What Launched the Bell Battle? – Part 1: Rob Bell is No C. S. Lewis

What Launched the Bell Battle? – Part 1: Rob Bell is No C. S. Lewis March 30, 2011

guest post at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed, from philosopher/author Jeff Cook, suggests that “the debate over Love Wins is not actually a fight only about doctrine. It is about angst caused by different cultures and philosophical precommitments.”  The anger directed at Bell is partly because he “intimidates some because he is part of [an urban, postmodern] culture they do not understand and cannot control,” and because of “envy and resentment of a very talented man” and (to paraphrase) a sense of creeping cultural irrelevance on the part of modernist conservatives.  Thus, “the issues at hand” are “about culture and control” and “the continuing fight between postmodern and modern expressions of Christianity.”  Professor Cook’s primary evidence for this is that C. S. Lewis, he says, advocated more or less the same ontology of hell as Rob Bell does, and yet he evokes none of the ire Bell has.  Indeed, Lewis is widely admired.

I do not entirely disagree with this argument (although I disagree with the claim that some are intimidated by Bell; I don’t sense that at all).  The response to Bell is not “all about” anything.  It has multiple layers to it, and it’s important that careful writers and teachers who care about the future of the church differentiate those layers and deal with each properly.  But I think Cook gets Lewis wrong, and fails to see what really differentiates Lewis and Bell.

There certainly are — and I think this comes through most clearly in the comment sections on both sides — deep aesthetic and cultural antipathies that form, beneath the disagreements, undercurrents of dislike and distrust between the pro-Bell and anti-Bell camps.  The detractors see the “hipster Christian” chic of Rob Bell, the black-rimmed glasses and the trendy outfits and the overuse of secular buzzwords, and it fairly screams “cultural conformity” in their minds.  Bell is automatically associated with progressive politics, with the self-absorption of the fashionable young urbanite, with coffee-house snobbery against conservative Christians, and with a desperation that is willing to abandon core theological commitments in order to be liked.  All of this happens before the book is opened.  And on the other hand, when an evangelical (even a moderate like our own historian Thomas Kidd) posts something mildly critical of Bell, he is accused of being a fundamentalist who hates science and probably would have opposed interracial marriage and supported slavery.  The critic (in this case Kidd) has never mentioned science, or politics, or social issues, and yet the commenter already has a full profile of him in mind.  This shows the power of these subterranean cultural battles in the current debate.

And there may also be personal antipathies, a resentment based in the feeling that Bell does not really deserve all the attention he receives.  Detractors likely feel that Bell receives an awful lot of attention not only because he’s talented — there are many folks out there with extraordinary teaching talents — but because he says fashionable things, things the secular media love.  Bell is the kind of Christian that non-Christians want us to be.  He’s the kind of Christian that non-Christians would want to have a beer with.  So he is lavished with attention; he’s called a “rock star” and “the next Billy Graham” and “the most exciting voice in religion today.”  There may well be resentment that other pastors/writers/speakers also toil away, and with great talent, yet receive no such accolades and no New York Times bestseller status because their claims are not as trendy.

These cultural and interpersonal reasons for the antipathy between the Bell supporters and detractors are just the natural consequences of human sinfulness.  There is nothing nefarious at work, except for good old-fashioned sin.  And it runs both ways.  Most of the comments we’ve seen at Patheos have been from Bell supporters, and they’re responded pretty nastily to those who make criticisms of Bell, however mild those criticisms might be.

Now, let me lay my cards on the table.  (I am now free to do so.)  I found “Love Wins” deeply frustrating.  Not because it advocates something close to universalism.  Not because of its inclusivism (if not outright pluralism) and eternalism (I explain here).  I’ve always been surrounded by people — even Christians — who believe things very, very different from myself.  And I actually think the biblical witness on the afterlife is fuzzier than some on the conservative side of this debate will admit.  I find the hopeful (yet ultimately agnostic on the matter) attitudes of Karl Barth and C. S. Lewis profoundly attractive.  All of which to say: while the fact of Bell’s influence concerns me, I don’t particularly care that Rob Bell is something close to a universalist.

Rather, I found the book frustrating because (1) of the way it treated scripture and (2) the way it treated what has traditionally been considered the orthodox teaching of the western church.  I do not blame Bell for being a universalist.  Actually it’s almost boringly predictable.  But I do blame him for the way he treats God’s word and the way he treats the majority report of the church.  This — apart from some subtle but important theological differences (more on that later) — is what separates a Rob Bell from a C. S. Lewis. Even when C. S. Lewis wrote something that might depart from traditional orthodoxy on some matter, Lewis did not caricature or mock what the church has taught as “toxic,” “psychologically crushing” or irrational and backwards.

I believe that this is responsible in large measure for the very strong negative reaction that has flowed toward Love Wins from certain quarters of American Christendom.  Again, there is no one thing the Bell Battle is all about.  But I do believe this was one of the factors that provoked such acrimony.  Bell’s book, to many, feels like an attack.  An attack upon orthodoxy, an attack upon a traditional interpretation of scripture, an attack on what they have been taught throughout their lives.  Lewis’ books never felt like an attack on orthodox Christian belief; they felt like an eloquent defense and a careful, biblical, theological and literary rendering of that belief.  Yes, it’s a matter of philosophical pre-commitments.  But it’s also, simply, that Bell caricatures and condemns traditional Christian teaching while Lewis represents it thoughtfully and charitably, even when he wants to suggest the possibility of a different view.

