Just as Barack Obama wants to change what it means to be America, controversial author Rob Bell wants to change what it means to be Christian. The cover story for the Easter Week edition of Time magazine is about Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Bell, perhaps the most widely known of a group of young supposedly evangelical writers who emphasize “love” and dismiss the Biblical view of judgment/retribution (referred to in Christian circles as “hell), has prompted discussions throughout the church and, indeed, throughout a wide swath of American culture, about the meaning of Christianity and the basic theological doctrines that comprise Biblical Christianity.
Chris Matthews devoted a segment of his Palm Sunday show to a discussion of the issue with four non-theologian journalists/writers. Matthews asked if Bell’s theories weren’t necessary in light of the decline in church membership enabling ministers to cash in on today’s “you deserve it” attitudes. Andrew Sullivan agreed with Bell and explained, “Hell is simply the refusal to accept the love of God and Heaven is the ability to open your heart to God and let his love in.” Norah O’Donnell, though, thought the concept of hell helped keep us “on the straight and narrow.”
While most commentators freely shared their ignorance of basic Biblical doctrine without any inhibition, the Time magazine cover story (written by Jon Meacham, formerly of Newsweek magazine and a theology student in his undergraduate days) acknowledges from the outset that Bell’s views contradict traditional Christianity. Others are not as aware of what is at stake in Bell’s “soft” rhetoric about “love.”
Bell makes it clear that he thinks everyone has a place in heaven, with the implication that there is no hell. Thus, by implication, he throws out the doctrine of salvation and the necessity for Christ’s death on the cross for our sins. His views, then, dismiss the need for redemption, repentance, the Church, and much of the rest of Christian doctrine. Such views are not “Christian,” nor are they “evangelical.” Those views fall well outside the Christian faith as it is revealed in Scripture and as it has been taught in churches for more than two millennia throughout Christendom.
Bell’s new packaging has fooled many readers who do not recognize that his theology follows mainline liberalism and fits in with the cultural emphasis on being non-judgmental. Bell and his ilk are all the rage in the media, and they brag about ushering in a “new kind” of Christianity. But there is nothing new about their views. Meacham writes in Time, “Early in the 20th century, Harry Emerson Fosdick came to represent theological liberalism, arguing against the literal truth of the Bible and the existence of hell. It was time, progressives argued, for the faith to surrender its supernatural claims.”
Bell’s arguments were preceded, too, by the radical feminist Re-Imagining movement of the 1990s. At that time, I called the movement’s arguments “a tapestry of theological tomfoolery.” One of the most controversial Re-Imagining theologians was Delores Williams, who claimed in 1993, “We don’t need a theory of atonement at all. I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff.” She came to the 1998 feminist “revival” declaring that the church needed “no salvific emphasis on death, no large cross, no symbols of the value of innocent death.”
Being gifted public speakers capable of charming an audience, Rob Bell and Brian MacLaren, who also rejects the reality of hell, are getting a lot of attention today. Their theology may come in a new-style package, but it is not new; it is just another rebellion in a long line against orthodox Christian beliefs and practice. We cannot remain quiet while they undermine the traditional, Judeo-Christian teachings that form the moral foundation of our society. When everyone is free to make up their own theology, the church becomes both impotent and irrelevant. Worse, when the religious foundation of culture disintegrates and moral values are optional, democracy is no longer workable. A cursory look around our communities makes it obvious that families are disintegrating and neighborhoods are perilously close to chaos reigning.
The April 2011 issue of First Things addresses the problem of “Evangelicals Divided.” The article notes that on one side are a certain strand of evangelical theologians (evangelical in name only) who “vent their own religious experience and call it theology.” This reduction suppresses Scripture’s own claim for itself as “words taught not by human wisdom but by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:13). On the other side of the divide are those who are “bound by the Word of God” and take the Bible to be a transcendent, authoritative revelation from which springs both faith and theology. First Things warns, “If evangelical theology … does not exercise the kind of intellectual humility required by Traditionalism, it will not survive … it will risk disintegrating into ever more subjectivist and individualistic sects, many of them neither evangelical nor orthodox.”
The Time magazine article acknowledges the theological crisis; they understand that Bell is “changing the common understanding of salvation so much that Christianity becomes more of an ethical habit of mind than a faith based on divine revelation.” Sadly just as Christ indicated would be the case, Bell and other kindred spirits to their ruination are building their theological house upon the sand.