by Jon Taylor
A decade ago, Zondervan published Rob Bell’s first book ‘Velvet Elvis’i which caused quite a stir amongst evangelicals although that was just a ripple compared with the tidal wave caused by his 2011 publication ‘Love Wins.’ii In particular, John Piper was deeply concerned about Bell’s thoughts on penal substitution and the atonement.iii Rob Bell usually writes in a mysterious and provocative style, appealing to a postmodern audience, often leaving questions unanswered before raising another issue. There is typically a lack of clarity leaving the intended meaning open to discussion. Although not expressly stated in the respective texts, both books have come under criticism for either bordering Universalism or presenting Universalist ideas.
At the time of authoring ‘Velvet Elvis’, Rob Bell was the Pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan which is not to be confused with Mark Driscoll’s former church, Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. In fact Driscoll had grave reservations regarding Bell’s theology which was published in 2008 in the Christian Research Journal in a helpful article entitled ‘Navigating the Emerging Church Highway’.iv
Rob Bell obtained his M. Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary and then pastored Mars Hill until, 2012. The question is however, how did Rob Bell go from being a Pastor of a mega-church to delivering his view of spirituality while publically delivering a surfing lesson to an irreverent comedian that was speaking profanities, and then having his ‘Soul Sunday’ show on Oprah?v The inevitable outcome is that if someone is lost at sea and they are trying to reach the shore, though they may have veered off course only a few degrees at first, over time they will eventually arrive distant miles away from their intended destination.
In addition to ‘Velvet Elvis’ and ‘Love Wins’, Rob Bell authored ‘What we talk about when we talk about God’, ‘The Zimzum of love’, ‘Sex God’, ‘Drops like Stars’ and ‘Jesus wants to save Christians’. He also produced a series of short films, tour films and the popular NOOMA films. Bell carried out his ‘Everything is Spiritual Tour’ in 2006 and is latest project is the 2015 version with new ideas and perspectives.
Nevertheless, before ‘Love Wins’ and ‘Oprah’, the warning signs were visible. It is difficult to state exactly where Rob Bell fits in both theological and church circles since he readily admits that his views are constantly evolving and that his wife Kristen is apparently three steps ahead of him. His teaching has influenced a wide audience in both Christendom and the secular world. Generally speaking Rob Bell is one of the three most prolific emerging church leaders, the other two being Brian McLaren author of ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’vi and Doug Pagitt who has challenged the view of a literal heaven and hell and views Christianity as an evolving system.vii ‘Love Wins’ was also defended by Eugene Peterson, author of ‘The Message’.viii Rob Bell’s other well- known associates include Greg Boyd and Tony Campolo.
Rob Bell is extremely adept at either not answering a question adequately or responding to a question with another question or statement. The problem with this approach is that it makes it difficult to clarify what he is actually saying, permitting him the flexibility to appeal to a wide audience. Furthermore some of his statements appear to be dressed up in mysticism and they are so ambiguous that other than the fact that he is questioning basic Christian doctrines his comments are open to interpretation. For example consider the following statement from ‘Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith’.
‘Jesus at one point claimed to be “the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus was not making claims about one religion being better than other religions. That completely misses the point, the depth, the truth. Rather he was telling those who were following him, that his way is the way to the depth of reality. This kind of life Jesus was living, perfectly and completely, in connection and cooperation with God, is the best possible way for a person to live. It is how things are.’ix
This statement undermines rather than upholds the truth. Actually Rob Bell misses the point that Jesus is the only way and that none can come to the Father except through Him. This verse is about salvation, not ‘the way to the depth of reality’. ‘The best possible way for a person to live’ mentioned above suggests a self-help gospel, a take it or leave it lifestyle choice and ignores the urgency, seriousness and exclusiveness of what Jesus taught here. If someone who wasn’t a Christian read Bell’s comments on John 14:6, they would be encouraged to explore the ‘way to the depth of reality’ rather than recognizing that they need to trust in Christ alone.
Acts 4:12 clarifies the same truth as John 14:6, ‘Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which men must be saved’. The problem is confounded further as we will see later, that Rob Bell has a theologically liberal interpretation of both heaven and hell. Unsurprisingly Rob Bell doesn’t appear to enlighten us with what ‘the way to the depth of reality’ is supposed to mean either.
Typically Bell raises one point or fires off a few questions, makes a few comments and then opens up another can of worms and then races through from one issue to the next. While it seems incredulous that this type of postmodern doublespeak was undetected by many, even the subtitle ‘repainting the faith’ should have raised the alarm bells. Remember Jude desired to write of our common salvation although he found it necessary to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)
Heaven, Hell and Earth
In Love Wins, Rob Bell explores important doctrines, although he doesn't exegete scripture correctly by forming his beliefs from what the Bible actually says, but imposes his own views about, presumably, what he wants to believe regarding heaven and hell. His arguments are often emotionally charged rather than rational and consistent. He concentrates on bringing heaven to earth. Throughout the chapter, Bell portrays various scenarios that question whether one has to believe and follow God to enter heaven, but without actually saying that.
