The Faith of Bell

Is Rob Bell a Heretic?

Is he even a Christian?

Is ‘Love Wins’ heresy? Or have we been the victims of a clever marketing strategy designed to do nothing more than maximise exposure and profits? Andrew Jones called the book ‘a lemon’. Mark Sayers considers it a form of cultural heresy; where ‘heretic’ is the now the new cool..

There’s no shortage of opinions about ‘Love Wins’ – or Rob Bell for that matter. Even before the book was released his critics were lining up to have a shot at him. It seemed that at long last this ‘rock star’ of contemporary evangelicalism had put a foot wrong, he had stuck his neck out just a little too far and now he was fair game. ‘I knew he was a no-good liberal heretic’ you could almost hear them gleefully cry. ‘Farewell to Rob Bell’ twittered John Piper.

Having read the book for myself (a courtesy not extended to Bell by a fairly large number of his critics I notice) I’m actually wondering what all the fuss is about. There honestly isn’t much there that I haven’t heard before.

Does Rob Bell promote heresy? The heresy of Universalism to be specific? Well it can certainly be argued that he plays with it. One gets the feeling that he is trying to walk a tightrope here, and ends up nearly falling off. Universalism, simply put, states that God desires to save the entire world through Christ, and God will ultimately succeed in doing so. Bell certainly flirts with this idea, and contends that historically and theologically there has always been room within Christian circles for people to hold this belief and still be considered ‘Christian’. This will obviously not be good news to his more conservative fan base.

However there were some other things that came to mind in reading the book.

Hot N Cold

Pop singer Katy Perry (I can’t believe I’m using her name on one of my blogs), in one of her hit songs has the chorus that runs something like this:

“You’re hot then you’re cold

You’re yes then you’re no

You’re in then you’re out

You’re up then you’re down”

Reading through ‘Love Wins’ I felt a bit like that. On one page I would think ‘Yeah, spot on Rob’. Then I would turn and read the next page and go ‘No way, I don’t think that’s right’. It felt like Bell was trying to chart a course that would satisfy everyone – and ends up satisfying no-one. Mark Sayers I think raises a good point that this taps into the whole ‘doubt and heresy are cool’ thing while assuredness and boldness are considered arrogant. It’s cool to have doubts, its cool to be sceptical, but Sayers rightly points out that the life of Jesus is neither.

The Straw Man

The back cover of the book has this statement:

“Here’s how the traditional story goes…

God offers us everlasting life by grace,

freely, through no merit on our part.

Unless you go not respond the right way.

Then God will torture you. Forever. In Hell.

What?”

The knee-jerk reaction is predictable. ‘What kind of masochistic, schizophrenic God is this?’ the reader asks. Bell uses this idea as the starting point for his book, and returns to the theme several times, contending that this is why many people reject Christianity – they cannot reconcile the image of a loving, gracious God on the one hand, and the angry, vengeful God on the other. The whole thing sounds perfectly reasonable and understandable, and there is truth in some part of it – except it isn’t the whole story. It’s a straw man, set up by Bell to support his arguments. Bell leaves no room for the nuance, finesse or sophistication that this statement needs. And that to me at least is where he falls down. There are issues of free will, sin, consequence that come into this statement as well. Granted Bell does look at these issues, but the overarching statement he works from is too blunt for me. As a Christian and a Pastor, my first thought in looking at that statement was ‘That’s not how I would put it’. And I’m not sure that’s how my friends in ministry would put it either.

So why does Bell seem to work from this thesis? Is this really what people think? That leads me to my final point (thank you to Alex Huggett for highlighting this).

Mars Hill vs Mars Hill

There are two Churches called Mars Hill in the USA. Rob Bell has one in Michigan. The other is run by Mark Driscoll in Seattle – and you couldn’t get two more opposite Churches. Mark Driscoll, together with John Piper are the poster boys for a rising tide of reformed (some might say hyper-calvinist) theology that is impacting the American ecclesiastical landscape. Driscoll has a hard-headed, no nonsense, this-is-the-way-it-is style that can sometimes verge on bullying (The term is deliberately used – I listen to his podcasts on a regular basis). Both Piper and Driscoll are having a big influence on the Church, which leads me to my question:

How much of Bell’s work is a response (reaction?) to this movement?

It’s a movement with a hard-nosed theology that can be seen to leave no room for questions, discussion or doubt – you’re either believe what they teach you or you’re going to hell (Driscoll certainly comes across like this). The style will either appeal to people – or turn them off altogether. Is it this group of people that Bell is appealing to? The disaffected, the repelled, the ones who don’t fit with the Driscoll/Piper style of Church? The ones who have heard the gospel summarized using the same words that we find on the back cover of this book?

I’m not saying that this is the real reason, nor am I saying Bell is right, I think there are some deficiencies in his work. But I do think its worth seeing this in the wider context of the theological debates that are taking place in America. Bell and Driscoll are two voices articulating their theology from different parts of the evangelical spectrum.

I’m wondering whether ‘Love Wins’ should be read with this in mind, and from that, for us to perhaps get a little more balance into our own perspectives.

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About andy63

Auditorium/Facilities Manager at Kennedy Baptist College. Family man, Dockers Supporter, NFL and NBA tragic who loves the Red Bull Air Race and a good meal. A Christian who is grateful for grace and forgiveness and the fact that Jesus is alive.

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