Rob Bell comes clean?

11 04 2011

When I opened Facebook yesterday, virtually one in three items on my news feed contained the following video, in which Rob Bell ‘comes out and states what many have been waiting to hear.’ Each time it has been posted, it has been accompanied by one of the following kinds of comments:

  1. Well done Rob! Glad to see you are orthodox after all (that’ll show those nay saying reformed guys)
  2. I haven’t read the book yet, but I thought everyone’s saying he is a universalist. I’m confused.
  3. I have read the book, and I thought it was fairly clear he was a universalist. Now I’m very puzzled

In the clip, Bell introduces himself as a Christian, and then essentially recites a creed, outlining the details of his Christian faith, all of which I say ‘amen’ to. Listen to it. See what you think. He includes in his list the fact that Jesus is the way, and that there is a hell… All of which seems a little confusing.

Here are a few comments:

I do believe he is a Christian. I believe his faith is genuine. As I’ve said before, I like him very much and enjoy listening to his preaching… though usually armed with a large pinch of salt. It’s great to hear him affirming many of the central tenets of the Christian faith. (Shame he couldn’t have included the virgin birth in there just to put the Velvet Elvis confusion to bed)

However, just because you throw around some titles and terms doesn’t mean you have affirmed where you stand on a particular doctrine. You could glance through the creeds of many different church streams and find them all affirming similar things using similar language, but meaning things that are worlds apart! Get a high Anglican, a non-conformist, a Baptist and a Mormon together and ask them if they believe in baptism – of course they all do, but what they mean by ‘I believe in baptism’ will be entirely different.

Of course, baptism isn’t the best example, because that’s an area of practice that has divided churches, whereas the items Bell includes are all things that evangelicals would have broad agreement on. But my point is this: Saying ‘I believe in X’ means very little when you are regularly guilty of redefining what X really means.

I’ve read Love Wins and I have no doubt Rob believes in Hell. He makes that very clear. But whether he and I and Jesus agree on how you define ‘hell’ is a different matter. I do think that he has redefined hell beyond the boundaries of where scripture goes, and so a simple affirmation like ‘I believe in hell’ means very little.

The central statement in his creed is this:

‘And I’m not a universalist because I believe God’s love is so great God lets you decide.’

This, I imagine, is what has confused many people, and put a smug smile on the face of others. And again it’s a labeling thing. Rob is defining universalism as the belief that everyone gets out of hell and into heaven. And of course he is rejecting that, because he believes that Jesus is the way, and so God won’t simply override your decision to reject Jesus. ‘He lets you decide.’

The question is ‘when does he let you decide?’

It’s very easy to reject a label, but functionally Bell is very far along the spectrum towards universalism. Because what he doesn’t say in this clip, but does say in his book, is that he anticipates that God’s love is so strong that people will be wooed to respond to him after their death, even if they’ve been languishing in hell for some time. The gates of heaven are never shut and Sodom and Gomorrah get restored, and this, for Bell, is enough to show that there will be postmortem opportunities for people to respond to the gospel.

(Of course, that’s not all of his argument – read the book if you have the time and inclination, or don’t if you don’t – see if you can figure out what the heck his exegesis of the prodigal son is about? It baffled the hell out of me.)

So Bell can and does reject the label of universalism, but what he actually says is barely different: hell is real, people will go there, but even there they will have the opportunity to respond to God’s love, and God’s love is so great that we can be optimistic that even in the darkest place, people will be swayed to respond.

So if we were to ask him ‘will hell at last be empty?’ I imagine his answer (not that he gives answers per se) would be: “theoretically no, since people will still be able to choose to reject God’s love. But hopefully yes, since God’s love is so compelling, who wouldn’t want to respond?”

I’m not going to get into critiquing Bell properly… that’s been done to death (and beyond). But I would make this appeal, particularly to my friends who fell into category (1) ‘Way to go Rob!’ – Don’t cheer too loudly. Rejecting the title is not the same as rejecting the doctrine. And Rob Bell is still preaching unorthodoxy.

