Many have asked me, “Why don’t you like Rob Bell?” It’s not that I don’t like Bell, the person — I just hope that during his “conversation” that he comes to his senses and realizes that he is missing the most important part of the Christian equation | the gospel.
While I have been quick to point out my disagreements with Bell’s theology, many have criticized me for not reading his stuff, but rather only focusing on quotes that others have pulled from his writings (mainly the excellent work of Rev. Ken Silva). Because I refuse to spend money on his stuff (
$19.99), I only read the first chapter of his book, Sex God (you can download the first chapter here for free and read it for yourself). Here’s what I thought:
1. My main problem with Bell is not that he has nothing to say; my problem is with what he doesn’t say. His life and ministry are not gospel centered – they are social help centered. I have no problems with social work, but only when it is attached to the gospel ministry.
What is the gospel? It’s not complicated. My 3, almost 4 year old nephew has no concept of time. A week is a year; a year is a month | it doesn’t really matter to him. Brad, however, has grasped the core of the gospel. Brad would tell you (although this event happened last week): “We all do sin. Last night, I prayed to God to wash my sins away and did. He died on the cross.” So, as a teacher of God’s Word, you would expect that Rob Bell has grasped this, right?
In chapter one, Bell tells story after story of individuals he knows that are doing something worthwhile with their lives. None of the stories mention anything about the gospel. Is it a good thing to rescue young Asian girls that are going to be sold as prostitutes? Yes. Is it a good thing to raise children who have mental and physical disabilities? Of course. However, if we help them with all their physical maladies but never use our influence to tell the them gospel of Jesus Christ, what was accomplished? The same thing the Red Cross accomplishes | humanitarian aid.
The Bible is not the ultimate humanitarian guidebook — rather it is the very Word of God communicated to man in order that men may enter an eternal relationship with Jesus Christ. This can only happen by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in the Scripture alone. The gospel is not complicated – the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus | his work credited to our accounts — his doing for us what we could never do for ourselves | giving us spiritual life.
2. Because Bell’s view of the gospel is anything but orthodox, he arrives at some very interesting interpretations of Scripture. He writes,
“Jesus had much to say about what happens when a woman, an image-bearer, a carrier of the divine spark, becomes a “that.” In the book of Matthew, Jesus teaches that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (footnote) He connects our eyes and our intentions and our thoughts with the state of our hearts.”
Jesus in fact does teach that evil heart intentions make one guilty of actually putting actions to our evil thoughts. However, this gospel account is not about degrading women | it’s not about stealing the human – image of God – identity from the victims of lust. It’s about purity of action; but more than that, it’s about purity of mind and heart.
“Jesus then takes it farther. He says, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” Which is a bit violent. Not to mention painful. And if taken literally, renders half of the human race blind in a matter of moments.”
He continues to explain that in order to understand the outlandish statements of Jesus that we must understand “first century Jewish understanding of heaven.” He goes on to explain that heaven isn’t necessarily a set space in the universe, but rather the place where things are as God wants them to be. So virtually, to Bell, heaven can be anywhere.
He continues (all italics are mine and added for emphasis),
“Now if there’s a realm where things are as God wants them to be, then there must be a realm where things are not as God wants them to be. Where things aren’t according to God’s will. Where people aren’t treated as fully human. It’s called hell. think about the expression “for the hell of it.” When someone says “for the hell of it,” what they mean is that whatever is being discussed was done or said for no apparent reason. It was, in essence, pointless. Random. And God is for purpose and beauty and meaning. When we say something was a “living hell,” we mean that it was void of any love or peace or beauty or meaning. It was absent of the will and desire of God. We hear about war zones being like hell, working conditions being hellish, a divorce being emotional hell, a famine feeling like hell on earth (footnote). Concentration camps are hells on earth. And that’s Jesus’ point with the “gouge out your eye” teaching. His point isn’t that you should mutilate your body if you find yourself lusting after someone. His point is that something serious – sometimes hellish – happens when people are treated as objects, and we should resist it at all costs.”
Did Jesus deal with lust in a serious manner? Absolutely. Is the point of Matthew’s narrative that when people are treated as sex objects that something hellish happens? Absolutely not.
Jesus is teaching two main things here.
1) He is teaching the Jews that they have ignored the heart aspect of the law. Sure, they weren’t committing open adultery, but they all had lusted | committed adultery in their hearts, which Jesus teaches is just as wrong. Many of these Jews also believed that their eternity was settled, simply because of their lineage. Jesus demolishes that idea in the next section.
2) He is teaching radical repentance. Similar to his dealings with the rich young ruler, he is teaching that if lust is keeping someone from turning to Christ in repentance, they better take radical measures to eradicate it | eternity, in a literal, spatial, heaven or hell is at stake. In the parallel passage (Mark 9:47-48), hell is a specific place, not any place where things are not as God intended (as Bell would have us believe). Verse 48 says, “Where their worm dies not and the fire is not quenched.”
Jesus and Rob Bell are describing two different things. Bell’s message may sound provocative or read well on paper, but when in doubt | I choose to believe in a hell described by Jesus.
My problems with Rob Bell are numerous – from blurring the substitutionary atonement, to reducing the gospel to social aid, to asking people questions like, “If we found out that Jesus wasn’t really born of a virgin, would that shake your faith?”
The bottom line is this: I hope Rob Bell knows Christ. But as far as I’m concerned, we believe different gospels.
Many have told me that I need to approach Rob Bell with an attitude of grace and humility, understanding that there are multiple interpretations of Scripture. Paul never dealt with people in such a manner when the gospel was at stake.
Paul in Galatians 1:8-9
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.