Forum Discussion of Rob Bell’s Love Wins Out
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Thursday March 17, 2011
Dr. R. Albert Mohler (President, SBTS), Dr. Denny Burk (Dean, Boyce College), Dr. Russell Moore (Academic Dean, SBTS), and Justin Taylor (Crossway Books, blog – www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor)
This week, Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, was released to the reading public. Rob Bell is the preaching pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in, a congregation of close to 10,000. His podcasts are followed by additional tens of thousands, while his thought-provoking short video series (NOOMA) have been widely disseminated in the North American Church. Rob Bell is a leading figure in ‘Emergent Christianity,’ an amorphous and diverse group which includes both a protest against the perceived ‘dead orthodox’ of much American fundamentalist evangelicalism and a positive projection of a vibrant personal commitment to following Jesus.
Many evangelical leaders have expressed concerns over the general direction of Bell’s moving theological commitments over the past several years. When Bell’s new book project began to be publicized, concerns heightened.
On Thursday, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary hosted a forum discussion focusing on Bell’s book. This blog post will summarize and expand upon that forum discussion.
The forum included four high-powered evangelical leaders. (1) R. Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (as well as a professor of systematic theology there), has been identified as one of the leading conservative evangelical voices in the world. He has been the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary since 1993, overseeing a significant theological return to SBTS’s conservative orthodox roots. (2) Russell Moore is the Academic Dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (as well as professor of systematic theology). Moore is a prolific author, blogger, and twitterer (is that even a word?), and another powerful young voice in conservative evangelicalism. (3) Denny Burk is the dean of Boyce College, the undergraduate institution associated with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (they share campus space as well as library resources). (4) Justin Taylor works with Crossway Books, and blogs with the ‘Gospel Coalition.’
Mohler, Moore, Burk, and Taylor engaged in a spirited 90-minute discussion of Bell’s book, with Mohler acting as facilitator and moderator of the dialogue. In this blog posting, I will share the essence of the forum – the various questions and issues that were addressed, some memorable quotes that were uttered, and some acute insights into Bell’s project and arguments.
I need to make it clear that I have not yet read Bell’s book. I was not one of the favored few to receive an advance copy to read, digest, and ruminate upon. My Amazon copy is on its way to my house as we speak. I intend to blog about the book as I work through it in the coming month (but, as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions … but then again, given the subject matter of Bell’s book, that may be a moot point anyway). But for now, my awareness of the book’s contents are limited to hearsay, others’ reviews, and the fascinating forum this week.
The fantastic four began with a discussion of the publicity (advertising) for Bell’s book. A month ago, Taylor received the ‘back cover’ (advance) copy of Bell’s book, and was shocked how strongly it sounded like universalism. On February 26, he received HarperCollins’ promotional video, based on the Preface of the book. In the video, Bell raised issues in a way that seemed to confirm that he was moving his ministry and theology strongly towards universalism.
Mohler characterized Bell’s advertising for the book as ‘A Theological Strip-Tease’ – the video was extremely effective in raising issues while not exposing the naked theology underneath. The video was from the preface, which posed a series of questions. The questions, however, were not neutral or simple questions; rather, they were leading or rhetorical questions that were actually assertions. (Examples of such leading or rhetorical questions, which launch accusations or make assertions more than they genuinely ask questions: ‘Have you stopped beating your wife yet?’ ‘Are you still hooked on internet porn?’ ‘Is Barack Obama secretly a fanatical Muslim terrorist?) Those questions were what set off the controversy.
Bell asked the questions (old questions that have been raised numerous times in the church’s past) in a new way. “If Gandhi is in hell, can God be trusted?” Bell loves the Socratic style of dialogue, which is absolutely legitimate. However, as Mohler stated: “The publicity insinuates things about God that cannot be taken back, even if the book had come back full of orthodoxy.” If one asks in a publicity video, and the preface of a book: ‘Is Barack Obama secretly a fanatical Muslim terrorist?’, one has planted seeds of doubt in the minds of the readers/viewers. Aspersion has been cast upon Obama’s person and character. Even if one eventually answers the question: ‘No, Obama is not a fanatical Muslim terrorist; he’s just a nice guy who is open to other religions’, the initial framing of the questions has prejudiced the audience is a particular direction—they will never look at Obama the same way again.
In the view of the forum’s four, Bell’s publishing strategy was designed to plant seeds of doubt in people’s minds – in Taylor’s words, Bell wanted people to conclude: “what you ‘know’ about God is not exactly true.” All published authors naturally want publicity for their books, but in Mohler’s opinion, not at that cost.
