Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Doctrinal Earthquake - Rob Bell's controversial book: 'Love Wins'

Rob Bell asked for it. In a subtle departure from orthodox Christianity, Bell's latest book has caused a doctrinal earthquake last week. While the rest of the world are shocked at what is happening in Japan, the theological world is spooked when a famous pastor of a mega-church starts to bend traditional interpretations. Essentially, his book is subtitled, "Love Wins - a book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.' In the book, Bell questions several doctrines held by orthodox evangelicals.
  • Is God's salvation only for the elect few?
  • Is hell for the rest of the people who do not profess Jesus as their Lord and Savior?
  • Is it really God's will for sinners to burn in hell and punishment for eternity?

In a nutshell, Rob Bell declares that the above are 'misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus's message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.

In choosing not to affirm the above, Bell's reasoning is that a God of Love will ultimately save all. This is a kind of Universalism, that everyone will eventually be saved, regardless of faith and religious persuasion. This is because of Rob Bell's conviction that 'Love Wins.'

Survey of Blogsphere
Rather than going on a point by point rebuttal, I will list some of the notable reviews of Bell's controversial book.  The rumblings are there when the giant Christian publisher Zondervan broke ranks with Bell over this latest book. CNN reports here that the company and Bell has discontinued their relationship. Zondervan says that the book proposal is not in line with the mission of the publisher. Obviously, this is one of the first seismograph of the impending theological quake, followed by a tsunami of critical reviews.

Like a watching bachelor looking to marry an attractive divorcee, HarperCollins jumped at the opportunity to offer to publish the book instead. It is a moment of business genius. After all, controversy sells. Interestingly, as the book gets more criticized, watch the sales of the book. 

Tim Challies has blasted the book as a 'toxic subversion of Jesus's Message.' Justin Taylor calls Bell's book an attempt that is moving 'farther and farther away from biblical Christianity.' The pastor of University Reformed Church, Kevin DeYoung does not mince his words about Bell's book. In a 21-page critique, he declares Bell's book as belonging to the category of 'bad theology hurts real people.' Even leaders of Emerging Church, like Brian McLaren has entered the fray, saying that Bell is not 'infallible.'

Some theologians have also fired their salvo at the book. Al Mohler (President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) has written that Bell's book is not new, calling Love-Wins as a 're-emergence of liberal theology.' He even moderated a panel discussion. John Piper tweeted a 'farewell Rob Bell' implying that Bell has left evangelicalism. One person I respect is Mart De Haan, President of the Radio Bible Class organization. He gives a balanced viewpoint asking that those who disagrees strongly with Bell ought to be careful not to use 'threats of group pressure and backballing' to diminish love among fellow Christians. He adds that Bell himself does not know the 'exact' nature of hell.

Some in the news publishing media are a little more measured in their response. RELEVANT magazine tries to give a balanced review of the book, calling it 'deeply moving' and also 'deeply frustrating.' One like Cathleen Falsani, of Huffington Post are more sympathetic. She lumps everybody as 'heretics' in the first place, and that all of us are wrong and only God is right. More critically, others like Mark Galli in Christianity Today calls Bell's book as a 'bridge too far' and offers readers a tour of what Universalism, and the problems in Bell's book.  RESURGENCE website gives a pretty good chronology of the controversial book.

Interestingly, Bell's Church has been doing some damage control, putting up a FAQ here.

The Less Critical

Rob Bell's book has been endorsed by some well-known names in the evangelical circle. Richard Mouw argues that the book is not about universalism, but is a clarion call for a shift from  'stingy orthodoxy to generous orthodoxy.' Jeff Cook prefers to treat Rob Bell's book not in terms of 'what Bell is saying, but how he says it.' Even the famous retired Professor of Regent-College, Eugene Peterson has written a blurb to support the book. In an interview, he says that while he does not agree with all Bell has written, he says Bell's contribution has helped Christians to develop a 'biblical imagination.' John Mark Reynolds makes a vigorous rebuttal against Peterson's statements here in First Things.

My Comments

1) I am not comfortable with "Love Wins." It seems to be flipping the truth of 'God is Love' like a pancake, and makes 'Love' into God. That is the idolatry of the human heart. Remember when Moses asks God for his name, God can reply in no other way except "I AM WHO I AM." In other words, nothing can be used as an equivalent for God. Only God can be God.

2) I am also baffled by Eugene Peterson's comments. However, with my relationship with Regent-College, I can understand why he is saying what he is saying. For any Christian community to mature and to engage as honest people, we cannot silence any view just because we do not agree with it. Peterson endorses Bell's book, so that people will not dismiss the book too easily. For Bell touches on some important issues that many people are asking. It is how we treat people of different opinions that tells the world how 'Christian love' looks like. My point: Criticize yes. Condemn no.

3) The title of the book essentially gives the message away. It is not judgment of damnation to hell, or the promise of heaven only to a select few. What Bell is saying is that Love ultimately wins, and love is the ultimate antidote, solution, and salvation.

4) I think the biblical injunction 'Do Not Judge' needs to be understood both ways. Firstly, we cannot judge another person as going to hell. We are not God. In fact, no one actually knows which other people will go to hell or not. It is ridiculous to even suggest that we try to speculate God's way of judging, on the basis of OUR understanding of what love is. That will be trying to rule like God. With what measure we judge, we shall be judged.

