We Are Better For the Experience, Or My Bird’s Eye View of The Rob Bell Controversy

Though the debate rages on I think we’ve calmed down about the Rob Bell firestorm. I followed the whole thing closely as I find it quite enthralling, and I wanted to offer some observations and clarifications.

I know that many of my readers are not Rob fans, and please know I’m not trying to make you into one. I’m not saying all of them, but I do think Rob has contributed some valuable insights I’d hate for people to miss simply because they disagree with him. I’ll be starting with some of the good things that have come up:

  • Does Rob say that God isn‘t punitive (a natural conclusion if all go to heaven)? No, but Rob emphasizes that God is punitive for a purpose. He punishes for the purpose of transformation and restoration, not for simply expressing his burning anger. I think this is a huge point to make – God punishes with redemptive intention. One thing I do know about God – he is always moving towards restoring and redeeming.
  • A common complaint is “if God saves all then why bother evangelizing?” This exposes a deeper belief – that Jesus only came to hand out heaven tickets and therefore has nothing else to offer. I’ve seen far too many people have a dramatic and beautiful encounter with Jesus that’s left them changed. Addictions healed, heavy burdens lifted from broken shoulders, emotional torment taken away – this is the gospel (or maybe better stated – part of it). Jesus has much for our desperate world other than a ticket out, and this a huge point worth making. That’s why Bell keeps saying  the gospel is good news NOW – it is! I know I treat people more lovingly. I know I don’t carry around shame from my past informing everything I do because I’ve been forgiven now. Evangelism isn’t merely trying to fatten heaven’s numbers but offer people Jesus’ healing now – and this is a worthy critique.
  • Finally, I think Rob has rightly pointed out that we misinterpret many passages to be about heaven and hell. Long before this controversy started I had a post sitting in my drafts folder about this very subject – how we mistakenly made the terms “Kingdom of God” and “heaven” interchangeable. I’m not saying the Bible never addresses people’s eternal fate – merely that it doesn’t mention it as often as the Baptists & Fundamentalists say it does. I think Rob has rightly pointed out that how we see the world is very different from the Biblical writers and it would do us good to not transpose our ideas into the Bible (ex: we use the terms “eternal” and “salvation” differently from Jews 2000 years ago).

Here’s the other side to the story:

  • This, unfortunately, has shown the world how nasty Christians can be – especially to each other. If Time Magazine picks up on this and makes it their cover story – then millions have gotten a peak into our bedroom brawl. This is true for both progressive and conservative Christians – both have blood on their hands.
  • Rob contradicts certain scripture – some may have a problem with this but I’ve long believed Scripture doesn’t present a unified doctrine. Rob continually points out Scripture that discusses the restoration of all things to God and this doesn’t jive with other passages about wrath. What I’m trying to say is that this controversy has shown that our Scripture is not what we say it is – and so it means we’ve got some explaining to do. I’m gonna catch flack for this and likely start a debate I don’t have the energy to get into.
  • One final negative thing that has come up. In every interview I’ve seen Rob has had to continually field questions and accusations and offer a defense. That makes sense considering what he’s implying. However are we really saying that we only care about what we perceive are your faults? Is that all Rob is? Almost no one has asked Rob “positive” questions. What does that say about us? I think it heavily shapes the way we interact with people.

I wanted to say more but this post is at record length. Ultimately I think it’s been a good thing for Christians to begin talking about heaven and hell. I don’t mean it’s good for everyone to consider universalism, I’m merely saying we needed to have a solid discussion on the matter because it isn’t as black and white as the Romans Road we’ve been presented – which is an idea that’s dominated Christian thought for a century.

What are your thoughts on things I’ve raised? (And please, I’m not interested in discussing universalism, so please don’t tell me how much you hate Rob – do you think the clarifications I made are valid?)

