A marketing coup: Get a small book on eternal destiny to the top of best-seller lists by sending out heretical-sounding promotional materials that garner condemnation. The winners: Rob Bell, the famously hip 40-year-old founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, and his publisher, the Rupert Murdoch-owned HarperCollins, that dubs Bell "the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation."
Bell's book, Love Wins, argues that a good and loving God could not condemn people permanently to hell-and that, because of the orthodox conception of hell, many see the Christian message as "an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies." The truly good news, he says, is that "love wins." This message, coming from a pastor dubbed by Time "a singular rock star in the church world," provoked critiques from Christian leaders including John Piper. One prominent blogger, Justin Taylor, argued that Bell "is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity."
After Piper sent a message on Twitter that linked to Taylor's post and said, "Farewell, Rob Bell," Taylor's critique received 250,000 viewings over the next 48 hours. The central theological criticism was that Bell promotes "universalism"-the view that all humankind will ultimately be redeemed-or so dilutes Christian teachings on salvation and the afterlife that what remains is no longer Christian at all. Many secular publications, including The New York Times and CNN, gave Bell's book favorable publicity.
HarperCollins, which had won the rights to Love Wins with a six-figure advance, flew Bell to New York, where Bell told an interviewer that he was not a universalist, "if by universalist we mean there's a giant cosmic arm that swoops everybody in at some point, whether you want to be there or not." Christ alone is the means of redemption, he said, but people of all faiths and those who reject Christ in this life will have abundant postmortem opportunity to receive forgiveness and to enjoy the new heaven and the new earth. Bell strongly suggests that everyone, or nearly everyone, will eventually succumb to God's endless pursuit.
Those statements escalated the criticism, with Reformed pastor and blogger Kevin DeYoung's 20-page dismantling of Bell's argument attaining large circulation. Those whose names appeared in endorsements on the back of the book found themselves on the defensive. Endorser Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary (where Bell was trained), contended that Bell was well within the bounds of a "generous orthodoxy."
How to make sense of all this? Pastors and writers sometimes take unorthodox positions. Bell is not a theologian or biblical scholar, and no one would mistake him for one, but Love Wins is particularly questionable for its caricature and condemnation of historical orthodoxy. As many critics have noted, Bell never offers a thorough or sympathetic explanation of traditional Christian views of salvation and the afterlife-yet he condemns them as "misguided and toxic," "tragic," even "terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable."
Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, argues that Bell sees the Bible as a collection of stories and "believes it is his right and duty to determine which story is better than another." Mohler contended that it is "audacity of breathtaking proportions" to replace with a different story the hard Christian teachings about sin, the cross, and atonement through sacrifice: Mohler notes that Bell "alienates love from justice and holiness. . . . There is no genuine Gospel here. This is just a reissue of the powerless message of theological liberalism."
The Chicago Sun Times asked about Bell, "Is he the next Billy Graham?" Some publications may anoint him as such. But if evangelicals let the secular media choose their leaders, there never would have been a Billy Graham in the first place.
HarperCollins, publisher of Love Wins, also owns Zondervan, which published in January, without much publicity, Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts. Voskamp is not a celebrity lecturer: She and her husband are farmers in southwestern Ontario who raise children (six) and corn. Yet her book has also crept onto bestseller lists, largely by millennial generation word-of-mouth about its lilting prose and calls for biblical thanksgiving.
I don't know Voskamp's position on hell, and she doesn't speculate on it in this book or in her daily blog postings that I've read-but she does write about God's sovereignty and His justice, which sometimes has the appearance of unfairness. Why was her little sister run over by a truck? Why did a nearby father lose both of his tiny children to disease?
Voskamp movingly quotes the mourning father saying, "Sometimes I think of that story in the Old Testament . . . when God gave King Hezekiah fifteen more years of life. . . . But if Hezekiah had died when God first intended, Manasseh would never have been born. And what does the Bible say about Manasseh? Something to the effect that Manasseh had led the Israelites to do even more evil than all the heathen nations around Israel. Think of the evil that would have been avoided if Hezekiah had died earlier, before Manasseh was born."
That's startling: We frequently call upon God to exercise more mercy, but here He did so in a way that led to more evil, in the short run. The grieving father, grabbing for perspective, says, "I am not saying anything, either way, about anything. . . . Just that maybe . . . maybe you don't want to change the story, because you don't know what a different ending holds." Voskamp reflects, "There's a reason I am not writing the story and God is. He knows how it all works out, where it all leads, what it all means."
She continues, "If I had the perspective of the whole, perhaps I'd see it? That which seems evil, is it a cloud to bring rain, to bring a greater good to the whole of the world? Who would ever know the greater graces of comfort and perseverance, mercy and forgiveness, patience and courage, if no shadows fell over a life?"
Many people might accept that, but then argue about how big the shadows should be, but Voskamp concludes, "Anything less than gratitude and trust is practical atheism. . . . Perhaps the opposite of faith is not doubt. Perhaps the opposite of faith is fear. To lack faith perhaps isn't as much an intellectual disbelief in the existence of God as fear and distrust that there is a good God. . . . The fear is suffocating, terrorizing, and I want the remedy, and it is trust. Trust is everything."
Amen. And one other note of grace: Voskamp writes that when she was a child, she saw on a billboard in a forested area only unreadable words. Then her parents took her to get glasses. When she wore them, she could read the billboard's words, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ." Her conclusion: "The woods spell out words. I need a lens to read them." The lens, she says, is "the Word," and it "has nail-scarred hands." -Marvin Olasky