Rob Bell on the Hot Seat

What I find troubling about this video, and with the interview Tuesday night in New York that is also making the rounds on YouTube is that Rob  is evasive in both cases.    This is not the same approach he has taken in the past on a variety of complex issues,  and it is troubling indeed.    Whatever else one can say about generous orthodoxy, it should not include suggesting that polar opposite views about God are equally orthodox,  nor that contradictory views on key Scriptures  are equally plausible or possible.    Rob once defined orthodoxy as like a trampoline, with some flexibility.     Flexibility yes,  on some things, but still definable and recognizable boundaries, especially when it comes to the issue of soteriology.  Even a trampoline has boundaries and if you fall outside them you get hurt, and so do others who try and follow such an example.

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Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part 2
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 5
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 3
Man Shoveling Snow in Lexington while Break Dancing
  • David Brasher

    Maybe he hopes evasiveness will sell books.

  • Pat Pope

    Maybe this is purposeful on Rob’s part to show the mystery of the faith. I think we’re in an age where all things being ambiguous and unknown has become popular. The only thing we can be sure of is God’s love and while we can be sure of that, we can be sure of many other things as well. However, there are those that this ambiguity is attractive to. In a way, if we can say that everything’s a paradox, there’s not much left that we have be accountable for.

  • Cindy Kern

    The use of his pronoun “I” in regards to the theology of his book throughout the interview was disconcerting…

  • David Johnson

    I was curious as to what you were going to say in response to this video.

    I was Impressed by Martin Bashir’s calm but poignant questions, especially about whether or not Rob Bell is a universalist.

    So then, Dr. Witherington, why is Bell reacting so evasive to such a simple question of Universalism?

  • John

    How is this any different from the tack he’s taken in the past? I recall a post you wrote a few years ago after seeing him in which you said he consistently refused to give anything more than a vague answer to an audience question about the morality of homosexuality.

  • JoeyS

    Hmm, I didn’t think he seemed evasive here. What specifically did he evade? Bashir asked a few questions that were rooted in ignorance and Bell didn’t answer those in the way that Bashir asked because the questions were flawed. Even the first question asked was a false dichotomy, and I’m sad that Bell didn’t point that out. I would say that Bashir did a poor job of asking questions and that Bell didn’t answer well, but he was hardly evasive.

  • Dan

    maybe he’s being evasive so people will buy his book and search for the answer there. you can’t give away all the surprises for free.

  • ben witherington

    I’m afraid that the appeal to ‘mystery’ is too often the last refuge of someone who doesn’t have very good answers to hard questions. If Rob wants to avoid the impression of being a universalist, which he is not, Origen is hardly the best theologian to help him avoid such a charge.


  • aaron

    I don’t think Bell is being evasive here. He is simply a thorough post-modern. He probably doesn’t have a firm view on any of the things he brings up.

  • Peter

    I thought the interviewer, not the interviewee, did a terrible job here. Did I miss something? What does Arius have to do with Rob Bell’s views or his new book? How many times does he have to answer “no” to “Do you think faith in Jesus doesn’t matter?” before Bashir moves on to the next question?

    Ben, what was it specifically you found so troubling? He gave a flat “no” when he was asked if he was a universalist at the webcast event.

  • Ross

    Ben, you say that Rob doesn’t have all of the answers to the hard questions. So what? Even Rob would admit that he doesn’t have all of the answers. That’s what makes Rob different than so many of his critics. He is willing to explore and offer a new perspective on a topic that many people, including Christians, have questions about. I think the reason why many people are afraid to ask the questions is because they are afraid they don’t have the answers.
    I commend Rob for his willingness to open up the discussion.

  • Dan

    Hi Ben!

    Love your blog and books…. I believe this is my first comment here, but have a question.

    Very often it seems that when people are vague or ambiguous, the reason is given that Jesus left people with questions. It was his style being provocative that way. So when people do that today, it is simply being like Jesus.

    I guess I wonder about that, as when I read Scripture I know Jesus left people hanging. But then it seems generally that answers are given and explained to what Jesus was saying.

    Such as in John 2L20-22: “They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said.”

    So there was mystery…. but we as readers today who have the whole of Scripture when they didn’t back then – and also even then with what they did have as the New Testament was being written and read answers. So as much as Jesus was being evasive feeling (but those who claim that as reasons for doing it today) – answers were given and clear answers too.

