Christ and Pop Culture writer, Ben Bartlett and guest-writer, Kiel Hauck, two friends who spend their Friday nights playing video and board games in between heated theological, social, and political discussions, come together to hammer out their thoughts about a book that seems to have most other evangelicals shutting down lines of communication, intentionally or not.
Each week, they’ll read one chapter, and trade a few emails discussing the chapter. This week, they discuss the Introduction and Chapter 1: What About the Flat Tire?
Ben Bartlett: “I feel like Rob Bell is trying to exclude me from this conversation.”
I really appreciate Rob Bell’s empathy. He clearly wants the best for people. And there’s clearly some sense of justice in his perspectives, because he wants good things for those who do good and, at the least, less good things for those who do less good.
But frankly, I feel like Rob Bell is trying to exclude me from this conversation. Is there any set of standards he and I can agree on?
As a former debate teacher, I have a special appreciation for the dangers of fallacies. Rob seems to favor them, as in in the intro and Chapter 1 alone I saw such classics as Hasty Generalization, Straw Man, Poisoning the Well, and above all the False Dilemma. This is a problem not so much because of the fallacies themselves (after all, every Christian has to accept some paradoxical logic about God’s ability to be fully two things at once), but because they suggest some harsh things about me and a lot of people I love and trust.
For example, Rob says God’s love compels him to question the story that, “a select few Christians will spend forever in…heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in… hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic…”
I’ve taught that, Rob. My lessons were misguided and toxic?
Later Rob discusses a Christian who stated that there was no hope for a particular atheist who died. This prompts Rob to ask, “’No hope’? Is that what Jesus offers the world? Is this the sacred calling of Christians-to announce that there’s no hope?”
Who is it Rob thinks he is arguing with? Of course that’s not what was meant.
Rob’s many fallacies and loaded rhetorical questions work together to contribute to the biggest fallacy of them all; the False Dilemma.
See, I’ve had doubts in my life too. I wanted answers, and I wanted consistency throughout the internal structures of my mind and beliefs. So I went and sought those answers. I asked a lot of questions of people I respect, people nearer to the end of their inquiries than the beginning. I read books by authors who poured their lives into considering the possibilities and sharing their findings. I thought and meditated and wrote and mused and did a thousand other things to mine the depths of my own thoughts, trying to find the answers to big questions about who I am, who God is, and what he wants from me. I worked really, really hard at those pursuits.
After all that work, the vast majority of my beliefs have crystalized into near-certainties. I say near-certainties because I do want to leave one opening… I can be convinced of something different if it can be proven to me from Scripture.
But Rob Bell makes me feel like my journey was not important because I found answers. He describes my beliefs in terms that place me in a group of cold, uncaring, unquestioning automatons whose main goal is conformity at all costs. He sets me and my chilly cronies up as one of two alternatives, with the empathetic and open-minded questioners as the other. This is a false dilemma for the questioning reader, and frankly it is a severe case of not fighting fairly.
Rob Bell does a good job at the start of his book in reaching out to people with questions, people whose chief organizing principle in life is love. He wants to help them reconcile that perspective with Christ, and he recognizes that they may have been hurt by (un-Christlike) harshness. But by alienating thoughtful people who have found excellent answers in traditional theological perspectives (seen most clearly when he says things like, “Really?”), Rob misses out on a huge treasure trove of wisdom and journeys and stories that could be beneficial to his intended audience. He is essentially asking them to ignore what most of the church says, and to listen to him instead. And he uses really bad logic to do it.
I admire the empathy, Kiel. You know I appreciate it because once I sensed it in you, I was willing to share some of my most intimate thoughts and struggles. I want people to know that Christians can and should be loving, empathetic, thoughtful, and able to wrestle with the most difficult of questions. Rob Bell wants to display empathy too, but I have to ask; when he invites people on this journey, is he trying to leave me behind? That’s how I feel right now.
Kiel Hauck: “You’ve never struck me as the type of person that Rob Bell is taking issue with.”
