't be. And my guess is neither is Rob.

When Karla heard about the book Rob has written she immediately wanted to watch the promo video. Not because of Rob (who the heck is Rob Bell?!!) but because the questions Rob is asking are her questions. The tensions Rob is willing to entertain in a public forum are exactly the ones she struggles with. And apparently so do thousands of other biblical evangelicals.

I have two thoughts for what its worth.

1. I think this book is important. Not because Rob will somehow set the record straight or because he has some new insight on the age old issue, or because he is in some papal position to render the final word on the issue, but because he is raising the issue for discussion. A discussion that is going on all over our country in living rooms, dorm rooms, coffee shops, driveways, bus stops, pubs and anywhere else where there are believers in Jesus who care about people.

2. I think we need to wait to read the book. There's no sense prejudging. It seems to me that what his critics are up in arms about is that he asks questions. But since when are questions out of bounds? Are there any questions that are "off limits"? I hope not. While the particular social contexts within which we are raising questions matter (e.g. church, academy, etc), the minute we put a limit on the kinds of questions we are allowed to ask, we've ceased being people of the book. We've become instead a people of dogma. For the life of me I can't figure out why John Piper would say something like "Farewell Rob Bell"? Was it because in the promo he asked "Will only a few select people make it to heaven and will billions and billions of people burn in forever hell "? Was it because he raised provocative questions that everyone is asking? Was it because he hinted at answers that press traditionally articulated answers?

Rob Bell may offer heretical views in this book, we won't know until it is read. But my suspicion--grounded as it is like everyone else's on almost no evidence--is that Rob is less a heretic and more a critic of biblical answers that don't speak in ways that make sense to people. Again my very uninformed guess (and we'll have to see if I'm a prophet or not) is that Rob will greatly nuance a traditional opinion on the matter in which he will be willing to let things that are unknowable remain so while emphasizing primary NT themes.

I suppose both sides will just have to wait an see. I will review the book when it comes out for the blog.


Jeff Smyth said...

Great post Joel. Enjoyed your thoughts and perspective.

corey sosebee said...

I just don't understand how people can be so naive about all this. Why do we just sit back and entertain these heretical thoughts and questions? Don't kid yourself. Rob Bell doesn't want Biblical answers to these questions. Those answers are already there. Bell wants to question the biblical answers. Then where are we left?

It just doesn't make sense to me how those dedicated to the gospel can allow 2 Tim 3:6-7 to happen.

It's okay for us to hate the doctrine of hell, but we have to be tolerant of those that question it.

Your post I think is very naive. While I'm not against asking questions, these aren't just typical questions thrown out by random Christians. These are questions being asked by Rob Bell. Questions that undermine the authority of the Word of God.

And since you mentioned John Piper, he would say something like that because evidently he is much more familiar with Rob Bell's history and message than you are. That would be my assumption.

I hope your review is much more determinative once you read the book for yourself.

God be glorified in the doctrine of hell.

Anderson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel Willitts said...

Corey: Perhaps you wrote so quickly that you left out some words. For example, "It's okay for us to hate the doctrine of hell, but we have to be tolerant of those that question it". Did you mean "intolerant"? I think you mean we need to be "intolerant" of people who question it? At least that is what the tenor of your comment suggests to me. I believe in hell. My guess is Rob does to. Oh and yeah, you're probably right, Piper knows Rob really well! I personally don't think we should glory in the doctrine of hell; God indeed be glorified, but hell is an inglorious, albeit true, doctrine.

corey sosebee said...

Joel: My use of the word "tolerant" was intentional.

My intended meaning of that sentence did not come across. I wanted to say, Why is okay for us to hate a doctrine that is clearly taught in the Word of God, but then feel we need to take a lax tone and give Rob Bell the benefit of the doubt (tolerance) and so thus entertain heretical questions that contradict God's word?

It just seems to me that our stance should be tougher on these issues.

And finally, I wasn't intending that we should personally "glory" in the doctrine of hell. But would God be glorified if there was no hell? God is just, it has to be so. It's for his name's sake.

Thanks for your response.

Pam Elmore said...

"...the minute we put a limit on the kinds of questions we are allowed to ask, we've ceased being people of the book. We've become instead a people of dogma." Well said... though obviously not everyone will think so.

People are asking the question, both Christians and non. I don't know how Rob has handled it in the book, and I can't say I'm a huge fan of the method used to promote the book in the video.

But the rush to judgment has been incredible, mean-spirited, and saddening.

Alan said...

Joel, thanks for the post. Well written and, in my opinion, very wise and thoughtful. Thanks

Michael F. Bird said...

Just watched Bell's video and read Boyd's apologia. I haven't read the book and will not judge it. What I will say is this: From what I've read/seen of Bell's work, what he is doing is great A-grade theater but B-grade theology. He is a poet and a stirrer. But he has the theological depth of a car park puddle. He wants to replace the certainty of Christian teaching that is culturally unpopular with a conversation, cheesey sound bites, endless paradoxical platitudes, and flat out denials of the clarity of what scriptures says on certain issues. Why are we even discussing him?

Joel Willitts said...

Michael: I'm not sure what "endless paradoxical platitudes" means, but the reason he's being discussed is because many are "discussing him". I'm not creating the discussion, I'm weighing in.

Pam Elmore said...

Michael, your comment made me chuckle. Having sat under Rob's teaching for five years (2000-2005), I can tell you you're spot on... he tends more toward good theater than good theology. And I think it's his skill as a communicator that has some folks so scared.

