Monday, March 28, 2011

Love Wins: My Thoughts on an attempt at asking some important questions (Part I)

This is a topic I would not normally blog about. Bell’s book is of a more popular nature and my focus is usually on other areas. However, since the promotional video was released in late February followed by tweets declaring the end of Rob Bell, I knew that I would be asked by my some of my students and others for my opinion. Thus I thought it prudent, unlike many of those who criticized Bell prior to the book’s release, that I should at least read it and provide some feedback. So today begins a four or five part series looking at the book. While I may blog on others things here and there this week, this will be the focus for the week.

I do want to mention one important disclaimer. What I do over the next few days is not intended to be a full blown review of Bell’s book. There is a lot in this book to discuss, too much for a one-off blog post. And as I will make clear at the end, that is one of the weaknesses of the book. In my opinion, Bell has bitten off more than he or his readers possibly can be expected to chew in one book (barely 200 pages long, some of which have as little as 150 words on a page). Much, much more can and should be said. I have three areas which I want to address as they relate to Bell’s book: exegesis, the concept of hell and the salvation of humanity. Beginning tomorrow, each one of these areas will be the focus of my daily blogging.

But for today, before I begin engaging the book, let me lay out some of general thoughts about the questions Bell is asking and the controversy that his book has stirred.

First of all, I appreciate the questions Bell is raising. I particularly appreciate that he is doing this in his role as pastor and finding a way to interact with those in the pew. Too often these difficult questions are not discussed in the church, but rather in the halls of universities and seminaries and rarely are the “laity” given a place at the table. Truth be told, many, many people in the pew have wondered about the nature of heaven and hell and if a loving God would really send someone to hell forever. The problem , however, is no space is made for these questions and in those rare times when someone does ask such questions they are usually shot down and, as in the case of Bell, threatened with the label of “heretic.” I am not sure when the asking of questions became a crime against orthodoxy, as in the case of a young pastor in North Carolina who lost his job for expressing his doubts and questions. My occupation requires that I ask such questions. If I don’t, I won’t learn. All of us should be allowed the space, time and freedom to ask questions. No matter how threatening they might appear to be.

Let me also say that I don’t think that Rob Bell is a “heretic.” That word is thrown around too often without caution. When we label someone a “heretic” so quickly and easily we cheapen the word and gut it of its meaning. A similar example is found in the way some people throw around the labels “Nazi,” or “Hitler.” These are serious labels that are encoded with historical meaning and significance that should, by their very nature, be used sparingly. Those who are using this book as an opportunity to declare the end of Rob Bell and are gathering firewood for his pyre look more like the witch burners in Monty Python’s Holy Grail than serious inquisitors who want to interact honestly with hard questions.

Finally, I stand in agreement with Bell and his critique of the modern “Gospel Message.” Too, too often the Gospel is sold as nothing more than fire insurance, an escape plan from the punishment and torments of Hell. In reality, as Bell points out, Jesus has much more to say about living a life for God here and now than he does about the possibility of what things look like on the other side. And that includes both heaven and hell. Much to our chagrin, there is more information in the Bible about what we are supposed to do and how we are expected to act now than about what we “get” or where we “go” once we die. Whatever I and others may identify as the shortcomings of Bell’s book, his attempt to make us think about living the Gospel now; the need to experience the kingdom of God here; is to be commended and given serious consideration.

With that, I leave you till tomorrow when I will begin to look at the exegesis that Bell has used to answer the questions he is asking.


  1. Looking forward to reading your comments. The amount of discussion this book has generated (also in Scandinavia, for some reason)seems almost unreal. I mean, it's not like the questions are new...

  2. The questions may not be new, but asking them in a public forum is. These issues, and others that the emergent church are asking, are hot button issues; especially in the Evangelical western church. I agree with Dr. Byron in that we are too often quick to offer pithy spiritual platitudes or totally dismiss the hard questions that come up in the church. Yeah, scholars ask them, but the discussion rarely makes it into the church at large.

  3. Good stuff, John. I'll stay tuned!

  4. I also found Bell's questions far more potent than the shallow answers he gave. I'm glad you're going to cover the exegesis (or lack thereof), but in addition to that I found his thoughts very undeveloped. Do you think he was pressured to just publish and ride on his popularity for the book's success?

  5. Erik,

    I am not sure. I have read a bit of Bell's other work and have the same complaints. He has some good and important ideas. But he doesn't seem to go the distance to answer those questions.

  6. "Finally, I stand in agreement with Bell and his critique of the modern “Gospel Message.”"

    I find myself frustrated by the fact that the relevant section of the book that dealt with this really seemed to be a less well-written copy of N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope. The level of dependency from his work to Wright's would not be acceptable in an academic paper. Even with adequate citation, such a work would be rightly criticized for being unoriginal.

  7. Nice post. I look forward to reading more.