‘Think about the single mom, trying to raise kids, work multiple jobs, and wrangle child support out of the child’s father, who used to beat her. She’s faithful, true and utterly devoted to her children. In spite of the circumstances, she never loses hope that they can be raised in love and go on to break the cycle of dysfunction and abuse…
With what she has been given she is faithful. She is a woman of substance. She never gives up. She is kind and loving even when she is exhausted.
She can be trusted. Is she the last who Jesus says will be the first?
Does God say to her, “You’re the kind of person I can run the world with”?x
This is subjective moralism, not the gospel. It is suggesting ‘I must try really hard to be good and kind to others and God will be pleased with me’. In fairness, all the above qualities are good in one sense in that they are commendable and to some extent reflect the character of a believer. However it still doesn't affect the most basic truth that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory and we are saved by grace, not by works. (Romans 3:23; Eph.2:8-9).
The discourse on hell in the following chapter is pretty similar to the one that precedes it on heaven. Again with a mixture of anecdotes and Bible references, Bell pontificates, but doesn't define exactly his understanding of what hell is. If he did, it would be much easier to evaluate with greater clarity what he is actually communicating. In a similar way to how Bell encourages ‘bringing heaven to earth’, he is keen for his readers to avoid ‘hell on earth’.
‘Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.’xi
This could be insinuating that some who believe in a literal everlasting hell are not so concerned about the ‘hells’ as Bell puts it, or sufferings and injustices on earth as they should be. However the most loving and caring thing one can ever do for another person on earth is to share the gospel with them so that they may enjoy heaven and fellowship with God forever and avoid everlasting punishment that was originally intended for the Devil and his angels. Since hell is everlasting (Matt. 25:46; Rev. 20:10, 19) everyone should be greatly concerned about hell and warn others so that they can trust and believe in God and go to heaven instead.
‘What we see in Jesus’s story about the rich young man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next.
There are individual hells, and communal, society wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.’xii
This is clearly a parable and the point is not about alleviating ‘individual, communal or society-wide ‘hells’ on earth’ but hearing, believing and trusting in God, now on earth and avoiding the real, everlasting torment in hell after this life. Though some of the atrocities that occur right now on earth are horrific and almost unspeakable, they should not be confused with hell in its everlasting sense and the intended meaning of what the Bible affirms.
Bell employs a wide range of loaded presuppositions to present his arguments. Rather than allowing scripture to speak for itself, he presents either/or questions to apparently corner the reader if they try to object to a view being presented. This line of reasoning is appealing to a philosophical understanding of how he would like God to act as opposed to taking into account all of God’s attributes and purposes that are given to us in the Bible.
Here is a loaded question which is based on philosophical speculation rather than biblical principles, failing to recognize or even consider that God is holy and just as well as loving.
‘Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love? Thousands through the years have answered that question with the resounding response, “God’s love, of course.”xiii
It does appear though that Bell is giving at least ample support to the view that eventually everyone will be saved.
‘To be clear, again an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts’xiv
Bell also appeals to emotional pleas, rather than what Scripture affirms. While the Bible teaches clearly that the gate to life is narrow and the way to destruction is broad (Matt. 7:13-14), Bell doesn't flatly deny that, but tries to broaden the entrance.
‘And so space is created in this “who would doubt God’s ability to do that?” perspective for all kinds of people-fifteen year old atheists, people from other religions, and people who rejected Jesus because the only Jesus they ever saw was an oppressive figure who did anything but show God’s love.’xv
Same Sex Marriage
Some emergent church leaders that now support same-sex marriage were previously non-committal regarding the subject. In particular Rob Bell’s ally Brian McLaren, was formerly considering the issue calling for a five year moratorium and if he were to obtain insufficient clarity at the end of that period, he would request another five years, though he now supports it and even led his son’s same sex ‘commitment ceremony’.
Rob Bell, co-authored ‘The Zimzum of love A New Way to Understand Marriage’ with his wife Kristen. The Christian Post reports that on Oprah Winfrey Rob Bell stated ‘that the American church is “moments away” from embracing gay marriage and thinks “its inevitable.”’xvi Oprah thought it was great that they included gay marriage in their book and asked them why.
“One of the oldest aches in the bones of humanity is loneliness.” replied Rob Bell. “Loneliness is not good for the world. Whoever you are gay or straight, it is totally normal, natural and healthy, to want someone to go through life with. It’s central to our humanity. We want someone to go on the journey with.”xvii
Soul to Soul with Oprah
On Oprah Winfrey’s ‘Super Soul Sunday programme, she fires a series of questions which Rob Bell fields. If there were any reservations concerning whether Bell’s theological views are vaguely biblical the answers speak for themselves. The excerpt which lasts a little over four minutes can be accessed here http://www.oprah.com/own-super-soul-sunday/Rob-Bell-and-Oprah-Go-Soul-to-Soul-Video .