And that leads me to the final point of his creed; the pinnacle:

‘And I also believe it’s best to only discuss books you’ve actually read’

(Cue rapturous applause)

Leaving aside the chagrin I felt at this getting more applause and whooping than the death, resurrection and second coming of Jesus, this wound me up a little…

Of course people are going to discuss books they haven’t read, when you release a promo video raising discussion questions before the release date. You invited them to discuss it!

Of course people are going to discuss it when they pastor churches and need to shepherd congregations.

Of course people are going to discuss it when the fate of their friends hangs in the balance, and they want to ensure they hear a faithful representation of the gospel.

And I would add this; it cuts both ways! And I have heard as many, if not more, people defend Bells book without having read it, as I have critiquing it. If we were to cut their voices out of the discussion, it would be a rather different tone of conversation.

To those who have, on the basis of this clip alone, declared Bell to be orthodox after all; you are just as ill-equipped to make that statement as the people you have criticised. Don’t put your eggs in the basket of a pithy creed. Read what he’s saying and take heed of what he’s not saying. Be discerning.

And remember; all of us run the risk of having itchy ears. Let’s be careful who we allow to scratch them. (2 Tim 4:3-4)

The Adjustment Bureau

15 03 2011

I nearly didn’t get to see The Adjustment Bureau. Not through some kind of conspiracy. There were no men in hats subverting my plans. I simply couldn’t spell it!

For some inexplicable reason, I always forget to but a ‘D’ in adjustment, and I can never remember the order of that veritable mire of vowels in the word bureau. So after a good few minutes of Googling, I finally landed upon the correct spelling, and went to see it on Sunday afternoon.

If you don’t know, The Adjustment Bureau is a film starring Matt Damon, in which he meets a dancer called Elise, and immediately falls in love with her. Soon after, he discovers that a team of people called The Adjustment Bureau are working to keep them apart, because their relationship is not according to ‘The Plan’ as prescribed by ‘The Chairman.’ The film then follows Damon trying to subvert the plan, in order to pursue this relationship.

The film is good fun, not too serious, and generally enjoyable. There’s a whole load of sci-fi, pseudo-philosophical-theological pontificating on free-will and determinism, and a couple of not so subtle hints that ‘The Chairman’ may in fact be God: He comes to all people in different forms (!) and when anybody talks about him, they gesture towards the sky.

To be honest, it made me think less than I imagined it would. I was expecting a deeply clever, mind-bending film – it was a little light on that… I’m sure if you want to use it as a springboard to debate predestination, open-theism and the like, you can. Russell Moore wrote a good blog post on it, saying that the primary theme is not really the free-will/determinism debate, but rather ‘It seemed to be a retelling of the Eden story, with some sympathy for the Devil.’ I think he’s right.

But the overriding feeling I did have was how sad it is that belief in a Sovereign God leads many to think of a micro-managing, meticulous deity who operates on mechanistic, soulless, thoroughly logical systems, with no kind of emotional engagement. I fear we do God an enormous disservice by painting his grace in such hideous monochrome!

Yesterday morning I sat down to study Ephesians 1, and was struck again by verse 5:

‘In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…’ (Eph 1:5)

Every word of that sentence demands thoughtful engagement, but just a few comments:

In love – Immediately that should guard us against using the language of cold-hard logic. Perhaps I’ve been devious by sneaking those words in… in most English translations they actually fall in verse 4. And that’s the problem! It’s too easy to separate the love of God from predestination, and so we end up with a cold, hard plan etched in a moleskine, whether we like it or not. No, predestination begins with love.

For adoption as sons – There is a purpose to election: it’s not simply that God would be able to micro-manage every bit of our lives; we are given a hope and a future as children of God, welcomed into intimate familial relationship with the God of the universe. And note, there is absolutely no speculation here (unlike Romans 9) of the negative flipside of election, just pure, unadulterated joy!

According to the purpose of his will – Commentators suggest that the word translated ‘purpose’ perhaps more accurately means ‘pleasure’, in which case this verse should read ‘according to the pleasure of his will.’ That blows me away. Predestination is both an act of God’s ‘will’ – his reasoned, decision-making capacity – and his ‘pleasure’ – his heartfelt, joy-fuelled passion. He both ‘decided’ and ‘delighted’ to choose us!

