(Photo: SBTS via The Christian Post)
Ongoing controversy over Rob Bell’s new book pressed four prominent Christian authors, professors, and theologians to urgently come together and hold a public conversation in regards to the divisive matter.
Making their intentions clear, the panel affirmed that it was love – love for the people of God and even love for the author – that brought them there, desiring to preach a message where love truly wins.
“When we have a conversation like this, we’re really saying to the world, to the larger community of Christians,” said Dr. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., “if anything we have said in the course of this conversation is in any way sub-biblical or in error or can be improved over how we’re saying it, we hope folks will love us enough to tell us.”
Troubled by the potential danger that Bell’s book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, could have over the believing and unbelieving world, the Christian leaders reintroduced the central message of the gospel, the way Christ and his apostles taught it.
“The good news is infinitely better than this,” Mohler stated about Bell’s work.
Russell D. Moore, Dean of the School of Theology, also affirmed the concerns over Bell’s wrathless, unjust God, saying, “There’s no message of hope here. That’s the problem. You have people with consciences that are plagued and they do not have the message of the blood of Christ that John says cleanses us from all unrighteousness.”
The major premise of “Love Wins,” surmised by the panelists, was that God is love, not an angry being who punished people to an eternity in hell, and that he ultimately forgives everybody.
Simply speaking, God’s abounding love would forever keep open the gates of heaven, like putting in place a perpetual doorstop.
Mohler described the book as a “velvet hell,” where Bell “cushioned” the whole idea of eternal damnation.
“Even if you go to hell you can choose to come out of it,” explained Denny Burk, Dean of Boyce College, about the author’s concept of hell. “There is no final punitive retributive justice from God. [Bell] even says that… hell is a place of remediation, almost like a purgatory. He even says at one point that hell is not the wrath of God but it’s the correction of a loving father.”
“I think [Bell] believes he’s making Christianity safe for people to accept,” further expounded Moore. “He’s saying there’s a problem [that] people can’t receive the God that we talk about. [So] let’s remove what is offensive and scandalous so we can reach people [and] they can become Christians.”
By eliminating offensive and supposedly outdated doctrines, like the subject of hell and God’s wrath, Bell and many theological liberals believe that Christianity can be in a sense, saved.
But Justin Taylor, vice president of Editorial at Crossway and one of the first to comment publicly about Bell’s novel, asserted that this view of God was one-dimensional and fundamentally missed the gospel story.
“From Genesis to Revelation, it just misses the holiness of creator God, the sinfulness of the fall of man, the accomplishment of what Christ did, and what the final state will be.”
Contextualizing the God of the Scriptures, Mohler explained to the audience that God was not a god who was divisible into a righteous part, a just part or a merciful part, but rather infinite in all of his perfections.
Contrasted with Bell’s version of a God who was all love but no wrath, the theologians all agreed that God’s love could never be a singular entity. Instead, his infinite love always came hand in hand with his infinite justice and holiness.
“I don’t think you can find a place in the entire book where sin is an offense against God. It’s always more horizontal, more passive, a wandering away, not an infinite offense against an infinite God,” Taylor lamented.
“The chief way that God demonstrates his love for the world is through a sacrificial death under the holy wrath of God. These things are never apart in Scripture,” resolved Burk. “God’s wrath is holy and infinite and it will either fall on you or fall on Jesus.”
“Even in the statements of Scripture that talk about [God’s] love he’s demonstrating it through a sacrifice, a sacrificial death, the very kind of death that’s denied in [Bell’s] book,” added Burk.
Taking what was once a true affirmation of God’s love, Taylor felt that Bell constructed his own storyline, instead of following a biblical one.
“One of the questions you can ask yourself as you’re reading the storyline of Scripture is what makes the biblical writers sing and rejoice? When they talk about God’s great love it’s always set against the backdrop of God’s righteousness.”
