It mostly feels like 90 minutes of my life that I won’t get back. Sure Rob Bell is cool, calm, collected, and has those retro glasses that every young Emergent pastor is copying, but his latest DVD release The Gods Aren’t Angry was not as compelling as the person. The major concern with the DVD has nothing to do with cinematography, quality of production, etc. but rather with the content of the disc.
For those of you who don’t know the name, Rob Bell is pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI. He is the bestselling author of Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. His 2006 national speaking tour brought him even more acclaim as he meticulously shows that “everything is spiritual.” Along the way Bell has received major criticisms from within the Evangelical camp, but nonetheless Evangelicals, particularly at the popular level, have claimed him as one of their own. His latest DVD may, however, raise the alarm to a new level.
There are two primary issue that will concern conservative Evangelicals. First, Bell’s discussion of the evolution of religion. His overall discussion is very good and does a decent job of presenting the history of religious thought in ancient cultures, and the particular development of monotheism. There are concerns, however, as Bell seems to be pulling material from the work of Karen Armstrong who describes Christianity as the fourth stage, out of nine, in the evolutionary process of religion. Beyond that Bell seems to be, if even unintentionally, ignoring the fact that Christians believe God has personally entered history to reveal Himself to humanity, and that fact alone poses problems for his simplistic evolutionary view of monotheism.
The second, and more disconcerting issue is that Bell has little taste for the Orthodox doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. This doctrine teaches that Jesus Christ died on the cross in the place of sinners bearing the wrath of God upon himself that they deserved. Bell describes this doctrine, however, as a remnant of the barbarism left-over from ancient pagan worship. He insists that it has nothing to do with Christianity, for atonement is no longer required. The ignorant caveman and his wife sacrificed to their gods because they thought the gods were angry with them, but God is not angry. One might, as a result of his commentary, come to understand why accusations have been leveled against Bell that he affirms universalism (the teaching that all men will go to heaven), and there may be some plausibility to this accusation, after all if God isn’t angry then why would he send anyone to hell?
What I am anxious to see is what the response of the evangelical community will be to Bell’s teaching. How will those who love him defend him; how will those who hate him use this against him? The real issue that people seem to be missing, however, is that there is a lack of a clear definition for Evangelicalism. How do you defend Orthodox teaching in a system where you can both deny and affirm the sacrificial atoning work of Jesus.
Perhaps the bigger issue is the celebrity worship that goes on in Evangelical circles. The fact that we proclaim Jesus as our king means little if we will adopt as our pastors anyone with a winning smile and cutting edge wardrobe without discerning their teachings.
I found myself reacting very harshly to Bell’s teaching. If the gods weren’t angry I certainly was heading that direction. After all it felt very much like he was denying the truths of Scripture that the church has affirmed for over 2,000 years, and he did it all with winsomeness. I imagine those who love Bell will accuse me of being too harsh, but I would urge you to look beyond the hip, trendy, and intelligent man and get to the heart of his teachings and see what you think then. The bell has already been sounded, I simply want to ring it again: be discerning with Rob Bell. For if God is actually angry then we need to know how to relate to him rightly.