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!

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.

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.

Gandhi and Rob Bell, newfrontiers and Hell

Phil Whittall, who blogs as The Simple Pastor, is the leader of a newfrontiers church. But in many ways he is very different from the face of newfrontiers presented on the blogosphere by Adrian Warnock, lover of Puritans and scourge of egalitarians. For one thing, Phil is an Arminian. For another, he seems much more interested in simple living and treating the earth responsibly than in strident theological debate.

Mohandas Karamchand GandhiSo it was something of a surprise to read the first part of what Phil wrote, in answer to a provocative question by Rob Bell, on Is Gandhi in hell?:

I guess the answer to that question depends on what you think should happen to racist, sexual pervert who believed in reincarnation. For that, according to a new biography of Gandhi is exactly what he was.

Phil continues with quotations giving evidence for these claims, although he was no more racist than anyone in his time, and I’m not convinced on the “sexual pervert” claim.

This sounds like what Adrian might have written, as a way of defusing the reaction to his probable “Yes” answer. After all, to many people, even many Christians, Gandhi is one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century, and it would be a real shock to be told he is in hell.

But then Phil turns the tables on Adrian and those who think like him, and gives a true Christian answer to the question:

as Rob Bell insists we don’t know for sure what has happened to Gandhi so be wary of definitive statements as if we are the ones who judge. … God’s grace can reach someone who is a racist, pervert and believes in reincarnation and save them to the uttermost. Whether it has or not, time will tell.

Salvation is not deliverance from hell

The furore about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins has drawn a lot of attention to hell. But surely we Christians should be focusing our attention elsewhere. For John Wesley, by Nathaniel Hone, oil on canvas, circa 1766John Wesley was surely right when he wrote (as quoted by John Meunier):

By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth.

— From John Wesley’s “A Further Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion”

Sadly far too many people still have this “vulgar notion”, coupled with an unbiblical longing for a Rapture to take them quickly away from this world. Our biblical calling is quite different: not just to seek the personal restoration which Wesley writes about, but also to work towards the restoration of our world according to biblical principles.

Evangelical Alliance responds to Rob Bell "Love Wins"

Rob Bell: Love WinsThe Evangelical Alliance (here in the UK) has just published a response to the publication of Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins. The response is in two parts: a review of the book by Derek Tidball, and a Statement which reads like a press release.

I mentioned this book in my post of a few days ago Heaven, Hell and Bell. I still haven’t read the book. But both the review and the statement seem to be a very sensible take on this controversial issue.

It was interesting to read, in the Statement section of this response, a summary of the conclusions of the Evangelical Alliance’s 2000 book The Nature of Hell. I particularly liked this part of the summary:

absolutist assertions that these and other categories of non-professing people are saved risk being at least as arrogant as absolutist assertions that they are damned. The destiny of such people is God’s to determine, and it is determined by his grace alone.

Heaven, Hell and Bell

Over the last few months the blogosphere has been aflame with discussion of hell, sparked by Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: At the Heart of Life’s Big Questions. Indeed many bloggers cast Bell himself into the flames, even before they had read the book.

I haven’t read the book. I probably won’t. So I will refrain from any detailed comment on it. All I will say is that, as far as I can tell, Bell mainly asks questions, and those who condemn him do so on the basis of how they assume Bell would answer his own questions. That is not a Christian approach. Indeed to condemn anyone, with the kind of language I have seen in some places, is not a Christian approach.

At some point I would like to outline here my own position on heaven and hell. For now I will simply say that I have a lot of sympathy with N.T. Wright’s position, as I outlined it in an old post Heaven is not our home …

I am writing now mainly to draw my readers’ attention to Suzanne’s long series Blogging heaven and hell (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 – maybe more to come). Suzanne asked me to join the debate, but my thoughts have been elsewhere. She has many sensible things to say, as well as many useful links.

I don’t agree with Suzanne’s tentative universalist position. But I strongly agree with her that it is wrong to use threats of hell as a way to impose one’s will on others, in the church or in the home.

I would also be very cautious about using threats of hell-fire in evangelism. I’m not saying there is never a place for telling unbelievers that they will go to some kind of hell if they do not repent. But it is not a generally effective strategy today, at least in the western world – and it is not a general feature of the early Christian sermons in the book of Acts, so no one can claim that it is a biblically required part of a gospel presentation. Indeed, as I read somewhere recently, while Jesus spoke a lot about hell he did so mostly not to ordinary “sinners”, but to Pharisees and the like who claimed to be right with God but opposed Jesus’ message. So perhaps if we do preach about hell, it ought to be mainly within the professing church, to those who claim to be going to heaven but are not producing the fruit of good Christian lives.

The wrath of God, or the inevitable consequences of sin?

Sam Norton, an Essex vicar, has written an insightful short series of posts on the wrath of God: part 1, part 2, part 3. He starts with this seeming contradiction, and then goes on to explain it:

There are two things that I believe about wrath: that the phrase “the wrath of God” refers to something real but also that, as Julian of Norwich taught, “there is no wrath in God”.

First, he clearly distinguishes the pagan idea of sacrifice from the biblical concept. The pagan idea is that

there is an angry god who has been offended and needs to be appeased

but the biblical concept, as shown at the Day of Atonement, is that

it is God who is active, who moves towards the sinners.

Sam continues, in part 2, by showing how the idea of the wrath of God developed into the New Testament. He makes the interesting point that

In Paul for example, it is a theme in Paul’s writings, but there tends to be “wrath” rather than “the wrath of God”. Of some twenty to twenty five references to wrath, only two or three are to the wrath of God. Mostly Paul refers to wrath as a concept. …

So what is a properly Christian understanding of wrath? Wrath is when we experience the consequences of our own sin.

Now I want to inject a word of caution here. In my post The Maltese Cross, or the Christian one? I argued against the position, which I consider sub-Christian, that “justice” is some higher authority than God which can oblige God to act against his character of love. Similarly I would reject any idea that “wrath” is a separate concept which imposes obligations on God. But Sam carefully avoids that danger by explaining that wrath, in the sense of experiencing the proper consequences of ones actions, is part of the consistent order of the universe which God created.

Sam continues in part 3 by suggesting that there is a human tendency to set up idols and to make pagan type sacrifices to them. This is true even today:

If the governing idol is Mammon, then the scapegoated minority will be the poor, who will be described as deserving their poverty due to some moral failing, such as laziness.

Thus Sam concludes:

Wrath is first and foremost about when we go against the natural order and suffer as a consequence, but it is also about the nature of who we are as a human society when we are fallen. If we do not focus our human society on the Living God then we will end up having this process of scapegoating and sacrifice repeating itself for ever.

This is an important contribution to a debate in which Christians have become increasingly polarised, in which an important figure like John Piper has apparently written off as non-Christian another, Rob Bell, on the basis of mere rumours that he is not sound on the matter of hell. See this discussion of the controversy. Bell may indeed have argued

that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.

But Justin Taylor is wrong to conclude, without even reading Bell’s book, that this implies “full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism”. It doesn’t. There are other real possibilities. One, with some biblical support, is that hell is populated by those who have chosen for themselves to go there. Another, and this would seem to be Sam’s position, is that people go there as the natural consequence of their sin. There is room for proper debate here, but not if some people prejudge others without even listening to them.