Part One: Why Rob Bell needs to return to Seminary… and bring along quite a few contemporary evangelical pastors

Friday, March 18th, 2011

This is the first of a four part series on Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, by Timothy C. Tennent, Ph.D., President of Asbury Theological Seminary

Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary. Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, is an attempt to deconstruct widely held evangelical notions about heaven, hell and the lostness of humanity and replace it with a God whose cosmic love triumphs over human unbelief. It is Bell’s attempt to counter a very poor story with a better story. The poor story is the story of a God who is an angry tyrant who sends people to hell for an eternity because of “sins committed in a few short years.” Bell writes, “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.” In contrast, Bell wants to tell a better story which is “bigger and more expansive.” It is the story of the power of God’s love to triumph over a world of unbelief.

Bell is to be commended for exposing the weak theology which apparently is present in many evangelical churches. To be fair, Bell caricatures evangelical beliefs to the limit of one’s imagination, playing on the worst kinds of stereotypes. According to Bell, evangelicals often proclaim a God who “is a slave driver” ready to “inflict pain and agony” on those who don’t pray “the sinner’s prayer in precisely the right way.” Exclusivists are stereotyped as those who insist that “followers of Jesus confess him in the precise way defined by the group” or you will not be “going to heaven.” Bell portrays evangelicals as those who are arrogantly cramming the gospel down the throats of an unbelieving world. Evangelicals as those who care nothing about the environment or poverty or nuclear disarmament, or pollution because all that really matters is “getting people to pray the right prayer,” or believe just the right things so they can die and go to heaven which is “somewhere else” and in a time which is a “different time” than that which we occupy today.

I could spend pages disputing Bell’s caricature of evangelical faith and practice. I have met hundreds of solid evangelical pastors who do not fall into the traps which Rob Bell cites. The historic relationship between evangelical commitments and social action is a powerful and compelling story. But, for the sake of the argument, let’s accept Bell’s critique as fairly exposing some serious flaws in the theology of contemporary evangelicalism. If it is true, then Bell has definitely revealed that most evangelical pastors need to go back to seminary. Apparently, today’s pastors have forgotten that the kingdom of God has already broken in to the present age and we are to live out the full realities of the New Creation in the present age. Apparently, today’s evangelicals have confused the New Creation with 19th century hymns concerning heaven which depict the “other side” as a remote, vague place of passivity with little to do but pluck our harps and walk on streets of gold. Apparently, quite a few pastors across our nation need to re-learn the basic lesson that God actually loves lost people. If half of what Rob Bell says about evangelicals is true, then we need to declare a massive recall along the lines of what Toyota did last year when so many cars were discovered to be defective. We need to declare that listening to today’s pastors is no longer safe and reliable until they are sent back for a re-fit and some major theological adjustments. Something deep inside me suspects that Rob Bell may actually be on to something here. Thank you, Rob! Indeed, it is time for a renewed emphasis on the grand meta-narrative which tells the “big story” and puts all of these doctrines in a larger and more robust theological frame. Perhaps we need a recall and a re-tooling of a largely Christendom trained clergy to a clergy better prepared for a post-Christendom world which desperately needs a robust gospel, not a domesticated one. Bell has been listening to the church and to the culture and he has insightfully diagnosed that the church is theologically anemic. Bell is saying, in effect, “Houston, we have a problem…” and for that I applaud him.

(to be continued…)


  • Kelly Mc. says:

    Thanks for the thoughts Dr. Tennent. I’m greatly looking forward to the rest of your review. I finished the book yesterday, and by and large agreed with the overall scope of the book, but there were quite a bit of specifics that made me turn my head a bit. Definitely some positives and negatives (but nothing worth excommunicating him over). Hope your thoughts will bring some clarity to my own.

  • Tom 1st says:

    Dr. Tennent,

    Coming from a Baptist tradition before I got to seminary at Asbury, I had NEVER heard that Heaven was not the goal of our Christian life – all of our evangelism attempts were grounded in, “Don’t you want to go to heaven when you die and don’t you want to get out of hell for free?”

