Cult of Personality

Last year, Rob Bell wrote a controversial book on who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Then he resigned his role as teaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church.

Now, his successor Shane Hipps is resigning because the megachurch is falling apart and the board has decided to reorganize, placing the teaching pastor under the executive director. Hipps said, ” [I] knew instantly my internal shape did not fit the role they created.”

As much as he would deny it, Mars Hill Bible Church was built around Rob Bell. He was a controversial lightning rod who amassed a following, first as a popular teacher under Ed Dobson at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and then at Mars Hill. Bell was hip, latching onto the new media of DVD Bible studies and unusual, if thought-provoking, books with titles like Velvet Elvis and Jesus Wants to Save Christians. 

When Bell resigned last year, Hipps was already handling much of the teaching pastor duties at Mars Hill. Bell was busy traveling on speaking tours and filming his NOOMA videos. He was essentially the rock star of the emergent movement.

Now, the congregation is struggling to make sense of things and to replace Rob Bell’s replacement.

This is the danger of a congregation built on the cult of personality.

It is something I know that Rob Bell worked hard to avoid and prevent, but it was bound to happen. He was too charismatic and too unusual for people not to be drawn to him personally rather than to the work he was trying to accomplish.

I have no doubt that Mars Hill Bible Church will sort through things, restructure and press on; but I will be very surprised if it ever reaches the levels of success that it achieved when Bell was the pastor.

This is a lesson we all need to learn. You can build a following or you can build a congregation. They can even coexist for awhile but the two will eventually come into conflict.

 

Chicago Tribune gives us a Mention

Last week, I had an interview with Tom Breen of the Associate Press last week. A quote from the interview appeared in anarticle that got picked up by The Chicago Tribune.

He called me primarily because of the way I responded to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. In a couple of subsequent articles, I discussed the places where I diverge from Rob Bell’s thinking.

Following Up on Rob Bell’s Love Wins
To Be with God

As I told Tom Breen, I am thankful for the questions Rob answers. Too many conservatives are afraid of questions, and I think that too often it turns us into reactionaries.

If you missed it, I also took a few minutes to respond to the “God Had a Wife” controversy that has been hitting the blogosphere recently as well.

“To Be With God”

Heaven.

That place where you go when you die. First, you stroll through the pearly gates and meet St. Peter, then you get a crown and a mansion and can eat all you want. There’s a temple and lots of holy people around, angels singing from the clouds. You get a harp. It’s great.

Of course, that image is entirely wrong. Oh, some of it is in the Scriptures, but the way we perceive it and the way it will truly be are two different things.

First of all, there is not a single reference in the Scriptures to good people getting to “go to heaven.” Go ahead, look for it.

Let’s get some cold hard facts down before we go forward. For the sake of argument, let’s take the truth of the Scriptures as a given and recognize the following:

  • There will be a resurrection of the dead. Jesus believed it. Paul believed it. There’s no missing it.
  • There is a difference between those who are found “in Christ” and those who are not. (We can argue about what that means another time.)

Resurrection is a Change of Life

Now that we’ve laid those things out there, let’s consider the fate of those “in Christ.”

Although all will be resurrected, those in Christ will not suffer “the second death” described by John. This is inherent in their unity with Christ. These people – described variously as the faithful, the righteous, and a number of other descriptors – will continue in life.

“I am the resurrection and the life.” (Jesus)

The life that they will continue however will be a transformed one. According to the Apostle Paul:

…Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep [die], but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:50-54)

The resurrection of the righteous will be to “the kingdom of God” – something that is incorruptible and does not die. Paul is at great pains to point this out. We will not be resurrected just to repeat this life. We will be resurrected to a different kind of life. He does not view death as an end, but rather as a transformation.

He also seems to connect our death to the “last trumpet.” This might have been because Paul believed the resurrection would happen in his lifetime. Every generation of Christians has. Paul believed he lived in the last days of this age because he did. We do as well.

Where Do We Experience This Change of Life?

