What Slavoj Zizek is to cultural theory, and what Radiohead is to … (insert genres that are now transcending), Rob Bell is to the art of preaching. To borrow a phrase from Ron Burgandy, Rob Bell is “kind of a big deal.”
As the publisher (now notoriously since the current controversy began) describes him and his new book:
“Fans flock to his Facebook page, his NOOMA videos have been viewed by millions, and his Sunday sermons are attended by 10,000 parishioners – with a downloadable podcast reaching 50,000 more. An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls ‘a singular rock star in the church world’, Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith – the afterlife – arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic – eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.”
And this week, he’s been a big deal (a “trending topic”) on Twitter. In fact, as Jason Boyett noted, “#robbell was in Saturday’s top 10 trending topics, which is usually reserved for Middle East unrest, dead celebrities, and Justin Biebers.”
Why? Well, apart from sexuality there are few hotter issues (no pun intended) that heaven and hell on the evangelical landscape. Part of the reason why I’ve found it difficult to write a reflection on this is because the volume of blog posts that are coming out.
According to Google blog searches, this past week has returned 2,500+ blogs for “Rob Bell” and “Love Wins.” A particular favorite of mine was Christianity Today‘s coverage of some poor bloke in the UK who happens to have the same name and the Twitter handle @robbell (often confused with the author of “Love Wins” @RealRobBell). Some of Rob’s (not RealRobBell, the other one) tweets in response have been great. Including:
@robbell ‘oh dear, my namesake is now a Trending Topic worldwide on Twitter, best get ready for fresh lunacy! What else is gonna go mad today?!?’
What started this “fresh lunacy” from Christians to an innocent web designer from Yorkshire? Enter a three word tweet from John Piper.
In good Aussie humour (knowing i might not get an “amen” from my mates in this camp), let me first map some of the evangelical terrain that Pastor Piper is a part of: John Piper is a bit of a Godfather of the neo-Calvinistas. In fact, if Piper is Vito Corleone, Michael Corleone is his prodigy Mark Driscoll (who’s a bit like Piper after too many energy drinks).
As the Godfather, I wonder if Piper believes he was predestined to “knock-off rival families” of evangelicals (such as the legacy of those Wesley brothers… or our brother Rob). I wonder if Piper feels he was predestined to tweet about Rob Bell’s forthcoming book? Judging by the impact of his tweet (not to mention Piper’s understanding of Calvinism), maybe “doubly” so.
“Love Wins” will not be released until the end of the month, and yet pre-sales are at #1 in Christianity and #70 overall on Amazon. After Piper’s tweet, Rob Bell and HaperOne publishing must be giving thanks in the words of the Apostle Paul, that “all things work together for good for those who love God.”
The sales of Rob’s book are certainly experiencing a blessing, but I’m not sure the backfire of rash judgment from fellow Christians is what our Lord had in mind when he promised “blessed are you when people insult you … and say all kind of false things against you because of me.”
To put it sensitively, this tweet wasn’t Pastor Piper exercising his spiritual gift of encouragement. It was closer to Don Corleone’s kiss of death (“you broke my heart”). The tweet simply read:
@JohnPiper “Farewell Rob Bell. http://dsr.gd/fZqmd8”
The babel at the end of the tweet wasn’t Piper tweeting in tongues but a link to an article by Justin Taylor, who states, “It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.”
Taylor then followed up with a quote from the New Testament (which he has since removed, but was there when Piper retweeted), a passage that more than implied that Rob Bell was a “servant of Satan.”
Incidentally, the hapless UK @robbell had a cracker of a reply, saying “who is this @johnpiper and why is he denouncing me? Did he not like a website I designed?” I wonder what @RobBell must think of us Christians?
Now, you don’t have to be conversant in the nuances of evangelical subculture to know that “servant of Satan” is not a complement. It’s the equivalent of a cosmic “Yo’ mamma” joke – only, the punch line is “Yo’ mamma is the author of all evil, violence, injustice, sin and misery.”
