by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor
Theology books rarely create pre-release Twitter-trending firestorms. Yet that is exactly what has happened in advance of next week’s (3/15) release of Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
Of course, Rob Bell is no ordinary theologian. Heir to a solid evangelical heritage, Rob graduated from evangelicalism’s “Harvard,” Wheaton College, planted a hip 10,000+ member mega-church in evangelical mecca, Grand Rapids, MI, became a best-selling author, filmmaker, and rock-star evangelical celebrity, all by the age of 40.
Rob is also rocket-science smart and extremely adept at using new media to recast traditional evangelical concepts in socially contextualized messages. It is why I like using books like Velvet Elvis in my theology of ministry classes. However, the culturally cutting-edge approach that makes Rob’s books such great conversation starters also makes them controversial.
He seems to delight in skating the razor sharp edge between contextualization and syncretism. Anyone who has followed his previous books and videos wouldn’t be surprised if dancing on that cutting edge eventually results in some nasty cuts.
Is Love Wins the book where Bell finally goes too far? I don’t know, and neither do most of the people who have rushed to judgment… BECAUSE THE BOOK ISN’T OUT YET! However, that hasn’t kept Bell haters and Bell lovers from chiming in.
Having watched the supposedly controversial three-minute book promo video and read a plethora of opinion pieces about it (most by people who have not read the book) I can conclude only two things:
1) Rob’s brilliance as a provocateur and marketing genius is even greater than I ever imagined. The video that sparked this entire controversy makes absolutely no declarative statements. It does what Rob does best, ask questions (far better than he ever answers them.) In fact, I venture to say that if John Piper had done exactly the same video, it would have produced nothing, but a yawn–except for those who cheered because Piper had taken the next step in his own growing savvy with new media. Bottom line, it will sell a lot of books, and I don’t think Rob had any other goal when he made it.
2) “Love Wins” may be the most ironic title in the history of Christian publishing. No matter how you slice it, love is the one thing that is NOT winning in this advance publication chatter. Watch the video (above) and then gauge the intensity of the battle raging on the internet and it becomes immediately obvious that something else is a stake than asking whether or not Gandhi is in hell. The Evangelical movement appears to be at war with itself along battle lines that have already been drawn. Rob certainly could turn out to be a heretic someday, but it is no excuse for the outrageous recriminations evoked this week.
Will love ever win among Christ’s followers in North America? It was Jesus’ highest prayer on earth (John 17) and is supposed to be our greatest apologetic to a doubting world (John 15). Yet after a week of armageddon-level internal cat fight over a measly three-minute promo video, it still seems an eternity away.
Here are the best three articles I have read regarding the controversy… and, just for the record, I HAVE PRE-ORDERED MY OWN COPY OF ROB’S BOOK and plan to read it thoroughly before rushing to judgment. Who knows, maybe I will come up with something intelligent to say about Love Wins, which is more than I can say about most of the comments I have read so far.
Update: New Top Rob Bell Related Posts
The Current Controversy and Christian-Christian Relationships in High-Tech World:
Book Reviews more or less FOR “Love Wins”:
Book Reviews more or less AGAINST “Love Wins”:
Book Reviews more or less MIXED in their evaluation of “Love Wins””
Parodies of Controversy:
Intentional Parody: Justice Wins, by Jeremy Grinnel (Note: There is not video, only audio)
Pastor Stirs Wrath With His Views on Old Questions
By Erik Eckholm in The New York Times, March 4, 2011
A new book by one of the country’s most influential evangelical pastors, challenging traditional Christian views of heaven, hell and eternal damnation, has created an uproar among evangelical leaders, with the most ancient of questions being argued in a biblical hailstorm of Twitter messages and blog posts.
In a book to be published this month, the pastor, Rob Bell, known for his provocative views and appeal among the young, describes as “misguided and toxic” the dogma that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.”
