The American Inquisition

I like Rob Bell.

I have learned much from him through the years and have appreciated the way that he has used his knowledge of Jewish custom to explain the words of Christ in the context of the time of Christ.  I enjoy the way that he brings an artist’s bent to scripture, and unpacks it in a way that allows me to see things outside of how I typically would.

I like Rob Bell.

Over the past ten days Rob has been caught up in what can only be described as the Christian answer to the Charlie Sheen saga.  If you are unsure of what I am talking about go ahead and take a few minutes to google it.

I don’t know where you come down on the is Rob Bell a universalist debate but as I watch the fury that has been unleashed on blogs, facebook, and twitter I am concerned that we are missing out on what is really important: a discussion on what we believe about hell.  I am not talking about the textbook description printed in Grudem’s Systematic Theology, I am talking about what we really believe in the church, based on the lives that we lead… and the generations that we are raising up to take the reigns in the days to come.

I always enjoy Scot McKnight’s take on these kinds of situations and his posts on the Rob Bell saga are worth the read (start here, then read this one).  Scot is right on when he says that there is a growing number of people coming out of our churches that have a universalist bent of some sort.  Perhaps instead of leading the inquisition trying to find out whether Bell believes in a literal hell or not we should be spending time reflecting on what scripture teaches, and how our congregation is engaging with that teaching.

I went into Monday night’s interview with Rob hopeful.  I was hopeful that he would speak to critics and settle things on where he comes down theologically once and for all and end all the speculation.  While I was disappointed that he dodged any questions that were intended to reveal his views, I get that he is trying to start the conversation and engage as many people as possible in that conversation.

It is unfortunate that the backlash to Bell’s yet to be released book seems to completely contradict McKnight’s reminder to us about the coming generations:

My contention is this: the approach to this generation is not to denounce their questions, which often enough are rooted in a heightened sensitivity to divine justice and compassion, but to probe their questions from the inside and to probe thoughtful and biblically-responsible resolutions. We need to show that their questions about justice and God’s gracious love are not bad questions but good questions that deserve to be explored.

What if we began to engage Rob Bell’s questions instead of denouncing them?
Instead of bidding Rob Bell farewell, what if we invited him and the others asking these questions to the table?


About the Author: Matt Steen

I love Jesus, Theresa (my wife), the Redskins & Capitals, and am currently living in Waco, Texas where I am studying the finer points of BBQ (while working on my MDiv and MBA at Baylor University). When not studying, I serve church leaders through and am the Director of Connections for Harris Creek Baptist Church's Downtown Campus.

  • Don Dudley

    **I am taking this from the live event and a handful of reviews I have read**
    o be honest,
    My issue with Rob Bell is that he is spreading a false doctrine. Plain and simple. There is no problem with questions, just ask Job. Shoot, ask my wife who is dealing with a loss of one of her aunts who was not a believer. There are hard questions to wrestle with.

    Where can my wife, or Job, or anyone, turn to for help and comfort.
    We can either turn to the universalism we have heard, hoping there was enough grace or good works to catapult a person from purgatory to heaven, or we can turn to the Gospel, an assurance of our salvation.

    Rob Bell is teaching something contrary to this Gospel. It is good to get questions and answers. Shoot, there are people who have not discussed hell in serious detail in years who are now breaking open their Bibles to see what it really does say. There is the issue that a person who claims to be Orthodox (in his own words) is saying there is not a hell that awaits for sinners. This removes the need for atonement.
    If all people get to heaven regardless (or based on some magic formula God has put into place that we do not know of), what was the death of Christ for? A mere example?
    His (Bell’s) argument is a huge step toward removing the necessity of the Cross.

    It is not questions that is the problem, it is the explaining away of things through pseudo intellect that I find appalling. Even more so, anything that tries to remove the power of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ causes me to get angry.

    • Matt Steen

      Hi Don! Thanks for commenting!

      I have yet to hear anything from the source, that is Rob Bell, that has led me to believe that he has left orthodoxy… I have read plenty from other sources that are positive that he has gone off the reservation but all I have heard from Bell himself are maddening deflections of the questions. I personally wish that he would have just come out and said what he believes the other night, regardless of what it is, so that the conversations can be had not about him and what he believes but more about the topic at hand.

