Rob Bell is an excellent communicator.
I read Velvet Elvis, and was charmed by the wit and creativity of the man and his unique approach to Jewish history and culture. I viewed a large portion of the NOOMA video series and was drawn in by the quality of the production and the calm winsomeness of it’s creator. Yet I had my quiet reservations with both of these works, and lack of a clear biblical gospel presentation was the heaviest one (that was my qualm with Purpose Driven Life).
I’m afraid these same reservations are manifesting with the upcoming release (March 29th) of Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” The video released to promote the book (above) may be an overly provocative PR gag to sell books….if that’s case, Bell has issues of a different order. And before some opine here, “You haven’t even read the book! Why don’t you wait for it to come out and….”* Well, if Bell is saying what he actually seems to be plainly saying then Justin Taylor is not jumping the gun with his assessment. And if his publisher’s teaser honestly contains the content of the book then it is better to be proactive in our discernment than reactive:
…in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.
Bell reaches a large impressionable world every time he speaks or writes, and the masses sometimes get blown by every wind of doctrine when they are drawn to human magnetism and a “cooler, fresher” brand of Christianity. Truth matters. Truth eternally matters no matter how bristled our human nature is with that fact.
Here’s some biblical issues with the primer video released by Bell to promote the book:
1. Bell has an issue with the anonymous note-writer who condemned Gandhi at his art exhibit. So do I. We shouldn’t presume absolutely that we know the fate of those who die. God will judge them rightly (Genesis 18:25). But this works both ways. It is equally presumptuous to assume they are saved and consign them to heaven so we may be soothed with a false comfort. Bell seems to be doing just that in order to appear nice, but not completely forthcoming.
2. Bell asks, “Is there really only a few saved?” and seems to answer his question with a resounding negative. If that’s the case Bell is diametrically opposed to the clear teaching of Jesus: “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). And “Strive to enter by the narrow gate; for many, I say to you, shall seek to enter, and shall not be able” (Luke 13:24).
Bell is forcing his listener’s to a clear impasse: You can take the ordinary meaning of the Son of God’s words, or you can take the vague modern interpretation of a man with a wildly popular ministry.
3. Bell then groups a list of absurd and valid “conditions” to eternal life according to the strawman he is attempting to pummel. I don’t know why he pairs up being “born again” with the likes of “taking a class.” Within the context of the video it seems like a simple attempt to make the whole list absurd.
Fortunately for us, when answering these questions Jesus is not as ambiguous as Bell is: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3)
And regarding eternal life, it does matter who you know: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
4. Bell says what is “subtly” taught is that “Jesus rescues us from God…What kind of God is that?” The concerns with this last part are manifold. Scripture does not just subtly teach the propitiatory (wrath bearing) atonement of Christ, rather it overtly teaches it. If pastors are only “subtly” teaching it, then it is because they are ashamed of the gospel “which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Apparently, even the “belief” part of the gospel is another rub to Rob Bell’s modern sensibilities.
And what of those who don’t believe? “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18)
Bell seems to create a false dichotomy between God’s love and God’s wrath. But for God to love He must also hate. This is evident in the very fabric of our human relationships. For me to love my wife I must also hate committing adultery against her. If I licentiously sleep with other women with no regard to the woman I’m married to then I do not love my wife. If you love children then you must also hate sexual abuse against children. If you say you love the Jewish people yet you’re neutral about the Holocaust I would have to call you on your inconsistency. In order for God to express justice, mercy, grace and righteousness he must also express His rightful displeasure against everything that opposes those attributes.
Scripture makes it clear: God hates sin. In a perfect Godly way, he even hates those who commit sin (Psalm 5). Because God hates sin He was compelled to send His Son as a decisive act of love to deal with it on our behalf (John 3:16). “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10) The love of God is forever linked to the wrath bearing sacrifice of His Son on the cross. What God has joined let no man tear asunder. Thank God for his holy hatred. Otherwise, we would be lost in our sins with no hope (Proverbs 24:20).
5. Bell says, “This (the God who judges people for their sin) is why many people want nothing to do with the Christian faith.” Well, yeah, that’s true. And it’s nothing new either. It’s one of the primary reasons Jesus promised that the world would hate His disciples (John 15:18).
It is the primary reason Paul guaranteed the message of cross of Christ would seem foolishness to the contemporary philosophy of the day:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
I sincerely hope this passage doesn’t apply to Rob Bell. I hope he really apprehends and proclaims the full message of the biblical gospel no matter what popular opinion would lead him to believe. Any other gospel that neglects the beautiful heaven-born truth of God’s holiness and love on the cross, is only a gospel of false hope.
In two thousand years, nothing has changed. There is no other gospel than the one Jesus and Paul preached, and the one the host of saints and sinners throughout the history of world have fled to again and again. Treasure it, cling to it, and share it.
In the end be sure of this, the biblical hope of the gospel will ultimately win over the false hope of universalism.
*If Bell does an about face and the book is the exact opposite of what he seems to be promoting, with a biblically rich theology of salvation through Christ alone, I will be the first to give him a public apology…