A lot has been written about Rob Bell in the past couple of weeks after he released a video asking questions about Christian beliefs about God, and heaven and hell. Some people have been extremely critical of the video, accusing Bell of universalism, which is to say that God will eventually save everyone and not send anyone to hell. Others have reserved judgment until the book comes out, while others are rightly upset at the nature of some of the criticism.
Our friends Tim and Jeana have recently posted some excellent thoughts on the debate which I think are spot on.
One thing I love about Rob Bell is that he isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions. Regardless of any doctrinal positions he holds, what I find refreshing is his uncanny ability to articulate the questions people are really asking (or not asking, for that matter). We watched several of the Nooma videos in our small group last year and he doesn’t actually come out and tell the answers most of the time. It takes a lot of discipline to take those issues back to Scripture and figure out what the Bible does teach. Still, I think a lot of people misinterpret his questions as being leading questions or rhetorical questions when he’s just trying to expose more sides to an issue. Read more
For me, the thing that has stood out in the debate is how one-dimensional a lot of our theology is. We see the Bible as a diverse collection of history, poetry, wisdom literature, stories, prophecies, letters and apocalyptic writings, but then our thoughts about it tend to only operate on the level of post-enlightenment logic statements. We are so averse to other ways of communicating the gospel that when someone creatively asks some provocative questions, we reduce them to simplistic statements which we then either agree with or dismiss, depending on how they relate to our other theological propositions.
God speaks in many ways through the Bible, but he doesn’t often state the “simple facts” as we might see them. Jesus often taught in parables, appealing to people’s imaginations and challenging them to a new way of thinking. The Israelites recited stories from their history to remind themselves, and to teach their children, about God’s character. David and others praised God and taught about his character through songs and poems. Paul taught through writing letters that addressed the specific situations that communities were facing. (Much as we might have liked him to, he never wrote a systematic theology!)
Sometimes the statements we see in some of these diverse writings seem almost heretical. In the book of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet suggests that humans are no better than animals as both die and there seems to be no afterlife, and he generally paints a picture of God being distant and uninterested in the lives of people. Job similarly asks difficult questions, accusing God of being in the wrong, and of attacking him unjustly. Even Jesus shocks us, by apparently calling the Syro-Phonecian woman a “dog”.
Why are all these heretical statements in the Bible? Maybe the Bible isn’t a straightforward answer-book, theology paper or manual for life. Maybe it is a testimony of God reaching out to his people according to their unique situations and needs.
Any teacher knows that a student will never truly learn something by simply being told it again and again. He will only really learn it when he can discover it for himself and put it into practice. Why are the provocative thoughts of Qohelet in the Bible? Maybe because they’re exactly what we need to start us thinking about what really matters in life. Why are Job’s questions in the Bible? Maybe to assure us that God values honesty over looking good and appearing to have all the answers. Why did Jesus call the woman a racist name? Maybe he was shocking the disciples into seeing how their prejudice and lack of compassion were so out of step with his Kingdom.
If we are to join in with God’s mission we need to be aware of the multitude of ways he reaches out to people in different situations. We need to read the Bible missionally and then ask what it means for us to live missionally, in ways that echo the biblical narrative. If we do so I have a feeling we might find that missional engagement in the 21st Century should be a lot more imaginative and creative than simply coming up with logical theological statements and repeating them to, or at, people.
Maybe Rob Bell is being heretical. Or maybe he is just trying to sow the seeds of discussion, asking the questions that the world wants to ask but doesn’t expect the church to discuss, hoping to inspire both Christians and non-Christians to seriously consider the character of God and the witness of the Bible. I guess we’ll have to wait until March 15th to find out…