      I am waiting to read the book before I decide whether it is heretical or not.

      That said, your last question raised a question for me… How does a more universalist expression of faith cause the death, burial, and ressurrection of Christ to lose its’ power? I am not trying to provoke you, I promise, I just don’t see how that act could lose its’ power regardless of what our God decides to do at the end of days.

      • Don Dudley

        Trust me, I know when I am being bated on the internet 😉

        To answer your question, Christianity depends on the Cross. It is the event all human history hangs on. It is the center-point. The death of Jesus is what enabled him to be resurrected. It is the resurrection which gives us the power to new life (Romans 6:1-4). If there is a universalism, then the Cross becomes more and more meaningless.

        We are no longer asking why a just God would send someone to hell; rather, we are asking why a just God would send His son to die for no reason?

        Universalism is in a sense saying, “the death and resurrection are not important to Christianity because it has no bearing on why or how a person is saved.”

        On the other hand, Paul seemed to think it was of most importance, see Romans chapter 6 as well As Galatians 2:20. Peter agrees it is central to his new life (1 Peter 1:3).

        To clarify, I am not saying that universalism has ANY power or the ability to STEAL it. I am saying, more or less, it has not regard for the power of the Cross.

        • Matt Steen

          What would the internet be without anonymous people (like Curtis) baiting and flaming one another? 😉 Thanks for dialogging with me on this.

          I can see how that can be true, depending on the strain of universalism that is being followed (I am depending a great deal on Scot McKnight for my education in the different flavors). I can see how God can make a high view of the cross work in some universalist streams.

          I am not comfortable with the idea that says if there is no hell that Jesus died in vain. That smacks of the arguments made in the creation wars saying that if there wasn’t a literal 7 day creation that the Bible can not be true. I think that both of those arguments are weak. I can see some circumstances where a universalist view could say that about Christ’s sacrifice, but I do not think that all of them make his death irrelevant.

          • Don Dudley

            The main difference between the 7-day argument and the ‘substitutionary atonement on the cross’ argument is different. The amount of time it takes to create the world does not matter in our salvation like the Cross does. The point that God created the world is what is important there (in the 7-day arguments), not the length of time.

            I am curious to know, what does universalism do with the Cross? What IS the purpose of it in a universalist view? How does it have any importance outside of just an example?

          • Matt Steen

            Ask Rob Bell! 😉

            The short answer is I don’t know exactly. My working thought is that Christ needed to sacrifice for us in order to allow anyone the opportunity to eventually have eternal life. I need to think through that a little more in order to come to a better understanding, but it is a start for me.

            I agree with you the the cross is central to our salvation. Something that has been bothering me ever since McLaren’s Last Word has been the question about whether heaven and hell is central to our salvation. I often think that we tend to rely far too heavily on hell (especially) as a motivator in our missions, in our evangelism, and in our thinking about why we should follow Christ.

            I understand the desire to keep people from hell, but I wonder if we have not lessened the full gospel, and watered down the full story of God’s work through Christ in us with this obsession with hell.

            I would love your take on this.

    • Curtis Klope

      I’ve got to echo Matt’s question as well. How would MORE people being saved end up lessening the power of what Jesus did? I would think that if an act was able to accomplish MORE of something, then we would say that it was better/more powerful than if it accomplished LESS.

      I’m not saying that I necessarily believe that this is what will happen, but, what I am questioning is your line of thinking. It seems illogical to me.

      • Don Dudley

        Universalism undermines the Bible. God states tons of things (which Bell tried to hit on with his “inexclusive” statement) that are indeed central to the Faith. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, etc. In this same Bible, there are a lot of warnings regarding worshiping false gods (like Buddha, Krishna, Mohammad, etc).
        To worship these other gods and reject the true God does not make logical sense.
        For the rest of a response, read my above reply to Matt.

        • Curtis Klope

          I’m not clear, are you saying that Rob Bell is following a false God? I thought that this discussion was about whether or not Bell’s interpretation of scripture was “right” or not? It’s a whole different animal to say he’s not actually a follower of Jesus, isn’t it? Maybe that’s not what you’re saying though.

