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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).

Farewell-Rob-Bell

(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.

Maybe people like Gandhi who rejected Jesus don’t go to hell after all. (I still wonder, by the way, if Bell has ever done any historical research on what an immoral and abusive man Gandhi was!)

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.”


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20 thoughts on “Rob Bell Revisited: 5 Years Later”

  1. steve hays says:

    Your response to the video was prescient. Lots of folks attacked you, but you were right and they were wrong. By the same token, subsequent developments have borne out your reservations about Sarah Palin.

  2. Has it been 5 years already?

    Evangelicalism grows up so fast!

  3. BruceS says:

    “(I still wonder, by the way, if Bell has ever done any historical research on what an immoral and abusive man Gandhi was!)”
    Justin, how do you see this comment being relevant to the question that Rob Bell actually asked — “Ghandi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure? And felt the need to let the rest of us know”?

    1. Joshua says:

      I agree. I believe Bell is talking about the human pride that is so rampant in The Church and this need people seem to have to have to share their assumptions with others so they can somehow be approved, etc.

      Church is hard to define in our culture nowadays. What has it become? Was it what Jesus had in mind? Is it a broken system that now we feel we just have to keep the machine running or are people genuinely going where the life is? I pray it’s the life and not the machine! Ephesians 4, Acts 17, Psalm 139:7-12, etc.

  4. D says:

    As an evangelical, I never saw Rob Bell as a force to be reckoned with in any manner whatsoever. It didn’t take me long to regard his rhetoric as gibberish for the most part. I think we as evangelicals have far more formidable “targets” to deal with; namely, Peter Enns and Daniel Kirk, to name a few.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      You’re right in that Bell is not really a serious thinker. However, Enns and Kirk have probably not influenced thousands upon thousands of youth leaders and high school students in the way that Bell was. So I think there was a pastoral element motivating much of this.

  5. Jason Morrell says:

    Can someone please explain to me the thinking behind the sentence “Bell is not a serious thinker”? Considering the man has created a massive amount of oral and written content, including all those Mars Hill sermons, one would have to consider only a “serious thinker” is capable of such creation.

    Also, “target”…are you kidding me with this language?!? I’ve never heard any of those three men, one of which is a close friend, say “we have some formidable targets we need to deal with”. Please know this is not a posture attractive to those you work so hard to align to your particular view of the Kingdom of God. So much loose language, name calling and without correction.

    I’m still disappointed in your article 5 years ago because it didn’t come from a genuine place, one of “serious thinking” as you seem to think of yourselves, because as you said you didn’t even read the book until after publishing the post. A serious thinker would’ve waited, examined the book, perhaps spoken to the man, and then published a post. Instead it was nothing short of click bait to generate revenue for you to continue your work.

    Be kind, take responsibility for your part in creating division (many people didn’t even read it because you had already written it off), and maybe offer blessings to all those on the path. Remember you don’t own the path or have the corner market on “truth” of the path, the creator of you, me, Bell, Enns and Kirk owns the path.

    1. steve hays says:

      “Considering the man has created a massive amount of oral and written content, including all those Mars Hill sermons, one would have to consider only a ‘serious thinker’ is capable of such creation.”

      Quantity isn’t quality.

      “I’ve never heard any of those three men”

      If you’re than uninformed, what makes you think your qualified to opine about Justin’s post?
      “because as you said you didn’t even read the book until after publishing the post.”

      He commented on something Bell offered for public consumption (the video). That’s perfectly legit.

      “many people didn’t even read it because you had already written it off”

      Kudos to Justin!

      “Remember you don’t own the path or have the corner market on ‘truth’ of the path, the creator of you, me, Bell, Enns and Kirk owns the path.”

      Nothing like self-refuting religious pluralism. Morrell would only be in a position to make that magisterial pronouncement if he himself had a corner on the truth.