The medieval church divided the afterlife into four realms:

  • Hell – the place where the unbaptized pagan and heretic goes to be tormented forever
  • Limbo – a theologically necessary place for the unbaptized children of believers
  • Purgatory – the cleansing place where believers have their sin purified
  • Heaven – the presence of God, reserved for the cleansed, or sanctified – hence the term saint

It is important to note that their reasons for this division were of theological necessity. Very early on in the development of institutional Christianity (after the 4th century CE), baptism into the church was considered the beginning of salvation. Baptism cleanses one from original sin (the sin we inherit from Adam) and initiates you into the Kingdom. This is why liturgical churches still baptize infants.

Obviously, during our lives we commit our own sins. We are not cleansed of the tendency toward sin, just the original sin. Therefore, since God cannot have sin in his presence, we will have to have that sin cleansed from us before we can join him in heaven.

It is easy to see how this four-tiered system developed. Later, a medieval poet named Dante Aligheri perfected the idea and developed levels within these realms. Although the most famous part of his Divine Comedy is “Inferno”, there are two other parts as well – “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso”.

When one reads the Scriptures with an open eye, it becomes quickly evident that God is not in the business of taking us somewhere else. According to Paul, we are changed instantly. We don’t go somewhere to wait for the end times. We go there instantly.

I am not going to claim how this works, but I don’t think that right now all the righteous people are up in heaven watching us and cheering us on. This idea of everyone watching us originates in a very poor interpretation of Hebrews 12:1. It would appear that there is something going on. The Revelation speaks of a marriage supper and an awful lot of singing and shouting. But my point is that whatever is going on/will go on in wherever Paul meant when he said “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:7), it is not some kind of eternal state of bliss with clouds and harps.

The Restoration of Eden

Here’s what John, the writer of the Revelation, seemed to believe would happen at the end. His vision of our eternal place was a global restoration of Eden. In one single magnificent image (Revelation 21), he pulls everything from the Hebrew Scriptures together. The heavens and earth will be destroyed and remade. God’s mountain will descend from earth, and the New Jerusalem of Ezekiel’s visions will stand on its top. God Himself will dwell among us once again.

To be honest, I don’t think anyone can be absolute on the details. Our fanciful imagery doesn’t do justice to the image of the prophets, who saw roads and altars and people working fields in this new heaven and new earth. This eternal destiny isn’t just a big party. It seems to be a restoration of what Eden was supposed to be.

  • In Genesis 2, Adam is called to care for the garden. He is supposed to tend it. Because of sin, that got twisted into making bread “by the sweat of his brow” in Genesis 4.
  • In Genesis 2, the beasts of the field seem to all get along with each other and man. There is a natural rhythm. By the time of Noah in Genesis 9, animals are afraid of humans. Sin has turned creation against man.
  • In Genesis 1-3, God walks in the garden. He comes down for chats with Adam and Eve. I don’t need to quote Scripture to tell you that doesn’t happen anymore.

All of the Edenic things will be restored. The world is upside down today. God, through Jesus, is putting it right. John saw the final steps of that putting right. We glimpse what it will be like, and those hints of eternity keep us moving forward.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

God is not destroying and rebuilding. Yes, there is destruction of that which cannot be redeemed and transformed in creation. But he is at work restoring what our sin stole from us. The eternal destiny of man is not somewhere else but where we were intended to be in the first place – in his presence. And his presence truly is paradise.

What Do We Call It?

Referring to this eternal destiny as “heaven” is so common today, that I use the terminology myself. But I am careful to explain to people that it doesn’t mean what they think it means.

Remember when I started this with saying the Bible doesn’t say people “go to heaven”? That is because there is a lot mythology tied to that phrase. It is true. But in the Bible, Jesus does use the word “heaven”. He uses it as a synonym for God over and over again. If you read the Synoptic gospels, you will see that the gospel writers used “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Kingdom of God” interchangeably whenever quoting Jesus or talking about his mission.

It is not wrong to refer to our eternal destiny as “heaven” as long as we know that means the presence of God. (The Jehovah’s Witnesses love to point out that people don’t go to heaven when they die. You can throw them off their game by showing the parallels of Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God and point out that heaven is wherever God is.)

