…by the Bell: A Conversation About Love Wins, Theological Empathy and Jesus’ Assorted Spiritual Answers
Christ and Pop Culture writer, Ben Bartlett and guest-writer, Kiel Hauck, two friends who spend their Friday nights playing video and board games in between heated theological, social, and political discussions, come together to hammer out their thoughts about a book that seems to have most other evangelicals shutting down lines of communication, intentionally or not.
Each week, they’ll read one chapter, and trade a few emails discussing the chapter. This week, they discuss the Introduction and Chapter 1: What About the Flat Tire?
Ben Bartlett: “I feel like Rob Bell is trying to exclude me from this conversation.”
I really appreciate Rob Bell’s empathy. He clearly wants the best for people. And there’s clearly some sense of justice in his perspectives, because he wants good things for those who do good and, at the least, less good things for those who do less good.
But frankly, I feel like Rob Bell is trying to exclude me from this conversation. Is there any set of standards he and I can agree on?
As a former debate teacher, I have a special appreciation for the dangers of fallacies. Rob seems to favor them, as in in the intro and Chapter 1 alone I saw such classics as Hasty Generalization, Straw Man, Poisoning the Well, and above all the False Dilemma. This is a problem not so much because of the fallacies themselves (after all, every Christian has to accept some paradoxical logic about God’s ability to be fully two things at once), but because they suggest some harsh things about me and a lot of people I love and trust.
For example, Rob says God’s love compels him to question the story that, “a select few Christians will spend forever in…heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in… hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic…”
I’ve taught that, Rob. My lessons were misguided and toxic?
Later Rob discusses a Christian who stated that there was no hope for a particular atheist who died. This prompts Rob to ask, “’No hope’? Is that what Jesus offers the world? Is this the sacred calling of Christians-to announce that there’s no hope?”
Who is it Rob thinks he is arguing with? Of course that’s not what was meant.
Rob’s many fallacies and loaded rhetorical questions work together to contribute to the biggest fallacy of them all; the False Dilemma.
See, I’ve had doubts in my life too. I wanted answers, and I wanted consistency throughout the internal structures of my mind and beliefs. So I went and sought those answers. I asked a lot of questions of people I respect, people nearer to the end of their inquiries than the beginning. I read books by authors who poured their lives into considering the possibilities and sharing their findings. I thought and meditated and wrote and mused and did a thousand other things to mine the depths of my own thoughts, trying to find the answers to big questions about who I am, who God is, and what he wants from me. I worked really, really hard at those pursuits.
After all that work, the vast majority of my beliefs have crystalized into near-certainties. I say near-certainties because I do want to leave one opening… I can be convinced of something different if it can be proven to me from Scripture.
But Rob Bell makes me feel like my journey was not important because I found answers. He describes my beliefs in terms that place me in a group of cold, uncaring, unquestioning automatons whose main goal is conformity at all costs. He sets me and my chilly cronies up as one of two alternatives, with the empathetic and open-minded questioners as the other. This is a false dilemma for the questioning reader, and frankly it is a severe case of not fighting fairly.
Rob Bell does a good job at the start of his book in reaching out to people with questions, people whose chief organizing principle in life is love. He wants to help them reconcile that perspective with Christ, and he recognizes that they may have been hurt by (un-Christlike) harshness. But by alienating thoughtful people who have found excellent answers in traditional theological perspectives (seen most clearly when he says things like, “Really?”), Rob misses out on a huge treasure trove of wisdom and journeys and stories that could be beneficial to his intended audience. He is essentially asking them to ignore what most of the church says, and to listen to him instead. And he uses really bad logic to do it.
I admire the empathy, Kiel. You know I appreciate it because once I sensed it in you, I was willing to share some of my most intimate thoughts and struggles. I want people to know that Christians can and should be loving, empathetic, thoughtful, and able to wrestle with the most difficult of questions. Rob Bell wants to display empathy too, but I have to ask; when he invites people on this journey, is he trying to leave me behind? That’s how I feel right now.
