Pastor Rob Bell Catches Hell From Conservatives

During the last desperate weeks before a book manuscript is due at the publisher, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s going on in the world. But some things are hard to ignore. And if the book you’re writing happens to be a systematic philosophical defense of universalism and critique of the Christian doctrine of hell, then one of the things you can’t ignore—at least this past week—is the name “Rob Bell.” 

It turns out that my colleague John Kronen and I may not be the only ones about to come out with a book challenging traditional Christian views of the afterlife. Bell, the enormously popular pastor of the enormous Mars Hill Bible Church, has his own new book coming out this month called Love Wins in which he “puts hell on trial.” The publisher’s book description goes on to assert that Bell’s message is “decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.” 

This short description launched a frenzy of reactions within the evangelical community. Justin Taylor, vice president of editorial at Crossway, quickly posted a fierce condemnation—based solely on advance material. “It is unspeakably sad,” writes Taylor, “when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine.” He concludes that Bell “is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.” Taylor’s post spurred a furor of tweeting and blogging, including a curtly dismissive tweet from Bethlehem Baptist Church’s John Piper: “Farewell, Rob Bell.” 

In the throes of finishing a hefty co-authored philosophical look at the doctrines of hell and universalism, what struck me the most about the conservative evangelical establishment’s response to Bell is just how sure they are that Bell is wrong; even before reading the book. 

Their response was the ancient cry of heresy… and excommunication by tweet. 

Disagreeing with God

I was immediately reminded of a talk I gave a bit over a year ago to a group of Christian faculty about my last book, Is God a Delusion? And although that book is a critique of the new atheist attack on religion, somehow during the discussion period the conversation turned to Christian universalism. One of the more conservative people in the audience (we’ll call him Jim) said rather forcefully that Jesus only saves those who explicitly ask Him to be their Lord and Savior. When I said I disagreed with that view, Jim replied, “Then you disagree with God.”  

I can still recall the fierce expression on his face as he said those words. I was stunned. I shouldn’t have been, but I was. And now Taylor and Piper are saying the same thing to Bell: “If you disagree with us, you disagree with God.” 

I’ve always thought that this identification of one’s own views with God’s, especially when paired with avowals of piety and submission to God’s word, offers a good working definition of religious fanaticism. Fanatics, on this understanding, are those who combine two things. First, they embrace an unquestioning submission to God’s word rooted in the idea that what appears foolish to mere humans may, from a divine perspective, not be foolish at all. To question God is arrogant, displaying too much faith in the power of the human intellect to discern the good. Out of humility they therefore refuse to question what they take to be God’s word.  

This disposition of humility does not become fanaticism, however, until it is paired with arrogance: the refusal to recognize that their beliefs about God’s word could be wrong. The fanatic treats a challenge to their own beliefs as if it were a challenge to the word of God.

Fanatics in this sense needn’t be violent, nor do they necessarily express the kind of hateful “God hate fags” vitriol spewing from such people as Fred Phelps. But there is, in fanaticism, a dangerous combination of humility and arrogance that hermetically seals fanatics from reason and evidence. And this means that if and when they happen to think they are called to perform horrors in the name of God, there is little that can be done to dissuade them. All challenges are seen as human arrogance—as the vaunting of our finite intellects against the infinite wisdom of the divine. Shrouded in the cloak of their own humility, fanatics fail to notice the arrogance that undergirds their conviction. 

Richard Dawkins actually makes a similar point in The God Delusion, but he fails to distinguish fanatical religion from religion more broadly construed; a point for which I have taken him to task elsewhere. It is one thing to approach reality with deep humility, open to the possibility that there are levels of reality we cannot comprehend through our finite faculties, transcendent truths we cannot grasp but which, if we are sufficiently open to them, might seize hold of us. It is something else again to adopt the unswerving conviction that the beliefs we happen to have cannot be anything but the inerrant communications of the transcendent, such that all who disagree with us are therefore at odds with the divine. 

When “All” Means “Some”

Piper, Taylor, and others like them adopt the latter course, standing unswervingly in a pair of convictions: first, that the Bible is, from cover to cover, the inerrant self-disclosure of God; second, that the Bible clearly teaches their theology, including the doctrine of eternal damnation for some of God’s creatures. 

Of course, both convictions are highly contestable. In fact, it is debatable whether the two convictions are even consistent with each other. Can you really preach biblical inerrancy and dismiss universalism? What, then, do you do with John 12:32 where Jesus says, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself”? What do you do with Romans 5:18 (“Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men”)? What about Romans 11:32 (“For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all”)? Or I Corinthians 15:22 (“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive”)? Or I Corinthians 15: 28? Or Colossians 1:19-20? Or Lamentations 3:31-32?  

Presumably, Piper and Taylor have to say that when the Bible says “all,” it doesn’t really mean “all.” The plain meaning of these passages has to be rejected, some strained interpretation offered, in order to reconcile them with the hell-centric passages they favor (and yes, there is a litany of such passages as well). But in what sense is it “biblical Christianity” to ignore strong universalist themes and passages in the Bible in favor of themes and passage that evoke hellfire, but it is an “unspeakably sad distortion of the gospel” to do the reverse? 

Obviously there is much more to be said here. Many supporters of the doctrine of hell have supplemented the ambiguous biblical case with philosophical and theological arguments, countering them with a systematic case for universalism. But the point is not whether we are right that universalism fits better with core Christian doctrines than does some form of hell theology. The point is that Piper and Taylor dismiss the arguments in advance—because they are convinced that those who disagree with them disagree with God.  

Why? Not because their views are uncontestable. Not because there are unassailable arguments for the conclusion that their theology comes straight from God. The supreme confidence with which they make that identification is wholly unjustified. But the arrogance of this is obscured behind the fanatic’s humility. Cloaked in a display of setting aside their own finite reason before God’s word, they come to see the reasoned arguments of those with a different theology as hubristic challenges to God, as the vaunting of human reason over divine revelation. This is something their humility before God will not allow them to have anything to do with. And so they feel justified in ignoring their critics. 

You Might Be Wrong About God

In fact, I suspect the humility is sincere. The problem is that it’s so narrow in its scope. They cannot see the difference between challenging God and challenging their beliefs about God, even though humility demands distinguishing these things. It demands recognizing that you might be wrong about God. And while the possibility of being wrong about God does not mean you cannot have your views and defend them, it does mean that you need to listen to the thoughtful arguments of those who disagree with you.  

Not long ago in these pages, I chastised atheists such as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins for simply ignoring the thoughtful arguments of theologians—so confident in the rightness of their atheism that they take it for granted that theology is nothing but pretentious obfuscation. Here, in the conservative evangelical dismissal of Bell, we find the same offense.

In all such cases, the deep challenge is to listen to those who disagree with us, not just out of politeness, but out of a sincere recognition that we might learn something. The new atheist’s arrogant dismissal of theology is, in this regard, no worse than excommunication by tweet.