My preference is to refer to our eternal destiny as “in the presence of God.” Because Jesus gives us new life through his atonement for sin, then we can enter into synergy with God’s Spirit. We experience, as I mentioned, hints of the eternal and the change from this life to the next should be a relatively seamless one as we journey with Christ.

After all, the same John who wrote the Revelation also wrote:

The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (1 John 3:1-3)

We are being transformed through Christ’s resurrection to be like him. This is not a transformation we can necessarily detect or hold over the heads of others in the manner of the Pharisees. Rather, it is a mysterious transformation that occurs as the Spirit of God draws us to Jesus.

Heaven is not here on earth. We don’t create it. We don’t carry it with us. But at the same time, it is being formed in us because Jesus is at work. The church that is moving with Jesus should be transformed by His Spirit.

There is plenty imagery to aspire to. Think of Enoch in Genesis 5:

All the days of Enoch were 365 years. Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him. (Genesis 5:23-24)

We pass from this life to the next in union with Christ. There is just one life that passes through resurrection. We should not so much be looking forward to “getting away” from this world but to continuing our journey with God.

That’s my opinion, anyway.

Some Parting Thoughts

A friend once asked me why I would want to go to heaven, knowing that all the judgmental bigots that exist in Christianity were also planning on being there. He would rather die uncertain than be certain he would be with the Christians he had known in life. That’s rough – but unfortunately, it is a true assessment of what calls itself the church here on earth.

Sadly, there is very little of heaven at work in most organizations and groups that call themselves churches today. Because they have bought into the medieval ideas, either they reject the whole afterlife (liberalism) or they become obsessed with death (most of evangelicalism, if we’re honest with ourselves). Perhaps if we realize that we are journeying toward the coming Age rather than either trying to be it now or longing for it as a “payday some day”, we would become hints of heaven ourselves.

I can think of no better way to end this post than with Jesus’ own prayer:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
(Matthew 5:9-13)

Following Up on Rob Bell’s Love Wins

Yesterday, I posted an entry about Rob Bell and his latest book, Love Wins. in it, I noted that I think Rob’s theology is a bit loopy and that his definition of hell is different from my own. Today, I want to take my thoughts a bit further and point out where Rob misses the point of many of the Scriptures he uses in his book.

Let me say this about Rob, in defense of my review of his book. I think Rob has confused the eternal destiny of the unrighteous with what I call the hints of hell in our present life. His book describes quite accurately the hints – or perhaps echoes – of hell in our lives. He sees the suffering and misery and violence and injustice of our world and cries, “Isn’t that proof of a hell?”

And I would agree. The hints of hell in our world are proof that unrighteousness exists, and I think they are signs that hell is real. What happens with Rob is that he is trying so hard to connect with people on a relevant level that he focuses on the hints but misses the reality. At moments he glimpses it, crying out, “Hell is MORE REAL!” than the hints we see, but then he backs away.

I think Rob is in earnest, and I’m not one to throw him to the wolves and that is why I wrote what I wrote yesterday. I won’t back away from my thoughts because they were my honest impressions.

I do believe that Rob addresses some Scriptures in the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel primarily) that most evangelical or even broader forms of Christianity fail to address. These passages which discuss a restoration on a global scale are often ignored in most Christian theologies of the end times (called eschatology) because they are complicated and difficult. We like the idea of a nice simply, “I go to heaven when I die” theology, but that is not what the Bible teaches.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Today, I want to start with a brief statement about eternal destinies in general, and clear up some mistakes I think Rob made. Then, I want to deal specifically with the eternal destiny of the unrighteous. I will address the destiny of the righteous in a later post.

Why Heaven and Hell are Inaccurate Descriptions of Eternal Destiny

In our congregation’s statement of faith, we have the following statement on the end of all things:

We believe that Jesus will keep his promise to return to earth as our Lord, King and Judge. We believe in the bodily resurrection of the saved and the lost, and the final judgment of all people to either eternal joy in the presence of God or to eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire.

