What In The World
Does Rob Bell Believe?
It may sound strange but that is what people are asking.
Rob, of course, is well known through his books, DVD’s and tours, at least by name, but just when you think you’re getting to know him he adds a new twist.
His latest book, “Love Wins” is a good example. It has everyone worriedly pondering or loudly condemning and the negative responses aren’t very original:
Blasphemer, false prophet, liar, wolf in sheep’s clothing and it doesn’t stop there. Added to that are many cleverly worded headlines:
- Rob Bell No Hell
- Osama now in heaven: “Love Wins”
- Love Wins, Logic Loses
- Hell, Bell and Evangelism
- Bell’s god
. . . And more.
Don’t react too quickly though. These tags are used so frequently against even marginally different opinions they’ve lost their significance. You get the impression that because those words are in the Bible they must be employed loudly and often or we aren’t doing the most important part of our job.
For some, the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame and slander others who don’t articulate matters of faith as they do, p. 183.
But, in Rob’s case it is important to understand why these titles are being invoked. He is rethinking and rewording untouchable theological issues – heaven and hell – so he is at the top of the bad guy list. Actually he’s been the most recent and radical bad guy for a long time but, never mind the straw or the camel’s back, his last book is the bail that breaks every bone in the camel’s body.
Of course, even if Rob were all these bad things it is really quite silly to broadcast it. I never heard of Rob until a high profile preacher attacked him publicly and then I was intrigued. How could I not read his books? His DVD’s became the new forbidden fruit.
Well, once you read his books you realize that Rob is just a guy and none of the negatives apply. You might not agree with him and he is way out there on some issues but that doesn’t mean he is:
- A liar
- A heretic
- Or an infidel
. . . Like so many people are suggesting.
He is a person who cares. He comes across as sensitive, thoughtful, analytical and courageous enough to say what he thinks. These are marks of individuality not heresy.
I don’t agree with Rob or at least with what I think he is saying but he has made some brilliant observations about Jesus, discipleship and character and has found some relevant ways to engage large numbers of people. There is nothing wrong with that.
And tell me, what person believes absolutely everything that any other person believes, unless, of course, you are talking about John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards or some other reformed icons of our time.
If God wanted us to be uniform He wouldn’t have made us individuals. Rob is being Rob. He isn’t a cardboard cut out. That makes him different it doesn’t make him bad. Even when he is wrong – and everyone is wrong occasionally – it doesn’t make him a heretic. Rob is actually quite average in many ways accept when it comes to being an individual.
While most of Christendom is working to ignore elephants in the room in the name of being close, getting along and maintaining the image of unity, Rob is saying “hold on, what about this or that idea” that so many are asking about.
Solidarity is not a bad thing but in the case of today’s Christians it comes across as an aggressive, offensive, in-your-face grandstanding type of unity and the people we are supposed to be engaging aren’t buying it. It infuriates rather than changes minds.
In that regard Rob is different but in terms of actual “beliefs” he is quite normal. Rob explores ideas without making declarations. He proclaims the questions not the answers.
A Topic and Scripture Index for “Love Wins” can be downloaded for free here.
So, unlike cultic leaders, there is no domino effect in Rob’s teaching. He explores without dismantling existing beliefs completely.
In fact, even though I find some of his ideas quite different, particularly in Love Wins, it was very obvious that he is familiar with and believes many of the traditional teachings of fundamental Christianity and that is the reason for this post.
As a preface to my reviews on each chapter of Love Wins I decided to make a list of many things Rob believes or seems to favor. They are traditional, comfortable, safe.
For example . . .
Rob is not Amillennial
And he makes the point without ever referring to any kind of millennium. Amazing!
On page 31 Rob refers to “eternal life” as olam habah (Hebrew) which he says means . . .
This age, and the one to come, the one after this one, p. 31.
He doesn’t specifically call the age to come the “millennium” but he does refer to the Jewish expectation of a future restored kingdom on earth.
They (the Jews) did not talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed and redeemed and there would be peace on earth, p. 40.
He reinforces the idea a few pages later . . .
What Jesus taught, what the prophets taught, what all of Jewish tradition pointed to and what Jesus lived in anticipation of, was the day when earth and heaven would be one. The day when God’s will would be done on earth as it is now done in heaven, p. 42.
Rob does border on post millennialism but only because he encourages a more proactive stance toward injustice and inequality in the world. I wouldn’t call that heresy.
Keeping in line with this expectation . . .
Rob believes in God’s judgment and justice in the Kingdom
Still quoting the prophets Rob says “that a number of things that can survive in this world will not be able to survive in the world to come.” (p. 36)
War, rape, greed, injustice, violence, pride, division, exploitation, disgrace.
