The debate about hell incited by Rob Bell and his book Love Wins is far from dying out. A month into the controversy, two theological heavy weights are just beginning to duel it out about the ideas Bell raises regarding hell and God's love.
Conservative Christian defender R. Albert Mohler, Jr., of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, responded Wednesday to emerging church leader Brian McLaren's blog post, saying he welcomes McLaren's rebuttal essay.
"Some theological disputes amount to very little and serve mostly as exercises in missing the point, if indeed there is a point. Other doctrinal exchanges are quite different and deal with matters of central and essential concern to the Christian faith," Mohler wrote on his blog. "The church cannot avoid and should not seek to evade this kind of theological conversation."
In the book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, pastor and author Rob Bell questions the commonly taught message that billions of people will burn in hell forever while only a few will go to heaven. Although Bell contends that God's love wins in the end, he has remained vague and elusive about his position on whether hell exists despite being questioned about this many times during interviews.
The controversy surrounding the book, released March 15, has helped it to debut at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list this week.
Just days ago, McLaren, author of the new book A New Kind of Christianity, wrote a four-point argument on four errors, in his view, in Mohler's theological review of Love Wins.
In his response Wednesday, Mohler acknowledged McLaren's first point that humans understand the Bible by interpreting the text so it is difficult to claim that one's interpretation is absolutely correct while someone else's is wrong. But he contended that McLaren's argument "leads to interpretive nihilism" where no one can be sure of anything the Bible says.
"It is one thing to cite the challenge of interpretation. It is another thing altogether to suggest that we are left with an insurmountable problem and an indefinite message," responded Mohler. "This flies directly in the face of biblical claims and commands."
The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary also refuted McLaren's second argument that he is misreading Bell's motivation for writing the book by pointing to what Bell himself wrote about the purpose of the book.
Responding to McLaren's third argument, that the traditional teaching of hell portrays God as not loving, Mohler said that the "logic destroys any faithfulness to the totality of God's self-revelation about himself."
"It presumes to judge God by human conception of love – and this is precisely what God himself rejects," wrote Mohler, citing Isaiah 55:8, which says, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord."
"He (McLaren) rejects the Bible as a 'legal constitution' and proposes that it be seen as a 'community library' that reveals an evolving human understanding of God – one in which some texts effectively nullify other texts," Mohler charged McLaren.
For the last point, the theologian surprisingly agreed with McLaren that conservative evangelical theology sometimes looks like "secular conservatism – economic and political – simply dressed up in religious language."
But the Baptist theologian turns the table on the argument by reminding McLaren that based on his first argument, people would not even know what is the true gospel and what is "secular conservatism" because everyone interprets the Bible differently and no one can claim he has the correct understanding.
"He (McLaren) is to be credited with taking theology seriously, with making clear arguments, and with a willingness to engage the conversation," concluded Mohler. "We are talking about two rival understandings of the gospel here – two very different understandings of the theology, gospel, Bible, doctrine, and the totality of the Christian faith. Both sides in this controversy understand what is at stake.
"And that, dear reader, is why this conversation must continue."