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.