Rob Bell takes his message to the churches

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Rob Bell announced this week that his book Love Wins is now being re-released with a companion church study guide as well as a new e-version of the book with new video content. I will not rehearse here my earlier response to Bell’s book except to say that I pointed out several things about the book I liked and several points where I think he remains seriously misguided in his theology. If you go back in my blog you will find the posts beginning March 18 and continuing through March 23. The overall title of that series of posts was “Why Rob Bell Needs to Return to Seminary… and bring along quite a few contemporary evangelical pastors.”

Now, nearly a year after the book first surfaced, I want to say that I stand by what I said then. Since that time Rob Bell has left his position as pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church and is spending his time, among other things, on the speaking circuit spreading his inclusivistic message that, in the end, none will be finally lost because “love wins.”

Since it is highly unlikely that an even busier-than-normal Rob Bell will take time to go back to Seminary, I would like for him to at least attend one lecture which I had in my first year systematic theology class. It was a lecture given by the late Roger Nicole. Dr. Nicole was lecturing on the attributes of God. He began by drawing a big flower on the board with numerous petals. He began to label each of the petals after different attributes of God. One petal he named “justice” another he named “love” and another he named “holy” and so forth, as he worked his way around the petals of the flower. We all sat there taking notes and most of us had beautiful flowers drawn in our notebooks with carefully labeled petals. Dr. Nicole then paused and looked at the class and said, “this view of God’s attributes is unbiblical.”  We all looked up in shock. He then began to demonstrate (and this continued over several days) how each of God’s attributes is informed by the other.  There is no such thing as an attribute of love which is not also fully informed and understood through God’s holiness and justice.  Likewise, God’s justice is understood via mercy, and so forth. God’s attributes cannot be separated out in isolation from one another. God’s attributes are not like separate petals on a flower. God’s love is a just love. God’s mercy is a holy mercy, and so forth.

So, as Rob Bell’s book (with the new study guide and enhanced video messages) begins its circuit through the churches, we should be reminded that there is no logical separation between God’s love and God’s justice. God’s love is not “the last petal” left standing. God never denies his justice in order to demonstrate his love. Rather, part of the way His love is demonstrated is through the just recompense of evil. If the cross teaches us anything it is that the greatest act of God’s love  – the cross of Christ – is simultaneously – the greatest act of his judgment upon sin. In the cross we see the perfect integration of justice and love enacted. Those who spurn God’s provision in Christ are refusing to accept what God has freely offered in love to satisfy the justice of God. Even in the New Creation, the Scripture indicates that there are those who persist in their rebellion against God (Rev. 21:8). However, even these who experience the full weight of God’s justice, do it in the shadow of the cross and in the face of the eternally open gates of the New Creation (Rev. 21:25).


  • mike says:

    Gees! dude, i dont know where to start from, love is not an attribute of God, “God is Love” love is who he is. You cannot say the samething about justice. I think you need to spend more time trying to know God as father, maybe that might help, and if you are a dad, you know you have let your kid or kids oof the hook and did not demand justice all the time. Hey, God is a trillion times much more. Sorry if i come across as harsh but you are just reharshing some of the myths that were passed down generations.

  • One of the analogies I’ve used over the years when highlighting two of God’s attributes that I think most affect us–God’s Love and God’s Holiness/Righteousness–is that of a coin. God’s Love is one side; yes God loves us all. However God is also Holy, God cannot allow sin into God’s Presence, thus we need to be made righteous before God by faith in what God did for us in & through Jesus.

  • Amen. A.W. Tozer said, “Wherever and whenever God appears to men, He acts like Himself. Whether in the Garden of Eden or the Garden of Gethsemane, God is merciful as well as just.”

  • Michael says:

    Thank you for posting this, JD. I’ve not read Bell’s book, but honestly I’ve shied away from theological “fads” (including Rick Warren ! *Gasp*) and have gravitated toward the oldies like Augustine, Tertullian, et al. They’ve given me new perspective like no other! Now I’m more confused than ever, of course!

    Thank you for your insight. I appreciate your addressing these “fads” as you have.


  • I have no particular desire to defend Bell, but I’m not sure that your suggestion about the “attributes” of God is really any better. While I think it’s reasonable to say that God’s attributes cannot be “separated” out from one another, I also do not think we can be very presumptuous about what the implications of God’s attributes actually are (this applies to Bell as well, of course).

    For example, the unspoken assumption in this whole Bell/Love Wins/No It Doesn’t conversation is that God’s *justice* is somehow expressed in punitive actions, that God’s *holiness* is somehow ironically destructive, etc. But upon what are these assumptions based? Interpretation, period.

    Philosophically, there is nothing inherent to the notion of “justice” that either requires that God “punish” humans for sinfulness, nor that God somehow needs to “suspend” or “override” the same with “love.”

