Thursday, March 10, 2011

Was Rob Bell just misunderstood? "No", says Tim Challies.

A number of bloggers it seemed jumped the gun, condemning Rob Bell for hersey before the book was released based on some preview chapters, a video and Bell's previous track record for confusing theological statements. There are two questions: was Bell just misunderstood and is he wrong?  Tim Challies reviews his latest book Love Wins: A book about Heaven, Hell and the fate of every person who has ever believed, and finds that no, he wasn't and yes he is.  I think it's good to think about the questions Bell raises, because they go to the heart of several topics I'm interested in such as the nature of sin, the scope of salvation and the question of theodicy.

Tim Challies notes that Rob Bell over-realizes his eschatology, the focus says Bell, of Heaven and Hell are now.  This is no doubt in reaction to those who keep Heaven and Hell as completely separate to our present reality.  But the truth is somewhere in the middle, as Oscar Cullerman correctly noted, the battle of Normandy is won but VE-day hasn't taken place yet.  According to Challies, Bell wants to raise the questions and then slide away into ambiguities and confusion.  There's nothing wrong with asking good questions but what's wrong with making a clear case? As Challies notes the book's tag line, "love wins" is misguided.  "God's holy love wins", otherwise love is reduced to a Jedi-like force in the universe.

[Update]  I think I jumped the gun on the reviews; Challies' review is supeceded by a much more comprehensive and clearly outlined review by Kevin DeYoung, about as far from Bell on the ecclesiastical spectrum as you can get.  In many ways this controversy highlights the diverging streams of Evangelicalism more than anything else.  There is Bell setting up shop outside the traditional church and DeYoung seeking to transform things from the inside.  In some ways Bell is to be applauded for provoking such a controversy, these questions need to be discussed and so I'm grateful for DeYoung's response.

[Second Update] Bird conforms something I predicted about this controversy and teaches me something.  Bird says Bell's book will ultimately be "a flash in the pan".  Not the deeper, larger more potent issues of salvation, but Bell's method of presenting them. (I think if anything Bell's method highlights growing fragmentation within Evangelicalism.) But Bird's observations highlight the value of taking the time to consider something, he finds criticisms of Love Wins that both Challies and DeYoung overlooked: for example Bell overlooks Jesus first century Jewish context.


Marion said...

Challies has a good review. One tiny thing: he needs to read The Great Divorce (not because of Bell, just cos it's a great read about our obsession with sins that hold us back from God).

Don't know if you look at FT online but this is good.
First time I had seen Bell's video as I try to avoid Universalists and I found it disturbingly heretical.

Andrew Bowles said...

It sounds like the book is not very good. But the last two paragraphs of that review caused a bit of head-scratching here. So, John 3:16 is not in the Bible, God doesn't love the world, he loves himself, and it is that kind of love that should motivate us to force people to repent? Not sure I follow you there, Tim. Can someone interpret this strange dream for me? There were also seven fat cows...

Arthur said...

This is the meaning of the dream, AB.

"He simply walks away instead of pursuing consistency and logic. This book could not stand the rigors of cross-examination."

"If Love Wins accurately represents Bell’s views on heaven and hell..."

I'd say Challies has misunderstand Bell's genre. Like Nooma and Bell's other books, we shouldn't be expecting Love Wins to be systematic or comprehensive or 'logical'. Those criteria will be of limited use here. (Greg Boyd's comments are useful.)

It seems to me that Bell's approach is consistently based on the assumption that American Christianity already has an overabundance of answers. What we need, he's saying, is more questions. He's trying to inject some negative space into a hyper-positivistic church culture.

It would not be surprising, for example, to find Bell emphasising love over holiness when American Christianity often says that holiness wins.

Indeed, Challies' concluding reiteration of holiness could be seen as a justification for the book!

Marion said...
The quote from John Stott is good espec this sentence: "But when the biblical teaching is plain, the cult of an open mind is a sign not of maturity, but immaturity."

{word verif waria - be wary??)

Jon said...

@ Marion - the sting in the tail is "where the biblical teaching is plain".

Andrew Bowles said...

Thanks Arthur, you can be my viceroy. It's interesting that it's very easy to get labelled a heretic for over-emphasising love but not for over-emphasising holiness and judgement, when both are equally heretical tendencies.

Luke Isham said...