So I am going to publish three more posts (this being the first) on Bell’s book in the days to come.  SECOND, what does Bell — in my view — get right?  It’s important to begin here, to represent one another honestly and charitably.  (I will include here a comment on the most important theological matter Bell gets wrong, which is his understanding of the person and work of Christ.)  THIRD, how does he interpret the scriptures?  And FOURTH, how does he treat what the majority of the church throughout its history has taught?

Stay tuned.  And bear in mind I write blog posts erratically, so it’s important to subscribe to the RSS or email subscription.

Relevant Links [apart from those already linked above]:

Rob Bell Book Club Feature

Scot McKnight, “Are We At a Tipping Point?

Ben Witherington, “Does God Always Get What He Wants?

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  • Jim

    Incredible!! Bell is a mega-church pastor. He claims he can talk to “post-moderns.” The mega-church is the most “modern” form of ministry there is based on the “cult of personality.” This is mainly how Bell has built his ministry. He is “the” guy with “the” word. It is alienating and isolating and irrelevant. I was chatting with a friend of Bell’s who said that Bell tried to step away from his church but he couldn’t because it would all fall apart. If he was committed to the church as family and not to his own cult of personality he could let it fall apart and he could give up the video-star persona and place his congregation into the hands of God. Those who seek to be most relevant become irrelevant in short order. The gospel is always relevant because we are sinners and it always comes with an offense. Get over yourself Rob Bell.

  • Timothy,

    You wrote:
    ‘Bell’s book, to many, feels like an attack. An attack upon orthodoxy, an attack upon a traditional interpretation of scripture, an attack on what they have been taught throughout their lives.’

    This observation is, for the most part, correct. The problem I have with it is, it seems to suggest that orthodoxy, traditional interpretation of scripture, what’s been taught throughout many Christians’ lives is equivalent to Gods Truth. You are right to say that it FEELS like an attack, and that’s because, in some sense, it is. But what ‘orthodoxy’ is being attacked? And is that orthodoxy adequately representative of God’s spiritual Truth? What traditional interpretation of scripture is being attacked? A Reformed/Neo-Reformed interpretation? Is the Reformed/Neo-reformed interpretation the only correct one? And the attack on what certain streams of Christians have been taught all through their lives – is this the only correct interpretation?

    In short, is Bell’s book an attack on Truth, or is it an attack on a particular interpretation of that Truth?

    And many are criticizing Bell for his ‘indefensible use of scripture’, but that’s only a criticism because Bell’s conclusions don’t match a particular stream of Christian interpretation that thinks itself equivalent to truth, namely, the Reformed/Neo-Reformed tradition and its offshoots. I just can’t seem to understand how these various Reformed-types gather the audacity to claim others will go to hell if they don’t submit to their particular interpretation of the Scriptures, if it’s true they’re being nurtured by the Spirit and not their own demons of fear and pride.

    Tell me, do you believe a hell of everlasting conscious torment exists? Show me who will end up there! Share with us the the criteria you use to make such a determination! Have you yourself fulfilled that criteria? Do you honestly think so? Are you willing to bet your entire life on it? You’d better be right, because if you’re wrong, you’ll end up in the very hell you’re sending everyone else to!

    Mercy? or Justice?


    Make your move.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for the comment, Joshua. A few points:

      (1) I certainly do not equate the traditional teachings of the church with God’s truth. I am explaining why Bell’s work evoked such ire — because it not only advances another option, but caricatures and attacks what the majority of Christians believe. And while the traditional teachings of the church do not have absolute authority — they can and should be subject to critical appraisal, and sometimes can and should change — they are nonetheless worthy of respect and careful treatment. If one is attacking what, say, 90% of Christians have believed for 2000 years, then one has a high bar to pass in terms of justifying the argument.

      (2) I am not presently Neo-Reformed. What Bell caricatures and attacks is not merely Reformed or Neo-Reformed theology. The view that salvation is by Christ alone, and those who reject Christ in this life will be condemned to hell, has been held by the vast majority of Christians worldwide throughout history. Some theologians have suggested other options, of course. Orthodox theology has some interesting differences, in particular in Gregory of Nyssa; recently the Catholic Church developed the doctrine of “implicit Christians”; and Protestants as well as others differ on some of the subtleties, such as what happens to those who have never had the opportunity to respond to the gospel. But what Bell suggests — that everyone, even those who rejected Christ in this life, will have an everlasting opportunity to turn and receive the grace of God and enter into the new life in the new heaven and earth, and that everyone will probably come to this in the end — goes beyond the overwhelming testimony of the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions. Again, those traditions are not sacrosanct, but they are deserving of much better treatment than they receive at the hands of Bell. And if you’re departing from those traditions, at least be upfront about it.

      I don’t know any Reformed or Neo-Reformed writers who claim that “others will go to hell if they don’t submit to their particular interpretation of the Scriptures.” They say that those will go to hell who do not put their trust in Christ. It’s not about having the right interpretation; it’s about having the right relationship with Christ, but the right relationship does presuppose certain basic beliefs, such as the divinity of Christ, the sufficiency of Christ, and one’s own sinfulness and insufficiency apart from Christ. But I don’t see people insisting that one must be Reformed on pain of hellfire.

