Rob Bell has to be one of the biggest names in the worldwide church at the moment. The guy has captured the imagination of an enormous slice of younger ‘new’ evangelicals who are looking for a more articulate way to describe and define their experience of faith.

Bell manages to make a radical following of Jesus sound appealing and desirable rather than just difficult. He is inspiring and captivating in his speaking as well as on occasions being intentionally provocative. This is part of his appeal. He makes you think. He doesn’t just say what everyone else is saying and in similar ways. He dares to ask dangerous questions and in doing so he makes himself vulnerable – very vulnerable to the theological daleks who simply want to exterminate anyone who asks questions, let alone arrives at different conclusions to them.

I’m interested in his latest book ‘Love Wins’, partly because of the theological content, but also because of the stir it has caused already among other Christian leaders – even though the book hasn’t been released. The various critiques of Bell that I have read are very unlikely to have come from a thorough reading of his book as it isn’t due for release on March 29th… so why such a stir?… and based on what?!

Is it really about ‘guarding the gospel’ or is it a fear based reaction to a powerful and influential leader who dares to ask a difficult question – a question that is obviously ‘live’ amongst theological thinkers today. Given the strength of the knee jerk I tend to think its not all from healthy motives.

That question is essentially ‘what becomes of people who die apart from Christ?’ Is it Hell for all for ever, or is there some possibility that God may offer a second chance?…

Its asking the question of whether there is some credence in the idea of universalism in its various garbs. Bell’s short promo video is beautifully provocative and asks some significant questions. I can only guess that this forms the basis for the critique so many have levelled at him. And yet all he does is pose questions… All he does is raise the same reasonable objections that we could expect from any thinking person…

Are we afraid Bell might arrive at non-orthodox conclusions? Are we afraid that he might even teach us something we didn’t know?…

I am grateful for Rob Bell and other provocateurs of his ilk who refuse to simply keep to safe topics and protect their reputation (and speaking schedule). I am firmly convinced we need to have the difficult theological questions raised among the masses and explored more thoroughly.

I don’t know where Rob Bell ends on this stuff…

Unless you’ve read the book you probably don’t either…

But I am curious at the ferocity of the evangelical fear response that refuses to allow someone to question, let alone offer a different perspective. I’m not so sure the response would be so vehement if the author were someone rather more in the suit and tie evangelical mode. Take John Stott for example who describes his view of hell as that of annihilation rather than eternal conscious torment and ask why he hasn’t been hung out to dry. (see Evangelical Essentials pp.318-320)

Seriously, I wonder how we learn if we don’t question.

I wonder how we mature in our theology if we don’t bump against ideas other than our own and really grapple with them – perhaps even admitting that we were wrong… I remember well growing up in a church where spiritual gifts of the ‘pentecostal’ kind were seen to be as coming from satanic origin. I was taught this by people who believed it with all integrity. But I am absolutely convinced that these good people were wrong on this issue.

I like the way NT Wright frames the intro to some of his talks – “80% of what I say to you today will be true and valuable – 20% will be wrong – I just don’t know which bits are which”.

If Wright reckons he’s just ‘80% right’, then chances are others of us are less correct than that and maybe need to take a deep breath before we condemn a brother or sister as a heretic for asking difficult questions.

Let’s read the book, hear Bell out and then see where it goes…

Maybe he’s right (in whatever he believes) but we won’t be able to see that if we already read him thru the lens of a heretic. Let’s give the bloke a fair go…

14 thoughts on “Exterminate

  1. One of the best descriptions of hell that I heard was at a funeral and he said it is wherever God is not, basically. If we think of God as love, light, etc, hell is wherever those things will be missing. I reckon that will feel like being in a lake of fire and brimstone!

  2. One of the best descriptions of hell that I heard was at a funeral of a lovely Christian man and he said it is wherever God is not, basically. If we think of God as love, light, etc, hell is wherever those things will be missing. I reckon that will feel like being in a lake of fire and brimstone!

