To Hell with Rob Bell?

Posted: March 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

The blogosphere has blown up over the marketing for Rob Bell’s forthcoming book.  If you are completely befuddled by all of this (because you have a life!), let me give you a quick rundown. 

Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, a mega-congregation in Grandville, Michigan.  He is a popular Christian artists who has produced a runaway best-selling book, “Velvet Elvis” and a series of short sermonette videos entitled “NOOMA.”  He has been a divisive figure because he has made a number of controversial stands.  The trailer and advertising for his new book, “Love Wins” indicates that Rob is now advocating a view of eternal judgment that deviates from evangelicalism.  Reviews of advance copies claim that Bell argues that all people will eventually be saved even if some must spend a short time in what the Bible calls hell.  In other words, all people go to heaven…eventually. 

Justin Taylor’s blog, (The Drudge Report of evangelical Christianity) immediately assailed Bell calling his theological turn “sad.” Kevin DeYoung also expressed his disappointment and John Piper tersely tweeted “Goodbye Rob.”  

Scot McKnight and countless other blogger have argued that it is unfair to judge Bell’s argument before the book drops.  “Wait and see” they say. 

Many others have quickly assailed Bell’s critics as “mean” and “unbiblical.”  They argue that if Taylor, DeYoung, Piper, etc. have a problem with Rob then they should approach him privately as Jesus advised (Matthew 18:15-20). 

Yet, Kevin DeYoung argues that the problem is not with what Bell MIGHT say in his book but with what he does himself in the video trailer for the book.  Moreover, DeYoung forcefully asserts that Matthew 18 is inapplicable because the verse clearly points to sins committed by one individual to another–to take Matthew 18 and apply it to a doctrinal dispute seriously distorts the text. 

The early church faced doctrinal disputes and we have several examples of how they handled them.  For example, one early group claimed that to become a Christian, one had to first become a Jew by undergoing circumcision.  This group approached a church (or group of churches) in ancient Galatia  that had been planted by the Apostle Paul.  How did he respond?  Let’s take a look at two different passages.

Galatians 1:6-10

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

Note that Paul believes there is only one Gospel, the one he received from King Jesus.  He quickly lashes out at the Galatians for entertaining the Judaizers who pushed circumcision. 

Well, you may object that Paul is chastising members of a church he helps pastor and that is different from “attacking” someone in a public blog. 

Let’s turn to Galatians 5:12 where he speaks about those who advise circumcision:

“I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”

Yikes! Today that would send the blogosphere into a real tizzy!  Could you imagine if a pastor today stated aloud to a church (or churches) that he wished those he disagreed with would cut their junk off! 

So, if we follow Paul, should Taylor, DeYoung, Piper and others told Bell to…well…go to hell?

Maybe.  Maybe not.

I do think the idea that Christian leaders cannot disagree with each other, even sharply, is part of the western myth that equates being nice with being a person of faith.  Scripture doesn’t support it.  In fact, to be clear, it’s not just bad-tempered Paul who calls others out but Jesus has a lot to say to both wings of the religious leadership of his day as well.

I also believe that a lot of the howls in defense of Bell are based more in the strange Christian cult of personality than in anything else.  Most of those who have defended Rob have set forth flimsy arguments.  “Wait and see” is not the issue for, once again, as Kevin DeYoung argued, it is not what Bell might say but what he has already said that is truly at issue.

So, in the end, it is not whether someone who disagrees with Bell should call him on the carpet but how.  Should a pastor, blogger or whatever be as bold as Paul? There is an argument that Rob’s statements are more of a digression from the Gospel than those calling for Gentile men to be snipped.  I think we can agree that if we take the Pauline route than Piper’s terse dismissal is soft in comparison!

It is important to keep things in historical context.  Some scholars argue that the heated rhetoric employed by Paul (and John the Baptist and even Jesus) was an acceptable part of Ancient Near Eastern culture.  Even today one can mistake a shouting match in the markets of the Middle East as a prelude to fisticuffs rather than a normal negotiation.  Maybe.  It simply isn’t clear to me and that’s important.

