Those of you who have been paying attention to my blog for a while will know that I have liked a good deal of what I have heard, and read, and seen from Rob Bell. Even my 60 something Sunday school class members loved his Nooma videos and their wonderful creativity. Rob Bell is a poet and a pastor and a sometime musician, and his writing reflects this. At times, he is also a keen analyst and presenter and preacher of some Biblical texts. If you’ve never seen the scapegoat video, you need to look it up on YouTube. There are things I like about Rob’s theology as well. He is a Bible-saturated teacher, but he is definitely not a Calvinist in any way, shape or form. And of course he disavows being a scholar or theologian, but de facto that is what he is for his own Mars Hill Church, and there is a good deal of responsibility that comes with that. Even if you just apply the label teacher, the warning from James is stern “let not many of you be teachers….”. Rob has the gift of teaching, and with it comes the need to do his best not just to ask good questions (which he is a master at), but also to seek to provide good and helpful answers where possible. Beyond that, one should say—- ‘I don’t know’.
Let us first ask the question—- For whom does this Bell toll? By this I mean, for whom is this book written? According to the Preface this book is written “for all those everywhere, who…” have heard what Rob Bell calls a toxic version of the Jesus story and have resolved “I would never be a part of that” (p. viii). If we ask— Wherein lies the toxicity according to Rob, it has to do with the “turn or burn” message. The message is that a select few Christians will enjoy the ethereal atmosphere of heaven whilst the majority will endure eternal torment without chance of a reprieve. It appears then that the real onus in this book is the permanence of Hell and the hellish condition of those who go there. Rob sees this as a theological obstacle to accepting the notion that God loves and longs to save everyone.
Secondly, in the Preface there is the disclaimer— ‘nothing in this book has not been claimed before within the parameters of the broad stream of historic orthodox Christianity’ (p. x). As it turns out, and as we shall see, this is actually not quite accurate, if one is referring to creedal or confessional or conciliar orthodoxy. If one means no more that some church father somewhere at sometime said something like this before, whether we deem him to be making an off-handed comment or not, then perhaps this claim can stand. And of course more important than the claims of this or that church father is—- ‘what does the Bible actually teach on this matter of Hell?’ I do not intend to reiterate what I have already said in previous posts last week (3 of them) on Hell in general and eternal punishment as opposed to anihilationism. Those posts are presupposed in what follows in these posts.
Thirdly, Rob is right that even within the conservative Christian world, we should be able to have a respectful, well-intended, non-polemical discussion about things like what the Bible teaches about heaven and hell. Censorship does the truth no good, and is no service to it. But let me tell you why Rob’s work in this book does not submit very readily to analytical analysis and categories—- it is more about images, and metaphors, and ideas. It is not detailed exegesis (though it assumes some exegesis), nor is it theologizing proper, but, in the main it is poetic probing, probing the parameters of orthodoxy. It is not wrong to do this, but care has to be taken both in the doing, and in the responding. You don’t respond to the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth by complaining that the ‘Ode to Joy’ conclusion should have included Three Dog Night’s rock classic ‘Joy to the World’, or even worse by complaining that Beethoven’s lyrics don’t pass muster in regard to the German dictionary definition of joy. My point is— you need to analyze Rob’s work for what it is, and not use the wrong sort of technique or tools to dismember it. Many of the already extant reviews of this book do the latter.
The first chapter of this book involves raising a plethora of questions (pp. 1-19). They are perfectly fair questions, but what comes to light in the enumeration of these questions is that in fact Rob Bell is reacting, reacting to a form of the Christian message that he sees as too narrow, cramped, judgmental, and just plain wrong, because it conveys an idea of God, that in his view is incompatible with his reading of what the real character of God is like. What is entirely missing from this chapter is any sort of discussion of sin, sin as the alienating cause of human lostness, sin as the reason why persons are not going to heaven. Let me be clear that I think Rom. 1.18-32 is crucial to this question. Unfortunately Rom. 1 is not dealt with in this first chapter and what texts he does cite he does not treat in any detail. Rather Rob sort of flits from one text to the next like a butterfly hoping to drain the tiny bit of nectar in each flower.
What Romans 1 says plain as day (which comports with what is said later in Rom. 3-5 namely that we have all consciously sinned and can’ t get up by our own efforts), is that people are not condemned to hell or judgment for what they have never heard about God. What Romans 1 says is that the reality of God and God’s power is evident in all of creation, and people are judged for what they do with the light about God that they have indeed received. What Paul says they do is that while they know God exists and is powerful, they refuse to acknowledge God, the most primal sin of all. In other words, most of the questions Rob raises in Chapter One are entirely irrelevant. People do not go to Hell (whether in a handbasket or by some other means of conveyance) due to ignorance of God or of Christ. They simply don’t. Nor do they go to Hell because God already decided they would do so from before the foundations of the universe. Equally untrue, and equally unhelpful in making sense of God and this issue.
The problem which already surfaces in Chapter One is that Rob has blended together in his creative mental cuisinart both some true aspects of the Gospel story and some false caricatures of the Good News, and unfortunately, he is not just rejecting some of the caricatures, he is rejecting some of the true aspects of the story. And this is a problem, all the more so when Rob wants to suggest that a just or righteous or holy or judging God is somehow not good news.
Tell that to the oppressed Christians in North Korea. Tell that to the ordinary citizens of Libya longing to be set free from a wicked and brutal dictator. Tell that to the Jews during the Holocaust in WWII. In a sin-soaked world, Good News involves both redemption and judgment, both vindication and liberation, both holiness and love. The God of the Bible is holy love. Not love without holiness which would fail to deal with the cancer called sin. And not holiness without love, for if that was the way God related to us all— no one could stand. The Good News of and about Jesus Christ, who will be the final judge of the world, is that justice, mercy and grace are all a part of this story.
I have spent time with Christian friends and scholars in South Africa. And they have many tales to tell. They are tales of terror, followed by tales of justice and mercy, and even forgiveness. But forgiveness never comes cheaply. Even for God it does not come cheaply. There is always a great cost, and that cost involves doing justice to the sin problem. That cost involves confession of sin and repentance. That cost involves the death of Jesus. And as we shall see, another problem with Rob’s analysis of the Gospel, is that he is not happy with the notion of Jesus’ death being a penal substitutionary atonement for sin, even though this is not merely one image amongst many of the atonement in the NT, it is the central and most oft repeated image which most reveals the character of God the Father. More on this later.
One last thing. Most of the various objections raised, allegedly about Jesus in Chapter One, are actually objections to Christians behaving badly, not objections to Jesus himself. This is a category mistake. I quite agree that people should reject Christian bad behavior, but they also should not judge Jesus on the basis of Christians sinning against the Gospel. If you are going to lament something, lament about the right thing. Christians massacring Muslims in eastern Europe, or Muslims massacring Christians in Iraq are heinous sins, but in neither case do they have anything to do with Jesus and the Good News about him. And that is where Chapter One especially has a ‘Flat Tire’.