Mohler suggested that – “there are ways of asking questions that aren’t ethical.” I tend to agree, and wonder whether Bell has crossed that boundary with Love Wins. Moore accuses Bell of using “a subtlety of speech that God forbids us from using.” In some ways, Bell follows the model of Jesus in asking questions of his audience. However, Jesus’ questions help illuminate the answer; as opposed to Bell’s way of asking questions that obscure the answer.
The next topic of conversation concerned stewardship of influence – Bell is the pastor of a large church and larger public following. As the apostle James warns, teachers will be judged according to a stricter standard, for they have influence over the theology (and thereby over the eternal destiny) of their followers. It was refreshing to hear the panelists universally affirm Bell’s honesty, sincerity, motivation, and love for people. There is no doubt in their minds that Bell thinks he is doing a good thing, and teaching important truth. In Mohler’s words, “I am not questioning his motivation. … [But] what we have to deal with is the message.”
The panelists also affirmed that (in Mohler’s words again – he did talk the most, as he was the moderator), “There are parts of the book that we agree with.” Some of the criticisms of the evangelical church in the emergent movement are legitimate, and we would agree with them. “Many Christians misunderstand the question of hell.” (Mohler) Bell pokes holes in the popular Christian misconception of heaven and our resurrected state which present the afterlife as being, in Burk’s words, “Caspar the friendly ghost in heaven.” It is important to emphasize that this is not orthodox historic Christian resurrection belief, which instead emphasizes the resurrection of the body.
WHO IS GOD?
Burk opened discussion of the nature of Rob Bell’s God: “The question behind the question is: Who is this God? And the God he’s portraying and the God of orthodoxy are very different.”
Moore emphasized that Bell is right in saying that “There are many Christians who do not understand that God is love.” A typical caricature of the Gospel (which I have gotten tired of hearing consistently in my doctoral research on John Dominic Crossan’s work) goes like this: the Father is against us and hates us and wants to kill us because we have broken a few rules; the Son is for us and tries to protect us from the Father’s wrath. Instead of hurting us, God killed His own Son in our place so that Jesus can save us from that horrible destiny. Bell, like so many others, takes those caricatures and makes them the reality that he is fighting against in evangelical orthodoxy.
It is important to note two things. (1) The panel is correct that this is a typical caricature of the Christian Gospel, and that many lay Christians hold that position. It is essential that pastors, scholars, and public Christian figures put that notion of the Gospel to rest and replace it with a biblical, orthodox Gospel message instead. However, (2) to my knowledge, no leading Christian scholar or teacher or preacher actually promotes that vision of the Gospel. I have heard it amongst confused people in the pew; but more than that, I have read it and heard it repeatedly coming from the lips of liberals, critical scholars, and emergent church leaders, presenting the caricature as if it was the official position. That misleading and highly prejudicial presentation needs to be countered with the truth that leading evangelical figures teach a Gospel which is much more nuanced and biblically-faithful than the perversion presented by Bell (and Crossan and countless other critics). The Christian Gospel is a Gospel which fuses the love of God with the justice and holiness of God – but our panelists will get to that later.
Evangelical superficiality, evangelical confusion – all these are legitimate targets of criticism. The forum participants lamented that Bell did not raise those problems and then address them from a biblical theological perspective – he could have done a great service to the Church of Jesus Christ. Instead, he raised fringe positions as if they were mainstream, ridiculed them, and then proposed an anti-biblical position as a replacement.
WHAT IS ROB BELL’S CENTRAL ARGUMENT IN THIS BOOK?
Mohler opened the discussion of Bell’s central argument by expressing his frustration that it is often difficult to discern exactly what Bell is trying to argue – not just in Love Wins, but in much of his work. Nonetheless, each of the panelists took a stab at identifying Bell’s primary thesis.
Taylor – “God has one attribute … God is love, he forgives everybody, everybody is already accepted; the divide in humanity is whether or not you recognize this or not.” The point is not that you have to be forgiven, but that you already are forgiven. “Even if you open a hell that is of your own making, you have plenty of time later to accept forgiveness and the gates of heaven are open to you.” Bell’s primary thesis is the presentation of a one-dimensional picture of God; he sadly neglects the effects of the Fall, the sinfulness of man.
Burk – “God is love. He is not a God of wrath. There is not, finally, any punitive retributive justice. … Hell is a place of remediation. … God is not committed to His holiness.” There is no room for the wrath of God in Bell’s theology.