    2. Joshua says:

      Its all Ghost Politics if you ask me! People are gonna tear down anybody who doesn’t agree with their tribe and camp and it’s sad that much of what we call church today is missing the heartbeat of what the first believers were about! I posted this tonight on social media because i believe the gospel is the strongest news known to our world:

      At a time in the world where many expected The Messiah to ‘restore The Kingdom’ by overpowering Rome’s rule and reign through continuing the cycle of death and violence, Jesus set an example of a new way to be human… by coming to serve, love, and ultimately laying His life down to invite a whole world to ‘enter The Kingdom’ or to walk a new path where the broken system of death and violence ends… and the world changes for the better by us becoming living Eucharist:

      Learning how to break open our lives and pour our lives out for the life and healing of the world!

      In this we show that love is strong as death!

      Go read Philippians 2:1-16ish and Matthew 5-7 and 2 Corinthians 4 for more on this, etc.

  6. Simon says:

    To be fair to Bell and other evangelicals who question the classic Reformed gospel account as summarized in Taylor’s three points above: most of the Christian world do not subscribe to that account either. It is clear that the forensic approach to salvation that the Reformed insist as dogma is absent from Eastern Christian theology. Furthermore, Roman Catholics also reject this approach. I believe because they are right and that the way hell has been portrayed by Protestants will push people away from Christ. In other words his instincts are correct. However, Bell is an evangelical and lacks the tools and probably the desire to take the Reformed on according to Tradition.

    We know there is a problem with the Reformed notion of hell because many of them reject, misinterpret or cannot explain the statements in the Apostles nd Athanasian Creeds referring to Christ’s descent into it. This is a dogmatic teaching of the Church that has no place in Reformed doctrine, piety and worship. This precisely because the doctrine conflicts with their notion of hell.

    The Reformed do not have a monopoly on serious thinking and faithfulness to the gospel. Quite the contrary, many presentations of the Reformed gospel go against the Tradition and the Patristic deposit.

    1. steve hays says:

      “To be fair to Bell and other evangelicals who question the classic Reformed gospel account as summarized in Taylor’s three points above: most of the Christian world do not subscribe to that account either. It is clear that the forensic approach to salvation that the Reformed insist as dogma is absent from Eastern Christian theology.”

      Calvinists didn’t invent the forensic approach out of thin air. That’s a pervasive element of biblical soteriology.

      “Furthermore, Roman Catholics also reject this approach.”

      Which is one good reason (among many) to reject Roman Catholicism.

      “I believe because they are right and that the way hell has been portrayed by Protestants will push people away from Christ.”

      Ironic considering this comes right on the heels of your appeal to Roman Catholicism. How about how the way hell has been traditionally portrayed in Roman Catholicism–until the late 20C?

      “We know there is a problem with the Reformed notion of hell because many of them reject, misinterpret or cannot explain the statements in the Apostles nd Athanasian Creeds referring to Christ’s descent into it. This is a dogmatic teaching of the Church that has no place in Reformed doctrine, piety and worship. ”

      That’s an argument from authority. It begs the question. Does what you are pleased to call “the Church” have the sheer authority to stipulate dogmas?

      “The Reformed do not have a monopoly on serious thinking and faithfulness to the gospel. Quite the contrary, many presentations of the Reformed gospel go against the Tradition and the Patristic deposit.”

      Post-Vatican II theology often goes against “Tradition” and the “Patristic deposit”.

      1. Simon says:

        There is a thing called metaphor and it is used quite a lot in scripture. Legal and forensic language is not the heart of humanity’s problem. Our problem is ontological. Traditional Christianity has always held this, even though legal categories became more commonly used in the Latin West.

        And yes, the Church does have the authority to determine dogma. Properly understood, the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation. That is what Paul’s language concerning the Church being the body of Christ is about. The authority of the Church is synonymous with the authority of Christ. The creeds are there for us to confess, not to edit. The fact is that Christ’s descent into hell was and continues to be a dogma of the Church as evidenced by scripture, the creeds and in the liturgical life of the Church – especially Holy Saturday.

        Reformed theology, piety and worship is certainly foreign to the Patristic teaching. Whatever it is, it is not classically Christian.

        1. steve hays says:

          According to divine revelation (Scripture), legal and forensic categories are at the heart of humanity’s problem. Sorry your theological paradigm filters out revealed truths.

