The following commentary is by Timothy C. Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., one of the top training institutions for United Methodist clergy (Asbury also has a Florida campus).
Dr. Timothy C. Tennent
Below, Dr. Tennent offers a critique of Rob Bell’s controversial book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne). Released last week, the book is already a New York Times bestseller.
Prior to being elected in 2009 to serve as Asbury’s eighth president, Dr. Tennent was a professor of World Missions and Indian Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.
He holds a B.A. from Oral Roberts University, an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell, a Th.M. from Princeton, and a Ph.D. from at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, Tim Tennent is served as a pastor in the UMC’s North Georgia Conference from 1982-1990.
This commentary previously appeared in serialized form on Dr. Tennent’s blog. Links below have been added by MethodistThinker.com. — Ed.
Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church near Grand Rapids, Mich., a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary. His latest book, Love Wins, is an attempt to deconstruct widely held evangelical notions about heaven, hell and the lostness of humanity and replace it with a God whose cosmic love triumphs over human unbelief. It is Bell’s attempt to counter a very poor story with a better story.
The poor story is the story of a God who is an angry tyrant who sends people to hell for an eternity because of “sins committed in a few short years.”
Bell writes, “[T]elling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do, or say, or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.”
In contrast, Bell wants to tell a better story which is “bigger and more expansive.” It is the story of the power of God’s love to triumph over a world of unbelief.
Rob Bell is to be commended for exposing the weak theology which apparently is present in many evangelical churches. But he caricatures evangelical beliefs to the limit of one’s imagination, playing on the worst kinds of stereotypes. According to Bell, evangelicals often proclaim a God who “is a slave driver” ready to “inflict pain and agony” on those who don’t pray “the sinner’s prayer in precisely the right way.”
Exclusivists are stereotyped as those who insist that “followers of Jesus confess him in the precise way defined by the group” or you will not be “going to heaven.”
Bell portrays evangelicals as those who are arrogantly cramming the gospel down the throats of an unbelieving world. He suggests that evangelicals care nothing about the environment or poverty or nuclear disarmament, or pollution because all that really matters is “getting people to pray the right prayer,” or believe just the right things so they can die and go to heaven which is “somewhere else” and in a time which is a “different time” than that which we occupy today.
I could spend pages disputing Bell’s caricature of evangelical faith and practice. I have met hundreds of solid evangelical pastors who do not fall into the traps which Rob Bell cites. The historic relationship between evangelical commitments and social action is a powerful and compelling story.
But, for the sake of the argument, let’s accept Bell’s critique as fairly exposing some serious flaws in the theology of contemporary evangelicalism. If it is true, then Bell has definitely revealed that most evangelical pastors need to go back to seminary.
Apparently, today’s pastors have forgotten that the kingdom of God has already broken in to the present age and we are to live out the full realities of the New Creation in the present age.
Apparently, today’s evangelicals have confused the New Creation with 19th century hymns concerning heaven which depict the “other side” as a remote, vague place of passivity with little to do but pluck our harps and walk on streets of gold.
Apparently, quite a few pastors across our nation need to re-learn the basic lesson that God actually loves lost people.
If half of what Rob Bell says about evangelicals is true, then we need to declare a massive recall along the lines of what Toyota did last year when so many cars were discovered to be defective. We need to declare that listening to today’s pastors is no longer safe and reliable until they are sent back for a re-fit and some major theological adjustments. Something deep inside me suspects that Rob Bell may actually be on to something here. Thank you, Rob!
Indeed, it is time for a renewed emphasis on the grand meta-narrative which tells the “big story” and puts all of these doctrines in a larger and more robust theological frame. Perhaps we need a recall and a re-tooling of a largely Christendom-trained clergy to a clergy better prepared for a post-Christendom world which desperately needs a robust gospel, not a domesticated one.
Bell has been listening to the church and to the culture and he has insightfully diagnosed that the church is theologically anemic. He is saying, in effect, “Houston, we have a problem…” — and for that I applaud him.
Right problem, wrong prescription
My problem with Rob Bell is not so much with his diagnostics regarding contemporary popular evangelicalism, as it is with his prescription. The real question is not whether Rob Bell’s description of contemporary evangelical poor theology of “salvation” “New Creation” and “kingdom” is worth the attention the book is receiving. Bell is writing a popular book.
