When I read the less-than-charitable tweet from John Piper, “Farewell, Rob Bell,” the imp in me just had to get the book behind the controversy–Love Wins.  Rob Bell is called a universalist from the neo-Calvinist side of the evangelical world, while emergents and less-than-five-pointers still acknowledge him as within the orthodox fold.  Fuller President Douglas Mouw blogs in support of Bell.  Justin Taylor references a thorough-going critique of Bell’s book.  Bill Walker says there is essentially no difference from Tim Keller’s thoughts and Rob Bell’s, that the whole thing is just politics.

Here’s what I found.  Bell presents honest questions that evangelicals need to take seriously.  Too many of us do not have an outsider’s pulse on what the Gospel we are presenting looks like from the outside.  The God we talk about seems like a schizophrenic, or a bigot, or a tyrant, or some combination thereof.  His definition of hell less as a geographic location and more as a state of being as the natural consequence of our separation from God entails that in some sense people are experiencing hell already.  Thus a Gospel emphasis on hell may be counterproductive, when people need to discover the transforming love of Jesus Christ.

Also, Bell is going to irritate Calvinists.  Those people who are more Calvinist than Calvin ever was are bound to find Bell’s deference to choice unnerving, and they’ll toss around words like “Arminian” and “Pelagian” like curses.  Yet, he affirms in quite strong terms that “God gets what God wants.”  That’s a strong view on God’s sovereignty.  But when Bell starts quoting those verses about Christ reconciling the “world” to himself (as opposed to the just the “elect”), the hard-core Calvinist gets slapped on the other cheek.  Bell never says point blank that all will be saved.  But his pastoral way of tempering certain understandings of heaven, hell, sovereignty, and the ordo salutis (the way salvation works) is bound to ruffle feathers.

Negatively, Bell fails to address adequately questions about the wrath of God in relation to judgment.  He strongly confirms that God has no tolerance for injustice that results from human sin, but he is a little squishy on how that gets rectified.  He is uneasy with the portrayal of Jesus as someone who keeps an angry God from beating us like an alcoholic father, yet he neither denies nor clarifies how the atonement works, strictly speaking.  Now I am steeped in “penal substitutionary” belief, myself, yet I have always understood it in the way portrayed with Abraham and the smoking firepot—even if we can’t keep up our end of the covenant, God will take the punishment on himself.  I was literally brought to tears in my Old Testament class over that loving understanding of God.   Bell never mentions that the propitiation of God can and should be seen as an entirely loving act.

There are other points I can make.  I find Bell’s book challenging and compelling in good ways.  While I do not believe he’s a universalist, I can see how his thought can be nudged in that direction.  At the same time, I am always aghast at how the intolerance virus from the Modernist/Fundamentalist debates still rears it’s ugly head in self-proclaimed American evangelicals whose original mid-20th Century intention was exactly not to be the bigots their fathers were—actually engaging the culture and not dismissing things out of hand.  I guess I too am always relearning the lesson that those who seek to follow Christ are both saints and sinners at the same time.  Lord, deliver us from our lack of charity toward others with whom we disagree.

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