I think that title is funny. I’ve seen it in countless articles (they all seem to copy one another) referring to Rob Bell with this terminology, and I doubt it’s a title he has sought. My experience of Rob Bell over the years through reading his books, watching his videos, listening to his podcasts, and searching the web is that he is a very genuine man. I believe he honeslty cares for people and is a “man after God’s own heart” to use what feels like a worn out phrase. My assessment is that it is this pursuit of God and a love of what God loves that drives Rob Bell to write a book like Love Wins.
Over the last few weeks I have read both this, the newest of his books, and what seems like countless posts and articles reviewing and assessing his work. There has been some support from people such as Brian McLaren, who has been through similar criticism, and the president of Fuller Theological Seminary where Rob Bell received his theology degree. This support has been very good. But there have been countless other opinions and reviews that are rather scathing (of course in the most “Christian” kind of way) condeming the work and describing Rob Bell as a heretic, misguided, and as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” So if I am to believe these critics, I am supposed to just throw out what I feel to be true about Rob Bell from my personal experience of studying him, reading him, and listening to him and believe that despite his theology degree, his genuineness, and his obvious care and concern for not just humanity but all of creation, that he is something evil bent on deceiving me just to sell a few books all because he is daring and bold enough to suggest that hell may not be as populated as we have been told it will be. Well, my assessment is that for me to do that, that would be dumb as hell.
I’m 42 years old which is pretty close to Rob Bell’s 40. We grew up in the same American climate and in similar evangelical circles. We were told that if you didn’t say the right prayer in the right way and with the right things in your heart, that you were doomed to exist in an eternal hell full of godlessness and torment. And I’d say for the first 35 years of my life, I was afraid enough to have any thoughts which challenged this belief. But as I matured and realized that my entire connection with God was based on a forced relationship which directly derived from a fear of hell, I began to wonder if this is what God really meant by loving me and having a relationship with me. It seemed rather shallow.
The whole systematic lattice of what one had to believe began to crumble a bit as I gained courage to challenge things that didn’t make sense and that I couldn’t reconcile with my experience in the world. Things like a literal 6 day creation; things like the fact that the bible authors must have had biases that they introduced into their writings; things like the fact that even when we believe we are holy and pure, we are still living in a system of capitalism that is as destructive as it is productive; things like American Indians who had no chance to know the name of Christ being in hell. I could go on and on. But as I challenged and questioned and prayed and read, the feeling that my faith ought to be able to make sense within me, that it ought to have some sort of coherence without having to tie it all together by making systematic leaps and somersaults to get it all to fit. And while I don’t know Rob Bell and haven’t ever had conversation with him about it, I suspect that he has felt at least some of what I describe. I feel I know from where he is coming.
While I’m not much of a slogan guy, I do love the slogan the United Church of Christ uses: “God is still speaking.” As a follower of Christ, I do believe that God resides in me and communicates to me through his Spirit. God did not quit communicating with his creation when the last bible author wrote that last word. And after years of searching and praying and talking with God and reading and conversing and considering, I have come to believe that this drive to understand my faith in a way that makes sense to me is God doing that very thing, communicating with me. Does Rob Bell feel this too? I have no idea. But I’ll bet we do want the same things. We do want to understand God in the way that God wants to be understood. And to do that I had to start over on some things. Things like treating the bible for what it is, words about God, rather than God itself. Things like the way the bible is read. Things like the way the bible is interpreted. I completely quit reading the bible for a few years in order to be able to get away from all that old baggage. And when you do that and then start back fresh, some interesting things jump out at you.
In much of the criticism I’ve read about Love Wins, the author of that criticism will say that the bible is “very clear.” This has usually been said in reference to what it says on hell. Well, that’s just dumb. The bible is not really “very clear” on any number of things and that includes hell. What those authors really mean is that their particular interpretation of the bible is “very clear,” or that their particular denomination’s systematic theology is “very clear.” But the bible itself actually is often far from clear. Very good evidence of this seems to me to come both from the hundreds of different translations of the bible and the thousands of denominations within “Christianity.” If it was all so “very clear,” why the need for all that? In the end the only thing that I can say that is really “very clear” from the bible is that God does in fact love us and that this love is manifested and modeled for us in the person of Christ.
And this begs the question, “Why isn’t it ‘very clear’? Why is there so much debate? Shouldn’t the God of the universe, if it is so critical that we get our interpretation of scripture and our theology just right, done a slighlty better of a job at making it a bit more clear?” My own answer to that question is this: “Exaclty. If it was important for us to get it all just right, I think God would have gone to much greater lengths to make sure that we got it right.” And that goes for whatever we happen to think about hell too. Again, I believe that the only thing that is really exceptionally clear and without much room for debate is that fact that God is about love and that God wants us to love him and to love ourselves and to love others. That’s it, that’s all. I think if all you do is live in this way, you’re going to know God and you’re going to have a pretty good life no matter what your particular belief about evolution/creation, atonement, virginity, etc, etc, etc. As my dad recently said, “I doubt that systematic theology will save many people.”
But Rob Bell’s critics think more dualistically than that. They are largely an either/or crowd it seems to me, as I would say is much of Christianity. I’d even include myself in that camp until recent months and years. And by that I mean that one is either in or out, included or excluded, bound for heaven or bound for hell, right or wrong, this or that. There is no middle ground. No tension. No unresolved issues. I’ll bet that many of the theologians/pastors/church leaders who are criticizing Bell would probably have an answer other than “I don’t know” for any theological question that could be asked. That’s the way their theologies fit together, like a puzzle with all pieces in place. Finding an answer is as simple as finding the right puzzle piece.
So it’s not at all surprising to me that they think Love Wins is about universalism; that Rob Bell is suggesting that everyone will eventually be in heaven and that hell will be empty when it’s not. He doesn’t do that at all. He doesn’t even come close. All he does is take what I think is a very honest look at scripture, the same look that I’ve seen in other more academic works that are intended for an academic audience, and make the assessment, which is really more like a reassessment since he is not saying anything that others such as NT Wright and Brian McLaren and others, even ancients, haven’t already said, and suggest that God will most likely pursue us in love much more passionately that we have ever been taught or thought. And that, understanding what I have come to understand about God, makes a lot more sense than what I have previously been told I had to believe. A hell of a lot more sense.
In the end I feel sorry for dudes like Piper and Taylor and Driscoll and Deyoung, locked into their dualistic theologies and in positions of power. They don’t have any freedom change their beliefs even if they wanted to without it coming from some sort of demonination wide edict or vote at some sort of annual assembly. Their positions of power and authority and even their paychecks rest on their theology. I read an article today about a United Methodist pastor who Facebooked his support for Love Wins and was removed from his church. If a single little worker bee pastor can get axed, those big dudes up there have a lot more to lose. How can they do anything else than what they’ve done? I’m not at all surprised. Plus, they know the stats. They know that largely people in their 40′s and younger, us rebellious roudy Gen Xers, are rethinking their faiths and are shaking a lot of those traditional systematic necessities. That includes hell. And when your theology is largely based on a fear of hell, that leaves your denomination in a very weak position.
So, Rob Bell, thanks for your books, not only this one but all of them. You have helped affirm for me things that I have largely already come to understand by my own reading and prayer and study and inner toiling. I support you fully. And when I think about it, you are, in fact, a Rockstar.