What Rob Bell thinks about God, Jesus and the Bible reminds me of the conversations my friends and I used to have in high school.  Here we were, in a Catholic institution of learning, discussing religion during open study period in the canteen.

Although those of my friends who were dating Protestants generally brought specific Bible verses into the discussion — with some very good lessons, too, I might add — we more ‘enlightened’ types said that the Bible was outmoded and a mere reference book.  What’s more, we were all saved — end of.  These days, it’s called Universal Reconciliation or Christian Universalism.  Combined with a New Age mysticism, it forms the core thinking of the emergent church pastorate.  Yet, like them, most of us would deny that we were universalists.  Rob Bell does the same.

I’m not going to blame my teachers for my erstwhile wishy-washy theology, although we did have one priest for religion class junior (third) year who assigned us Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. No Bible (outside of a quick run-through of Sunday readings), little doctrine, but some great intellectual discussions. My mother was, rightly, disgusted.  But at the time, I didn’t think she was too ‘enlightened’, either.

And this is part of the problem with Rob Bell’s theology.  He’s regressed from his orthodoxy as a young Calvary Chapel pastor to the scepticism an adolescent has.  At his age — and in his role as the pastor of his own church — one would think he would have more answers than questions.

Watching Martin Bashir interview Rob Bell on MSNBC reminded me of my high school experience which led me to a quasi-Universalist belief that I only managed to start getting out of when I started blogging. This was thanks to the Calvinist blogs out there. I held onto warped theology most of my life, through my own fault.  Again, to less orthodox readers: please do not make that same mistake.  You will end up regretting the years you wasted asking questions that Scripture answers, I guarantee it.

My British readers will remember Mr Bashir from his BBC and ITV days.  Although born to Muslim parents, he now considers himself a ‘committed Christian’.  He worked for the American ABC network and moved to NBC last year, where he is an afternoon news anchor and Dateline contributor.

Mr Bashir knows what to ask of Mr Bell.  Sadly, Bell gives him few answers:

Now, onto the Revd Kevin De Young’s review of Mr Bell’s latest tome, Love Wins.  Two things, though, before we start.  One is that Mr De Young is Senior Pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan (the mitten-shaped state) and blogs for The Gospel Coalition. I would also guess that the two men are quite close in age. Both live in the nucleus of Calvinism in North America, possibly the world.  The area around Lansing and Grand Rapids has many Reformed churches and adherents.  As Mr De Young explains in ‘A Few Thoughts As We Move On’ (emphases mine throughout):

This issue is especially pertinent to me because I grew up where Rob Bell lives (Grand Rapids) and live where Rob Bell grew up (Lansing). I know the church he grew up at (it’s a normal evangelical church with some fine people there). And I remember buying baseball cards at the mall where Mars Hill now meets. I have people at my church that used to go to his church, and people from my home church that now go to his. Small world. Over the years, I’ve known many people that have attended Mars Hill at one time or another. Rob Bell’s influence stretches across Michigan. It seems that most people I talk to have some family member or friend or second cousin that’s gone to Mars Hill or loves Rob Bell’s books. Although few, if any, in my congregation would say they are Rob Bell fans, many interact frequently with those who are. Clarity on the important issues he raises (and misunderstands) is absolutely necessary. Especially in the Mitten.

As I mentioned yesterday, Mr De Young has read Love Wins and has written a helpful 21-page review of it entitled ‘God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True’.  Because he has put a lot of time and effort into this paper, including citations from the book, I’m not going to share too much of it with you here but would ask that you please read what he has to say in full.  My concern is that Rob Bell’s theology will find its way to British shores, where I believe he would have a most receptive audience.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a number of Church of England clergy lapping it up.

In his blog post which introduces his review, Mr De Young writes:

Bad theology hurts real people. So of all the questions raised in the book, the most important question every reader must answer is this: is it true? Whatever you think of all the personalities involved on whatever side of the debate, that’s the one question that cannot be ignored. Is Love Wins true to the word of God? That’s the issue. Open a Bible, pray to God, listen to the faithful Christians of the past 2000 years, and answer the question for yourself.