Moore – “Central theme is missional, evangelistic. Bell insists that people can’t receive the God we are talking about. If (from a contemporary cultural perspective) something is wrong with your God, if He is loving one minute and judging the next …” then nothing can hide that fact over. Therefore, Moore says that Bell suggests: “Let’s remove what is offensive and scandalous so that people can become Christians.”
I want to make an additional comment at this point. What Moore accuses Bell of doing has been done since the very birth of the church. I agree wholeheartedly with Moore’s grief over Bell removing offensive Christian doctrines in order to make the Gospel palatable to people in a non-Christian worldview. I acknowledge the importance of making the Gospel culturally-understandable; that is, presenting the truths of God in a way that people today can comprehend what God is saying to them. However, it is a core violation of Scripture to alter the clear teaching of Scripture on the basis of cultural opposition to that doctrine. There have been many examples throughout church history of well-meaning Christians (like Bell) altering doctrine (or removing texts of Scripture altogether) in order to make Christianity more marketable to the public at large. I think of second-century Gnostic Christians, who redefined the resurrection in terms of the Platonic concept of soul-liberation or soul-ascent in order to better-fit the predominant Greco-Roman afterlife worldview. I think of the 18th- and 19th-century liberalist revisions of the Gospels to remove the miraculous healings (and the bodily resurrection), or to naturalistically explain them away, in order to better fit the increasingly materialistic, naturalistic, non-supernatural worldview of the Western world. Bell has an earnest, honest desire to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and bring them into a saving relationship with God. Sadly, he believes that in order for people to come to faith in Christ, he needs to revise (or entirely do away with) some central Christian doctrines. More on that later …
Mohler – “Velvet hell. A cushioning of the whole idea of sin and punishment and evil. … On every page, he was trying to say, ‘It’s Okay.’ There’s a sense in which we desperately want to say that. But on what basis can you say, ‘It’s okay.’ … the promises of God to us are only true in Christ. The Gospel is about how they become true for us. It’s impossible for me to imagine the Apostle Paul simply saying, ‘It’s okay.’ And that’s profoundly not what Jesus said.” The central argument of the book heads in the exact wrong direction.
I think Mohler places his finger on the central problem of the book. The Good News of Jesus Christ can only be understood and embraced if we have understood the Bad News of human sin, rebellion, and alienation from God. We are reconciled through Christ—but that means there is something we have to be reconciled from. This requires a much more robust vision of sin and justice than Bell presents in Love Wins.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK
Mohler moved the discussion to the structure of Love Wins, opening by insisting that “There are very few absolute assertions that Bell makes in this book.” Instead, Bell engages in theology by suggestion – the suggestive mode of theological argumentation. Nonetheless, Mohler identifies two absolutes in Bell’s theology: (1) God is love; (2) We have total freedom (in this age and in the next). Being a Reformed institution, the second absolute really rubs our panelists the wrong way!
All four forum participants affirmed that mainstream evangelicals also believe that God is love. Two of them pointed to 1 John’s presentation of love. In that context, they noted that John also says God is light, warns that there is a spirit of Christ and a spirit of the antichrist; warns against idols, etc. In other words, John sees far more than a one-dimensional God of love. John does not see a distinction between a God who is love and a God who is just. Moore said: “It seems to me that he is defining God by love rather than defining love by God.” The reverse of what John does in 1 John 4. There, we are told that we know what love is by what God has done in and through Jesus Christ.
Mohler insisted: “The Bible says categorically, unconditionally, that God is love … and holy … and just … and righteous. … We are not talking about a God who is divisible into a love part, a gracious part, etc. … Rather, God is infinitely” all of these attributes. I think that is a necessary and helpful corrective, not just to Bell, but to many partial presentations of the God of the Bible. God cannot be reduced to just one of His attributes – His holiness, justice, wrath, mercy, love, goodness, purity, infinity, omniscience, sovereignty, omnipotence, foreknowledge, relationality, etc. God is multi-faceted, but his characteristics are all fused within a holistic being who is simply, indivisible, and absolutely united.
Burk pointed audience members also to Romans 5:8 – This is God’s love; how God demonstrates His love. God’s love in Romans 5 is integrally connected with the sacrificial death of Jesus – His bearing the righteous punishment for sin on our behalf. God’s love is always connected with His holiness, His wrath, His justice. They’re never separated. Burk reminded us that “God demonstrates his love through a sacrifice, the very kind of sacrifice which is denied in Bell’s book.”