So what is it about this book that so upset this blogger? Well, he doesn’t know yet, because he hasn’t read the book. According to the author of the article, his fury stems from two sources: the 128 word paragraph from the publisher, and a three minute video introducing the book:
When I last checked, over 20,000 people have recommended this less-than-well-researched article denouncing Rob Bell. That’s right: there are 20,000+ Christians happy to judge a book by its cover and, it seems, happy to ignore the words of Jesus, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” I don’t know your story but I know I need God to show me a lot more grace than was shown to Rob Bell.
This goes to the heart of what I find most disturbing about the response to Rob Bell. Until we embody “the way of Jesus,” saying “Jesus is the way” will just be a resounding gong or clanging cymbal. As Jason Boyett said, “Labeling that mean-ness as ‘being faithful’ to the Gospel doesn’t make it less hateful.” I would also add, when it’s hateful it is no longer faithful to Jesus.
As Greg Boyd (who is doing so much to embody an alternative to the mean doctrinarians who treat grace as a dogma and not a practice, and an alternative to the limp liberals who have grace as a practice but no longer are concerned about the redeeming beauty of orthodoxy) puts it:
“If what I’m saying about the centrality of Calvary-looking love is right, we need a major paradigm shift on how we view orthodoxy – which in turn should effect who we see as the ‘heroes’ of orthodoxy.”
Here are two quotes that make Piper, Taylor and Driscoll’s comments look like warm-fuzzies from a church camp:
“Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.”
And this one:
“Anyone who can be proved to be a seditious person is an outlaw before God and the emperor; and whoever is the first to put him to death does right and well. For if a man is in open rebellion, everyone is both his judge and the executioner; just as when a fire starts, the first man who can put it out is the best man to do the job.”
The first is from John Calvin (after the execution of Servetus for preaching a non-Trinitarian understanding of God). The second is from Martin Luther (in a pamphlet one historian described as “boldly encouraging the slaughter of peasants (often Anabaptist Christians)” who held agendas other than that of the Elector of Saxony).
Now Boyd and I aren’t arguing for a reactionary “they sinned so I’m going to discount their whole work.” On that logic we would also have to discount the work of Augustine, Martin Luther King, John Howard Yoder and, well, everyone [except Jesus] post-fall! That kind of dismissive approach shows little spiritual maturity and lacks the hard work of removing the logs from our own eyes in our own contexts.
And yet isn’t this exactly how Rob Bell has been treated?
So from a deep desire to first remove our own logs and then assist the body of Christ that I love and seek to serve in doing likewise, I’d like to raise some questions regarding the bench marks for our orthodoxy.
Why is it that the litmus test for orthodoxy for so many today has been frozen in the sixteenth century in the thought of brilliant men who nevertheless had theologies that made it possible to disobey Christ’s commands to put away the sword, love our neighbour and even enemies like God has loved us? (By the way, I must say that I am thankful that Mark Driscoll has never threatened to drown, behead or burn me at the stake).
In particular, I am puzzled why the benchmark of “orthodoxy” should be confined to systems of theology that themselves fail to preach Christ crucified in ways that keep Christ central for both atonement and discipleship. Is it not a deep hypocrisy that we have found ways of preaching Christ crucified while crucifying others!?!
My suspicion is that one of the surest indications of the presence of false teaching in the church today is the fact that we keep the cross central to our understanding of atonement, and yet have created systems where the cross-shaped love of Jesus is not central to the ways we exercise power, get things done, and manage conflict with those with whom we disagree.
I would insist that orthodoxy should always look like Jesus Christ, and be obedient to him – in other words, that those who claim to be in Christ must walk as Jesus walked.
Doctrines (not a popular word but I believe extremely important none the less) such as the Trinity aren’t just boxes to tick but profound realities we undergo and are witnessed to in our lives. So it seems that not just Servetus but Calvin (as immense his contributions are) was also heretical regarding how he understood the Trinity because it didn’t express itself in refusing to kill his enemy because of the kenotic, self giving love that is seen in the Triune God revealed in Jesus. I don’t judge Calvin, but we can learn as much about God’s grace from the shadows of our heroes as the light they reflect. Orthodoxy should always be marked by humble, Christ-like, cross-shaped love, and empowered by the Spirit that raised Jesus from the grave.
