Rob Bell, 40, is an author and the pastor of a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, reported to have 10,000 attendees each week. Over the years Bell’s writings and teachings have attracted a number of theological inquiries, too. But no previous controversy compares to the recent firestorm over his new book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. The book has sparked a new discussion about universalism, exclusivism, the love of God, the gospel, and the nature of heaven and hell.
Love Wins was released on Tuesday as the fourth most popular book on Amazon.com. But although the book is new, the controversy around the book has been developing for a while.
This is not another review of the book. In this post I’ll briefly explain the history of the debate, explain why it matters, and point you to an important panel discussion scheduled for this afrternoon.
The Debate So Far
The most recent controversy around Bell began on February 23rd when Bell and his publisher released this promotional video for Love Wins, which prompted Justin Taylor to ask whether Rob Bell was a universalist. (According to theologian J.I. Packer, a universalist “believes that every human being whom God has created or will create will finally come to enjoy the everlasting salvation into which Christians enter here and now,” a belief that is motivated by “revolt against mainstream belief in endless punishment in hell for some people.”) Taylor’s post generated over 1,500 comments in response, many of them heated.
Denny Burk, the dean of Boyce College, followed with a more detailed analysis of the message of the short video and arrived at the same disturbing conclusion. But was the criticism premature, given the book was still unpublished? Kevin DeYoung said no, and added a number of other discerning thoughts to the whole debate.
Albert Mohler jumped into the discussion to write that Bell’s promo video “can only be described as universalism." At this point the debate gained national news coverage from CNN, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Good Morning America, and others.
On March 8, CNN reported that Zondervan, the publisher of four of Bell’s previous books, had refused to publish Love Wins because, in their words, “This proposal doesn’t fit in with our mission." Love Wins was published by HarperCollins.
So what about the book itself? Is Bell really a universalist?
Reviews and direct quotes from Love Wins began surfacing online last week. On Wednesday the first quotes from an advance copy of the book verified the theological suspicions. Bell's theological commitment to universalism was apparent even from the opening pages.
Other reviews soon followed.
On Monday DeYoung published an excellent, thorough, and devastating review of the book. He writes, “There was a lot of discussion about whether Bell is or is not a Christian universalist. After reading the book, I see no reason why the label does not fit.” DeYoung’s review raised a number of other concerns and made clear that Bell’s book was actually worse than expected.
So what’s at stake? DeYoung writes, “If Bell is right, then historic orthodoxy is toxic and terrible. But if the traditional view of heaven and hell are right, Bell is blaspheming.” The stakes are high because the gospel is at stake, DeYoung says. Later in his review he writes:
Bell categorically rejects any notion of penal substitution. It simply does not work in his system or with his view of God. “Let’s be very clear, then,” Bell states, “we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer” (182). I see no place in Bell’s theology for Christ the curse-bearer (Gal. 3:13), or Christ wounded for our transgressions and crushed by God for our iniquities (Isa. 53:5, 10), no place for the Son of Man who gave his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), no place for the Savior who was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), no place for the sorrowful suffering Servant who drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath for our sake (Mark 14:36).
“The theology is heterodox,” DeYoung concludes. “The history is inaccurate. The impact on souls is devastating. And the use of Scripture is indefensible. Worst of all, Love Wins demeans the cross and misrepresents God’s character.”
Download DeYoung’s 21-page review as a PDF here: “God Is Still Holy and What You Learned in Sunday School Is Still True: A Review of “Love Wins.” (Two days later he contributed a few additional thoughts on the debate.)
Also on Monday, Burk contributed an eleven-page chapter-by-chapter book review.
On Tuesday, Russell Moore responded with a pointed and provocatively titled blog post: “The Blood-Drained Gospel of Rob Bell.”
On Wednesday morning Albert Mohler published his own review titled “We Have Seen All This Before: Rob Bell and the (Re)Emergence of Liberal Theology.” He writes,
H. Richard Niebuhr famously once distilled liberal theology into this sentence: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Yes, we have read this book before. With Love Wins, Rob Bell moves solidly within the world of Protestant Liberalism. His message is a liberalism arriving late on the scene.
Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, agrees.
Meanwhile on Monday night, Bell’s book tour landed in New York City, where he answered questions before a live audience. It’s no stretch to say that his answers were quite evasive. Bell insisted that he is not a universalist and that he is an evangelical. “Do I think that I am Evangelical orthodox to the bone? Yes,” he said without hesitation.
On Tuesday morning Bell was interviewed by Good Morning America's George Stephanopoulos and the book publicity tour steamed ahead, even bumping into MSNBC’s Martin Bashir who straightaway told Bell, “You’re creating a Christian message that’s warm, kind, and popular for contemporary culture.” (Incidentally, Bashir voiced more criticism of Bell's book two days later.)
The tour and the debate continue on.
In addition to the written responses, two important panels have been planned.
Early in the debate, The Gospel Coalition promptly added a panel discussion at their national conference in Chicago that will begin at 7:30 a.m. CST on Thursday, April 14. The event will open with teaching from Don Carson, followed by a panel with Carson, DeYoung, Tim Keller, Crawford Loritts, and Stephen Um.
Today (March 17), from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m. EST, Southern Seminary is hosting a panel discussion featuring Albert Mohler, Justin Taylor, Russell Moore, and Denny Burk. Video will be live streamed at sbts.edu, or if you’re in the area, you can attend the event in Heritage Hall. [Update: Recordings of the panel are now avaliable here: video, audio.]
So why should we care about this debate in the first place?
“There are a number of reasons this is important,” C.J. Mahaney says. “First, removing the doctrine of God's eternal punishment undermines multiple texts of Scripture. It also undermines the holiness and justice of God. Ultimately it undermines the Savior’s redemptive work on our behalf! So this couldn't be a more serious matter. These severe theological errors are not new with Rob Bell, and they are not uncommon throughout church history. But now these theological errors have been adopted by a man of influence and published publicly and broadly. Sadly, given the scope of his platform, these errors are sure to influence many people. This is a moment for pastors to take note, and to humbly and courageously contend for the faith (Jude 3–4).”
This is not the first time Bell’s theology has raised concerns. Three years ago a previous debate led C.J. to write and post some reflections on biblical discernment, why pastors should be concerned with Bell, and how to pray for him. That post remains remarkably relevant three years later.
For Further Study
In conclusion, here are a few other resources that surfaced (or re-surfaced) in the recent debate.
The first is a book published by Zondervan in 2004: Hell under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment. It includes valuable contributions by Mohler, Greg Beale, Sinclair Ferguson, Douglas Moo, J.I. Packer, Robert Yarbrough, and others. Most helpful is how this book addresses important questions about eternal judgment with clear exegesis of Scripture.
Also, it’s worth noting a trio of messages by Sinclair Ferguson titled "Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment."
Ligon Duncan’s new article “Speaking Seriously and Sensitively about Hell” is valuable tool for preachers.
And don’t miss DeYoung’s recent blog post “To Hell with Hell” on why we need the doctrine of eternal punishment.
Conflicts are to be expected in marriage. But why do they happen in even the most mature marriages?
At a recent monthly gathering with the Pastors College students and their wives, C.J. abbreviated his sermon on James 4:1–3 and shared a recent example of how the passage protected his marriage from conflict during a date night.
Listen to C.J.’s 7-minute message here:
Cravings, Conflict, and Marriage
Dec. 4, 2009
Download here (7.9 MB)
Before we conclude this series featuring Ken Sande, I want to highlight two other resources for pastors he has written on two often-neglected topics: approachability and accountability. Let me explain why they are important.
To be wise is to be “open to reason” (James 3:17). And one way a wise pastor cultivates others’ trust is by proving himself to be approachable. “An approachable leader makes people feel safe,” Sande writes; “they know they are welcome to come to you with questions, concerns, or even criticism.” So am I approachable? Well, if the evaluation of myself is left to myself, my answer will typically be a flattering one. In order to assess myself accurately, I must humbly invite others to give me their observations and perspective.
