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.

0 thoughts on “Gandhi and Rob Bell, newfrontiers and Hell

  1. Just for the record, I do not presume to pronounce on which individuals are and which are not in hell. This very point comes up in my face to face debate with Rob Bell which will be on Premier Radio’s Unbelievable? this Saturday at 2:30pm

  2. Adrian, thanks for the clarification. I did mean by “his probable “Yes” answer” that I would expect you to answer something like “Probably yes”. But I am glad that you agree with Rob Bell that we cannot know the answer for certain. Bell’s uncertainty of course implies that he is not a universalist, as otherwise he would be certain of an answer “No”.

    Sadly I will be busy with other things on Saturday afternoon.

  3. I have just read Adrian’s post about Bell’s book, in which he argues that Bell’s position is something like option 2 (of 5) “All are saved irrespective of what they do or believe in this life, but because of some kind of reponse to God in the next. In this view there may even be a hell, but it is temporary and people have an opportunity for post-mortum repentance and faith that eventually all accept.”

    I’ve not read Love Wins – has anyone else? Is this approximately what Bell states or implies in his book?

  4. Robert, I haven’t read Love Wins. But Bell’s rejection in the video of dogmatic assertions about where Gandhi went seems to me inconsistent with the claim that he takes a dogmatic position that no one is going to hell.

  5. I’ve just rewatched the Bell video, and the implication of his questions (and what questions he asks) makes me think Bell probably does think everyone (or most people) go to heaven. However I can’t be sure, and I can see how other people might come to other conclusions. That’s what I find frustrating about Bell, he’s not clear at all about what he really thinks.

  6. Well, pinning down Rob Bell is far from easy. Suffice it to say that he did get quite clear about some points in the debate we recorded. If you want to tune in and listen we can talk more about it afterwards. I should say by the way I HAVE read the book.

  7. Robert and Adrian, 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?

    Now you might want to say that God has answered this question about hell, at least in general terms if not about any individual. But I don’t think his answer is completely clear, although I would say it rules out complete universalism. So there is still room for asking questions.

    By the way, Gandhi’s reported last words were “Oh, God!” A last minute repentance, or a reaction to being shot? We will never know, in this life.

  8. It doesn’t have anything to do with one’s theological position – whether I was reformed or not I’d come to the same conclusion. Indeed I had (some) similar frustrations when I read Velvet Elvis when I was an atheist!

    In the interviews I’ve seen with Bell he responds to critics being quite specific about what he’s said, what (they think) the Bible says, and why they think that makes him a universalist. The best response from Bell I’ve seen so far is just him stating that he’s not a universalist, which I believe is true if you take whatever definition Bell is using there.

    It seems (although it’s hard to tell due to Bell’s lack of clarity) to be the case that Bell has a fairly strict view of what ‘universalist’ means and considers himself (quite rightly I’m sure) not to fit that definition. Other people have a broader definition of what it means and classify him as a universalist. Now, I don’t really care all that much about wordplay here – but what would be interesting to know is what Bell actually thinks on the subject and he’s not being clear.

    What I liked about Adrian’s post is that he tried to define a scale of positions one might hold. Now, while his scale is obviously imperfect it seems like a good and honest attempt to say “Hey, there’s a range of positions here, and I think he’s here on the spectrum”. Why doesn’t Bell do that? He could just say (for example) “I’m not a universalist because I don’t believe everyone will go to heaven regardless of what they do in this life or the next. However I do think everyone will have an opportunity to choose God after they’ve died, and everyone or almost everyone will take up that opportunity and go to heaven”.

    That would be really clear, it would be being honest and open about his position, and allow a more fruitful engagement with what he’s trying to say.

  9. Robert, I agree that this does not depend on one’s theological position. It probably depends more on personality type. Left-brainers, as I imagine are from your work on NIV 2011, 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. That makes him 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.

    By the way, has he actually said anything about people having a second chance after they die, or is that just someone else’s attempt to systematise Bell’s questions?

