It's been the buzz on the web and in media for the past few weeks and even precipitated a publisher (HarperOne) bumping up the release date of a book.
The story is about Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and his newest book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I had thought about writing about this a week or so ago, but refrained. There have been many blogs written about it and some in our church have asked me my opinion on the book. My contention was that since I didn't have the book and hadn't read any of it, I didn't feel I should share my opinions. Well, yesterday I received my copy in the mail. I have been reading through it and find it intriguing, but at the same time very troubling.
This firestorm began when Bell released this promo video for the book. . .
Rob Bell, in my opinion, is one of the most creative and intriguing communicators alive today. His Nooma videos are very well done. When I first saw the promo for Love Wins, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Bell is the master of asking questions and then drawing you in to discover the answer. I was hoping that even with these questions, he was not truly leaning to the answer he is now giving. There are obviously some doctrinal differences I have with Bell and knowing where he is coming from regarding some very key biblical and doctrinal issues will mean I cannot endorse, nor would I encourage using Bell's resources.
Lines seem to be drawn in the sand in the pastor-verse (I made that word up.) You are either lining up with Rob Bell, Brian McLaren and maybe even Eugene Peterson (he endorsed Love Wins on the flyleaf) or Al Mohler, Joshua Harris, John Piper and Justin Taylor. It's was Piper's tweet "Farewell, Rob Bell" that really pushed this over the top.
Bell's model is to ask a lot of questions (in this book, there are at least 350 of them) but questioning is not bad, nor is it a sin. I'm not saying you shouldn't ask questions. Discussion about hard topics is good. In fact, Bell has it mostly right when he says. . .
I believe discussion itself is divine. Abraham does his best to bargain with God, most of the book of Job consists of arguments by Job and his friends about the deepest questions of human suffering, God is practically on trial in the poems of Lamentations, and Jesus responds to almost every question he's asked with. . . a question.
There's truth here, though I don't know if I'd classify discussion as "divine." That seems to minimize divinity. However, the point is well taken - it's OK to have questions. This, however, seems to be more than simple questioning. In this case, as stated by Pastor Kevin DeYoung of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. . .
We should not write off the provocative theology as mere question-raising. This isn't the thirteen-year-old in your youth group asking his teacher, '"How can a good God send people to hell?" Any pastor worth his covenant salt will welcome sincere questions like this.
DeYoung continues to state that Bell has a much broader impact. He's the pastor of a huge church with a huge following and that the book is not an invitation to dialogue, but rather a pastor telling us what he thinks. By the way, there's no problem in a pastor telling what he thinks, but there is a problem when what he thinks contradicts the Word of God. Bell, himself states that his book is "a book of responses to these questions (about heaven and hell)." This is more than sharing what he thinks, this is systematically deconstructing foundational biblical truths.
So, what's the gist of the book? What's this all about? As stated in the video clip above, it's the question about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? It leads to a question regarding the reality of a place called hell. Is it real? Is hell what we're experiencing now? What about heaven? How could a good God not let everyone in? He loves us, right?
We live in an age and culture that likes to see everyone win. Oh, there are places where we want only one winner, like during March Madness or the Super Bowl. At these times we want one winner to take home the trophy. The losers in the championship game are often forgotten. Yet, notice what's happening in our nation in youth sports and club sports. When my children were younger, they played soccer at our local YMCA. I ended up coaching them. I really knew nothing about soccer and that was evidenced by our record those first couple of seasons. I remember one of the first seasons we played, I received my roster. I had a team of 1st or 2nd graders. Most of these kids had never played before. We were a new team, so we had all the kids who didn't know a coach. It was fun, but we lost every game. We actually scored only one goal all season and you would have thought we'd won the championship. The parents, players and coaches were all going crazy. At the end of the season we had our team party. Guess what? Every child received a trophy. Of course, we, the parents, bought them, but that's beside the point. Everyone wins! Now, I understand the motive. We host Upward Sports at our church and it is built on the premise that "Every Child Is a Winner!" and I get it, but there seems to be a subtle message out there that goes beyond youth sports. We want everyone to win. . all the time and even at the end of time.
Here's the reality. Not everyone wins. Simply put - not everyone gets to heaven.
Not everyone gets a trophy.
Rob Bell has a problem with this. Truth be told, Bell cares deeply about people. He really does. This is evidenced in his writing and messages. I have no doubt this book was written out of his great concern for people and his frustration that many have been turned off to God by the actions of His people and even the message of hell. Unfortunately, rather than stay firmly grounded in Scripture, Bell uses his great literary and communicative skills to unravel the message of Scripture and to cast doubt:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It's been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (Love Wins, viii)
That's a huge statement and is very clear. Bell is saying that this doctrine of hell is what is keeping people from coming to Christ. Though unpopular in some circles, the reality of hell must be taught. I'm not saying it needs to be taught by a screaming pastor banging on his pulpit or a corner preacher with a bullhorn trying to scare people into heaven (or "scare the hell out of people" as I've heard it stated.) It must be taught as real and authentic and in love, as Jesus did and He spoke often about the reality of hell.
