Rob Bell's popularity makes clear biblical response critical, evangelical panel says
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--A panel of Christian leaders said March 17 that Rob Bell's popularity among evangelicals -- particularly among younger ones -- makes it critical for the church to respond with biblical clarity to his new book.
Bell, the panelists said, has redefined the Gospel and his beliefs clearly fall outside historical biblical orthodoxy. In "Love Wins," Bell denies a literal hell and affirms a form of universalism.
"We wouldn't be having this panel discussion if John Shelby Spong wrote another book," R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said. Spong, 79, is a former Episcopal bishop and a well-known liberal scholar who has denied virtually every major Christian doctrine.
"... Rob Bell is a different story. He has a tremendous influence, especially with younger evangelicals, and I think that's why we have to talk about this. We're very concerned about the loss of the Gospel."
Bell's book sold out on Amazon.com on its first day and currently is in the Top 5 among all books there -- a rarity for a religion publication. Bell's church, Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., is nondenominational, but his popularity has crossed into conservative churches of all denominations. He typically is seen as part of the emerging church movement. Harper Collins published the book, which is subtitled, "A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived."
Joining Mohler on the panel at Southern Seminary were Justin Taylor, a blogger and a vice president at Crossway publishing; Russell Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Seminary; and Denny Burk, dean of Boyce College.
Taylor, who wrote the first major critique of the book's premise, called Love Wins a "one-dimensional view of God shrunk down to the size of Rob Bell's own creative mind" that "fundamentally misses the Gospel story."
"It misses the holiness of the Creator God, the sinfulness and the fall of man, the accomplishment of what Christ did," Taylor said.
Bell's book also overemphasizes the love of God with little acknowledgement of God's justice and wrath, Burk said.
"There is no final, punitive, retributive justice from God," Burk said. ".. Paul says in Romans 12:19, leave room for the wrath of God. One of the fundamental errors, I think, of this book is right there: There is no room for the wrath of God in his theology."
Bell's view of salvation, Moore said, is wrong biblically but also flawed practically and will lead to empty church pews. If the pastor says there is no judgment and everyone will end up in heaven, then people have little motivation to follow Christ, Moore and the other panelists said.
"You never have a universalist Great Awakening," Moore said. "... The very thing [Rob Bell] is attempting to do, it never succeeds. You always wind up losing the church and unable to reach the people outside the church."
The panelists agreed that Bell promotes universalism in his book, but they also said he does so inconsistently. For instance, Bell argues that God will not violate human freedom -- and thus people who want to end up in hell will do so -- but he also argues that God will save everyone in the end. At the same time, he clearly denies the existence of a literal hell.
"I am not trying to be cute or pejorative, but I think he's an incoherent universalist," Taylor said. "He, on the one hand, says that God's love will melt even the hardest of hearts, and on the other hand he says that God will always let us do what we want. That's a contradiction, but there's no attempt to resolve that. That's not living in a paradox, it's living in a contradiction. I don't understand, at the end of the day, what he believes."
Scripture, Moore said, clearly clashes with Bell's beliefs.
"That message of 2 Corinthians 5 & 6 doesn't make any sense with this book -- 'now is the day of salvation, now is the acceptable day.' And why? Because there is a time of judgment coming. … None of that makes sense if this book is true."
Said Mohler, "If you believe what is in this book, you can't sing many of the hymns that are most precious to us. You can't do it. You can't mean what they mean, because there is no need for the cross, there is no need for the substitution, there is no need for the mercy [of God]."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. The 90-minute Southern Seminary panel discussion is available online at http://bit.ly/h5mZCx. To read Baptist Press' overview of "Love Wins," click here. To read evangelical reviews about "Love Win's, visit Denny Burk's blog (http://bit.ly/fFkm9n), Tim Challies' blog (http://bit.ly/fF7ChQ) Kevin DeYoung's blog (http://bit.ly/gAhY7W), or R. Albert Mohler Jr.'s blog (http://bit.ly/g42yMc).