Because of my own experience as a writer, I’ve been anticipating the baptism in hot water (or worse) that Rob Bell was about to experience with the publication Love Wins. And because of the old saying that it’s not the attacks of your critics but the silence of your friends that hurts the most, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to speak up in Rob’s defense.
I couldn’t help but predict who would be first at bat with critique, what they would say, and how they would say it. A prominent Southern Baptist leader, Dr. Albert Mohler, put it well: “We Have Seen This All Before.” His response to Rob’s book, in an article under that title, will be judged by fans a veritable home-run of a response. It stirred up a few responses which I’d like to share.
Dr. Mohler rounded first base by articulating a claim that goes along these lines: “Our view is the biblical view, so all who oppose it oppose the Bible.” Here’s how he said it:
We have no right to determine which “story” of the Gospel we prefer or think is most compelling. We must deal with the Gospel that we received from Christ and the Apostles, the faith once for all delivered to the church. Suggesting that some other story is better or more attractive than that story is an audacity of breathtaking proportions. The church is bound to the story revealed in the Bible — and in all of the Bible … every word of it.
Of course, Dr. Mohler is right to say that the gospel isn’t simply a ball of silly putty we can mold to our liking (although sadly, any cursory study of church history shows how often we Christians have done so). But he is wrong to assume that Rob is saying his story is better than Jesus’ story. Rather, Rob is suggesting that Jesus’ original story (as he interprets it) is better than the version many hold and proclaim today. He’s making a distinction — nuanced to some, obvious to others — between the actual original gospel and the imperfect versions or approximations of it that any of us proclaim. He wants to be bound to that original story rather than to a popular (perhaps the most popular in some settings) version of it.
Now communication is nearly always tricky, as any of us who are married or are parents know. The speaker has a meaning which is encoded in symbols (words) which then must be decoded by the receiver. That decoding process is subject to all kinds of static — for example, interference from the biases, fears, hopes, politics, vocabulary, and other characteristics of the receiver or the receiver’s community. If the receiver then tries to pass the meaning — as he has decoded it — on to others, there is more encoding and decoding, and more static. That’s why, with so much encoding and decoding and re-encoding going on, the challenge of communication across many cultural time zones is downright monumental. (By the way, if you say that’s all overcome by good scholarship or the Holy Spirit, you still have a problem, since so many people who sincerely seek to follow the principles of good scholarship and/or the promptings of the Spirit come up with such wildly different versions of Christianity.)
Our versions (mine included) are all, then, human interpretations of the gospel of Christ and the apostles, and human interpretations of the original message are not exactly the same thing as the original message. Some are more true to the original and some less, but no articulation of the gospel today can presume to be exactly identical to the original meaning Christ and the apostles proclaimed. That doesn’t mean we can’t proclaim anything with confidence, but it demands a proper and humble confidence rather than a naive and excessive confidence.
That excessive confidence hides behind a popular saying: “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” To many ears, the saying sounds admirable. But wouldn’t the saying be a bit more honest, and a bit less admirable, if we phrased it like this: “The Bible says something which I interpret in a certain way, and I believe that interpretation, and that settles it”?
I know Rob, and I’m quite certain he (like many of us) started questioning the interpretation of the gospel he received not because he was looking for a more palatable or popular version. (The truth is, he was already wildly popular as a megachurch pastor and bestselling author. A controversial book like this risks his popularity — it doesn’t guarantee to increase it.) He started questioning the interpretation/version he received because he became convinced — from studying Scripture itself — that the version he received wasn’t the best interpretation. He (and many of us) may be wrong, but if we’re wrong, it’s not simply because we are trying to pander to “contemporary culture” (a problematic term in itself … which one? Fox News culture? Bill Maher culture? Christianity Today culture? Christian Century culture?). Yes, that’s Dr. Mohler’s interpretation of our motive — but his interpretation, I suggest, isn’t infallible.
Next Dr. Mohler rounded second base with this: ” … Bell’s argument is centered in his affirmation of God’s loving character, but he alienates love from justice and holiness … Love is divorced from holiness and becomes mere sentimentality.”
