Tuesday, March 29, 2011

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


One of my favorite quotes from Karl Barth comes neither from his Church Dogmatics nor his commentary on Romans. Instead, it is his farewell address to his students in 1935 as he prepared to depart Nazi Germany.

“We have been studying cheerfully and seriously. As far as I was concerned it could have continued in that way, and I had already resigned myself to having my grave here by the Rhine! . . . And now the end has come. So listen to my piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the scripture that has been given to us” (Taken from the dedication page of Fee’s New Testament Exegesis).

I start with this quote because this is an area in which Bell’s book has some serious deficiencies. He simply is not careful in the way that he uses scripture. At times he uses scripture to prop up his ideas in the same way that a school play will create a stage. From the front it all looks fine. There might be a few blemishes here and there, but for the most part it communicates the setting of the story. A quick glance, perhaps from a distance, could give you the impression that this is a first rate production put together by those who clearly know what they are doing. But upon closer inspection you notice that the set is held together by masking tape and coat hangers. A well-aimed kick at just one of the props and the whole set is in danger of collapsing on itself.

The set the Rob Bell creates from the Bible looks “ok” and perhaps even “logical” with a quick glance from the distance. But the biggest hindrance to the way he reads scripture is his failure to observe context. Let me give you an example.

A major theme that Bell notices in the Bible and promotes in the book is the restoration of creation. This is true. Much of the Bible communicates God’s desire/plan to renew/restore creation. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8 that creation looks forward to that day. But Bell has used this theme to launch into a teaching that much (all?) of humanity will be saved because restoration is “always” a part of God’s plan. But his exegesis to support this simply does not stand up to a well-aimed kick.

For instance, on pp. 83-84 he rehearses the story of Abraham negotiating with God for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18). Bell notes that “for thousands of years ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ have served as a warning, an ominous sign, of just what happens when God decides to judge swiftly and decisively” (p. 83). He then jumps to another mention of Sodom and Gomorrah in Ezekiel 16:53-57 which he quotes as “God will ‘restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters’ and they will ‘return to what they were before.’” Bell concludes that this means that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not over and that where there was destruction there will be restoration (p. 84).

The problem, however, is that this is masking tape and coat hanger exegesis. Bell’s “quote” from Ezekiel is actually two phrases plucked from two different verses. It does not read as Bell has quoted it. Moreover, the context flies in the face of his reading. Ezekiel 16 is a pronouncement against Samaria in which God declares that Samaria has participated in and promoted evil to the extent that God will raise up Sodom and Gomorrah so that those two destroyed cities will be consoled about their own evil when they observe the evil of Samaria. This is not a promise of restoration, it is a rhetorical line of attack to demonstrate to the reader the extent of Samaria’s evil.

Bell does not stop with Ezekiel 16, however. He next turns to Matthew 10 where Jesus is sending the disciples on a preaching tour. In 10:15 Jesus tells the disciples not to worry about those villages that reject them “for it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for you.” Bell comments that Jesus is declaring these words in Matthew 10:15 to the village of Capernaum that was full of “highly committed, pious, religious people” (p. 84). This leads him to the conclusion that there is still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah and, therefore, there is hope for all the other Sodom and Gomorrah’s (p. 85).

Two problems with Bell’s reading here. First, he has misread Matthew 10:15 and conflated it with Matthew 11:23. Capernaum is not compared to Sodom in 10:15, but is in 11:23. So right away his interpretation is the result of a careless reading.

But even more perplexing is his conclusion. As in Ezekiel 16:53-57, Jesus is not holding hope and restoration for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. On the contrary, Jesus is, like Ezekiel, saying that the evil of these other villages/cities is to such a degree that Sodom and Gomorrah’s crime seem almost trivial. It is almost as if God would have to raise up Sodom and Gomorrah and apologize to them if God did not respond to the evil of these other cities.

Further undermining Bell’s, exegesis is the treatment of Sodom elsewhere in the New Testament. In 2 Peter 2:6 we read that God condemned those two cities to “extinction.” This does not sound like a promise of future restoration. Similarly, in Jude 7 we read that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah serve as an example to others of what God does to those who are evil. It simply cannot be supported in any way, from any of the scriptures that Bell quotes or doesn’t quote, that Sodom and Gomorrah is an example of God’s plan for restoring the creation. In reality, it serves to demonstrate just the opposite.

Finally, adding to his unfortunate use of scripture, Bell moves from his conclusions about Sodom and Gomorrah to providing a string of scripture verses in which God has promised restoration, reconciliation and return. He is correct. These statements are there. But the context makes all the difference in the world. These promises are not for a generic people. They are made to a specific people, to Israel and Judah. God’s chosen covenantal people. To suggest that these are timeless promises, to all peoples, that refer to the possibility that ultimately all people will restored to God regardless of their obedience or lack of obedience to God (which is what Bell ultimately suggests p. 91) is just not sustainable.

As I said in the introduction to this series, I commend Bell for asking some difficult questions. But I wish he had done his homework and done it well. He does himself and his readers a disservice by reading scripture in this way. Many of his scripture references that he is using to prop up his set are given without any reference to and or with any consideration of the context. The result is that one well-aimed kick topples the scenery.

As Karl Barth said, exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis!


  1. Thanks for this John. I think it gets incredibly complex when we attempt to create universal, timeless truth out of passages in the Bible. What's contextual and what's applicable for us? This should not scare us from tackling Scripture in such ways, it's just difficult...particularly when you must take a text in the Bible every week and prepare a sermon that applies in some way to the lives of the congregation. By far that is the biggest difference between sitting in a Seminary class and sitting in church. Maybe Bell needs to take a couple night classes to freshen up.

  2. Perhaps one of the most disappointing realities of Bell's handling of the text is he missed a huge "gimmie". The hospitality of God oozes from those stories, hospitality that offers redemption, connection, and belonging. Starting with Gen 18, the biblical hospitable model of welcome, restoration, dwelling, and dispatch are marked in each of those scripture passages in one way or another. In Bell's world, the welcoming by God to people who are then restored by God, to live in a place of love with God (and one another) should have been his crown jewel.

  3. The real question is: can you sustain Bell's thesis with good exegesis?

  4. Peter,

    In the end I have to conclude no. I think the questions need to be asked in spite of the biblical witness, but, at this point, I am not sure his arguments hold any exegetical water.

  5. Great post - looking forward to the rest!


  6. Great post, John. Bell's lexical studies often baffle me, and his use of spotty words studies shows up quite often in his sermons. Look forward to future posts!

  7. To be fair, Bell was dealing with post-death theology, an area of discussion which most schools of thought don't even allow. Since death is the finish line no further discussion is needed.

    In this part of the book Bell was looking beyond that closed door and offering some after-life possibilities, restoration of all things and everyone being one of them. I agree with you. I don't think he got it right but we shouldn't be surprised that he "suggested" a few ideas that are questionable.

    Take these exegetical issues out of the mix, however, and we are still left with a big question which Bell did logically sustain, "Is death final?" and if not then what?

    1. Yes, I agree. My beef with Bell is not that he asked the questions. If you read my first post I applaud him for it. But what disappointed me is that he did such a poor job of doing it. If one is going to raise important questions like this it should be done well.

      Thanks for reading,