Walking right into Hell. . . . in Orlando, Florida

Last week we held a four day spiritual retreat in Orlando, Florida, for special friends of Asbury Seminary. This was the second in a series of four formation periods called Ascent whereby we set aside time to minister and invest in the spiritual growth of those who support the ministries of Asbury Seminary. Because we are committed to Wesleyan holiness we are careful to not allow it to be only a time of withdrawal and reflection. Mr. Wesley believed in “active” waiting on God. We grow spiritually both through bended knees in prayer as well as bended backs in service. Wesley understood that you grow as much sitting in church hearing a sermon as standing in a soup kitchen serving the poor.

So, in keeping with this, we took the entire group to see the ministries of The Summit church in Orlando. The Summit was founded by an Asbury graduate, Isaac Hunter, and a handful of his friends less than a decade ago. They asked the question, “what would happen if we planted a church which, from the start, was dedicated to serving our community rather than focusing on ourselves?” The church now has multiple campuses and over 4,000 members. They are seeking to bring healing and hope to Orlando, Florida, and around the world, with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While at Summit we met another graduate of Asbury Seminary, Rhonda Stapleton. Rhonda shared her life story with us – and we were all deeply moved. Ten years ago Rhonda took a huge step of faith and moved into one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Orlando. It is known as OBT (Orange Blossom Trail). It is the kind of place which is fearful for even law enforcement people to walk around. It is known for homicides, drugs, prostitution and pimps. Even more, it is known for hopelessness. Sex trafficking is rampant. Rhonda has seen pimps waiting at the curb for the women when they are released from prison. Rhonda knows women who live in such agonizing bondage that being arrested and hauled off to jail is almost a relief. Rhonda has seen the living face of sin as much as anyone. She has also seen the living face of grace and the power of the gospel. Jesus is also walking the streets of OBT. He is there in Rhonda Stapleton, delivering new hope to the hopeless.

Rhonda saw the the need for a place in this part of Orlando to help women who are released from prison to get a fresh start, obtain job skills and to be protected from human trafficking during those first six to eight months after they are released from prison when they are particularly vulnerable. Under the leadership of Isaac Hunter, the Summit Church has helped Rhonda to found the first home, known as Samaritan Village, which promises to be a model for many to follow around the country.

Isaac Hunter and Rhonda Stapleton are just two examples of our 9,000 graduates around the world who remind me why I love serving Asbury seminary and why we are committed to training women and men for places of ministry and service in the world. Students do graduate and they do go out and make a difference. I have seen it. I have now personally met nearly 900 of the alumni of Asbury Theological Seminary. I have met them on different continents and serving in different capacities – but all dedicated to “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the world.” The OBT in Orlando is getting a divine in-breaking. The host of hell assails, but Jesus is prepared to walk right into hell. Praise the Lord.

If you want to see it for yourself, check it out here.

Reflections on the Death of Osama bin Laden By Timothy C. Tennent

The death of Osama bin Laden has reminded me of the recent discussion surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, about who might end up in hell.  It is interesting that modern discussions about such matters invariably find a way to put ourselves in the category of the “righteous” and hell is reserved for Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and Osama bin Laden.  The Scriptures point us in a different direction.  Paul is determined to silence the endless self-righteous talk which ends in self-justification, whether stemming from Jews who live under the Law or Gentiles who do not know the Law, but only have their own conscience.  Paul finally bluntly declares that God’s righteousness is being revealed “so that every mouth may be silenced” (Rom. 3:19).

This is important because as Christians we must recognize that the evil which we so often want to identity in the “other” is actually in us as well.  We are capable of all the atrocities which we find so unimaginable, such is the depth of human depravity.  Osama bin Laden was, through his death, sent to a higher court for final judgement.  Someday we will stand at that same bar of judgement.  Paul declares that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10).  The only hope for any of us is in the grace which God has revealed in Jesus Christ.  He is the only one truly righteous.  Death, floods, earthquakes and tornadoes are all regular reminders of human frailty and that the whole of creation is “not right.”  We must cast ourselves on the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Let Osama bin Laden’s death be a reminder not of the wickedness in the “other” who has “finally gotten what is due him,” but rather a sobering and humbling reminder of the nature of the human race to which we all belong.  Augustine wisely said that we are sinners by birth and by choice.  The whole human race is in rebellion against God.   We are “in Adam” and we are willful participants in that seminal rebellion.  The fundamental struggle of our time – or any time – is not about the West versus radical Islam.  The struggle is between the righteousness of God and the rebellion of the human race against God’s righteousness.  We are all part of that rebellion, right along with bin Laden and Pol Pot. Until we see ourselves in the Cambodian killing fields, the falling Twin Towers and Nazi concentration camps we really haven’t fully grasped the depth of our own human fallenness, nor the height of God’s amazing grace in Christ.

Looking into the Pit of Hell by Timothy C. Tennent

We are still basking in the wonderful good news of Easter.  During this Eastertide, I am reminded afresh of the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This past January, my wife and I spent two weeks in the Holy Land.  No words can really ever capture the power of walking this land.  One of the most moving juxtapositions in the trip was the last two days.  We were in Jerusalem and spent half a day at the Holocaust museum.  I have been to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. and in Richmond, Virginia. Both are moving experiences, but nothing quite like the one in Jerusalem, especially being with our normally very loquacious Jewish guide, Mishi Newbach, who was reduced to silence and tears as we walked through the horror of the exhibits, documentary films and paraphernalia.

