I thought Rob Bell had, not unlike disco, fallen out of style. Shortly after he wrote Love Wins in late 2011, it seemed like he exited stage right from the podcast preacher scene, never to be heard from again. Or so I rather hoped.
I read Love Wins when it came out and was involved in not just a few conversations about it: with people who were for and against what he was doing. His book started a lot of discussions on campus at my school, but it mostly fizzled out by the start of the next semester.
Now that he and Oprah are buddies, though, the blog posts I’m reading ring a bell—if you’ll pardon the expression. Evidently, Christians have been too hard on Rob Bell and all he really wanted to do was ask questions and get people thinking. What’s so wrong with asking questions? Heck, I just asked one.
What you’re reading now is a response to an article about the whole ordeal posted on Relevant Magazine: What the Continued Crucifying Of Rob Bell Says About Modern Christianity by John Pavlovitz (also posted on JohnPavlovitz.com). I thought the title was kind of lame, so I made sure to call article something extra creative. The article is long and makes more points than I care to address in detail. Some of them are correct, some of them are wrong, and some of them are good truths applied wrongly (like a quality bowtie worn about your forehead).
Rob Bell’s Rise and Fall
The article first points out how fickle Christians have been concerning this ordeal. Rob Bell was initially championed by many Christians who later dropped him like a piece of poorly made nun’s headwear (a bad habit). I personally never donned the Rob Bell jersey, so I can’t say I identify with this criticism. But I think the church’s quickness to disassociate themselves with Bell does more to commend her than to condemn her.
In one sense, Rob Bell is a gifted rhetor. He speaks and writes in a way that holds your attention and makes you want to nod your head in agreement. It’s no wonder so many people read his books and downloaded his sermons. He was a cloud without water, but he was certainly a pretty cloud to look at.
The problem came when Rob Bell showed that he was more dangerous than a waterless cloud. He didn’t just say nothing of substance. He showed himself to be a wolf when he started teaching heresy—more on that later. For now, understand that running away from the wolf was not a display of fickleness; rather, it was an encouraging display of common sense. The fickle bit was riding the Rob Bell bandwagon to begin with, not jumping off when they realized where it was headed.
The Wolf Shows His Teeth
Rob Bell is an heretic and he preaches a false gospel. Contrary to the article I’m responding to, he did more than ask questions in Love Wins. He made profound assertions which are in direct opposition to the gospel. Not only that, but a pastor should know better than to ask the questions he was asking as publicly as he was. Men who are questioning hell and the atonement have every right to sit in the pew and ask questions; however, they have no business whatever asking them from behind the pulpit (or in the pages of a New York Times best seller).
In his book, Bell argued that we can’t know for certain whether people really go to hell, that even if they do, they can probably leave whenever they want, and that penal substitutionary atonement is more of a metaphor than a reality. He made these arguments from church history, from Scripture (even in its original languages), and from theology. Rather than support his case, his advanced argumentation only proved that he should know better.
People far smarter than I have written far better critiques of Love Wins than I can, so I’ll link you to a good review rather than write my own. Suffice it to say that he preached a different gospel—which is no gospel—and the church had every right to declare him a heretic. We had not just the right, but the responsibility to say “he’s not with us.”
Questioning the atonement is something different than questioning what instruments are appropriate for worship or how often the church should do communion. Mr. Pavlovitz says that the problem with the church isn’t that we disagreed with Bell, but how we did it. He says that “The Church has become a members-only club, defined by the narrowest of doctrines and a singular understanding of God and Scripture.” Furthermore, “As some Christian leaders cling tighter and tighter to one, narrow narrow faith tradition, they expel anyone who doesn’t check all the right boxes, who doesn’t say all the right words in all the right ways using all the right Bible verses.”
The problem is that if believing in hell and atonement represent a “narrow narrow faith tradition,” then I’m afraid we may have confused the Christian faith with the wide door and broad way which leads to destruction (cf. Matthew 7:13). This isn’t a disagreement about a house’s window dressings; it’s the removal of the chief cornerstone: Jesus and His substitutionary death to save us from God’s justice.
Wrestling the Greased Wolf
John Pavlovitz writes, “The problem isn’t when Christians disagree, it’s when they lose the ability to disagree without dialogue.”
I want to agree that the church has lately had a tendency to condemn people as heretics without any dialog at all. Unclear statements are made, interpreted in a negative light, and then whole groups of people are called heretics. The Federal Vision controversy from about a decade ago is a good example of this. But Rob Bell is not a good example of this.
In the case of Rob Bell, he was invited to debate and be interviewed. Books were written in reply to his. He didn’t respond well. He never wrote response books, rarely debated, and when he was asked direct questions, he dodged them. Rob Bell isn’t a wolf in sheep’s clothing; he is a greased wolf that slips out of directly affirming heresy—all the while making millions off books he sold that lead sheep astray through poorly typeset questions.
But in a pastor, affirming truth is just as important as not speaking heresy. Rob Bell didn’t just refuse to affirm heresy directly, he also refused to affirm orthodoxy. This makes him just as dangerous as any other wolf, if not more so because he’s so hard to pin down. Rob Bell is not fit to teach the Scriptures if he’s not willing to say what they say.
Pews and Pulpits
I alluded to this above, but I want to make myself very clear. Joe Layman questioning the doctrine of hell and talking to his small group leader about it is very different from Rob Bell questioning this from behind the pulpit and selling books that effectively aim to refute it.
John Pavlovitz asks what the church’s response to Rob Bell says to those who are questioning these things for themselves. Hopefully it sends a clear message that theology matters and we take wolves very seriously. Paul had no room for preachers of a false gospel and neither should we. We have room for people who are struggling with truth, but we have no tolerance whatsoever for false teachers.
Disclaimer: I haven’t read very much from John Pavlovitz (or Relevant Magazine, honestly), so please understand that this article isn’t a denunciation of him; it’s simply a response to his article.