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June 30, 2011

Love Wins and Rob BellIt has been almost 4 months since the release of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. This is a book that has ignited a great debate on the subject of hell. It has also ignited discussion on the way this debate has been handled, and particularly so by those of us who considered this a dangerously unbiblical book. In the past couple of weeks I have had a lot of opportunity to think about Love Wins—about how it appeared on the scene, how we reacted, and some of the lessons we would do well to learn. Let me share a few of my thoughts on all of this.

We Got Gamed

Love Wins was published by HarperOne—a company with an excellent and well-funded marketing department. I am convinced that their marketing plan involved you and me (and let me define “you and me” as conservative and/or Reformed Christians—exactly the kind of people who tend to read this blog). They drew us in and played us perfectly so that we did exactly what they wanted us to. We reacted with horror—very vocal horror—to the book and its implications. The first hint of the book’s content, the video trailer, was carefully crafted to suggest the purpose of the book but not state it explicitly. This generated a lot of buzz not just about the book’s contents, but about what Bell may have meant in the trailer. It was a brilliant marketing move that ignited a massive amount of discussion and controversy. The first people knew of the book was that it was controversial.

Once the fire had ignited, HarperOne quickly battened down the hatches, refusing to send any more pre-release copies of the book—a very rare phenomenon. This means that until the book’s release copies of the manuscript were unusually rare. I take this to mean that the marketing plan was moving along very well and that allowing reviewers to begin writing critical reviews prior to its release date would have been detrimental to sales. A few copies of the manuscript were passed around, but most reviewers had to wait until release day. Until then all people could do was speculate. And we did.

The long and short is that the marketing plan for this book involved you and me and we played our part.

We Responded Immediately & Forcefully

Our response to Love Wins was immediate and furious and began long before the book was released. The earliest responses were based on the video trailer and made some assumptions, which is to say that Justin Taylor’s earliest comments and John Piper’s infamous Farewell Rob Bell tweet assumed some context—that people were familiar with Bell and his steady theological decline. These were essentially insider comments—from one conservative Christian to others—that very quickly ended up going far beyond that demographic. Ripped from their context, many people took them as being self-assured and mean-spirited even though I am convinced they were done out of genuine love and concern for truth. No one guessed that they would go so far, so fast, and that they would draw such urgent and widespread response. These early responses, first Justin’s and then many others, made statements about Bell based on the hints in the trailer rather than the statements in the book. This allowed Bell’s defenders to declare that we were being unfair and too hasty. Social media did its work and soon tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of people were reading these comments and spreading them through their own networks; people were retweeting and liking and commenting and writing their own blog posts and everything else we do with news today.

Do not hear me criticizing John Piper or Justin Taylor or anyone else here; I think these men would be the first to say that they had no idea of what would happen and that if they had, they would have responded differently (and, in fact, Justin went back and changed his blog post in several ways).

March 09, 2011

Love WinsQuestions matter. They can help you to grow deeper in your knowledge of the truth and your love for God—especially when you’re dealing with the harder doctrines of the Christian faith. But questions can also be used to obscure the truth. They can be used to lead away just as easily as they can be used to lead toward. Ask Eve.

Enter Rob Bell, a man who has spent much of the last seven years asking questions in his sometimes thought-provoking and often frustrating fashion. And when he’s done asking, no matter what answers he puts forward, it seems we’re only left with more questions. This trend continues in his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, where Bell poses what might be his most controversial question yet:

Does a loving God really send people to hell for all eternity?

The questions you probably want answers to as you read this review are these: Is it true that Rob Bell teaches that hell doesn’t exist? Is it true that Rob Bell believes no one goes to hell? You’ll just need to keep reading because, frankly, the answers aren’t that easy to come by.

How he asks the question is just as important as the question itself. “Has God created billions of people over thousands of years only to select a few to go to heaven and everyone else to suffer forever in hell? Is this acceptable to God? How is this ‘good news’?” They say that the person who frames the debate is going to win the debate. That is especially true when the debate is framed in this way, through these particular questions. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. No offense, and no pun intended.

The Toxic Subversion Of Jesus’ Message

Bell begins the book with surprising forthrightness: Jesus’ story has been hijacked by a number of different stories that Jesus has no interest in telling. “The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.” (Preface, vi)

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…. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear. (ibid)

You may want to read that again.

It really says that. And it really means what you think it means. Though it takes time for that to become clear.

March 07, 2011

Everyone is talking about the existence of hell. Is hell a real place? Is it a literal place of literal torment? It seems that this issue snuck up on us a little bit. Just a month ago a book came out titled Don’t Call It a Comeback. In that book several of the “young, restless, Reformed” authors (myself included) penned chapters discussing issues pertinent to the church today: the gospel, the new birth, Scripture, social justice, homosexuality. These are some of the big issues in the church today and tomorrow. But there is no chapter on hell (the index shows only 2 references to it).

And yet here we are with discussion raging on the existence and nature of hell. This weekend, as I thought about this controversy, I allowed myself a little thought experiment. What would I have to deny in order to deny hell? If I am ever to come to the point of denying the existence of hell, what will be the doctrinal cost of getting there? Though I am sure there is much more that could be said, I came up with four denials.

I Will Deny What Jesus Taught

Jesus believed in the literal existence of a literal hell. It is very difficult to read Luke 16 (the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus) and arrive at any other conclusion except that Jesus believed in hell and that he believed in a hell of conscious torment of body and mind.

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’

Jesus also believed in the permanence of hell: “[B]esides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” In Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks of hell as the furnace of fire, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. He calls it a place of everlasting fire. This would be strange language for a man to use if he believed that hell did not exist and that it was not a place of horrible torment.

If I am going to deny the existence of hell, I will need to outright deny what Jesus teaches and declare that he is wrong, or I will need to obscure what is so plain. I will need to make all of Jesus’ language symbolic and all of the meaning something other than what is clear. I will need to deny what Jesus says.