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47 Responses to We Are Better For the Experience, Or My Bird’s Eye View of The Rob Bell Controversy

  1. Frankly Charlie, I have stayed out of the fray. I have not Rob’s books (plural) because I find him not a very writer. I know others find disagreement with me but I found Velvet Elvis boring. Be that as it may, I stayed out. I will not comment on whether love wins or loses (pun intended). i do have a thought about your #1 point. you say that Rob says God punishes with redemptive intention. I cannot agree with that. I believe God disciplines us for our good and anyone with children knows there is a difference between discipline and punishment. Punishment is meted out at judgment. Therein is my problem with what you said. Once death occurs, “it is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment.” Therefore there can be no redemptive intention. now…maybe you mean something different from the way I take it. Maybe Rob does also. But, as stated by you, i cannot agree. Unless, of course, you get into your closing statement which you said you do not want to discuss. 🙂 Some other things but that is the most glaring.

    • David says:

      Good point, Bill. I agree, punishment comes after the judgement is made. All kids need a slap upside the head once in a while; even Kingdom kids.

      • @Bill – I can’t tell if this is semantics – I think i’ve used the terms punishment and discipline interchangably even though punishment is far harsher – the point I was trying to make is that God doesn’t do it simply for punitive’s sake – but for a purpose to turn things around. I wasn’t totally following what you were saying – are you saying punishment is after (negative) judgment?

  2. David says:

    Actually a very good blog, Charlie!

    I don’t give a rat about Rob Bell. I liked some of his Nooma videos. I don’t really even care about his 2,000-year-old heresy. What makes me crazy is that just because a guy has a big church, he is some sort of successful expert.

    Jesus is very clear in his parables, and Paul is very clear in his epistles: There is a difference in those that have faith and those that do not! Because none of this can be proven until one is dead, the debate will rage on – the wheat amongst the tares. However; there is only one true theology. I think one of yesterday’s commenter’ said it something like this, “some are in a little error, and some are in a lot.” I would add some do not know God at all.

    If Rob Bell has faith in Jesus – true faith, not just belief, he’s got his ticket. The same is true of Hitler and Mother Theresa. It is faith, and nothing else. This faith writes on our heart and seals us with the Holy Spirit.

    Now, the Bible says that “teachers” are held to some sort of higher judgement. I don’t know if that means that God is going to crush Rob’s testicles or what, but it appears there is some sort of judgement that takes place, as well as some sort of rewards (crowns). Personally, I have only concentrated on how to get me and others there, not on all the details once I am there.

    I think of the judgement like this. All the rationalization, all the lies, all the deception, the religion and anything else that keeps us from seeing the truth, that will be stripped away, and we’ll be caught in the truth. I don’t really think that Jesus needs to do or say anything at that point. The fact that we can’t hide from God is daunting to say the least. All our thoughts, words, and deeds – ad their motives in full view of the Light. Every cookie jar we have ever had our hand in, revealed.

    Then the mercy and forgiveness is unloaded on us, His full Glory poured out; the glory that Moses only saw the back side of, His love, His healing, His freedom – yes, it will be eternally glorious! A love affair so intense that eons will pass as we sit in his everlasting presence.

    And for those without faith, nothing like that.

  3. I’m pretty much with you all the way, Charlie.

    As to Scripture not presenting a unified doctrine, I agree fully. I simply don’t think there is a doctrinal system anywhere in the world that satisfactorily encompasses and agrees with 100% of Scripture. Somewhere along the way, EVERYBODY simply leaves out the parts that they don’t agree with. EVERYBODY. And I believe it’s Scriptural to say that, because I believe it’s 100% Scriptural that no man is perfect, and doctrinal systems were ALL constructed by man.

    And sometimes I wonder if God made the Bible confusing on purpose.

    I hear people say that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” Say whut? That’s circular reasoning and confusing logic at best, and absolute insanity at worst.

    No, I’m not on the Rob Bell train, but I might be standing at the station watching it go by. I don’t think Fundamental Baptist theology has it as “right” as they would like to dogmatically claim.

    What I think doesn’t really matter, but I’m searching to really know Jesus. I’m not a freaking Martin Luther, and I’m not even searching as hard as I should be, but I see and know TONS of things about modern Christianity that simply don’t make sense to me.

    Keep it coming.

    • I am with you that I’m not on anyone’s train here, I don’t know how this all shakes out but I am fairly confident things don’t work out the modern fundamentalist says they do.

      and you say maybe the Bible is confusing on purpose – I could maybe buy that – it’s a way to keep us from building up big oppressive systems from what it says – of course we’ve done that anyway by picking and choosing. I also think the Bible can’t be unified – it’s unrealistic that every writer would be on the same page about every nuanced thing.