Unfortunately, Rob Bell has experienced little of this orthodoxy this week. But if I was a betting man, I suspect the issue here is not that Rob Bell is sub-biblical regarding hell (after all, on page 72 he actually states, “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course.”). I think it’s more than likely the issue is he doesn’t answer to the Godfathers John Piper and Don Carson (“Don” here not being a mafia term, but his first name) who are trying to monopolize doctrine and thus “keep it in the [Reformed] family.”
In fact, I hope Rob Bell’s take on hell will be closer to those evangelical luminaries that I deeply respect like N.T. Wright, C.S. Lewis, Sylvia Keesmaat, Chris Marshall, Nancey Murphy, Tony Campolo, Marvia Dawn, Richard Hays, Greg Boyd, Richard Foster, Scot McKnight, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf, Joel Green, John Ortberg, Glen Stassen, and many, many others.
Not having received my copy of Love Wins yet, my hope is that Rob Bell will fiercely defend a biblical understanding of “the New Heavens and New Earth” in the light of God’s very nature and beauty being revealed scandalously in the crucified and risen Jesus.
Speaking last night on the phone to Scot McKnight (who has been such a wise statesmen through all of this), I was reminded of a great line in his brand new little primer on discipleship for young adults called One.Life:
“I hope I believe in hell as Jesus believed in hell … I don’t believe hell is a gassy furnace where humans are scorched forever and ever and ever and ever … I don’t believe in Dante’s hell or in God as the grand torture.”
So let me conclude with a portion from my own humble attempt to provoke Christians to re-engage Scripture for themselves by responding with a parable to questions that many young Christians are asking re: heaven, hell & the God revealed in Jesus:
On that day, everyone from every nation were raised from the dead as all of creation gathered around the glory of his burning thrown. As the brilliance of the seraphim and cherubim circled above, humanity was separated into two groups. Some started asking each other “did you accept Jesus?” In both groups you could hear people saying:
I went forward at that rally!
I’ve never heard of Jesus!
I went to church and played bass in the band!
I was born centuries before him!
I drove out demons and did deeds of power in his name!
I was a good person, I’ll be going to heaven!
The Son of Man, frustrated with the talk of ‘going to heaven,’ interrupted the babel and confusion with a clarifying question that silenced all of creation:
“You thought this was about going somewhere else? Did I teach you to pray ‘Your kingdom we’ll go?’ or ‘Your Kingdom come?’ I have come to bring heaven here, not to take you elsewhere. Heaven isn’t a ‘place’ that you go, it’s the very Presence of God that I bring. And now, those who have responded to God’s grace and have not dammed Heaven from flooding the earth by accepting me will inherit this kingdom of a transfigured creation.”
The seas roared with the outcry and joy from within both groups as some lamented they have never heard of Jesus let alone accepted him, while others ecstatic that they prophesied and saved souls in his name.
Then the King with a voice like lightening silenced the nations with this stunning declaration:
“You accepted me, as a child solider in Darfur, as a Thai child enslaved in sex trafficking, as a refugee seeking to enter your country, as a disabled black youth on death row, as a homeless vet on the streets, as a gay youth victimised in High School, as a drug addicted prostitute needing a meal, as an inmate needing a visit …”
As the list of where Christ had been camouflaged throughout creation when on, a shockwave rippled throughout all of reality at the realization that the two groups were not separated by their doctrines or ideas about Christ, or grace, or Heaven, or hell. They were separated by their response to the saving grace of Jesus in the most vulnerable and oppressed. The reality of this revelation for one group felt like eternal punishment. And for the other, eternal life. Eternal Life of the New Heavens and the New Earth liberated from all that does not look like Jesus’ Calvary-shaped love.
How might this conversation change if we include in the list of were “Christ is camouflaged”; the “neo-Calvinist brother” and the “Rob-Bell-reading-N.T. Wright-loving sister”?
So brother Rob, amen to “In Jesus, love wins.” I hope that love’s victory is seen clearly in his new book, and pray that that same love is seen so clearly in our lives that Yorkshire based web designer @robbell could tweet “I know these are Christians by their love.”
Jarrod McKenna the National Advisor for Youth, Faith and Activism for World Vision Australia. He is a peace award winning founder of EPYC and co-founder of the Peace Tree Intentional Community in Perth. You can follow him on Twitter here.