      As for your other points and questions, some of those will be addressed in the rest of the series. I hope you read along!


      • Tim,

        Thanks for your response! And I am looking forward to reading along. =]

        Yes, you are right to say that Reformed and Neo-Reformed Christians wouldn’t say you have to have their interpretation (after all, the Bible clearly teaches salvation is by faith alone), but in practice, they do believe their interpretation is the only right one; if you have differing opinions, you are immediately labeled a false teacher, heretic, or any number of unpleasant things. I know, because a small number of my Biola friends think I’m bearing false witness with my opinions, and I’ve shared my views on other blogs, and they’ve been quick to call me the same.

        The problem with the view of hell as a place of everlasting conscious torment is, it’s too easy to judge others as not worthy of our love. Rob is right, how we view the afterlife shapes how we live in the world today.

        Honestly, what would really happen if we denounced this particular concept of hell? The fear, which is ungrounded, is that we won’t come to a sense of our fallen nature, our sin condition, and the offense done to God. But that’s ridiculous, because the only way to truly repent is to be aware of your actual, personal sin condition! The only way to understand exactly how we’ve offended God is to understand our PARTICULAR sin condition! Merely believing you’re sinful because the Bible says all humans are isn’t a proper understanding of our sin condition, such an understanding being the first step needed for true repentance. And then before someone’s reached a proper understanding of their sin condition we rush them into accepting Jesus into their heart with the threat of everlasting conscious torment, because ‘You could die tonight!’ But such a one only knows they are sinful through an abstraction, but they don’t know what being sinful really means, so it’s no use for them to admit they’re sinful! They don’t count the cost of being a Christ disciple because they don’t understand their particular sin condition.

        What perpetuates misunderstanding of the cost of discipleship by Christians at this point is, there’s still some truth that’s being sensed, and that’s why people will give Christianity a chance! It’s just that the misconceptions of sin and especially hell make it hard to root out the problems many people end up feeling. They begin to feel it’s all made up and phony because they begin to realize they don’t know what any of it means, and then they sense that many Christians don’t really know what any of what they believe really means! And I say ‘really means’ to mean they don’t see how it relates concretely to reality, to their present condition; all their beliefs are second-hand abstractions built upon abstractions!

        Of course we all KNOW we can’t just say we believe Jesus died for our sins, we KNOW that our life and actions must back up the claim, but so many of us are lost and don’t know how to life our life in the authentic light of Christ – that is, embody that next step of discipleship, the turn inward that leads back outward – because shadows of misconception dance back and forth.

        The problem, Timothy, is abstraction. And hell as everlasting conscious torment is, in the end, abstraction. We can by faith test the essential truths of Christianity and verify our faith with experience, but there’s no way to verify hell as everlasting conscious torment. As far as we can verify, hell is a present reality because of suffering, pain, and despair, and if those actual, present aspects of hell are being eclipsed by some imaginative version of it, shouldn’t it be denounced?

        Can you see how this would lead many Christians to believe that we’ve been misunderstanding the true nature of hell?

        Thanks again for your response.

        • Chip


          I’m not Timothy, and I won’t presume to speak for him, so I hope that you won’t mind my jumping in with a personal reaction to your comments.

          You say, “We can by faith test the essential truths of Christianity and verify our faith with experience, but there’s no way to verify hell as everlasting conscious torment.” I am not Reformed, but an Anglican with both Anglican evangelical and Anglo-Catholic beliefs, and yet there’s very little of the Christian faith that I can “verify . . . with experience.” I cannot verify with experience that Jesus said the words that are attributed to him in the Bible. I cannot verify with experience that Jesus did what the Bible says he did. I cannot provide from my experience tangible evidence of the existence of the Holy Trinity. I cannot verify with my experience that there will be a new heavens and a new earth, either (as some Christians hold) created ex nihilo or (as other Christians hold) in the sense of a perfected earth. Beyond these examples, my personal experience per se is far from a trustworthy source of evidence. My experience can be either reliable or unreliable, and it too frequently is the latter one.

          So much of the Christian faith is *not* verifiable to our experience. Consequently, claiming that Hell as an eternal place of separation from God is an abstraction is essentially moot — so are most features of the Christian faith to people before they believe. And from what we read in the Bible — even in Jesus’s words — we cannot dismiss the traditional understanding of Hell as something impractical and then conclude we can equate Hell with present-day suffering. The very words of Jesus in the Scriptures tell us not only to love our enemies, and not only to help those who are suffering, but also that Hell is an eternal place of real suffering. Is the Jesus of the Scriptures hawking an “imaginative version” to you?

          Furthermore, you’ve set up a false dichotomy: the idea that if you believe in Hell as a place of conscious, eternal torment, you will not be concerned with the suffering that people experience here on this earth. But we have well over 2000 years of countless Christian examples who prove just the opposite. The very things that you criticize as “second-hand abstractions built upon abstractions” somehow weren’t so abstract to them; rather, such beliefs motivated them to give up their lives on behalf of other people.