Kiel Hauck: “You’ve never struck me as the type of person that Rob Bell is taking issue with.”
It certainly is interesting the two polar opposite reactions we both must have felt while reading this first chapter. I’ll be honest with you – I loved it. And, quite possibly to my shame, I never once stopped to think about how “the other side” must feel while reading it. However, after reading your email, it’s clear to me that some of the language could be taken as hurtful if you belong to a particular audience. Make no mistake, Rob Bell wrote this book for a certain group of people – those such as myself that find themselves unsatisfied with the conventional take on eternity. I found myself nodding in agreement with many of his assessments. But since this is meant to be a response to your initial reaction, let me try to take aim at a few of your points.
First, I want start off addressing the reaction you had to Bell’s quote about the idea that a central truth of the Christian faith is that a select few will spend eternity in heaven while the rest of humanity spends eternity hell and that to deny this is to deny Jesus. Bell says this idea is “misguided and toxic.” You take issue with that statement since, in your own words, you’ve taught that very thing. If that’s the case, would you say that Rob Bell and I (or anyone else for that matter) who rejects this idea is rejecting Jesus? Based on what you said in the email, you would have to. But I know for a fact that you’ve never once questioned my faith, or even Rob Bell’s in my presence. How do you reconcile that?
I bring this up, because while you appear to be troubled at the way Bell has seemingly attacked people like yourself, along with those you love and trust, you’ve never struck me as the type of person that Rob Bell is taking issue with. In fact, I would imagine he would be quite thrilled that you’re even participating in this dialogue. If anything, I think this is more a case of two individuals who have searched long and hard to find the answers to these questions, but have found themselves convinced of different conclusions.
You and I both know that you’re not a “cold, uncaring, unquestioning automaton whose main goal is conformity at all costs,” but we both know people who are, don’t we? I think that’s the real issue here – not just a difference of beliefs, but the way you act once you’ve taken hold of those beliefs. And I’ve never once seen you act in a way that wasn’t fair, even in the presence of those who disagree with you.
Far more often than not, in these kinds of discussions, it is “your” side who is doing the talking. Outsiders feel like outsiders for a reason – especially in this instance. Yeah, maybe Al Mohler’s right in that “we’ve seen this before,” but I’m not sure we’ve seen it like this. A lot of people follow Rob Bell and listen to what he says because we can identify with him. I hear his questions in this first chapter and I respond the way I do because those are the same exact questions I’ve found myself fighting through time and time again – questions that are embarrassing to ask. And anyone who’s been there knows how awful it is to ask those questions and get shut down by the “cold, uncaring, unquestioning” types. I think It takes a lot of guts to write a book like this, especially when I know how hard it is to even bring this stuff up around people you trust.
All that being said, I would LOVE to see you respond to what I feel is the most important part of the first chapter. Bell devotes most of his time here looking at how Jesus responds when asked about eternity and how to gain access to it. I’ve privately wrestled with this for years. People make you want to believe that this is so simple – “just say this and believe this, and you’re good to go!” What about the answers Jesus gives to the questions about eternity though? Why so many different answers? Which one is it? I can’t wait to see how he unfolds all of that through the rest of the book, but perhaps you could share some of your own insight into how you deal with those instances. This is where the “huge treasure trove of wisdom and journeys and stories” belongs and where I feel your voice can be extremely helpful.
“Is it what you say, or who you are, or what you do, or what you say you’re going to do, or who your friends are, or who you’ve married to, or whether you give birth to children, or what questions you’re asked, or what questions you ask in return, or the tribe, or family, or ethnic group you’re born into?”
Ben Bartlett: “If Rob wants to influence the church as a whole, he’d better be prepared for very tough questions.”
First, thanks for your gracious and thoughtful reply. I think you captured perfectly where I was going with it and what I was trying to communicate, and your response was excellent. I’ll try to do justice to your questions as well as I can.