Not so fast on at least two counts. First, many of us are concerned about the traditional doctrine of hell for reasons of justice and holiness, not mere sentimentality. Even putting God’s loving nature aside for a moment, it’s very hard to square the idea of eternal conscious torment with a just or holy God, especially when Jesus repeatedly encourages us to trust God as a just and holy father (in contrast to human fathers who, Jesus points out, can be downright evil). If a human father decided to throw his child in a fireplace for just ten seconds as punishment for disobedience, we wouldn’t fault the father simply for being unsentimental: we would say such behavior was unholy, an act of torture in violation of our most fundamental sense of justice. Any definition of justice and holiness that involves being unsatisfied unless the imperfect are suffering eternal agony seems to many of us as unworthy of a human being and if so, how much more unworthy of God whose justice must be better than our own.
That doesn’t solve the problem, and it doesn’t address all the biblical texts that those who defend the traditional view can quote from memory. (Which is a legitimate topic for civil discourse — discourse that I hope will come in the next innings of play.) But it does demand that the question be opened so the traditional interpretations of those texts can be reconsidered — alongside the other often-marginalized texts that argue for a wideness in God’s mercy and a compassion in God’s justice. Having grappled with those texts myself, like Rob I found it more reasonable and faithful to the full witness of Scripture to conclude that love wins through God’s restorative (not merely punitive) justice. And no, that’s not traditional universalism because it works within a very different framing narrative than traditional universalism, exclusivism, and inclusivism all assume. (I’ve tried my best to address that issue of framing narrative in my books Everything Must Change and A New Kind of Christianity.)
It’s out of line to label such concerns for the justice and holiness of God as mere sentimentality.
We should also notice what Dr. Mohler thinks Rob is being sentimental about. He doesn’t accuse Rob of being overly concerned about real people supposedly writhing in absolute, utter torment at this very moment. Nor does he accuse Rob of being overly concerned about this troubling image of God as inventor and enforcer of eternal conscious torment. No, he accuses Rob of being sentimental about the people who are offended by this idea:
There is no reason to doubt that Bell wrote this book out of his own personal concern for people who are put off by the doctrine of hell.
No, I don’t think so. This isn’t simply a matter of “personal concern for people who are put off.” This is personal concern for our ancestors, descendants, friends, neighbors, relatives, and even our enemies who are put in … thrown in hell to experience torment at the hand of God forever and ever and ever. It’s insulting to use the words “mere sentimentality” in relation to this kind of concern for our fellow human beings.
Next Dr. Mohler races around third base with the popular epithet liberal. He accuses those of us who differ with the prevailing view on hell as, “Pushing Protestant Liberalism — just about a century late … This is just a reissue of the powerless message of theological liberalism … This is the traditional liberal line.”
Now if “liberal” simply means “not conservative, ” then I suppose that’s OK. But the term liberal used in this way evokes a whole narrative that is nearly universal in many fundamentalist/Evangelical circles. Mohler sums it up smartly:
By the time the 20th century came to a close, liberal theology had largely emptied the mainline Protestant churches and denominations … Liberalism just does not work …
From childhood I was taught this liberal-mainline-decline narrative (and its counterpart — the conservative-Evangelical-growth narrative). I’m ashamed to say I never questioned it for years. But the narrative, like all prejudices, turns out to be terribly vulnerable — especially if you actually meet many of the people it purports to describe. Consider these possible rebuttals (some of which are quite popular among mainliners, some not):
- Perhaps it wasn’t liberalism that killed mainline Protestantism. Perhaps it was institutionalism.
- Perhaps it was an excessive concern among many mainline Protestant leaders to protect their “mainline” status of privilege and power.
- Perhaps it was complicity with nationalism, a complicity that was exposed as faulty in the 20th Century by two world wars and Vietnam.
- Perhaps it was liturgical and organizational rigidity.
- Perhaps the fall of mainline Protestantism had more to do with complacency and a lack of visionary leadership than it did with a willingness to question traditional interpretations of Scripture.
- Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t dead or even dying: perhaps mainline Protestants have entered a latency period from which a new generation of Christian faith is trying to be born. (And perhaps conservative Protestantism is about to enter that latency period too.)
- Perhaps mainline Protestantism isn’t failing at all, any more than the U.S. Postal Service is failing. (It’s actually doing more work than ever, with proportionately fewer resources than ever.) Perhaps it’s just that the times have changed, and First Class mail isn’t what it used to be, and mainline Protestants think they’re in the stamp-and-envelope business instead of the communication business.