    Do you agree with my take on this? Or disagree? Or any comments in relationship to how that is used today by people saying Jesus left people with questions and that is why we do today?

    Thank you Ben!

  • Richard

    It was pretty clear that Bashir had bought Deyoung’s take on the book hook, line, and sinker when he quotes it and then says, “That’s what you’ve done, isn’t it?” He’s taking an antagonistic approach to the interview which does a disservice to the audience. He even lifts the “Arius” reference from Deyoung’s post.

    If you want Bell to be more “direct,” check out the live interview he did for the kickoff over the course of an hour rather than the 7 minute blurb on MSNBC which was trying to sell advertising space “Pastor accused of heresy”

  • Jeremiah

    It’s interesting that he brought up a woman who was abused by her pastor. To her Jesus is tied up in all sorts of things??? The problem is we don’t, nor are we supposed to worship our churches and/or pastors. God’s people are people, they hurt others make mistakes and fall short all the time. It’s terrible that those things happen, but Jesus did not do that to her, a man did. Giving a way to sidestep Jesus, (which he clearly does in the book!) to the people who want to keep associating the hurts that people have inflicted on them with Jesus, is forming a theological crutch for them, instead of preaching the love, forgiveness, grace and redemptive power of Jesus Christ.

    Thanks for the post Ben.


  • Me

    I thought that Rob was definitely not prepared for such an aggressive interview. I’m not sure what MSNBC had told him, but he was obviously expecting a more relaxed interview. Rob has shown an ability to debate theology better in the past, but it is hard to shift gears quickly in a national interview like that.

    I thought Bashir seemed a bit aggressive, almost like he had a personal vendetta. His questions made some strong assumptions, raising a false dichotomy for the question of evil right away. At one point he reads a review that Rob’s book, stating his “use of scripture was indefensible” and follows up by saying “That’s true, isn’t it?” That is not an unbiased question. A more impartial interviewer would have asked “How would you respond to these allegations?” I will give Bashir credit for pushing Rob, but it seemed like gotcha journalism at points.

    In short, Rob was obviously unprepared and on the backfoot, but the interviewer was asking some leading and biased questions. A poor job all around, and not an interview that will further healthy dialog about this issue.

  • Bill Trip

    Bill is a false teacher! What do you expect from a false teacher! Some of you Bell supporters really floor me.
    Similar to the Obama supporters. The guy can do no wrong in your eyes and can walk on water.

    This is nothing new. It’s old mainline protestant liberalism that
    has been refuted time and time again in the last 100 years.

  • Bill Trip

    Richard, 2 +2 = 4 and not 5.

  • graham veale

    The British media keep sending the US media our brightest and best. Bashir, Cowell, Piers (Moron) Morgan.
    It’s a beautiful system. When they leave The British media and join the Ameican media, IQ levels on both sides of the Atlantic double.

  • MWT

    I’m skeptical of Christians that are 100% certain they have all answers. I’d like to hear more – “I don’t know” and “it’s a mystery.”

  • MWT

    Also, this idea that Bell is just out to sell books is insulting, without basis and reflects badly on the accuser.

  • graham veale

    I don’t think Bell is out to sell books. I think his publisher is.
    That’s what they’re for, when you think about it.

    For pities sake they gave his book a trailer!!!

  • graham veale

    Bashir’s first question was fine, as it happens. Bell’s trailer was all about the nature of God, and the unpleasant “contradictions” we need to iron out of the Gospel.
    He deserved to have the problem of evil thrown at him.

  • Chad Holtz

    Kudos to Bell for keeping his cool amid a barrage of being told what he has done, “haven’t you?”

    This topic makes people lose their minds, or jobs. I lost my job as a Methodist student-pastor for weighing in on this topic 2 weeks ago.

  • Jarvis

    Interesting that the interviewer gives Bell only 2 options to choose from with regard to Japan … he sets up diametrically opposed positions in order to back him into a corner. He does this through the whole interview and I think does a poor job at interviewing him. There’s really no conversation, more subtle accusations in an attempt to get Bell nailed to a wall of presupposed / predetermined doctrinal positions, which is exactly what Bell isn’t (in my opinion) attempting to do.- M.D.

  • JoeyS

    Does anybody else think it is funny that Bill Trip’s first line is “Bill is a false teacher!” – Freud would have a thing or two to say about that spelling “mistake!”

