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The Problem with Rob Bell

March 26, 2011 Leave a comment

So Rob Bell’s book Love Wins is now on shelves across the nation. It looks like it is going to be a huge seller. Although it is a bit too early to tell, it may be the biggest theological seller in recent memory. I still haven’t read the book; I just can’t justify spending the money on it. But, I have heard and seen enough interviews with Rob Bell to justifiably interact with the man and his teachings.

I have seen several of Rob Bell’s Nooma videos, as well as listened to the audiobook version of Jesus Wants to Save Christians while I drove across country this summer. To be honest and upfront about my prior opinion about Bell, I must say that I have always thought that he was too cool for me. I kind of feel like he would not want to hang out with me, that I am not hip enough to stand in his presence. Fearing that my own insecurities were limiting my openness to any good message he had for the church, I used a Nooma with the college ministry I led in Birmingham. I felt like the whole video was a man trying hard to show me how cool and brilliant he was, without actually saying anything. I decided to keep that opinion to myself while my students watched. After it was over, I asked my students what they thought. I was shocked as person after person complained that he was “too cool” and did not say anything of substance. Some even coyly questioned my leadership for showing it! So I guess I wasn’t alone. I do understand that Bell speaks to a very specific crowd, namely, Christian hipsters. As everyone who knows me knows, I am the anti-hipster. When hipsters are “ironic” they end up looking like me, bearded, dirty, and unkempt. The difference is when they show up with messy hair, it took tons of product to get it that way, when I have messy hair, it is more a matter of shower frequency.

Ok, on to Bell’s theology and methodology. In his interviews he rarely answers questions directly. He states that Jesus did the same, although when Jesus did it, it was always to point to a deeper truth that went beyond the question but at the same time answered the question perfectly. When Bell does it, I rarely hear a profound insight, in fact I rarely hear anything at all. It would seem that he doesn’t want to answer the questions being asked of him. He is evasive and squirmy in almost every interview I have seen of him.He seems to confound both Christian and secular interviewers with equal determination. This would not bother me as much as it does if he didn’t demand to call out “traditional Christianity” as he does. He seems to believe that many Christian, actually most Christians, have serious deficiencies in their theology, he call them out on their bad ideas, but to date I have never seen him actually interact with the Christians he thinks are wrong. Rather, he makes statements condemning traditional theology as inferior to his, but then makes a very poor case for what he believes and refuses to stand for anyone questioning him. Sorry Pastor Bell, you are not above questions.

His theology, like most theologies, can be deconstructed to its most basic precepts. Bell’s main precepts seem to be that God is love, human freewill is a good thing, and that this presents a problem regarding salvation that Christians have misinterpreted for centuries. God is love, I don’t know any biblically minded Christians that would argue against that. It is the problem of freewill that creates a crossroads for every Christian thinker before and since Bell. If man is ultimately free to choose his destiny, and there are people in heaven and hell, it stands to reason that some people choose hell. As strange as it may sound, I know several people, some very dear to me, that believe when they die they will go to hell. They wish to do nothing to change this fact, but accept it as reality. Bell takes these people and affirms their “right” to make such a choice, for as he argues, to interfere with their own freewill would be an unloving act, which God cannot do. Therefore these people go to hell. According to Bell, over time these people begin to see that hell is not all that it’s cracked up to be, and will eventually choose that they would rather be in heaven. The way he describes it, some people just are not ready to accept God’s grace and hell is where they become more ready. This idea sounds a lot like the Roman Catholic locale of Purgatory, but it is not. Hell is not a place of punishment, but of discipline. It is a place that makes people better. The biblical picture of people in hell is of “whaling and gnashing of teeth,” an image of intense rage. Hell makes people worse, not better. Like most Arminians, Bell really wants people to choose God, but where he differs from that theological camp is that ultimately everyone must end up in heaven, so rather than take the classical Universalist stance, that God’s grace will simply save everyone from hell whether they want it or not, he argues that people must want to go to heaven, and eventually they will, and God will honor their choice and save them from hell. The problem with this is that Bell elevates human will above God’s in terms of salvation. It would be absolutely fair to say that when all is said and done the decision of salvation is not in God’s hands, but rather in the hands of man. A more conservative interpretation of Bell’s theology is that there is at least a cooperation between man and God, God cannot take someone to heaven until man agrees, his hands tied by man’s freewill. This is Pelagianism plain and simple. But it is a very popular thought. Humans want to believe that they are in control of their own destiny. In fact they only novel thing I have heard from Bell is the idea that God will persuade people to heaven after they die, in the end, know human will choose hell over heaven. Bell’s God is the Great Salesman, not the Great Savior. This is my main problem with Bell’s theology, he discounts the power of God’s grace and insted makes salvation about man, not God, one of the very things he complains about when speaking of his detractors.

Bell says that the reason he wrote the book is that there are many Christians like him who have been alienated from hateful Christianity. I guess we have that in common. However what Bell does is not reconcile alienated believers with the church that hurt them, he gives license to churched people to leave the theological framework of God and his grace. In other words, takes people removed from the church and gets them even farther. If he were a marriage counselor, he does nothing to bring a hurting couple together, rather he acts as a divorce lawyer, telling hurt and vulnerable people they have a right to leave. Of course they have a right to leave, its just not the best thing for them. It is easy though.

Much of the revelevent strands of Christian ministry love Rob Bell because they claim he can build a bridge between non-Christians and the Church, but my fear comes from what I have seen from years of ministry experience, when that “bridge” is built on secular ideas and values, such as the triumph of human will against the sovereignty of God, it does not act as a way to go from the outside to the church, but rather provides an exit from the church for people struggling with their faith.

I don’t have all the theological answers. I do not think I understand God as well as most people think they do. But what I do know is that God loves you, and he died for you. Salvation is not in our hands, but his. I really wish Mr. Bell hadn’t written this book. I wish he didn’t love being such a “Christian” celebrity. I wish we didn’t even have those, but we do, and that draw is just far too strong for some people, maybe all people. I honestly wish he would take a step back and realize that he may not  have quite right either. Just a thought.

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