Is There Anything Wrong With Rob Bell’s Gospel?
Wednesday, 18 May 2011 07:38 AM EDT J. Lee Grady Newsletters – Fire In My Bones
The popular author’s controversial book Love Wins celebrates God’s love but drifts dangerously into Universalism.
I’m usually quick to speak my mind. But in the case of Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins, I’ve withheld comment until now because (1) I don’t think Christians should judge books before reading them; (2) the theological issues addressed require careful analysis; and (3) I have many young friends who are fans of Bell’s books, and they may write me off if I don’t treat him fairly.
So I’ll begin with a compliment. Bell is a masterful writer whose prose is poetic. As pastor of the 7,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, Bell has gained a following because of his casual style, his ultra-cool Nooma videos and the previous books he’s released with Christian publisher Zondervan (especially Velvet Elvis).
With Love Wins, he’s taking his message mainstream. HarperCollins published it, and Time magazine featured a cover story in April about the firestorm Bell has triggered among conservative Christian leaders who have accused him of heresy. So what’s all the fuss about?
Bell’s core theme is that Christians have been too narrow in their view of God and His mercy. He argues that God loves people too much to banish them to hell. In the end, he says, after this life is over, everybody will find ultimate reconciliation in Christ. Bell claims this is what the Bible teaches, and he suggests that Christian theologians have promoted the idea for centuries.
He writes: “At the center of the Christian tradition … have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.”
That sounds a lot like Universalism, the idea that all spiritual paths ultimately lead to heaven. But pinning the Universalist label on Bell isn’t easy because he doesn’t write authoritatively. He muses, hints, speculates and suggests his views, so not to offend. Rather than preach with conviction, he invites his readers to a “conversation.” It feels friendly and non-confrontational.
Near the end of the book Bell sounds solidly evangelical when he emphasizes that people must receive the grace God has offered to us. But he sounds more like Oprah when he asks: “Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and claim to be a loving God?”
I can appreciate Bell’s desire to distance himself from the mean-spirited side of American fundamentalism. Young people today are horrified (so am I) by self-righteous, Bible-toting believers who burn Qurans or spew hatred toward immigrants or homosexuals. Bell despises the “turn or burn” attitude that has made Christians look judgmental. He also believes we’ve trivialized salvation by turning conversion into a formulaic prayer, and by focusing the Christian life on the idea of “getting into heaven.” I agree with him on those points.
But Bell is also guilty of trivializing salvation. He writes about an ooey-gooey God of love but leaves out God’s justice and holiness. His gospel, at times, sounds squishy and spineless. You can’t correct the abuses of fundamentalism by disregarding the severe side of God’s nature. You can’t bring balance by swinging the pendulum too far the other way.
Because of Bell’s popularity, Love Wins could steer the American church into dangerous waters. You can ignore the book if you want, but you can’t ignore the fact that younger Christians are turned off by certain attitudes in the church, and they need solid answers. We must address the key doctrinal issues that Bell raises:
1. The reality of hell. Bell downplays Scriptural support for the existence of hell while admitting that Jesus talked about it more than anyone in the New Testament. At times he suggests that hell is just a state of mind, or maybe a manifestation of evil on earth. He also questions whether God would send anyone to hell since He’s so forgiving.
Yet when the apostle Paul preached the gospel he warned of “the judgment to come” (Acts 24:25, NASB). The essence of the gospel is that Jesus came to save us from eternal separation from God. Don’t we still believe this?
2. The exclusivity of Christianity. Bell makes a strong case that Jesus died to reconcile all people to God, but then he suggests that not everyone will realize it was Jesus they were praying to. The inference is that Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists will show up in heaven since they were responding to a divine impulse they didn’t understand.
If that’s true, why did Jesus Himself say the road to salvation was exclusively narrow and the road to destruction was wide? (see Matt. 7:13-14). Why did He command us to take the message of salvation to the nations? Why did the early apostles preach that salvation was only in His name? Were they narrow-minded fundamentalists too?
3. The necessity of evangelism. Bell comes close to ridiculing Christians who share their faith, and he wonders if it’s really necessary for missionaries to share the gospel abroad. He asks: “If our salvation … is dependent on others bringing the message to us–teaching us, showing us–what happens if they don’t do their part? What if the missionary gets a flat tire?”
I’m sure Bell gets laughs when he repeats that line in a sermon. But it’s really not funny. He’s suggesting that there’s no urgency about preaching the gospel, and that lives aren’t at stake when we ignore our responsibility to evangelize. Tell that to the apostle Paul, who wasn’t laughing when he said he felt an overwhelming obligation to preach so he could save sinners (see Rom. 1:14).