But let's not kid ourselves -- he's not asking any original questions, nor does he claim to be -- he's articulating a question that many ask. By articulating it, he's giving them permission to come out of hiding and do the same.

I'm not sure scripture's clarity is really the point. But if we're confident that scripture is clear, and further, that God does speak through His word to people, then we have nothing to fear when people ask questions of it. Unless what we're really afraid of is losing an argument... but I can't imagine any evangelical would fear that, can you? :)

I hope his book sends people to scripture and to their knees.

Jeremy said...

"But my suspicion--grounded as it is like everyone else's on almost no evidence--is that Rob is less a heretic and more a critic of biblical answers that don't speak in ways that make sense to people." Nope, unless by "make sense" you mean conform to a 21st century mind. It is not that Bell is just making things easier for people to understand; he is bringing the Bible into the 21st century by misinterpreting it. There is only a one way street here. You are far far too charitable to him. These doctrines don't make sense to Rob and some people because they want to be the judge jury, and executioner of Scripture. He has no category for understanding some aspects of God because he has closed his mind to anything that doesn't seem fair. In a day where so many people are (rightly) bringing to the forefront the fact that the Bible can transform our minds, the church, and society, never once is the doctrine of hell given the chance to do so.

I doubt that what Rob writes is really new, even for him. From what I have heard, this is not much different from what he has said in "The Gods are not angry." Bell believes that God only wanted OT blood sacrifices to free us from our own guilt. We are the problem and God's anger is not an issue at all. When you diminish sin and replace it with guilt, it is quite easy to make the jump to a hybrid inclusivism/universalism. Bell focuses on Colossians 1:20 and that "all things have been reconciled to God." This seems close to Barth's understanding of the atonement.You just need to realize that there is nothing you have to do except deguilt yourself. That is why Bell can say that Jesus died to abolish the violent sacrificial system. It is not that Jesus' death completed the sacrificial system, but that the sacrificial system is the problem in itself.

andrea said...

So Rob Bells name is ringing round the blogoshpere and facebook about what he may or may not have written. I personally wouldnt have picked it up for a read but with what seems mostly to be negative and hypothetical speculation, its ironically creating more interest than a 80s frankie goes to hollywood album. So may get on the amazon wish list for future reading!

pennoyer said...

I just posted another opinion on Bell's Love Wins at the following location. It is provisional (of course) but takes into account some of his earlier work. Let's just say, I hope to be surprised by an excellent book!

EricW said...

Are you sure that Rob Bell or HarperOne didn't pay John Piper to send that shameful (shameless?) tweet? It created more interest in the book among Evangelicals than it likely would have had.

Brilliant marketing by Bell and HarperOne! I wonder what Piper's cut is? Or maybe he's looking forward to being able to write and sell a rebuttal to Bell?

Ah, Evangelicalism. Even in the midst of external enemies, we still turn on our own.

Jeremy said...

EricW, Rob Bell is the one that turned.

EricW said...


John Piper accused Rob Bell of turning without having read the book.

As I said, shameful. But not out of character.

Jeremy said...

Rob Bell's book is his response to traditional Christian theology with respect to heaven and hell. Rob Bell is the one that turned on his fellow evangelicals no matter what Piper says.

John Thomson said...

I think Jeremy has it bang on.

'These doctrines don't make sense to Rob and some people because they want to be the judge jury, and executioner of Scripture. He has no category for understanding some aspects of God because he has closed his mind to anything that doesn't seem fair.'

EricW said...

Scot McKnight on the Rob Bell controversy:

John said...

Rob is of course correct.

There is only one Law inherent in Reality Itself. It also the Law that Jesus taught and demonstrated while he was alive.

It is to love God totally, and then, on that basis, practice self-transcending love in all relationships and under all circumstances.

Which is of course very difficult to do, or it is a very narrow gate which very few have ever passed through.

And certainly not any of the usual grim faced self-righteous Calvinist who criticize Rob Bell

Mark said...

Hey Joel

I love you brother, and I appreciate your desire to not jump to conclusions before reading this book. But it is not the book I am concerned about at this point. It is his promotional video that I think is damaging, and may lead people astray before they get the chance to read the book.

For the most part, I think it can be healthy to ask questions. But sometimes, the tone with which a question is asked, combined with the position of the person asking the question, can be terribly destructive. For example, here we have a Christ follower, and not just any Christ follower, but one who makes his living as a leader in the church and has many people who respect his opinions, questioning some very clear teachings of the Bible, and doing so in a mocking sort of way.

Do you not think that for a person in Rob's position, a person who should have answers to these questions, that it might be "off limits" for him to ask the questions without giving the answers? He doesn't need to write a book to answer these questions...he could have answered them in his video.

And the number of questions he asks is overwhelming, don't you think? Just for fun, I have listed them out below:

Ghandi's in hell?

He is?

And someone knows this for sure?

And felt the need to let the rest of us know?

Will only a few select people make it to heaven?

And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell?

And if that's the case, how do you become one of the few?

Is it what you believe, or what you say, or what you do, or who you know?

Or is it something that happens in your heart?

Or do you need to be initiated, or be baptized or take a class or be born again?

How does one become one of these few?

What is God like?

What kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God?

How could that God ever be good?

How could that God ever be trusted?

Did God actually say, "You shall not eat of any tree in the garden"?

I guess I don't see how anything bad could come out of asking a few good questions.