Rob Bell, end-times, and how Jesus got “left behind.”

Disclaimer: I promise, I’m not trying to write about everything controversial in church life in one week. By the time I finish this little series, I think you will see how these themes are deeply related—at least I hope so. The last thing the world needs is another blog about Rob Bell, so please note that is not what this is ultimately about. This is the perfect cocktail of a lot of things happening in our culture with my new preaching series on Revelation…I hope you will hang around.

I came back from Africa just over a month ago, and the world as I knew it was no longer the same. There was military action in Libya. Charlie Sheen was going on tour. And in the most epic news of them all—Rob Bell had written a book. In evangelical circles, it was like the new variation of the Kennedy assassination: “do you know where you were when you found out Rob Bell called traditional views of hell into question?” I can’t think of any story in recent years pertaining to the Church in America that got as much global press as this one.

Because I can be a bit of a theological snob, I insisted on being detached at first. Having only heard Bell speak a few times between online and conferences, I did not feel I had a dog in the race. I am not jealous or bothered for a young evangelical to make the news for staking a theological claim, only sincerely perplexed that it is news for any pastor I know of to make much of any theological claim. Carlton Pearson, an enormously influential African American Pentecostal, adapted explicit universalism (the belief all will be saved in the end) a few years ago, and it did not cause nearly the level of stir as this. I read broadly in church history, so I rarely find myself surprised by much of anybody’s views on heaven, hell or the afterlife. From C.S. Lewis’ well-known The Great Divorce to the provocative Dare We Hope All Men Be Saved by Hans von Balthasar to fundamentalist accounts that make Dante’s inferno read like a Little Golden book and everything in the middle, I feel like I’m aware of most views along that continuum. So the one thing I was certain of was that nothing Bell would say could surprise me.

That wasn’t the only reason I wanted to stay away. I admit to finding conversations about whether or not any particular preacher/theologian is a heretic to be less interesting than a lot of people do. Some of the most helpful books I’ve ever read have been by heretics. Some of the most profound, articulate expressions of Christian faith have been forged by conversations with heretics. A teaching can be wrong and still help bring clarity as to what is true. So when there is a provocative book, I want to know if the conversation can ultimately help the Church grow (whether the teaching itself is affirmed or blatantly rejected as orthodox theology). I must also confess that while I have no reason to take sides with Bell, the early critics of his book (which appeared from the forest before its publication) are from a stream of Christianity I admire but whose current young adherents flatly drive me bananas. Some of the same neo-reformers who came out guns blazing after Bell would barely accept someone like myself (a Pentecostal from the Wesleyan tradition) in their narrow definition of orthodoxy, which can apparently exclude people who hold differences from them on matters from the sovereignty of God (election, predestination, etc.) to women in church leadership (they are not in favor). Many of these folks I have in mind have done a great deal of good for the Church that I honor. They just also seem to rather casually cross the line into douchebaggery with particular ease. This is a way of saying, even if I were to disagree with Bell…I didn’t want to have to agree with these particular critics.

Besides, I reasoned, there are few emergencies in life that will change my book queue. Lives are at stake in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series as best as I can tell, why should I have to put them down? I do not rearrange either my book or Netflix queue hastily—it’s not like my underwear drawer or something. But alas, having enough people within Renovatus ask me questions about it, so I reluctantly read it.

Criticisms and endorsements of Love Wins have been so rampant that I’m not sure my thoughts would be that helpful. Since this is ultimately not about Love Wins primarily anyway, I will keep my remarks on the book itself relatively concise. My summary is this: I think it is unwise to attempt a game-changing, non-fiction treatise on hell and judgment that can be read in a single bowel movement. I agreed with many of Bell’s premises and concerns (crafting a thoughtful, pastoral response to people’s questions about loved ones who died without faith in Christ instead of being smug and callous, not allowing our beliefs about last things to be detached from the here-and-now implications of God’s kingdom in the world, exercising restraint in speaking about the ultimate destination of particular individuals and leaving such matters to God). I do not agree with a significant number of his conclusions, or necessarily even think he made a great case for some of them. I was disappointed by the maddening lack of footnotes (while I understand the desire to write to a popular audience—these are deep waters) and the drive-by treatment of significant texts, as well as the failure to even wrestle seriously with key ideas of divine justice.

I deleted a whole paragraph of review here of hits and misses, simply because I don’t think there is anything much new to be said by way of anybody’s review…except possibly this. What I really want to say, and have wanted to say for weeks, is that at the heart of the book (in terms of its primary concern), I think Bell is rightly bothered by the detachment he sees of the body of Christ from real world suffering as we often retreat into speculation about the world to come. I am ever so sympathetic to this critique. But while Bell is right that our eschatology (belief about last things) is often hindering the mission of the Church in the world rather than furthering it, I think he flatly makes a tactical error in his analysis—Bell seems to think that the reason Christians aren’t more engaged in the “hells of the world” (and having just been in the slums outside Nairobi, I share his heart here) is that they are preoccupied with saving people from a hell yet to come. Coming from a Pentecostal church where people historically take hell and judgment very seriously, I just don’t know that I buy that. For example, most of the Church of God missionaries I know from my context serving in those “hells on earth” to bring the compassion of Christ into dire human suffering have what would probably be called very traditional views of hell. But they are no less consumed with seeing God’s kingdom come there.