First, you asked how I reconcile my comment that “I’ve taught that” (meaning Bell’s caricature of the traditional teaching on hell) with not challenging your faith or Bell’s. I would say that my primary purpose there was to highlight the fact that Rob is telling you that anytime a Sunday School teacher or preacher teaches on hell, Rob knows that person is essentially wrong and that what they are teaching is damaging to their listeners. That is a huge, huge statement to be making. That’s where my real problem lies… the rejection of the vast majority of Christian teaching on this subject is incredibly arrogant, rather than asking people to reconsider particular evidence.
As for me personally, I suppose it would be fairer to say that I’ve taught the traditional message on hell, and I think it’s biblical. I do believe that to reject the biblical truth about hell (whatever that is, and we can keep discussing that) really is a rejection of the Scriptural witness, and as such is a rejection of Christ’s message about himself.
In your case, I don’t challenge your faith because I know you are still asking a lot of questions, and struggling with uncertainties about how God interacts with the world. I’ve had those times myself, and I made it through without having “lost” my faith. Doubt and uncertainty is something to work through, not a disqualifier. However, Rob has gone far beyond the doubts of an uncertain young man. He is now the pastor of a megachurch, one of two or three key leaders in a major religious movement, an author, and an example to many. So let me be clear about this: if it is true that Rob Bell’s teaching about hell is a rejection of the Biblical witness on the subject, then I will name him a heretic. However, if it is simply the case that he wants to struggle with some things about his faith and invite people to consider Scripture more closely, then I’ll leave him alone. That’s a key reason we are going through this conversation. We want to model what it means to doubt, what it means to search, and what it means to reconcile those doubts and uncertainties with the Truth of Scripture so that we can make decisions about God’s authority in our lives.
To touch briefly on the subject of attackers, in my mind it’s pretty simple; some people are overly quick to attack, yes, but at the same time it would be wrong of Rob Bell to propose something that, at least at the outset, sounds very heretical and to then expect not to be challenged. Theological leaders rightly take heresy, especially the heresy of a popular leader in a large movement, seriously. If Rob wants to influence (challenge?) the church as a whole, he’d better be prepared for very tough questions.
Finally, you ask for my thoughts on Jesus’ teaching on heaven. I would start by saying that it would be a huge, huge mistake to divorce the teachings of Christ from the teachings of the apostles. When Christ spoke, in some sense he was speaking like an Old Testament prophet… after all, the gospel had not yet been fully enacted! The apostles are key because they proclaim and interpret the meaning of Christ’s action here on earth… his life, death, and resurrection. To act as though Christ’s responsibility was to describe methodology for finding heaven using a gospel that hadn’t yet fully happened is to make some really weird demands on him and his context.
That said, I disagree with the notion that Christ wandered around asking questions. He did sometimes respond to questions with questions, but those questions were always purposeful in helping his audience understand truths about the kingdom of God. See, Jesus knew that the Jews expected a worldly kingdom, a secular savior. Much of his ministry was devoted to teaching us that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom established not in territories, but in our hearts. That kingdom is a place where God is the authority, and where we as his subjects love and honor and worship Him, even as we reflect his love by loving each other.
However, participation in that kingdom first requires a righteousness not our own. It requires Christ’s saving action on the cross, and it requires his cleansing of our sin. I can agree that it is hard to describe methodology, but it is NOT hard to describe the endpoint of a person seeking salvation; the true Christian is one who has fully committed himself to submitting to God’s authority, and recognizes that only in Christ can his sin be forgiven.
I don’t think Christ was just trying to talk to people about gaining access to streets of gold, though that is part of it.. I think he was telling them that their desires should be focused on becoming members of God’s kingdom through a rightly submissive and worshipful relationship with him. I think he was telling them their chief problem was the sin inherent to placing themselves on the throne of their lives. And I think he knew good and well that his message would spread powerfully very soon through his action on the cross and in resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the passionate proclamation of the gospel by the spineless goofballs he walked around with every day.
I look forward to seeing what Rob has to say about these things. Whatever he says, though, it cannot deter us from our mission of calling people to repentance and submission for the purpose of the glory of God. As long as that’s our goal, any conversation can ultimately be a helpful one.