It certainly is interesting the two polar opposite reactions we both must have felt while reading this first chapter. I’ll be honest with you – I loved it. And, quite possibly to my shame, I never once stopped to think about how “the other side” must feel while reading it. However, after reading your email, it’s clear to me that some of the language could be taken as hurtful if you belong to a particular audience. Make no mistake, Rob Bell wrote this book for a certain group of people – those such as myself that find themselves unsatisfied with the conventional take on eternity. I found myself nodding in agreement with many of his assessments. But since this is meant to be a response to your initial reaction, let me try to take aim at a few of your points.
First, I want start off addressing the reaction you had to Bell’s quote about the idea that a central truth of the Christian faith is that a select few will spend eternity in heaven while the rest of humanity spends eternity hell and that to deny this is to deny Jesus. Bell says this idea is “misguided and toxic.” You take issue with that statement since, in your own words, you’ve taught that very thing. If that’s the case, would you say that Rob Bell and I (or anyone else for that matter) who rejects this idea is rejecting Jesus? Based on what you said in the email, you would have to. But I know for a fact that you’ve never once questioned my faith, or even Rob Bell’s in my presence. How do you reconcile that?
I bring this up, because while you appear to be troubled at the way Bell has seemingly attacked people like yourself, along with those you love and trust, you’ve never struck me as the type of person that Rob Bell is taking issue with. In fact, I would imagine he would be quite thrilled that you’re even participating in this dialogue. If anything, I think this is more a case of two individuals who have searched long and hard to find the answers to these questions, but have found themselves convinced of different conclusions.
You and I both know that you’re not a “cold, uncaring, unquestioning automaton whose main goal is conformity at all costs,” but we both know people who are, don’t we? I think that’s the real issue here – not just a difference of beliefs, but the way you act once you’ve taken hold of those beliefs. And I’ve never once seen you act in a way that wasn’t fair, even in the presence of those who disagree with you.
Far more often than not, in these kinds of discussions, it is “your” side who is doing the talking. Outsiders feel like outsiders for a reason – especially in this instance. Yeah, maybe Al Mohler’s right in that “we’ve seen this before,” but I’m not sure we’ve seen it like this. A lot of people follow Rob Bell and listen to what he says because we can identify with him. I hear his questions in this first chapter and I respond the way I do because those are the same exact questions I’ve found myself fighting through time and time again – questions that are embarrassing to ask. And anyone who’s been there knows how awful it is to ask those questions and get shut down by the “cold, uncaring, unquestioning” types. I think It takes a lot of guts to write a book like this, especially when I know how hard it is to even bring this stuff up around people you trust.
All that being said, I would LOVE to see you respond to what I feel is the most important part of the first chapter. Bell devotes most of his time here looking at how Jesus responds when asked about eternity and how to gain access to it. I’ve privately wrestled with this for years. People make you want to believe that this is so simple – “just say this and believe this, and you’re good to go!” What about the answers Jesus gives to the questions about eternity though? Why so many different answers? Which one is it? I can’t wait to see how he unfolds all of that through the rest of the book, but perhaps you could share some of your own insight into how you deal with those instances. This is where the “huge treasure trove of wisdom and journeys and stories” belongs and where I feel your voice can be extremely helpful.
“Is it what you say, or who you are, or what you do, or what you say you’re going to do, or who your friends are, or who you’ve married to, or whether you give birth to children, or what questions you’re asked, or what questions you ask in return, or the tribe, or family, or ethnic group you’re born into?”
Ben Bartlett: “If Rob wants to influence the church as a whole, he’d better be prepared for very tough questions.”
First, thanks for your gracious and thoughtful reply. I think you captured perfectly where I was going with it and what I was trying to communicate, and your response was excellent. I’ll try to do justice to your questions as well as I can.