On the other hand, I see an enormous connection between the disastrous variety of teaching on the Second Coming of Jesus as THE reason for the problem Bell identifies. To listen to many of us, it is unclear if we even still believe in the resurrection of the body (an essential, defining creedal doctrine) anymore—thus there is precious little continuity between this life and the life to come. Much of our theology is literally so dis-embodied that it resembles the body/spirit division much of the New Testament is written in protest against. There is also a great deal of escapism in our talk of the end. There is little emphasis on the prayer of Jesus Himself that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (and in fact if you listen to our preaching and teaching close enough, you might think that Jesus himself was wrong to have us to pray for this–it is that severe a misdirected emphasis). There are preposterous books, preposterous hair-dos, and preposterous speculation not on the outskirts but in the main artery of evangelical Christianity.

Hey, you remember that big stink a few years ago when one of the most popular evangelical pastors in America wrote a book where he carried his end-times theology to such an absurd extreme as to suggest that Jesus never claimed or accepted the title of Messiah on earth? That He didn’t really come as the expected anointed one for the Jews—because then Jews would have rejected Him? This pastor has rightly condemned anti-semitism in the Church, and that is good. But the role of Israel as a nation-state is so prominent in his end-times scheme, that he has taken all of this to new heights (or all-time lows). Thus those born into Israel as a nation state now (for this preacher) have a route to God apart from Jesus—two groups of people with two different means of salvation. This all leads to huge implications for how view what is happening in the Middle East. At the end of the day, preachers like him are trying to prepare folks for holy war with the infidels rather than trying to seek God’s peace between ancient enemies–get on the right side of Armageddon more so than live out the clear teachings of Jesus as to how we love the world on His behalf. You don’t remember any of that?

That’s because there was no real stink—barely a yawn at any of this from most evangelicals (and Pentecostals). Nor is there a stink when they make predictions that flagrantly don’t come true, or put out zany books about how the political administration they don’t like MUST somehow usher in the end of days (said with the same authority as they would quote John 3:16), or utterly murder Biblical texts contextually (i.e., Song of Solomon is some sort of code about last days instead of a celebration of erotic love in a marital context). Nor is there a stink when some of these same leaders actively lobby, as has been well documented, to try to get us to war (with Iran for example) because they believe it will fulfill their end-time chart faster. Nor is there a stink when they teach that any and all efforts of contemporary Christians to be peacemakers in a violent world (working for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, for example) are impediments to the return of Christ. Nor is there a stink when evangelical Christians get in bed with a guy like Glenn Beck, who doesn’t share their views on the Trinity, the cross, or most any other core orthodox Christian teaching. “If you share my reactionary alarmist propaganda about the apocalypse, we won’t let a little thing like Mormonism get in the way of you leading us in Amazing Grace on the steps of the capital.” These speculative end-times scenarios (and let me be clear–despite many appeals to Scripture, that whole industry is 95% speculation without real scholarship) are taken FAR MORE SERIOUSLY and far more woodenly than the explicit, direct, clear teachings given by Jesus and the early Christian writers as to how we interact with the world. I am convinced this is why thoughts like I shared earlier this week cans strike people as novel or new–which is disturbing.

Look, I understand a lot of Christian bookstores don’t feel comfortable selling Love Wins on their shelves because it doesn’t line up with their definition of orthodox theology. Fair enough. But have you paid attention to anything else on your shelves, Christian retailers? Since when did we care about Christian orthodoxy when it comes to anybody’s teaching about eschatology? Where have the doctrine police been all this time? Apparently as long as you don’t err on the side of universalism, anything goes. “In our store, we won’t sell Penthouse—we only sell Hustler.” Well done!

The sad thing for me about “RobBellGate” is this: Christians have already been buying into a disturbing polarization between two caricatures—one for people who emphasize the message of salvation through repentance and faith in Christ and one for people who emphasize taking care of the poor and needy/matters of mercy and justice. Of course that is overgeneralized and stupid, but you would be surprised how many people feel that way. Thus many reactions to Love Wins has been something like, “This is why those newfangled evangelicals with their mercy and their justice and their peacemaking and their AIDS in Africa are such a problem; let’s get back to the cross!” And then you’ve got those folks who care about people’s real world suffering feeling like, “we are tired of being pushed around by these doctrine people—this is just about helping the marginalized.” It feels like the conversation is going backwards instead of forwards.

You don’t have to agree with Rob Bell’s views on hell to agree with this simple claim: the world is in a mess largely because we have stopped taking seriously what it means to be the Church in the world. We have officially changed the Lord’s prayer to “Get me out of this dump fast God,” and we are biding time for our spaceship to come. And the prophecy, er, experts are giving us theological resources for all of this.

Left Behind and its ilk have set the agenda for many Christians in recent years. It would be terrible indeed to wake up one morning to find that it was Jesus Himself who got left behind by the Church.

(Big, bombastic claims right? Hang on—part two is still to come. One of the things I hope to demonstrate is that many portrayals of the Second Coming are playing into the triumphant disposition I’ve criticized this week instead of giving an added sense of urgency to our work and witness, as it is supposed to do.)