So I just finished reading Rob Bell’s new book, you know, the one on heaven and hell. You have probably heard about it by now. I didn’t plan on reading it, at least any time soon, but I got tired of feeling left out. That, and I kept hearing ‘liberals’ contradict ‘conservatives’ about the content of the book. The Calvinist blogger militia beat it to death, but they do that to a lot of things, so I figured the best thing to do would be to read it for myself and hear him out. Here is a letter to Mr. Robbie:
(I hope you don't mind me calling you Robbie.) First I want to say I have enjoyed 3 of your previous books and many "teachings" as you call them. I would certainly word things differently in places but they were fun, creative, and thought-provoking books. So thanks for that. You are definitely a gifted communicator. I went to your“The gods are not angry” tour a couple of years ago and was amazed at your ability to grab the attention of the audience and hold it for an hour and a half. I just sat back, took it in, left inspired, then thought to myself, ‘Wait a minute, I think he just dismissed the whole sacrificial system and the theology of Hebrews.” Good story tellers have a way of lowering your discernment level (hence the reason for this public letter).
I want to say that I appreciate the "earthy" depiction of heaven you provide. I too, am no fan of Plato's heaven. I also abhor what Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." The "fire insurance" view of Christianity is destructive. I too, believe that many who think they are "in" due to some superficial profession will be dreadfully surprised on judgment day.
I also want to express appreciation for what I believe is your motive. I really think you just want to make Christianity as palatable as possible to as many as possible. You are a missionary at heart. Schleiermacher did the same thing in the 19th Century, but he (and you) distort the Story of Christianity to make it more acceptable to the modern ear. Of course you are much hipper than old Friedrich. I think this is shown in your quote on page 175: "Because if something is wrong with your God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality." You want to remove barriers to the faith.
I too see myself as a missionary, but I question your approach on multiple levels. This simply won't work. This book will not help unbelievers. I doubt many will even read such a book. Rather, pastors like me will (mostly to see what all the fuss is about). The people that will likely read and benefit from this book are Christians who are disenchanted with their "traditional" upbringing. People who already doubt or dislike the God presented in Scripture will have their doubts and dislikes confirmed.
I also question your approach because you do not submit to the Holy Scriptures. Though you try to appear as if you are simply asking questions, you know you are doing more than questioning. It is actually quite arrogant. We are ambassadors. We deliver the message; we don't tamper with it. We are stewards, man. This quote baffles me: "Telling 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" (110). Your language is a tad unhelpful, but this is the historic Christian Story you are referring to, and it is historic because it is rooted in God's self-revelation. Are you saying that your story is better than God's? Surely not. You don't want to say that, do you? Teachers will be judged more strictly.
Robbie, why no footnotes? There are zero footnotes. Now, if this were a novel that'd be fine, but in a theological treatise with suspect Greek and Hebrew nuances and quotes from historical figures? You included plenty of footnotes in your previous books. You should have known the Reformed crew would not let you get away with trying to put Luther on your team. You quote him as if he supported your view with no citation? C'mon man, you can't do that. You also say things like, "And so, beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody." Really? Who belongs to this long tradition? Footnote please. I am no expert in church history, but I am unaware of this group. Where is the Gregory of Nyssa quote from? You also quote from Jerome, Basil, and Augustine, but you know that these men did not teach what you are teaching. Is this deception? Is that fur under that wool? When Jerome says "most people," does he mean all people? In the context, you quote him as if he does. This is poor scholarship.
The problem you bump into again and again is the biblical view of God. You frequently set up caricatures, "straw Gods" to make your point. For example, on page 108 you write, "Could God say to someone truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation, 'Sorry, too late'? Many have refused to accept the scenario in which somebody is pounding on the door, apologizing, repenting, and asking God to be let in, only to hear God say through the keyhole: 'Door's locked. Sorry. If you had been here earlier, I could have done something. But now, it's too late'." Where does any Bible believing Christian depict God in this way? Are we to humbly accept God as he has revealed himself, or make up one that ends up looking like us? God is love, but he is also holy. This shows you reject the biblical depiction of God, and shows you do not truly understand the nature of the cross, which shows you do not truly understand the Christian faith. The cross is where love and justice kiss.
When the book was just released or about to release, I saw that John Piper tweeted "Farewell Rob Bell." My first thought was, "Wow, that's uncalled for." After reading myself though, I have to agree. This book crosses the line. You can no longer be trusted as a teacher of God's Word. We have two different worldviews.
In conclusion, my question for you is, "What if you are wrong?" What if the Holy Spirit has worked throughout the great Tradition to reject universalism? What if you are following the spirit of the age rather than the Spirit of God? What if the Scripture really does mean what it says? What does that mean for those under your ministry? Tremble.