Bell says he asked Jesus into his heart when he was a child, so I’m treating him as a brother in Christ. I’m not picking a fight with him. But I can’t endorse Love Wins. The doctrines of heaven, hell, salvation and damnation are too serious to be treated haphazardly. May the Lord help us to reclaim a truly New Testament gospel in an hour of spiritual compromise.
J. Lee Grady is contributing editor of Charisma. You can follow him on Twitter at leegrady. His most recent book is 10 Lies Men Believe (Charisma House).
“Reprinted from Charisma, 600 Rinehart Rd., Lake Mary, FL 32746. www.fireinmybones.com. Used by permission.
so many families that go to this church do not feel exactly like Rob but think it’s a good church and still go there–and a lot of people i know who go there feel they can’t handle anything more in “life” right now, except for the “love” message. why is this???
They may think they cannot handle anything but God’s love. However, when rightly presented, “the fear of the Lord is clean” Psalm 19:9. There is a certain purity and light which you can break out into when the terror and sovereignty of God are given their proper place.
…but sometimes the thing which we need the most we seek the least. Sometimes, we hate to come out to the light, for the very reason that we do not wish for our secrets to be exposed and hearts cleansed that ruthlessly… (John 3:20)
I’ve never understood the argument that by sending people to hell after saying that salvation is free (we can’t earn it, even by the act of humbling ourselves), God is somehow revealing his justice.
Even in our own human courts, justice is never translated into eternal torture. We even have enough pity on murders to withold the death penalty, and that just involves wiping them out, not torturing them for eternity. Even in our limited capacity to be compassionate, we squirm over the thought of a terrorist being subjected to waterboarding. Yet we declare it to be an example of God’s justice when we affirm a decision to allow fellow humans to suffer in hell for eternity.
Forgive me, because I know you’re trying to be balanced, but that strikes me as a very twisted view of the concept of justice. How would we feel about a man who is proposing to a woman, who says, “I love you. I’d even die for you. But if you turn down my marriage proposal, you’ll be hunted down and tortured for the rest of your life?” Is this somehow a basis on which to build a loving, lifetime relationship? Now multiply the terrorist threat times infinity and apply it to God. Does that sound like divine justice, or the mother of all sadistic acts?
God gave us brains. Let’s not cover them up with Bibles, in shame, like a fig leaf, forever concealing the brain’s bare naked questions.
The worst thing Rob Bell can be accused of with this book (and I have read it), is having a desire “that none should perish,” and revealing that desire with such passionate as to proclaim that none will, in fact, perish.
Thank you for your thoughtful post. There are only two possible “places” to be in eternity:
1. In God’s presence.
2. Not in God’s presence.
God, as a God of love, will not force someone to be in His presence who does not wish to be. The eternal fire was not prepared for humans, but rather “for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41) who did not wish to be with God. It is the place of absence from God.
Humans are allowed to choose the absence of God’s presence because God will not force Himself upon His creation. It is an act of His love.
As C.S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”
Israel, nicely put.
If I believe that God accepts sin, pride and arrogance into His bosom, then I will live in sin, pride and arrogantly replace His lordship with mine in the process. This effectively reduces Him to an unjust spirit not capable of any real motive but to indifferently love a selfish people.
In human relationships, this action from a father would be unhealthy for the successful growth of the child. We must understand the consequences of our sinful attitudes and pride and repent – yes I used that word – repent and begin to trust Him and His Word. This is what I desire from my children.
I will always love my children regardless of their individual right or wrong decisions. But my love for them cannot trump justice. I know my God is just.
Israel, I just heard that quote yesterday through a Q and A podcast of Ravi Zacharias. C.S.Lewis Gives God a “gentleman” status…The greatest gift which God has bestowed is the freedom to choose. Humandkind has a God given choice to follow Jesus or not.
Jesus’ words many a time leave us with very little wiggle room of interpretation, for example John 14:6
“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no man comes unto the Father but by me.”
Honestly, what does any thinking human do with that?
I’ve had thoughts regarding this ”sweet” gospel we see propagated in these perilous times.
I’ll liken it to this: If I only consume cake, pie, cookies, and candy, my body would become malnourished, my teeth would decay (perhaps rot out of my head and certainly cause untold pain).
My skeletal structure would weaken, followed soon by musculature and organ decay.
The door is now opened to disease and depending on the morality of the lifestyle I embrace, any disease I may contract would be hosted and ushered to anyone I chose contact with.
This ‘’Universalism’’ we see creeping in is nothing short of an ‘’unbalanced diet’’ and another ‘’gospel’’.
6 I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:
7 Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.
8 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.
9 As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
10 For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? For, if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.