This verse alone ought to stop us from treating predestination as a dispassionate and technical process, whereby God made an arbitrary or mathematical decision about who he would ‘save’, totally devoid of passion.

No, he delighted in election, and so should we.

Darkness = …?

18 02 2011

A little shameless self-promotion to cover up for my inability to blog regularly… check out an article of mine just published on the Newfrontiers Theology Forum blog:

A God is for life, not just for Christmas

24 12 2010

The Christmas wars are in full swing.

Saint Knick - by Joriel "Joz" Jimenez

Scientists now claim that Christmas trees are offensive to people who are not Christians. Well that’s a new one… An object utterly unrelated to the true Christmas story now offends non-Christians. (To be honest, I find Christmas trees and gaudy decorations offensive, but for aesthetic rather than theological reasons.) Strangely I haven’t heard anybody claim offense at seeing Santa plastered everywhere, on Coke adverts, in luminescent form stuck on someone’s roof, or by way of dubiously dressed imitations in shopping centres (the majority of which, I fear, flout CRB laws with  aplomb). I can’t think why… perhaps because Santa gives legitimacy and permission to our craving for materialism?

And on the opposite side of the war, we see the seasonal billboards adorning Church buildings up and down the country, reminding people that Jesus is the meaning of Christmas. At least these have the unifying effect of making both Christians and Atheists alike cringe and consider emigrating.

‘Jesus came to sleigh your sin’

‘There’s snow way to the Father, except through him’

Ok – so I made those up… but you catch my drift.

It’s all well and good. I lament the removal of Christ from Christmas. I applaud the motives behind the billboards, even though I cringe at the design. (There seriously ought to be a Quango in charge of ensuring that comic sans is removed from all public use. If it weren’t for funding cuts…) But here’s my wish:

I wish Christians would care as much about reminding people to keep Christ in Easter as they do Christmas. And Pentecost for that matter. And each and every Sunday. And any celebration of nature, truth and beauty. And a dreary Tuesday in November when nothing of significance is in the national calendar.

As Abraham Kuyper said:

‘In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, “That is mine!”’

Tree or no tree, Santa or no Santa, don’t forget Jesus this Christmas. But please remember too, a God is for life, not just for Christmas!

Please stop the bandwagon. I’d like to get off.

3 12 2010

I know it’s trendy. I know you think it’s shocking. But it’s not. It’s overdone. It’s lost its impact. And I’m sick of it.

I am tired of articles and opening chapters of books that follow this tired formula. In fact, they are so ubiquitous that I am beginning to wonder if there actually is a formula for randomly generated intro chapters. See if you recognise it. It goes something like this:

I used to be a Christian.
Now I’m not.
I’m embarrassed to call myself a Christian.
Here’s why:
[Insert a handful of extreme examples of fundamentalism gone wrong]
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a follower of Christ.
I’m just embarrassed by the name.
And the connotations the name carries.
Let’s rename ourselves [insert some trendy name, which is probably also the title of the book]
If we do that then everything will all be fine.

You see, whilst the analysis may at times be insightful, and some of the solutions offered extremely provocative, I am so sick of the premise that I struggle to get past chapter one.

The ‘I used to be a Christian – but I hate the name – now I’m just a follower of Christ by another name’ thing used to be shocking. It used to make the reader feel uncomfortable. Now I read articles like ‘Anne Rice quit being a Christian’ and I don’t think ‘woah, that’s powerful!’ I think ‘chalk that up as the tenth this week!’

It’s not that I think the content of the books is always wrongheaded, although often it is. It’s not that I think that the authors are trying to sell us some wishy washy liberal distraction from preaching the gospel and building churches, although some of them are. I’m just bored of the premise! It doesn’t shock any more.

What is the most shocking or unexpected twist in a film that you can remember? The first time you watch it, it blows you away; you never saw that coming! What happens the second, third, or fourth time you watch the film? You get numb to it. It loses its power. What would happen if you took that scene and transposed it into a dozen other films? Every time a kid wanders onto your screen and says ‘I see dead people, all the time’ you’ll instantly know where the film is heading.