Notice anything missing?

There is no mention of heaven or hell. Do you know why? Because the Scriptures make it plain that heaven and hell are not the eternal destiny of the righteous and unrighteous, respectively. Rather, the righteous will enjoy fellowship with God in the New Jerusalem, a mountain set in the new heaven and new earth, while the unrighteous will be cast into the Lake of Fire with death, hell, the false prophet and all that is Antichrist. (Revelation 20-21)

The Hebrew Scriptures and sheol

So, where do the dead go in the meantime? Let’s look first at the Hebrew Scriptures and what they say.

There are various terms used in Scripture for the intermediate states – where people go when they die until the events described in Revelation 20-21.

  • In the Torah, when a patriarch died, he was said to be “gathered to his people”. (Genesis 25:18, 35:29, 49:33, Numbers 20:24, Deuteronomy 32:50)
  • Likewise, in the Former Prophets, we read of the kings of both Israel and Judah dying, and the motif is “and he slept with his fathers”. (1 Kings 2:10, 11:43, 14:20, 2 Kings 8:24, 14:22, 20:21, 2 Chronicles 9:31, 12:16, 14:1, 21:1. It is used 36 times.)
  • The Hebrew authors use the term sheol, which means simply “the place where the dead go” with a certain ubiquity that can be frustrating because we really don’t know much about what the word is supposed to evoke. As a result, it gets translated a lot of different ways. All together, the word appears thirty some times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here are just a couple examples:

“For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase,
and set on fire the foundations of the mountains. (Deuteronomy 32:22)

“When the waves of death compassed me, The floods of ungodly men made me afraid; The sorrows of hell compassed me about; The snares of death prevented me; In my distress I called upon the LORD, And cried to my God:” (2 Samuel 22:5-7)

Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do?
Deeper than hell; what canst thou know?  The measure thereof is longer than the earth, And broader than the sea. (Job 11:7-9)

What is interesting is that the Hebrews did not seem to distinguish a place of the dead for the righteous and for the unrighteous. Sheol is described as a place of torture though, and it doesn’t make sense that the righteous went to a place of torture. There are also these references to joining those who died before you, which further complicates things.

In Christian traditions, this is usually explained using Jesus’ narrative of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:14-31). Many traditions say that before Christ died on the cross, the dead all went to sheol but the righteous were in a place called “Abraham’s Bosom” and there was a divide between them. Then, when Jesus died, he went to hell and “led captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:18) and then hell (Sheol) filled up that space.

For me, this is not a completely satisfactory answer. I think there is a lot to be learned yet about the way the Hebrews viewed the afterlife and used the word sheol. It does seem to signify a single idea, and it has tangible meaning to it, but I don’t think we know enough about what was intended by the word and its varied uses to make a judgment as to what the Hebrews believed or didn’t believe. What they definitely did believe was that people die and there is more afterward, that physical death was not all there was to life.They also did seem to believe that whether you were righteous or unrighteous had some bearing on what happened afterward.

There are huge passages of the Hebrew Scriptures dealing with the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth (like I said before, in the Latter Prophets, which most Christians refer to as the Major Prophets) and those have direct bearing on the righteous dead. I’ll deal with that in the next post.

On to the Christian story.

Gospel Terminology Used by Jesus

The New Testament is not anywhere near as vague. In fact, it is quite clear from the teachings of Jesus that there is a difference in how the righteous and unrighteous fair in the afterlife. In the Christian testament, the gospel writers use two words for the afterlife.

  1. Hades, which is a Greek word borrowed from the Greek god of the dead.
  2. Gehenna, a borrowing from the Hebrew ge-hinnom, which appears in the Hebrew Scriptures from the latter kingdom of Judah as a place of idol worship (2 Kings 23:10, 2 Chronicles 33:6, Jeremiah 7:31-32, et al)

(There is a third word that only appears once, Tartarus. It is a Greek place of darkness and torment for the wicked, but it only appears in 2 Peter 2:14 and in a verb form.)

