Rethinking Hell

By Alan Bean

Hell has always been a hot topic in America.  Rob Bell’s Love Wins created such a pre-publication stir that the book debuted at number 2 on the New York Times best-seller list and remains on Amazon’s top 10. 

Bell’s take on heaven and hell rests on the recent scholarship of folks like NT Wright (on the evangelical side) and Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (writing from a more liberal perspective).  (Brian McLaren offers a slightly more cerebral, and original, popularization of this new scholarship.)  The big idea is that salvation isn’t about going to heaven (or hell) when you die; eternal life (for better or worse) begins now. 

In a recent chat with Welton Gaddy, Rob Bell offered this typically folksy summary of his perspective.

I start with the first century world of Jesus. Jesus spoke very clearly and forthrightly about this world: that the scriptural story and the Jewish story that he was living in was about the reclaiming of this world, the restoration and the renewal of this world. So, Jesus comes, He teaches his disciples to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The action for Jesus was here on earth, about renewing this earth, about standing in solidarity with those who are suffering in this world. And he spoke of a kingdom of God, which is here and now: upon you, among you, around you, within you.

So in the book, I talk about this urgent, immediate invitation of Jesus to trust him, that God is good, that God is generous, that God is loving, that God is forgiving… And to enter into a new kind of quality of life with God right here, right now. So let’s bring some heaven to earth, let’s work to get rid of the hells on earth right now, let’s become the kind of people who love our neighbor… And that, for Him, it was immediate and urgent about this world. What happens when you die? He talks a little bit about that, but He’s mostly talking about this world. I think, for a lot of people, the Christian faith doesn’t have, for them, much to say about this world; that it seems to be all about what happens when you die. And so, the book, in some ways, flips it around and says: “I think this is actually what Jesus was doing.” (My emphasis, along with a few quick edits)

“Let’s work to get rid of the hells on earth right now.”  When I read this phrase, the American prison system sprang to mind.  I have long believed that prison and hell are popular for the same reason: they validate the virtue of the good people and ensure that the bad people get what they deserve.  As resentment, suspicion and vindictiveness grow, prison sentences lengthen and religion becomes more and more about what happens when you die.  Prison is a kind of down payment on hell. 

Widespread evangelical support for the use of torture in the “war on terror” should surprise no one.  If it’s okay for God . . .

I’m not sure Rob Bell (or the scholars who inform his theology) know enough about the American Gulag to do much with the prison-hell connection, but somebody needs to.  As Kathryn Gin has noted, the hell debate has a long history in America.  In the 1930s, for instance, progressive missiologists like Pearl Buck argued for a new kind of Christian missionary who goes into the world seeking creative dialogue with adherents of the other great world religions.  The goal of this new missions was cooperation rooted in shared belief. 

The response was immediate.  If Hindus, Jews and Muslims are hell-bound, it was argued, what could we possibly have to talk about?  Since these people teeter on the brink of perdition, the search for common ground would simply worsen their spiritual plight.  In short, the new missions advocated by Pearl Buck and wealthy patrons like John D. Rockefeller would lower the temperature of hell to the point that the “nerve of missions” would be effectively severed.  If the heathen lose their fear of hell, why would they want to convert?

Is belief in hell, conceived as eternal conscious torment, an accurate precursor to Christian discipleship?  A religion rooted in fear is unlikely to blossom into something beautiful.  As Rob Bell argues below, the doctrine of eternal perdition, as commonly preached, is inconsistent with Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God. 

Nonetheless, hell is a stark this-world reality.  Visit a prison near you and you will have little doubt of that.

Hell, in Rob Bell’s Own Words: State of Belief Radio

REV. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST: Pastor Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins: [A Book About] Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” debuted at #2 on the New York Times best-seller list. Here’s the description: “Rob Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith-the afterlife-arguing, would a loving God send people to eternal torment forever…? Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly hopeful-eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.” Pastor Bell I know you’re on a book tour right now, so thank you for taking out time to join us on State of Belief Radio. REV. ROB BELL, GUEST: It’s great to be with you.

[WG]: Man, did you have any idea how much stuff you were going to stir up?

[RB]: No, I didn’t. I did not.

[WG]: I really have tried to imagine what you must feel like in seeing all of this, because I thought you poured out your heart in the book, and then here comes all of this furor around it. How are you feeling about that?