  3. yes – the issue is ‘what will his conclusion be’

    I find the more I continue with theological studies the more I find any type of universalism a danger to people of faith – it weakens those who are knew to the faith and is a stumbling bloke for all disciples.

    I’m quite certain universalism is a false teaching and the Bible has some pretty harsh things to say about false teachers.

    Though like you I’m not writing Bell off on the basis of a book yet to be released, though some of the criticism has come from some pretty reputable reformed pastors.

    Bell’s past records of a certain type of ‘trampoline hermeneutics’ raise worries though, and I am not a fan of his preaching.

    Asking tough questions is only ok if you have decent Biblical responses to them

  4. I’m told by someone who has read a pre-release copy that he arrives at a reasonably orthodox conclusion, and doesn’t pose much of a question beyond that which CS Lewis poses in the Last Battle.

    It will be interesting if the funds are there for the making of the Last Battle movie. Evangelicals loved the Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, but they’ll be contorted and aghast during the prevenient grace dialogue between Aslan and the young Captain.

  5. I think people get bent out of shape, because they are used to preachers who speak as though they have ‘the last word’, and that it is ‘absolutely right’.

    Bell has previously indicated that he raises different subjects in order to engage a conversation, rather than saying ‘this is absolutely right’. However, when people don’t get that, they react, and in a nasty fearful way.

    Saying Bell is wrong, is fine. However, doing it based on fear and spite is as unbiblical than what some may accuse Bell of preaching…

    I for one will be looking to get a copy of the book. I like the cut of his jib. 🙂

  6. Hi Hamo – great insights, as ever, but you are off the mark on Stott. He was annihilated for his views on hell at the time, but as we know came out of it as an elder statesman. Will be interesting to see how Bell is viewed in a generation from now…

  7. When so much of how we enjoy our security in the world (& church) relies on a particular interpretation/ reading/ understanding of a particular piece of the Bible, why would we expect anything short of an angry crowd chanting, “crucify him!”

    If God is, and God is love, and Jesus showed us that love in action, then I’m sure he/she can handle a few questions along the way, by a group of bumbling, mumbling disciples, who are often more interested in whether we’ll get the best seats in the house, than embracing the foolishness of the Good News.

    I reckon Bell is a very good communicator, who is secure enough in the desire of God to connect with all of humanity, that he actually dares to let go of the need to control the outcome of the space/chaos/questions he facilitates (let’s face it – he’s only voicing what most of the thinking world is wondering).

    I’m guessing he sees his role as a communicator implicitly involves being a creator and protector of “space”, a space where the Spirit of Truth is free to move in and amongst a group of people who, in their fragility as mortal beings, try to catch a glimpse of the immortal.

    Rather than entrusting himself with the responsibility to provide these people with answers, Bell, like many of us, actually believe that God is already at work in and amongst humanity, and is passionately involved in transforming each of our lives whether we are aware of it or not.

    I believe that many preachers/teachers are threatened by these sorts of communicators because they ultimately advocate for a freedom of the people, implicitly based on a trust in the unconditional love of God for those people and a desire to commune with them.

    This enables them to dare to speak the larger questions that are being asked by people such as “how can a loving God send people to an eternal place of punishment and torture?’, and not need to have a pre-packaged 22 and a half minute sermon” with all the answers. They facilitate the space and participate with God as he/she hovers over the void/ chaos/ confusion/ questions amongst them.

    It is when you honestly believe that Love wins, that you are truly free to live. But then again, maybe it’s not that simple 😉

  8. went from here to another favourite blog – prodigal kiwi(s) – the home of Paul Fromont and sometimes favourite hang out of Alan Jamieson (prodigal.typepad.com).