    So, as far as that goes, I think Bell’s criticism is right on track (as is NT WRight’s).

    I was never taught in church (or in my 4 years in a Baptist undergraduate studying biblical studies) that heaven is invading earth or that we are working with God to bring about New Creation EVEN NOW. Those were simply NEVER things I came across.

    And, as my particular Baptist upbringing was Calvinistic (I wanted to escape this, which is why I came to Asbury), they really struggled with whether or not God loved the lost – after all, “God hates all workers of iniquity (a citation from Ps. 5.5, which they liked to proof-text). ”

    I DON’T say ANY of this to defend Bell…I haven’t read his book. And while in the past I also have noted that he caricaturization his opponents, and is maybe guilty of slight exaggeration in this book, nevertheless, he’s certainly making some good points.

    Looking forward to more of your thoughts.

  • Student says:

    Uh, no citations? B- for insightful engagement with the text, but it could have been an A if it had been cited properly.

  • David says:

    Dr. Tennent, I thank you for posting your thoughts so soon on this book. I cannot wait to read the next few posts.

    I read this book this week. I’ve read all of Rob Bell’s books and seen almost all of his videos. He has made a huge impact in the way I write and process information. But I have to admit that in this book he plays fast and loose with the exegesis of some important verses. With that said though, I do believe that Rob Bell opens the door for us to re-examine what we believe about heaven, hell, and the grace of God. Like you said, if what he’s said is true about evangelicals, something that I’ve seen a lot growing up, we do need to re-consider who we believe God is.

  • Thomas says:

    Interesting title. I look forward to the rest of your responses.

  • Lawson Stone says:

    A good start on a highly sensitive set of issues. Unlike some here, as a convert in my late teens during the “Jesus Movement” of the 1970’s, I was discipled to scorn talk of heaven and hell. I regularly parodied heaven-hell preaching as “cosmic fire insurance” and mocked preachers and teachers who stressed the “eternal” part of eternal life. A whole generation of us have had to learn, from sorrowing over the deaths of our parents and peers, the genuine relevance of the eternal “communion of the saints” and the hope of heaven, whatever it turns out to be. Likewise, if we are creatures of such dignity and power that we can actually say to God “My will be done” and have him give us our will, for all eternity, then we should indeed think very seriously about hell and the gravity of the gospel, not to mention being lax in sharing the gospel with the world.

  • CG says:

    Dr Tennent – thank you for this review, and for taking the time to point out that a great many evangelicals are also in error on certain issues. I look forward to reading the rest of it!

    Also, to the first commenter (Tom), I’m reformed baptist, and although many of us have deservedly earned some of the negative reputations you mentioned (for which we ought to grieve and repent), let me reassure you that there are a great many others of us (and growing!) who do not fall into that category, who believe, for instance, that all of creation belongs to the Lord, and he is in the process of reclaiming it for his glory.

    As for God’s attitude towards the lost, the best any of us can do is acknowledge the Bible’s affirmations that God loves sinners as well as its affirmations elsewhere that he hates sinners. Not the old cliche “love the sinner, hate the sin” (which arguably should be our human attitude) but a full-fledged “love the sinner, hate the sinner.” This sounds contradictory to our human ears – we cannot both hate and love someone at the same time. But God can, as the Bible clearly affirms. And so we ought to submit to the Bible and acknowledge that God loves the lost (indeed, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us) while also recognizing that God justly hates those who rebel against him.

    • Tom1st says:

      CG –
      Thanks for your comment. I understand there are fantastic Reformed people out there – I’ve known a number of them and have read my fair share of fantastic Reformed theologians and exegetes (DA Carson is one of my favs). I appreciate their passion for the gospel and their love for missions…especially the Baptists among them.