It’s stale. It’s done. I’m bored. Let’s move on.

The best opening I have read recently is in James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. Buy it and read it just for the opening chapter. Don’t skip to the end of the chapter; read it through! See if it doesn’t achieve what the ‘tried and tested formula’ above aims to. See if it doesn’t kick you in the gut and leave you gasping for air. See if it doesn’t make you turn the page faster than you have ever turned a page in your life!

Like I say, many of the books are great, just not as shocking as they think they are, and I fear that by jumping on the ‘bandwagon of embarrassment’ their effectiveness is significantly reduced. But for what it’s worth, here are three verses I’d just like to throw into the ring for consideration next time someone fancies copying and pasting this formula.

In the New Testament the word ‘Christian’ appears three times:

In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.’
(Acts 11:26)

Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”’
(Acts 26:28)

The title ‘Christian’ was given to the early believers by the unbelieving public. It’s always been a label applied to us by people outside, loaded with particular connotations. Why should we expect it to be any different today?

The term ‘Christian’ has always been a way of differentiating us based on what we’re not. For the early church they were not Jews, they were Christians. It was a boundary marker and a necessary distinction. Why should we expect it to be any different today?

‘Well then,’ you might say, ‘if it was a label given us by unbelievers, intended to separate and categorise us, are we not entitled to reject it or feel embarrassed by it?’

And I would reply, ‘Well, you may well have a point, but consider the third New Testament reference’:

If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.’
(1 Peter 4:16)

Where has that attitude gone? There was a day when people were proud of the name.

When persecution, misunderstanding, false accusations and lack of respect abound, by all means let us clarify, build bridges, nuance our statements, draw the lines, disassociate with particular views, readdress the balance. But can we do it in such a way as to avoid being ashamed, and still be proud of the title?

It would make Peter happy, strengthen your case and alleviate my embarrassment-fatigue!

Thirty Pieces: Sack the Shepherd

22 11 2010

‘Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray Jesus.’
(Matthew 26:14-16 ESV)

I’ve been thinking recently about this powerful episode in Matthew’s gospel. It’s such a pithy treatment of a giant ‘hinge’ of a moment, upon which the door of the gospel was swung wide open.

The language of Matthew 26:15, uniquely among the accounts, deliberately echoes Zechariah 11:12, using the word εστησαν, meaning ‘to establish’ or ‘to weigh out.’ When the Chief Priests ‘weigh out’ thirty pieces of silver, Matthew wants to draw our minds to this crucial passage in Zechariah, to which he will return again in the next chapter.

Matthew’s gospel relies a good deal on Zechariah, drawing regular, powerful allusions from his writing. Zechariah 11 is packed with evocative imagery of a shepherd who is tasked with caring for a flock doomed to death. He rescues them, only to be rejected by the sheep. He breaks his two staffs of ‘favour’ and ‘union’ and the sheep are left to the leadership of a worthless shepherd. I’m sure you hardly need a detailed commentary to begin to see the loaded prophetic metaphors. Jesus even quotes from Zechariah 13:7 in Mathew 26:31 – ‘It is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”’

But in Zechariah 11:12-13 we read: ‘And they weighed out (εστησαν) as my wages thirty pieces of silver […] the lordly price at which I was priced by them.

Zechariah’s words are dripping with irony. Thirty pieces of silver is a paltry amount; this ‘lordly price’ is an insultingly low wage for a spiritual leader. And such was the minute cost for which Judas was willing to sacrifice his master.

But leaving aside the similarities, note the differences:

  • Zechariah resigned his position. Jesus refused to.
    Standing in the garden at Gethsemane, he pleaded with his Father for the cup to pass. But he knew he couldn’t walk out on the sheep; he had to die for them.
  • Zechariah received wages for his work, insufficient as they were. Jesus received nothing.
    Another man took his wages and left him to complete the task in agony.

Still, for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross (Heb 12:2). Truly, a hired hand would have fled, caring nothing for the sheep. But the good shepherd lays down his life willingly (John 10:11-13, 17-18).