Ken has made it easy for us in his paper Approachability: The Passport to Real Ministry and Leadership
. This document has been a valuable tool for me personally. I recently gave the document to ten different people who work with me and eagerly asked for their evaluation. I assumed they would all agree with my private appraisal of myself—that I am approachable.
But I was wrong.
Assuming that a pastor is receiving helpful observations and correction from those who care for him, how does he respond to unfriendly criticism? And how does his pastoral team respond?
Pastors must be approachable, but they must also be accountable to their eldership or pastoral team. This is why I find Ken’s corresponding document so helpful: Accountability: The Mark of a Wise and Protected Leader
Ken writes that churches can under-protect their leaders by “allowing gossip and rumors to spread unchecked, jumping to conclusions about a leader’s guilt, or failing to give him a meaningful opportunity to defend himself.” On the other hand, churches can wrongly over-protect their leaders. “They develop a self-confidence and blind loyalty that compels them to become defensive and automatically ‘circle the wagons’ when a leader is questioned or accused of wrongdoing.” Both approaches are wrong.
Approachability and accountability are two important topics that rarely occupy the pastor’s attention. If we neglect them, we do so to our personal detriment. Growing in approachability and accountability will not only make your ministry more effective, but will also change your heart and your life. Pastors, you will benefit greatly from the time you invest in studying and applying Ken’s theologically informed counsel on these topics.
Today I am writing primarily for pastors on the topic of conflict resolution within the church.
Regrettably, no church is free from relational conflicts (not even the New Testament church). Given the presence of indwelling sin, wise pastors will both expect relational conflict and prepare their churches for it. And history has shown that pastors who fail to prepare for conflict will experience serious consequences when it arises.
Ken Sande can help.
Ken has served pastors by helping them prepare for conflict, and by helping them grow in godliness and glorify God in the midst of conflict. I have recommended his book The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict to many pastors over the years. And you may have noticed that in my two-part interview with Ken (here and here), he briefly mentioned a new DVD-based group study from Peacemaker Ministries designed for leadership teams called The Leadership Opportunity. I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you more about this resource.
The Leadership Opportunity: Living Out the Gospel Where Conflict and Leadership Intersect arrived on my desk in a large box that included:
• 14 teaching sessions on four DVDs,
• a 152-page study guide,
• the devotional book While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks by Tim Laniak,
• a leader’s guide,
• a supplemental materials binder that contains model forms and other documents,
• a Peacemaking Principles pamphlet,
• and a Quick Start Guide to jump into the study.
I was so impressed by the content that I had copies of the study purchased and mailed to every senior pastor in Sovereign Grace Ministries.
You can learn more about the series here. What follows are two videos. One provides an introduction to the series by Tim Pollard, a Vice President at Peacemaker Ministries. The second contains the entirety of the first session by Ken Sande. These videos can help you determine if the study is suited for you and your pastoral team.
Trailer/Introduction by Tim Pollard (14 minutes)
The Leadership Opportunity from Peacemaker Ministries on Vimeo.
True Leaders Must Be Peacemakers: Learning to Prevent and Fight the Fires of Conflict by Ken Sande (32 minutes)
The Leadership Opportunity Session 1 from Peacemaker Ministries on Vimeo.
January 6, 2010 by C.J. Mahaney
Categories: Conflict | Interviews
Ken Sande has written the finest book I’ve read on the topic of conflict resolution. It’s titled The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict
(Baker, 2004). I have read and re-read it over the years and I have recommended it to pastors and churches around this country. And given that The Peacemaker
has now been published in ten languages, I’m sure this book has spread around the world, too. It is on my short list of must-reads for every pastor.
Ken Sande lives Billings, Montana. He is an attorney and the president of Peacemaker Ministries
, an initiative he founded 25 years ago. There is much to learn from Ken and I am thankful that he’s taken some time to answer a few questions about life and ministry.
Meet Ken Sande.
Thanks for your time, Ken! Please describe your morning devotions. What time do you wake up in the morning? How much time do you spend reading, meditating, praying, etc.? What are you presently reading?