[RB]: Well, I share awareness, I think, with lots and lots and lots of people that sense that the Christian story has lost its plot in our culture. You say the word “Christian” for lots of people nowadays, and they have all sorts of images and associations that have next to nothing to do with who Jesus is and why he came. I believe god loves everybody and Jesus came to show us this love, give us this love so that we could experience it and share it with others, and I think lots and lots of people are desperate to hear good news. They know that there’s something more about this Jesus, but the, sort of, Christian packages they’ve seen just turn them off. So I get the extraordinary opportunity to interact with people, over and over and over again, who want to know this Jesus, and are thankful that we can have this kind of conversation. So it’s been incredibly encouraging and inspiring to me.

[WG]: Good, well, I saw one summary of the book that read: “Evangelical pastor writes book denying hell, catches hell for doing so.”

[RB]: What’s interesting about that is: I don’t deny hell. And in the book I clearly state: I see right now in our world greed, rape, abuse, financial scandals, I see genocide. We see hells on earth right now, so the idea that there is no hell… We see people rejecting the good and the true and the human all around us, all the time, so in the book I very clearly lay forward: the very nature of love is you have choice and you can make really destructive, toxic decisions now and, I assume, after you die, but that’s a funny comment, because it’s not true.

[WG]: Rob, what would be an accurate characterization of your place on the theological spectrum? You’re being billed as an evangelical pastor, is that the way you would identify yourself?

[RB]: If by the word “evangelical” you mean “good news,” I would love to be a person of good news.

[WG]: That is…

[RB]: So I love… The original use of that word comes from the first Christians; there was a global military super-power called the Roman Empire, and they had lots of military propaganda convincing people of its noble intentions while it went around the world basically crushing everybody in its path. And these first Christians took that military propaganda of a good news, of another city that Caesar had vanquished, and they used it to talk about Jesus, who they believed was the true Lord, who said there’s a better way to be in the world and that’s the way of sacrificial love and humble service. So if that’s what we mean by Good News, I’m all about it.

[WG]: I understand and I wish that that was the common definition, unfortunately it’s not; and I mean that raises a question I want to ask you. Where do we get this preoccupation with bad news; like, if religion is negative, somehow it’s more authentic?

[RB]: Right, right. And I’ve heard this over the past couple weeks. Somebody said: “You’re trying to communicate to modern people. You’re just trying to appeal to modern people.” Well, yeah. I think that’s what a Christian does. You want to tell this story. So, I also think, and I think you make great point: when you read the Gospels, Jesus is insisting to people that God is on their side. And that was a very, very subversive idea. When He says, “Your heavenly Father causes it to rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! No, we’re the righteous, they’re the unrighteous, God is on our side, God is not on their side, and so we have us and them, and when Jesus comes along and insists that you love your enemy because God loves enemy… This was very subversive, radical teaching. And I think to this day, the idea that God is on our side and He’s on everybody’s side, and God wants to know everybody… This is hard. For some reason religion likes to think “God’s with us and against them,” and so, it’s been radical from the beginning.

[WG]: I don’t want to make the mistake of fixating just on hell myself, so let me ask you to talk, if you will, about some of the main points that you get across in “Love Wins.”

[RB]: Excellent. One of the first things I do is start with the first century world of Jesus. And what you find for Jesus is, Jesus spoke very clearly and forthrightly about this world: that the scriptural story and the Jewish story that he was living in was about the reclaiming of this world, the restoration and the renewal of this world. So, Jesus comes, He teaches his disciples to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The action for Jesus was here on earth, about renewing this earth, about standing in solidarity with those who are suffering in this world. And he spoke of a kingdom of God, which is here and now: upon you, among you, around you, within in you. So in the book, I talk about this urgent, immediate invitation of Jesus to trust him, that God is good, that God is generous, that God is loving, that God is forgiving… And to enter into a new kind of quality of life with God right here, right now. So let’s bring some heaven to earth, let’s work to get rid of the hells on earth right now, let’s become the kind of people who love our neighbor… And that, for Him, it was immediate and urgent about this world. And, sort of, what happens when you die… He talks a little bit about, but He’s mostly talking about this world. I think, for a lot of people, the Christian faith doesn’t have, for them, much to say about this world; that it seems to be all about what happens when you die. And so, the book, in some ways, flips it around and says: “I think this is actually what Jesus was doing.”