  • Bert

    Ben, if you say “I’m afraid that the appeal to ‘mystery’ is too often the last refuge of someone who doesn’t have very good answers to hard questions” then what are we supposed to with do with ‘mysteries’ incorporated in traditional Christian doctrine, like the mystery of Trinity, of Transubstantiation etc? Or even of the Incarnation?

    As related to the subject in discussion, I think Rob has prompted such a vigorous debate because he is challenging many of those absolute truths that are so dear for many believers, p.ex. that they know for sure they are going to Heaven and all the rest are going to burn forever. We may not like to admit it today in our era of political correctness, but the sharp distinction between the 2 possible outcomes (Heaven or Hell) was an important conversion tool (the most important?) for the Church during centuries and centuries. Luther himself was under such a constant fear and torment, before he came up with the ‘justification by faith’. People may be reluctant to admit it today, but I think they enjoy this kind of certainty (that they will go to Heaven, while all others will burn).
    To me one of the greatest mysteries of all remains the way the Church managed to make Hell the centerpiece of its message for all those centuries, when, as is well known, Hell is barely mentioned in the OT.
    Power hunger anyone?

  • Steve D

    First, Bashir would have flunked out of the Journalism 101 class I took in college. His first question was a false dichotomy between two polar opposites. Poor question to ask to get a discussion going.

    Second, when he didn’t get the answer that he wanted from Bell he re-asked the question without rewording it. Asking the same question worded the same way will not get the interviewee to give the answer that you want.

    Finally, Bashir had a strong opinion on the subject that he allowed to show through. His questions were not just tough, they were out and out skewed against the interviewee.

    Although Bashir was knowledgeable, he was prejudiced and made for a terrible interviewer.

  • Simon

    Hi Ben

    This is the first time I have seen this interview. I was actually quite impressed with Martin Bashir here. He asked very pertinent questions which I did not think Rob Bell answered.

    He had an opportunity on live TV to put across the true Gospel and he did not do this. I think the Bible is extremely clear about how we come into a relationship with God that will see us be with Christ for eternity.

    What worries me about any individual who generates a following is that it becomes all too easy to allow false teaching to creep in. I have seen this argument rage online on blogs over the last few weeks. It has polarised a lot of people and it.

    I do not agree with Bell’s approach in this interview. I have determined I will read his book and critique it from a position of knowledge but I am disconcerted that this interview was an opportunity to deal with the questions being levelled at him and he was non-committal.

    I know what I believe and why I believe it. It is a worry that some people will be persuaded by such a popular church figure and the eternal destiny of souls will be adversely affected.

  • graham veale

    If you want to understand Bashir, google “Jeremy Paxman”, or look at his interviews on YouTube. He has a famous interview with then Home Secretary Michael Howard, in which he asks the same question over a dozen times (Howard refused to give an answer). Bashir is trying to be Paxman channeling Piers Morgan. Bashir was Lady Diana’s journalist of choice; he rose to fame as she batted her eyes, looked tearfully into the camera and launched into various character assasinations without cross-examination. He built a career on that interview. Subsequently he interviewed Michael Jackson. The rest is journalistic history.If all else fails, Bashir can try out as the next rude Brit on “America’s Got Talent”.
    Rather you than us.

  • Karl Udy

    Unfortunately, this seems to be yet another interviewer who doesn’t understand religious issues.

    I actually feel for anyone who is hit with Euthyphro’s dilemma in such a way as the opening question of an interview. In politics, they say explaining is losing, and if you don’t have something pithy to come out with in response, you look like you’re being evasive. Fact is, there is little room for any discussion to go once it gets to this point that would suit a 7 minute interview.

    The interviewer lacked any subtlety that was going to get anything out of Rob Bell. Taking the interpretations of his critics, and then trying to get Rob Bell to confess to them being right (“You’re unhistorical. You’re unbiblical. This is what you’re trying to do, isn’t it?”) is what an interviewer does when they don’t know how to elicit the responses through probing questions. What did he think Rob Bell was going to do, come out and say “They’re right, I’m a heretic.”!?

    And the Origen/Arius question is a clear red herring. Different issues. Even if one embraces one minority position, doesn’t mean they embrace them all.

    Unfortunately, no light from this interview. Just heat.