Talking about people who say they can’t believe in a God of judgment Rob says . . .
Yes, they can. Every report of another woman sexually assaulted…we (all of us, everyone) shake our fist and cry out, will somebody please do something about this?, pp. 37-38.
In the age to come, Rob says, “God acts decisively, on behalf of everybody who’s ever been stepped on by the machine . . . p 38”
Rob is not a racist
Still speaking of the justice of the coming kingdom, Rob says . . .
A racist would be miserable in the world to come, p. 34.
Bigots won’t be happy there either. Every nation, skin color, language, dialect, accent, music style, custom and tradition will be represented in the future heaven on earth kingdom, p. 34.
And he concludes, “your racist (or bigot) attitude would simply not survive.”
Rob seems to question Eternal Security
I say “seems” because Rob never says or implies salvation is to be worked for. In fact, he refers to forgiveness as “unilateral” and by that he means . . .
God isn’t waiting for us to get it together, to clean up, shape up, get up – God has already done it, p. 189.
And after quoting several familiar and significant verses he summarizes . . .
Not because of anything we have done. When we were still powerless. Because of his mercy, p. 189.
For those who may not know, the phrase “Eternal Security” is not found in the Bible but refers to the belief that any person who is saved and therefore born again receives a new nature which cannot be corrupted and the person so changed will never lose salvation. Any sins they commit in this life will not prevent their going to heaven when they die.
Rob doesn’t use the term “eternal security” and in what seems to be a contradiction of the idea he does insinuate that the judgment on each Christian’s works (1 Corinthians 3) is a time when the most spiritually bankrupt will be sent away from heaven’s bliss to some kind of penal state (purgatory maybe?) where they will hopefully develop sufficient character to qualify for heaven, p. 50.
He also relates this to the judgment of goats in Matthew 25 (p. 51) where those who fail to do what many interpret as social gestures – water for the thirsty, food for the hungry – are sent away into punishment.
However, drawing on the example of the prodigal son and his brother, Rob says that the father’s love could neither be earned nor taken away (p. 187) which suggests a sense of security, a different kind of security.
I explain why I disagree in a future post.
But, while he doesn’t specifically endorse eternal security . . .
Rob does believe in character development
And this really seems to be the point.
For Rob, the judgment on works (1 Corinthians 3) is to test a person’s character. Those with character are used in the kingdom. Those lacking character are sent elsewhere for reshaping punishment.
To illustrate the idea Rob refers to the plight of a single mother who at great personal sacrifice and against the odds raises her children faithfully. To that Rob responds . . .
She can be trusted . . . Does God say to her, ‘Your the kind of person I can run the world with,’ p. 53?
And to be fair, character IS a neglected issue. Most people are so busy promoting a salvation so secure you could never do anything to lose it, there is little room left for rational discussions on character development. The closest we get to character issues are long lists of “prohibitions,” which is a feeble attempt at regulating behavior.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t work because character is developed through the things you do not the things you don’t do. Fruits of the Spirit (character qualities), therefore, get lip service only.
And staying in line with these truths . . .
Rob believes in dying to self
His words . . .
Jesus teaches again and again that the gospel is about a death that leads to life. It’s a pattern, a truth, a reality that comes from losing your life and then finding it, p. 76.
Rob uses the experience of the rich man (Luke 16) to illustrate this truth. The rich man had died physically to life in this world but had not died to self even in hell. The delusions about his importance and position were impervious to the pain following death.
But . . .
Rob does believe in the New Birth
In spite of everything I just noted Rob refers to God as . . .
The one who can do what humans cannot . . . who gives new spirits and new hearts and new futures, p. 36.
An obvious reference to being “born again,” a phrase he doesn’t develop in the book. In fact, he shuns popular evangelistic phrasing.
Rob believes in instantaneous creation
He says . . .
God speaks . . . and it happens. God says it . . . and it comes into being, p. 145.
Obviously, if Rob were a “liberal” he wouldn’t make such comments.
Rob believes in the incarnation
In response to the idea that God became a man Rob says . . .
This is an astounding claim, and one that causes many to get off the bus at the nearest stop. Too out there, too mythic, modern, or superstitious to be taken seriously . . . It’s a common protest, and it’s understandable. It is, at the same time, unavoidable. It’s the heart of the Jesus story, pp. 146-147.
Infidels, blasphemers and modernists would never make such remarks but they can appreciate the generous spirit with which they are made. In such a statement, Rob is acknowledging the difficulties of believing but admitting to the essential nature of this truth.