          • Don Dudley

            Sorry Curtis,
            It must have been lost in the translation. I am not insinuating that Bell is following a false god (but I could see the argument for that), I am arguing that Bell’s idea that one who does follow a false God can find salvation, or that Jesus shows himself under a different name depending on region as a bad (even heretical) teaching.
            This is not to say one calling Jesus ‘Hey-zoose’ or Yeshua is wrong, but that it is wrong to follow Buddha and claim this could be the way Christ was revealed to a Buddhist nation.

          • Matt Steen

            I think that my discomfort in much of this so called debate is this:

            Can Rob Bell still be considered a Christ follower even if he believes in universalism?

            Is Rob Bell going to a literal hell (ah, the irony) because of these potential beliefs?

          • Don Dudley

            That is a heck of a question. I think you have to be wary of judging a man’s heart because Scripture tells us to be.

            Man, that is a cop-out answer if I ever heard one.

          • Matt Steen

            I don’t think that is a cop out… I think that is the way that I wish more people were approaching this whole thing.

    • Matt Steen

      on a totally unrelated bent I like your site design… It looks good!

      • Don Dudley

        If you are addressing me, THANKS! Gotta hand it to John Saddington at 8Bit. He designed the Standard theme.

  • Don Dudley

    Sorry for the double post. You can delete this one.

  • Curtis Klope

    One more thought to add: Here’s a great post by the president of Fuller that I thought was pretty insightful

  • Jay Cookingham

    What if we began to engage Rob Bell’s questions instead of denouncing them?

    Yep, that be a good place to start…as believers we need to study the Scriptures so we can engage others in all kinds of discussions with clarity about what the Bible teaches.

    • Matt Steen

      Thanks for your thoughts Jay!

  • Blutjens

    I haven’t seen the interview yet, or read the book, but my immediate reaction is, does a universalist mindset make the idea of freewill less potent? I say this in light of having recently read Keller’s book Counterfeit Gods. If we choose our (G)gods, in this current life then won’t those (G)gods simply continue into to the next life?

    For example think of someone whos god is money. Now imagine that driving reason for being extending not just 80 years or so, but for an eternity (or a really long time, longer than an average earthly lifespan). To paraphrase Keller, those gods become hell as the self absorbtion continues, and the gates of hell are “locked from the inside”. I am not saying there will be money persay in hell but that that freely chosen attitude of the heart associated with making money a god becomes nearly impossible to break. Maybe people will literally be addicted to their own hell and won’t want to get out.

    If any of this seems off or unbiblical I apologize I am simply thinking out loud.

    (PS check out Keller’s sermon on Hell, you can get it off the Redeemer website, it’s very thought provoking.)

    • Matt Steen

      I need to check out the sermon and wrestle through this a little more. My inititial thought is that this makes a lot of sense. Thanks for your thoughts, Brad.

    • Blutjens

      Which leads me to other questions. How the crap does free will work in heaven? Does it exist there? If not, doesn’t this make love like pretty much impossible?

      • Matt Steen

        I am having a hard enough time figuring out how free will works on this side of the equation to even begin to think about how it works in heaven… but that is a really good question.

        The only thing that comes to mind is that our sin natures will no longer be a part of us in heaven which would make our will line up perfectly with God’s… which I guess in a way would be free will.

  • Zach Nielsen

    I am all about asking questions but Rob’s questions are not meant to simply be questions. He actually has views that are spelled out (ok, not completely clear, but still rather explicit) in his book. For the most part, his questions are not really questions. He has answers to those questions and his book is his way of answering those questions.

    Rob doesn’t need to be invited to the table because he has the answers that he desires and his book is his intention to draw anyone with him who would like to believe as he does. Rob may be an agnostic on some things but if he was truly agnostic he wouldn’t have much to say in book form, right? His book would be rather short and filled with the phrase “I don’t know”.