The book has received attention because of its prescription. Rob Bell is not just telling us we are sick, he is providing a remedy, a prescript for the theological malaise we are in. He may not be aware that his “solution” is not new, but dates back to at least 1963 and the writings of Karl Rahner. Nevertheless, for many evangelicals who avoid any books with footnotes, Bell’s “solution” will be received like a fresh new “third way” between a highly caricatured, mean-spirited “exclusivism” and an unbridled, relativistic “pluralism” which levels the playing field between all religions.
The question is this: Is Rob Bell’s prescription worthy of wide dissemination in the church? Should I commend it to our seminary students preparing for ministry today? The answer is a resounding no. Here are four reasons which give me pause.
First, Bell profoundly misunderstands the Biblical notion of God’s “love.” The entire premise of the book is to declare that God’s essence is “love” (which Bell states repeatedly). However, Bell never actually describes the biblical and theological relationship between God’s joyful engagement with the human race and God’s justice upon which the very gospel he celebrates is declared. Bell sentimentalizes God’s love throughout his book, making it almost equivalent to God being nice and reasonable to modern sensibilities.
I suspect that Bell has underestimated how shockingly tepid and sentimental our understanding of biblical love has become. If he had inserted the phrase “God’s holy love” for every place he has used “God’s love” he would have gained more biblical traction, but, in the process, much of his own argumentation would have become unraveled.
Bell’s argument actually requires a logical separation between God’s love and God’s justice which is quite untenable in biblical theology.
Second, Bell has an inadequate understanding of Sin — not the little “s” kind, but the big “S” kind. In other words, Bell understands that we all sin, but he doesn’t seem to comprehend that we, as a race, are part of a vast rebellion against God’s holiness.
Without Christ we, as a race, stand under condemnation and desperately need a divine rescue. Sin doesn’t just impede our progress and slow down our autonomous capacity to receive God’s love. We are spiritually dead apart from God’s prior action. Both Reformed and Arminian Christians affirm the cosmic consequences of the Fall of man. We are not Pelagian.
Bell’s solution takes humanity out of the dock and puts God in the dock. After reading Bell’s book one gets the feeling that Bell has put God on trial. It is God who now has to justify why he would be so cruel as to sentence a sinner to eternal separation from his presence, especially given the “few short years” we have had to commit sins. An eternal punishment for temporal sins is just too much for Bell to bear and so God had better provide an explanation — a good one.
The unfathomable love of the Triune God which resulted in a sending father, a crucified and risen Son and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit who ushers in the glorious realities of the New Creation into the present age is lost in Bell’s description of a “Son” who protects us from an angry “God.”
Third, Bell has an inadequate understanding of the Kingdom of God. He rightly chastises the collapse of salvation into personal justification, though he doesn’t use theological terms to describe this concern. However, in its place Bell fails to see that the kingdom has already been inaugurated, but is not fully consummated.
For Bell to say that heaven and hell are already here now is true in the sense that the kingdom of God is already breaking in (thus, heaven is breaking into the present age) and the absence of God’s rule and reign is hell. Bell correctly points out the relationship between “this age” and “the age to come.” Again, thank you Rob Bell! Bell correctly chastises a church with an under-realized eschatology which puts all redemption off into the “sweet by and by.”
However, Bell’s prescription is an over-realized eschatology which underestimates the massive redemption which still awaits societies, cultures, the kingdoms of this world and, indeed, creation itself. We live in an “already—not yet” tension. The Kingdom of God has already broken into the present evil age. Bell gets that point. However we still await our full redemption and the transformation which is ushered in by the eschaton will be dramatic and cosmic in scale. Bell misses that point.
Fourth, Bell’s solution exalts Christ’s work on the cross, but in the process sacrifices or ignores major themes in Scripture. Bell’s position regarding the state of the lost is known as inclusivism.
Despite rumors to the contrary, Bell is not a universalist, nor is he a full blown pluralist. A pluralist believes that all religions can independently save people and, therefore, there are many different, equally valid paths leading to God. In the pluralist world, Hinduism can save Hindus just as Christianity saves a Baptist. Bell does not take this position.
Bell’s argument is that you may, indeed, belong to a different religion, such as Islam, but it is Christ who saves you. You may be a practicing Buddhist or Hindu, but God is counting your faith as faith in Christ. It is a sort of Christocentric pluralism known as inclusivism and serves as a kind of half-way house between exclusivism and pluralism. It became popular in Roman Catholic circles in the wake of Vatican II and then spread to Protestantism and finally into evangelicalism in recent years.