          Can you see how the Christians who came before us would not recognize the setting of “actual, present aspects of hell” against what you call the “imaginative version” of the traditional Christian understanding of it?

          • Thanks Chris, you’re more than welcome to join in!

            Reflecting on things a bit more, I can see how the way I expressed my views above wasn’t the best. I would like to clarify what I mean, because though I didn’t use the best expressions above, my original thoughts and ideas are true.

            What I’m learning is, Christian belief is not supposed to be true in an objective sense – meaning, it’s not something we come to believe by means of science, history, or philosophy. Christian belief is supposed to be true primarily in a subjective sense, meaning, we ought to be asking ourselves, ‘If I presume this to be true, how should I live my life in light of it?’ We miss the point when we try to prove the statements of Christianity true by objective standards before we’re willing to put our faith in them – we’re supposed to have faith that they are true before anything. And by faith, we shall learn HOW they are true: this is what I meant by our verifying the truths of Christianity by experience.

            So you’re right, we can’t verify by our experience the objective validity of such notions as the Trinity, of whether it was really Jesus who actually said the words attributed to him by other writers, or that the world will be perfected in the future. And we don’t need to in order to accept these Christian teachings as true. In other words, they aren’t meant to be proven by reason, they’re meant to be proven by faith. And faith is subjective. The least of our concerns should be the objective literal validity of our Christian statements of faith. Our primary concern should be, ‘How ought I to orient my life in the light of these statements?’

            So when we accept these things as being true, we want to know not their objective truth, but how we ought to respond to these truths subjectively – we want to know how we ought to live our lives in response to them, because we have faith that by operating from such statements of faith we can better order our lives in relation with reality. And we ‘prove’ the truth of these statements of faith to ourselves when we bear the fruit of patience, compassion, mercy, and all the others that lead to a restoration of creation here-and-now, not when we can provide a rational, historical, scientific proof of the resurrection or any other statement of faith. We simply accept them to be true regardless of their objective validity and find out if they help us better live in reality.

            The danger is we reduce the power of the Christian message when we focus on trying to objectively prove things like the resurrection and all the other fantastical, absurd things Christianity teaches. Christianity only has power because IT IS absurd, because it CAN’T be proven objectively, because it MUST be taken by faith – that is, it MUST speak to the inner person and thereby change his life, not be another piece of rational information. You MUST take Christianity by faith if you want to abide in its truth. The absurdity demands a response, but we delay our response when we try to prove Christianity by objective means. (I think this is something Kierkegaard was trying to show in either ‘For Self Examination’ or ‘Judge For Yourself’.)

            As for the concept of hell as everlasting conscious torment with no possibility of repentance, if we are Christians knowing that God’s love is always merciful, I wonder: how does this notion of hell reflect God’s mercy on earth presently? How does it impact how we are to live our lives NOW? If the Bible is true when it speaks of God’s mercy, I don’t know how we can accept a notion of hell that removes freedom of will, for that would lead to denying the mercy of God; the will may be in bondage to hell and sin, but not to the point where the mercy of God is powerless to restore it. Further, God asks us to forgive over and over; why would he expect it of us if he wasn’t willing to do the same?

            I in fact do accept hell as eternal torment, but I reject that God’s mercy cannot extend into the afterlife. I believe that hell has to be eternal if that’s what a particular creature is choosing – see, hell has to be maintained by a choice, and a constant willing to reject God’s love can extend for an eternity. But eternity is the ‘timeless now’, not an ‘everlasting unchangeable present’; what I mean is, as long as we will a particular way of life, it is eternal, meaning that unless we change our will, that particular life will stretch into eternity; but if we choose something different, that choice, as long as we continue choosing it, will be our eternity. In other words, eternity does not negate our freedom of choice. And I believe God’s love is ever-present and that it will last much longer than my rejection of it.

            And since I’m not too clear on how the concept of hell has been interpreted in the past 2000 years, I can’t make a comment on that, but I would speculate that actual human behavior (in this case, love) can trump particular intellectual assertions (in this case, the notion of hell), and so if it does, we ought to change intellectual assertions accordingly; but as far as the popular notion of hell as everlasting and permanent conscious torment, I know that it’s just too easy to use that as a scare-tactic and a tool to refuse to love someone if they don’t accept a particular interpretation of Christianity. But I know that St. Gregory of Nyssa believed that God would by his love eventually reconcile all things to himself, even Satan and the demons, and that he is still accepted as a Holy Father, Saint, and is even venerated on a certain day by the Orthodox Church, even despite his ‘unorthodox’ position.

            So in the end I wonder which has more power for spreading the love of God: the notion of eternal mercy, or the notion of everlasting and permanent conscious torment?

  • agellius

    I had not even heard of this controversy, but I’m interested to read more about it.

  • Josh T.

    Interesting take on the Bell vs. Lewis issue. I actually commented on the Jesus Creed post in question (for the record, no, I haven’t read the Bell book, just some interviews and several books quotes). I think the comment is relevant to what you’re discussing, so here’s a portion of it:

    When I hear Lewis speak of things in Mere Christianity, the Problem of Pain, The Great Divorce, etc., I hear speculations and dialogue with himself trying to make sense of difficult and troubling issues, without necessarily taking a hard-and-fast line (to me, he seems to be speculating within a certain level of agnosticism about the subject). Even in the Great Divorce, he says explicitly in the Preface, “I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy… . …[the transmortal conditions] are not even a guess or speculation at what may actually await us.” In the Last Battle, there is only one person in the enemy’s camp that ends up saved, despite being on the opposing side. I don’t think I would call that Universalistic (nor second chance during hell).