“The cold, uncaring, unquestioning automaton whose main goal is conformity at all costs.”
I have never actually met anyone like that. I know one or two who I feel are too indebted to certain creeds, but never out of anything more than their devotion to God and their faithfulness to what they believe to be his message of love and compassion. All the Christians I know are people and people are notoriously messy expressions of conflicting opinions of varying strengths.They love and loathe, each in unique ways and through individual paths of expression. Not a one would be counted as the cold, unfeeling caricature mentioned here.
But maybe things are different in the midwest?
I agree Seth. My point in using that language was to describe my feeling about the group Bell is placing me with… I think the problem isn’t uncaring automatons, I think the problem is the way Bell uses language.
He consistently exploits the loneliness and uncertainty of the doubter by suggesting that most of the church has this unquestioning attitude, and that the doubter needs a place to find a friend, a place where people won’t say, “we don’t discuss those things here.”
The problem is that this is really a false picture. Very few churches are like that, and those that are lean toward the cultish.
That’s why I want to challenge Bell’s descriptions, because i think he is painting his intended audience into a corner, when really there are a lot more options and avenues for dealing with their doubt and feelings than his wording allows for.
It’s strange how different our experiences have been. Most of my church experiences have been close to that which Bell describes. Granted, I’ve only been a Christian for a little over a decade, and upon becoming a Christian I was one who provoked many comments such as “So, this guy is a Christian now? Uh . . . ” So my experiences may be fewer and perhaps a bit different.
That’s not to say I haven’t found myself in welcoming environments before. They often come in the forms of discussions over meals, a late night talk in a quiet room, or (much like Ben and I had only a month ago) a heartfelt exchange during a long drive. When those encounters happen – you know it. You can feel it. I still have friends who I get giddy about seeing simply because I know of the comfort we both share in having these kinds of discussions together – because we can’t have them in most other situations with most other people.
I’ve been in lots of Bible studies, small groups, youth groups, etc. in which a question I asked caused every eye in the room to drop to the floor and have caused more awkward silences with questions about the faith than most people probably cause in their lifetime. You eventually learn to not talk about things because you don’t want to have to deal with the embarrassment that comes from the reactions. Doing this dialogue is frightening for me – I’ve told this to both Ben and Rich multiple times now and have come close to backing out almost every day since we came up with the idea, simply because, if I might be honest, I’m scared of how people will react. People that don’t know me that well yet and might write me off because of this one thing.
I remember in the preface of Brian McLaren’s fictional work “A New Kind of Christian”, he talks about his reasons for writing the book. He wanted to depict the dialogue and conversations that so many of us have “while standing by our cars in the church parking lot or in hushed whispers in dimly lit restaurant booths.” I connect with that sentiment, deeply. And I also connect with where Rob Bell is coming from in this first chapter. I probably would have said it different than him, but maybe only because I’m such a nervous person and so scared of how people view me. You’re right in that he’s bold to say what he says. But I’m kind of glad to see someone say it.
Yeah, I think the person who doesn’t feel the freedom ask questions and sift out one’s beliefs is probably as rare as you mention. When I teach high schoolers in Sunday school, the room is basically filled with questions like what Bell is apparently asking. And I am part of a conservative Presbyterian congregation. People have questions and when you say something that sounds weird to them, you can tell because if they don’t ask, their faces crinkle up and it’s not until you give them something plausible that those faces uncrinkle.
Kiel, your church experience is just about the saddest thing I’ve heard in a week. I feel like I live in another country. Everything you’ve described is just so… foreign.
Thinking about it though, some of that may be my own personal vector and confidence at play in my perception of things. I have never cared, personally, whether someone agrees with me. Or whether my beliefs fit in with whatever label they wish to use to describe me. I have always viewed myself as being on a righteous quest for truth and if the questions I ask or solutions I propose unnerve you, well then good luck with that and I hope that nervousness will spur you on to seek out the truth of things on your own as well.