Arthur ,

Perhaps your partly right, Conservative American Christianity needs to learn how to ask and answer questions better. But neither is conservative American Christianity monochrome, for example I've been a long fan of First Things . However Bell isn't being terribly Socratic with either his style or his content. For example (and here I broaden my rant);

"And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But would kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God?" What kind of person is Bell that he frames his question that way, in that patronizing tone of voice he adopts while speaking on the video. Am I a bad person, a nasty anti-Gandhi-sticky-note-type-of-person for believing in the appeasement of God's wrath and substitutionary Atonement? Why does he need to make that insinuation? Now I'm not saying a Piper-style-Twitter response is good either; abrupt and rude dismissal. But if love wins, lets have some love along the way.

I agree Arthur we need these types of questions, I'd much prefer to be spurred to think about cherished ideas then accept stale orthodoxies without thinking but why in such a holier then thou manner? Furthermore it seems unnatural to divide questions from answers.

So I appreciate your comment Arthur, and don't mean to scare you off with the rant, but I'm not convinced!


Very interesting roundup of universalism on your blog, I will get over there soon and make a comment.


I agree, and that's why I'm slogging my way through Suspicion and Faith as an antidote.

Arthur said...

When Bell hits out at "Jesus rescuing you from God", I don't hear that as a snide crack at PSA.

"Jesus rescuing you from God" is a Good Cop, Bad Cop game of Nasty Father, Nice Son.

That's American folk religion, not evangelical belief.

That's what is consistently in Bell's crosshairs.

And if that's all our expressions of PSA amount to, then I'd say he's right on target!

Luke Isham said...

I agree, Marcion was wrong, there isn't a nasty Old Testament God from whom Jesus must save us, but the insinuation from Bell is that the satisfaction of God's wrath is the product of being a hateful person.

Now I'm happy to proved that I'm simply misunderstanding Bell, but the line of questions and his tone of voice suggests otherwise. In other-words that's the way he's coming across to me.

Alex Smith said...

It's interesting that John Stott says that, because as far as I know he is an annihilationist, rejecting ECT, and hence by some people's definition (e.g. Packer, Carson?), a heretic. Come to think of it, given The Great Divorce seems to be pointing to eventual annihilation, it's surprising more people don't call Lewis a heretic too!

Just to be clear, personally, I don't think any of the above people are heretics, and I doubt Bell will turn out to be one either, but I'm waiting to read the book myself (which reminds me, I better order it!).

Luke Isham said...

Tangent: I've realized all the pictures are of White males with glasses!

Alex Smith said...

I found someone with more caliber to back my previous point up :) Rob Bell and C.S. Lewis (by Jeff Cook)

Luke Isham said...

Sorry Alex, I don't buy that at all, that Bell is a modern day CS Lewis. There will be a longer, bigger and deeper debate about Heaven and Hell in part because this controversy but Bell's annoying method of presenting things will be passed by and quickly forgotten, much like the Shack I imagine.

Alex Smith said...

LOL, yes there are many differences between Bell & Lewis! However, my point is that Lewis also rejected ECT, which Bell is now being crucified for. i.e. it's inconsistent that people don't reject Lewis.

I can understand that Bell's style would grate with some people, but that's not enough reason for anyone to call him a heretic (I realise you have more serious concerns about him).

Luke Isham said...

I'm not convinced Lewis rejected 'Eternal Conscious Torment' (I'd prefer the phrase eternal punishment with God assigning it's moral value) but even his speculative (but still horrible) Hell described in The Great Divorce isn't the same as Bell's position.

Alex Smith said...

The Problem of Pain chapter 8, "I notice that Our Lord, while stressing the terror of hell with unsparing severity, usually emphasises the idea, not of duration, but of finality. Consignment to the destroying fire is usually treated as the end of the story—not as the beginning of a new story. That the lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude we cannot doubt: but whether this eternal fixity implies endless duration—or duration at all—we cannot say."

Andrew Bowles said...

'Tangent: I've realized all the pictures are of White males with glasses!'

That's probably all you need to know about this debate.

"I'm not convinced Lewis rejected 'Eternal Conscious Torment' (I'd prefer the phrase eternal punishment with God assigning it's moral value."

I think you're substituting a less precise phrase there, because 'torment' is meant to indicate that the punishment is not remedial.

With respect to Lewis, he seemed to have had a very subtle mystical approach to eternity that puts him outside the current debate (in addition to 'The Great Divorce', see the end of 'Till We Have Faces'). The only places I can think of where ECT is argued for in his writings is by demons. Screwtape and the Unman both believe in some form of eternal torment.