Is it theology? Not really. If theology is akin to meat and potatoes, then this book is more like a light salad, a mix of greens with a dash of spice and a little vinaigrette for flavor. I feel somewhat confident with the thought that Harper must have pulled out all the punches to get the final product at over 200 pages. The font is larger and there is a space between each paragraph. If you reduced the book to a typed manuscript, my hunch—again, only a hunch—is that it would be no more than 40 pages, or the equivalent of two 20-page papers. So, all in all, light reading that requires only that the reader skim to get the main points that fall here and there, like slivers of carrots laced throughout the greens. The greens themselves are the steady diet of questions that Bells throws out. In short, theology, it’s not.
No Meaty Theology Here
Lest I seem like an academic prude, let me say that I doubt Rob Bell intended this book to be meaty theology. The book oozes with the heart of a pastor who desires to engage his flock with the aim of making faithful disciples. This is a good thing. And, this is an important point; just as crucial as the question of whether Bell is flirting with heterodoxy. Missing the pastoral feel to the book can lead to a misunderstanding of what Bell is and is not saying, which is precisely what I think DeYoung and others are doing. They are interpreting the book as though Bell’s agenda is primarily theological, when it is really rhetorical with a pastoral intention. In many ways, it epitomizes the scriptural aphorism, “wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove.”
It seems obvious to me that Bell sees the discipleship process as being fueled by continuously wrestling with the deep questions of life, regardless of whether one ever achieves theological clarity. I am reminded of one of the opening scenes to the first installment of the Matrix trilogy when Trinity seductively whispers, “it is the question that drives us, Neo. It’s the question that brought you here. You know the question just as I did.” After Neo cautiously responds, “What is the matrix?” Trinity sets the hook, “the answer is out there, and it’s looking for you, and it will find you if you want it.” For Rob Bell, it is the questions that drive disciples to find the answers out there, which ultimately can lead them to the God from whom all questions originate and in whom they all terminate.
No Heresy Either
Let me explain what I mean.
First, you need to read the book with Bell’s rhetorical strategies in mind. Remember he wants to ask seemingly provocative questions, and he does so using all the evocative words and compelling stories he can. The purpose is to get the reader to consider different points of view and to sink the individual down into the weightiness of the issues. What is the ultimate aim here? Probably to get folks to be a little more humble as they approach these issues. It’s rhetoric with a pastoral intention.
Second, the two “controversial” chapters, which are about hell (ch. 3) and whether God gets what God wants (ch. 4), follow Bell’s rhetorical strategies closely. Even if you skim them, you’ll notice that Bell introduces an issue through a series of questions, offers some possible answers that Christians have given, and then turns to another issue. Again, the aim is to mix it up or to complicate it, but not really to solve it.
So, what does Bell think about hell? That we need it. We need it because hell serves the important function of proclaiming in loud and graphic terms that justice will be done, and that righteousness matters. Just read the last two paragraphs or so (I can’t remember exactly), and you’ll see Bell basically make this point. He is led to this conclusion because one line of inquiry he pursues is a series of questions about the man who rapes over and over, or other individuals who commit grave sins over and over. Can we say to the parents of the daughter raped by such an individual that God will not vindicate them in some way? It’s clear Bell does not think we can. The questions of justice lead him inexorably to affirm the need for hell, even if he wishes to complicate what Christians think about hell.
Is Bell a universalist? Not really. At best, he wants to hold divine love in tension with free agency. Bell’s so-called universalism is nothing more than a rhetorical strategy to provoke. He has disavowed universalism in the MSNBC interview, and I see nothing in the book to suggest he is being misleading when he makes the claim. The chapter is framed around the question (remember a question to raise an issue), “does God get what God wants?” Bell uses this question to introduce diverse perspectives within the Christian tradition, one of which is the universalist option, namely, that God will ultimately reconcile all things.
Yes, Bell does not get his history right on this point, and yes, Bell’s rhetoric stretches the issues considerably. That’s the point, at least with respect to the latter! (I can only hope that he tried to get his history right even if he fails miserably). In any case, he wants to paint a picture of Christianity that is broad enough to allow many folks to find themselves there.
Is this rhetorical strategy really any different than Jonathan Edwards preaching about sinners in the hands of an angry God? As a man with a keen theological mind, Edwards knew that God is not angry because God does not “feel” emotion in the way that humans do. He understood that these terms are mere analogues for divine judgment. But does that stop Edwards from using the full rhetorical weight of those terms to elicit the greatest response? Does Edwards say, “God technically does not get angry, so when the Bible talks about anger or God’s wrath, we must not apply these terms strictly.” Not at all. Instead, he wants his listeners to feel the flames of God’s wrath upon them so that they can be restored. Rob Bell simply wants his readers to feel the passion of God’s love upon them so that they can be restored. Same rhetorical flair with a similar pastoral aim.
You know where Bell stands when you discover that he flips the question around in the final pages of the chapter and says, “a better question is whether we get what we want.” Do humans get what they want? Bell seems to answer in the affirmative, which means that Bell is a good synergist who thinks that God allows humans to live with the reality–even a hellish reality–they have created.
What’s the Verdict?
After skimming Bell’s book, I am saddened, I must admit, at how much energy his detractors have spent attempting to discredit him. For one, the book, which is not a book, is not worth so much time and effort. More importantly, however, I can’t tell you the number of sermons I have heard that lacked the theological precision necessary to achieve the kind of doctrinal commitment and clarity DeYoung, et al. seem to call for. In doing so, they miss the entire point: “it’s the question that drives us.”