    Then somehow we have Rob Bell’s work, and to me–again, I may be way off base here–it seems that Rob Bell, a supposedly evangelical pastor, seems to come off as more dogmatic about these difficult issues, despite being a more postmodern thinker/writer.

    • Josh,

      I read the book a few weeks ago. I came away under the impression that Bell offers most of his work as exploratory hypothesizes that cannot be confirmed or disproven in this life, so lets stop being so dogmatic about it (about the eternalism issue). In light of that, he advocates that we get busy living the life God wants us too and let the good judge work it out.

      While I fall into the traditionalist camp, I desperately want the eternalist camp to be right (but that sort of thing is not up to me). I can read Jesus and some of Paul in a way that is sympathetic to their position.

      What I think the larger issue is about is the nature of punishment in scripture. Is it (merely) retributive or (also or merely) restorative? That is a far more interesting and worthwhile debate than the traditionalist / annilationist / eternalist debate for it has a very real impact on how we view and do things on this earth, in this life.

      Finally, I’d say that Bell is more Lewis-life than Tim gives him credit for. But my judgement is rooted in my history with particular kinds of Christianities and in the type of heresy hunter I used to be. Bell speaks to me (and other close family and friends) in a way that moves us closer to the biblical God (even though I disagree with portions of his works).

  • cas

    I really appreciate your perspective here Tim and look forward to the next installments.

  • Listen Mr. Bell: this story’s one you ought to know,
    You’ll reap the consequence of what you sow.
    This fleeting world is not the world where we
    Are destined to abide eternally:
    And for the sake of an unworthy book
    You let the devil claim you for his crook.
    I’ve few days left here, I’ve no heart for war,
    I cannot strive and struggle much more,
    But hear an old man’s words: the heart that’s freed
    From gnawing passion and ambitious greed
    Looks on royalties and the dust as one;
    The man who sells his story, as you’ve done,
    For this same worthless dust, will never be
    Regarded as a child of purity.
    The world has seen so many men like you,
    And laid them low: there’s nothing you can do
    But turn to God; take thought then for the way
    You travel, since it leads to Judgment Day.

    This verse is an adaptation of a passage found in “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings”

  • Unless it’s a Christian philosopher or a *very* philosophical theologian, a Christian pastor or theologian or celebrity is irrelevant, almost by definition. Culture intuitively ignores them without even thinking about it.

  • Lewis didn’t generally attack the “traditional” view because Lewis didn’t have much experience with it–certainly not in an evangelical form. (The “kind, good Landlord” described at the beginning of Pilgrim’s Regress strikes a very Bell-like note, but Lewis is caricaturing there primarily a kind of muddled semi-Pelagian post-evangelical Anglo-Protestant moralism and not any kind of evangelicalism.) However, bear in mind that Lewis found Barth “appalling” not for his universalism but for what Lewis took to be his harsh, austere neo-Calvinism. And Lewis did sometimes speak harshly of conservative views–they just weren’t his primary concern.

  • K. Reux

    I am not certain what to make of this controversy. I am aware of the different traditions surrounding universalism, judgment, heaven and hell. I am also familiar with the Greek Orthodox view which is slightly different. It seems most of those angry with Bell come from mainstream evangelical tradition–perhaps especially reformed. Since I don’t come from that tradition, I am not nearly as offended by Bell. My own tradition is rather free church and congregational.

    While I believe we should take theology seriously–sometimes I wonder if we take ourselves way too seriously. Does the evangelical church need someone to defend it from Bell? Does Bell need someone to defend him from others in the evangelical world? I would say “no” to both questions. Maybe we could all sit down in one of those coffee houses, sip some ‘jo and listen to each other openly. Then politely disagree and still respect and love each other knowing that we both can agree that those who are honestly seeking the Lord with all of their hearts will certainly find him.

  • Watchman

    Very profound article. I would have never thought that this whole Bell debacle is simply a culture war between traditional Christianity and the new progressives/Emergents. Based upon my own observations I am seeing this as a very distinct possibility. The bickering back and forth and tit-for-tat mentality seems to stem from a battle between two different theologies. Ironically, I’m seeing the bared teeth more from the older traditions of the Christian faith (i.e. Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Reformed) than I am from the newer traditions (liberals, progressives, and Emergents).

    These are my observations. I hope to read the book soon.

  • fledge

    I’m not a Bell fan. I read Love Wins because everyone else is. I’m an armchair theologian. I didn’t see the book as an attack on orthodoxy, per se, but an attack on attitudes. Even his section on the “toxic” cultures of the faith was leveled, not at orthodoxy, but at those who have apparently hijacked the gospel into something ugly, something that uses “grace” language but requires conformity to the subgroup to be included. Ever listened to the rhetoric of those groups who claim to “preserve” the gospel?

    Think areas of spiritual abuse and I think you have the ones Bell is trying to wrangle the microphone from and free people from to see God in a new light of love and not fear.

