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…)