In response, Mohler noted that: “If love means that everything is okay, I do not see how this comes close to the Gospel in the beginning, middle, or end.” As Christian teachers and preachers, we are (or at least should be) constrained to see redemption through the biblical story-line; Bell feels no such compulsion, and creates his own story-line. Taylor – “John Newton could not have written Amazing Grace if he did not have an understanding of his own wretchedness, the wrath that he was under. … The irony is that Bell misses out on how great the love of God really is … how great it is to receive undeserved mercy.”
Mohler retorted: “If you believe this book, you cannot sing most of the hymns that we cherish, because there is no need for the cross, there is no need for the substitution, there is no need for mercy.” Indeed, what place does the cross have in Bell’s theology? This is something that the panelists struggled to identify – I’m guessing because it’s simply not discussed in the book. If there is no place for Christ’s atoning sacrifice, then can one sing Amazing Grace, The Wonderful Cross, or even Holy Holy Holy? Mohler insisted that the Bible has no difficult in laying out a God who is loving and also pours out His wrath – Romans 3 being a pre-eminent example.
Burk then stressed inner meaning of the Cross. “You and I deserved an eternity of wrath in hell that would be unending. … The Bible is teaching that all the wrath that was due to us, God emptied out onto His Son on the Cross … the heart of the atonement is … seeing what God had to overcome to save you.”
One of the struggles, the panelists noted, is that when we think of wrath we think of rage and anger – a sinful, fleshly response that we have. That is not biblical wrath. God’s wrath is “settled in his opposition to sin.” (Moore) We have a tendency to think of love as a feeling, an indulgence; the Bible tells us to love the way that God loves, in accordance with His justice, actively – NOT in feeling/emotion/thinking alone.
In conclusion, Mohler noted: “If we begin with the fundamental assumption that to speak of God’s wrath is wrong … then we can’t do any better than Rob Bell.”
Mohler suggests that the most interesting question Bell asks is: “Does God get what God wants?” Mohler sees contradictory answers in Love Wins. On the one hand, Bell immediately and absolutely says ‘yes’ – and what God wants is for all to come to repentance and be saved (for none to be condemned). However, if one holds a position that says some people end up in hell, then we must say no, because God wants all people to be saved. On the other hand, Mohler notes that Bell turns that argument on its head by insisting that God will not violate or overturn human’s absolute autonomy. In that case, Bell’s answer seems to be ‘No, God does not get what God wants.’ Because some people may decide to stay in hell. Bell can (and apparently does) insist that nobody would finally do that because of the obvious wonders and rewards of heaven and the irrationality of choosing an eternity of self-torment in a redefined hell. However, just because we cannot understand why someone would freely choose to spend an eternity separated from God does not mean that someone would actually freely choose just that. After all, in classic Christian doctrine, Adam and Eve had no rational reason to rebel against God in the garden of Eden, yet chose to do so. If one takes C. S. Lewis quite straightforwardly, then people irrationally choose to lock themselves into hell despite knowing precisely what they are giving up and getting themselves into.
I personally do not understand why women choose to remain in abusive relationships with wife-beaters. I do not understand why grown, mature, otherwise rational and wise men choose to coat their lungs with toxic tar by smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. They know what it will lead to, but do it anyway. Romans 1:18-20 suggest that people see the glory of God, but choose to reject God, suppressing the truth and replacing God with a pale substitute.
In other words, Bell does indeed have a contradiction at the heart of his argument. Does God get what God wants? It seems the only way for God to get that (i.e., in Bell’s view, for all to be saved ultimately) is by over-ruling absolute autonomous human freedom – but that is the second of Bell’s theological absolutes, and therefore unbreakable.
Thus, Taylor identifies Bell as “an inconsistent universalist.” Bell argues both that God will melt the heart of the hardest skeptic and rebel; and that God will not overrule the will. Burk insists that Bell lays out an irreconcilable contradiction: God both will and will not get what He wants.
Moore accuses Bell of making Lewis’ Great Divorce (an allegory) into a realized eschatological picture of the afterlife. Bell moves away from sanctification, and from the biblical language that there is a limited time of decision within which to accept the Gospel. Moreover, given Bell’s view of human autonomy, might not some decide they don’t like heaven, and would prefer hell.
Before discussing Bell’s understanding of hell, Mohler suggested it was necessary to talk about the nature of heaven. First, he noted that Christians do have many misconceptions of heaven; Bell deals with them, albeit “snarkily.” Bell further insinuates that “an eternity that is all about the glory of God is somehow boring.”
Moore noted that “Many Christians are dreading heaven because they picture it as a choir practice that never ends.” The unspoken concern: “is heaven going to be something less? Am I going to have something precious taken away from me?” But Bell is similarly fuzzy – “I am not sure what Bell actually sees happening in heaven … he uses the language of restoration, but it’s fuzzy.”