Such statements are hardly radical among more liberal theologians, who for centuries have wrestled with the seeming contradiction between an all-loving God and the consignment of the billions of non-Christians to eternal suffering. But to traditionalists they border on heresy, and they have come just at a time when conservative evangelicals fear that a younger generation is straying from unbendable biblical truths.
Mr. Bell, 40, whose Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., has 10,000 members, is a Christian celebrity and something of a hipster in the pulpit, with engaging videos that sell by the hundreds of thousands and appearances to rapt, youthful crowds in rock-music arenas.
His book comes as the evangelical community has embraced the Internet and social media to a remarkable degree, so that a debate that once might have built over months in magazines and pulpits has instead erupted at electronic speed.
The furor was touched off last Saturday by a widely read Christian blogger, Justin Taylor, based on promotional summaries of the book and a video (below) produced by Mr. Bell. In his blog, Between Two Worlds, Mr. Taylor said that the pastor “is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.”
“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,” wrote Mr. Taylor, who is vice president of Crossway, a Christian publisher in Wheaton, Ill.
By that same evening, “Rob Bell” was one of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. Within 48 hours, Mr. Taylor’s original blog had been viewed 250,000 times. Dozens of other Christian leaders and bloggers jumped into the fray and thousands of their readers posted comments on both sides of the debate, though few had yet seen the entire book.
Waiting for Rob Bell
by Scot McKnight in both Patheos and Relevant, March 2, 2011.
Whether evangelicalism was paying attention or not, it is now. Universalism, or at least the prospect of it, is the single most significant issue running through the undercurrent of evangelicalism today. This all became clear Saturday when some decided to accuse Rob Bell of universalism on the basis of excerpts of his (not yet released) book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived and on the basis of a video and the book’s description at HarperOne. So, while this new story is about Rob, I want to contend it is even more about the significance of universalism.
My own estimation is that somewhere near 75% of my students, many if not most of them nurtured in the church, are more or less (soft) universalists. They believe in Jesus and see themselves as Christians but don’t find significant problems in God saving Muslims and Buddhists or anyone else on the basis of how God makes such decisions. The Baylor Study of Religion, if my memory is correct, asked a question or two that reveals that an increasing number of American evangelical Christians think the majority of humans will be saved. That’s the issue and Rob Bell had the moxie to write a book about it. He’s rattled cages with his promo video and he will undoubtedly stir the waters in the book.
Many in the evangelical church have happily lived as if universalism is not an issue for good ol’ evangelicals. Those of us with our ears to the ground know better, and that is why I addressed this issue in a chapter in my book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow. I called that chapter Eternity.Life. I begin by saying I believe in hell, but I want to believe in hell the way Jesus does. And I believe in heaven, but I want to believe in heaven as Jesus does. What Jesus believed about heaven and hell diverges at times from what many Christians think about heaven and hell.
As I wrote that chp and as I listen to this new round of volleys, some of them embarrassing and some of them so over the top and so many of them without having read one word of the book, I keep thinking we need once again to define some terms so I want to sketch a set of simple options. (Then I’ll say a few things about Rob Bell. By the way, we won’t know which of these categories fits Rob until we can read his whole book.)
Which of the following views do you think are “unorthodox”?
Universalism is the general belief that all will be saved, regardless of religious beliefs. The Muslim and the Christian are on the same basic path – and for universalists all will be saved.
Universalism needs to be distinguished from pluralism though as I have sketched “universalism” above there is precious little difference. Pluralism focuses on the legitimacy of each religion and belief system and that each of them prepares a person for final existence with God. For pluralists, there’s no unique saving place for Jesus Christ.
Christian universalism is a bit different: Christian universalism denies pluralism and balder forms of universalism by contending that all can or will be saved, but only through the saving work of Jesus Christ. While many who advocate this fail to recognize that those in other religions simply don’t believe such a thing, and in fact may say they don’t want to be saved through Christ, the Christian universalist confidently trots out the idea that whether they know it or not, God saves through Jesus Christ. But the big point here is that all can and will be saved through Christ.