      I am glad that your experience is different than mine was and that you have a well developed eschatology that understands New Creation as a present reality as well as a future one. But I must still insist that I don’t think my experiences are all that foreign to most people’s.

      Your comments regarding God’s love and hate, however, do line up exactly with what I was taught. No need to comment on that here because it’s off topic, but in a different context I would post a counter argument.

      Thanks for your reply to me.

      Cheers, brother.

    • ionin says:

      In reference to what God hates and what He loves I am reminded that I am made in His image not that He is made in mine. My emotions are being renewed so therfore the way that God loves and hates is nothing like the way I do. Mine is tainted with flesh and sin…His love and hate is pure. When God says He hates it is nothing like my emotions of hate. What is Holy hate? I have no idea …my mind is not renewed to the point of understanding. But I fully believe when God says He hates it is righteous and true because that is who He is! When the Lord says he hates sinners and also says He loves all it is completely wise without contradiction. “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter and the glory of kings to search a matter out”…dig with joy!

  • Chad Brooks says:

    I come from the same place as Tom Fuerst, and really appreciate your thoughts regarding a “recall”. I had never heard anything else besides what Bell is railing against. It might be a stereotype…but in many places I think it is spot on.

    What I appreciate most is the way and example you are setting for a critique inside of Christianity. We could all learn from you Dr. Tennent. Thanks

  • Kevin Mays says:

    Gee, I’m sorry that Rob doesn’t like the story because of its ending!

  • churchleader says:

    Thank you for your recent critique as one voice in the diversity of theological thought. I am thankful as a evangelical pastor that we have voices like Rob Bell who are calling the church out of decades of decline and mediocracy. Rob Bell and others are leading us as to new heights as we bring words of liberation and peace into the lives of hurting people.

  • I think that his assessment of evangelicals is partly correct. Granted, you cannot lump all evangelicals together and say “All of these people preach fire and brimstone and ignore social justice!” There are many, many churches, however, that do follow that model.
    I went to a historically Baptist undergrad, Carson-Newman College, where I learned for the first time about the Kingdom breaking into history during the time of Christ, and not in the future. What I heard in baptist churches (which I went to while I attended the school) was that you have heaven and you have hell, and nothing on the earth matters. This is also what I heard in youth group in a UM Church growing up.
    I look forward to hearing the rest of your critique.

  • Tom1st says:

    One more thing that just occurred to me…

    As I said above, I think criticisms of Bell’s caricaturization of Evangelical theology are well noted, we must also take into account that he’s not writing for theologians – he’s writing to reach people that have been disenfranchised by churches (like the ones I grew up in) that DID in fact teach these things. That shades the way he argues, what he does and does not say, and why he so often ‘seems’ to be attacking a strawman – it may be a strawman in the academic, seminary world, but it’s NOT often a strawman ‘on the ground’ and ‘in the pews.’

    Again, this isn’t to defend Bell; I just think we need to take his audience into account when we read him. He’s hardly even writing for the church; he’s writing for people on the margins of the church or people who aren’t even churched. As we do with Paul or any biblical writer – good exegesis of a passage NECESSITATES that we understand the audience being written to and engage the text on that basis.

  • Thanks, Dr. Tennent, for taking a lead in this important theological discussion. I am sure your succeeding posts will provide a way of reading Rob Bell’s argument in light of a Wesleyan vision of creation and new creation. What I find exciting about this discussion of eternally serious matters is that after a generation of reducing the gospel, preaching, evangelism, and mission to human centered, culturally accommodated techniques and methods, evangelicals are actually immersed in talk about the nature of God and the “evangel” from which they presumably take their name and identity. The church can only gain from such a conversation when it is conducted in a spirit of love and a desire for “faith seeking understanding.” Many thanks.

  • Jay says:

    Thanks for the post!

