Summary of Rob Bell Reviews

From my personal perspective, Scot McKnight stands as one of the greater, 21st century theologians. In what I have read from him through his blog, Jesus Creed, as well as being able to engage with his book, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, he is a very solid evangelical theologian. But he is also an extremely gracious character as engages with theology all across the historical, Christian perspective.

Just today, McKnight posted a summary of the varying views that have been posted within the blogosphere in regards to Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. I recommend reading the article, and possibly even the articles to which he links. I imagine it is easy for most of us to only read those with whom we agree. I find myself easily falling into this camp. But I believe we must be willing to engage with those who disagree with us.

So, if we have had more of a positive response to Rob Bell’s book, maybe it’s time we heard from some people who are either cautious or very much against the book. And if we have had more of a negative response to the book, then it’s probably time we engage with some people who are trying to relay the positives. Of course, I suppose that, if we want to fully and properly interact with what the books says, we should probably be willing to read it ourselves.

But I do recommend checking out McKnight’s blog post today.

Rob Bell – NYC Interview and Book

I suppose the internet is about ready to implode due to all the recent tweets, Facebook status updates, blog articles, and other various internet mediums being used to talk about Rob Bell and the release of his new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

I initially shared my own disappointment with some of the preliminary thoughts that surfaced just under 3 weeks ago. For me, the plethora of postings seemed to come all too fast, and even some without much grace, at least from my perspective. And most of it came from watching a 3-minute promo video for the new book and a preview of a few chapters of the book rather than the whole book. Even more, I was disappointed to find very few quoting anything from the book.

Now, as of 15 March 2011, the book has been released and reviews have started to pop up everywhere. I suppose it will be like this for the better part of the next month, maybe longer. Most who want to get in on the action got their copy of the book yesterday upon its release (paper or e-copy). And I expect some read the whole text that day and have already posted their review, all to be part of the first group out there to share some thoughts. This would not be too dissimilar to 3 weeks ago when the first wave began.

I did buy my copy of the book yesterday via my Kindle app. I will probably read it next week on my train ride from Brussels to London, or the following week once my iPad2 arrives. I want to read it, but I am thinking the advice of Scot McKnight might be better.

Just yesterday, I was able to watch the Rob Bell interview from New York City that took place the evening before, 14 March. I was asleep in Belgium while it was taking place, hence watching it the day after. If you haven’t watched it yet and would like to, visit this link. And as a side note, the actual thing doesn’t start up until the 10-minute mark.

I won’t share a lot of thoughts about the interview. For that, I can point you to Brian LePort’s and Kurt Willems’ articles.

At this point, from what I have read about the book, what I saw in the interview, and what I just expect as I engage with the book, I probably won’t agree with everything Rob Bell has to say. Like Brian McLaren, I think Rob Bell does evade some more straightforward answers to questions. That was evident in a couple of places in the interview. But I also believe he would have it that way.

I don’t necessarily think that not being able to give answers to questions is a bad thing. I am learning more and more that questions are ok and tensions do exist in the biblical text. In the more western, Greek-mindset, we say A + B = C. In the more biblical, Hebrew-mindset, at least as I understand it, A + B = A + B. This is why I am stirred more towards biblical theology these days, rather than systematic theology.

Though I definitely agree with Bell for allowing tensions and not formulating dogmatic answers to some of the questions, I don’t think evading questions is the best practise. We can at least acknowledge that we are uncertain or don’t want to be dogmatic.

So definitive answers are not always the best answers. Bell knows that and is fine with that. In the past, formulated answers have been important. But living life, interacting with the tensions of Scripture, and being in pastoral leadership these days, I am lot more relaxed than I used to be.

In all, I am very aware that the conversation surrounding the topics in Bell’s book can be and is a healthy thing. A dialogue, or debate if some want it that way, about these topics is truly important. The reformers heralded the phrase semper reformanda, meaning that we are to always be reforming. And that means with regards to our tightly held theological stances as well.

I believe most people’s ideas of heaven and hell are very, very opposed to actual biblical teaching. Therefore, there is a desperate need to rethink and re-study what the Scriptures actually teach about the kingdom of God, heaven, hell, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, death, destruction, as well as understanding the Hebrew-biblical genre of apocalyptic and poetic prophecy. Even if Rob Bell were a full-out universalist, I would say that much of evangelicalism’s view of heaven and hell are just as off. The only problem is that we are off-base as we come at it from another angle.

I do look forward to interacting with the book, as well as other one’s sitting on my shelves or one’s yet to be bought. I think it is time for the church, not just the scholars but the whole church, to rethink some things in regards to these topics. It won’t be the first time, nor the last – with these specific topics or others. But our lot in this life is change, first and foremost into the image of God’s Son, as well as with our theological beliefs.