    I can tell you from inside sources that many of the loudest detractors against Bell are envious that he is stealing the next generation from the neo-fundamentalists. They are trying to groom young pastors (a la Joshua Harris) to be more appealing, but they are lacking and coming up short. Keep an eye out on the trend. If they can attack Bell, the are hoping to benefit from the fall-out and to keep their highly populated seminary status going.

    I am privy to this because of an inside source who has observed and documented it with details that baffle me. Would likely make another interesting 20/20 special.

    Culture war, for sure. Bell’s book would have been but a whimper had it not been for his detractors.

  • Derek


    I stumbled upon your blog through Jesus Creed. Thanks for this blog post. I’m curious: Is there a reason why you emphasized “western” when you state, “Rather, I found the book frustrating because (1) of the way it treated scripture and (2) the way it treated what has traditionally been considered the orthodox teaching of the western church.” Are you implying here something about the orthodox teaching of the *eastern* church?

    From my understanding, Rob Bell comes quite close to the views of salvation and heaven/hell of the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose core doctrines are ultra ancient.



  • Among the the obvious differences between Bell and Lewis is that Lewis was a man steeped in tradition. As a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English, he appreciated the past and what it brought to the present. I’ve not read Bell’s book, don’t plan to, have never heard him preach and don’t really care to, but he doesn’t seem like a man who appreciates the past, who understands the deep well of 2000 years of Church history and theology, and how important it is to the present. Christianity doesn’t have to be made relevant; it is relevant.

    Mr. Dalrymple, very nice and insightful analysis. I just came across you at our blog, The American Culture, and I’m glad I did. I look forward to benefiting further from your insights. When I first saw your name I thought you might be related to a Theodore with the same last name, then I remembered that is a pseudonym:)

  • C. Ehrlich

    How should we use this “majority report of the church” criterion? How would St. Francis or Martin Luther have fared under it? Would there have been some comparable standard in Jesus’ day? Would Christ have fared well by such standards, as the “majority” interpreted them?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Hi Craig. The point is merely that when one wants to advance a claim (that God eternally extends a gracious invitation to salvation in the life to come) that runs counter to what the great majority of the churches have taught for two thousand years, there is a high bar to surmount. That bar is not insurmountable, and it has to be overcome by looking behind tradition to the biblical deposit on which tradition.was built.

      Consider, for instance, the biographical study of Shakespeare. There is a good deal of tradition that has built up around the available information and documents. These days, most proposed innovations (if someone wanted to argue that Shakespeare was actually gay, or was actually black-skinned, or etc.) will be wrong. This is not because the earlier interpretations are infallible, but just because they rose up and stood the test of time precisely because they seemed to account most reasonably for the available data. So a doctoral student who wants to propose an innovation has a high bar to pass. She cannot simply make a radical new suggestion without amassing a lot of evidence. It would also be important for her to show that she has thoroughly understood ‘the tradition’ as it stands.

  • C. Ehrlich

    To the extent that I understand this criterion and your reasoning behind it, it seems unnecessary and even counterproductive in a context where tradition carries such de facto power and dominance. In such contexts it may even be appropriate to encourage skepticism towards a doctrine BECAUSE of its status as a tradition.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I would agree that it depends on context. But bear in mind a few things here. There is the question of what one should encourage from a person like Rob Bell. And there is the question of what one should encourage from readers. I believe that one should encourage a person like Rob Bell to feel a keen sense of obligation to treat these matters with extraordinary care when one is running against the grain of the tradition. I believe it is incumbent on a pastor/writer to explain the tradition well, make sure that one has accounted for it well, and to carefully weigh the various interpretive options for individual scriptures as well as the witness of the whole counsel of scripture. I just didn’t feel that he did that.

      For readers, I think it is, as a general matter, a good default position that “theological innovations must pass a high bar.” I don’t think we’re now in an environment where “tradition carries such…dominance.” Few people are well educated in theological tradition, especially in the reasons and argumentation behind traditional beliefs. There is also a general zeitgeist of skepticism toward tradition, and that zeitgeist is especially common amongst those who were, I take it, the intended audience for Bell’s book. Bell rode that zeitgeist, depicting the traditional view of hell rather like Kevin Bacon treated the town’s traditional teaching against dancing in Footloose.

      Besides, this default respect for tradition is part of how a tradition survives. The Jews would not have survived for these many thousands of years, and Christianity today would probably look nothing like the Christianity of the early church, if there were no encouraged sense of respect and less-than-ultimate authority for tradition. Your comment amounts to, “It’s unnecessary to encourage respect for tradition in an environment where tradition is respected.” But I challenge (1) that tradition is really as respected as you argue, or at least understood well enough, and (2) I submit that respect for tradition,and even the tradition itself, would not last long were it not for that encouragement.

  • C. Ehrlich

    As a bit of an outsider, I find the power of its own traditions to be relatively strong within the church. This is of course fully consistent with the fact that some insider’s desire an even greater deference to church traditions.

    But should deference to church traditions be even greater? This is the crucial question. You suggest that there should be greater deference because we want traditions to survive. But all traditions? Presumably not. Moreover, Rob Bell himself presumably show deference to some traditions. Finally, even if someone as influential as Pastor Bell shows disrespect for a given tradition, I can still guarantee to you this: traditions of some kind will continue to survive.