Delight or deception, suffering or salvation—yes, even heaven or hell—may hang in the balance.

Today, I shall focus on Mr De Young’s introductory section, ‘A Few Preliminaries’, found on pages 2 – 5 of the PDF.

One, although Bell asks a lot of questions (350 by one count), we should not write off the provocative theology as mere question-raising … Bell is a popular teacher of a huge church with a huge following. This book is not an invitation to talk … As Bell himself writes, “But this isn’t a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions” (19).

Two … It is a book with lots of Scripture references. It is a book that draws from history and personal experience … It is not a piece of art. This is a theological book by a pastor trying to impart a different way of looking at heaven and hell. Whether Bell is creative or a provocateur is beside the point. If Bell is inconsistent, unclear, or inaccurate, claiming the “artist” mantle is no help.

Three, I’m sure that many people looking to defend Bell will be drawn to a couple escape hatches he launches along the way. As you’ll see, the book is a sustained attack on the idea that those who fail to believe in Jesus Christ in this life will suffer eternally for their sins. This is the traditional Christianity he finds “misguided and toxic” (viii). But in one or two places Bell seems more agnostic.

Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires. (115)

These are strange sentences because they fall in the chapter where Bell argues that God wants everyone to be saved and God gets what God wants …

There’s a reason he’s written 200 pages on why you must be deluded to think people end up in eternal conscious punishment under the just wrath of God. Words mean something, even when some of them seem forced or out of place. Take the book as a whole to get Bell’s whole message.

Four, it is possible that I (like other critics) am mean-spirited, nasty, and cruel. But voicing strong disagreement does not automatically make me any of these. Judgmentalism is not the same as making judgments. The same Jesus who said “do not judge” in Matthew 7:1 calls his opponents dogs and pigs in Matthew 7:6. Paul pronounces an anathema on those who preach a false gospel (Gal. 1:8). Disagreement among professing Christians is not a plague on the church. In fact, it is sometimes necessary. The whole Bible is full of evaluation and encourages the faithful to be discerning and make their own evaluations. What’s tricky is that some fights are stupid, and some judgments are unfair and judgmental. But this must be proven, not assumed. Bell feels strongly about this matter of heaven and hell. So do a lot of other people. Strong language and forceful arguments are appropriate.

Five, I am not against conversation. What I am against is false teaching … The question is never whether God can handle our honest reappraisals of traditional Christianity, but whether he likes them.

On the subject of conversation, it’s worth pointing out that this book actually mitigates against further conversation. For starters, there’s the … complaint about the close-minded traditionalists who don’t allow for questions, change, and maturity (ix) … In essence, “Let’s talk, but I know already that the benighted and violent will hate my theology.” That hardly invites further dialogue. More practically, Bell includes no footnotes for his historical claims and rarely gives chapter and verse when citing the Bible. It is difficult to examine Bell’s claims when he is less than careful in backing them up.

Six, this is not an evangelistic work, not in the traditional sense anyway. The primary intended audience appears to be … disaffected evangelicals who can’t accept the doctrine they grew up with. Bell writes for the “growing number” who have become aware that the Christian story has been “hijacked” (vii) … This is a book for people like Bell, people who grew up in an evangelical environment and don’t want to leave it completely, but want to change it, grow up out of it, and transcend it. The emerging church is not an evangelistic strategy. It is the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder into liberalism or unbelief

Love Wins has ignited such a firestorm of controversy because it’s the current fissure point for a larger fault-line. As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural environment, they are breaking in one of two directions—back to robust orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors.

As I said at the beginning, this isn’t new thinking at all.  It’s just that Bell and his fellow emergents have cashed in on it.  Mr De Young is correct in saying that it is the ‘current fissure point for a larger fault-line’.  And that’s the concern.

More tomorrow