    As God is God, God is *just* precisely in whatever it is that God does. So if God damns the entire human race to annihilation because God doesn’t like the outcome of season 11 of American Idol, God is just. Period. And if God simply “lets it go” and does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in regard to human sin, God is just. Period.

    God’s justice, love, whatever-attribute-you-want-to-mention, are not derived from God achieving some standard of said attribute. Rather, the entire meaningfulness of these attributes are derived from that which God is, and whatever fleeting glimpses of them the small vistas of human epistemology are able to encapsulate (if that’s even possible).

    In such a light, our assumptions about the interplay of God’s “attributes” need serious re-evaluation. The less propositional we are about God’s attributes, the more closely we allow God to be what–and who–God is, and not what we think God is/should be.

    • oukatz says:

      @existdissolve – When I read Dr. Tennant’s words something that stuck out to me was the fact that he was told that the “flower” picture was unbiblical. You’re thoughts about how we ought not be propositional about God’s attributes seem to ignore the angle toward a biblical reading of justice/love in favor of a human philisophical understanding/misunderstanding of God. If we philisophically refuse to seek and try to understand God’s attributes, don’t we also forfeit the characters and authors of the Bible as people who experienced God and God’s attributes because they simply couldn’t and shouldn’t try to understand that interaction and “interpret,” as you say, God’s attributes for the hearers/readers of their words?

    • @ existdissolve
      “[A]nother way to look at it is that it has applied a long overdue restraining force to interpretation.”
      All I see it doing is simply replacing one interpretation with another…

      “Rather than letting religious teachers have their way with interpretation….”
      … and one set of teachers with another set.
      The question is which interpretation (if any) is correct and which set of teachers should/will one listen to?

      “[I]t will force interpretation and theology to become more refined and less unnecessarily dogmatic….”
      Aren’t refinement and the necessary level of dogmatism subject to interpretation?

      “more concerned with the life of the Church, and less moored in the pointless minutiae of theological fragmentation….”
      Assumption #1 : that the “minutiae” has no connection to the “life of the church”.

      “[T]he subjectivity of the interpreter is not isolated from the conclusions that they reach.”
      In that case, why should we accept your interpretations over that of someone else’s? If you’re going to argue for subjectivism, then you’re going to either have to resort to special pleading or accept it for your own views. The problem with the latter course is that subjectivism it is a self-refuting philosophy and thus a dead end.

      “God could violate every preconceived human idea about justice, and yet God would remain eternally just..”
      Assumption #2: That our ideas about God’s justice are based solely on human and are totally independent of revelation.
      (What need is there for salvation unless there is something from which we need saving from?)

      “The less propositional we are about God’s attributes, the more closely we allow God to be what–and who–God is, and not what we think God is/should be.”
      I agree that we should let the Bible drive our ideas of “what- and who- God is”. However, if you are implying that the Bible says nothing about the eternal punishment of the unrepentant or that this is simply a “matter of interpretation”, then, as entitled as you may be to your own opinion- or interpretation- I strongly disagree.

  • The primary objections to the traditional Western concept of Hell are actually rooted in the idea of Justice.

    May we assume that your “Needs to go Back to Seminary” posts are simply an implied attack on Richard Mouw and Fuller Theological Seminary?

  • Truthmeister says:

    We have a pastor who apparently is a Rob Bell devotee. Her sermons lack balance in that she talks about love but does not adequately explain WHY we should love. I guess because it feels good and because Jesus loved. “Societal” accountability is promoted at the expense of personal accountability (judgment of personal actions is too uncomfortable).

    But Jesus talked a lot about Judgment (with a capital J), as Tim pointed out earlier this year in his comments about Bell’s book. Inquiring minds need to know the theology behind love (i.e., where does love come from, why is it necessary, what is its role in justice, etc.).

    Many contemporary mainline pastors’ sermons have a “feel good” quality but it is short-lived, at least for me, because they leave me intellectually unfulfilled and spiritually confused.

    With respect to an earlier commenter, the God revealed in the Bible would not condemn any person or group of persons over trivial matters, even if we perceive such matters to be trivial. We must look for the deeper meaning, understanding that it may be elusive. Our sense of justice, distorted though it may be, comes from God. We can remove much of the distortion by studying Scripture and historical Christian understandings, a task many skip on route to endorsin current cultural trends.

  • abdul asad says:

    May we assume that your comment is obviously made without knowing Tim, the depth of his theological insight, or his integrity. Tennent saying that Bell needs to go back to Seminary is about the nicest thing anyone can say in response to the silly (il)logic of Love Wins! Sorry if you are bothered when someone stands up for truth in the face of such nonsense. I seriously doubt that Tim was attacking Fuller in that post – he is man enough to attack them head on if he so chooses. Besides, what Bell does now has nothing to do with Fuller – although I was certainly disappointed by the positive response of a lot of their faculty to his silly book.