    A more compelling reason to insist on greater deference to church tradition might be the idea that the very fact that something is a church tradition provides some indication (not to say a GUARANTEE) of its legitimacy. So, if the question regards the truth of some doctrine traditionally espoused by the church, the very fact that the doctrine has been traditionally espoused by the church is an indication of its veracity.

    But just how reliable is church tradition as an indicator of truth? This, I suppose, is an open question, even within the church. So what are the special reasons we might have for thinking that CHURCH tradition (as opposed, e.g., to political, cultural, philosophical, academic, or scientific tradition) makes it an especially reliable indicator of the truth of a given teaching?

    Here I want to suggest something perhaps surprising. I suspect that whatever reasons we list here will themselves be liable to being used as excuses to enforce doctrines in an authoritarian way. Used in this way, however, these “reasons” will perpetuate traditions by blocking the very sorts of criticism which in other cases serve to confer legitimacy to traditions–by ensuring that the traditions which endure tend only to be those which can legitimately withstand well-reasoned scrutiny. In other words, any special reasons we might appeal to for attributing special authority to church traditions will also tend to undermine the more general and common-sense reasons we usually have for respecting traditions generally.

    So it will be tough to find special reasons for respecting church doctrines that aren’t to some extent self-defeating.

    • Holy Orthodoxy teaches that theology isn’t philosophy, and isn’t supposed to be subjected to scientific or historical verification to determine its veracity, and in fact, such a subjection completely misses the point of theology, or namely, religious belief. It even critiques Roman Catholicism because of this.

      See, philosophy is ontological, about the nature of objective things and how to systematize data about the outside world. It’s based on skepticism and human reason. We ask whether the truth of philosophy’s assumptions are true and determine through our reason whether they are.

      But religious belief is from the get go to be taken by faith as true, and is held to be based upon divine revelation (as opposed to human reason). And so the question isn’t ‘Is this belief true?’ but ‘How is this belief true?’ And that leads you to orient your life in such a way that you can discover for yourself how religious belief is true. See, philosophy doesn’t lead to practicality, to actual living; but theology is absolutely directed toward actual living: By asking HOW belief is true, you must, personally, set the books aside and ACTUALLY OBEY the religious belief. You must step out in faith to find out how religious belief is true. If we ask whether religious belief is true before we’re willing to follow it, that’s faithlessness, and because it’s faithlessness, the only way we can approach it is by skepticism and reason – and right then we cease to be concerned about how we ought to respond in practicality to belief, we limit ourselves from first-hand knowledge, and in essence use philosophical inquiry as an excuse for our faithlessness.

      In short, theology gears human beings toward finding out what is true by actually experiencing reality, by actually getting to know what is true from first-hand experience, while philosophy is based in abstraction and doesn’t necessarily need first-hand experience to validate itself – reason (abstraction) is good enough.

      (PS: philosophy of religion should come AFTER faith, not before, and should ALWAYS be subjected to religious experience, NOT the other way around)

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        Just a quick thought. You might enjoy Karl Barth’s “Fides Quaerens Intellectum,” his treatment of Anselm. Short book on theological method, and resonant with what you wrote above.

      • C. Ehrlich

        Joshua, you are actually making quite a number of different claims here. If, however, such ideas as these are taken to show that church tradition is an especially reliable indicator of the truth of a doctrine, then this, as I suggest, can actually undermine the more commonsense reasons we have for respecting traditions generally.

        Whether or not you have some other basis for your faith is quite beside the present point, which rather concerns the authority of tradition regarding the truth of a given doctrine.

        • Mr. Ehrlich,

          The main thing to keep in mind is that I’m talking about Holy Orthodox, or Eastern Orthodox, Christianity, and NOT Roman Catholicism or Protestant Christianity. So, Holy/Eastern Orthodox tradition is MUCH more reliable than Protestant tradition and even much of Roman Catholic tradition.

          The problem with especially Protestant Christianity is that it keeps trying to validate its interpretation of Holy Scriptures through historical and scientific means; in other words, it keeps wanting to prove the objective truth of Biblical truths, such as the resurrection, among others. What this does is cease to make absurd the claims of Christianity by making them rational or reasonable (just take a look at the titles of popular Protestant/Evangelical writing).

          In short, Protestants are completely distracted, focused on the reasonableness of their beliefs rather than accepting it with childlike faith.

          Many Protestant/Reformed teachings are false (such as total depravity and irresistible grace), and so like you, before I understood the nature of theology (as opposed to philosophy), I was extremely skeptical of religious tradition. But then I found out that Holy Orthodox tradition and doctrine was actually born from the real experience of actual Christian human beings, not reason or intellectual pursuit (like much of Protestantism), and so in the dogmas of Orthodoxy, I shall find out how to live in better unity with Christ, if I would only engage them and have the Holy Spirit teach me how to obey them properly, not merely know what the right things to believe are and trust in a superficial understanding of grace that believes because I’m totally depraved, I can’t hope of really doing anything meaningful in this life outside believing correctly.