[WG]: Has this been in your mind and heart for a long time? What prompted you to put it on paper?

[RB]: I’ll tell you, probably five years ago, I started, because I kept stumbling… In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus refers to the renewal of all things; in Colossians 1, the apostle Paul talks about the reconciliation of all things. Peter in Acts 3:21 talks about the restoration of all things. This phrase “all things” comes up again and again and again in the Bible. It’s as expansive a term as you could come up with. And what really struck me is, I didn’t hear that many Christians talking about this biblical idea of all things being put back together, being reconciled, being renewed. And let’s read those, let’s study those, let’s talk about those; because that’s an expansive, inclusive vision of what this Jesus is up to in the world, and what God may have in mind. And that’s something, in my experience, a lot of people simply haven’t heard. So that’s probably where it started, a number of years ago.

[WG]: This is going to sound like a flip question and it’s not a flip question; but Rob, why do we have to have hell? I mean there are people who seem to resent the fact that there would even be an opportunity for some people to enjoy whatever is we call heaven. It’s like they resent that.

[RB]: Right, right. It’s very interesting. There is this fascinating letter called First Timothy, where the writer Paul says to Timothy: “God wants everybody to be saved,” which is quite astounding. So here you have, in the Scriptures, the Creator of the universe, according to one of these first Christians… The Creator of the universe wants everybody to be reconciled, to be healed, to be whole, to flourish in God’s good world… So that would, to me, appear to be a very basic longing, as we ought to long for that which God longs for. So, when someone comes along and almost seems bitter that the party in heaven may include more people, that isn’t a Christian longing or value. That’s going against sort of a basic longing of the Scriptures. And I think sometimes religion convinces people that, for them to be right, somebody else has to be wrong. And that can be quite destructive.

[WG]: Well, you are no stranger to controversies. Some of your past books include “Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality,” and “Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile.” Does the controversy get in the way of trying to get people to the truth?

[RB]: Well, it’s interesting, as I never set out to be controversial. What I’m interested in is the truth. I’m interested in the hunt, the exploration, the discovery… And I take very seriously hatt Jesus called disciples: and the disciples are students, it’s somebody who’s learning and growing. There is a sort of wide-eyed sense of wonder and awe, of “look what we stumbled across, look at this, check this out, have you seen this?” So I take very seriously being a disciple, which is rooted in humility. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re learning and growing, and our hearts are being transformed. So for me, I don’t actually find being controversial a noble goal. That was never the intent. I was always just interested in people meeting the resurrected Christ who I’ve met, and continue to experience over and over again. So I’ll accept that perhaps this is controversial from time to time, but it’s never been the goal. And yes, after a while of hearing the word “controversy” in interview after interview, it’s a little wearying.

[WG]: Sure sure. But you know, I think, and this is another important point, I believe, that the enthusiasm that the public is showing for your book, “Love Wins,” says something about organized religion, doesn’t it?

[RB]: Yes, and like, tonight I’m in Chicago and I’ll do an event, and the level of electricity, of excitement, and the number of people who say: “I always had these questions, I always wondered about this, I always knew there was another way to understanding this…” It’s really… It blows me away. Every night, at one of these events, I just… Wow. What an amazing thing to be a part of.

[WG]: Tell us, what has been your favorite comment from a reader, or, one or two of your favorite comments.

[RB]: There’ve been a number who have said, “You know, I might actually believe in God now.” And that’s from across the spectrum of every sort of background and non-religious background, every sort of background. That’s been a consistent theme: “You know what? I actually might… I think I might now follow this Jesus.”

[WG]: I know you’ve had some stunning negative comments.

[RB]: Apparently that’s the case. And if you don’t like the book – that’s fine. It’s just… It’s my contribution to a discussion that’s been going on for thousands of years; and if you don’t find it helpful that’s… No worries, that’s ok. That’s the beauty of it; it’s just part of the discussion.

[WG]: Are you going to follow this up with something else, are you working now on writing something else?

[RB]: I absolutely love to create things; whether it’s sermons, or books, or films, so I’ve always got…there is probably three of four books that I’m working on right now, and there is a film idea that I’m going produce, and there is this Sunday’s sermon… So, yes, more things are coming.

[WG]: Good, good, that’s great to hear. Well look, you’ve been talking to a lot of people, and in all kinds of media, for which I am grateful. Is there a final taught that you would share with us… And think about, what have you not been asked, or what have you wanted to talk about that you haven’t gotten to talk about much?

