The Tragedy of Rob Bell: Why it’s worse than you think

It is not news when some minister somewhere affirms that all people, even those who reject Jesus Christ as savior, go to heaven. It is not news even if such a pastor attracts a large following. But it is news when Mars Hill Pastor Rob Bell teaches Universalism. Why? The reason that Bell’s story made the cover of TIME this week is because he is categorized as an Evangelical. Evangelical leaders are reacting in shock and horror at what they perceive to be a “mutiny from within” the walls of the Evangelical city.

But why was Bell widely recognized as an Evangelical in the first place? Where are his Evangelical credentials? His teaching is well documented in his Nooma videos beginning in 1999. His theological system is evident in his first book, Velvet Elvis (Zondervan, 2005). I grant that his cards were not laid out on the table as they are now in Love Wins, but it is there. There is no evidence of any momentous reversal.

Pastor Bell regularly exhorts his people to “live the gospel.” For him, God’s kingdom is not something we receive, but something that we bring about through social action. Everything is spiritual. The law is the gospel. People are basically good and Jesus is our example to emulate. God isn’t angry; God’s love trumps all of his other attributes. Bell’s gospel message is reduced to “do more; try harder” – not in order to avoid condemnation by a righteous and just God, but for your sake and the sake of those around you. It is what Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith has identified as “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” For an overview and critique of Rob Bell’s theology, start here.

The success of Mars Hill Church made Mr. Bell a celebrity among Evangelical ministers. Yet very few recognized the true nature of his teaching until now. The reason why his heresy was not detected until he was shouting it through a megaphone is because his week-to-week teaching resembles the week-to-week diet of most Evangelical Christians today. This is why the scandal of Rob Bell is worse than you think.

Michael Horton identified this problem in his book, Christless Christianity, and it’s sequel, The Gospel-Driven Life. Horton draws from the research of Christian Smith and argues that much of what passes for Christianity today is actually moralistic, therapeutic deism. What complicates things is that this takes place in churches that have a fairly conventional Statement of Faith that the leaders of the church stand behind. The problem is that teaching “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) is confined to evangelistic meetings and new membership classes. But from there they move on to more “relevant” things like how to get out from under your credit card debt. The church leaders assume that the church members understand Christianity, while they may have not had much Christian instruction since their new member class back in 93. Yet the consistent “gospel” message they receive on Sunday morning and in their Wednesday prayer group is “do more; try harder.”

Horton’s thesis is not without critics, even from within our own Reformed-Presbyterian circles. Most notably criticism has come from his former colleague John Frame. Frame argues that Horton’s thesis is way overstated. Things are not really as bad as Horton pretends. But the fact that Rob Bell was ever recognized as an evangelical should challenge Frame’s optimism.

There is a sobering parallel to all this in recent church history: the “Modernist-Fundamentalist” controversies of the early 20th century in America. From the mid 19th century and through the first decade of the 20th, an anti-supernatural philosophy quietly infiltrated all Protestant denominations. This new philosophy thrived on ambiguity. In the pulpit Modernists were difficult to distinguish from Christian preachers. They did not launch a frontal assault on the Christian faith. They merely emphasized practical morality. But this moral philosophy had no real need for Christ. The tragedy is that their preaching was not readily distinguishable from the Christian preachers. “Do more; try harder” was the steady diet for most Christians. By 1910 very few understood that the foxes were in the henhouse. As Christians gradually awoke to this crisis they looked to their denominations and seminaries for support, but found them already divided. The actual number full-fledged Modernists were still quite small, but the majority of ministers were part of the “mushy middle” that were too stupid to understand the problem. “So they deny the physical resurrection of Jesus. I disagree with them, but who cares? They are excellent preachers of morality. Isn’t this what really matters?”

Truth that is assumed in one generation is denied in the next.

Jesus’ Grandfather

Merry Christmas! Although we have no indication that Jesus Christ was actually born on December 25th, the birth of Jesus is relayed in the New Testament with plenty of historical detail (e.g. Lk 2:1-2). In fact, the Gospels Matthew and Luke each provide a lengthy genealogy – tracing Jesus’ ancestry back through King David and Abraham (Matt 1:1-16; Lk 3:23-38). Higher-critics and skeptics, however, suggest that these two genealogical lists demonstrate that the New Testament contains fanciful and legendary details as history. In fact, the genealogies of Jesus always make the “short list” of alleged contradictions contained within the Bible.

At first glance the argument may seem formidable. All acknowledge that these lists are not comprehensive – grandsons may be listed as “sons,” etc. This is a common feature of such genealogies. Yet this cannot explain the divergences between Matthew and Luke. While both Evangelists agree that Jesus was a descendant of King David, Matthew traces Jesus’ family tree through King Solomon while Luke traces it through David’s obscure son, Nathan (2 Sam 5:14). Matthew continues his list with the Kings of Judah, while Luke continues to name those who didn’t rule. The two lists converge with Shealtiel and his son Zerubbabel (a governor of Judea after the exile). Then they part ways again. Matthew cites Jesus’ grandfather as “Jacob,” while Luke claims it is “Heli.”

Is this a cut-and-dry case of hopeless contradiction? Hardly! The answer is obvious and simple.