Oprah “What is the soul?”
Rob It’s the thing that keeps telling you, there’s more. There’s more. This isn’t just a meal. This isn’t just a person. This isn’t just an embrace. This isn’t just an interview.”
Oprah “There’s more?”
Rob “Yeah, There’s more.”
Oprah “Your definition of God?”
Rob “Like a song you hear in another room and you think, that sounds beautiful but I only can hear a little bit so you start opening doors and rearranging furniture cause you have to get in that room to hear that song and when you get in you find the knobs and you turn them all on the right cause you’re like I’ve got to hear more of that and then you open the windows because you want the people in the next houses to hear it.
Oprah “What’s the difference between religion and spirituality, or is there a difference?”
Rob “Well you know some say that religion is people that don’t want to go to hell and spirituality is people that have been to hell already umm religion should be the structures, the prayer tables, the things that you do, in the course, it should help you, it should cultivate, it should be the practises it should be the symbols, it should be the rituals that cultivate your sense that there is more.
Oprah “What does prayer mean to you?”
Rob “Prayer to me is usually one word which is yes, yes, I’m, open, what’s next, that’s what it is.”
Oprah “What is the lesson it’s taken you the longest to learn?”
Rob “That there is nothing to prove. Cause you’re young and you start out and you‘re like da dum, look at me I can work harder, I can work faster, I’m smarter, look at me, respect everyone understand what I’m and then later you realise that there’s nothing to prove anymore, all there is left to do is enjoy.
Oprah “What do you think happens when we die?
Rob “I think there’s a tonne of Oh, because there’s all these people that have gone before you. And so people who say then you meet God, I think yeah but I never met my grandpa on my dad’s side so actually when I think of like dying I think of, I’ll get to meet Preston. That’s actually what I think of first. I don’t think of sort of, gold and a throne and like a “hello Rob well done, you’re strange but I like you anyway.” I don’t think of that, I think of like my grandpa that I never met. To be honest and like heritage and family and bloodline.”
Oprah “All of them who came before you?”
Rob “Yeah I somehow think of flesh and blood, I think of like people I’ve heard about.”
Oprah “You think you’re going to see them?
Rob “I do actually.”
Oprah “And will they be in flesh and blood?
Rob “May be at some point we are known for our essence and whatever that looks like or feels like.”
Oprah “What do you know for sure?”
That you can say yes to this moment and experience a joy that can’t be put into words. That is actually possible. I know that for sure.
Oprah “The world needs. Finish that sentence, the world needs?”
Rob “All of us to wake- up.”
Oprah “I believe?”
Rob “That we’re going to be fine. I really do.”
Oprah “Heaven is?
Rob “Here and now and then and there and at hand and among us and upon us and available and real.”
Oprah “God is?”
Rob “Oh Love. Stick to that one. God is love.”
Oprah “My favourite thing to do on Sunday morning is?”
Rob “Erm my thirteen year old son and I will often go surfing and we’ll be sitting in the water and its quiet and sometimes a dolphin will go by and we’ll talk and it’s perfect, perfect.”
A lesson to be learnt here is that a lack of clarity breeds confusion. In this so called post-modern era where boundaries and parameters are undefined and discussion is heralded as of greater value than presenting timeless truths contained within God’s Word, chaos is both inevitably and predictably the result. In just over a decade, Rob Bell went from preaching ambiguous messages to thousands, to a religious talk show on Oprah Winfrey.
Departure from scriptural truths and principles open the door wide open for any and every wind of doctrine. No doubt some will be impressed and others disappointed concerning Rob Bell’s appearances on Oprah. What is certain is that from his answers provided in the interview above, his understanding of who God is, what prayer is, what happens when we die and what heaven is, is either inadequate ,or doesn’t resemble anything like what the Bible teaches.
The views presented here, all but in name, advocate universalism. Heresies often preached or written in books and blogs or delivered in discussion forums, are usually brought in as apparently innocent questions before they are swiftly taken on as new or fresh insights and have crept in unawares in many churches. We should therefore carefully exercise discernment and weigh everything with what the Bible permits. We are experiencing a deluge of heretical ideas that are not essentially original but in many ways resemble the myriad views that the Early Church Fathers spent so much time refuting at length.
It is time to defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints and to be ready to help others caught up amidst the confusion. We need to speak the truth in love. So ‘Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one (Colossians 4:6).
This article first appeared in the September edition of the Reachout Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here and download a free 40-page Reachout Beginner’s Guide to the Cults
iv Mark Driscoll Navigating the Emerging Church Highway http://www.equip.org/article/navigating-the-emerging- church-highway/
vii Doug Pagitt Biography Pagitt Sees Theology as ‘Ever Changing’ http://christianity.about.com/od/Emerging-Church/a/Doug-Pagitt.htm
ix Rob Bell Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (Harper Collins; London, 2012), p5-6
x Rob Bell Love Wins
xi Ibid, p79
xii Ibid, p79
xiii Ibid, p109
xiv Ibid, p108