I don’t think it is a mistake that the former Jews who wrote the Gospels used terms tied with Greek mythology and Canaanite religions when referring to the place of the unrighteous dead. It is a very intentional move on their part. The Gospel writers are turning the Gentile terminology back on the Gentiles. When Jesus spoke in Aramaic and used whatever word he used, the Gospel writers were there. When they sat to pen their gospels in Greek, they intentionally chose these words.

This is where Rob makes a bad interpretation of Jesus’ words. He doesn’t think about the words. He doesn’t give the Gospel writers (and the Holy Spirit) enough credit in their word choice. The Greek speakers who received these gospels knew what Jesus was trying to say. This was an intentional association.

Think about it.

Let’s look back at Luke 16:19-31. Go ahead. Read it.

In Jesus’ narrative, the rich man is “clothed in purple and fine linen.” Who wore purple in Jesus’ day?

The Romans.

Again – an association with the pagans, but why? Because they were pagans? No, because they were oppressors and rapists, because they were captors and destroyers, because their culture was focused on the satisfaction of human desires and the pursuit of success at the cost of others.

In short, the Romans represented everything that Jesus was teaching against.

Hades is for the unrighteous. Not for those who do not assent to a creed or say a sinner’s prayer. It is for those who do not follow the way of Jesus – which is the way of GOD.

What about Gehenna? The word is self-explanatory, isn’t it?

Read Jeremiah and you find that this is the valley where the devotees of Canaanite gods burned their own children. It was the place of fire long before the time when it became the garbage pit that most commentators use to interpret the word. Jesus probably did use this term directly, and he uses it to again turn things on their heads. The place where once kings burned children now becomes the place where their spiritual successors will burn, the people who would sacrifice children to get ahead, who are of their father the devil – both ideas Jesus uses and condemns.

Gehenna is the fires of pagan sacrifice consuming the worshipers of pagan gods, any god who is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – even if that god is yourself.

Gehenna is for the unrighteous.

The Lake of Fire

And in Revelation 20, John writes that death and hell have an end that is not an end. This is what appears there:

And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:13-15)

Previously, John had already pointed out that the lake of fire was a place of torment “day and night for ever and ever.” Despite Rob’s efforts to show that eternity does not mean never-ending, there is no denying the Greek that underlies this. The Greek phrase, just like the English, is a doubling. It literally means “age upon age.” In Greek, this form is used to indicate infinite or unmeasurable scales. This is not purgativepruning away your wickedness. This is everlasting and unending.

Can I be honest? I’m with Rob on wishing that this condemnation was not eternal. That’s why I understand him as being in earnest. I would love for this passage to not be in the Bible, but it is. End of discussion on that one.

Who goes?

Of course, the biggest criticism of Rob’s book was that people said he advocated universalism – that everyone ultimately gets to be in ‘heaven’ (this is a misuse of the word heaven, for one thing – but that’s for another day).

I actually don’t think Rob’s point was that clear. He uses the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) to illustrate that God confronts us with “his story” of our lives.

In the parable, one son goes off and squanders his inheritance and comes back to his father believing he is worthless. His father receives him and says, “NO! You’re my son, returned from the dead!” and throws him a party.

The other son has remained with his father and gets mad that his father is celebrating his brother’s return. He believes he is worthy, and the father says, “Hey, you’re not worthy. You’re no better than my other son. You can’t earn my love. I was with you the whole time.” This other son completely misses the point – that this whole story is about the father, not about him.

I think, and I could be wrong, that Rob’s point in using this parable was that it is not about the good we do or the sin we commit. Ultimately, ‘getting into heaven’ is about whether we will accept God’s truth or not. In other words, when I come to God with my own version of my story – either being worthy or being unworthy – God says, “No, your story is found in my Son Jesus and I accept you as resurrected in Him. Come into the party.” Maybe I am reading my own feelings into Rob’s writing, but I thought that was what he was saying.

But I digress.

My Final Thoughts

Let’s be clear.

This is where I have no doubt that Rob is struggling with the wrong questions.

Who goes to hell?