    So, let’s ask questions if we are really asking questions and seeking honest answers. I don’t get the sense that that is what Rob is doing, but I don’t doubt that there are thousands out there that are greatly desiring answers to tough theological questions. I pray they look to God’s word before Rob’s book.

    • Matt Steen

      My question is this: where you are getting your info on the book from?

      Did you get an advance copy? If so, I would love to see what he is saying in context, as opposed to the short bursts that I have seen on reviews so far. My copy comes on Friday so I will be able to decide shortly after that.

  • Dwhite

    I do not have first hand knowledge of Rob Bell’s position (maybe that makes me more qualified to comment on the discussion, I don’t know) but what I am reading in this blog and the link that Curtis pointed to is very McLarenesk…A Generous Orthodoxy, he and Bell are the consummate post-moderns. If you read the McLaren text, you will notice it ends in an ellipsis. What does that tell you? In process and unwilling to be tied down. Provocative, sure…sells books. Maybe we are looking at a marketing genius. Either way, I like questions, always have so Rob Bell, ask away. I do not think this is about him anyway, it is about our faith and confidence in Christ.

    • Curtis Klope

      “Either way, I like questions, always have so Rob Bell, ask away. I do not think this is about him anyway, it is about our faith and confidence in Christ.”

      Couldn’t agree more.

  • Heather F.

    I suppose I’m still trying to understand Bell’s motives here. Some are saying it is in effort to stir the pot, so to speak, so that Christians come out again and do a do-se-do and open up a dialogue. Okay, I’m fine with that. We did that a few years ago after Brian McLaren’s books came out. However, the fact that this is being played out in the secular media makes Christians look like a spectacle. That, I don’t like.

    • Matt Steen

      I get that. My biggest frustration with the interview Monday night was that Bell had the chance to come out, tell the world where he stands, and make this whole thing less about what he believes and more about working through our beliefs on hell…

      Thanks for dropping by, Heather!

  • Ted

    Just because you don’t like the way he answers the questions, doesn’t mean he isn’t answering the questions. And sometimes the questions are the wrong questions. Both possibilities sound a lot like the way Jesus answered the questions that came to him. Should we pay taxes to Caesar? How many times should I forgive by brother? Who is my neighbor? Lets engage these questions, with enough seriousness that we don’t need to tie it all down. It shows spiritual immaturity on our parts.

    • Matt Steen

      Good word, Ted. Thanks for your contribution!

  • Tom

    The denouncement that I personally have expressed is not about Mr. Bell’s questions. The discussion of hell, the innate injustice I feel about the doctrine, and my struggle to align these feelings with more clear biblical teaching, is an oft had and open dialogue. This idea that if you criticize Rob Bell you are an unquestioning fundamentalist is reaching unhealthy proportions.

    Rob Bell is getting denounced for his lack of biblical substantiation and meager theology. The problem that the church rightly has with Rob Bell’s growing views is their tie to post modern uncertainty and aloofness. Mr. Bell has replaced discussion with the silence of paradox–which is not answerable. Rather than engage, he has diverted. When every statement needs its own interpretative dialogue, we are squarely in post modern doublespeak. This statement from Mr. Bell’s interview with Martin Bashir is deeply concerning, “We are now, when you die, firmly in the realm of speculation.”

    I’m sorry Matt, this is not setting up and asking good questions. We are not “denouncing questions.” When one states that the information of a subject is speculation they do not introduce dialogue, they shut it down as nothing more than personal opinion.

    I welcome all questions regarding hell. As followers of Jesus, the dialogue must be around what Jesus taught, what the Bible teaches, and what is the truth. The intent of questions is not to obfuscate the truth by reducing available knowledge to speculation and elevating our feelings of the subject matter to epistemological equivalency. The goal of a Christian’s question should be to seek truth and understanding through introspection, study, dialogue and prayer–as Jesus’ questions did.

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  • SRees

    I don’t think Rob Bell, or any of us, presents any truly new questions about hell, or other beliefs. But each generation has to work through them again, using the language, images, and influence of the age we live in. But can’t we learn from the best responses of the past? Maybe the first step is to review the debates in past generations and apply their wisdom to today’s conflicted conversations. C.S. Lewis was a master at this.