  • Chris McCauley

    Ben, you’re wondering why Bell is being evasive, and I think the answer is this: Bell does not want to come out and say: “This is how it is, Origen was right!” He does not want to give a definitive answer to the questions he is raising. Rather, he wants to communicate to the world that there are a diversity of ideas within Christianity: Universal Reconciliation, Annihilationism, and the belief that all people have an equal shot at heaven, that group membership in a Church isn’t the only way, nor that beliefs are necessarily the determining factor in one’s salvation.

    As a teacher, he is not trying to say which version is right. Rather, he’s trying to present many different versions, along with the historical theologians who explained and believed in them, in an effort to have people understand that the “Fire and Brimstone Dictator God” is NOT the only way one can understand Christianity.

    If he definitively took a position and said that, say annihilationism is correct, we would make HIM the target, and we’d be having an argument about whether HIS view is right or not, rather than questioning our OWN view, and looking at other Orthodox Christian views (such as those of Origen Arius, Aquinas, and so forth) and understand that differing views of the afterlife (and in turn of God) are just as valuable and Orthodox.

    Bell is acting as a teacher that makes you think, that brings, (as he says) affirmation to VARIOUS ideas about the afterlife. As such him being “evasive” is precisely what he should do, when people try to nail him down about what he PERSONALLY believes.

    It would be like a History teacher presenting early American history as federalist and anti-federalist, and then saying “But I believe in federalism, so you should too.” That’s not what a good History teacher does. A good history teacher presents the facts of both federalism and anti-federalism, and explains the pro’s and con’s of each position, as well as prominent figures of each. Then the student decides which position they will take, with the teacher instructing them that regardless of which it is, both still fall within the bounds of the American tradition.

    This is what Bell is trying to do. So his evasion isn’t contemptible, it’s heroic. It’s a preacher TEACHING people about history, rather than preaching to them about what they should believe. The goal of Bell isn’t to push one agenda, if that were his goal he’d be just as bad as the intolerant fundamentalists he’s arguing against. Instead he’s getting people to think critically about history, ideas and scripture, which is what a TRUE rabbi should do.

  • Liz

    Martin Bashir was an extremely agressive and confrontational interviewer who appeared to have his own issues with God and an agenda to box Rob into a corner. He did not let Rob answer the questions. This interview was less about Rob’s evasiveness, in my opinion, than an interviewer directing an “interview” like a cross-examination. In the end, Bashir’s interview shed more heat than light.

  • Brian M

    Bashir behaved like an ass. This was not an interview – which assumes listening to the answers given to your questions. But Rob was like a deer caught in the headlights who eventually just had a laugh about it as Bashir kept asking the same question and quoting a blogging critic without knowing the material himself and making points that sounded like points but were non-sensical. I would call this an epic fail on both their parts!

  • Chad Holtz

    I find it ironic that people wish Bell (and others) would be as arrogantly sure of their beliefs about life after death as they themselves are. If he is not, he must be “non-committal.”

    How about HUMBLE?

    That is, of course, one of the chief virtues (or ought to be) of a Christian (see Micah 6:8).

    To make definitive statements about how God will judge the world is the height of arrogance and presumes far too much. It turns God into a non-god.

  • Brian

    Since when is trying to offer a nuanced answer “evasive”? It seems to me that the interviewer was trying to paint Rob into a corner and Rob wasn’t going there. Kudos to Rob

  • ben witherington

    Graham (Veale) if you ask why this matters it is of course because Rob Bell has enormous influence especially on the young, and so if you have any pastoral spirit in you, of course you are concerned about what he says.

    As for your comment Chris McC. it is hardly an act of heroism to fail to be clear when the Scripture is clear, for instance about “there is no other name under heaven by which someone can be saved” than the name of Jesus. Obfuscation is not being a good teacher. I agree that there are plenty of issues about which genuine Christians can agree to disagree. The problem is, when it comes to salvation, this is not one of them, and no appeal to Origen or any other Church father will provide a warrant for such a view.


  • Kenton

    So to all those who thought Rob Bell was being evasive, please provide you’re response to the clear question Bashir asks at first: Is God

    (A) All powerful but he doesn’t care about people


    (B) He cares about people but he is not all powerful?

    Please do not be evasive or offer extra commentary. Please respond either “A” or “B”.

  • Chad Holtz

    “there is no other name under heaven by which someone can be saved”

    Bishop Willimon wonders if this is as exclusive as you (and many) make it out to be. I don’t believe it is.