  4. Darius says:

    I want to address the idea that God ONLY uses punishment to restore. I don’t see this is remotely a Biblical idea. For one, look at the OT. God routinely punishes people and people groups with no intention of restoring them. And in the NT, God strikes down Ananias and Sapphira… and doesn’t raise them up again. God disciplines those He loves for restoration, but He doesn’t “love” everyone. Jesus said God gave Him certain people, not all people. God told Paul in Acts that He had many people in Corinth who were His, the implication being that many weren’t. Like I said on my blog, a robust and Biblical understanding of election would solve a lot of these issues, Charlie. I understand you WANT God to be a certain way, but what is MORE important is what the Bible tells us He is like. Which I guess ties back into your view that you don’t view the Bible as reliable, in which case I don’t understand why you view any of it as such. It’s either all reliable or none of it is reliable. It’s ALL God’s Word to man or none of it is. We can’t pick and choose.

    • David says:

      Darius – would you mind laying out a half-dozen bullet points on election with Bible refs. I think it is very worthwhile addition to your comment. Thanks.

      • Darius says:

        Sure, David.

        This is actually a really good link that covers what you just asked for: http://scripturetruths5.tripod.com/pande.html

        The entire NT is practically swamped with words like “election,” “chosen,” “ordained for eternal life.” And it makes sense considering the OT was all about a chosen people. What God did was open up that chosenness to be available to all people. And He does the choosing, not us. We are dead in our sin. Lazarus didn’t do anything to raise himself from the dead. All He did was respond to Jesus’ call. Jesus had already restored life into him, just as God regenerates us before we are able to repent and choose life. If we understand election correctly and Biblically, then it is very simple why God would send some to hell for eternity and some to heaven: as Romans 9 puts it, for his glory by showing mercy on some. If we don’t understand election or reject it, then Rob Bell’s teaching makes perfect sense (but only if ALL are saved). If some are saved and some withstand God’s love, then it puts our salvation back in our hands ultimately. All are enemies of God, not just some. If left to ourselves without the Spirit’s work on our hearts, we would all choose hell forever.

    • Darius says:

      More on the idea of the Bible being all or nothing when it comes to reliability… as you may have heard recently, there is some guy who wrote some memoirs (3 Cups of Tea or something like that) who was found out to have fabricated some of his memoirs. Now, if you had read them and heard that, would you view any of what he wrote as trustworthy? Isn’t this all the more true with a book that demands we give our lives to the cause? If we say some of it can’t be trusted, then the only thing letting us trust any of it is our own prejudices and preferences. And the thing about prejudices is that there are good ones and bad ones. And I don’t trust my heart to determine truth.

      • Chris says:

        If I wrote a memoir covering a period of 20 or so years of my life and I happened to get a couple of anecdotes wrong, does it therefore follow that all of it is untrustworthy? It may be considered fallible, but it doesn’t follow that closer scrutiny couldn’t discern what might be true and what might not. It doesn’t automatically make it all false.

        You said: “If we say some of it can’t be trusted, then the only thing letting us trust any of it is our own prejudices and preferences.”

        Not true. We all have prejudices to some degree or another anyway. To say that we come at anything (scripture included) 100% completely neutral may be naive. I’d suggest it is possible to proceed carefully through study and research to arrive at the truthfulness of an account like the one you mentioned above.

  5. Darius – Good morning 🙂 We’ve not met until now.

    “It’s ALL God’s Word to man or none of it is. We can’t pick and choose.”

    But the canon itself was formed by the picking and choosing of men based on the beliefs that the church held at the time.

    Everybody picks and chooses. Everybody. Did I say “everybody”? Everybody.

    btw – “Choosing to believe in predestination” is possibly the most ironic statement possible. Just saying.


    You’d probably have a fit if you read my blog for today. Oh, boy.