It's all about Jesus, right? "Love wins" means that through grace and love, God is good and great and does good things for His children. That is true, but we cannot avoid the reality that love and mercy and justice are all intertwined in the characteristics of a loving God. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, reminds us of this. . .
Jesus spoke very clearly about hell, using language that can only be described as explicit. He warned of "him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28)
The statements being made most prominently are that Bell argues for universalism. He says in interviews that he is not a universalist, yet his writings tell us otherwise. As Mohler posted. . .
His statements are more suggestive than declarative, but he clearly intends his reader to be persuaded that it is possible - even probable - that those who resist, reject, or never hear of Christ may be saved through Christ nonetheless. That means no conscious faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. He knows that he must deal with text like Romans 10 in making this argument, "How are they to hear without someone preaching?" (Romans 10:14) Bell says that he wholeheartedly agrees with that argument from the Apostle Paul, but then he dumps the entire argument overboard and suggests that this cannot be God's plan. He completely avoids Paul's conclusion that "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." (Romans 10:17) He rejects the idea that a person must come to a personal knowledge of Christ in this life in order to be saved.
Bell and others would say that we are too legalistic or stringent in our interpretation of Scripture. Surely, God wouldn't send anyone to hell? I agree, God doesn't send anyone to hell, but people who reject Jesus Christ or do not surrender to Him choose to be separated from God for eternity on their own and that means literally, they choose hell.
This doesn't feel good. People don't like talking about this. I see the avoidance of this subject at funerals. The funerals we have most of the time at our church are for believers who have lived their lives in service to the Lord. Their salvation is known. (Yes, we can know.) Other times, the truth is there and we just don't like addressing it. We are burying bodies of people who are not in heaven. Why? Not because God is mean or unfair or evil, but because God is love and yet he is just and He has been rejected.
There are some hard realities that I fear we, as Christians, don't like to address at times.
- Heaven and hell are real
- More people will be in hell than heaven (remember that narrow road illustration)
- Jesus is the only way to heaven (John 10:10)
- Apart from Christ, there is no hope
- We, as believers, therefore, must share the truth of Christ with all (Matthew 28:19-20)
Not everyone gets a trophy.
Now, some are complaining that this debate over heaven and hell and doctrine is bad and putting Christians in a bad light. There is concern we're "airing our dirty laundry" in front of the world with mean-spiritedness and that those making points on doctrine are not doing so with a Christlike attitude. While that may be the case for some, it is not the case for all and in my opinion, the discussion has to happen.
Not all doctrinal controversy is unChristlike, though sometimes it can be.
There have been some strongly worded, sober biblical critiques of Bell and his teachings. The warnings are to believers about the need for solid biblical doctrine. Call it timely, but this is why I have been teaching each Wednesday evening on doctrinal statements we hold true and beliefs we have as Christians and in particular, Baptists. Why? Because in a culture of "feel good" religion, it's easy to avoid and brush aside anything that seems too harsh, even if it's biblically accurate. This has nothing to do with tradition or practice, but the solidness of our biblical foundation.
I agree with Denny Burk, on his posting regarding this. . .
We all need to let the wisdom of the Proverbs guide how we engage in controversy (Proverbs 15:1-2; 16:21; 25:11), and we all need to be humble enough to repent when we transgress with a shrill tone (Psalm 19:14). As Spurgeon said it, "If you are drawn into controversy, use very hard arguments and very soft words. Frequently you cannot convince a man by tugging at his reason, but you can persuade him by winning his affections." (Lectures to My Students, 280).
This is true, and yet we must remember that to avoid the hard questions is to legitimize them. At the end of the day, this doctrinal debate must happen. Why? Because it is a key to understanding who we are in Christ and the working of the Kingdom. To be evasive on the issues causes more consternation and problems. This is one of the problems with the emergent church movement. For the past two decades or so, emerging Christianity has flourished. In the midst of the movement, the leaders have done well to avoid speaking with specificity. At first, the movement addressed some long-held traditions in some churches that, in truth, had nothing to do with the Gospel and were simply "sacred cows" from by-gone religious eras. However, upon looking more closely at the movement, through their accusations of evangelical Christianity, by and large, being overly concerned with doctrine, they have developed a Christian movement that finds itself built on the shifting sand of cultural "relevance."
Therefore, the debate must happen.
There is a divide among professing Christians. The Enemy is loving this. Yet, this discussion cannot be avoided. This boils down to two rival understandings of the Gospel. They are at odds. They cannot both be right.
In the end, God is still who He always has been. He is love. He is mercy. He is justice. His plan has not changed. Jesus is still the way, truth and life. Oh yeah, no one comes to the Father except through Him.
Love wins. It won two thousand years ago three days after a crucifixion. The grave is empty. Death has been defeated. Love wins. . .through Jesus Christ.