I do think those of us who believe that evangelicalism is the rightful heir to orthodoxy should defend it and defend it vigorously.  Yet, we should also be wise.  I’m ready to say that what Bell has stated thus far is unbiblical.  I am ready and willing to debate it but I’m not convinced that I should tell Bell to go to hell.  I hope and pray that God will use this controversy to clarify doctrines that obviously need to be addressed. 

For example, some have argued that Bell has done nothing at this point but ask questions…as a trained courtroom lawyer that’s a poor argument.  It is clear that he is softening the beach for his argument and that the argument will attempt to persuade others to adopt an unorthodox view of the afterlife.  So, one may, as Justin Taylor has done, pose pointed questions as well.  For example, if the early reviewers are right that Bell argues the English translations of the Greek as “eternal” to describe hell are wrong than what do you do with the same word when the authors of Scripture apply it to heaven? Then there are these  questions from J.I. Packer

Why, in that case, does God leave multitudes who know the gospel to go to hell as unbelievers before he calls them to faith?

And more searchingly, why do Christ and the apostles give no hint that God intends to lead every member of this fallen human race from the cradle to the crown, via hell if need be?

And why do they speak instead, with such strong emphasis, as if each person’s decisions made here determine their state hereafter, so that unbelievers face irremediable eternal loss?

Is not the New Testament viewpoint on this issue clearly expressed, consistently maintained, and constantly enforced?

Is there not then something heretical about the universalist account of God’s plan of love, which parts company with the Bible so radically?

 Better questions than Bell’s in my opinion.  I pray a graceful but productive conversation will ensue. 

Grace and peace.

  1. Jordan Hubbard says:

    I still have a problem with DeYoung, Piper, Harris, et al saying that they know what Bell is saying without having read the book. The review of the actual book that I have read suggests that Bell is provocative but comes around to defending evangelical Christianity more than evangelical universalism.

    Do we need to wrestle our beliefs? Absolutely! But I hardly think “Goodbye Rob Bell” is productive conversation. In fact DeYoung’s blog basically equates “Orthodox Christianity” with Neo-reformed theology and says if you question any of of those tenets you aren’t really Christian. Coming from a movement of sectarians and legalists, I look at his attitude and see arrogance and sectarianism. Bell isn’t inventing the debate and the questions. He is asking the questions that many people have been asking for years. I for one want to know how he answers them, not just asks them.

    • Revolution says:


      I’ve been reading DeYoung for years and I disagree that he would equate neo-reformed with orthodoxy although he is obviously reformed (and so am I). Also, as an evangelical who trusts The Tenth Leper’s review, there is no way in hell (excuse the pun) that universal reconciliation is evangelical! Also, Piper is pretty tame compared to how the Apostle Paul would handle it. He mean’t goodbye to Rob as an evangelical, which, according to the core tenants of evangelicalism, is fair.

  2. unkleE says:


    I love the design of your blog, but I have a real problem with this post.

    “I do think the idea that Christian leaders cannot disagree with each other, even sharply, is part of the western myth that equates being nice with being a person of faith. Scripture doesn’t support it.”

    I come across christians saying this sort of thing all over the place, to justify discourteous conduct, and I think it is quite wrong. I thought a fundamental of NT exegesis was to obey the prescriptive passages, but not rest teachings on descriptive passages alone. Yours and others’ justification are almost all based on descriptive passages, how Paul or Jesus behaved in their culture and almost always ignore the many clear and decisive prescriptive passages, which tell us to:

    * treat our opponents with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15)
    * let our conversation be always full of grace (Col 4:6)
    * be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone (Titus 3:2)
    * let our gentleness be evident to all (Phil 4:5)
    * clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Col 3:12)
    * make every effort to live in peace with everyone (Heb 12:14)
    * speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15)
    * grow the fruit of the Spirit, which includes peace, forbearance, kindness, gentleness (Gal 5:22-23)

    There is a lot about gentleness and peacefulness there, and I fail to see how much of the wrangling among christians obeys those quite clear and direct commands. Much that is being said about Rob Bell does not show love, no matter how right it may or may not be – it seems to me to show anger, spite, frustration and arrogance, whether those qualities are actually there or not I cannot say.