Taylor further stated, “I feel badly for those who read Rob Bell’s book and think this is an illuminating picture of God’s love. The irony of the book is that Rob Bell misses the love of God and by missing it, he is fundamentally unloving to his readers. They’re missing out on how great grace is and what it feels like to receive undeserved mercy.”
In essence, while trying to portray a God of love, the author ultimately painted a picture of a powerless, unmerciful, contradictory God.
Many pastors have accused Bell of being a universalist, believing that all people ultimately will be saved, with secular people even finding inconsistency in his preaching.
Calling him an inclusivist (saved only through Jesus whether or not by a conscience faith in Christ) when he spoke about the means of salvation and universalist when he talked about the end, Mohler, along with the rest of the speakers, could not definitively understand Bell’s own stance.
Citing his chapter entitled, “Does God Get What God Wants,” each speaker was unable to formulate a clear answer from Bell’s writing for the proposed question or reconcile his belief in the absolute free will of man with the absolute sovereign will of God.
Suggesting in his book that if anyone is left in hell, God does not get what he wants, the author also mentions in the same chapter that God does not violate human will, and so must leave people in hell if they are determined to stay there.
Taylor qualified these apparent inconsistencies by calling Bell an incoherent universalist. On one hand, Bell stated that God’s love would melt even the hardest of hearts, while on the other hand God allowed people to do what they wanted.
“That’s a contradiction, but there’s no attempt to resolve that,” Taylor declared. “That’s not living in a paradox, that’s living in a contradiction.”
Recognizing that even nonbelievers understood what Bell could not, Moore explained that there was a conscience embedded in every single human being that pointed towards judgment day. There was a sense of justice, a sense of certain fiery expectation of judgment.
“What [Bell] is doing is simply not answering what is already imbedded in the human heart, in terms of a longing for justice when something is done to me… there’s a longing for that to be made right,” Moore stated.
Adding, “For the New Testament, the scandal is not are there some people in hell. The thing that is the hardest to imagine is the horror of the whole humanity in sin, [and] how is it that God can be just and anyone can be forgiven of that.”
“A judge who justifies the wicked is an unjust judge [but] how is [it] that God who justifies the wicked is not thereby unjust… it doesn’t make sense in [Bell’s] depiction [of salvation.]”
How the lost would find satisfaction in Bell’s God, none of the four could understand.
“People who are going to be impressed by this book are disaffected evangelicals who have their own questions about divine justice and hell and they want someone to tell them what you intuitively feel that this God is demeaning and toxic and what you’ve grown up with is untrue,” reported Taylor.
“[Bell’s] coming along to say it’s okay, you’re right, it’s all going to work out in the end.”
Mohler devised that on every page of the book, the author seemed to be repeating the same thing. “It’s okay, it’s okay. There’s a sense in which we desperately want to say that [too], but the question becomes on what basis can you say ‘it’s okay.’”
“So many of the things [Bell] said about God’s promises to us are just so absolutely true and precious but they’re true only in Christ.”
Agreeing that some of Bell’s work was valid, Taylor assessed that the author was raising some legitimate issues, tapping into some things that all Christians naturally felt and wondered about.
Ultimately, however, it wasn’t about the questions he raised. It was about the answers he gave.
“We have to be able to refute those who contradict because we see something poisonous here and if you believe this, you’re going to be blinded from what God wants you to see about him,” warned Burk.
“The doctrine of hell is given to us as an inducement to see the greatness of God and our need for a Savior. You just can’t see that in this kind of book.”
Encouraging audiences and all believers to be constrained by the truth and hold each other to the gospel, Mohler ended the discussion with a prayer for Rob Bell and all those who would read the book.
“I hope one of the effects [of the book] will make us understand the horror of hell in a deeper way and the beauty and holiness of God in a more profound way,” exhorted Taylor, “motivating us to tell our neighbors who are lost and need the greatest news in the world that salvation is available through Jesus Christ.”
The public event was held by The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, with live streaming made available to those who could not personally attend.
Each speaker’s own reviews of Bell’s book can be found on their personal blogs and websites.