Rob believes in evangelism
Rob writes to people who don’t believe and attempts to engage THEIR questions not ours. You get the sense that he is speaking to mainstream Christianity only tangentially.
And that begs the question. How do you speak to people of opposing opinions (outsiders) who have serious doubts yet are willing, even looking, for an open discussion on faith issues? How do you do that without ruffing up the faithful? Is it possible to do that without offense?
Outsiders are to be evangelized also, aren’t they? Must our discussions be scripted only by the catechism?
The usual Christian response to difficult questions is to proclaim the commonly accepted answers with a take-it-or-leave it, no discussion allowed attitude. And the meaning is obvious, “accept this or go to hell!”
To that Rob says..
Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him because of the parts about hell and torment and all that. Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will go to heaven when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it…Not all Christians have believed this and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian, p. 110.
There are plenty of insecure people who can be manipulated or bullied into believing with this stay-within-the-boundaries mentality that focuses only on hell but it isn’t very effective with secure, well-exercised thinkers. And Rob seems to understand that.
Evangelism should start where people are emotionally and mentally and proceed from there. That may be a long way off from the catechism but salvation can come at any time. That was the approach Jesus took with the woman at the well (John 4) and it really worked.
Rob believes in personal, individual choice (anti-calvinistic)
And he makes the point from beginning to end without once mentioning the word “calvinism.” Again, amazing!
Following are quotes from the book:
From the first page of the preface . . .
“First, I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere, p. vii.
About our ability to reject God’s grace . . .
It is absolutely vital that we acknowledge that love, grace, and humanity can be rejected, p. 72.
Rob suggests that free will is the one thing God cannot take from us and still be loving.
If at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is, p. 104.
And in answer to the question which titles his fourth chapter, “Does God Get What God Wants?” Rob responds with a second question, one he says is better: “Do we get what we want?” And the answer, he says . . .
…Is a resounding, affirming, sure, and positive yes. Yes, we get what we want. God is that loving, pp. 116-117.
He reasserts this idea later . . .
We are free to accept or reject the invitation to new life that God extends to us. Our choice…God extends an invitation to us, and we are free to do with it as we please, pp. 176-177.
And finally . . .
Rob believes in hell
The real change in Rob’s teaching, or at least the implied change, relates to the finality of hell not its reality. Rob suggests two things:
- People will have a chance to get saved after death.
- Hell is corrective not punitive and therefore temporary. The implication is, a person will stay in hell only long enough to change their thinking.
Many disagree with Rob on this point but to all the naysayers he responds . . .
Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it. We can be honest about the warped nature of the human heart, the freedom that love requires, and the destructive choices people make, and still envision God’s love to be bigger, stronger, and more compelling than all of that put together. To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now, p. 111.
Even if you think Rob is wrong, discussion is useful and the name calling, so prevalent among Christians, gives God a black eye. We should change that.
The book reflects many other beliefs which are common and comfortable. Get the book at Amazon inexpensively. Read it for yourself and tell others what you THINK!AboutIt.
See the review of Chapter 1 here.
See a discussion on the “Age of Accountability” here.
See how Rob compares to Martin Luther here.
Get a free Topical Index of Love Wins here.
In The Reason For God Timothy Keller confronts head on the questions that skeptics are asking, yet without a confrontational style. It is sensible, rational and engaging. A must read for every thinking person, Christian or not. His approach to hard questions about God not only provides answers it encourages us to develop analytical thinking skills. Also available is a DVD with discussion guide for small group interaction.
This website was… how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I have
found something that helped me. Thank you!
Thanks for the comment David, and yes, I think 1 John 2:2 is exactly what he had in mind.
I was taught that Jesus died for every single sin of every single person, lost or saved. The only sin He couldn’t die for was the refusal to get saved. Rob’s theology is a logical extension on that idea.
The biggest difference between Rob and non-calvinistic convention is the idea that salvation can occur beyond the grave. And to be fair to Rob, both calvinists and non-calvinists already admit to variation on that view in the “age of accountability” issue.
Anyone dieing before the age of accountability automatically goes to heaven, i.e., they are saved beyond the grave even though they weren’t officially saved before.
But accepting “age of accountability” opens the door to discussions on other unresolved questions stemming from the concept. Rob is just walking through the door and exploring the concepts further.
David Saks says
I enjoyed the article or review and wondered whether Bell sees the unilateral act along the lines of what is described in 1 John 2:2, namely that the act (the propitiation) has already been performed so that the price for our sin has already been paid whether one accepts Christ as one’s Saviour or not.
This may reconcile itself with his anti-calvinistic view in that this view still contemplates evangelism (as opposed to the supine election approach).
Just wondering as I have not read the book but your review is intriguing and will cause me to do so!