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Heaven, Hell & The Theology of Rob Bell

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Not having read Rob Bell's book yet (it's on the way), I can only respond to what I have seen and heard: his own statements in interviews and the quotes from pre-publication copies carefully and thoughtfully reviewed by Tim Challies and Kevin DeYoung. [UPDATE: Mike has received his copy of Love Wins and has written a more in depth review here].

On the merits of the case so far (as much as I've heard), I'm inclined to dismiss this latest critique of hell as warmed-over liberalism.  I'm not being mean and sweepingly judgmental here.  Seriously, read Schleiermacher's The Christian Faith, Albrecht Ritschl's The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, not to mention other works by Wilhelm Herrmann, Adolf Harnack, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Bishop John Spong, or Brian McLaren, and you have the basic gist.  

That basic scheme goes like this: God's only attribute is love; his holiness, righteousness, and justice have to be adjusted to this central dogma.  Human beings are not deserving of God's wrath, but only of his encouragement and empowerment to improve.  Jesus Christ is primarily a moral teacher, who invites us to share in his vision of creating "a kingdom of ethical righteousness" (Ritschl's phrase, basically from Immanuel Kant). Since there is no divine justice to satisfy or wrath to propitiate, the cross cannot be represented as a vicarious substitution of "the Lamb of God" for sinners.  Since there is no objective condemnation, there can be no objective justification.  Since everyone is a child of God, there can be no adoption.  The church is merely the community of volunteers for the kingdom-building enterprise.  Heaven and hell are as subjective as sin and redemption: it all depends on what you make of your life right now. Yale's H.Richard Niebuhr captured the essence of liberal religion in this fine description: "A God without wrath brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross."  

However, the initial impulse to pass over Rob Bell's book is thwarted by the fact that he is a professing evangelical and his views are indicative of a growing trend.  He is not a professor at Harvard Divinity School, but senior pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church.  No doubt, he's reacting to popular images of heaven and hell that have little connection or analogy to our world as we know it.  Where Jesus and Paul speak of "two ages": "this age" (under the reign of sin and death) versus "the age to come" (under the reign of righteousness and life), the popular imagination of many Christians for over a millennium has been closer to Plato's "two worlds": the upper realm of disembodied souls and the lower realm of embodied and historical existence.  In this view, salvation is ultimately the release of the soul from the prison-house of the body, while in the biblical view salvation is completed when we are raised bodily unto everlasting life.  In that day, the vertical boundaries between heaven and earth disappear, as is evident in the Apocalypse.  There are many issues that conservative evangelicals need to address in order to weed the garden of low-grade paganism, but they are far less serious than the high-grade paganism that drives moderns to fashion a deity who is other than the one we actually encounter in the pages of Scripture. The biggest issue that the latest controversy reveals is not really whether hell exists.  To be sure, we need to challenge the latest examples of Scripture-twisting with respect to the clear teaching of Jesus himself on hell.  However, there are even larger questions that denials of hell such as Bell's raise.  Who is God?  Who are we?  What is our relationship to God? For what can we hope?  What do words like "sin," "redemption," "Jesus Christ," "kingdom" mean in the biblical drama?  It's not just a matter of tinkering with a traditional doctrine, but with the very meaning of God's grace and justice in the cross of Christ.  Everything is at stake in this question, especially given the underlying dogmas that Rob Bell, from what I've already seen, allows to control his thinking on this subject.

Listen to a special BONUS edition of the White Horse Inn featuring a discussion of the Rob Bell controversy and featuring special guest Kevin DeYoung:

[audio:http://www.whitehorseinn.org/whiarchives/2011bonuswhiheavenhell.mp3 |titles=WHI Bonus|artists=White Horse Inn]

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  • I feel unsure that you actually read the books by the people you mentioned. I'm not sure that any of those people would say that Jesus was 'primarily a moral teacher,' or that, 'God's only attribute is love.' I've read some of them, and they don't say that, and they say things that would contradict those characterizations. If you've read them, why would you say that when you know it's not true? Really? I mean have you thought about why you're doing this? Have you considered who you might be hurting? Have you considered that you might be the one you're hurting?
    For some historical roots behind Rob Bell's argument read the blog post that I wrote tonight.
    http://g0spel0fj0hn.com/2011/03/19/love-wins-by-rob-bell-initial-thoughts-2/

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  • [...] of heaven and hell that have little connection or analogy to our world as we know it.”  –Heaven, Hell & The Theology of Rob Bell by Michael Horton  Mar.15, [...]

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  • Guest - DWatson

    Love Won

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  • Guest - Dan Daniel

    If one is interested in the actual beliefs of those members of the body of Christ who believe that ultimately, "when the times will have reached their fulfillment", that ALL things, (actually ALL things) in heaven and on earth will be brought together under one head, even Christ; when ALL will be made alive, even as ALL died in Adam; after a just and appropriate age of punishment in Hell, where there will indeed be weeping and gnashing of teeth...if you would like to read a good summation of that interpretation of scripture, I recommend the book: "The Inescapable Love of God" by Thomas Talbott.