          Paul’s use of the body metaphor hardly implies that the church is an extension of the Incarnation. Paul himself explains the body metaphor to show how different organs and body parts illustrate different gifts.

          Christ’s descent into hell isn’t scriptural. Perhaps you’re alluding to 1 Pet 3:18-20. If so, good commentaries explain what’s wrong with that traditional interpretation.

          1. Simon says:

            I’m sorry that your theological framework takes an abstraction and makes it the heart of the gospel. Sin is not primarily a legal problem, it is an existential one. God did not say “if you eat this fruit, I will kill you for your transgression”. He said ” if you estvthis fruit, you will surely die”. Our problem is sin and death, from whom Christ’s Pascha saves us.

            1. steve hays says:

              The Bible unpacks sin and redemption in terms of divine justice/righteousness/holiness/wrath in contrast to human injustice, unrighteousness, &c. These aren’t merely “legal abstractions,” much less metaphors, but moral categories. Pity your blind loyalty to your denomination prevents you from submitting to revealed truths.

      2. Simon says:

        “Ironic considering this comes right on the heels of your appeal to Roman Catholicism. How about how the way hell has been traditionally portrayed in Roman Catholicism–until the late 20C?”

        That was my whole point in bringing up the harrowing of hell. It’s a dogma. It is and always has been clearly taught in the East and West. Medieval portrayals of hell in the West do not change this fact. And the RC Church, along with the likes of CS Lewis, NT Wright and other Protestants, have been debunking the more”literal” portrayals of hell.

    2. CB says:

      Hey Simon, I think you left out a few more bland RC platitudes and false appeals to authority in your bland and meandering attempt at criticizing Reformed theology. You may want to… I don’t know… Read Calvin’s Institutes or take a look at John Gill or consider the works of Andrew Fuller and get back to us later.

  7. Matt N says:

    Hey guys,
    Take it easy on the arguments. I think we need to look at the greatest theologian of all, Jesus Christ. He spoke of hell more than any other in the Holy Bible. No matter how many books or creeds are written or how many we read and recite, let’s keep the Scriptures closest to our hearts.
    Blessings,

  8. Honestly, Rob Bell should have been vigorously and adamantly opposed by pastor as early as the publication of his “Velvet Elvis.”

    I don’t understand how anyone even vaguely familiar with their own orthodox beliefs (i.e. Scriptural beliefs) or theological liberalism, or both, could read that work and think: “This guy’s not a problem at all. Matter of fact, he’s kind of endearing.”

    Paul withstood Peter to his face for behaving in a manner that was not in accord with the truth of the Gospel. And yet today men like Rob Bell get a pass when expressing unbelief in the core doctrines of the Christian faith?

    Why?

    Because they pretend to be humble truth seekers?

    My brothers, this should not be.

    -h.

  9. Justin says:

    I was one of the young evangelicals that was in love with Rob Bell after reading “Velvet Elvis.” I watched his video series and even taught a high school bible study from it. He is a profound communicator which makes him that much more dangerous because he can profoundly communicate rubbish and make it sound somewhat profound if you’re not engaged with what he’s saying.

    That being said, I do think that it is not in good practice to offer a review or prognostication based on promotional material unless there is something is patently heretical in the promotional material. I believe the author of this article must have felt this way, but I do believe the words that are chosen have to clearly reflect that you are disagreeing with the promotional material and not the work itself as you haven’t read it. I think the author did reflect this to some degree in his original blog.

    It is fortunate for the author of this article that Bell turned out to be nuttier than a fruit cake with respect to his theology. The instantaneous nature of social media and the internet makes it so important to be the first to respond or else you’re jumping on the bandwagon, but in doing so, I think some may be not following through as is proper. The urge to respond as reporters instead of seasoned pastors and theologians must be great. In fairness, the author did state that he hadn’t read the whole book.

    John Frame has some helpful words on this which escape me to write them verbatim at the moment, but the essence of his thought is that you have to read people generously and give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps our reactions should be a bit more seasoned with temperance even in reaction to perceived heresy. Truth will out.

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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