In terms of celebrity status and public perception, I would like to assert that Rob Bell is the Barack Obama of the current Christian culture. Take a look:
A few years ago, Barack Obama stepped onto the national political stage as a man looking to shake things up in a big way.
Obama’s message hinged on notions of hope, change, and inclusiveness: Our nation is in a bad place today. Many people are getting unfairly excluded from prosperity because our current understanding of America–and the policies and institutions based on this understanding–are wrongheaded, but my vision for America–based on the right ideas–is one of hope and optimism for all people. Together, we can recapture what America is really about. What Obama wanted for America was indeed a radical departure from her current trajectory, and hence he instantly became an incredibly polarizing figure; many were attracted to his message and became devoted supporters, while many others entrenched themselves against his ideas and policies. Naturally, he also became a media darling in no time, being affixed at the epicenter of national political conversation and winning a coveted cover story in Time magazine. As his first term has played out, the divide of public opinion has only become clearer and wider, with liberals hailing him as a political “messiah” and conservatives branding him the “worst president in U.S. history.” Recently, Obama’s wave-making earned him a spot in the “2011 Time 100,” which counts him among the “most influential people in the world.”
Now we just do a little name-swapping, throw in some Christianity, and voilà:
A few months ago, pastor/author Rob Bell catapulted onto the Christian radar with the unveiling of his new work Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, a book intended to shake things up in a big way.
Bell’s message hinged on notions of hope, change, and inclusiveness: The world is in a bad place today. Many people are being unfairly prevented from coming to know God’s love because our current understanding of God–and our beliefs and sermons based on this understanding–are wrongheaded, but my vision of salvation–based on real biblical ideas–is one of hope and optimism for all people. Together, we can recapture what the gospel is really about. What Bell wanted for the Church was indeed a radical departure from her current orthodoxy, and hence he instantly became an incredibly polarizing figure; many were attracted to his message and became devoted supporters, while many others entrenched themselves against his ideas and doctrines. Naturally, he also became a media darling in no time, being affixed at the epicenter of national Christian conversation and even winning a coveted cover story in Time magazine. Since the release of Love Wins, the divide of church opinion has only become clearer and wider, with emergents and other sympathizers hailing him as a modern-day prophet and theological conservatives labeling him a false prophet of the most deceptive and dangerous sort. Recently, Bell’s wave-making earned him a spot in the “2011 Time 100,” which counts him among the “most influential people in the world.”
See what I mean?
Now here’s the part where I reveal what this post is really about. Is it about politics? Not really, no; I just thought that the Obama comparison would be a good way to introduce the topic. (By the way, if you want to play a bonus round with the comparison, it works pretty well with Ronald Reagan too. Go ahead, try it out.) Is it my turn to take a shot at reviewing/critiquing Bell? Mostly no; I don’t think I really have anything to add to this conversation that hasn’t already been said much better elsewhere. (More on that in a little bit.) So what’s the point? The point is simply to make you aware, and to prompt you to think. Of course, it may seem unnecessary given the fact that, well, Bell’s book has already been discussed to death all over the internet, and the odds of you finding this blog without having already tripped over a pile of articles about it are pretty darn small. But perhaps a few of you really are hearing about Bell’s book for the first time. If so, welcome to the conversation. Please keep your seatbelts fastened and don’t leave small children unattended.
On top of that, the stakes are high in this discussion. In fact, I daresay they are too high to ignore. A couple summers ago, when I was working at Wal-Mart, I found a gospel tract on the sink in the bathroom. As I perused its brief exposition of the good news, I found a page which sums up the afterlife of the unsaved in these words: “Hell is a terrible place where fire is.” Now I know that brevity is the soul of wit, but this, brothers and sisters, is not enough. As Bell says in the video above, “What we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.” The existence or nonexistence of hell is inextricably tied to attributes of God’s character that are critical in determining how we approach Him and how He relates to us–attributes like justice, sovereignty, and yes, love. I maintain that my life is defined by three words, Jesus loves me, and this conversation about hell is important to the meaning of each of those words, as Bell rightly recognizes. If we the Church persist in interpreting the Scriptures in a way that affirms the reality of hell, then we must also be ready to supply biblical answers for the questions Bell finds so lethal to the traditional doctrine–answers that go beyond “blind faith” and substantively point us to the Author and Perfecter of our faith.
If you would like to read a thorough and thoughtful orthodox response to Love Wins, I highly recommend Kevin DeYoung’s review over at The Gospel Coalition, a wonderful example of a critique that is both respectful and biblically substantive. Don’t let the size of the review scare you; if you’re like me, you may occasionally find yourself moved to pause and praise God as you read.
Finally, I’d keep an eye out for Francis Chan’s newly finished book Erasing Hell, which hits store shelves on July 6th. If you need to be convinced that Chan’s book will be a worthwhile investment, or if you just want to be challenged and edified by the humility of a remarkable man, see the video below.
[Sorry about the back-to-back posts about death and hell. For the record, I am not obsessed with death OR hell, and I do not plan to write my next post on the lake of burning sulfur.]