[RB]: Joy. Joy! There is joy to be experienced and had by all of us. And I have bumped into people… There was a woman a couple nights ago, a young woman, probably mid-twenties, whose young husband just died, and she’s going through all the sort of grief and all the sort of, you know, the horrible tragedy of losing your young husband… And yet, there is a spark of joy. I’ve seen people in extraordinary suffering; I’ve seen people in settings around the world with nothing, with a dollar a day to live on with joy. And faith should be about joy. It should be about living in this big, beautiful, mysterious, exotic world and finding joy in it, in spite of the suffering and the brokenness and the misery. There is joy here. For me, I happen to really love creating things, I love writing books, I love exploring ideas, I love presenting this Good News of Jesus to people… But I do it because it brings great joy, and that’s a gift. And it’s there for all of us. And that’s why I do what I do; and that’s what I believe is there to be able to be experienced by everybody: joy.

[WG]: Rob, you know, you may very well have studied the Bible too thoroughly, and understood it too clearly.

[RB]: Well. It is a fascinating, unpredictable, messy, exotic book that continues to fascinate me to no end. And I draw great life and inspiration from it.

[WG]: Pastor Rob Bell, of the Mars Hill Baptist church in Grand Rapids Michigan, is the author of numerous books. His latest, “Love Wins: [A Book About] Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” is a provocative, thoughtful, and ultimately generous meditation on meaning, and life, and afterlife… And you probably shouldn’t read it if you don’t want to feel better. Pastor Bell, great thanks for being with us on State of Belief Radio.

[RB]: You’re great. It was a good time. Thank you.

8 thoughts on “Rethinking Hell

  1. Which Afterlife?

    In his new book “Love Wins” Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from “the greatest achievement in life,” my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote “In God we all meet.”

  2. I sent my soul into the invisible, some message of the after life to tell, and by and by my soul return to me and said, hell is but vision of the soul on fire and heaven is but a vision of fulfilled desire. Omar Khyam

    Hornblower

  3. The Sojourners’ blog had a post regarding Bell’s book and the response(s) to it. Somebody brought up Gandhi. I was amazed by those who insisted Gandhi must be in hell because he did not say the right words about Jesus. There is a strong us and them mentality within Christianity. Got to have that separation, and got to have a place for them to suffer the eternal torment of land for their themness.

  4. What kind of good news is it for “non-church” people that you’ll be suffering horribly for all time and then some, for the possibly heinous sins you committed during your 70 or 80 years on earth. This infinite sentence, without possibility of parole, has been decreed by a God revealed in the whole Bible to love justice and mercy, but who couldn’t forgive human sin without a special human sacrifice. We can give you a free pass, though, if you choose our brand of salvation. It doesn’t sound like very good news to many people.

  5. Mohler on McLaren on Bell: A Theological Conversation Worth Having

    Albert Mohler, Author, Speaker, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