The idea that a Buddhist could be saved by Christ has been called “Anonymous Christianity.” In other words, people are saved by Christ but do not realize it or know it.
(As an aside, I should note how offended many Buddhists were when they realized that some Christians taught that they were actually anonymous Christians. It is a form of stealth triumphalism which seeks to trump the dignity of unbelief.)
Bell drives a wedge between the ontological necessity of Christ’s work and the epistemological response of explicit repentance and faith. In other words, Christ’s work saves us even if we do not explicitly respond through repentance and faith. The relationship between God’s revelation and our response is severed. For Bell, God’s love saves “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists as well as Baptists” and does so within their sincere seeking within their own religions.
Bell concedes that John 14:6 does claim that salvation is only in Jesus Christ, but he argues that the text doesn’t go on to say that we need to acknowledge this or know this truth or respond to this, in order to be saved by Christ. In contrast, Paul says, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). The relational link between the Redeemer and the redeemed is quietly dropped in Bell’s wider-hope inclusivism.
Bell makes a point that nowhere in the New Testament does it state that we need a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” However, Bell should remember that sin is not just a forensic, legal breach with God’s justice — it is also a relational breach with God’s person. Bell doesn’t seem to realize the vast implications his position has for the church, the Great Commission and the Biblical call to repentance and faith.
Bell’s ecclesiology has collapsed and we are left with an individual sincere seeker after God. The mission of the church has been, at best, stunted, since the other religions of the world have already brought (implicitly and anonymously) more people to the foot of the cross than has the global proclamation of the gospel.
However, it is only through dramatic theological reductionism that Bell equates biblical salvation in the New Testament to a lone individual seeker after God in a religion like Islam or Buddhism. Bell doesn’t just give us anonymous Christians, he gives us anonymous communities, anonymous Scriptures and anonymous sacraments.
He has effectively disembodied the faith and separated it from ecclesiology despite the fact that it is the church which is the public, redeemed community Jesus Christ declares that he will build to manifest before the world all of the active “heavenly” engagement in this world that Bell longs for.
A domesticated gospel — or a robust, Apostolic one?
Bell is probably right about several things. A lot of pastors out there are teaching stuff which only vaguely reflects the actual teachings of the New Testament. If Bell’s book awakens in the evangelical community a fresh, robust conversation about what we really believe about the kingdom, heaven, hell, the lost and the New Creation, we should all be delighted.
It is important to recognize that Bell’s response reveals that the depth of his own theological reflection is a bit thin, too. He has given us a domesticated gospel which tries to make the gospel relevant to contemporary sensibilities. However, it is not the gospel which needs to be made relevant to us. It is we who need to be made relevant to the gospel. The gospel is always relevant whether it is recognized as such or not.
In my estimation, Rob Bell, and apparently quite a few evangelical pastors, need a thorough re-grounding in the biblical doctrines of God’s love, sin, the kingdom of God, the necessity of human response and ecclesiology.
While I sincerely believe that the spread of wider-hope inclusivism into the evangelical movement represents a serious breach of theological coherence which will undermine the gospel, I am not standing with a stone in my hand. As a seminary president, Bell’s book reminded me anew of the importance of biblical and theological training. He reminded me afresh why I have given my life to theological education.
If there is a “beam” in the eye of the evangelical church it is that we must hear the resounding bell (no pun intended) that a post-Christendom, post-modern generation is not hearing the gospel. However, the answer is not Bell’s further domesticated gospel, but a more robust, Apostolic one.
We can no longer give out gospel fragments which are not clearly tied to re-building the grand meta-narrative which gloriously unfurls from creation to covenant to incarnation to death and resurrection to ascension to Pentecost to the church of Jesus Christ to the Return of Christ and the final ushering in of the New Creation.
A post-modern world which has reduced all Truth to tiny socially constructed personal narratives is in need of a big, glorious grand Story. This is really the deepest cry of Rob Bell. This is the deepest cry of many of us.
Bell has reminded us that our deepest theological and pastoral work cannot be done in isolation from the world, the church and the larger cultural milieu. The world always remains God’s greatest theological workshop. Bell’s book, Love Wins, calls us all back to the workshop in a fresh way. Let’s get to work, shall we?
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