Al Mohler stirs the Rob Bell pot some more

Al Mohler stirs the Rob Bell pot some more September 12, 2011

The current issue of Southern Seminary Magazine (Summer, 2011) contains an article by SBTS president (and self-appointed guardian of evangelical orthodoxy) Al Mohler entitled “Why So Serious? Taking the Gospel Seriously Demands Taking Hell Seriously” (pp. 26-30).  If you want to read it (to check my response here) I’m sure you can find it online somewhere.  I have a hard copy.

In my opinion, this article by Mohler, where he takes on a variety of alleged evangelical defections from historic Christian orthodoxy (“confessional evangelicalism”), is an excellent illustration of why I say there are now two evangelicalisms  There I do not find any echo of the broad, generous orthodoxy (a phrase not coined by Brian McLaren but by Hans Frei and used frequently by evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch) of the evangelicalism in which I was raised.  Instead, I hear loud echoes of the fundamentalism that harassed mainstream evangelicals during the emergence of the latter movement post-WW2.

Toward the article’s end Mohler says “Thus, when we have a conversation like this, we are really saying to the world and to the larger community of Christians that if anything we have said or affirmed is in any way sub-biblical, aberrant or can be improved in how we are saying it, we hope people will love us enough to tell us.” (p. 30)

So, Mohler invites correction.  This post is intended to speak truth with love and take him up on his invitation.

Near the article’s beginning Mohler writes “Actually, arguments for universalism and the denial of hell such as those made in Bell’s Love Wins–are anything but new.” (p. 28)  Throughout the article Mohler simply assumes that everyone knows that Bell embraced universalism and denied hell in Love Wins.  Really?  He cites no quotations or page numbers from the book to support that claim.  The claim is certainly (at least) controversial; if he wants people to believe with him that Bell denies hell and embraces universalism he needs to cite page numbers or offer quotations.

Mohler did this to me once.  So I know this it (i.e., misrepresenting others’ views) happens.  I believe it happens in the article in question here.  But let me offer my own experience as an example.  In a book published by Crossway entitled A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times Mohler wrote of me that “Olson seems to agree with postliberals that the biblical narrative is ‘history-like’ rather than history” (pp. 143-144).  He cited as justification for that claim my article “Back to the Bible (Almost): Why Yale Postliberal Theologians Deserve an Evangelical Hearing” (Christianity Today, May 20, 1996).

In fact, one strongly made point of my article about postliberal theology is its ambiguity about the historicity of the Bible.  I related a story there about leaving a church because the pastor revealed that he did not think it mattered whether biblical stories had any historical basis.  (The pastor said he thought all that matters is the transforming power of the stories.)  My article made abundantly clear that I think postliberals need to come clean more clearly about the historicity of, for example, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Mohler’s published claim about me was wholly unjustified by anything I had written in that article or elsewhere.

So I wrote him a letter pointing out his error.  He wrote back apologizing but half defending his claim based on my alleged postmodern proclivities.  I accepted his apology, but wrote to the book’s publisher about the matter as Mohler’s misrepresentation of my views could damage institutions where I taught then and teach now.  The publisher withdrew the book from publication.  I was satisfied.  However, I’m sure some damage was already done (in people’s perceptions of my theology).

Sometime later, Mohler’s colleague Russell Moore wrote a piece for the Baptist Press (disseminated to many Southern Baptist-related state newspapers) where he wrote about me that “Olson, who calls himself ‘open to open theism,’ denies he is an open theist, but calls the new view more biblical than the traditional orthodox view of God as all-knowing, all-powerful and unchanging.” (“Cooperative Baptists, Texas partners ponder whether God knows the future,” July, 2002)

Nowhere have I ever said or written the statement attributed to me by Moore in that article.  It totally misrepresents my view.  If I thought that, then I would be an open theist.  When I e-mailed Moore about it and asked for his citation of a source (in my writing or speaking) he responded by claiming it was justified by something I wrote in a review of Greg Boyd’s book The God of the Possible at  What he said I wrote that justified his statement was that the view of God presented in God of the Possible is more biblical than the caricatures of it often presented by open theism’s critics.  Huh?

Look at those two statements carefully and compare them.  I wrote that open theism, as presented in God of the Possible, is more biblical than the caricatures of open theism often presented by its critics.  I did NOT say it is more biblical than the traditional view of God.

I asked Moore to retract what he wrote and he refused.

So, when I read Mohler’s article about Bell’s book in Southern Seminary Magazine, I’m not especially surprised to read misrepresentation of Bell’s theology in that book.  I  have read the book twice and still have not found any statement of Bell’s own belief (as opposed to statements about others’ beliefs) that clearly embraces universalism or clearly denies hell.

Later in Mohler’s article he writes “With Love Wins, Bell moves solidly within the world of Protestant Liberalism.  His message is a form of liberalism arriving late on the scene.” (p. 28)  Later in the article, Mohler quotes C. S. Lewis approvingly (p. 29)–as if Lewis was orthodox by Mohler’s standards.  In fact, however, anyone who has read The Great Divorce knows that Bell’s view of hell and Lewis’ are very similar if not identical (viz., that hell’s door is locked on the inside).

I can say with confidence that nothing Bell has published or said yet (that I am aware of) puts him “solidly” within the world of Protestant Liberalism.  Such a claim smacks of fundamentalism–where everyone but they are liberals.

Elsewhere in the article Mohler decries “evangelicals promoting and teaching concepts such as unversalism, inclusivism, postmortem evangelism, conditional immortality and annihilationism.” (p. 28)  It would be helpful if he named some names.  Which evangelicals promote or teach universalism?  None that are influential.  What does Mohler have to say about Billy Graham who clearly and unequivocally embraced inclusivism?  (I have provided the proof of that here before and it’s easy to find on the internet.)  What does he have to say about the fact that when the National Association of Evangelicals formed in 1941/1942 a denomination that explicitly teaches annihilationism was a founding member of the organization (the Advent Christian Church) and is still a member in good standing of the NAE?  What does he have to say about John Stott embracing annihilationism?  Are all these examples of evangelical accommodation to modernity as he suggests?  I don’t think so.

Toward the end of his article Mohler writes about how God’s love must be interpreted as compatible with retributive justice.  He accuses some evangelicals of teaching an unscriptural , sentimental notion of God’s love.  Really?  Who?  And what does he have to say about his own high Calvinist version of God’s love that is compatible with God predestining individuals to eternal suffering and then rendering it certain that they will sin and thereby “deserve” hell?  As John Wesley (probably not a good evangelical by Mohler’s judgment) said “Such a ‘love’ makes the blood run cold.”

This kind of diatribe against fellow evangelicals is uncharitable at best.  Lacking documentation and citations to support such controversial claims makes it also, in my opinion, unscholarly.

Mohler calls his article a “conversation.”  That’s a misnomer.  There’s nothing in it that invites dialogue except that one statement about being open to correction.  I am not certain how seriously that is meant.  In my opinion, Mohler owes Bell an apology.  The article is more like a diatribe than a conversation–at least not with Bell.  It’s only part of a conversation that goes on among like-minded “confessional evangelicals” that seem better to deserve the appellation “neo-fundamentalists” in my estimation.

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