First, you asked how I reconcile my comment that “I’ve taught that” (meaning Bell’s caricature of the traditional teaching on hell) with not challenging your faith or Bell’s. I would say that my primary purpose there was to highlight the fact that Rob is telling you that anytime a Sunday School teacher or preacher teaches on hell, Rob knows that person is essentially wrong and that what they are teaching is damaging to their listeners. That is a huge, huge statement to be making. That’s where my real problem lies… the rejection of the vast majority of Christian teaching on this subject is incredibly arrogant, rather than asking people to reconsider particular evidence.
As for me personally, I suppose it would be fairer to say that I’ve taught the traditional message on hell, and I think it’s biblical. I do believe that to reject the biblical truth about hell (whatever that is, and we can keep discussing that) really is a rejection of the Scriptural witness, and as such is a rejection of Christ’s message about himself.
In your case, I don’t challenge your faith because I know you are still asking a lot of questions, and struggling with uncertainties about how God interacts with the world. I’ve had those times myself, and I made it through without having “lost” my faith. Doubt and uncertainty is something to work through, not a disqualifier. However, Rob has gone far beyond the doubts of an uncertain young man. He is now the pastor of a megachurch, one of two or three key leaders in a major religious movement, an author, and an example to many. So let me be clear about this: if it is true that Rob Bell’s teaching about hell is a rejection of the Biblical witness on the subject, then I will name him a heretic. However, if it is simply the case that he wants to struggle with some things about his faith and invite people to consider Scripture more closely, then I’ll leave him alone. That’s a key reason we are going through this conversation. We want to model what it means to doubt, what it means to search, and what it means to reconcile those doubts and uncertainties with the Truth of Scripture so that we can make decisions about God’s authority in our lives.
To touch briefly on the subject of attackers, in my mind it’s pretty simple; some people are overly quick to attack, yes, but at the same time it would be wrong of Rob Bell to propose something that, at least at the outset, sounds very heretical and to then expect not to be challenged. Theological leaders rightly take heresy, especially the heresy of a popular leader in a large movement, seriously. If Rob wants to influence (challenge?) the church as a whole, he’d better be prepared for very tough questions.
Finally, you ask for my thoughts on Jesus’ teaching on heaven. I would start by saying that it would be a huge, huge mistake to divorce the teachings of Christ from the teachings of the apostles. When Christ spoke, in some sense he was speaking like an Old Testament prophet… after all, the gospel had not yet been fully enacted! The apostles are key because they proclaim and interpret the meaning of Christ’s action here on earth… his life, death, and resurrection. To act as though Christ’s responsibility was to describe methodology for finding heaven using a gospel that hadn’t yet fully happened is to make some really weird demands on him and his context.
That said, I disagree with the notion that Christ wandered around asking questions. He did sometimes respond to questions with questions, but those questions were always purposeful in helping his audience understand truths about the kingdom of God. See, Jesus knew that the Jews expected a worldly kingdom, a secular savior. Much of his ministry was devoted to teaching us that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom established not in territories, but in our hearts. That kingdom is a place where God is the authority, and where we as his subjects love and honor and worship Him, even as we reflect his love by loving each other.
However, participation in that kingdom first requires a righteousness not our own. It requires Christ’s saving action on the cross, and it requires his cleansing of our sin. I can agree that it is hard to describe methodology, but it is NOT hard to describe the endpoint of a person seeking salvation; the true Christian is one who has fully committed himself to submitting to God’s authority, and recognizes that only in Christ can his sin be forgiven.
I don’t think Christ was just trying to talk to people about gaining access to streets of gold, though that is part of it.. I think he was telling them that their desires should be focused on becoming members of God’s kingdom through a rightly submissive and worshipful relationship with him. I think he was telling them their chief problem was the sin inherent to placing themselves on the throne of their lives. And I think he knew good and well that his message would spread powerfully very soon through his action on the cross and in resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the passionate proclamation of the gospel by the spineless goofballs he walked around with every day.
I look forward to seeing what Rob has to say about these things. Whatever he says, though, it cannot deter us from our mission of calling people to repentance and submission for the purpose of the glory of God. As long as that’s our goal, any conversation can ultimately be a helpful one.