Words, Hell, and Rob Bell

In case theological buzz doesn’t get to the world where you live, Rob Bell is a dynamic young pastor from Michigan who is an ordained hipster that a lot of young people and non-churched people read.  He writes simply and understandably, but he has cool titles and surprising substance in what he says.  Most preachers would look gross if they dressed and cut their hair like Rob (and lots of local megachurch preachers in various towns wind up that way—looking like your Dad trying to be cool—an old white male with a buzz cut and in clothes from five years ago and a mouthpiece microphone, belly hanging ever-so-perilously over the top of his expensive jeans.  He tries to look postmodern.  He looks, well, like your Dad).  Rob pulls it off.

He has hit a firestorm (sorry for the irony of that word) with his latest book, about the subject of God’s love, hell and the damnation of the human race.  The title itself, Love Wins, already tells you which way Rob leans.  He questions our theology that seems determined that God “has to” consign most of the human race to eternal torture in hell.  How is this “good news” he asks.  Those who disagree with him argue something like this:  “The whole universe deserves to be burned up, so the fact that God saves some is completely merciful.  It all deserves eternal torture.”  To which Rob asks, “Really?  Does the Creator actually give up on the entire creation?  Does God delight in torturing us forever if we were born in the wrong place and never heard the gospel?”

Right now, I don’t want to write about his argument—it’s an interesting enough subject that I think I’ll come back at a later time and write about the doctrine of hell and my thoughts on it.  I want to comment, though, on the controversy about this book and what it says about theological conversation and the church of right now.  I do want to say, unlike a few commentators, I waited to actually read Rob Bell’s book before saying much about it.  Short take:  interesting, insightful, passionate, easy to read, and bound to be controversial.

Like I said, I’m not finally convinced by it all, even though I wish his vision were so.  I liked many parts of the book—especially some keen insights into scripture texts.  I am not surprised it has made many upset, but I remember a comment by E. J. Carnell about fundamentalism:

Fundamentalism…sees the heresy in untruth but not unloveliness.  If it has the most truth, it has the least grace, since it distrusts courtesy and diplomacy (“Fundamentalism” in A Handbook of Christian Theology (1958, p. 142).   

This argument, about whether God’s love in the end completely wins over everyone, is very old, as Bell himself mentions in the book.  Having a discussion about it is not wrong or unreasonable.  Seminary students at any school worth its salt have to have these discussions to learn church history, theology and pastoral care skills.  And here is my major interest in this piece:  Why should the larger church be damaged by publicly thinking about them?  That is not the same as saying Bell is right—only that he presents a point of view that has appeared many times in two thousand years.  I was rather surprised when I read William Barclay’s autobiography, published after his death, I think, in which he stated his belief that God would ultimately save all and that there would be continued opportunity after death (Barclay’s bible study commentaries are a staple of a massive number of very orthodox Sunday School teachers).

Theological conversation, real theological conversation, almost always pushes one to better places, and a deeper search for the existential truth of it all.  I remember going to hear Brian McLaren a few years ago to find out what all this talk of “emergent church” was all about.  I liked him, and was surprised that his journey was an opening up to things that were “new paths” for him that I had engaged thirty years ago in my theological training.  I thought, “Why is this so exciting to people?  This is old stuff.”  And the answer is, “Not if you’ve never heard it.”  The truth is, much of American religiosity and theologizing is journalistic, bloggy, tweety, and superficial.  It looks like everything else in our culture—absent of long, engaged thinking, respectful conversation, genuine intellectual depth and a spirit of openness to changing one’s mind.

Among the reviews of Bell that I came across, I liked one by John Dyer in Christianity Today called, “Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers: How social media changed theological debate.”(March 11, 2011).  It made me reflect on how much “doing theology” has changed—books are shorter and the spaces between the lines wider.  The fonts are bigger, and maybe postmodernism will lead to all pictures in our theology books.  A far cry from our doctoral seminars in theology at Baylor—three hours of keen minds tearing apart a 400 page book we were required to read.  We’re getting soft, and blog-eology might be a symptom.  The real insight is found in the “responses” section, in which a lot of the “dialogue” is vituperative name-calling, ridiculing, condemnation (of a stranger!), correcting others’ spelling and grammar, and occasional profanity—surely the most interesting response to a debate about God.  The worst, though, are the self-righteously pious, who declaim another with, “I pray that you will see the light, brother,” which means something roughly analogous to, “When you’re burning in hell for your wrong ideas, you’ll wish you’d listened to me.”

The same kind of shorthand teapot tempest occurred in response to John Piper’s “tweet” in response to Bell’s book, which said, simply, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”  Now a firestorm of debate about what “farewell” meant followed.

I wrote a song on my last CD called, “Ballad of Harley the Printer,” that’s about a guy who worked in printing and lost his job with the advent of technology.  There’s a verse that says,

Back in the days of pen and ink

Words could stain and make you think,

But words ain’t what they used to be

Today our words are short-lived things

They live on electronic screens

Flashing past too quickly to be seen

I think about this sometimes even though I, too, am blogging—does the “virtual” universe and its replacement of books, journals and papers offer us a tragic symbol that we would do well to consider, the replacement of words as ideas we pick up and “hold” and consider over time and repeatedly with “short-lived things” that flash past “too quickly to be seen”?   Worth considering in light of, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

I think Rob Bell is an artist, and as such, was almost destined to create a kettle of misunderstandings.  His books are not much fun to analyze, outline and condense.  Theological engineers will not like this book, I think—people who like airtight systems and logical mousetraps.  Maybe I’m wrong.  But artists dart, highlight, ramble and mull.  “Maybe that’s what it means, maybe not.  But think about it.”

I remember something Thomas Merton said in his little book, Opening the Bible, and it applies to theology as well.  He writes something to the effect that we must be careful to distinguish, when making claims for the Bible, the claims we are also making for ourselves.  Indeed.  Oddly, humility is in danger of decreasing in our blogging time.  Speaking fewer words has not led us rightly to think, “We have less to say and with less substance” but the opposite—to assume that just because it is simpler and more immediate that it must be more universal.

Our response to Rob Bell might well be, “Interesting.  I would like to sit and talk about this.  It is a big deal and deserves some time.”

Unfortunately, we probably don’t have the time it deserves.  Or at least the right chatroom.

Christianity Today’s review of Bell’s book:  http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/april/lovewins.html

Blog-review in the Christian Century


Articles on the controversy at the Revealer.com




Song, “The Ballad of Harley the Printer” is on the CD “Overload of Bad News Blues”  You can hear it on iTunes or Amazon music or go here for more info:  http://garyfurr.com/Store.html 

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Gary Furr

Gary is a musician, writer and Christian minister living in Alabama.