There has been a hue and cry over a new book by Rob Bell – Love Wins. In the book it appears that Rob takes an almost universalistic approach to the issues of evil, punishment and Hell (a theological position that holds that ultimately everyone goes to heaven and that hell is empty). The book has climbed to third on the Amazon best selling list this week largely due to the uproar among evangelicals.
I have stayed away from the controversy until now because I have not read the book and unlike a number of leading theologically reformed pastors I don’t think I should address a book that I haven’t read. BTW it appears that at least part of the problem is that Rob is perhaps more of an Arminian then a Calvinist in his views.
What I can address is the swirl of issues that are related to the book that includes marketing, pastoring, the emerging church and theology.
First regarding marketing I can’t think of a better way to generate sales then to create controversy. Regardless of claims of innocence to this charge Rob Bell is a very smart guy. There is no way that he couldn’t know that the press releases; excerpts of the book and video clips to say nothing of the subject would cause controversy. My hat is off to his publisher for a great marketing campaign! Rob will be making a lot of money from the book sales!
But this brings me to my second concern, pastoring. As a pastor we are supposed to keep an eye on the unity of the body and care for the body. I don’t see a lot of that (from either side) in this fiasco. Part of this is due to the third issue I have the emerging church and their use of deconstructionism in Bible study. I have no problem with this as a way of getting to the truth but I think we need to arrive at the truth from time to time. And not just ask questions or create controversy a la Brian McLaren.
I sat in unbelief watching a youtube video of Rob Bell being interviewed on MSNBC and had to shake my head over Rob’s lack of concrete answers, but not surprised at his approach. A number of years ago I had the opportunity of being at a symposium where McLaren was speaking and where a Q&A session was set up after his talk. The discussion was lively and the natives were riled up but McLaren never actually engaged them or answered any of their questions. After the meeting I commented to people around me that getting Brian to take a position was like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall! It appears that Rob Bell is cut from the same cloth, as are many emerging church leaders.
I applaud the questions; in fact I have had many of the same ones myself. But sometimes that answers are available. It’s just that we often don’t like the answers! Yes, some questions are unknowable or are paradoxes or even conundrums. We shouldn’t ignore these subjects. God wants us to wrestle with them and from time to time we even find answers or at least partial answers.
And this brings me to my final issue, theology. A scholar once defined theology as establishing the extremes and searching for the middle. What constitutes orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy over the centuries has caused great debate. Defining who Jesus is and what he is made up of (two distinct natures both God and human) took centuries and several ecclesiastical councils to come to a majority decision on.
Reformed theology or Calvinism did not evolve until the 16th Century and Arminianism was a response to the excesses of Calvinism (although many of the theological thoughts had been a part of orthodox Christianity from the 1st Century).
Even the idea of Universalism has roots in the church back to the Middle Ages. The idea of the ability to escape hell was known as purgatory in the Roman Catholic Church. As an evangelical I reject this teaching but I still believe that many Roman Catholics will be in Heaven with me if their faith is in the finished work of Christ (I just believe that they will go directly to heaven).
Is theology important? Absolutely! And with this controversy we are witnessing some of the reasons why! Your theology gives you a grid work for answering life’s questions and for understanding how to approach God. Does God allow us to question him? You bet ya! Just read the book of Psalms or even the book of Job. God is fine with our questions but just remember that He might have some questions for you, too!
Is this an issue that needs to be debated and discussed? I think it is appropriate, but to carry on a “discussion” via social media or even traditional media is childish. Further the topic is too large and too important to be chopped up into sound bites.
I look forward to reading Rob Bell’s book but I’m not sure that I will discover any answers in it. He seems to be long on questions but woefully short on answers. Answers are to be found in Christ and in His Word. Allowing the Bible to interpret the Bible is always a great place to start!