Last night I attended Rob Bell Live, which was an interview by his publisher for the release of his book Love Wins. I went on a tweet binge dialoguing his thoughts and wanted to share my opinion from being there. I’m glad I was there. It was a mixture of supporters & dissenters, people who enjoyed the way Rob describes his ideas & those who have no idea if he even said anything even though he answered questions for an hour.
His book is about “Heaven, Hell and the fate of every person who ever lived” according to the subtitle. I have not read the book, but I’ve read plenty about it. Kevin DeYoung has a thorough review of the book, which I would recommend because he quotes directly from the book and evaluates it with scripture.
According to many reviews & alluded to in video interviews prior to the release, Rob Bell argues, discusses, or converses that because God is love, ultimately everyone will be in heaven, whether they figure out how to get there in their present life or if they eventually see the beauty of God after they die and come into “the party” post-mortem.
Since I haven’t read the book, I want to focus specifically on the interview.
The interview was put on by his publisher, Harper Collins, who used one of their other authors, Lisa Miller, as the interviewer. Lisa did a good job of asking pointed questions and attempting to keep Rob Bell on task & even tried to point out a contradiction of his. She also asked really difficult questions. You can read some of the transcript here.
The interview started by Lisa asking Rob “Are you a universalist?” Rob said no, but then proceeded to redefine universalist so he didn’t fit the definition. I highlight this because this is kind of how the night went. Rob would be asked a question, he would use poetic language to bring up the complexity of the question, tell a story about his church or people he interacts with and then leave the question with more confusion & complexity. Some of what he said was true, a lot of what he said left the question unanswered or at best fuzzy in definition.
I left thinking, the church could learn a lot from Rob Bell, but there’s no way he and I read the same bible.
What the church should learn from Rob Bell?
His love for people truly impacts him. The stories he told were more than smoke screens to the questions, he genuinely cares for people. All too often the church has not empathized with people who ask difficult questions, questions that confront orthodox beliefs, or people whose personal tragedies and difficulties often cause them to question God. Unfortunately, Rob’s empathy appears to have led him to redefine God to make people feel better, rather than pointing to the truth about God in the scriptures who desires to heal, who loves people passionately, as evidenced by Christ laying down His life for our sins.
Questions are ok, but uninformed answers are not. Rob Bell asks questions that our world is asking, & they are difficult. They are questions about how a loving God can punish people, how can God help people who deal with cutting themselves, etc. Unfortunately, the church can be seen as a place where you have to at least pretend to be perfect to be a part of it, instead of a place where you can ask tough questions, share some of the messiness of your life, and explore with a community answers & solutions.
Rob Bell’s answers are poetic, but uninformed by scripture & consist of new definitions of love, heaven, & hell that veer from the bible, church history, & most evangelical churches. The church needs to be more comfortable with difficult questions, compassionate when they answer them, and informed by the scriptures that point to a loving God in Jesus Christ.
Storytelling communicates ideas in really effective ways. Rob Bell is an excellent communicator, diffuses audiences with humble statements, and connects his ideas to the human heart through personal storytelling & poetic language. The church is often great at communicating head knowledge and even hand-knowledge (how to apply it), but has had difficulties articulating truth to profoundly impact the human heart. As Jesus used parables to provide convicting & profound truths that pierced & inspired hearts, the church could learn from Rob Bell’s current communication styles, yet follow Jesus in using them to exalt God. Language matters and Rob’s poetic language connects with the creative class & the church should not abandon his use of poetic language or storytelling, but redeem it.
What bible is he reading?
Rob Bell referenced and quoted scripture in the answers he gave to some of the questions. Unfortunately, they were picked out of context to best prove his point. He redefined hell as something we experience now when we choose greed or other evil ways, heaven as something we experience now when we choose peace and generosity. While there is an already experience of what heaven, or God’s kingdom, will be like, it is ultimately experienced when Christ returns as the scriptures clearly indicate a heaven with Jesus & a hell with punishment.
When asked if God could be both love & just, he does not point to the cross where Romans 3 says that God is just (punishing sin through Jesus’ death) & the justifier (saving people in love) for those who have faith in Jesus. He didn’t even talk about Jesus & the cross, he spoke about a tension of justice & love, references a “city with gates that never shut” in Rev. 21 showing that God wants everyone to be saved, but then ignores Rev. 22 that there will be people outside of the city.
Rob Bell ended the night by saying he is not a scholar or theologian. Unfortunately when you write 5 books about your views on God, you will be seen as such whether you want to be or not. Besides, we are all theologians (people with beliefs about the nature of God), we are either good theologians or bad ones.
What I left with
I left disappointed.
Hell is and never will be popular, it doesn’t sound like good news or that a loving God has anything to do with hell when it becomes a topic to be addressed on its own. But God isn’t just waiting to send everyone to hell, and we know this because of Jesus. But Rob Bell didn’t talk about a Jesus who died for us, he talked about a Jesus who modeled life for us. There’s more to the story than people heard from Rob last night.
Jesus put on flesh to walk this world as a human, to live the life we were supposed to live before God, to die the death, pay our penalty, accept our punishment for our sins, and resurrected by the power of God to give us His righteousness by the power of the Holy Spirit. And the good news is that’s given to us by grace through faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.
I left with a desire to have more compassion on everyone & a desire for that compassion to lead me to share Jesus’ life, death, & resurrection with them because that is where love wins, not in the re-imagining of God to make people feel better.