Throughout the centuries Christians have offered several explanations. Only one is correct. My impression is that the most popular theory today is that Matthew follows the paternal line of Joseph, while Luke follows the maternal line of Mary. This theory, though simple and elegant, strikes me as unlikely. Luke never suggests that Mary is a descendant of David, although he does emphasize the Davidic lineage of her husband Joseph (Lk 1:27). In fact, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was a descendant of the priestly tribe of Aaron (1:5). It is still possible that Mary was a descendant of David, but this is speculation. Moreover, Luke gives no indication that he is presenting Jesus’ maternal family tree. He simply writes, “He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli,” etc.

A second common explanation is that Joseph was the product of a levirate marriage (Deut 25:5-6). If a man dies leaving his wife childless his brother or closest relative (Ruth 3:12) must marry his widow in order to produce an heir in his brother’s name. According to the law Joseph should be named for his mother’s first husband, but apparently this law was not commonly observed (Ruth 4:17). In such cases, the genealogical record could reflect the legal inheritance (Deut 25:5-6) or the biological descent (Ruth 4:18-22). A variation of this theory may offer a simpler explanation. That is, Joseph’s natural father, Heli, died and his mother remarried a man named Jacob. If this were the case, however, it strikes me as strange that Matthew would trace Joseph’s line through his step-father. Although possible, the levirate theory is also speculative.

The obvious answer lies on the face of Matthew’s account. Matthew’s object is to trace the dynastic succession of David’s sons (Calvin, Machen). In this case the relationship of “father” and “son” speaks of those who were next in line for the throne. Matthew departs from Joseph’s natural lineage when he sites David’s son, Solomon, since his object is to reckon up the legal genealogy. He records not the persons from whom Joseph was born, but to the manner in which he was descended from the kings of Israel, so that is son would be their lawful successor.

It is common for such lists to contain a broad use of the word “father.” We have examples of this in 1 Chron 4:4, 12, 14, 17, 18 and possibly elsewhere. This is undoubtedly the meaning of Daniel 5:1, which refers to Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s “father.” Nebuchadnezzar was neither the father nor the grandfather of his successor. He wasn’t even of the same Dynasty! Yet in keeping with common usage, Belshazzar was the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar in the sense that he was the next to occupy the throne (as vice-regent) of Babylon.

Depending on one’s exegesis it is possible that King Jeconiah was the end of Solomon’s royal line (Jer 22:24,30, 23:5) and that Zerubbabel was the “branch” descended from David’s son, Nathan (Jer 23:5; Hos 2:23; Zech 3:8; Lk 3:27). If this is the case then we have another instance of the Dynastic use of “father” (1 Chron 3:17-19; Matthew 1:12).

Therefore, I believe that although we know nothing of Mary’s immediate ancestors, we know that Joseph’s father, and Jesus’ paternal grandfather was a fellow by the name of Heli.

The Gospel Driven Life

Sometimes people say “you Calvinists preach too much doctrine – always theology with you! You are always harping on the excellencies of Christ and salvation but you should emphasize more practical instruction.” Of course we do and ought to stress the moral imperatives of the Bible. But Christians commonly think that we are justified by grace through faith and then we get onto the business of sanctification, or Christian living, which is accomplished by works. They assume, therefore, that exalting Christ is somehow unrelated to the Christian life. The Bible, however, teaches a Christ-centered theology of sanctification. In other words, true holiness is characterized by a “Gospel Driven Life.”

Consider the following verses of Scripture. “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 Jn 3:2-3). John teaches us that our first physical sight of Jesus Christ will lead to instant and complete sanctification. But he also adds that as we contemplate this hope we become increasingly purified. Think about that! The way that you are transformed by the renewing of your mind is through contemplating the excellencies of Christ – the hope of your salvation!

“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (Col 2:6). We never move beyond or outgrow the gospel. As we begun our Christian life with Christ, we continue in Christ and we end with Christ. And if we are connected to Christ the vine in this way, then we bear the fruit of his righteousness.

“Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now being perfected by human effort?” (Gal 3:3). If we receive faith as a gift of the Spirit, and this faith unites us to Christ and all of his benefits, and the Holy Spirit is given to us personally as our deposit and grantee, then it follows that the Spirit links us up to Christ not only for our justification, but also for our sanctification. We are sanctified in Christ Jesus not by “human effort” but by the Spirit.

Finally, Jesus commissioned the Apostle Paul as a missionary to the Gentiles, that they “may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:28). We are accustomed to speaking of justification by faith in Christ, but do we also believe we are sanctified by faith in Christ? This is the Bible’s teaching. I think most Christians hold to the Pharisees’ doctrine of sanctification. It’s a big checklist. But this results in Christians who become like Pharisees. They become puffed up with spiritual pride, conceited and self-righteous, judgmental and rather dishonest with themselves and in the image they project to others. They grow cold toward the saints, intolerant of their sins (real or supposed), and cloak their disdain with righteous indignation.

I implore you – do not fall into this trap of the Devil. Pick up the helmet of your salvation. Set your mind on things above. Walk in the same Christ you received at first, for you are perfected by the Spirit and not by human effort. You are justified and sanctified through faith in your Savior. It is only this Gospel driven approach to the Christian life that yields the true fruit of the Spirit rather than the manufactured and counterfeit “righteousness” of the Pharisee.