    Some theological disputes amount to very little and serve mostly as exercises in missing the point, if indeed there is a point. Other doctrinal exchanges are quite different and deal with matters of central and essential concern to the Christian faith. The first sort of dispute is a waste of precious time and energy and should be avoided at all costs. The second sort of debate is a matter of both urgency and importance. The church cannot avoid and should not seek to evade this kind of theological conversation.
    That is why a recent essay by Brian McLaren helps us all to understand what is at stake in the controversy over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. Beyond this, his argument reveals a great deal about the actual beliefs and trajectories of what has become known as the emerging church. As such, his essay is a welcome addition to this important conversation.
    McLaren, perhaps the best known of the leaders in the emerging church, seeks to defend Rob Bell and to act as his friend. He says that he had been waiting for an opportunity to speak in Bell’s defense, and, evidently my essay, “We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology,” afforded McLaren the opportunity he was seeking.
    In his own essay, “Will Love Wins Win? We’re Early in the First Inning,” McLaren uses a baseball metaphor to reject my critique of Rob Bell’s arguments. He asserts that I “rounded first base” by affirming a clear understanding of the Gospel as found in the Scriptures and then suggesting that Rob Bell’s proposals fall short of the Gospel. My problem, according to McLaren, is that I assume that a clear understanding of the Gospel is even possible. According to McLaren, the complexities of interpretation render this claim implausible.
    In his words:
    Now communication is nearly always tricky, as any of us who are married or are parents know. The speaker has a meaning which is encoded in symbols (words) which then must be decoded by the receiver. That decoding process is subject to all kinds of static – for example, interference from the biases, fears, hopes, politics, vocabulary, and other characteristics of the receiver or the receiver’s community. If the receiver then tries to pass the meaning – as he has decoded it – on to others, there is more encoding and decoding, and more static. That’s why, with so much encoding and decoding and re-encoding going on, the challenge of communication across many cultural time zones is downright monumental.
    Communication is indeed “nearly always tricky,” but McLaren’s argument leads to interpretive nihilism. Can we really not know what the Gospel is? If this is true, the church is left with no coherent message at all. All of our attempts to define the right form of the Gospel are just human interpretations, he insists, and we must avoid “excessive confidence” in any telling of the Gospel story. McLaren warns that we must avoid “a naive and excessive confidence,” but that we can retain a “humble confidence.” But his argument leaves us with very little idea of how this “humble confidence” is to be found, since “no articulation of the gospel today can presume to be exactly identical to the original meaning Christ and the apostles proclaimed.”
    That statement leaves us with only approximations of the Gospel — some presumably better, some worse. And we would in fact be left with nothing more precise or authoritative than that but for one thing — we have the Bible. We are absolutely dependent upon the New Testament way of telling the Gospel of Christ, and the apostles were determined to pass along the Gospel as a clear and understandable message to others. This is why Paul instructed Timothy to “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” and to “guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” [2 Timothy 1:13-14]
    If we cannot know what the Gospel is, then there is no such thing as the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” [Jude 3] If so, we have nothing definitive to say.
    The issues of communication are real, and we should never seek to minimize the challenge of interpretation. But the clarity, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture are precisely the means whereby the Lord preserves his church in the Spirit and in truth. It is one thing to cite the challenge of interpretation. It is another thing altogether to suggest that we are left with an insurmountable problem and an indefinite message. This flies directly in the face of biblical claims and commands.
    McLaren also accuses me of misreading Rob Bell’s motivation for writing the book. He rejects my assertion that Bell is driven by a desire to present Christianity in a new way to those who find the traditional form of the Gospel impossible to believe — especially in terms of hell and everlasting torment. Instead, McLaren argues that Bell “started questioning the interpretation of the Gospel he received.”
    Later, McLaren argues that I misunderstand Bell by suggesting that he wrote the book out of concern for people who are “put off by the doctrine of hell.” But where did I get this idea? Rob Bell plainly states this concern and motivation in the opening pages of Love Wins. My argument is not an inference — it is just a citation of what Rob Bell himself asserted.
    With explicit reference to hell in the very next paragraph, Bell wrote this:
    I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter these resolute words, “I would never be a part of that.”
    I am just taking Rob Bell at his word, and his words are clear.
    McLaren rejects what he then calls my way of rounding second base. He cites my argument that Bell separates God’s love from his holiness and presents a sentimental idea of love in place of the biblical theology of God’s love. McLaren argues that the traditional understanding of hell presents a God who is not loving, even by human standards.
    In his words:
    If a human father decided to throw his child in a fireplace for just ten seconds as punishment for disobedience, we wouldn’t fault the father simply for being unsentimental: we would say such behavior was unholy, an act of torture in violation of our most fundamental sense of justice. Any definition of justice and holiness that involves being unsatisfied unless the imperfect are suffering eternal agony seems to many of us as unworthy of a human being and if so, how much more unworthy of God whose justice must be better than our own.