    I am from a denomination that is “middle of the road.” We aren’t fundamentalists or literalists and I never once heard about the Kingdom inbreaking (an any of the implications of that) or a sermon on environment or poverty. It was always about converts and the Romans Road and the sinners prayer. There was a heavy dispensationalism influence as well. Surely we have a weak gospel in many of our churches.

    I live in an area of 45,ooo rural folks and we are the second largest church in our area and probably same rank in Kingdom mindedness for our area… and we are in California.

    Since attending Asbury Seminary, my mind has been blown (in a good way) about the Kingdom come, restored creation and Jesus’ intentions. It seemed that my time until seminary was filled with Paul and now I met Jesus :).

    But seminary has brought me nothing but persecution from my congregation. Not only do churches not understand the Kingdom inbreaking, but they dismiss people who are trying to live it and breathe it and speak it. My denomination is Wesleyan and I was told that Asbury is too liberal.

    Bell may be wrong about hell or Jesus reaching into hell and saving some, etc… but in my experience, he is dead on about the state of evangelicals. Evangelicals have a lot to learn. It is a sad state of affairs. Thank God for his faithfulness to the church, to his Gospel and its spread, and for schools like Asbury!

  • Well done. I quite agree with you.

    Ben W

    • Dr. Tennent

      I agree with your treatment of the subject. As a pastor in the Florida Conference of the UMC, I see this too often in the churches I have served and presently serve. Specifically, there is a general ignorance of sanctification and the emphasis that Wesley would have placed on the new birth and how the Greek means in John 3:16 born again and from above. For many, it has meant only a “correct belief” system, which has translated oftentimes into some solid theologically-filled navel gazing, i.e, worrying so much about one’s own “belief” that the orthodoxy of the church has far overshadowed or even consumed orthopraxy, not to mention a sometimes complete disregard of orthopathy and its relevant questions. In short, if we are to make a difference in this world, we must teach that the Gospel has broken through here and now, that social justice matters just as much as “right” belief, and in the final analysis, “heaven” as it has been preached for years from many pulpits is in reality a very nice “green room,” but nowhere near the biblical vision given by the New Testament when the culmination of all things comes after Christ resides with us, and Heaven and Earth are finally made one and the general resurrection is a reality. My congregation has been floored with this concept, thanks in a large part to N.T. Wright and the accessibility of his writing. I applaud all who think about this seriously, for if all we are doing is glorified fire insurance sales, then not only do the clergy need a Toyota-like re-tooling, but entire congregations as well. My hope is that we will continue to call for a return to Wesley-like theology that involves a “cool head” and a “warm heart.” Although I am a Maxie-ite (new word) Asburyian, I do envy the students that are under your leadership now. Blessings and peace….

  • Steve Rath says:

    In the midst of a long assault from many streams of the media, I am grateful for Dr. Tennent offering a voice of sound reason and theology. Thank you and God bless.

  • Simone says:

    I am amazed at the overwhelming response to your post. I am also thankful I got to hear your perspective in class and glad to be able to read more about it from different perspectives. The way you write is so clear that even people whose first language is not English are captured by your style. Thank you!

  • Bill says:

    There are some great comments in this thread. I too am looking forward to the continuation of this discussion, as I am looking forward to reading Pastor Bell’s book. But to echo Tom (and without the benefit of having read the book), Bell did not write this book for theologians and does not claim to be a theologian. My guess is that he would freely admit that the book will not satisfy the academic standards of theologians and seminary professors. My understanding is that this book was written to repair the damage done by folks like those described in Dr. Tennant’s post, and to present unbelievers with a picture of God’s nature, and the nature of his love, which has been obscured or denied by such folks. I hope that we’ll all stay mindful of the missional intent of this book, and not provide an unbelieving world with further evidence of Christian intolerance.

