It mostly feels like 90 minutes of my life that I won’t get back. Sure Rob Bell is cool, calm, collected, and has those retro glasses that every young Emergent pastor is copying, but his latest DVD release The Gods Aren’t Angry was not as compelling as the person. The major concern with the DVD has nothing to do with cinematography, quality of production, etc. but rather with the content of the disc.

For those of you who don’t know the name, Rob Bell is pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, MI. He is the bestselling author of Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. His 2006 national speaking tour brought him even more acclaim as he meticulously shows that “everything is spiritual.” Along the way Bell has received major criticisms from within the Evangelical camp, but nonetheless Evangelicals, particularly at the popular level, have claimed him as one of their own. His latest DVD may, however, raise the alarm to a new level.

There are two primary issue that will concern conservative Evangelicals. First, Bell’s discussion of the evolution of religion. His overall discussion is very good and does a decent job of presenting the history of religious thought in ancient cultures, and the particular development of monotheism. There are concerns, however, as Bell seems to be pulling material from the work of Karen Armstrong who describes Christianity as the fourth stage, out of nine, in the evolutionary process of religion. Beyond that Bell seems to be, if even unintentionally, ignoring the fact that Christians believe God has personally entered history to reveal Himself to humanity, and that fact alone poses problems for his simplistic evolutionary view of monotheism.

The second, and more disconcerting issue is that Bell has little taste for the Orthodox doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. This doctrine teaches that Jesus Christ died on the cross in the place of sinners bearing the wrath of God upon himself that they deserved. Bell describes this doctrine, however, as a remnant of the barbarism left-over from ancient pagan worship. He insists that it has nothing to do with Christianity, for atonement is no longer required. The ignorant caveman and his wife sacrificed to their gods because they thought the gods were angry with them, but God is not angry. One might, as a result of his commentary, come to understand why accusations have been leveled against Bell that he affirms universalism (the teaching that all men will go to heaven), and there may be some plausibility to this accusation, after all if God isn’t angry then why would he send anyone to hell?

What I am anxious to see is what the response of the evangelical community will be to Bell’s teaching. How will those who love him defend him; how will those who hate him use this against him? The real issue that people seem to be missing, however, is that there is a lack of a clear definition for Evangelicalism. How do you defend Orthodox teaching in a system where you can both deny and affirm the sacrificial atoning work of Jesus.

Perhaps the bigger issue is the celebrity worship that goes on in Evangelical circles. The fact that we proclaim Jesus as our king means little if we will adopt as our pastors anyone with a winning smile and cutting edge wardrobe without discerning their teachings.

I found myself reacting very harshly to Bell’s teaching. If the gods weren’t angry I certainly was heading that direction. After all it felt very much like he was denying the truths of Scripture that the church has affirmed for over 2,000 years, and he did it all with winsomeness. I imagine those who love Bell will accuse me of being too harsh, but I would urge you to look beyond the hip, trendy, and intelligent man and get to the heart of his teachings and see what you think then. The bell has already been sounded, I simply want to ring it again: be discerning with Rob Bell. For if God is actually angry then we need to know how to relate to him rightly.


  1. I have not seen the DVD – but I have read enough to know where Bell is theologically and he has developed a purely philosophical and anthropological argument with virtually no Scriptural basis whatsoever – which isn’t a problem for him because he has redefined inspiration as well.

    Given what Bell, McLaren and others are saying about the atonement and salvation, I don’t see how anyone could have become a born-again believer over the past 2000 years.

    I agree with your post.

    Dave James
    The Alliance for Biblical Integrity

  2. Given what Bell, McLaren and others are saying about the atonement and salvation, I don’t see how anyone could have become a born-again believer over the past 2000 years

    Given what they say, or according to what they say?

  3. David, I’m not sure if you’ve read or seen much else of Bell’s work, but if you get some free time, you should check it out. I’m not going to say that Rob Bell is the greatest theologian of our time or anything, (I actually feel that he’s a little off on some things) but I will say that he has been one of the most influential writers for me over the past year or two. When I first heard some stuff secondhand, I was angry and ready to tar and feather him just like I was with many other emergent leaders. Then I sat down and read his work and he completely won me over (as have many other guys I was skeptical about).