    • Darius says:

      Bernard, yes, the canon was “picked and chosen” by men. But it that was done by the working of the Holy Spirit. Peter refers to Paul’s letters as “Scripture.” The NT is trustworthy NOT because the right men picked it but because God is sovereign over His Word and the Holy Spirit speaks and moves. If we have a purely rational, secular view of the Scriptures, then yeah, there is no reason to believe it to be 100% true and faithful to God. But if we have a God who is big enough to use mere men to form a Bible that represents Him accurately, and we have the Holy Spirit and faith to trust that Bible, then we should be able to believe it. It takes faith to believe that God actually said what He claims to have said. From the very beginning, the devil has always asked “did God really say?”

      For faithful Christians, the answer is “yes, God really did say what you read in the Word.”

      • “But it that was done by the working of the Holy Spirit. ” Can you defend that statement?

        I’m not challenging it, I’m simply curious as to how it can be defended.

        I’m rather tired of Christian intellectual issues getting brushed under the rug with “if you’re a true, Biblical Christian, you’ll have the faith to believe this without question.” I see that as crap. It reeks of “if you don’t agree with me, you’re not even saved”, and dude, I HATE that nonsense. If that’s the direction we’re going with this discussion, farewell.

      • Darius says:

        John 14:26, for one. 2 Timothy 3:16, for another.

        I’m referring to the trustworthiness of the Bible. You have claimed that it isn’t trustworthy. If it isn’t, then why are you professing to be a Christian? If some of it isn’t trustworthy, then none of it is. True?

      • Jason Dye says:


        That’s just plum modernistic reductionalism. When ‘trustworthy’ means ‘what I think it means’, the word loses all meaning.

      • Darius says:

        Jason, I’m not talking about interpretation, I’m talking about the accuracy of what is in the Bible. We still have to interpret that, and we can have a debate around that issue, but the inerrancy of Scripture is what we’re discussing right now. Let’s keep those two topics separate, for clarity’s sake.

      • Jason Dye says:

        “Inerrancy of scriptures” is the mode of biblical interpretation. That biblical interpretation is not just too narrow, it’s not respectful of the bible itself, for it takes no account for humanity, for God’s Spirit (except as some sort of controlling mechanism), for different points of view, for cultural and historical and theological and political context of the time, for any serious scholarship.

        I may not convince you with these words – certainly not yet, Darrius. But I’d hate for your simplicity to dumbfound Christians who’ve not had an opportunity to study these things with any sort of depth into subscribing to a highly legalistic and fundamentalist view of Jesus and the gospels.

        Not that you’d have a problem with legalism or fundamentalism, judging by your “lines drawn in the sand” comment.

      • Darius says:

        Legalism? Where did that come from? If you want to be charitable, you might want to stop putting a bunch of words in my mouth or ascribing things to me that I haven’t even touched upon. That is, IF you want to be charitable.

      • Jason Dye says:

        Many people have pretended to believe in the Gospel once delivered and now it is clear that the Gospel they have believed is not THE Gospel but an abhorrent pretender.

        the Definition of legalism. It doesn’t fit your mode of what a Christian or believer or biblical is, so it must not be Christian or biblical.

        IF you want to be charitable, it’d help by starting with a little of your own. Otherwise, I will just continue to call you out for the bullying that you are doing.

      • Darius says:

        That’s the definition of legalism? Really?!? You do realize that you’re calling the Apostle Paul a legalist, don’t you?

      • If I said that the Bible is not trustworthy, I was mistaken. But I think you terribly misunderstand my point. However, I don’t intend to belabor this with you much further.

        I did not say that the Bible is not trustworthy. Never. You know darn well I didn’t say that. I’m referring to men’s interpretations. Saying that the Bible does not present a unified doctrine, to me, simply means that multiple doctrines can all be supported by Biblical texts, even though those doctrines disagree.

        I can already see, as I post this, that the discussion is trashed. I really don’t have a lot more to say.

      • Darius says:

        Bernard, first of all, read your last comment again… your first two paragraphs contradict each other.

        Here is what you originally said: “But the canon itself was formed by the picking and choosing of men based on the beliefs that the church held at the time.”

        The clear implication is that you don’t view the Scriptures as completely trustworthy because you view them as being chosen by man instead of God. If that’s not what you meant, please explain what you meant.