I think Rob has it right, even if I misunderstood what he was trying to say. The people who go to hell are those who refuse to listen to God, who refuse to hear their story as he wants it told.

But here is where Rob goes wrong. The story is not my story but Jesus’ story.

Who goes to hell?

Those who refuse to be united with Jesus in the resurrection (Romans 6:4-7). What Rob missed about the prodigal son is what I mentioned above. The father says, “My son was DEAD, and is alive again!” (Luke 15:24)

Jesus said to Nicodemus:

God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:17-18)

Everyone wants to talk about the question, “Why would a loving God send people to hell?” And that’s the wrong question. Jesus says we are condemned ALREADY. And the condemnation doesn’t come from him. It comes from me. It comes from you. It comes part and parcel with being sinners.

Who goes to hell?

The dead. That is who death and hell give up to be judged in the passage I started this whole thing with in Revelation 20. The dead are those who have not partaken in the resurrection.

The dead are those who are not in Christ.

The dead are those who want to believe their own story and come to God with their own version of righteousness.

They are eternally condemned.

Rob is right in that hell is present in people. It is inescapable.

Except in Christ.

Rob did stop short of spelling that out directly. I wish he had. It would have made this whole controversy much simpler.

Because it isn’t about the hell we create or the heaven we hope for.

It is about the living Jesus Christ, who once was dead and calls the dead to rise with him.

The Unorthodox Review of Rob Bell’s Latest

I finished reading Love Wins. Maybe I am more of an apostate than I thought I was, but I did not see anything Rob said that denied the orthodox views of the afterlife. What I did read was an earnest attempt by a very hip pastor to explain how something like hell and judgment can exist with a loving God.

Rob writes terrible prose. I am going to be honest. He does not write the style of prose we are used to reading and that makes him somewhat inaccessible to people who expect a pastor to write in the accepted manner. Because of his style, Rob opens himself up to a lot of misinterpretation. In fact, my assessment might itself be a misinterpretation – who knows?

At the core of Rob’s thesis, which he does not really get to until the last couple of chapters. Really, he has two primary ideas to convey.

Point 1 – It is not about creed or prayer

Rob is at great pains to explain that salvation is not about assenting to a creed or saying the right prayer. There is no magic trick to getting into heaven. In fact, getting into heaven is not the reason we should be coming to God in the first place.

The big controversy that surrounded this book comes down to Rob saying that you don’t have to believe in one person’s version of believing in Jesus. In other words, he’s saying that Jesus is bigger than our creeds and ideas. He is both narrow and universal. We can follow him without even knowing his name (and if you have a problem with that, you should consider the Old Testament since he isn’t named there once.)

Point 2 – Hell Is Our Own Sin

People essentially create their own hell by refusing to allow God to retell our story. What Rob calls ‘retell our story’ is equivalent to what most evangelicals would say as ‘accepting Jesus’.

We come to God with our version of our story. God has the true version. We have to trust God that his version of our story is the right one. When we don’t trust him, we are left in the hell of our false story. We can be in the midst of God’s glory and be in hell because we do not trust God.

What about this idea doesn’t jive with orthodox faith? If you believe in a literal hell, then people go there because of their sin. God saves us by telling us the story of redemption and meaning through Jesus. If we refuse that story, we choose to remain in our sin. While we would say that story is directly revealed in the Scriptures, even the apostle Paul believed that it existed in creation and was accessible to all men. (Romans 1)

Rob makes it plain. God is still righteous and loving. Those who do not trust him still go to hell. How Rob defines hell is a little different than how most evangelicals define it but it certainly is not a new idea. It is an idea that has existed throughout Christianity’s storied and varied history.

And if someone accepts the story God is telling but does not know all the names of the characters, are they not good enough? If Mother Theresa was a little confused about the role of her works but still accepted the story God was telling her, then does she go to hell for not conforming to the evangelical doctrinal statement?

