God isn't a "vicious tormenter": Rob Bell's blasphemy?

I started to watch and review the video of Adrian Warnock’s interview with Rob Bell.

Premier Christian Radio: The 'Heaven and Hell' DebateThe part I have seen so far shows the reasonable face of Adrian who has “no intention to be hateful to [Bell] or to anyone”, a brother in Christ who shares with me a passion for the Resurrection and the work of the Holy Spirit.

But then I read Adrian’s follow-up post Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell – How DARE you question God?, and suddenly I saw, or read, a completely different Adrian: one who responds with “How DARE you?” to anyone who questions the received “Reformed” concept of God, a person showing hate and condemnation for anyone who doesn’t preach a God of hate and condemnation.

Adrian quotes some passages from Rob Bell’s book Love Wins which he describes as “verging on blasphemy”. Here is the main one:

Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony. If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good. Loving one moment, vicious the next. Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye. Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die? That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can.

And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.

So, Adrian, if you reject these words of Rob Bell as “verging on blasphemy”, can we take it that for you God does indeed “become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter. … Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye”? Is this the kind of God you believe in? If so, how can you profess to love him? Or has Bell hit the nail a bit too much on the head about Christians who “don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable”?

As I wrote in a comment on Adrian’s post (and I credit him with allowing the comment to stand):

Do you love [God], or do you actually hate and fear him, and protest your love out of fear that he might damn you for not loving him? If so I don’t want anything to do with your God.

But this is the same Adrian whose book Raised with Christ I described last year as

well argued and positive … I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone whose background is “Reformed” or conservative evangelical and whose faith seems to be somewhat doctrine-centred and dry.

Why do we see such a different Adrian in his new post? The only way I can explain this sudden complete changes of his attitude is that he is suffering from something like dissociative identity disorder, the PC name for a split personality. And he has shaped his God to have a similar disorder, “Loving one moment, vicious the next”. He should see a psychiatrist. Oh, he is one!

William Blake's "Jerusalem": a Christian hymn?

The preface to "Milton" by William Blake, with the words of "Jerusalem"One of the hymns at this morning’s Royal Wedding was “Jerusalem”, William Blake’s c. 1808 poem “And did those feet in ancient time” as set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916. This is certainly magnificent music, all the more so when sung in a packed Westminster Abbey as part of a great state occasion. But is it a Christian hymn suitable for use in Christian worship?

The illustration shows the words as originally penned by Blake, followed by the interesting Bible verse

Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets. (Numbers 11:29)

Here are the words as sung this morning, taken from Archbishop Cranmer’s posting of the Royal Wedding order of service:

AND did those feet in ancient time
walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the countenance divine
shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
till we have built Jerusalem
in England’s green and pleasant land.

Now I think we have to agree that the first verse is based on an unhistorical legend. The historical Jesus never visited England, and certainly never established here anything like Jerusalem. Yet there is also a truth here: Jesus came to England by his Spirit through his church, and the church made a start on its task of building the city of God here.

This leads into the second verse, in which Blake seems to recognise that Jerusalem will be built “in England’s green and pleasant land” only by the efforts of Christian people like Blake himself. But for those efforts to be successful heavenly weapons are required.

Surely Blake was spot on here in sharing the Christian aspiration to build the new Jerusalem, the city of God, in England and in every other country. As I have been arguing in my recent posts on the last things like this one, the task of the church is not to wait around to be taken out of this world but rather to transform this world into God’s kingdom.

So, I would conclude, this is a wonderful poem and expression of Christian aspirations. The musical setting is magnificent. It is an appropriate part of a ceremony in which a Christian couple set out on a life together hopefully to serve God and build his kingdom in England.

But is it a hymn? No, strictly speaking, because a hymn is a song of praise. In fact by this definition many of the songs used in current Christian worship, traditional and modern, are not hymns. “Jerusalem” is not a song of praise, but a song of commitment to serving God’s purposes. We can only hope and pray that William and Catherine have genuinely committed themselves to this and will have the strength to live it out.

In memory of David Wilkerson

David WilkersonI was sad to read this morning of the death of David Wilkerson, founder of Times Square Church in New York, although I can also rejoice that he is in a better place. He was killed in a road accident in Texas, aged 79. His wife Gwen was with him and was critically injured. For more details see the articles by Charisma News and CBN. See also the thoughtful post by UK Methodist minister David Faulkner, who writes:

His life and ministry impacted millions. No appeals to his supporters for the money to buy a Lear Jet, just a guy who risked his life in the violent Projects of New York to show the love of Christ to gangs led by the likes of Nicky Cruz.