    There’s plenty of good authors out there that we all know of and love discussing the atonement and other orthodox, evangelical Christian issues. But if you’re looking for frank and honest discussions of mercy, social action, and just practicalities of living out the Christian life, I think Rob Bell is a very good place to start.

  4. Pvt. Barnum: I’m not sure of your point. “Given”, “according to,” “based on,” “if they are right,” – etc. – I think the meaning is essentially the same.

    Kiel Hauck: I have read a fair amount of his work and his views gut the heart of the salvation gospel and replace it with the same social gospel of the liberal theology of 100 years ago. His views are essentially the same as those of McLaren, who equates the teachings of Gandhi and Jesus – to the point of saying the Gandhi was a Christ-follower without knowing it (A Generous Orthodoxy). There are many who can articulate and promote the social responsibility and compassion – but whose teachings / philosophy will do no more than send comforted people to hell because they have not been redeemed – because they have not heard enough of the gospel to know that they need to be – or how to be.

  5. I haven’t read any of Bell’s stuff, so I’m not going to comment specifically on him (except to say that I have watched part of a nooma(?) video and was troubled by it); however, I think Tim Keller is one writer/pastor who also has a concern for mercy and social action.

    Whether we agree with the emergent church types or not, they have helped raise awareness of passages in the Bible that many evangelicals (myself included) seem to look over (particularly social justice) and they do emphasize the importance of community and situated experience, both of which are essential to Biblical Christianity. That is not to say that we need to accept heresies; my point is simply that we can acknowledge, as Kiel does, that Bell and others have made helpful contributions to the Body even while we acknowledge that there are problems with their theologies.

  6. If we’re going to do that, which isn’t necessarily inherently wrong, then we can use Gandhi as well – but the difference is no one claims that he was an evangelical. When you make that claim, then there is a package that has to be dealt with.

  7. Hi there, I was forwarded this link by a friend as I recently finished a paper on the atonement. I have not viewed Rob Bell’s work, I generally shy away from what I perceive to be a personality cult, however, many people I know feel impacted by Bell so to stay in touch, I’m sure this is a worthwhile DVD to watch. I suppose that I’m not as disturbed by moving away from Penal Substitutionary atonement, though it’s true that Evangelicals may step away from him because of it. But is it really right to equate being Evangelical or being “born again” with acceptance of a strict view of Penal Substitutionary atonement? Is it truly necessary to believe that God is “angry”? I should say, though, that many of the things that Bell it seems is now espousing, are really problematic and unBiblical. Thanks for writing about his latest release.

    katherine pfeifers last blog Lenten trials…

  8. Katherine,

    Thanks for your comment. I do believe that Penal Substitutionary Atonement is crucial for understanding the gospel. In fact I would go so far as to say that without it one loses the gospel itself. This has been the position of the church for over 2,000 years. Those few who denied this doctrine throughout history have done so without the support of the church. Your question about whether or not it should define evangelicalism is a good one, though. It is also part of the problem with calling oneself an “Evangelical” these days. For some Evangelicalism must clearly be defined by one’s position on Penal Subsitutionary Atonement (among other things), for others there is much more flexibility. This all comes down to how important you think the doctrine is. If it’s crucial for the gospel then you shoudl define Evangelicalism with it in mind, if not then you can flex on it.

  9. Alan,

    You are absolutely right. There is room for appreciation of some of the criticisms of the Emergent church and co. without accepting their theology. I think D.A. Carson has done a good job of pointing this out for us in his book “Becoming Conversant With the Emergent.” They ask many of the right question but do not provide good answers.

  10. Penal Substitutionary Atonement isn’t Orthodoxy, nor is it 2,000 years old. It got introduced by Anselm in 1000AD and further jammed together by John Calvin in the 1500s. It’s actually quite young compared to Christus Victor…

  11. I Love it hahahaaha. It’s such a good teaching. All of our sin was washed away by the blood of Jesus hahaa. We no longer have to live a life of sacrife but get to step into abundance of Jesus love. The reason Jesus didn’t send his holy spirit to the disciples until he was glorified is because God didn’t want us to be conformed to Jesus going to the cross but the Jesus who rules from heaven and brings the presence of god to the earth. Love ya

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