On February 22nd, Pastor Rob Bell, author of Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and Drops Like Stars, posted a video preview for his upcoming book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived published by HarperCollins. Here’s the video:
A few days later, Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition posted a blog in response questioning the content of the video and the publisher’s description with fears that Bell may be teaching universalism. This criticism received a lot of attention and a follow-up blog post by Kevin DeYoung, also of the Gospel Coalition. In his post, Kevin DeYoung points out that no one was criticizing Rob Bell as a person and no one was guessing what the book might say. Instead, Justin Taylor’s post was criticizing what Rob Bell has already said in his video. Some pastors, like John Piper have decided to completely write off Rob Bell; in his Twitter post he simply said “Farewell Rob Bell.” Other pastors, like Mark Driscoll, have opted to wait until the book comes out to comment. However, all of the blog posts I read specifically mentioned praying for Rob Bell as a person while disagreeing with what he has said in his video.
Soon after, several secular news agencies had written stories or blog posts about the sudden flurry of attention and criticism Rob Bell’s video received.
There are a couple factors at play here though that I can’t help but notice.
1. The first thing that bothered me was all the people, Christian and non-Christian, who were commenting that Justin Taylor was being judgmental and hateful. How is it hateful to disagree with someone’s teaching? (If you want to see hateful, look at what people were saying in the comments of this article about Christina Aguilera when she messed up on the national anthem, they attack her as a person; that’s hateful.)
To say “Rob Bell’s teaching is wrong; please pray for him” is not hateful. Since when are the teachings of Christian leaders not subject to critique? Aren’t Christians supposed to make sure their pastor’s teaching is accurate? Look at Acts 17:11; the Bereans were considered noble for doing so. And when teachers are wrong, aren’t we supposed to confront them? Look at Galatians 2:11 and tell me what you see there. The fact is, it is not hateful to disagree with someone’s teaching; especially if they are wrong. I think it’s safe to take hard stands with regards to doctrine, but we must always be loving and graceful towards people.
In fact, I’d say it’s unloving to allow fallacious teaching to run rampant in the Church. If you disagree, look into the background of most of the New Testament Epistles; they were written to combat heresy and to correct established churches. In 2 Corinthians 5:11-13 Paul clearly states that we’re supposed to judge those inside the church; not their merit as a person or their salvation, but we are supposed to judge each other’s conduct to hold one another accountable. It is not judgmental or hateful to critique someone’s teachings and identify where they are wrong, period.
2. I can’t help but wonder about those who are not Christians yet feel compelled to tell us how we’re supposed to respond to Rob Bell’s video… What dog do you have in this fight? Are you somehow involved in this debate? Isn’t this a Christian issue? Are you suddenly a theological expert with insights into orthodox Christianity? If an influential Muslim teacher published a video that denounced orthodox Muslim views, I shouldn’t care if other Muslim teachers disagree with him/her because it honestly has nothing to do with me. I should simply let them sort it out.
Oddly enough, conservative Christian leaders who are opposed to what Bell is saying in his video are being called intolerant. For example, Fark.com changed the CNN headline to: “Evangelicals brand fellow Christian as a “heretic” for daring to say that people aren’t all going to hell.” Although I understand that Fark specializes in satirical renditions of headlines, I feel as though it reflects a general attitude towards Conservative Christians: it’s intolerant to take hard stands on central theological issues. But isn’t that at least a little bit hypocritical? Aren’t you the one who’s being intolerant for suggesting we cannot believe what we want?
3. While we can’t judge a book by its cover, we can judge a video by its content; and that’s exactly what Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung have been doing. They’ve been critiquing Bell’s video.
That being said, I’d like to take a moment to look at what I find to be some of the errors in Bell’s video and hopefully gain a better understanding into how he arrived at these conclusions. I don’t do this in order to sling more mud at Bell personally; instead I do this with the hopes that someone reading it will see the errors in Bell’s theology and gain a better understanding of what’s at stake here.
One thing I’ve learned from this whole issue is to be careful what you wish for. For a long time now, I’ve wished that Rob Bell would be more specific in his teaching. Sadly, it seems as though he has laid out all his cards and, judging by the video alone, it doesn’t look like he holds to an orthodox Christian world view.
He starts by recalling an art show a few years ago with one piece in particular that featured a quote from Ghandi. One of my favorite quotes is a Ghandi quote, so I’m not here to bash him. Sadly, someone felt compelled to add a handwritten note that said “Reality check: he’s in hell.” There’s a lot that I could say about how harmful actions like that are to the Church’s credibility, but that’s not what we’re looking at here. At this point, Bell suggests through a line of rhetorical questions that, although Ghandi never accepted Christ, Ghandi is in Heaven. I don’t know if Ghandi is in heaven or hell, so we’ll leave it at that. It’s what Bell says next that troubles me:
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?