  10. I agree with you that there’s some (very) weak link between right brain or left brain-ed-ness, but I suspect the link is fairly weak as a I know a great many right-brained people who are not theologically liberal and quite able to be clear about what they mean. In terms of theology – I can think of Reformed churches where they’re almost entirely left-brained, as well as churches packed with people who right-brained (the New Frontiers church in Cambridge is a good example), so if there is a link I think it’s fairly weak. I suspect the major difference between people being liberal or not is more down to the fact that they both make quite different claims about things, rather than it mostly being about the degree of certainty of answer.

    I’m not claiming that Bell is being dishonest as such, but yes he is being non-committal. If that’s because he really doesn’t have any idea then fair enough, but from reading Velvet Elvis I understood the questions he asks and the way he asked them to very strongly imply where he was on the spectrum (on some particular issue).

    For example if someone asks “Do you think people should receive ‘the dole'” and the person replies with answers like “Some people think it’s a universal right for people to receive money even if they don’t work and sit around all day, is that really correct?” and so on you’d think “OK, so they didn’t actually answer my question but it sounds like they lie somewhere on the ‘no’ side of the spectrum”.

    The sort of person who would answer questions with more questions like this, and when really pushed give the smallest answer that provided the least detail and clarity about their actual position would be I think be being unhelpful at best.

    I don’t think Bell has very defined answers in the way that many Reformed Evangelicals do as you say, but I suspect we may differ in that 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.

    Otherwise it turns in to a bit of a game where someone says “Bell thinks X” and he replies with “I don’t think X” when maybe he thinks something that’s actually quite close to X but not *exactly* X, and so it’d be far better for everyone if he said “I don’t think X but I think the slight variant of X, Y”.

    All I’m interested in is clarity 🙂 I’m quite happy for him to say “I don’t know about this, this, and this, but what I do think is this and this”.

  11. Really looking forward to listening to the Unbelievable show with Warnock and Bell btw 🙂 Justin Brierly is quite fair and good at moderating I’ve found, so there’s a fair chance Bell’s position will become clearer.

  12. Thank you, Robert. Well, newfrontiers churches differ, which was the original point of this post, and perhaps the Cambridge one is more like Phil Whittall than Adrian.

    But I still think you misunderstand Bell. Yes, he tends towards one side of an 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 you will know that I don’t think it’s going to happen, at least not in the classic (but actually modern) Hal Lindsay 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 you push him to say what he thinks, he’ll probably say “I don’t know”.

  13. I’m sure we both agree that there are things, and the details of things where the Bible does not give us specific or definite answers, but when someone has a position on something they tend to list the things they believe strongly (and why) and what they believe weakly or just don’t know (and why again).

    The key difference between many of those who hold divergent views to Bell like Warnock seems to be that those people are quite clear about what they believe and why, rather than leaving it mostly undefined. If Bell said “I think X but I’m not sure about Y” that’d be great, but he seems to say almost nothing of what he does think, and instead asks lots of questions which give the impression that he believes various things, which when he’s responded to on those points those who like him argue he never said (which … is true as he doesn’t clearly indicate what he thinks).

    What would be really helpful would be if Bell said something like “Here are 10 specific points that I’ve been questioned on, and here are 10 specific answers” bearing in mind that an answer like “I simply don’t know and have no leaning either way” is an acceptable answer.

    I’m not trying to beat Bell up here, just appealing to him being clearer 🙂

  14. But, Robert, Bell’s personality type means that he just isn’t going to give lists of specific answers. You may not like this, but you can’t make him answer your questions. And it is not for you to judge whether or not he is a good Christian for failing to give the correct answers. A judgment day will come when he will, I suppose, have to answer some questions from the only Judge who counts. You do, however, have the right to ignore him and not recommend his books.

    I am writing a post about this personality types issue, so watch this space!

  15. I think you’re wrong in saying that because of his personality type he won’t give lists of answers. I mean… I agree that he won’t (as he’s demonstrated), but I’m pretty sure it’s not because of his personality type. Out of every single person I know or have interacted with enough to know on the issue they could all clearly explain what they thought to the level necessary to clear away the (supposed/apparent) confusion wrt Bell’s view on hell (if I were asking them the same sorts of questions). The people I know and have met include a wide range of course, spanning all personality types. Bell is of course far far more capable at communication than most of these people, being naturally good at it, and having spent years as a pastor talking and teaching.