So let’s engage with the topic at hand. And as we do, I think we might just see semper reformanda taking place in our lives and theology.

The Mayhem Over Rob Bell’s New Book

If you haven’t heard about all the debate and discussion from the past few days regarding the release of Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, then it simply means you don’t read too much within the evangelical Christian blogosphere. I doubt this would hit the New York Times or CNN. But who knows? Maybe it will now because of recent events (update: it now has hit CNN and the NY Times).

All the discussion rests around Rob Bell’s newest work set to be released on 29 March 2011, mainly focusing in on his thoughts regarding the topic of hell.

This short video below has Bell introducing the book.

One evangelical blogger who helped kick off the stirring debate was Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition. His article has a whopping 1,185 comments and almost 24,000 Facebook likes to date. Another opponent of Bell’s soon-to-be-released book, also from The Gospel Coalition, has been Kevin DeYoung with his two posts over the past few days – post 1 and post 2.

Another well-known pastor-theologian also tweeted a pretty direct comment that simply said – ‘Farewell Rob Bell’ – with a link to Justin Taylor’s article. Not to mention the thousands of other articles that have been posted on blogs.

I’ve read a few solid articles in response to all of the debate and discussion, mainly Brian LePort’s from Near Emmaus (with his quoting of Scot McKnight’s thoughts), Andrew Perriman’s response post on hell, and Roger Olson’s thoughts on this kind of long-standing issue of attacking those of differing views.

In all, what has been saddening is the quick responses that have come forth.

Listen, I believe in challenging wrong teaching. And, in the end, if Rob Bell is truly a universal reconciliationist (probably a better descriptive term than traditional universalism, this newer term pointing to the reality that all people and things will be reconciled to God through Christ in the end), then I don’t agree with such a view. But I am definitely not opposed to the views of conditional immortality and annihilationism, knowing I don’t have everything figured out with regards to the biblical teaching on hell, Hades/Gehenna, death, destruction, etc.

But, as I have said, and as Brian LePort points out so well, the thing that bothers me is the desire to jump the gun so quickly, especially when all but maybe one person has the read the entire book. Most of the conjecture is based upon a) the preview video above, b) a paragraph blurb released by the publisher, and c) reading only a few taster chapters of the book. And oddly enough, not many people are quoting from the actual preview text of the book that they have read.

Thus, I sense we have failed to consider these wise words of James:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (1:19)

It seems HarperOne is willing to mail me a review copy of Rob Bell’s new book, with it hopefully arriving in early April. Not that I am important in that regards, nor will my thoughts be seen as top priority in the discussion compared to some of those aforementioned people.

Still, I am interested in engaging with the book. And if, after reading the book, it seems clear that Bell is espousing some view centred around universal reconciliation/evangelical inclusivism, then I will disagree and definitely share why.

But here is my bone to pick from the past few days: To jump the gun, rush out with the first post(s) to warn us of such a book, and to even insist that Bell is headed outside the realm of being a true Christ-follower, well, that is what truly disappoints me.

We could have approached this better: better words, better wisdom, better patience, better tact. Thus, I am left desiring that 1) we lay back and relax with the judgments, 2) some people recognise they jumped the gun with judgment too quickly, and 3) even when the book comes out and we disagree with what it says, we approach it in a little better manner than has been shown in the blogosphere the past few days.

We have a testimony to carry – stand for the truth of Christ. But we are called to undertake this in a way that we wisely and graciously shows Christ to the world as we stand for the truth.

N.T. Wright on the Main Theological Discussions of First Century Jews

I have mentioned in the past about the whole Piper-Wright debate on justification. I have also shared how I have read both books: Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright and Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.

And I do hope to one day write a multiple article series in which I compare, contrast and analyse the two views on justification. But below is a quote from N.T. Wright’s book on justification, particularly looking at what first century Jews were most concerned about theologically.