Taylor identifies Bell’s gospel story-line. “I don’t think you can find a single place in the book where sin is defined as an offense against an infinite holy God.”
Mohler quoted p. 172, and noted that Bell’s theology “Begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved. … In spite of … [everything] sins, etc. … God has made peace with us.” I agree with that, but as Mohler insisted: “I believe more than that.” The Gospel is never presented as good news apart from Christ, and what has done for us in and through Christ. Apart from Christ, we are dead in our trespasses.
Burk notes that “Sin is on the horizontal plane in the book.” Bell sees hell as how people have offended one another, not an offense against God. Hence, again, there is no place for the substitutionary atonement of Christ; no need for his death on the cross.
Finally, Mohler moved the panel to a discussion of hell proper. Taylor said that Bell’s “hell is something we create for ourselves. … Punishment is not something that comes from God to people, but is rather reaping the consequences of sins we have committed on earth.” No sense of punishment, no sense of justice; subjective experience. Some people will be in heaven but experience it as hell. When they choose to stop experiencing it as hell, they will wake up and find that they are already in heaven.
Moore suggested that Bell’s hell is a continuing experience of suffering for wrongdoing; but eventually it will accomplish its purpose, which is to refine us and restore our peace with God.
What’s missing? Finality. Judgment. No judicial verdict. Mohler – “The Bible is very clear that God is not only just, but judge.” A dual verdict is presented throughout Scripture.
Moore noted that Bell is right to “get the horror of the reality of hell.” We ought to recoil against the notion of hell. (Personally, I was pleased to hear Moore emphasize the horrendous nature of hell, and remind us that such a notion ought to bother us, making us sick to our stomach.) “People who rejoice that there is a hell are missing the mind of God.” But Bell also misses the horror of human sin and rebellion against God.
Taylor suggested that Bell “begins with heaven and peace as the default, whereas the Bible begins with the default that we are fallen through Adam.” Bell begins with the wrong default position, with grave consequences: the biblical position is what makes the Gospel grace so sweet and precious. “Your answer is determined by where you start the story.”
C. S. Lewis once noted that he understood long before he was a Christian that “If there is a God, and if He is good, then He must punish sin.” Bell misses that. Our conscience already understands the reality of hell and judgment. “In order to understand the notion of God’s grace, we need to understand His justice.” If there is no judgment, there is no grace.
Moore – in the NT, “the scandal is not that some people are in hell. … the scandal is how God can redeem anyone and still be just.”
So, is Rob Bell a universalist? Bell prefers the word inclusivism. What do the two terms mean?
Burk defined universalism – “everyone ends up in a state of blessedness.” Everyone ends up in heaven/nirvana/Isle of the Blessed, etc. In universalism, Mohler notes, “In the end there is no one who is outside the redemptive power of God.” It doesn’t matter how you get there; you’ll get there.
Inclusivism, meanwhile, maintains that you are saved only through Jesus Christ, but one does not have to have personal knowledge of Christ. You can follow whatever path you are following, but find out at the end that you were really trusting in Jesus (who you knew as Allah/Krishna, etc.). This seems to be Bell’s position.
Mohler closed by suggesting that “Bell is an inclusivist when he talks about the means, but a universalist when he talks about the ends.” Jesus saves, but he saves everyone.
Again, I have not yet read Love Wins – I fully intend to do so over the coming month, and to share some of my thoughts in the process. In the meantime, given the intense controversy and publicity surrounding the book at the outset, I felt it was worthwhile to share the content of the forum discussion of Bell’s book to bring it to your awareness.
One of the sad by-products of this process, which will probably come to fruition after I have actually read the book, is that I feel like I will no longer be able to endorse Rob Bell’s teaching materials, including the NOOMA videos – many of which I have used and continue to admire as helpful and thought-provoking. It’s not that I would consider the NOOMA videos heretical or sinful and thereby worthy of a good ol-fashioned book-burning (I don’t approve of such things anyways).
Rather, I would not want to mislead anyone into thinking that Rob Bell is a trustworthy biblical teacher. If he has truly moved into a universalistic denial of redemption, the power of the cross, the atonement of Christ, the reality of post-mortem dual judgment – then Rob Bell has moved beyond the bounds of orthodox Christianity, and can no longer be looked at as a trusted teacher. That would indeed be a sad day for evangelical Christianity, for Bell is undoubtedly a gifted communicator, a passionate preacher, and could have been an incredible minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for decades more. But it is impossible to be a minister of the Gospel of Jesus if you deny both the need for and the content of that Gospel.