Rob Bell Ignites Controversy by Repainting Hell (and the faith)

This week, Rob Bell released his latest book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived. To say this book ignited controversy would be an understatement. Bell became one of the top ten trending topics on Twitter. CNN reported on it twice, USA Today ran an article, and MSNBC interviewed Bell. Both Christianity Today and Relevant Magazine have done reports. If we measured theological controversies like earthquakes, this would be a nine. Most theological issues don’t even register to the average churchgoer, much less shake up Twitter. So why has Bell’s book on eternity generated so much discussion?

For a hurricane to form it needs warm water and a cool atmosphere. This storm was formed by the volatile combination of Hell and Bell; a warm place and a cool personality. Bell has been repainting the faith in culturally attractive shades for years. He is a gifted communicator with the ability to express concepts in such artistic ways that they capture your heart and resonate with your mind. In fact, he can resonate powerfully with both the Christian and the culture, as Bell’s successful speaking tours testify.

In an interview with Christianity Today, Rob Bell was asked how he would Tweet the gospel. He responded:

I would say that history is headed somewhere. The thousands of little ways in which you are tempted to believe that hope might actually be a legitimate response to the insanity of the world actually can be trusted. And the Christian story is that a tomb is empty, and a movement has actually begun that has been present in a sense all along in creation. And all those times when your cynicism was at odds with an impulse within you that said that this little thing might be about something bigger—those tiny little slivers may in fact be connected to something really, really big.

Now that’s an attractive gospel. Aside from a reference to a tomb, any Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, or Jedi Knight could appreciate it. And that’s the problem. There is no sin. No cross. No blood. No Son of God. No saving faith. No Jesus. While it might be more tuned to the culture, this is not the biblical, Christian gospel. Bell’s message, however, has become a haven for Christians navigating conservative evangelicalism while skirting liberal theology.

Then there’s hell. Hell is increasingly unpopular in both the American culture and the church. Shying away from the “fire and brimstone” preacher, the subject of hell is rarely mentioned in most sermons. In 2008, USA Today reported 52% of Christians believe people of other faiths will go to heaven. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, just 59% of Americans believe in some kind of hell; down from 71% in 2001. According to a Barna survey, while 65% of adults believe they will go to heaven, only half of one percent believes they will go to hell. The attitude toward hell has become, “if there is one, me and my friends won’t be going.” Anyone who has discussed Christianity with a non-believer knows how difficult hell is to defend and explain in this particular culture.

Thus, when you have a creative, popular preacher willing to rethink a culturally offensive topic like hell, you have the conditions for a storm. The danger Bell’s book poses is that it will resonate, especially with young Christians. It will tell us what we want to hear and our sinful flesh will leap at the chance to remove the offense of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18). What should we do to avoid being swept away?

Beware of blindly following a favorite preacher. When I was in college I loved Rob Bell’s Nooma videos and messages. We should be thankful for any truth we learned, but realize its impact on us was ultimately due to the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. Our allegiance is to Christ, his Spirit, and his book, not any man or woman. If we are willing to sacrifice Jesus (who taught about Hell more than any other) or the Bible for a teacher  we are idolaters, turning a man into a god.

Beware of flowery, well crafted words. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2

And I… did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Cut through the lofty speech and ask yourself, “what is this person really saying?” While Bell claims to believe in hell, in Love Wins he paints it as something we create for ourselves. Eventually God’s love will penetrate our hells and everyone will enter the New Jerusalem. That’s not the traditional Christian view, despite what he claims. Unlike Paul’s desire to be centered on Christ and him crucified, this is a view centered on man and him glorified. Don’t be fooled by well-chosen Bible verses and the skillful use of a thesaurus; compare it to the whole counsel of the Word of God.

This is not the first theological earthquake, nor will it be the last. If we are willing to evaluate the teachers we listen to and cut through the rhetoric to evaluate the message by the Word of God we’ll still be standing after the tremors fade. The gospel is “folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18) and we “will be hated by all” (Matt. 10:22) for the sake of it; but that’s no reason to repaint it.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

-Romans 1:16

For an excellent review of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, click here for Kevin DeYoung’s review.

For an assessment of Rob Bell’s theology in Love Wins, click here for Al Mohler’s review.

For an excellent biblical, philosophical defense of hell, click here for Tim Keller’s article.

For an excellent biblical, theological defense of hell, click here for the chapter from Mark Driscoll’s book.

To watch MSNBC’s Martin Bashir point out issues with Love Wins in an interview with Bell, click here


(image credit)


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