        As for unity of doctrine, the Bible very much presents a unified doctrine, or else Christianity is bunk. Paul tells us to root out false teachers, but based on what, if all false teaching can be supported by Scripture. There IS such a thing as false doctrine and true doctrine, Jesus made that clear and Paul repeated that over and over.

  6. Jason Dye says:

    Great post, Charlie.

    This is kind of getting to that whole sin-centric gospel that I’ve been hinting at recently, both in the post and in the comments. It’s hard to get away from that, but we tend to think of the gospels as a prescription for dealing with sin and punishment of sins. Therefore, everything else flows from that. Salvation is based on it, and so is grace, and heaven. I just don’t see it being the central character of the gospels – Jesus is.

    As per redemptive punishment, I’m more inclined to agree on the term “redemptive discipline.” Paul’s pastoral letters indicate that’s the case and I tend to agree with Bell here that the afterlife is a continuation of that.

    Thanks for bringing up these weighty subjects, Charlie!

  7. Jeff says:

    I had never heard of Rob Bell before reading your blog. I haven’t seen any videos or heard anything he has said or read anything he has written. But I gather from some of your fellow bloggers that he has attracted a pretty good following. Some seem a little envious of his numbers. Probably a natural primate reaction.
    I live in one of the largest Universalist communities in the country. Some I work with , some on the Board I handle the finances for, and some I just have acquaintance with. They all seem like fine people. They don’t seem too concerned about judging people now or where they go when they die. They seem pretty content in their beliefs.
    On the other hand you seem to attract some really strange believers in here that seem frustrated with their beliefs or frustrated with everyone elses beliefs.
    As I think I have said before, believe whatever you want. If it makes you happy ….go for it. And let me do the same.
    Rob Bell isn’t the nuttiest ideas I have heard in this blog.

    • haha great ending. Oh man someone finally puts it out there – I say nutty things.

      I’m glad that my blog just isn’t a collection of like-minded people or yes-men. I’d much rather have a diverse range of opinion (among white people) than just an echoing chorus. Of course it’s chaotic and can be frustrating but it’s more in line with how the church should be in my opinion.

      People definitely get frustrated over other people’s beliefs – it’s a strange phenomenon if you ask me. Why raise your blood pressure for that?

  8. Amy says:

    I haven’t read LOVE WINS, but I really liked SEX GOD (didn’t agree with everything) and VELVET ELVIS.

    Other than that, here are some stunning insights I have to add to this topic::

    *I like his glasses. In fact, I think Rob Bell and Tina Fey make wearing glasses cool, which is good because contacts burn my eyeballs.

    *When he signs his name it looks like “robell” instead of “Rob Bell,” and it’s very loopy. I know because my friend got got his book signed by robell.

    *I bet everyone who hates him *might* be able to have a good ol’ time sitting around playing Wii or watching the Royal Wedding or whatever.

    *Rob Bell is a really cool name.

    *You can follow @realrobbell on Twitter, but you should DEFINITELY follow @robbell, who is a graphic designer from England. I love when he makes hilarious quips to people who call him a heretic.

    *I make more paragraphs since reading Rob Bell books.

    I really bring down the intellectual dialogue on this blog, don’t I? I am the only girl, so I guess I’ve got to be special. 🙂

    • Jason Dye says:

      I really bring down the intellectual dialogue

      No, Amy. No, you don’t.

      • well worry not Amy just the other night I was working on a post about the dangerous of intellectualism. And if this were solely a theology blog even I’d be bored!

        the twitter rob bell thing is so funny – I’d like to see a collection of those exchanges.

        I too enjoyed Velvet Elvis and Sex God – if nothing else he can get people to think about what he’s saying.

  9. Peter says:

    Hey Charlie, great post! I like your bird’s eye view. And I certainly agree with most of your take in the debate.

    Unfortunately, I’m not yet convinced of your statement in the title that “We are better for the experience”. It’s good for people to be talking more about heaven and hell, but too much still seems to be just the different sides of the debate stating their position over and over – hence the “ugly side of Christianity” that the rest of the world has seen. Even the (refreshingly civil) comments on your blog reflect not so much an interest in discussing the issue, as much as a desire to correct others who disagree.