Secondly, we cannot in any manner declare ourselves as righteous enough to go to heaven. We can only claim on the promises of Christ. We can only depend on the grace of God. Ultimately, it is not a matter of whether Love wins or loses. The grace of God belongs to God alone. He alone decides whether He wants to send anyone to heaven or hell. He alone judges the whole universe. He alone decides what kind of 'love' actually wins. That said, we still need to stand up for the truth, without condemning people. We shine light into darkness. We remain firm and steadfast. After all, how can a crooked line know it is crooked, unless there is a straight line to compare with?

5) I note that most of the fierce detractors of the book tend to be theologians or those more theologically astute. Laypersons seem to see the matter differently. In fact, a number of people have actually found encouragement in the book itself. Why the divide? Why are theologians more up in arms, and the common laypersons more laissez-faire?

6) Is this book another piece of evidence of the widening gap between the theologically-astute and the theologically shallow? Based on Barna's 1st of 6 megatrends of the Church, that the Christian Church is getting less 'theologically literate,' I suspect it is. That is more worrying than Rob Bell's book.

7) If there is any positive take from this latest book controversy, I hope that it will lead individuals to adopt the Berean attitude to search the Scriptures for themselves. Just like what the Da Vinci Code has done.

The theological tsunami has just begun. Are you doctrinally prepared?



Rosie Perera said...

I must say that this whole flap over the book has only raised its profile among the rank-and-file Christians. And what is most astounding is that the furor over it started before the book had even been released, and most people weighing in on it hadn't even read it.

The Internet seems to facilitate a rise in "heresy finger-pointing" by self-proclaimed orthodox leaders. It used to require the Magesterium of the church (or at least an ecumenical consensus) to declare some new idea heretical. Now it seems every armchair theologian is clamoring to do it. If you Google any major Christian author's name plus heretic or heresy, you will find plenty of hits. It seems to have reached a fever pitch in the last few years with the publication of The Shack and the rise of popular mega-church pastors who vie with each other for a sizeable enough following among the increasingly fragmented evangelical world.

I'm relatively theologically astute, having studied at Regent College, but even I probably wouldn't have cared to read Rob Bell's latest book or possibly even heard of it if it hadn't been for all the scathing reviews and dismissive tweets about it. All of that piqued my curiosity -- especially since John Piper dissed the book, and he also thinks one of my favorite biblical scholars, N.T. Wright, is a heretic. So instead of basing my evaluation of the book on what other people say about it, I went out and bought myself a copy at the Regent Bookstore. (If the Regent Bookstore carries something, it's usually a sign that it's something worth reading, whether I will agree with it all or not.) Anyway, I'm reserving judgment until after I've finished it. So far I've only read the preface and chapter 1.

But great job, John Piper and others, helping to market Love Wins. I'm sure that wasn't your intent, but it has certainly been the net result.

YAPdates said...

I suppose if people were to keep quiet about it, it would not have generated the controversy (and the sales volume) of the book. Having said that, will silence then equals to a general agreement?

When people engage as mature thinkers, they will gain in terms of better insight into each other's ideas and thoughts.

I suppose you bought the book, not under my influence eh? So I cannot be blamed. :)


Rosie Perera said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rosie Perera said...

Not always. Silence can sometimes mean tacit approval (as when there is a refusal to speak out about injustice). But it can also be a powerful form of communication. Giving someone the "silent treatment" can send a clear message that what they just said or did was not acceptable. (It can also border on abusive at those times.)

There's a blurb on the back of a book I came across recently, Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence:

"In our talkative Western culture, speech is synonymous with authority and influence while silence is frequently misheard as passive agreement when it often signifies much more. In her groundbreaking exploration of silence as a significant rhetorical art, Cheryl Glenn articulates the ways in which tactical silence can be as expressive and strategic an instrument of human communication as speech itself."

Since Rob Bell's book was bound to get at least some positive reviews, I suppose those who are now speaking out against it felt the need to counter those, not so much so that they themselves wouldn't be perceived (by their silence) as approving of it (nowadays there's so much being published that silence is more likely to mean "I haven't had time to read it so I have nothing to say about it"), but since they feel a responsibility to correct misinformation that they think their constituents might otherwise get confused by. Nonetheless, their strong denouncement of this book (using emotionally charged language and loaded words like "heresy") had the opposite effect. Better would have been a calm and reasoned countering of the book's main points, and a recommendation to "read such-and-such a book instead if you're looking for..."

I still haven't had time to read more of it, but I'm intrigued by a friend's comment that it's not much different from what C.S. Lewis was positing in The Great Divorce. You don't find those folks calling Lewis a heretic.

YAPdates said...

Hi Rosie,
One of the problems in our society is the talkativeness you mentioned. The other problem is the lack of discernment on when to speak up and when to keep quiet about it. The media professionals are only too aware of that to take advantage of that.

I am reading "Amish Grace" which talks about how the Amish community can forgive the killer's family so quickly, even after the senseless massacre of 5 Amish children in 2006. The media and the non-Amish world go back and forth about the pros and cons of forgiveness. Of course to most Christians, forgiveness is a given. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks so, claiming that justice must still be done. (No lawsuits were filed by the Amish people.)

I think 'silence' in a sense is like that. I can appreciate silence. The monasteries breathe silence. The Amish personified Francis of Assissi's famous words: "Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words."

But not many others in the world can tolerate silence. Even the judge will consider silence a contempt of court if one defies his order to speak.

In a talkative culture, silence generally means consent. Some will understand your nuanced explanation on the message of silence. Others will not.

I agree with you that a reasoned and calm approach is best. Thanks for doing just that.


Latest Posts