  • Tim, I know you went through this earlier when you wrote about the book itself, but Bell’s book is not inclusivist.

    Love Wins is more accurately described as advocating a hopeful Rehabilitationalist view of Hell. (And, for the record, I’m not convinced that he’s correct.) And, to reduce the message and purpose of the book to such a inaccurate singular issue really does him, your institution, and those whom your institution influences a disservice.

    Misrepresenting him in such a manner, seems more like an articulation of your/Asbury’s fears concerning the impact of the book than an accurate portrayal of the book. So, while I’m profoundly disappointed in the misrepresentation of Bell, I’m glad that you and Asbury are not inclusivists like Bell and like myself.

  • Another doctrine which needs to be highlighted is the perspicuity of Scripture. God has given us the Bible as an act of self-disclosure and God knows how to make himself known with clarity. This does not mean that there are not hundreds of unresolved questions in our minds about various verses of scripture and, indeed, the Christian faith has many deep mysteries. What it does mean is that the grand message of salvation has been made abundantly clear. One of the sad consequences of post-modernism is the growing distrust in Scripture and the growing sense that it is “all a matter of interpretation” and no one can really know what the Bible teaches about anything. (There are, I should add, many positive things which postmodernity gives to us, but I am pointing out one of the negatives). This also fuels the suspicions about “propositions.” However, if we abandon propositional truth, then we lose the very nature of Scripture as God’s self-disclosure. A few examples will suffice: God created the world, Jesus died upon the cross for our sins, and St. Paul had a transforming conversion on the Road to Damascus. All three of these statements (and thousands like them) are propositional truth statements. They are either true or not.
    If God can, as one of the responders asserted, just “do absolutely nothing in regard to human sin” then one must wonder why he sent Jesus to the cross. If God could simply overlook sin, then the cross becomes, as Richard Dawkins asserts, nothing but child abuse on a cosmic scale. The gospel teaches that if Jesus had not died on the cross, then our redemption would not be possible.

  • For the record, I have great appreciation for Fuller Theological Seminary in general and Richard Maow in particular. If an Asbury graduate were to write a book which puts clear blue water between himself or herself and historic orthodoxy, then I would hope that somebody would graciously point it out. I promise, I will not take it personally.

  • One can certainly cite the notion of the perspicuity of Scripture, but the history of Christianity argues against such an easy write off of the indelible role which interpretation (which is fundamentally a subjective act) has in the understanding and articulation of religious belief.

    Rather than giving “sad” consequences, I would argue that post-modernism (however one is actually defining that…) has really only shone a light on what’s been the case the entire time. In this way, rather than creating a “distrust” in the Scriptures, another way to look at it is that it has applied a long overdue restraining force to interpretation. Rather than letting religious teachers have their way with interpretation simply by virtue of their education and, importantly, a favorable cultural milieu, the act of biblical interpretation is now rightly the subject of criticism, for the subjectivity of the interpreter is not isolated from the conclusions that they reach. While this certainly threatens those who are used to people accepting their interpretations without question, I think this movement will be good for Christianity over the long run, as it will force interpretation and theology to become more refined and less unnecessarily dogmatic; more concerned with the life of the Church, and less moored in the pointless minutiae of theological fragmentation.

    Finally, my point about the ability of God to do “anything” or “nothing” in regards to human sinfulness was simply an argument that human notions about what God “must” do in order to be considered “just” are naive and, if we’re being really honest, blasphemous. God is just because God is God; therefore, whatever God does or does not do is, by virtue of God’s divinity, that which is just. I agree that God cannot be unjust; however, God’s inability to be unjust does not stem from any real “inability”, but simply from the fact that anything which God does is itself just. God could violate every preconceived human idea about justice, and yet God would remain eternally just.

    So when we ask questions about God’s actions, I think asking about how the same correlate to God’s “attributes” is fairly pointless. Is God “just” to let everyone in to heaven? Yes. Is God loving if God sends every last person to be tormented in hell forever? Absolutely. God is just and God is love, not because of what God does, but simply because God is God.

  • Shawn Barr says:

    Dr. Tennent, Thank you for your willingness to take the difficult position of pointing out Bell’s errors. As the comments above show, it is not always popular to be the one to stand up against bad theology. Bell’s errors are grievous and obvious and thus the reason so many evangelicals have rightly spoken out with concerns on the book.

    The one thing that stand out to me about many who have commented above is that their concerns are mainly philosophical as opposed to being biblical. I don’t see people saying, “I disagree with you because the Bible says X”; but instead saying, “I disagree with you because my theology or philosophy disagrees with yours.”

    May we as pastors and leaders adopt the cry of the reformers, “to the texts!”

  • […] God.  Those who are regular readers of my blog will recall that when Bell published Love Wins I wrote a four part blog series exploring what I liked about Bell’s book and, mostly, where I felt the book contained serious […]