Here’s the fundamental flaw behind all of Bell’s logic: He assumes that we do something to earn, initiate, or complete our salvation. Look at the questions he asks in the block quote above. His entire line of reasoning hinges upon us; not on God. In Romans 9, Paul is discussing the God’s apparent rejection of Israel, and in Romans 9:16, Paul says that salvation depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.
Bell makes it sound as though it is a difficult thing to be saved. Oswald Chambers disagreed when he wrote, “There is nothing easier than getting saved, because it is solely God’s sovereign work.” Do you see the problem with Bell’s rhetorical line of questions? He’s starting from the wrong premise. Bell is suggesting that we have to do something to be saved. The truth is, our salvation is given to us by God, it’s not something we earn. That’s why Romans 6:23 refers to it as a gift.
Further in his video, Bell says:
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 subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God.
Bell says that “God is going to send you to hell…” but the truth is that God doesn’t send anyone to hell. We all chose hell the instant we rebelled against God. Some people might argue that they’re a good person, but no one argues that they’re a perfect person. The standard is perfection and at some point we have all chosen to go astray. Therefore, we send ourselves to hell. Here’s what C. S. Lewis has to say about it:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
Next Bell states that “what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God.” In some ways, I do agree with Bell here; in some ways the Church has not always done a good job of explaining the Gospel. We oftentimes teach that God the Father is the bad cop, and God the Son is the good cop; truthfully Jesus is both Savior and Judge. As all encompassing as the grace of Jesus is, He is also the one to whom we will appear and He is the one who will judge the living and the dead. Justice is not solely the job of the Father and grace solely the job of the Son; Jesus administers them both.
The problem is that many people start with the same assumption that Bell’s argument seems to start with: that we are basically good people. Most people assume that they’re good and do not deserve hell. In a day when people do not believe in human depravity, the idea of human sinfulness is repulsive! But, like I said earlier, the standard is perfection, and I don’t know anyone who would claim to be perfect. Thus, we have all fallen short. Additionally, we have a far too unholy view of God. We fail to understand our depravity and His holiness. The truth is, Jesus doesn’t rescue us from God; Jesus rescues us from ourselves!
Bell continues by saying:
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.
He’s totally right at this point! What we believe about Heaven and hell does reveal what we believe about God. If we believe that we’re not so bad and God isn’t that holy, then of course we all deserve to go to Heaven if we try our best. But if we believe that God is infinitely holy and we are tainted and sinful, we will realize that it is through His gracious mercy that we can be saved. If we believe that we initiate and complete our salvation, then of course we’ll want to know what we need to do become one of the few. If we believe that salvation is a work of God and that Jesus is the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) then we’ll know that it doesn’t depend upon us at all.
Bell starts to close the video by saying:
What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, beautiful, that whatever we have been told and been taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine.
Once again he’s right: the Gospel is that even though we chose to rebel against God, Jesus rescues us from ourselves.
Bell closes by saying “The good news is that love wins.” In this video, Bell’s message is, “love wins, justice loses.” The truth of the Gospel is that love wins, but so does justice. When we discard the justness of God we wind up with a twisted image of Him; we wind up misunderstanding that sin must be punished. We wind up missing the fact that we deserved that punishment through complete moral failure. We miss the fact that Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath for us. We miss the fact that, at the cross Love and Justice both won. The Good News is that we didn’t do anything to earn our salvation but that God chose to love us instead. The Good News is that there is a Hell and that, through Christ, God can save us from what we deserve. The Good News is that, through the finished work of Christ on the cross, love wins…and so does justice.
In summary, Bell does have two valid points: the Church has done a poor job explaining the fact that Jesus rescues us from our own sins; and our image of Heaven and Hell does reveal a lot about what we think of God. The problem with Bell’s message in the video is that his questions are based off of several faulty assumptions. First, Bell mistakenly suggests that we are responsible for our own salvation; if that were true then salvation would not be a gift based on the grace of God but would be something we earn through our own efforts. Second, Bell suggests that we can be good enough to deserve Heaven, which would make God evil for sending “good people” to hell. The truth is that no one is good; no one deserves Heaven. We have all sinned and failed to meet the perfect moral standard of God (Rom 3:23). We fail to see the heights of His holiness and the depths of our depravity. Third, Bell seems to discard the justness of God in exchange for the love of God as though the two are mutually exclusive. There is no competition between love and justice; they are reconciled at the cross. Therefore, claiming that “love wins” is to completely ignore the justness and holiness of God. One last thing I’d like to note is that in his video Bell does not quote a single verse of Scripture; his argument is philosophical and not Biblical. He is not arguing from a Biblical world view, but from a pluralistic, post-modern world view.
Perhaps Bell’s book will contain a message faithful to the Bible, but the content of his video is the focus of this post and it alarms me that he seems to have largely disregarded huge chunks of Jesus’ teaching. I’d like to close by urging everyone to pray for Rob Bell and those who follow his teachings.