Avoiding Theological Captivity
We interrupt our series through Colossians for an important case study on theological captivity. Paul wrote Colossians to keep the new Christians of Asia Minor out of various heresies that were spreading like gangrene. That problem is still with us today.
Former pastor and current author Rob Bell was born in 1970, grew up in a traditional evangelical home and church, graduated from the well known evangelical Wheaton College and earned his Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. In 1999 he was the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. From this quick bio, we might assume he embraces standard evangelical or Protestant beliefs. We would be wrong.
By 2005 his church had peaked at 11,000 in attendance, in Michigan no less, not exactly the Bible Belt. Many Christians would simply assume that this phenomenal growth was a good thing. Also that same year this gifted communicator wrote his first book, called Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Just the title gives me the creeps. Bell said he wrote for those “fascinated with Jesus, but [who] can’t do the standard Christian package.” What exactly does that mean?
The January 2007 issue of TheChurchReport.com named Bell No. 10 in their list of “The 50 Most Influential Christians in America” as chosen by their readers and online visitors. Time magazine named him as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2011.
So, because of his obvious influence and because he serves as a good case study of much of what is wrong in American evangelicalism (and what is right by way of the response of some), it behooves us to know a little more about this man and his teachings.
Wikipedia reports: “In his writings, Bell affirms things as truth regardless of the source, saying “I affirm the truth anywhere in any religious system, in any worldview. If it’s true, it belongs to God.” The question is how do we know if something is true?
Bell went on to say this about his teaching while still at Mars Hill: “This is not just the same old message with new methods. We’re rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life. Legal metaphors for faith don’t deliver a way of life. We grew up in churches where people knew the nine verses why we don’t speak in tongues, but had never experienced the overwhelming presence of God.”
Bell’s second book in 2011 caused quite a stir. Titled “Love Wins, A book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived” it immediately and deservedly came under attack from Bible-believing Christians and pastors. Kevin DeYoung, a pastor in the same region, wrote an extensive review of Love Wins on his blog.
He summarizes Bell’s view on hell as expressed in Love Wins. “Here’s the gist: Hell is what we create for ourselves when we reject God’s love. Hell is both a present reality for those who resist God and a future reality for those who die unready for God’s love. Hell is what we make of heaven when we cannot accept the good news of God’s forgiveness and mercy. But hell is not forever. God will have his way. How can his good purposes fail? Every sinner will turn to God and realize he has already been reconciled to God, in this life or in the next. There will be no eternal conscious torment. God says no to injustice in the age to come, but he does not pour out wrath (we bring the temporary suffering upon ourselves), and he certainly does not punish for eternity. In the end, love wins.”
No, Rob Bell, in the end, this is repackaged universalism, a heresy clearly outside the bounds of the Bible.
In the end, this is repackaged universalism.
DeYoung goes on. “Love Wins is such a departure from historic Christianity, that there’s no easy way to tackle it. You can’t point to two or three main problems or three or four exegetical missteps. This is a markedly different telling of the gospel from start to finish.” “According to Bell, salvation is realizing you’re already saved. We are all forgiven. We are all loved, equally and fully by God who has made peace with everyone. That work is done. Now we are invited to believe that story and live in it (172–73).” “Bell is not saying what you think he might be saying. He’s not suggesting faith is the instrumental cause used by the Spirit to join us to Christ so we can share in all his benefits. That would be evangelical theology. Bell is saying God has already forgiven us whether we ask for it or not, whether we repent and believe or not, whether we are born again or not.”
Pastor DeYoung then offers this wise warning: “Bad theology usually sneaks in under the guise of familiar language.” Friend, this is equally true in Michigan as well as Kerrville, Texas.
As Bell was initially a shining light in the so-called emerging church movement, DeYoung added this fair comment about that movement as a whole: “The emerging church is not an evangelistic strategy. It is the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder into liberalism or unbelief.”
Here’s an excerpt from Love Wins: “A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment 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, toxic, and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear” (viii).
Like so many errors throughout church history, this one ends up being an attack on the full character of God as revealed throughout the whole Bible. And as is so often the case, the attribute of God’s love is over-emphasized to the exclusion of other attributes like justice, wrath and holiness. Bell’s god is not the God of the Bible. As Pastor DeYoung writes, “At bottom, Bell’s vision of heaven and hell doesn’t work because his vision of God is false. I cannot imagine the angels singing “holy, holy, holy” or Isaiah crying out “woe is me” at the feet of Bell’s god …Bell’s god is wholly passive toward sin. He hates some of it and says no to it in the next life, but he does not actively judge it.”
You know Christianity is in trouble when the secular media help in the confrontation. In Martin Bashir’s interview with Rob Bell on MSNBC, he quotes from Kevin DeYoung’s review and asks Rob Bell to respond. Bashir then gives his own take on Bell’s book and it is remarkably incisive:
“You’re creating a Christian message that’s warm, kind, and popular for contemporary culture. . . . What you’ve done is you’re amending the gospel, the Christian message, so that it’s palatable to contemporary people who find, for example, the idea of hell and heaven very difficult to stomach. So here comes Rob Bell, he’s made a Christian gospel for you, and it’s perfectly palatable, it’s much easier to swallow. That’s what you’ve done, haven’t you?”
What happened at Mars Hill Bible Church? In a recent interview with The New Yorker (as reported on Christianpost.com) Bell shares how the book led to a fallout with the congregation and forced him on a “search for a more forgiving faith.” Three thousand members left the church and Bell eventually stepped down and moved to southern California where he hopes to write another book and start a talk show focused on issues of faith. He continues to seek out Christians interested in a different kind of church, “one that can keep pace with the rising ‘waterline of culture.'”
Thankfully, though the book was a best-seller, Bell received a vast amount of criticism for “Love Wins.” He’s rightly been labeled a heretic and possibly a Universalist. It is certainly hard to conclude otherwise. I for one am thankful 3,000 people left his church.
False teachers of all ages essentially say whatever they want and cherry pick the Scriptures to suit their taste. Their number one misstep is to take verses out of context, making them fit their man-centered opinion.
Only by renewing our minds in the Word of God will we grow in discernment between good and evil and truth and error and thereby avoid theological captivity at the hands of the next smooth talker.
We are responsible for what we believe and what we take in.
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Unless otherwise noted, all posts are written by Pastor Chris McKnight