I cannot be offended and I cannot be made to feel embarrassed for anything I believe. My hunger for knowledge and understanding has brought me into conflict at a fairly brisk pace and while I’m not confrontational by nature, I learned quickly not to mind confrontation—as it’s just one more path toward truth.
So while I personally probably wouldn’t ever notice if those around me were as judgmental as those around you have been, I honestly don’t think we get a lot of that in the church circles I engage here in California. If we did, I probably would hear quite so many non-traditional questions from those I teach.
Acceptance of doubt and questioning really does vary widely. I’ve been in churches where such doubt and questioning is viewed with suspicion, fear, and antagonism. If you were to admit that you had a hard time understanding how the first few chapters of Genesis fit with what scientists have told us about the world, or that you consider voting for a Democrat, or if you even defended the right of others to vote for Democrat, or if you even try to argue that voting for a Democrat was not necessarily voting for evil, then you were ostracized. The body of Christ would view you as a foreign invader and send its antibodies after you. Others have been much more loving and considerate.
Having grown up in Pentecostal and then nondenominational/reformed Baptist churches, and then moved to a PCA church, I feel that my experiences been that those PCA are much more comfortable asking hard questions (while remaining quite conservative theologically) of those in the nondenominational churches I have been a part of.
I suspect the churches and communities that are intolerant of questions and doubts and wrestling are often merely afraid of their certainty, about biblical doctrine the world, collapsing. If they have falsely turned Wise interpretations of Scripture into absolute certainty, then they cannot allow questions to be raised about that certainty. This strikes me as one of the main reasons that so many Christians online (Youtube) feel the need to post vitriolic, bitter, sarcastic, diatribes about the stupidity of atheists, liberals, socialists, homosexuals, Catholics, agnostics, Mormons, etc.
The decision to place our faith in the real Jesus as our Rescuer and Ruler puts us on a lifelong journey of ongoing transformation into the likeness of Christ, a journey that is filled with nuances, complexities, ambiguities, and uncertainties, as well as with deep joys, encouragements, hopes, and celebrations. It is not our job on this journey to define who is and who is not going to hell. Our Rescuer and Ruler reserves to himself the right to make those sorts of decisions when we sheep and goats come before him for our final judgment. In the end, I think that there are a number of people, both liberal and conservative, who are now very certain about how those decisions will be made, who will end up not liking either the decisions or the perfected new heaven and new earth. They will not like it that our Rescuer and Ruler will be completely in charge and completely independent of their opinions. Those who insist on their own opinions might prefer in the end to stand in the outer darkness where they can spout their opinions without reserve. Until we are ready to entrust the decisions to Jesus, our tastes have not yet been shaped for eternity. I’m not pointing any fingers; I am just issuing a humble word of caution to myself and all of us: there will be surprises when the final exams are graded and handed back.
You don’t believe me? Consider Hebrews 11. Verse 32 includes morally undisciplined Samson and spiritually ignorant Jephthah on the list of faithful people of whom verses 39-40 implies that they will at last receive the promise of future perfection alongside those of us who are consciously in Christ. We are given no clues as to how to use those examples as criteria for judging who gets in and who doesn’t, but it does hint at some mouth-shutting surprises.
@John Turner, I am not entirely sure what in this particular post spurred you to write your comment here. No one that I personally know who disagrees with Rob Bell on soteriology disagrees on grounds of wanting to determine who is and who is out.
There will certainly be surprises “when the final examine is handed out,” Jesus said as much, “did we teach in your name … depart from me, I never knew you.”
You said, “Those who insist on their own opinions might prefer in the end to stand in the outer darkness where they can spout their opinions without reserve. Until we are ready to entrust the decisions to Jesus, our tastes have not yet been shaped for eternity.”
Here are my questions: Does Jesus want to be understood? Do the writers of the NT want to be clearly understood on some issues? Certainly there are great mysteries that the Bible doesn’t answer for us. But if the Bible is clear on certain issues should we not submit to its teaching in those areas?