Wilkerson was best known to the Christian world in general for his 1963 book The Cross and the Switchblade, the story of his work with those New York gangs. He is best known to readers of Gentle Wisdom for my post last month David Wilkerson prophecy: earthquakes in Japan and USA, which has been the most read on this blog nearly every day since it was written, and is already well on its way to being my most read post ever. Perhaps it is a blessing for David that he has been spared seeing the fulfilment of his 2009 prophecy:

There will be riots and fires in cities worldwide. There will be looting—including Times Square, New York City. What we are experiencing now is not a recession, not even a depression. We are under God’s wrath. …

Wilkerson was blogging daily devotions right up to his death, which can be found here and here. Here, from the end of his last devotion with the title When All Means Fail, are his last published words:

Beloved, God has never failed to act but in goodness and love. When all means fail—his love prevails. Hold fast to your faith. Stand fast in his Word. There is no other hope in this world.


Happy 90th birthday, John Stott

John StottTim Chesterton, newly returned from a Lent break from blogging, has reminded the world that today is John Stott’s 90th birthday. Tim gives a moving tribute, including the story of how they met in the Canadian Arctic.

I have never met John on a personal level. I think the only time I have heard him speak was at a mission at Cambridge University. But I well remember, and still own, his 1970 book Christ the Controversialist, which, a few years before that mission, played a major part in bringing me from a nominal Christianity to a living faith.

Like Tim I disagree with Stott on some issues, but still greatly respect him as one of the major evangelical leaders of the second half of the 20th century.

Happy birthday, Uncle John!

Rob Bell: Resurrection video

Just got back from our Easter evening service at Oasis Warrington. As part of the sermon there was featured this video of Rob Bell talking about the Resurrection:

All very right-brained, but nothing unorthodox as far as I can tell. It was followed by a very orthodox appeal for people to give their lives to Jesus, not to avoid going to hell but to enjoy the full benefits of the eternal life God has promised.

Not Good Friday but Good Thursday?

The death of Jesus from "The Passion of the Christ"Jeremy Myers puts forward The Case for a Thursday Crucifixion. If he is right, today shouldn’t be Good Friday at all, but we should have marked the death of Jesus yesterday, or on an earlier Thursday in April.

Jeremy’s theory makes some sense, especially of the statements that Jesus’ body was in the tomb “three days and three nights”, which even with ancient ways of counting doesn’t work for the traditional 36 hours from the burial to the Resurrection. This requires that the day after the crucifixion was not a regular sabbath but a special day of rest for the Passover, as clearly stated in John 19:31, which in this case was on a Friday.

Jeremy’s scheme requires that the Last Supper was on the Wednesday. Oddly enough Jeremy wrote this on the very day of publication of Colin Humphreys’ book The Mystery of the Last Supper, in which Humphreys also puts forward the claim that the Last Supper was on a Wednesday. I now don’t really think that this book is an April Fool. But Humphreys does not agree with Jeremy on the day of the crucifixion; one of his arguments is that the trial of Jesus needed more than one night. Also Jeremy makes no reference to Humphreys’ work. So I think it is coincidental that both are suggesting a Wednesday Last Supper on the same day – ironically, the traditional Thursday of the Last Supper.

If the Last Supper was on Wednesday 1st April 33, Humphreys’ proposal, the Passover date on the official Jewish calendar would have been on the Saturday. This doesn’t fit with Jeremy’s theory that the “special sabbath” of John 19:31 was a Friday. So Jeremy and Humphreys may agree on the day of the week for the Last Supper, but probably not on the year. Indeed, according to the calendar given in an earlier work by Humphreys and a collaborator, there is no plausible year in which the Passover (Nisan 15) fell on a Friday. This may prove a fatal flaw in Jeremy’s idea.

These calendar issues are interesting, but I will leave it to others to look into further details.

Left-brainers don't understand right-brained Rob Bell

There have been some interesting comments on my post Gandhi and Rob Bell, newfrontiers and Hell, which led me to link the frosty response from some quarters to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (which I still haven’t read) with the different ways in which people’s brains work.

Whole Brain ThinkingMy friend Heather France runs a company Whole Brain Thinking offering brain profiling, which “can help in any aspect of life and work”. An adult profile can be done online for £35. Heather has posted on the company blog my story of how having my profile done helped me to find my wife:

Lorenza and I were just friends when we both went to a brain profiling workshop run by Heather France. But it turned out that we had rather similar brain profiles. This meant that we were put in the same small group for a fun exercise. We enjoyed working together on this and started to realise how much we had in common. Soon after this I asked her out. …

I write this here largely to demonstrate that I know what I am talking about concerning left and right brain thinking. For the record, I am a left-brainer but not very strongly so. There is more to the profile than this: for example, in my brain the L1 quadrant, “Analytical and factual”, is dominant – as my readers could probably guess.