- Perhaps mainline Protestants are in decline primarily because they haven’t been as good marketers as Evangelicals. Perhaps mainliners haven’t “pandered” to customer demands as well as Evangelicals. They haven’t adopted new technologies — first radio, then TV, then the internet — as savvily as Evangelicals have.
- Perhaps mainline decline is related to higher college attendance rates — rates that, by the way, Evangelicals are now catching up to. Perhaps conservative Christianity will fare no better in holding young adults who get a college education than mainline Protestants were. Perhaps the graphs will end up in the same place, with just a 30- or 40-year lag.
- Perhaps mainline Protestants started to decline when they became prophetic — agreeing with Dr. King about the institutional evils of segregation and the Vietnam war. Perhaps being prophetic, which involves calling people forward to a better future, is inherently more costly and less popular than being conservative, which involves calling people back to a better past.
- Perhaps Evangelicals started to grow when they filled in the same role mainline Protestants used to occupy: the civil religion of the United States.
- Perhaps mainline Protestantism collapsed because of hypocrisy and disconnection from real-life issues, and perhaps Evangelicalism is edging ever-closer to a similar collapse.
- Perhaps mainline Protestantism was the religion of the American countryside and small town, and it declined as rural and small-town populations declined. And perhaps Evangelicalism is the religion of the American suburbs, and its fate will rise and fall with suburban life.
Now I think the reasons for mainline decline are many and complex, and I wouldn’t bet my life on any one of these possible rebuttals alone or even all of them together. But taken together, they show that the “conservatives grow and liberals shrink” formula might give a false sense of superiority to one group, and a false sense of inferiority to the other. (My personal belief is that neither Evangelicals nor mainliners nor Roman Catholics nor Pentecostals nor anybody else is or has the full answer. I think Fr. Vincent Donovan had it right when he said we shouldn’t leave others where they are, nor should we try to bring them to where we are, as beautiful as that place might be. Instead, we should go with others to a place neither we nor they have been before. Where we need to be is not where any of us currently are; we are all being called higher up and further in – a journey I try to describe, by the way, in Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words.)
Finally Dr. Mohler strides across home plate with a point I actually agree with: “At the end of the day, a secular society feels no need to attend or support secularized churches with a secularized theology.”
True enough (if by “secular” you mean “without any reference to God”), but the rub for many who identify as conservatives, I think, is that for them, secularism only comes in one flavor: liberal.
To more and more of us these days, conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist theology looks and sounds more and more like secular conservatism — economic and political — simply dressed up in religious language. If that’s the case, even if Dr. Mohler is right in every detail of his critique, he’d still be wise to apply the flip side of his warning to his own beloved community.
Yes, many of us are rejecting theologies that seem to dress up secular conservative ideology in “Sunday best.” But that doesn’t mean we want to put secular liberal ideology in robes and collars instead. Of course not. We’re seeking — imperfectly at every turn, no doubt — an incarnational theology, a theology that brings radical good news of great joy for all the people, good news that God loves the world and didn’t send Jesus to condemn it but to save it, good news that God’s wrath is not merely punitive but restorative, good news that the fire of God’s holiness is not bent on eternal torment but always works to purify and refine, good news that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.
If some like Dr. Mohler want to reserve the terms Evangelical, orthodox, and even Christian for those who hold fast to the traditional view of hell, they seem to have the power and moxy to do so. Those of us who can’t in good conscience defend that view any longer are certainly not condemning people who can’t in good conscience stop defending it. But we are hoping at least to be given the courtesy of a fair hearing. To impugn our motives (that we are selling out the Bible for the pottage of popularity), to reduce our concerns about love and justice to sentimentality, to dismiss us with the “L” word and a questionable narrative surrounding it, and to demean as “secularized” our attempt to articulate a fresh vision of the gospel probably won’t pass muster as a fair hearing.
So after the first inning of responses, I imagine Rob Bell feels a lot like I have on many occasions: it’s not that the critics have accurately understood what I’m trying to say and have explained why they disagree. It’s that they’ve misrepresented what I’m trying to say and have explained why the misrepresentation is audacious and ludicrous. Thankfully, there’s still time to see the conversation continue and deepen, and Dr. Mohler can be thanked for getting the first inning off to a strong and exciting start. If we seek true understanding and give one another a fair hearing all along the way, knowing we’ll all strike out sometimes and even commit an error or two from time to time, whoever “wins, ” love will win.
Brian McLaren is an author and speaker who’s new book is Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words