This is the THIRD in a four part series on Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, by Timothy C. Tennent, PhD, President of Asbury Theological Seminary
Third, Bell has an inadequate understanding of the Kingdom of God. He rightly chastises the collapse of salvation into personal justification, though he doesn’t use theological terms to describe this concern. However, in its place Bell fails to see that the kingdom has already been inaugurated, but is not fully consummated. For Bell to say that heaven and hell are already here now is true in the sense that the kingdom of God is already breaking in (thus, heaven is breaking into the present age) and the absence of God’s rule and reign is hell. Bell correctly points out the relationship between “this age” and “the age to come.” Again, thank you Rob Bell! Bell correctly chastises a church with an under realized eschatology which puts all redemption off into the “sweet by and by.” However, Bell’s prescription is an over realized eschatology which underestimates the massive redemption which still awaits societies, cultures, the kingdoms of this world and, indeed, creation itself. We live in an “already-not yet” tension. The Kingdom of God has already broken into the present evil age. Bell gets that point. However we still await our full redemption and the transformation which is ushered in by the eschaton will be dramatic and cosmic in scale. Bell misses that point.
Fourth, Bell’s solution exalts Christ’s work on the cross, but in the process sacrifices or ignores major themes in Scripture. Bell’s position regarding the state of the lost is known as inclusivism. Despite rumors to the contrary, Bell is not a universalist, nor is he a full blown pluralist. A pluralist believes that all religions can independently save people and, therefore, there are many different, equally valid paths leading to God. In the pluralist world, Hinduism can save Hindus just as Christianity saves a Baptist. Bell does not take this position. Bell’s argument is that you may, indeed, belong to a different religion, such as Islam, but it is Christ who saves you. You may be a practicing Buddhist or Hindu, but God is counting your faith as faith in Christ. It is a sort of Christocentric pluralism known as inclusivism and serves as a kind of half-way house between exclusivism and pluralism. It became popular in Roman Catholic circles in the wake of Vatican II and then spread to Protestantism and finally into evangelicalism in recent years. The idea that a Buddhist could be saved by Christ has been called “anonymous Christianity.” In other words, people are saved by Christ but do not realize it or know it. (As an aside, I should note how offended many Buddhists were when they realized that some Christians taught that they were actually anonymous Christians. It is a form of stealth triumphalism which seeks to trump the dignity of unbelief.)
Bell drives a wedge between the ontological necessity of Christ’s work and the epistemological response of explicit repentance and faith. In other words, Christ’s work saves us even if we do not explicitly respond through repentance and faith. The relationship between God’s revelation and our response is severed. For Bell, God’s love saves “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists as well as Baptists” and does so within their sincere seeking within their own religions. Bell concedes that John 14:6 does claim that salvation is only in Jesus Christ, but he argues that the text doesn’t go on to say that we need to acknowledge this or know this truth or respond to this, in order to be saved by Christ. In contrast, Paul says, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” (Acts 20:21). The relational link between the Redeemer and the redeemed is quietly dropped in Bell’s wider-hope-inclusivism. Bell makes a point that no where in the New Testament does it state that we need a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” However, Bell should remember that sin is not just a forensic, legal breach with God’s justice, it is also a relational breach with God’s person. Bell doesn’t seem to realize the vast implications his position has for the church, the Great Commission and the Biblical call to repentance and faith.
(To be continued….)