Then and there I realized that most Jews of the time were not sitting around discussing how to go to heaven, and swapping views on the finer points of synergism and sanctification. There were of course plenty of Jews who did discuss things like the interrelationship between divine and human agency, and indeed the question of who would inherit the “age to come,” the great time of salvation, but for the most part they were not engaged in the debates on which our own traditions have concentrated. They were hoping and longing for Israel’s God to act, to do what he had promised, to turn history the right way up once again as he had done in the days of David and Solomon a thousand years before. Nor were they obsessed with “going to heaven when they died.” Some believed in resurrection: they would die, but God would raise them on the last day. Others did not. Others again believed in a future disembodied immortality. But all this was not, to put it mildly, the main or central topic of their conversations, their poems, their legal discourses, their late-night meetings. The rabbis (meaning, in a broad sense, the Pharisees, of whom Paul had been one, and their successors over the next few hundred years) do not for the most part say, when discussing their particular interpretations of the ancestral law, “This is what you need to do to make sure you go to heaven,” or “to make sure you will be raised from the dead.” The worry about the afterlife, and the precise qualifications for it, which has so characterized Western Christianity, especially (it seems) since the Black Death, and which have shaped and formed Western readings (both Catholic and Protestant) of the New Testament, do not loom so large in the literature of Paul’s contemporaries. (p55-56)

Heaven and Eschatology

As I mentioned earlier this week, I am currently reading through N.T. Wright’s significant work, Surprised By Hope. In this treatise of his, Wright addresses particular topics such as the resurrection of Christ, the resurrection of believers, heaven, hell, paradise, purgatory, the second coming, and how this all practically should affect the mission of the church. Quite an interesting and stirring read.

For many a Christians, or what we might term as the ‘lay Christian’ (though I am not a fan of the term), there is a real lack of biblical understanding on the topic of eschatology. That word simply mean the study of last things. I find that literal definition much more helpful than utilising phrases like end times. I feel particular wordings bring up all sorts of unbiblical and/or scary images.

I’m not sure where we got off track on a lot of these things. I am not referring to discussions of when dispensationalism, a system of theology I don’t entirely agree with, become the major eschatology of so many Christians. I’m simply talking about the wrong understanding across the board on things like the kingdom of God, heaven, or the resurrection of the saints in the age to come. We’ve gone off track in a more gnostic, dualistic way that puts God’s kingdom rule ‘up there’, while also despising things like the physically created world, including our physical bodies.

Thus far of what I have read, Wright’s book stands as a strong corrective to much unbiblical theology on these matters.

So I wanted to lay out two quotes I recently read in Surprised By Hope that I believe are quite helpful and thought-provoking on the specific topic of heaven and the more general topic of eschatology. I hope, no pun intended, they stir us and get us thinking a little more in the right direction.

‘The early Christians, and their fellow first-century Jews, were not, as many moderns suppose, locked into thinking of a three-decker universe with heaven up in the sky and hell down beneath their feet [with earth sandwiched in between]. When they spoke of up and down like that they, like the Greeks in their different ways, were using metaphors that were so obvious they didn’t need spelling out. As some recent writers have pointed out, when a pupil at school moves “up” a grade, from (say) the tenth grade to the eleventh, it is unlikely that this means relocating to a classroom on the floor above. And though the move “up” from vice-chairman of the board to chairman of the board may indeed mean that at last you get an office in the penthouse suite, it would be quite wrong to think that “moving up” in this context meant merely being a few feet farther away from terra firma.’ (chapter 7)

Heaven is not ‘up’, per se. Heaven is consistent with the terms kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven. Heaven is first and foremost about the rule of God. Hence why Jesus strongly exhorted us to pray that God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). I share more on this here.

And with some later words, Wright gives these thoughts on the general topic of eschatology itself:

‘The word eschatology, which literally means “the study of the last things,” doesn’t just refer to death, judgment, heaven, and hell, as used to be thought (and as many dictionaries still define the word). It also refers to the strongly held belief of most first-century Jews, and virtually all early Christians, that history was going somewhere under the guidance of God and that where it was going was toward God’s new world of justice, healing, and hope. The transition from the present world to the new one would be a matter not of the destruction of the present space-time universe but of its radical healing. As we saw in the last chapter, the New Testament writers, particularly Paul, looked forward to this time and saw Jesus’s resurrection as the beginning, the firstfruits of it. So when I (and many others) use the word eschatology, we don’t simply mean the second coming, still less a particular theory about it; we mean, rather, the entire sense of God’s future for the world and the belief that that future has already begun to come forward to meet us in the present. This is what we find in Jesus himself and in the teaching of the early church.’ (chapter 7)

These words are a great summary reminder of what eschatology is first and foremost about, the reality of the kingdom rule of God breaking in with the reign of God’s Messiah. That eschaton (or end) has come into the present even now. For as Wright says, eschatology is about the entire sense of God’s future for the world and the belief that that future has already begun to come forward to meet us in the present. And as we move towards the final summation of all things in Christ, we must also be reminded of this great purpose, as Wright sets out: The transition from the present world to the new one would be a matter not of the destruction of the present space-time universe but of its radical healing.

Oh that we would develop a healthy, biblical view of eschatology, of the kingdom of God. For, in doing so, it will affect our lives now, our mission to the world, and our outlook of where we are headed.