I wake up at 5:30 and spend the first 60 minutes of the day with the Lord. To wake my mind up, I first read from The Valley of Vision
and Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening
. I then read a Psalm (to inspire praise) or a chapter in Proverbs (to be warned and gain wisdom for the day), and then a chapter in the Bible that my church has designated for the day (currently I’m in the book of Acts), which I also discuss with my family at dinner. I keep a journal of the insights God gives me from this reading. I then spend 10-15 minutes memorizing and meditating on Scripture passages or quotes from the saints that are especially meaningful to me (which I organize on my iPaq in a system that allows me to memorize and review passages on a progressive daily, weekly, and monthly basis). I spend the balance of my devotional time with prayer for my family, church, and ministry.
What book(s) are you currently reading in these three categories: (a) for your soul, (b) for pastoral ministry, or (c) for personal enjoyment?
For my soul, I am reading J.I. Packer’s Knowing God
, which is one of my all time favorites. (My entire staff is currently reading this book as well.) For pastoral ministry, I am reading Tim Laniak’s While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks
(which is featured in our new Leadership Opportunity resource set
). For personal enjoyment, I’m reading Shelby Foote’s three volume narrative on The Civil War
. (Quite an irony, I know, a peacemaker enjoying books on war; the reason is that I find many parallels between military wars and the spiritual warfare I deal with through my ministry.)
Apart from Scripture, what book do you most frequently re-read and why?
I first read J.I. Packer’s Knowing God
in my late twenties and have gone back to it again and again to refresh my awe for God by drawing on Packer’s remarkable insights into the Lord’s holiness and love.
When you finish a book, what system have you developed in order to remember and reference that book in the future?
I highlight key passages in books as I read them, and then transfer select quotes into my memory/meditation system so that I can reflect on them on a regular basis. I often pick up favorite books and thumb through them, reviewing many of the highlighted sections.
If you could study under any theologian in church history (excluding those men in Scripture), who would it be and why?
I could happily listen to J.I. Packer read a telephone book; I just love his accent. Fortunately, when I’ve heard him teach, he has always dealt with far weightier content, always with a humility, clarity, and sense of humor that I find to be both winsome and edifying. I own many of the books he has authored and refer to them again and again.
What single piece of counsel (or constructive criticism) has most improved your preaching?
I teach far more frequently than I preach, and focus almost exclusively on the practical peacemaking message of Scripture. The most important advice I’ve ever received is “Be true to the intent of the passage (rather than reading my own meaning into it), keep it simple, and make it real and relevant through personal stories.” I’ve found this to be especially important with a topic as challenging as peacemaking.
First, peacemaking is a highly theological topic. Justice, reconciliation, relationships, church unity, and our witness for Christ are on the line when we are in conflict. Therefore it is critical that rather than simply following our own feelings or ideas, we accurately discern what God is promising and commanding.
Second, when emotions rise (which is usually the case in conflict), rational thinking usually declines. Therefore it is helpful to organize God’s peacemaking principles in simple, memorable terms that provide a clear track to run on (which is why I rely so heavily on acrostics like the “4 Gs,” the “7As,” and the “PAUSE” principle of negotiating).
Third, peacemaking is challenging and sometimes seems impossible. If all I do is teach the principles, people can easily think, “That may work for someone who is an expert like Ken, but it won’t work for someone as messed up as me.” But when I add a personal example of my own failings as a husband, father, or mediator, and then describe how God graciously forgives me and redeems the situation as I apply his principles, many people later tell me, “When you shared that story, I realized you struggle with the same sins I struggle with, and that God’s grace can work through me as it did through you.”
What books on preaching, or examples of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
I have been blessed to sit under two of the best preachers I know for the last 25 years: Rev. Al Edwards and Rev. Alfred Poirier from my home church, Rocky Mountain Community Church. Most of what I’ve learned about preaching and teaching has come through their examples. Their careful exegesis, thoughtful organization, relevant applications, and timely humor have shaped my teaching.
To be continued in part 2...