    That book really does a better job of dealing with these issues in a thorough way than Bell's book I think.

    Finally, I have heard countless leaders of our faith denounce Bell's understanding as a distortion of the gospel of Christ. Since when did the interpretation that Hell was an eternal place of conscious torment, with no possibility of any different outcome become a part of "the gospel"? That detailed and systematic theologically derived view of hell was certainly not a part of "the gospel" preached in Acts. It is odd that not one of the "gospel" sermons in Acts threaten this. We all preach Christ and Him crucified as the only Way to Life. How we view the ultimate outcome of those in Hell doesn't change, distort or take away from the gospel of Christ. Rather, I think those who insist on this specific interpretation as an integral part of the gospel of Christ are the ones who are distorting or adding to the gospel.

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  • Guest - DofG

    There is a maxim that states: "The greatest evil in the world is that Man is teacher of Man!" In this sense, "evil" is not meant to express our usual use of the word, but as a misapplication of choice, and/or, energy. The reason for this is that first, and foremost, it has been expressed by other, more ancient, concepts of God, that there has never been a "beginning". Thus, the absolute state of being, or existence, can ever be fully explained. This leaves each individual expression of the (One) Universal Soul, uniquely alone with their own abilites, understanding and efforts towards revelations of Self! Unfortunately, the concept of a "beginning" has proven to be a useful utility of Man to control the individual from without; for "beginnings" require explanations, or narratives, and those who will follow them!

    I would suggest, for those with an open mind, reading the gospel of St. Thomas, which is part of the apocryphal texts. Also, it must be understood that the "devil" is merely the extant personication of the human ego. Refer to "Satan"- Khalil Gibran, and "Cloud Upon The Sanctuary"- Karl Von Eckartshausen.

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  • I have heard Rob Bell through some of his NOOMA videos. A pastor at the church I currently attend brought in Bell's book SEX GOD for the Sunday school class to go through a few years ago. After reading and hearing Rob Bell, I will go so far as to wonder whether or not this man actually knows what real saving faith is at all.

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  • Guest - Gage Browning

    Dan,
    You said, \We all preach Christ and Him crucified as the only Way to Life.\ Really? That's a huge assumption. Especially if one is now preaching some kind of weird (semi-universalism\. You also said, \ How we view the ultimate outcome of those in Hell doesn’t change, distort or take away from the gospel of Christ.\ It does Dan if there is no justice! We are saved from the \Wrath to Come!\ If there is no wrath, then logically Dan, there is no need for a Savior, only a need for a good moral example, which could be anyone! Then you said, \Rather, I think those who insist on this specific interpretation as an integral part of the gospel of Christ are the ones who are distorting or adding to the gospel.\ It is an integral part of the Doctrine of God, THe doctrine of HOly Scripture, and if there is no need to distinguish between correct doctrine, on something like how a man escapes damnation, or ultimately goes to heaven anyway, then Dan, we don't have Christianity. It is a vital part of the Christian faith to believe in a Hell, that our Lord said existed, and was preparted for the Devil and His angels, and was a place where the smoke of their torment rises, and the worm dyeth not! Dan this is a non-negotiable. It is so basic. If you don't have a Biblical hell, it's because you don't have a Biblical doctrine of Scripture, or a Biblical Doctrine of God.

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  • Guest - Dan Daniel

    Gage, God's justice is satisfied by the shed blood of Christ. I believe in Hell. I take it very seriously. I have a feeling that if any of us were to spend one day in Hell, much less eternity, completely separated from God we might conclude that justice and wrath poured out on finite creatures does have limits. Fortunately for me, and you, our ultimate fate and the fate of the entire world will be determined by a just and loving God who has poured His wrath out in its entirety on His only begotten Son. No creature will ever experience Hell as Jesus did. I understand that we differ in our interpretation of this, but I believe that the Bible clearly teaches that Christ came to save the world, and I believe and rejoice in the my faith in the God who will ultimately do just that. If I'm wrong about that, then I pray that the blood of Christ will cover that. If you are wrong, then I believe the blood of Christ will cover that too. If this position places me outside of the camp where I cannot receive Christian fellowship from some, then so be it. And I applaud Rob Bell for having the courage of his convictions to address this subject.

    And I say again, when the gospel was preached over and over in Acts, go find where your clear interpretaion of Hell was included as an integral part of the gospel message.

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  • Here is the elephant in the room for Bell and his defenders. It seems to me that the goal of Bell is defend a specific "God" that he thinks exists. He tells us God is love and everything else about God must be understood through Bell's definition of love. And so, away with wrath, and eternal punishment, and the like. However, Bell also tells us that the true story of Jesus has been hijacked, for centuries now I suppose. So here is my question: how could a loving God (as defined by Bell) ever send anyone into fire (albeit temporary) because they rejected, in essence, the WRONG story of Jesus. Isn't Bell rejecting that story too? How could a loving God punish anyone, for even a second, because they refused to accept what Bell defines as the psuedo Jesus story?

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  • [...] Mike Horton interviews DeYoung on White Horse Inn regarding Love Wins. Heres what I gleaned from Hortons interview of Kevin DeYoung: [...]

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