    It’s got nothing to do with me liking him, or making him do things, or wanting to judge him, it’s just about whether he’s clear or not. Whether I like him or not is irrelevant to me and others understanding what he’s saying. I don’t want to ‘make’ him explain, I want him to be clear over really simple questions – Bell clearly has outstanding communication ability but isn’t using it here to provide clarity. I have no interest in ‘judging him’ (although I will decide whether what he’s saying sounds Biblical to me or not).

    It’s not very clear to me what you mean by judgement – but clearly Christians are supposed to discern whether they think the actions / beliefs / teachings of other people are biblical or not, and that’s really what I’m trying to do here (which is why I’d love it if Bell were clearer).

    Take for example these passages:

    Somehow from the scripture we must be able to understand *some* of what is correct and incorrect, and from that can rebuke, correct, etc:
    “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

    In chapter 4 verse 2 it is repeated more forcefully as an instruction: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.”

    Similarly in Titus 2:15: “These, then, are the things you should teach.  Encourage and rebuke with all authority.  Do not let anyone despise you.”

    All I’m saying here is that what I understand from the Bible is that it is possible to learn truths (in as much as they are revealed in the Bible) and that it’s reasonable for Christians to use that knowledge to identify wrong teaching, and then correct, rebuke, and encourage when that occurs.

    We might differ on the degree to which the salvation of people who aren’t Christians is revealed in the Bible, but I think it’s clear that if there’s a spectrum (I’d advocate one with several more steps than the one Adrian made) that it’s likely that only a certain range of those steps are reasonable. Bell has been clear that he’s not at step 1 on Adrian’s scale, what I’d like to know is approximately where the beliefs that he is trying to teach are on that scale.

    Also, I have to say – you come across as having made quite a lot of assumptions about what I think here (which I don’t appreciate) talking about me not liking him or making him do things or judging him. What I *want* to do is understand him, as people are saying that he’s being misunderstood and misrepresented. All I’m asking for is a little clarity.

  16. Robert, I’m sorry if I have misrepresented you. Perhaps I have transferred to you the attitude of some I have read who have asserted that Rob Bell is not a Christian brother and have implied that he is going to hell. I agree that you have the right to discern that his teaching is not good, and to warn any others who have not heard too many such warnings already. What I want to avoid is a witch hunt against him.

  17. Robert, I wouldn’t go that far. Biblical grounds include denying that Jesus is the Son of God. They don’t include asking questions about matters on which the Bible is not completely clear.

  18. So you agree that there are some grounds on which that is acceptable. The question then is on what exactly – when I read the epistles and the response given to false teachers there it doesn’t seem to just be on things as stark and obvious as denying that Jesus was the son of God.

    Also while I might agree that the Bible is not *completely* clear (in the sense of giving us answers to all our questions with absolute certainty) about this issue there’s a *huge* difference between that and “It’s hard to say with even a fair amount of certainty which positions (on some spectrum) fit within what we find in the Bible”.

  19. Hi Peter. I’d be interested to know what options you feel I’d left out. The main one in anhiliatiinism which seemed like a good idea to skip at the time. But maybe I should add it in. What others?

  20. Adrian, it wasn’t me who said you had left out options, but Robert. I remember thinking that your spectrum of belief was incomplete as a general presentation, but adequate for the discussion at the time.

    There are certainly variants of your 4 and 5 involving annihilation in hell rather than living eternally in hell. And there are various alternatives involving some kind of purgatory or temporary hell. There could be a version of your 2 in which many but not all repent after death. I think perhaps the major omission is the idea that people can be saved through Christ by responding to the limited revelation about him which they have received, even if they have never explicitly heard of him and are perhaps trapped in another religious tradition – for many people this is a major part of their understanding of how most people will be in heaven. I make no claim that this list is now complete, and I’m not going to commit myself on any of these views.

  21. Pingback: Left-brainers don't understand right-brained Rob Bell - Gentle Wisdom

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