    I am really hoping that you turn out to be right – that we’re better for the experience – but I am saddened in that I’ve seen few signs of that yet.

  10. Darius says:

    I think evangelical Christianity is definitely better for having had this discussion. It has allowed everyone to see what is at stake and draw some lines that needed to be drawn. Many people have pretended to believe in the Gospel once delivered and now it is clear that the Gospel they have believed is not THE Gospel but an abhorrent pretender. Any time that the Gospel can be clarified and false teaching called out as such is a very good thing indeed.

  11. Darius says:

    Mean & nasty? You’re serious? Wow.

  12. Darius says:

    “We serve Jesus, not doctrine.” That’s a nice-sounding sentiment, but it’s not Biblical. Jesus IS doctrine. Romans is the definition of doctrine. It doesn’t help someone if they believe in a false Jesus. They must believe in the true Jesus. A Jesus who came to save us from ourselves, to put the wrath meant for us onto Himself, and get the glory reserved for Him before the world was created.

    • Jason Dye says:

      I’m sorry, Darius. But that’s not biblical. That’s gnosticism. It’s a western, Greek-and-Egyptian-centered philosophy, not Hebrew or Jewish.

      Hebrew and Jewish thought centered around relationally knowing truth. Greek thought – particularly gnostic thought – centered around individually finding and acknowledging truth.

  13. Darius says:

    As for your link you posted… yes, questions ARE biblical. But God doesn’t like some answers to those questions. You can find this pretty consistently in the NT. And Bell gives the wrong answers repeatedly. God can handle the questions, but He doesn’t care for answers that lead people away from Him, mock Him, or diminish the glory meant for Him.

  14. Darius says:

    From that link (your blog, perhaps?): “See, in the end it doesn’t truly matter what our beliefs on hell are – because they are not central to the Gospel.”

    Well, Rob Bell would disagree with you. Maybe you haven’t actually read his book (I have), but he says the answers matter and our view on hell matters. So he would disagree with you. The problem is that his view of hell is wrong and doesn’t match what Jesus had to say about it (who had a LOT to say about hell).

  15. Darius says:

    I think we’re dancing around the issues… so let me put out some clarifications.

    1) I don’t view Rob Bell as unsaved. He may be, he may not be. That’s between him and God. It depends on where he ultimately puts his faith for salvation. Same applies to anyone who believes Rob Bell is a truth-telling prophet. Unless I see clear evidence to the contrary, I have to assume that Rob Bell is still a Christian brother of mine. Which leads me to my second point…

    2) The Bible clearly and repeatedly says that there IS such a thing as false doctrine and that Christians are supposed to oppose it WHEN it is being taught by professing Christians. If it’s being taught by some atheist, so what? Paul says to judge those in the Church. And the reason we are to oppose false teaching is that it leads people to believe in a false Gospel and ultimately may lead them to hell. This is deadly serious. And the ultimate motive of our opposition is to both protect the flock from wolves and, hopefully, convert the wolves to the truth. So with Rob Bell, he is to be opposed strongly, but with the intention that he ultimately be brought back into the Truth.

    3) The Bible, in every word, dot, and tittle, is 100% trustworthy, accurate, and life-giving. If we don’t agree here, we won’t agree on anything else. Unless you can agree to this (and have the Holy Spirit inside you), you won’t understand spiritual things.

    • Jason Dye says:

      The Bible, in every word, dot, and tittle, is 100% trustworthy, accurate, and life-giving.

      I agree here. I, however, think we’d disagree on what that fully means.

      The Bible clearly and repeatedly says that there IS such a thing as false doctrine and that Christians are supposed to oppose it WHEN it is being taught by professing Christians.

      First, I think it’s more concerned about the things that get between us and God, which may be doctrines – but also worldviews. I happen to believe that gnosticism is one of those worldviews.

  16. Larry Hughes says:

    When in doubt on what a man says about scripture or differentiates by what is his perception, read the scriptures led by God’s grace and let it reveal what it says to you.

    Then one can determine what is truth.

  17. Hey all thanks for contributing to the conversation – I haven’t gotten to read through everything due to work and I’m exhausted, I’ll reply soon!

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