    Further, why would anyone want to justify unloving and discourteous behaviour? No matter what the provocation, why would we aspire to anything else than “loving our enemies”? Are we not capable of making our doctrinal points without discourtesy or name-calling? Do we think the anger of humans serves the purposes of God in this (James 1:20)?

    I honestly but sadly think that this justification of bad behaviour is a symptom of something very wrong in the US evangelical church, and needs to be repented of.

    • Revolution says:

      Thanks for stopping by.

      We will have to agree to disagree. I think the distinction you are trying to make (and I have seen other scholars also try to make it) casts a false dichotomy. We know (and ironically, Rob Bell has taught) that disciples are made by modeling as much if not more than by teaching. How Paul (and Jesus) disagreed would have been just instructive as why.

      Also, as an evangelical (and Bell claims to be one as well…or did), I am committed to harmonizing Scripture. It is important to note who are the opponents and why. Paul had nothing but grace for the representatives of the Roman Empire but nothing but contempt for so-called religious leaders who taught bad theology. Remember that he admonishes leaders in training to run the wolves away from the sheep.

      BUT, as I said in the post, there is some evidence that such intramural disputes were expected to be sharp by the culture around it. If so, then we should disagree with grace but disagreeing in and of itself is not being ungracious. To be frank, only in a narcissistic, politically correct culture is disagreeing seen as harsh!

      I have not seen any of the leading evangelical voices be as harsh as Paul was to the Judaizers. I have seen one after another praise his talent as a speaker, writer, leader, etc. I have seen one after another say that if they have misinterpreted him that they will be the first to apologize. The critics have simply made their argument from Scripture and logic. There hasn’t been any name by respected leaders. I don’t have a problem with that at all. In fact, that is what Biblical scholarship is about!

      Again, thanks for stopping by. Grace and peace.

  3. unkleE says:

    But Matt, I didn’t anywhere say it was wrong to disagree, I said (1) that such disagreement should be loving, gentle, peaceful and respectful as much as possible (and I referred to a lot of NT passages that teach this) and (2) much of what I see fails that test.

    I guess all that remains is for me to ask whether you feel comfortable when christians disobey those teachings?

    Best wishes.

    • Revolution says:

      Perhaps, I didn’t make myself clear. I apologize.

      One of my points is that I don’t believe most of Bell’s critics are being unBiblical at all. Again, Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung and Joshua Harris have all been firm but graceful in writing about their disagreement with Bell. They have laid out the countercase based on what Bell has actually said in the trailer.

      Moreover, these leaders (and I, who write primarily to my own church) see a responsibility from texts such as Acts 20:25-31 and 1 Timothy to speak out when we see what we believe to be false doctrine. Thus, these Christian leaders are not disobeying Scripture but are prudently obedient.

      • unkleE says:

        G’day Matt, no need to apologise. So I gather from your comments then that you don’t disagree with the passages I quoted, rather, you “don’t believe most of Bell’s critics are being unBiblical at all.”. I guess that means you also think that if the discussion fails to be loving, peaceful and gentle it would be wrong, so we can rejoice (I assume) in our agreement there.

        I’m not interested in going through the people you mention and pointing the finger, that’s not my place. But I can say that I see lots of really nasty stuff by christians on the internet, directed at unbelievers (who we ought to be trying to love into the kingdom) and fellow believers, and a lot more that isn’t exactly nasty but isn’t very loving either.

        I feel this latest controversy has exposed that underbelly of evangelicalism yet again, with many christians apparently happy to label Bell an unbeliever when his theology (they think) disagrees with theirs, and making judgments that seem to me to contradict the spirit of Romans 14. But I have no beef with you, and only posted here because you referred to the wider controversy. I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for the opportunity.

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