    Bell is not arguing that someone other than Jesus saves us. But to take Jesus’ words and insist that this must mean one must confess that name before their time here is up in order to be “saved” to a heaven vs. a hell is to do violence, I think, to the gospel.

    It also reduces greatly the scope of what being “saved” really is.

  • Chad Holtz

    lol Kenton – now that is just you being unfair, isn’t it? You are unfair, aren’t you?


  • Kenton

    Ha! I totally own that, Chad! ;)

  • Rick


    I don’t think the evasive complaint is as much about the “powerful God” question (although Bell probably could have done a better job with that), as it is about other parts of the interview that deal specifically with the book.

    For example, there was the question about the need, or lack thereof, to “respond” in this life. Bell answers by saying it is very important, but then immediately says exactly “how” is pure speculation and that it raises questions.

    He seemed unprepared.

  • Chad Holtz

    On the contrary, I think Rob answered it precisely as he ought – saying no more or no less than he (or anyone) should. Had Bashir been more prepared he would have asked Rob HOW a response in this life is important. And it is – knowing and following Jesus in this life is the difference between living in truth and living in a lie. It’s about living into the reality that is already true about us because of Christ (see 2 Cor 5). So yes, it is VERY important if for no other reason than because our hope in Christ is a light in a dark world pointing the way to true life. That indeed, God has not left us orphaned. This IS GOOD NEWS!

    However, how that plays out when it comes to who goes to heaven or hell – that is up to God. For those of us who know Jesus on this side of the veil, we have every reason to be hopeful.

  • Randall

    For any that see Bell as evasive, let me just say, I can’t see it at all. The Christian faith is not entirely open to rational inspection, there is mystery. We may not like mystery because it means we can’t be God, but it’s there. This reporter is using tactics that would make many assertions of my faith seem crazy. This is why using rationalism to test faith claims is a silly idea, if you accept God as revealed, He exist is unaproachable light and is essentially beyond our understanding. Bell is having NO more difficulty than his critics would have in the same type of interview. If Christ scandalizes someone, don’t trust Him; but, He promised we would be scandalized.

  • Kenton


    In the book (you should read it), Rob goes through the different ways Jesus calls people to respond. In John 3 it’s “believe”, in Luke 10 it’s “love”, to the Rich young ruler it’s “sell”. I imagine if Bashir had interviewed Jesus he would have badgered him with “what if they love but don’t believe?”, “why do you give various answers?”, “you’re evasive, aren’t you?”

  • Chad Holtz

    Yeah, Jesus would have drove Bashir nuts.

    Bashir: Teacher, who is my neighbor? Just a direct answer, please.

    Jesus: There was a man traveling to Jericho from Jerusalem….

  • Rick

    Chad and Kenton-

    Let’s not make this about Bashir. Had Bell appeared on 60 Minutes he possibly would have similar questioning (maybe a little less blunt). Bell should have not let Bashir limit the options, and should have given the answer Chad mentioned in #42. But he didn’t, and that is part of his problem.

    When you have so many people, some Bell critics, some defenders (such as Dr. Witherington), saying that in the book and in interviews (including non-Bashir interviews) Bell appears evasive, you see a pattern.

    As Dr. Witherington pointed out, “This is not the same approach he has taken in the past on a variety of complex issues”.

    Chris #31-

    It is somewhat interesting that you are trying to give a lesson on how historians teach to a well-respected historian/professor.

  • Chad Holtz

    *makes note of how everyone is evading Kenton’s direct question in #37….still*

    Bell wasn’t exactly given any chance to speak for himself here.
    However, anyone who reads his stuff or listens to his sermons knows WHY it is important to know Jesus.

    It’s for much more than fire insurance

  • Rick


    “It’s for much more than fire insurance”.

    I think few critics here, and in many other places, disagree with you there. Yet the criticisms remain.

    “Bell wasn’t exactly given any chance to speak for himself here”

    I disagree, but apparently in many outlets he is running into the same problem, since it is not just this interview that is getting the criticism.

  • Kenton

    “A” or “B”, Rick?

  • Randall

    If anyone believes that Bell is being evasive or failing to be forthcoming in a way that unscriptural in this video, I’ve watched it and missed it, please give the video time marker so that I can look at it closer. I beleive the interviewer’s questions are set up to present false dichotomies that apply to much of the revelation we have in scripture, I don’t see Bell shrinking back from going as far as scripture goes.