    That argument is straightforward enough, and we need to look at it closely. The central problem with McLaren’s formulation is that such logic destroys any faithfulness to the totality of God’s self-revelation about himself. It presumes to judge God by human conceptions of love — and this is precisely what God himself rejects. He will not allow himself to be judged by humans. We simply do not have an adequate moral vantage point from which to make judgments about the character of God. We are, as in all things, utterly dependent upon God’s self-revelation and self-definition.
    We do not know who God is by knowing what love is. We understand love by knowing who God is. But Brian McLaren seems quite ready to judge God by human standards of love and justice. In his most important book, A New Kind of Christianity, he rejects the Genesis account of God’s actions in the story of Noah, describing the story as “profoundly disturbing.” As he concluded, “In this light, a god who mandates an intentional supernatural disaster leading to unparalleled genocide is hardly worthy of belief, much less worship.” He responds to other texts in a similar way.
    But God explicitly rejects such a human determination of his character. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah declared. [Isaiah 55:8] Instead, God defines his loving character like this: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” [Romans 5:8]
    McLaren’s rejection of the Noah account is based on his own view of the Bible — a truly radical view that, taken in full force, explains McLaren’s theological method and positions. He rejects the Bible as a “legal constitution” and proposes that it be seen as a “community library” that reveals an evolving human understanding of God — one in which some texts effectively nullify other texts.
    He asserts that there can “be no new kind of Christian faith without a new approach to the Bible.” That statement is profoundly true, and it points to a central problem. McLaren’s new approach to the Bible is a straightforward and amazingly honest call to relativize passages that are deemed to be inferior or unacceptable. We should not wonder that he, like Bell, argues against the traditional doctrine of hell.
    We should also not wonder, then, that McLaren likes Rob Bell’s arguments for finding what he considers to be better ways of telling the Jesus story.
    McLaren then moves to another major point in his essay:
    Next Dr. Mohler races around third base with the popular epithet ‘liberal.’ He accuses those of us who differ with the prevailing view on hell as “pushing Protestant Liberalism –just about a century late…. This is just a reissue of the powerless message of theological liberalism… This is the traditional liberal line.”
    Well, I do not use liberal as an epithet, though such usage is regrettably common. I teach systematic and historical theology, and in the theological world, the term “liberal” has a very clear meaning, especially when associated with the movement known, clearly enough, as Protestant Liberalism.
    My argument that the emerging church in general, and Rob Bell’s new book in particular, is a new presentation of Protestant Liberalism is simply true, and has been noted by other readers of Bell’s book, including some congenial to him. He practically repeats arguments put forth by leading liberal figures such as Rudolf Bultmann — including his argument that modern men and women simply do not believe in heaven and hell. Bultmann called for a method of “demythologizing” the New Testament in order to remove what he then called its mythological elements. Rob Bell’s proposals in Love Wins are really just a form of Bultmannianism Lite.
    Finally, McLaren agrees with me at “home plate,” though with a very different application:
    Finally Dr. Mohler strides across home plate with a point I actually agree with: “At the end of the day, a secular society feels no need to attend or support secularized churches with a secularized theology.”
    True enough (if by “secular” you mean “without any reference to God”), but the rub for many who identify as conservatives, I think, is that for them, secularism only comes in one flavor: liberal.
    To more and more of us these days, conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist theology looks and sounds more and more like secular conservatism – economic and political – simply dressed up in religious language. If that’s the case, even if Dr. Mohler is right in every detail of his critique, he’d still be wise to apply the flip side of his warning to his own beloved community.
    And, in return, I must say that McLaren lands a firm punch with this statement. He is profoundly right in seeing much of presumably conservative Christianity as a sell-out to the idols of the day and a new form of Culture Christianity. He is right to challenge us to call this what it is and to root it out.
    But, if we follow his own methodology and program, how could we do this? If we cannot know what the Gospel really is — if we cannot know the Gospel on any definite terms — how can we know a false gospel when we see one?
    Thankfully, we can know. We do know. We are not left in the dark, and we do not have only a “community library” to consult. We have the Bible and all of the Bible. We are accountable to it all, and it is all true, trustworthy, authoritative, sufficient, and, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, clear in its message.
    This is why a response to Love Wins was necessary, and why a response to Brian McLaren is now in order. He is to be credited with taking theology seriously, with making clear arguments, and with a willingness to engage the conversation. I return his candor with my own, and I am ever more convinced of why this controversy is both inevitable and clarifying.
    We are talking about two rival understandings of the Gospel here — two very different understandings of theology, Gospel, Bible, doctrine, and the totality of the Christian faith. Both sides in this controversy understand what is at stake.
    And that, dear reader, is why this conversation must continue.

