Dr. Jay Worth Allen
A friend called me a week ago and asked what I knew about Rob Bell.
“Very little,” I said. “Almost nothing at all. He’s an apparition, for all I know. Why do you ask?”
“Because I’m terrified that his new book, Love Wins is going to send the Church into perdition. It’s frightening.”
“Well,” I assured him, “if the ‘Gates of Hell’ can’t stop the Church, I sincerely doubt that a skinny preacher from Grand Rapids, who Time Magazine dubbed, ‘The Hipper-Than-Thou Pastor,’ is going to make much Head-Way in that direction either.”
Since there was no way I was going to shell-out 25 Greenbacks on Amazon for a book subtitled, “A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” - I borrowed my friend’s copy.
Okey-dokey . . . now I understand why the debate over Bell’s book has spread across the Evangelical Confines of the Internet, in no small part because of Bell’s promotional video posted on YouTube.
Bell, the pastor of the 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, lays out the premise of his book, while the video cuts away to an artist’s hand applying oil paint and pastels to a blank canvas.
Bell describes going to a Christian art show where one of the pieces featured a quote by Mohandas Gandhi. Someone had attached a note saying: “Reality check: He’s in Hell.”
“Gandhi’s in Hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?” Bell asks in the video.
In his book, Bell criticizes the belief that a select number of Christians will spend eternity in the bliss of Heaven, while everyone else is tormented forever in Hell. “This (belief) 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,” he writes in the book.
For many traditional Christians, like myself, Bell’s new book reads a lot like the old theological position of Universalism - a heresy that teaches that everyone, regardless of religious belief, will ultimately be saved by God - a teaching, which arguably, misleads people about the reality of the Christian faith.
So what Bell writes is not new. It stretches to antiquity, when Christianity was a persecuted sect in the Roman Empire, and when, the third century theologian Origen first developed a theory where everyone, even the devil himself, would ultimately be saved. Church leaders eventually condemned Origen’s ideas as heresy, but his influence, as we see in Bell’s book, is still current.
I’m inclined to dismiss this latest critique of Hell as nothing more than warmed-over Liberalism. I’ve read, Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith, Albrecht Ritschl’s The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, works by Wilhelm Herrmann, Adolf Harnack, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Bishop John Spong, and Brian McLaren, so I can cognitively say that the basic narrative of Bell’s “Love Wins” book (as with all Liberal Theology) is this: God’s only attribute is love; His holiness, righteousness, and justice have to be adjusted to that central, undeniable dogma. Human beings are not deserving of God’s wrath, but only of His encouragement and empowerment to improve. Jesus Christ is primarily a moral teacher, who invites us to share in His vision of creating “a kingdom of ethical righteousness” (Albrecht Ritschl’s phrase, but basically Immanuel Kant’s doctrine). Since there is no divine justice to satisfy or wrath to propitiate, the cross cannot be represented as a vicarious substitution of “the Lamb of God” for sinners. Since there is no objective condemnation, there can be no objective justification. Since everyone is a child of God, there can be no Adoption. The church is merely the community of volunteers for the Kingdom-Building Enterprise. Heaven and Hell are as subjective as sin and redemption - it all depends on what you make of your life right now.
Yale professor, H. Richard Niebuhr, captured, in one sentence, the essence of Bell’s liberal theology: “A God without wrath brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”
In Bell’s liberal view, salvation is ultimately the release of the soul from the prison-house of the body, while in the Biblical view salvation is completed when we are raised bodily unto Everlasting Life. In that day, the vertical boundaries between Heaven and earth disappear - as seen in the Apocalypse (Revelation 21).
There are many issues that Bible-Believing evangelicals need to address in order to weed this garden of low-grade Paganism, but they are far less serious than the high-grade Paganism that drives the modern Professing Christian, like Bell, to fashion a deity who is other than the one we read in the Scripture. The biggest issue this controversy reveals is not really whether Hell exists. To be sure, we need to challenge the latest examples of Scripture-twisting with respect to the clear teaching of Jesus himself on Hell.
However, there are larger questions that Bell, and even some local Preachers raise: Who is God? Who are we? What is our relationship to God? For what can we hope? What do words like “sin,” “redemption,” “Jesus Christ,” “kingdom” mean in the Biblical drama? It’s not just a matter of tinkering with a traditional Doctrine, but with the very meaning of God’s grace and justice in the Cross of Christ. Everything is at stake in this question, especially given the underlying dogmas that Rob Bell allows to control his thinking on this subject.
Too often, discussions of Hell go beyond any Biblical description in hopes of alerting people to avoid such a dreadful place. The problem with that view is that Hell, rather than God, becomes the object of fear.
“But I will forewarn you Whom you shall fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into Hell . . . I say to you, Fear Him” (Jesus, Matthew 12:5).
Not published on Freed In Christ! blogsite.
Published: 31 March 2011 in Dr. Jay's Faith Column of The County Journal.
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