One of the highlights of the holocaust museum in Richmond, Virginia is the very clock which hung in the Ten Boom workshop.  As you may recall, this was the one used to alert the Jews they were hiding of impending danger.  Corrie Ten Boom was eventually arrested, along with her father, mother and sister.  She witnessed the worst horror of Ravensbruck, including the death of both parents and her sister Betsy.  In Jerusalem I was struck by a room which was filled with quotations about the holocaust. The one which really grabbed me was by Elie Wiesel, the famous Romanian born Nobel Laureate writer who is Jewish and one of the most well known survivors of the Holocaust.  He is the author of many books but is especially known for his book Night.  In Night he shares the horror of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  He movingly writes that he looked into the pit of the Holocaust and saw such unspeakable horror that God must be dead.  The Holocaust put God to death for Wiesel.

The day after our trip to the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem we went to the Garden Tomb, known as Gordon’s Calvary.  There I was able to walk inside a first century tomb hewn out of rock outside the city gates and just below a massive outcropping of rock which looked like a gigantic skull (Golgatha is an Aramaic word meaning “skull”).  It was a powerful place to be reminded of the central truth of our faith:  Jesus Christ is Risen!  He has born the sins of the world and is victorious!

This is what made Wiesel’s experience of the Holocaust so different from Corrie Ten Boom’s.  Corrie Ten Boom looked into the same horrifying pit as Wiesel.  However, she saw something even deeper than the pain, agony and suffering of the Holocaust.  She saw the sufferings of Christ who bore the sins of the world.  Wiesel looked into the pit of hell and declared, “there is no God.”  Corrie looked into the pit of hell and wrote, “there is no pit so deep, that the love of God is not deeper still.”

Part Four: Why Rob Bell needs to return to Seminary… and bring along quite a few contemporary evangelical pastors (cont.)

This is the FOURTH and final part in a series on Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, by Timothy C. Tennent, PhD, President of Asbury Theological Seminary

Bell’s ecclesiology has collapsed and we are left with an individual sincere seeker after God.  The mission of the church has been, at best, stunted, since the other religions of the world have already brought (implicitly and anonymously) more people to the foot of the cross than has the global proclamation of the gospel.  However, it is only through dramatic theological reductionism that Bell equates biblical salvation in the New Testament to a lone individual seeker after God in a religion like Islam or Buddhism.  Bell doesn’t just give us anonymous Christians, he gives us anonymous communities, anonymous Scriptures and anonymous sacraments.  He has effectively disembodied the faith and separated it from ecclesiology despite the fact that it is the church which is the public, redeemed community Jesus Christ declares that he will build to manifest before the world all of the active “heavenly” engagement in this world that Bell longs for.

In conclusion, Bell is probably right about several things.  A lot of pastors out there are teaching stuff which only vaguely reflects the actual teachings of the New Testament.  If Bell awakens in the evangelical community a fresh, robust conversation about what we really believe about the kingdom, heaven, hell, the lost and the New Creation, we should all be delighted.  It is important to recognize that Bell’s response reveals that the depth of his own theological reflection is a bit thin, too.  Bell has given us a domesticated gospel which tries to make the gospel relevant to contemporary sensibilities.  However, it is not the gospel which needs to be made relevant to us.  It is we who need to be made relevant to the gospel.  The gospel is always relevant whether it is recognized as such or not.  In my estimation, Rob Bell and, apparently quite a few evangelical pastors, need a thorough re-grounding in the biblical doctrines of God’s love, sin, the kingdom of God, the necessity of human response and ecclesiology.

While I sincerely believe that the spread of wider hope inclusivism into the evangelical movement represents a serious breach of theological coherence which will undermine the gospel, I am not standing with a stone in my hand.  As a seminary president, Bell’s book reminded me anew of the importance of biblical and theological training.  He reminded me afresh why I have given my life to theological education.  If there is a “beam” in the eye of the evangelical church it is that we must hear the resounding bell (no pun intended) that a post-Christendom, post-modern generation is not hearing the gospel.  However, the answer is not Bell’s further domesticated gospel, but a more robust, Apostolic one.  We can no longer give out gospel fragments which are not clearly tied to re-building the grand meta-narrative which gloriously unfurls from creation to covenant to incarnation to death and resurrection to ascension to Pentecost to the church of Jesus Christ to the Return of Christ and the final ushering in of the New Creation.  A post-modern world which has reduced all Truth to tiny socially constructed personal narratives is in need of a big, glorious grand Story.  This is really the deepest cry of Rob Bell.  This is the deepest cry of many of us.  In future blog posts I will share some of my own thoughts and reflections on how to re-capture the grand Story for our own day.  In the meantime, Bell has reminded us that our deepest theological and pastoral work cannot be done in isolation from the world, the church and the larger cultural milieu.  The world always remains God’s greatest theological workshop.  Bell’s book, Love Wins, calls us all back to the workshop in a fresh way.  Let’s get to work, shall we?

(This is the final conclusion to a four part series on Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins.  The author grants full permission for the reproduction and distribution of these reflections as long as all four parts are referenced).

Part Three: Why Rob Bell needs to return to Seminary… and bring along quite a few contemporary evangelical pastors (cont.)

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….)

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

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…)