Relevant Magazine recently ran a piece entitled, “Rob Bell: Through Hell and Back.” In preparation for the piece, they asked me a few questions. The piece fairly represents my view, for which I am grateful.
To provide some additional context for my comments, I thought it might help to print the answers I sent them in full. I’ve re-phrased their questions.
What caused this to become such an uprising?
The temptation is to take a mono-causal approach, as if there’s one thing that created the firestorm.
But as with virtually anything that becomes A Very Big Deal, the causes are varied and complex.
It’s only when the conditions are right and the various elements combine that the explosion can occur.
There are probably more factors at play than I could enumerate, but here are several that come to mind:
(1) Bell had a charismatic persona and a popular reputation (especially among younger evangelicals) for creative envelope-pushing without crossing over into anything heterodox.
(2) Many older evangelicals had a vague suspicion that he was a good communicator who was increasingly untethered from sound doctrine and careful exegetical theology, such that his trajectory looked sketchy and worrisome.
So I think these two combined as background for why when Bell seemed to be coming out with a more definitive move away from orthodoxy, the reaction was bound to be loud—both from his detractors and from his defenders.
Add to that at least two other factors:
(3) The mediums at play—social media responding to a book trailer video—allowed for rapid reaction and instant analysis (including my blog post wondering if he was going to reveal himself to be a universalist and John Piper’s famous “Farewell Rob Bell” tweet that linked to my post).
(4) The theological questions being asked were significant and troubling.
Popular Evangelicalism has a history, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century, of being anti-intellectual—chasing after fads and riding every wind and wave of doctrine.
But it at least gave nominal attention to the basic ideas of the Christian gospel:
- a good and holy God sent his Son to die for our sins, taking the punishment we deserve;
- all of us are sinners and so our good works or good reputation are never enough before a holy God;
- if we would trust him and him alone, we would be rescued for wrath and saved for heaven not hell.
Well along comes Rob Bell and says that maybe none of that is really true.
In fact, maybe this whole story is not even biblical, not even good news.
Maybe this false story, Bell wondered, is “an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies.”
Maybe this God of the traditional gospel is not even good—cannot even be trusted. Maybe this gospel is not good news but terribly depressing news.
Maybe this is the reason so many people are rejecting Christianity.
Even more than sounding like a hipster universalist, Bell sounded like he was on his way out of orthodox Christianity altogether.
That, by the way, was what Piper was recognizing and lamenting, rather than offering a “flippant” or mocking dismissal, as some have alleged. Anyone who thinks that it was done with malice or glee, rather than pastoral concern and deep sadness, doesn’t know John Piper.
Looking back, was the controversy merited?
If anything, I think the initial concerns were understated.
Bell defenders were saying, “But you haven’t even read the book!” (In fact, I was able to read a pre-pub copy of the book during the week after the controversy broke.) But the actual book itself vindicated the dismay that so many of us felt. Kevin DeYoung’s thorough review of the book showed just how problematic the book turned out to be.
How did all of this change Rob Bell’s reputation?
I think it made it harder for a lot of younger evangelicals—who cared about biblical theology and sound doctrine but admired Bell’s creativity and insights—to defend him. There has been a resurgence of theological training among young evangelicals over the past few decades, and I think most people who have carefully studied Scripture and theology and church history—whether they have a seminary education or not—were able to see that Bell was seriously out of his depth. A lot of folks saw that he was on a certain trajectory and that he was now happy to leave evangelicalism in the rear-view mirror. His decision to leave his church and literally sign on to the Oprahfication of spirituality has only solidified and deepened those concerns.
For reference, here is a transcript of the video that started all of this:
“Several years ago we had an art show at our church and people brought in all kinds of sculptures and paintings, and they put them on display. And there was this one piece that had a quote from Ghandi in it. And lots of people found this piece compelling. They’d stop and sort of stare at it and take it in and reflect on it. But not everyone found it that compelling. Somewhere in the course of the art show, somebody attached a handwritten note to the piece and on the note they had written: ‘Reality check. He’s in hell!’ 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 something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or baptized or take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these ‘few’? And then there is the question behind the questions. The real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets suddenly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But 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? And how could that ever be ‘good news’? This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, ‘Why would I ever want to be a part of that?’ See, what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like. What you discover in the Bible is so surprising unexpectantly beautiful that whatever we’ve been told or taught, the Good News is actually better than that! Better than we could ever imagine. The Good News is that love wins.”