Evangelical universalism is newer on the block and argues that God saves exclusively through Christ and that those who deny Christ, or who have not heard of Christ, or who have rejected God’s natural revelation to them, will be judged and will experience hell. In other words, these folks believe in hell – though they believe “less” (or as they might say “more”) than the traditionalist. But they believe hell is not eternal but instead temporary and once one has experienced judgment for one’s sins one will have, by the grace of God and through the merits of Christ, the opportunity to respond to the gospel – and this news is so good and God’s offer so gracious that eventually hell will be emptied and all will find redemption in Christ to enjoy God’s salvation forever.
Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context
Rob Bell is not the first to try to resolve old biblical tensions in new ways.
If your God is perfect and all powerful and loving, then why does he not give everyone on this earth a fair chance to know him and accept him? An example of this is a kid in Iran born into a Muslim extremist family and taught that Islam is the one true religion and that Christianity is a lie. These kids do not get a fair chance at knowing God, and they go to hell and suffer for it eternally. That is extremely unfair, and if that is the case, God is not perfect but cruel.
This recent letter to Christianity Today suggests some of the issues at the heart of this week’s blogosphere explosion over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins.
In case you’ve been living in a cave without Wi-Fi, one popular blogger who read a couple of advance chapters of Bell’s latest book, announced that Bell was probably a universalist. This set Twitter on fire with both speculation and condemnation. One famous Reformed theologian simply tweeted, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” One does not imagine that he had kicked Bell out of the Reformed theology club. Bell hasn’t been considered a member in good standing for some time. Now, the tweet implies, Bell is no longer evangelical, or orthodox, or maybe even Christian.
A great many of the responses to Bell assume that there is only one right way to think about the destiny of people who do not put their trust in Christ in this life: they will experience eternal, conscious punishment in hell. Despite the cultural stereotypes, people don’t think this because they are cruel and vindictive, because they relish the thought of people roasting in hell. No, they are trying to take seriously the teaching of Scripture, especially the words of Jesus. As Tim Keller has pointed out, Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else in the New Testament. So if you take Jesus seriously, you are going to have to take hell seriously.
This view has become the standard among contemporary evangelicals. Two evangelical books that have rested comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list are Crazy Love by Francis Chan and Radical by David Platt. Both are ardent pleas for more committed, sacrificial devotion to Christ and love for the world. And both motivate readers with the occasional mention of the huge numbers of people across the world who have yet to hear the gospel. For example, Platt notes anxiously “the 4.5 billion people, who … at this moment are separated from God in their sin and (assuming nothing changes) will spend an eternity in hell.”
Many faithful, devout Christians, then, assume the scenario criticized by the CT letter writer. But not all, and what is being lost in the anxious chatter is that faithful, devout Christians try to reconcile the love of God with the judgment of God in a number of ways. Many evangelicals who hold to the standard view assume, as one prominent blogger wrote yesterday, that the Bible’s teaching on this is “clear.” But especially in the last century, things don’t seem that clear to many of the devout.
To keep this article from wandering too far afield, let’s talk about one of a constellation of theological issues raised in this discussion: the fate of the person who has heard the gospel portrayed fairly, lovingly, and clearly, and yet refuses to respond in faith.
From Universalism to Annihilationism
The standard view has much to commend it, especially the words of Jesus. As Keller points out, he spoke of “eternal fire and punishment” as the final destination of both angels and human beings who reject God (Matt. 25:41, 46). He says that those who succumb to sin will be in danger of the “fire of hell” (Matt. 5:22; 18:8-9). He depicted hell as painful fire and “outer darkness” (Matt. 25:30), a place of terrible misery and unhappiness. Add to this the logic of God’s holiness and the radical evil of sin and so forth, and you have a compelling argument for eternal, conscious punishment. No wonder it has been the nearly unquestioned doctrine of the church from the beginning.