If you ask me, all the controversy revolves around fear and misunderstanding. Rob approaches a difficult question or set of difficult questions with a style all his own. It is not my own way of telling it, but I did not see anything that made him an apostate. A bit theologically loopy? Yeah, I could say that. But I can’t find it in me to reject him because he tells the same story of redemption in postmodern language.

Hey, Rob Bell Wrote a Controversial Book!

You may not have noticed, but here are some people who have.

http://www.redletterchristians.org/love-wins-rob-bell-and-the-new-calvinists/
http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/03/19/rob-bell-reviews/
http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/features/25030-is-rob-bell-a-universalist
http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/03/16/we-have-seen-all-this-before-rob-bell-and-the-reemergence-of-liberal-theology/
http://www.jesusneedsnewpr.net/my-thoughts-about-rob-bells-interview-lovewins/
http://www.russellmoore.com/2011/03/15/the-blood-drained-gospel-of-rob-bell/
http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/april/lovewins.html
http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=34868

These are just the links from the last day or two. The book was released on Tuesday and has been flying off the shelves. Christianbook.com announced on their website that due to the controversial nature of the book, all profits from sales would go to Compassion International.

And if you missed it, there was this hard-hitting (and a bit bizarre) interview by MSNBC host Martin Bashir.

The Christian blogosphere is all a twitter about this. And a friend from church who is currently serving overseas with the military sent me a Facebook message about it.

So, I broke down and bought the book. I’m reading it and I will let everyone know what I think in a series of upcoming posts.

For those who don’t know who Rob Bell is, he is a pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written a number of controversial books but this one has really caused a stir.

Harper Collins, who publishes the book, must be loving it. Currently, Bell’s book is #2 on the Amazon.com bestseller list. It will quickly eclipse his other books in sales, guaranteeing that Rob Bell will keep stirring up controversy and they will keep profiting from it.

Why Does Rob Bell Gets Under People’s Skin?

Many of the readers of this blog may not be aware of who Rob Bell is or why I say he gets under people’s skin. Let me explain.

Rob Bell is the teaching pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written several books that have irritated people to no end. Critics of his first book, Velvet Elvis, claimed that he denied the Virgin Birth of Jesus (he didn’t). In his second book, Sex God, he was supposedly attacking the traditional view of marriage (he wasn’t). His third book was entitled, Jesus Wants to Save Christians (and he does, often from themselves!).

Just run a Google search on Rob, and you will find people either in love with his way of thinking or convinced he is the Antichrist. There seems to be no middle ground.

Next Tuesday, Rob’s most recent book entitled Love Wins hits the shelves, and his publishers sent out this promotional video that has the internet community all atwitter.

Christians everywhere watched this video and/or read a pre-review by a guy named Justin Taylor, who based his thoughts entirely on the editor’s notes on the book. People are decrying Bell for being a universalist – for believing that there is no hell and that everyone gets to go to heaven.

Rob has certainly created a buzz for his new book, and I have no doubt that it will be his best selling book to date because of it.

But let’s be honest. What did Rob actually say in this video? He doesn’t say anything. All he does is ask questions – good questions. We don’t really know what his answer will be, and at least one guy who has actually read the book insists that Bell does not come across as a universalist and affirms the basic tenets of Christian doctrine.

It is all very confusing, and unfortunately even the publication of the book won’t clarify much because a lot of people have already made up their minds and will only read the works of the pundits instead of reading the book itself.

Rob gets under people’s skin because he questions things we don’t like to question. He forces Christians to think, and unfortunately there are an awful lot of believers in this world who want to just accept things as they are given to them – without any critical thought or questioning. I can’t speak to Rob’s motives, and I often don’t agree with his conclusions, but I love the process.

We should absolutely being asking good questions of our faith. Why shouldn’t we? Our faith claims to originate with the work of the Spirit of God himself. If Christianity doesn’t stand up to honest questioning, then our claim of supernatural origin would certainly be tenuous, wouldn’t it?

Odds are good that I will buy this book. I usually get Rob’s books on audio because I can’t read his freestyle prose on the page. I’ll probably do some more posts on the book and consider what Rob has to say. I hope you’ll come back and check it out.