To get back to Rob Bell, the issue came up in comments by Robert Slowley. I discern that Robert is left-brained from his detailed analysis of the NIV 2011 update, which I used in my post on that version. In fact this probably means that his dominant quadrant is L2, “Organised and detailed”. Robert wrote:

That’s what I find frustrating about Bell, he’s not clear at all about what he really thinks.

Later he wrote:

I think Bell has far more defined answers than he’s clearly indicating publicly on these issues, and as such I wish he’d just plainly reveal them.

Despite my attempts, I could not convince Robert that Rob Bell may simply not have any firm and fixed position on the matter in question. Bell may simply be unsure whether Gandhi or indeed anyone at all is going to hell. After all, the matter is left somewhat ambiguous in the Bible. Yet Robert cannot accept that Bell’s answer, if pushed, might genuinely be “I don’t know”.

Now I don’t want to pick on Robert Slowley here. His is simply one example of the thinking commonly found among more conservative evangelicals, especially those in the Reformed camp but also among fundamentalists and dispensationalists. Many of these people show by their words and actions that they are left-brainers.

The following is adapted from my comments in response to Robert Slowley’s:

I can understand the frustration of some, especially those from a more Reformed background, at being unable to pin Bell down to a specific position. But surely this is the right attitude to take about a matter which God has not made completely clear in his revealed word. While liberal Christians may go too far with this doubting and questioning approach, evangelicals are often obsessed with finding and defending to the death definite answers to questions which God has not clearly answered. Rob Bell has rejected this obsession, but that doesn’t make him a theological liberal. And didn’t Jesus often teach by asking searching questions rather than giving definite answers?

I’m not saying that this kind of reluctance to be pinned down depends on one’s theological position. It probably depends more on personality type. Left-brainers want definite answers and so tend towards Reformed or fundamentalist teaching which offers these definite answers. Right-brainers prefer to leave things more open and so are more attracted by liberal Christianity. Thus the correlation between theological preference and frustration with Rob Bell does not imply a causal link.

I suspect Rob Bell is a right-brainer. My suspicion is confirmed by what I read in Adrian Warnock’s post about meeting him. Very likely his R1 quadrant, “Strategic and unorthodox”, is dominant. That makes Bell reluctant to commit himself to any one position, especially on a matter which is not left unambiguous in the Bible. He is not being dishonest, just non-committal. But that doesn’t make him a liberal.

Yes, Bell tends towards one side of the argument rather than another. But he does not, I suspect, have a settled and definite position on it – and he doesn’t feel the lack of it. It’s a bit like me on the Rapture: from my past posts on the subject it should be clear that I don’t think it’s going to happen, at least not in the classic (but actually modern) Hal Lindsey and Left Behind way. But I am not going to come out straight and say that it won’t happen, because Scripture is not completely clear on this, and so we won’t know until it happens, or its time is past. Rob Bell is wisely saying something similar about hell: he may not think anyone will go there, but he won’t say this as a definite position because only God knows. If someone pushes him to say what he thinks, he’ll probably say “I don’t know”.

In fact Adrian Warnock, a psychiatrist who surely understands different personality types and how to work with them, has pushed Bell for answers, and reports that

on at least a couple of questions I got some straight answers out of him!

It will be interesting to hear what those answers are, though sadly I will probably not be able to do that live on Saturday when Adrian’s interview is broadcast (on air and on the Internet) on Premier Christian Radio.

Easter Saturday: Not St George's Day

St George slaying the dragon, by Gustave MoreauAs I wrote at the time, St Patrick’s Day was moved from 17th March 2008 because Easter was so early that year. This year, because Easter is so late, it is St George’s Day which has fallen foul of the rule that Holy Week takes precedence over regular saints’ days. So, as 23rd April falls this year on Easter Saturday, we English are not supposed to celebrate our national, if perhaps mythical, saint on his regular day.

The Church Times confirms that the Church of England, and not just the Roman Catholic Church, is officially observing this rule – while also noting that most people are ignoring the date change. Apparently St George’s Day has officially been postponed to Monday 2nd May.

This seems an odd choice of date except that it is a bank holiday, here in the UK. If this was the reason for changing to 2nd May, perhaps a better choice would have been Friday 29th April, to coincide with the royal wedding day, also a bank holiday. That way we English would only need to break out the bunting and patriotic flags once.

Thanks to Archdruid Eileen for the tip. This is apparently not one of the Easter myths that she is debunking.