    I am reminded of these words from a sermon by John Wesley:

    “How dreadful and how innumerable are the contests which have arisen about religion. And not only among the children of this world…but even among the children of God….How many of these, in all ages, instead of turning against the common enemy, have turned their weapons against each other, and so not only wasted their precious time, but hurt one another’s spirits, weakened each other’s hands, and so hindered the work of their common Master! How many of the weak have hereby been offended! How many sinners confirmed in their disregard of religion, and their contempt of those who profess it….

    Men may differ from us in their opinions, as well as their expressions, and nevertheless be partakers with us of the same precious faith….Why should you condemn all who do not speak just as you do?…Where is our religion if we cannot think and let think?”

    If not for the teaching of Rob Bell, I might not be a Christ-follower today. I hope and pray that lots of other people can say that someday.

    Love wins.

    I’m not sure I would be a Christ-follower today if not for the teaching of Rob Bell. I just hope and pray that

  • An excellent beginning critique of a challenging book. In my perspective, Rev. Bell does not seem to understand the nature of God’s love. A love relationship mandates that the beloved be free to reject the relationship. The destructive consequences of rejecting a love relationship with God cannot be laid at God’s doorstep. In one of Calvin Miller’s The Singer trilogy, he has a person say to God, “God, you wouldn’t condemn me to hell, would you?” To which God responds, “No, my child, but I cannot prevent you from going there if you choose.”

  • J. Spainhour says:

    It seems to me that Bell’s ‘straw church’ caricature, which most Christians, evangelical or not, would find deplorable, only serves to raise the severity of the necessary reaction against it (this is the exact way Brian McLaren’s rhetoric works). This has the effect of creating a false dichotomy–his way or the evangelical way (i.e., the God-hates-people-and-we-hate-people-so-repent-from-being-a-person-and-become-an-evangelical way). As such, anyone holding to a more traditional position on heaven and hell, over against his position, will be branded in the big fat scarlet letter “E” (which is Latin for ‘people-hater’).

    Bell may be commended for raises some critiques of the Church that need to be dealt with (although, imho, these points have all been raised and the dead horse is at this point pulverized….but they are relevant, nonetheless), but he needs to be critiqued for painting an unrepresentative picture of the Church, which only gives the world more of a reason to be intolerant of us, and more of a reason to reject the Jesus who demands exclusive loyalty. I’m sure his following will grow as a result of this book, I just hope Jesus’ following grows with it.

  • Randy Willis says:

    Thanks for reviewing and engaging the book here on your blog, Dr. Tennent.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of this series!

  • Erick Tan says:

    How will Lausanne receive the book by Bell as it represents the international voice of Evangelicalism?

  • ChrisR says:

    Thanks Dr Tennent,

    Tom, I think you have hit it dead on in that Bell is not speaking to theologians, but to those who have been burned, beaten and broken by the church; often on the outside looking in. I have not read this book yet, but perhaps his mistake is by including far more than intended by lumping all evangelicals together. Communities like ATS would consider themselves evangelical and do not fit the stereotypes he creates. On the other hand, outside of the walls of ATS and the church, the perception of “evangelical Christianity” widely fits the descriptions offered by Bell.

    The odd thing to me is that even within the ATS community and with well respected pastors that I known, there are many who hold a solid perspective on salvation, heaven and hell, but when they step into the pulpit or conversion opportunity, seem to revert to former teaching and back to “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?”


  • Josh Ratliff says:

    Thanks for this Dr. Tennent. Looking forward to the rest.


    • Dear Tim,

      Perhaps you remember us from GCTS days. As I was watching an interview with Bell, my conclusion was, “This guy needs to go to seminary.” I was delighted to see that someone else had had a similar thought, and further delighted that the “someone” was you. I might wish I could have gotten away with such fuzzy thinking as Bell’s when I was muddling my way through one of David Wells’ theology exam questions.

  • Return to seminary? For more of the same? Don’t you think the seminarys need to be “schooled.”
    At least in how to present the good news in ways that are truthful and yet not instantly rejected by the culture?
    The truth will indeed set you and me and them free but presenting truth mixed with love need not be heresy.

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