I Was Where Rob Bell Is Now

Posted: March 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

Last night, I (and apparently 6000 others) watched Rob Bell take questions about his new book Love Wins (HarperCollins 2011), which drops today.  I read the first few chapters this morning and will talk more about the book later but first I wanted to talk about what I saw last night. 

First things first, I worked in politics for five-years and was trained by a media specialist while working as a 1st Amendment lawyer and there is a sneaky part of me that admires the way Bell answered the tough questions, which is to say he really didn’t.  He answered the questions he wanted to answer whether they were asked or not.  That’s what they teach candidates and media figures in the midst of public policy debates.  That’s great for someone on The O’Reilly Factor or Real Time but not for a pastor discussing matters of eternal significance.  If you think I’m being harsh than check out Margaret Feinberg’s blog today as she also complained that Bell was too vague and nebulous.

Second, that being said, I felt for Bell because even though I strongly disagree with him, I like the guy and admire his creativity.  Some of my uber-Reformed friends will scoff at my admiration but one of the reasons I sympathize with Bell (other than having met him and found him to be affable) is that in many ways, I was Rob Bell (okay, I’ve never been as cool or creative because I like horror movies and heavy metal more than documentaries and indy rock but that’s neither here nor there).

I became a Christian in 1997 following a cancer diagnosis.  I dropped to my knees late one night and begged God for my life.  He graciously gave it to me.  I left politics and began to pray about my future.  I attended a local Christian university to see what I thought about a future in the ministry.  I dug it and immediately applied to a number of seminaries.  I decided to earn a master of divinity at Abilene Christian University because it had  good academic reputation and, frankly, it was pretty cheap.

Abilene Christian (or ACU) is a church of Christ school and although my background was in the independent Christian churches, I felt that I could learn the basics there before deciding on whether to pursue a second master’s or a Ph.D.   I took it for granted that ACU was theologically conservative, I mean how liberal could a church of Christ seminary in west Texas be?  I was wrong. 

ACU has drifted left over the last 20-30 years.  I’m not saying that the Graduate School of Theology is a hotbed of Universalist Commies or anything! The profs are all good people who were and are very kind to me but their are few, if any, evangelicals on staff.

The thing was, I didn’t think the place was liberal.  My father, who has pastored churches for more than 50-years (the last 40 at the same church), taught me that liberals were those who denied the supernatural such as the virgin birth or the resurrection and none of my profs at ACU denied any of these core doctrines (neither does Bell).  Yet, they did deny the inerrency of Scripture and embraced critical scholarship (sometimes uncritically to the point where one prof told me that at ACU we spend more time talking about what Walter Brueggemann says about the Bible than actually talking about the Bible!).   

I left ACU to the left of my evangelical heritage.  I too denied inerrancy, scoffed at the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, uncritically embraced critical scholarship such as the documentary hypothesis and mocked evangelicals.  Within a few years,  I was where Rob Bell is now–a universalist still claiming to be orthodox. 

In fact, I was a huge Rob Bell fan even if I thought he was a bit conservative for my taste.  I had all the early NOOMA vids, downloaded his podcasts and bought Velvet Elvis the week it dropped. 

Yet, I was spiritually dry and had this nagging sensation that all I was really doing was putting my own spin on yet another man made version of new age spirituality with a leftist political bent.  I began to suspect that I was preaching a new legalism cloaked in “kingdom language.” The Gospel I preached was all about selling our possessions, feeding the poor and seeking justice for those on the margins (Now, don’t get me wrong, I still believe in caring for the least of these but as a response to the Gospel not as the Gospel itself).

After my desktop crashed, I went to download messages from Rob Bell but accidently selected sermons from another Mars Hill, the one pastored by Mark Driscoll.  By the time I realized what I had done, I was too far from home to do anything about it.  

Yet, Driscoll’s preaching convicted me.  I began to listen to him regularly then picked up a copy of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and began to work through it.  I prayed daily for God to reveal His truth to me. 

One day, as I was driving down I-64 between Huntington and Charleston, West Virginia (proof that God does show up in the most unlikely places), God audibly spoke to me.  Before you roll your eyes, I have had MRI’s, Catscans, etc. and I am fine!  God told me to let go and let Him be who He truly is.  I pulled to the side of the road and cried like a baby.  Years after I prayed for my life back, graduated seminary and pastored churches, I was saved.

Once I re-entered evangelicalism, I was amazed at what I saw.  The Bible made sense.  The worldview it projected was clear and coherent. Moreover, I not only read about the supernatural, I experienced it.  I witnessed healings and other miracles that I never noticed during my sojourn on the left.  It was the miraculous that truly confirmed what I had come to believe.

So, now I pastor a church where Scripture is held as inerrent, inspired and authoritative.  I see now that to relegate the Bible to a human product that may or may not serve as a witness to revelation is to truly diminish God’s ability to reveal Himself.  I also now believe that there is a reason why we instinctively convert any truth claim, whether narrative or not,  into propositions, because it is how God made us. 

I preach penal substitutionary atonement (not as the only thing that happened on the cross but as an important component).  I have come to realize that we know inherently that the sins we have committed against God and each other require more than just a simple apology.  We all know in our bones that justice is too important to be dismissed out of hand.  I have watched as former addicts and prostitutes weep as they realized that Christ died not just to serve as an example (although that is part of it) or to identify with them (although that too is a part of it) but to pay the penalty for their sins, so that there will be no condemnation when they stand before God one day.

I also preach the reality of hell as a place of eternal torment for all of those outside of Christ.  I will write more about why I returned to the doctrine but for now it may suffice to quote Scot McKnight who writes that he wants to believe in the heaven and hell that Christ believed in and to point out that Jesus speaks more about hell than anyone in Scripture.  Moreover, it violates a common sense reading of the text to interpret Jesus’ words as speaking of a present state of being or whatever.  Occam’s razor, (the simplest explanation is nearly always the best one), applies to the interpretation of Scripture. 

So, I like Rob Bell and have been where he is now but I think there is a very good reason he struggled last night to defend his position clearly–(other than great media training) it just doesn’t cohere with a careful reading of the Bible.  Moreover, he was probably taught at Fuller as I was at ACU that the Gospel is too multifaceted and Scripture is too complicated to be explained succinctly (see above comment about God and divine revelation). 

I will continue to read Bell’s writings and listen to his teachings.  I always learn something from him but our paths have diverged and I have found the one I am on to be grace-filled and liberating.

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Comments
  1. Scott Culver says:

    Matt,
    I appreciate your take on this, and am in aggreement.
    I hear nothing of the Gospel in Rob’s present platform, and it’s a shame. The “Good News” is not that God is love, but that God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son, that who ever believes in Him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.
    Rob is one very confused Pastor.

  2. AStev says:

    Thank you for this excellent post.

  3. Alex Humphrey says:

    everything I wanted to say has been said in the above comments. Thank you for the great post.

  4. billrandles says:

    Thanks brother , well spoken- what a tragedy the Rob Bell Phenomenom is.I am also an evangelical pastor and WordPress blogger- keep up te good work- pastor Bill Randles

  5. […] Pastor Matt Rawlings was where Rob Bell is […]

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