Resources on Suffering

13 11 2010

This Sunday I have the privilege (and immense challenge) of speaking on the subject of God and Suffering. It’s always daunting entering into a talk in the knowledge that you will barely scratch the surface of what needs to be said. There will, no doubt, be plenty of opportunity for questions, and I will recommend a few resources for people who want to go further. There are dozens of articles, books and talks I’ve devoured on this subject, but here are the five I will recommend this Sunday:

Tim Keller – The Reason for God

I find your lack of faith – disturbing.” The moment you open a book on apologetics and find the initial quote to be from none other than Darth Vader, you know you’re in for something a little different… As many have said, The Reason for God, is one of the most significant books on apologetics to have emerged in decades. Far from providing us with a pocket-guide to apologetics, crammed with pre-packaged, cold and heartless answers, Keller presents a well-thought out, well-articulated case for Christianity that goes far beyond an exercise in persuasive rhetoric. It is an engaging read full of examples and quotes from many areas of popular culture. Never have I read a book that can so seamlessly quote Foucault, C.S. Lewis and Neitzsche alongside Bono, hobbits and Darth Vader. But Keller does it. His wide repertoire of illustrations provides an incredibly fresh and modern way of looking at age-old questions. His chapter on suffering is just one great chapter amongst many.

D.A. Carson – How Long, O Lord?

Carson’s book on suffering is one the best ‘full-book’ treatments I’ve come across. In places it says some things that are so obvious, yet I’d never really considered them – The sections on poverty and the suffering people of God for example. At times it feels a little cold (any book that describes the ‘epistemic dilemma’ using a logic model that goes S = Set of beliefs. R = Rider. S + R = SΘ… etc puts up an immediate barrier for the suffering reader. Who wants to see their emotional pain depicted in cold, hard equations!?) but the further into the book you get, the more profound some of the pastoral insights get. There are, as always with Carson, some moments where I think he has strayed into being a little pedantic, and a couple of sideswipes that I don’t think add much to the book (like his rant at Wimber for example), but those aside, I think this is a robust treatment of the subject.

If you were going to buy one book on suffering, and wanted something quite meaty, I would highly recommend this.

Pete Greig – God on Mute

I just read this book last week. It’s a great book on prayer, and in particular prayer that seems to be unanswered. Peppered with real life examples – modern, ancient, and personal – Pete Greig lays out some helpful guidelines for identifying why prayer may not be answered, or whether it might in fact be answered in unexpected ways. It’s a very pastoral, helpful book. He takes as his model, Jesus’ own experience of Gethsemane and the cross. But lest that sound too lofty – for who really can understand going through the same level of suffering as Jesus did? – he grounds it in his own story of learning to live with a wife who suffered from fits and epilepsy. If you are not after a philosophical book, but are in the midst of suffering yourself, I would recommend this book over Carson.

N.T. Wright – Evil and the Justice of God

I very much like Tom Wright, and his books occupy a large portion of my shelves. This little book is slightly deceptive in appearance. It is small, but note, he still names himself N.T. rather than Tom – a sure sign that it will be on the meatier end of his authorial spectrum!

In this book, Wright addresses the problem of evil, and in particular, the question of what God is doing, and will do about it. He focusses on what it means for God to be ‘just’ and how that will play out as God brings his justice to bear over all creation. He majors on the Christus Victor model of the atonement, showing how Jesus is victorious over evil at the cross. He doesn’t deny the penal elements of the atonement, but some will perhaps find his portrayal of the cross a little jarring if they are not familiar with his other writings. All in all, a great little book, well worth a read. And as he says, “Evil may still be a four letter word. But so, thank God, is Love.”

Liam Thatcher – How Could a God of Love Allow Earthquakes?

Shameless self promotion. This is a talk I gave at Newday this year, focussing in on the area of natural disasters, taking Haiti as a model. This is, to my mind, the most difficult angle on suffering to answer, and one Christians are tempted to duck. Knowing that in the talk this Sunday I won’t have anywhere near enough time to deal with all aspects of suffering, it’s helpful to have this talk online to direct people to.

I shall say no more…