Hell-o, Rob Bell-o

Although I wasn’t sure I wanted to contribute to the publisher’s or the author’s coffers, I felt as if I had to read Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins if I was going to be a credible critic. At least I bought the less expensive iBook. (My wife did remind me that I could have checked it out from the library.) In some ways the book is easy to critique. Rob Bell relies on broad strokes that are flawed. The details of the argument simply crumble in such cases.

First, two words of praise. Chapter 2 on heaven is excellent. Bell provides the Biblical foundations for an “earthy” heaven, a new heavens and a new earth, that the future is a renewed and restored creation, a place where God’s original intent for creation and its full eschatological unfolding is seen. Bell rightly draws on the Old Testament prophets for these Biblical foundations. This is a welcome discussion, especially in light of some of the more ethereal popular conceptions of heaven and in light of some recent rumblings in some Reformed quarters of an apparent creation-denying eschatology that understands “otherworldliness” in ethereal terms rather than in earthy terms. See for example, Van Drunen’s Living in Light of God’s Two Kingdoms or the ravings at the Old Life Theological Society blog (http://oldlife.org/2011/03/24/hello-rob-bell/). As good as Chapter 2 is, I’m not sure it’s worth the price of the book. Also, I have a bit of personal angst that I agree so much with Bell on heaven, but disagree with him on hell.

Praise number two is in regard to Bell’s belief that in the end God gets what God wants. This kind of talk warms the heart of all Calvinists and all who believe in the sovereignty of God over all things. End of praise.

The trouble with Rob Bell is that he is confused about what God wants. The controlling Bible verse for Bell is 1 Timothy 2:4 that says that God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Bell’s entire argument that eventually everyone will be saved seems to rest on these two ideas. God gets what God wants and God wants everyone to be saved. Those who die before they are saved and come to a knowledge of the truth get a second chance. Those who die shaking their fists at God will eventually be overcome by his patience, his goodness, the hell they make for themselves because of their rebellion. Love wins!

Bell’s selective reading of scripture is the chief problem. What about a verse like this: “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory” (Romans 9:22-23). If God gets what God wants then we should expect some to be saved and some not–some objects of mercy, some objects of wrath–some in heaven, some in hell. Following Bell’s rhetorical style, he would ask, “Which is it?” Good question. But not a new question. Theologians have long distinguished between various forms of God’s will–in particular his secret, decretive will and his revealed, prescriptive will. God gets what God wants only in God’s decretive will, which invariably comes to pass. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says “the decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” Indeed, God gets what God wants. But Rob Bell has an overly simplistic view of what God wants..

The other broad stroke for Rob Bell is libertarian free will. Most theologians believe in free will. But there are two kinds: libertarian free will and compatibilist free will. The latter is compatible with the sovereignty of God, i.e. we make our choices uncoerced but they are made according to God’s predetermined plan. Libertarian free will says that God in no way determines the outcome. At best he can only know what we will choose because he can know the future. (And God’s knowing the future is even denied by open theists.) A common expression of this is in the libertarian free will understanding of love. Love, by its very nature, is freedom, says Bell. And when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules as the rest of us. If our love for God comes as a result of God overriding, co-opting, or hijacking the human heart, then it’s not really love. As far as I can tell this definition of free will and this definition of love doesn’t really come from the Bible but is a philosophical principle by which the Bible is interpreted. Anything that violates this principle just can’t be right.

Indeed, the Bible seems to teach exactly the opposite. The Bible uses images of the dead being awakened, being born again, having stoney hearts turned to flesh, even getting new hearts. These things are all God’s doing. Furthermore, the scriptures teach that apart from such meddling with the human heart that no one would turn to God because of our fallen, sinful condition. I for one am grateful that God hijacked my rebellious heart and allowed me to see the truth of the gospel. This free will principle is pushed to the point where not only are the gates of the heavenly city left open so that those who died enemies of God can finally enter in, but also those in the city apparently can check out at any time. (Never mind the idea that the gates are left open because there are no enemies; all is shalom.)

It’s very interesting to me to see folks with evangelicals roots pushing libertarian free will to its logical conclusions (which is just Arminianism as a theological system taken to its logical conclusion). We get the low view of scripture as articulated by Clark Pinnock in The Scripture Principle. (God can’t determine the outcome of someone’s writing in such a way that what’s written is fully God’s word, because that would violate that person’s libertarian free will.) We get open theism where God not only doesn’t control the future but also he also doesn’t even know the future. And now we get universalism. It seems to me that we’re giving up a lot of seemingly clear Biblical teaching in the interest of this philosophical principle.

In my mind those two broad strokes are enough to do in Bell’s argument.

Here are a couple more criticisms though. Bell seems to have a view of scripture where the Bible is the human response to the writers’ encounter with Jesus and his love. Thus, the various descriptions of what happened on the cross (atoning sacrifice, reconciliation, justification, etc.) were not God’s revealed descriptions/interpretations, but merely the attempt of the human being experiencing God’s love through the death of Jesus to explain it using metaphors that the contemporary audience would understand. So for Rob Bell, those of us who experience God’s love need to explain it to those around us in contemporary terms that have meaning for them. Using pictures from the ancient world just won’t cut it.

The Old Testament system, it seems, according to Bell, was nothing special. It was just like all the other ancient religions where something needed to die to placate the angry gods and you were never really sure if you had satisfied them. This is precisely backwards. The Old Testament system, the Law, Israel as a nation, etc. were instituted by God to provide the necessary background for understanding Christ’s work.

Another place that Bell gets it backwards is in his discussion of Christ as the rock from which the Israelites got water as they wondered in the wilderness. He seems surprised that Paul would see Christ in the rock since it doesn’t seem that Moses or the Israelites knew he was there. He wonders where else Christ has been when those experiencing him might not have known he was there. I take this to be a tip of the hat to other religions and other religious experiences that Christ is in them as well without them knowing it and that they are one of the many paths to the same goal. Again there is a startling suggestion that the Old Testament people were no different from any other non-Christian religion. Also, there seems to be a failure to see in the Old Testament a special anticipation of the promised Messiah/Savior. It’s as if Jesus could have been walking on the road to Emmaus with some Hindu disciples and taught them all the ways the Bhagavad Gita spoke of him.