  6. Rob Bell Helps Hell Break Into Pop Culture
    Dr. Tony Beam

    You have to hand it to Michigan Pastor Rob Bell. Not only did he put hell on map of the evangelical landscape and on the lips of almost every evangelical; he ultimately managed to get hell on the cover of Time magazine just in time for Easter. For Bell, what began as a creative art exhibit that encouraged artistic expressions of peace in a broken world has led to the supposed downfall of a bedrock belief of Christianity. You can almost feel the glee flowing through Jon Meacham’s keyboard as he writes:

    “Bell’s book sheds light not only on enduring questions of theology and fate but also on a shift within American Christianity. More indie rock than Rock of Ages with its video and comfort with irony (Bell sometimes seems an odd combination of Billy Graham and Conan O’Brian), his style of doctrine and worship is clearly playing a larger role in religious life, and the ferocity of the reaction suggests that he is a force to be reckoned with.”

    Meacham’s article chronicles Rob Bell’s attempt to put the doctrine of hell on trial in his book, Love Wins. The book flowed out of a comment left next to a quote from Mohandas Gandhi that was part of the afore mentioned art exhibit. The note said: “Reality check: He’s in hell.” The idea that Gandhi could be in hell sent Bell into a reflective, relativistic theological tailspin. He began asking questions like, “Somebody knows this without a doubt?”, and “Somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?” These questions didn’t lead to a concrete answer mind you for there is no such thing in the Emergent church world of Rob Bell. Evangelicals who have immersed themselves in the emergent world of post-postmodern theology long ago jettisoned biblical answers to tough questions in favor of an endless conversation. It’s kind of like driving down a road that has no destination or listening to a symphony of unresolved chords. Since there is no there at the end of post and post-postmodern theology the journey becomes the ultimate goal with reaching a destination considered to be the new heresy.

    The plain truth of the matter is the Bible is God’s revelation so that we can know who God is (within the limits of our finite minds of course) and what He expects of us. When Luke wrote his magnificent two-volume work (Luke/Acts) for Theophilus he described his writing as “an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” (Luke 1:3-4, NKJV, emphasis mine). The Apostle John wrote, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (I John 5:13). And Jesus rebuking the Sadducees as they tried to trap Him said, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). Clearly in just these few examples we should be able to see that there are many things Jesus said we could know for sure about God. One of those things is the surety of hell.

    Consider just a few of the many passages where Jesus speaks of the surety of hell. At the end of the parable of the king who arranged a marriage for his son Jesus say, “Then the king said to his servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot , take him away, and cast him into out darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 22:13). Jesus was more direct when instructing His disciples in Matthew 10. In verse 28 Jesus told them, “And no not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” In another passage from Matthew’s gospel Jesus, speaking of those who ultimately demonstrated their rejection of Him by their lack of compassion, said, “Depart from Me you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels…”(25:41).

    But perhaps the most compelling passage on hell can be found in Luke’s Gospel in chapter 16. It is there Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man mistreats Lazarus in life and in death the rich man is punished while Lazarus is comforted. Verse 23-24 speaks of the rich man, “And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue for I am tormented in this flame.” Call me a fundamentalist but that sounds like hell to me.

    In the Time article, Rob Bell is quoted as saying, “I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian. Something new is in the air.” I would say to Rob Bell that his questioning of sound Christian doctrine that is based on the veracity of God’s Word is not a new scent in the air but is rather the same stench of universalism and warmed over liberal theology that has assailed the nostrils of Christians since the beginning of the Church. It has taken many forms and operated under many names deceiving many. But the remedy in the 21st century is the same remedy Paul gave Timothy in the first century. “Evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of knowing from whom you have learned them and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 3:13-14).

  7. It’s good that Rob Bell has gotten the conversation started. But it is too bad we are such a media-mad culture that we listen to mega-church pastors when we might be learning more from theologians or Bible scholars. When Bell is pressed on some of his fuzzy thinking or contradictions, he says, “I’m just a pastor, not an expert!” Well, why don’t we turn to the experts then? I recommend Sharon L. Baker’s RAZING HELL for a more thoughtful, hermeneutically sophisticated treatment of this all-important topic, with close readings of the key Bible passages and a clear-minded discussion in reader-friendly prose.

  8. An excellent question, David. I can think of several reasons why we prefer to get our theology from preachers rather than theologians. First, most theologians write for one another and can be terribly hard to decipher. Preachers, especially the megachurch variety, speak vernacular English and are skilled at relating their ideas to a general audience. We must also remember that pastors like Rob Bell get most of their good ideas from some theologian or other; they simply translate the ideas into comprehensible English and dumb things down a bit. Of course, much is lost in the translation. It is always good to read the theologians (if you can stay awake), but we also need the preachers.

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