          So actually, my post wasn’t to necessarily disagree with you, because I have shared your skepticism of church tradition, but I did find that there is a branch of Christianity that still retains the proper understanding of theology. See, theology is revealed knowledge, not rational knowledge. God revealed certain truths to the church Fathers and many Christians throughout history, and those truths were captured in human phrases and organized into doctrines and dogmas for the sake of each individual Christian living in better relation to God, not to create an artificial union of the masses that must hold strict adherence to a state-like church.

          Anywho that’s what I got at this point.

          • C. Ehrlich

            Joshua, so you and I are united in finding dubious Dalrymple’s appeal to the authority of church tradition. Thank you for the clarification.

            Thank you also for trying to help me understand the Eastern Orthodox point of view, towards which I confess ignorance.

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            Joshua, I am something of a Barthian when it comes to theological method. Revelation precedes understanding on the fundamental matters of faith. Then theology is the exercise of rationality in understanding the beauty and the power and the logos of what has been revealed. My concern is that you’re drawing too sharp a distinction – a dichotomy, really – between experience/revelation and rationality, in part because you are using a faulty, modern, Enlightenment (and very western, by the way) sense of what “rationality” and rational inquiry are. In the early modern period, rationality came to be understood in such a limited, pseudo-scientific way, as “scientific rationality” and “scientific inquiry” (as they were understood at the time, prior to the nineteenth and twentieth century critiques of rationality and science) became paradigmatic for rationality and inquiry as such.

            I’d recommend a few books for you, if you’re interested in reading further. One would be Michael Buckley’s “At the Origins of Modern Atheism,” and another would be Karl Barth’s book on theological method, “Fides Quarens Intellectum.” (I’d recommend a part of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, but it’s much more dense.) You’re using pretty simplistic generalizations regarding Protestantism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Each of those have so many strands, so many different ways of thinking about rationality and revelation, that it’s really not possible to characterize and dismiss or accept them monolithically in the way that you’re doing.

            As for my appeal to tradition, it’s really a very simple point and should not be controversial. The real distinctive point in Rob Bell’s book was what I called its eternalism — its view that God will extend an infinite number of chances for salvation into eternity. There is no major tradition – Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox – that has taught this. So Bell is writing against the current of the overwhelming, overwhelming majority of the Christian stream here. Now, *he may be right*. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t view tradition as infallible. But he has a high bar to pass, and he simply fails to pass it in this case.

            In any case, thanks for the continued conversation.


  • C. Ehrlich

    Your appeal to tradition may be simple, or even simplistic. But what grounds do you have for thinking that it should not be controversial? We’ve yet to hear any sound reasoning from you on this point.

  • Tim,

    Yes, there are of course many strands of each of the major branches of Christianity that are full of Truth. And, I am very much aware of the fact that it is God that saves, not assent to certain doctrines, and so I believe one can have a mistaken intellectual understanding of their salvation and yet in practice actually bear fruit of the Holy Spirit, in practice even unknowingly contradict what they assume they believe. But I’m not talking about what is practiced, I’m talking about what is taught to us, how it leads to much corrupting of Christianity, and also the reason for the birth of Protestantism and the Roman Church’s split from the Eastern churches. And essentially what caused the first split was abuse of papal authority, and essentially what caused the second split was abuse of papal authority. Or in other, simpler words, man trying to usurp the authority of God. Everything falls into place after that, if one cares to carry on the logic.

    Roman Catholic theology turned into scholasticism and academics, and so since Protestantism is born out of Roman Catholicism, it inherited much of that tradition. The strong majority of this kind of theology is based more on reason than on spirit. The consequence of this is…a loss of spirit. Holy Orthodoxy believes if theology loses its spiritual or mystical dimension and focuses on rationality and reason, then it becomes academics in the worst sense of the word and turns theology is to the wrong kind of stumbling block.

    Again, the problem with this take on theology is that we’re more focused on the theology itself and whether particular doctrines are true instead of being focused on how we ought to respond to the theology, that is, how I ought to orient my life in response to it. Theology is supposed to be focused on how I actually live and not on itself. We distract ourselves from being transformed by what we know and claim to believe when we keep applying reason and skepticism to theology.

    What agitates me is that Protestants reject or at least ignore so much church history, the teachings of the church fathers and the teachings of the ecumenical councils (among much else), and are yet still so incredibly quick to claim they’re traditional Orthodox Christians when in reality they’re not – they’re relying so much on their own understanding of Scripture that they’re continually splitting and protesting against everyone who differs with their opinions. I’m tired of it! Anyone who goes back and merely begins to study with an open mind the history of the Original Church on through the ages, one’ll see how much Protestantism is actually orthodox and traditional!

    And it’s easy to reject what I’m saying with the fact that there’s life in much of both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. But I’m not critiquing that. I’m critiquing the theology that is responsible for the overwhelming decadence that is corrupting the majority of Christianity. Christianity won’t die, new life will continually spring forth – but we’re stifling it so much with our misunderstanding of belief and theology, with our dissension and faithlessness. Christianity should be a stumbling block because it’s incredibly difficult to forgive your neighbor and love your enemy, not because we are insistent on making absurd beliefs rational and reasonable. Theology is SUPPOSED to be absurd, because only absurdity snaps us out of repetition and habit and actually gets us to reflect once more on truth!

    PS-thanks for the book recommendations. once I get through my mountain of already-purchased books, I’ll be sure to tackle them!!