For instance if Scripture is clear on salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, then those who preach that gospel are not being judgmental and mean but honest and loving.
Your comment almost reads to me as every truth claim is mere opinion. No human being has the power to cast final judgment on anyone but every human being is responsible to speak the truth in love–I think that was the point of this whole post.
I want to divide carefully between two concepts; Deciding who is and who is not going to heaven or hell, and helping others choose between the two.
Of course no mere human knows for sure who is going where… there are certain nuances of God we do not understand.
But at the same time, God has made his criteria pretty clear. We use those criteria not to make decisions, but as guideposts to help bring people to a saving knowledge of Christ.
The other day my wife was trying to find the location of my new workplace. I was on the phone with her. She was trying to tell me where she was, but she’d never been there before and I didn’t know the road names. So we hollered back and forth, trying to determine where she was and how she would get to my workplace to pick me up. I would say things like, “Head toward the river!” or, “Ok, are you BETWEEN the highway and the baseball park?”
At that time, I couldn’t definitively say where she was or wasn’t (so I couldn’t say, for instance, “turn right!” or, “don’t go down that one-way street!” But I could give her guidance toward the landmarks that I knew would get her to the right place.
I think it is a disgusting sin for a Christian not to care about bringing people to know Christ. What Kiel and I are talking about is important because how you fall on this question has a lot to do with how you reach out to people, indeed how you carry out the Great Commission.
Nobody is issuing report cards here… we’re just helping each other study for the test.
Drew, Ben, Kiel, and all,
Oops. I made a major failure to communicate. I apologize for appearing, quite against my intention, to criticize this healthy dialogue. I think that the tone of the discussion here is great, that representing the heart of biblical truth claims is essential, and that we must reach out with a saving, transforming gospel. My warning was directed not against you or against Christian testimony, but against those who are sure that they know how to judge on the basis of a philosophical position they have imposed on scripture. By the way, such judgments can be either to exclusive or too inclusive.
Rob Bell and John Piper are both complicated thinkers, and I am not prepared to stand in judgment on either (in part because I have not read them carefully, more because I am not competent to do so) but, in my admittedly limited mind, they have come to represent two opposite ways of rendering judgments that do not accord with what I read in the Bible, one too loose and the other too restricted. Whether that is true of Bell and Piper or not, my aim was to warn against being too quick to impose philosophical grounds for judgment (inclusively or exclusively).
I believe that it is vital that we recover the biblical purpose of salvation, not just getting us out of hell and into heaven, but gradually and ultimately restoring us broken human beings to the image of God in which we were created so that we will make a positive impact for the gospel now and so that we will actually enjoy the perfected new heaven and new earth when that comes.
I believe that this salvation is BY grace alone THROUGH faith alone, but that it is FOR good works (works that demonstrate our ongoing transformation into Christ-likeness and thus lend praise to the glory of God). While this gospel is simple and clear, it is not easily reduced to a system of judgment. This gospel is totally centered in Jesus Christ. He is the only Savior and the only Judge. When we accept him as Lord and Savior, we surrender attempting to systematize judgment, and instead devote ourselves to testifying in words and deeds to his glory.
Yes, this includes our commitment to helping people to accept him as Lord and Savior and to live their lives in him. That is a major purpose of our lives.
We seek the guidance of Scripture and the Holy Spirit and in that light do the best we can, but we do not in this life know for sure what we have accomplished. Only Jesus sees clearly through to the heart, only he saves, only he is fit to judge. It is not up to us to decide who is included or who is excluded. It is not up to us to draw the boundaries of God’s love either narrowly or broadly. It is up to us to live for the praise of his glory.
Thanks for clarifying brother. I’ll admit that I was confused at your first comment. But yeah I think discussion on this can only be healthy so long as we don’t start making value judgments on people apart from what we can infer from the arguments Bell is making themselves. In other words there is a big difference between saying, “hey I think you are wrong here because you are contradicting scripture in such and such ways” and saying, “you are being deceptive.” The first can be reasonably shown, the second is making a value judgment we are not in a position to make.
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