Right now the internet is humming with discussions about Rob Bell and his forthcoming book, Love Wins. The New York Times has even taken notice and as I write these words ABC’s Good Morning America has announced a piece on the book and surrounding controversy, entitled “Is there no hell?” Riding the wave of free publicity, HarperOne has moved up the publication date to March 15 – just a week from now. So what is all the fuss about?
Supporters and detractors already drawing sides
Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as well as being both an author and the producer of the influential NOOMA video series. With Love Wins, Bell fans are naturally eager to see the next installment of Bell’s unique and provocative way of dealing with crucial religious and social issues. At the same time certain pastors and theologians (see Mohler and Taylor) are bracing themselves for what they fear will turn out to be a broadside against one or more traditional doctrines of the church. Others (see Witherington , Willitts and McKnight) purport to remain neutral until the book is actually released. Of course, atheists and skeptics are using the occasion to mock people of faith for even be debating such matters (sample the comments on the Times piece).
What’s all the fuss about?
Since the Love Wins has not yet been published (and advance copies are apparently not to be had) critics are basing their comments on what Bell and the publisher have teasingly disclosed. And these suggest the book will challenge traditional Christian notions of hell and salvation.
From the publisher:
Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
Rob Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing, would a loving God send people to eternal torment forever…? With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly hopeful—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.
There is also an associated promotional video in which Bell appears available here.
My take (provisional)
With all the important qualifications (the teasers could be misleading, there may well be helpful ideas presented etc.) I think the pre-reviewers have a right to be concerned. Bell is popular and influential in evangelical and emerging circles (and beyond). There is no question that what he says will have an impact. IF INDEED Bell challenges the biblical concept of hell and suggests instead a kind of universalism (the idea that all will be saved and experience heaven), THEN many pastors and biblical theologians will be placed in the onerous position of having to defend
- the concept of hell (carefully considered and carefully articulated), and
- the uniqueness of the gospel message
all against the backdrop of an increasingly hostile public. Let’s get real for a moment: No one in their right mind would “vote for” the existence of hell or even truly wish a particular person to “be there.” But if hell or divine punishment is something Jesus and the apostles taught (with the gospel of grace being the ultimate remedy), then that is part of the data Christian thinkers have to deal with. We cannot just wish it away. But perhaps Bell does not do that, perhaps he will help us understand it all better, placing it in the context of the love of God for humanity in Jesus Christ.
But aren’t I jumping the gun on Love Wins?
It is possible. But my concerns are not based just on the little the publisher has released. Bell has a history of not allowing his theology to be controlled by the text of Scripture. This gives him the “freedom” not only to ask the questions we are all asking, but to give us the kind of answers we all want to hear. In this respect it is Christianity: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers all over again. Based on all this, the pre-reviewers may have cause to be concerned.
How Rob Bell uses and interprets Scripture
The careful and reverent use of Scripture is the hallmark of orthodox Christian theologians. How does Bell use and interpret Scripture? The following section comes from a review I wrote a few years ago.
Based on a careful reading of the chapter “Yoke” in his book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (2006) it is clear to me that Rob Bell is working with a weak doctrine of Scripture and a truly bizarre theory of interpretation (the latter a misapplication of the concept of “binding and loosing”). As a result Bell can essentially read his own meanings “into” Scripture with impunity. In this situation the biblical text is no longer the touchstone of the conversation, even when it is cited. For the uninitiated reader, therefore, it may be difficult to discern in Bell when truly biblical ideas are being presented, and when those ideas are more attributable to other influences (modern and postmodern, cultural and counter-cultural, not to mention Bell’s own “creative” proposals).
This chapter (“Yoke”) lays out foundational issues. It seems to me that if the foundation is not sound, the building that stands upon it has less chance to stay true. One can hope that this influential pastor’s theology will improve with time. But the beginning, as represented here, is not auspicious.
OBJECTION #1: “Why bring up those dusty concepts like doctrine and theology?”
Response: It is true Rob Bell writes in a contemporary (almost stream-of-consciousness) style and avoids certain theological terms. However, that does not mean that Bell does not HAVE a theology, it just makes it more difficult to discern what that theology is – for his readers and perhaps even for himself.
OBJECTION #2: “We all interpret the Bible with our own biases; some of us like Bell are just honest about it.”
Response: True, we all have our own biases but the point is to have those biases challenged and changed by the objective meaning of Scripture. What Bell seems to do here is insulate himself from that kind of correction. And besides, there is less in the Bible that is truly “open to interpretation” than is normally assumed. See, for example, Mark Thompson’s A Clear And Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture (New Studies in Biblical Theology)
Final thoughts (for now)
To date I will admit I have not read that much of Rob Bell. Once it was clear to me that his creativity was largely untethered to the biblical text I became uninterested. Also, maybe I am not quite hip enough for his style. However, Love Wins is one book I will have to read. And if need be, I will happily report that my concerns were overblown, that Bell has improved as a theologian, and that I was wrong. Bell may well surprise all of us! But even if I am right, that is not to say that nothing can be learned from Bell or that God cannot use this controversy for good even if the content of the book is poor. If nothing else, everyone is talking theology right now, even the New York Times and Good Morning America.
Addendum 3/7: Mark Galli of Christianity Today has a helpful post on the issue here.
Addendum 3/9: Tim Chailles and Aaron Armstrong have read an “Advance Review Copy” of Love Wins and just posted a review here.
Addendum 3/14: Read Kevin DeYoung’s brand new and extensive review of the book here.
Addendum 3/17: Albert Mohler reviews the book and provides important historical context here.
By Ray Pennoyer (March 6, 2011)