    Found this interesting expert regarding theology and thought, in light of the controversy / dialogue re: Bell and his (un)orthodoxy, it might be relevant… It is from Kathryn Tanner’s essay How My Mind Has Changed: Christian Claims (Christian Century, Feb. 23, 2010)

    “…Theology has the ability to propose the unexpected, to shock and startle. If offered an escape from the taken-for-granted certainties of life by referring them to something that remained ever beyond them, resisting capture and encapsulation. The theologian respects that capacity of theology… not by dressing up contemporary commonplaces in religious terms, but in seeking what lies beyond a contemporary outlook and beyond the immediate context of one’s work.

    A theology that starts from, and uses as its toolbox for creative ends, materials gathered from the widest possible purview is… a theology with that imaginative expansiveness. Such a theology looks to the Christian past not for models for simple imitation but for a way to complicate one’s sense of the possibilities for present Christian expression and action. It looks to the past not to restrict and cramp what might be said in the present but to break out of the narrowness of a contemporary sense of the realistic…

    …It moves beyond narrow denominational confines to the broadest possible ecumenical vision and sees beyond elite forms of theological expression, in written texts primarily, to the popular theologies of everyday life.

    [It is an] historically funded constructive theology: the premodern, the popular, the global and the ecumenical are put to use to shake up, reorientate and expand what one would have thought one could do with the Christian symbol system, in the effort to figure out what is proper for Christians to think and do in today’s world…” (p.43)

  9. I have heard several ‘sermons’ by Rob Bell and his teaching Ps Shane Hipps from Mars Hill (Grand Rapids Mars Hill) and would suggest that if he is consistent in his theology he will likely bare his universalistic beliefs in his new book. Can’t be 100% but….

    Personally, I am not grateful to provocateurs who peddle things like the old heresy of Christian universalism, btw, an oxymoron if I ever heard one! And if it is universalism that Bell peddles?, it could be the case that plenty of biblically illiterate youth pastors, kids and church-goers could to be suckered in to this unorthodoxy.

    There is too much doubting these days with Christian intellectuals. Christianity has certainty and if i trust Jesus’s own words; Hell is certain too (just read the Gospels). So..if his book reveals Bell is a universalist…who will you trust? Jesus?

    And if Bell reveals that he is a universalist, will the church call him a heretic and be done with him? – all these Q’s…I’m sounding like Bell myself!

    James 1 v 1-8 comes to mind.

  10. Hamo – no, Stott came to and held what would be described as an anihilationist position on hell. Stott was not afraid to question evangelical positions, as an evangelical. But at the time he was most definitely hung out to dry as a heretic, in much the same way Bell is being now (though without the speed of the digital revolution). But over time Stott was seen as an elder statesman, and other evangelicals were prepared to say, we value him and his contribution, whether we agree with him on every matter or not. There were certainly those who attacked him, though. Nothing new under the sun. Always costly to ask questions and to see that in many areas we like to box off, God’s Word resists being caged…

  11. As I don’t actually know exactly what Rob Bell Bell believes I would change my previous posts first stanza to suggest he has tendencies in this direction:

    I have heard several ‘sermons’ by Rob Bell and his teaching Ps Shane Hipps from Mars Hill (Grand Rapids Mars Hill) and would suggest that if he is consistent in his teaching he will likely bare what would seem to be universalistic tendencies in his new book. Can’t be 100% but….

    apologies…it was late.

  12. “And if Bell reveals that he is a universalist, will the church call him a heretic and be done with him?”…

    Bell has done a lot to create discussion, thought, interaction and momentum among those who are young, and even among those who ‘think’ young (ie, are prepared to learn and stretch).

    I would hope that ‘if Bell reveals that he is a universalist’, then maybe the church would ‘ask further questions of him, and continue to engage him in discussion, continuing the conversation that is faith.’

  13. I have long been an advocate and enjoyer of Bells prophetic and insightful teaching.


    if he comes out as a universalist, that is heresy.

    if he doesnt, the publicity release is mischevious and obviously garnering the attention anyone trying to flog a book would love.


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