Posts Tagged ‘Rob Bell’

Sermon 05-14-17: “The Christian and Final Judgment”

June 8, 2017

I suspect many Christians are confused about Final Judgment: They think that they won’t have to face it because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross. But the Bible is clear: when Christ returns at the end of the age, we will all be resurrected and face judgment. How does this doctrine square with our belief that we’re saved by grace through faith, and not by works? How will our judgment be different from non-believers? This sermon answers these questions.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:17-19

Sometimes I think that the world of social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—exists to judge us. Seriously. We compare ourselves to our friends and, worse, our “frenemies,” and we feel judged by them. Someone has a wedding anniversary, and they post this mushy, gushy statement about how wonderful their wife or husband is, and we feel judged: “What am I doing wrong in my marriage?” Someone posts some amazing accomplishment of one of their kids, and we think: “I have obviously failed as a parent, because my kids can’t do that!” Someone posts vacation pictures from some exotic paradise, and we think, “Where did they get the money to go there? What am I doing wrong?”

We don’t like being judged… I don’t like being judged. Every once in a while, my wife, Lisa, will say to me—perfectly innocently—“Oh, by the way, Mom and Dad are dropping by in a little while,” and I’ll be like, “What? Why didn’t you warn me? I’ve got to cut the grass! Clean up the yard! Blow off the walkway!” Why? Because I don’t want to be judged—especially by my father-in-law! Because if the yard is unkempt, that’s a direct reflection on me!

We don’t like being judged. We’re afraid of being judged—at least by other human beings. But here’s my question: Are we more afraid of being judged by people than we are by God? Why aren’t we more afraid of being judged by God? Read the rest of this entry »

Wilson on homosexuality and the church: “Which way have you gotten to that conclusion?”

May 19, 2015

Pastor and theologian Andrew Wilson explains why homosexuality is the issue these days.

Pastor and theologian Andrew Wilson explains why homosexuality is the issue these days.

“This is part of… sort of the bullshit that really pushes people away,” said Rob Bell, toward the end of a debate with Andrew Wilson on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? podcast a couple of years ago.

Bell became indignant after Wilson and host Justin Brierley began pressing him to clarify his view of homosexual practice. After an hour-long discussion in which he and Wilson agreed on many other matters related to Christian faith—including the bodily resurrection of Jesus—why is Bell’s view on homosexuality a litmus test for Christian or evangelical orthodoxy? Why hasn’t Brierley pressed Wilson to clarify his views on matters of faith over which they disagree?

I suspect many of my fellow United Methodist clergy wonder the same thing about people like me, who support our church’s traditional stance on sexuality.

Why is this issue such a big deal when we agree on so many other things? Why are we theologically conservative Methodists willing to die on this particular hill?

Good question!

Andrew Wilson offers an answer that I wish all my colleagues on the left-wing of our denomination or in the “Methodist middle” could hear. Wilson gets it exactly right, as far as I’m concerned.

For anyone who wants to know why I’ve become a stick in the mud on this issue—why I’ve proven to be a disappointment to erstwhile friends and supporters over this issue—here it is. I can’t improve upon what Wilson says. I can’t say it any better or more succinctly. (Wilson’s response begins around the 19:00 minute mark in the video below.)

The question is why is the issue there, isn’t it?… It’s how you got to that position? In some ways, what I’m trying to establish is, if you got to the position of saying, “I affirm this because I genuinely don’t believe that anything in the Bible indicates that it’s sinful, and therefore I think we should celebrate it because God does, because Jesus does, because the apostles did, because the prophets did. This is just a great thing. And two thousand years of church history have been wrong—they’ve been reading it wrong. And here’s a whole bunch of scholarship to support that position.

If that’s how you got there, I’d say, “Well, I disagree, but I’d love to see the evidence. I’d love to work through it.”

If you’re saying, “The world’s moved on. God’s going to get left behind if we don’t change it, even though, to be honest, I’ve got a sneaking feeling that there might be a lot in scripture that speaks against this. But I just don’t think we can afford to keep sticking with that because it looks boring and retrograde and backward and intolerant. So we will drop what Jesus or Paul or the apostles or anyone else were saying in order to make ourselves more adaptable to the age.

That doesn’t mean you’re not a Christian—of course it doesn’t… But it does mean that there’s something quite fundamental that might be switching, which is saying, “I don’t think I can hold this text as being the high standard for behavior and morality, and that’s a big enough deal to people like me… And I think if you shared my view on those texts you’d probably feel similarly. So it’s really, which way have you gotten to that conclusion?

You may watch the video below:

Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, and the “Jesus tea-strainer” in action

July 22, 2014

Years ago, when the New Atheists were still a cultural force to be reckoned with, I watched a debate on YouTube between an atheist—I can’t remember who—and a Christian apologist. They reached the point in the debate at which the Christian apologist said, quite correctly, that apart from God, objective morality can’t exist. At this point the atheist loudly protested, pointing to the many places in scripture in which God commands or condones what he believed to be immoral actions.

(As usual, the atheist misunderstood the apologist’s point: for the sake of this argument, it doesn’t matter what is or isn’t considered “moral”; apart from a transcendent law-giver, the indignant atheist has no moral high horse to saddle up. He’s using God as an objection to God.)

Then the atheist took an interesting turn: with derision, he said that Jesus himself was a horrifying moral teacher by today’s standards: he pointed specifically to Jesus’ many references to hell, and his apparent comfort at the thought of God’s consigning people to it.

To say the least, I could take issue with every characterization and generalization that the atheist made. But in his small defense, he gets closer to the truth regarding one aspect of Jesus’ teaching—his words about judgment, hell, and wrath—than many theological progressives.

Take, for instance, this Rob Bell interview with one liberal theologian, Richard Rohr. In talking about the “incarnational” aspect of the Bible, by which Rohr means to say the Bible is riddled with mistakes, he says:

This is how God trusts incarnation. God allows us to see God and uses that as his word. It’s through us. Therefore the text itself is three steps forward and two steps back. It gets it, it loses it, it get it it loses it…My Jesus hermeneutic is like this: Jesus never quotes Joshua and Judges. Most of Joshua and Judges are two steps backward books. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in the Bible, I’m fine with that, there’s a lot in my life that’s two steps backwards. The text mirrors human development and growth and understanding.

“Jesus never quoted Joshua and Judges.” Therefore what? Jesus knows that they’re… wrong? Aside from arguing from silence, this is a bizarre “Jesus hermeneutic.” It is, in fact, an example of what theologian Andrew Wilson calls the “Jesus tea-strainer” (which I referred to a couple of weeks ago).

Here’s Wilson (my emphasis in bold):

I had an interesting series of debates with Steve Chalke recently, on Scripture, the Old Testament, the atonement and sexuality. There are all sorts of things I could say about them (and I probably will, in time), but for me the most striking feature of Steve’s presentation was his continual reference to “the Jesus lens”. In his view, the Bible should be read through “the Jesus lens”, that is to say, in the light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus. I agree. But he then goes on to argue that this enables us, and in fact requires us, to correct all sorts of things that the texts actually say, particularly those which involve wrath, death and sexual ethics. Reading through the Jesus lens, for Steve, involves reading a difficult text – say, one about picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or destroying the Canaanites, or Yahweh pouring out his anger – figuring that Jesus could never have condoned it, and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus. Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements, while meticulously screening out the bitter bits to be dumped unceremoniously on the saucer.

The strange thing about this, of course, is that Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to.

He goes on to cite several examples of Jesus speaking about final judgment and hell.

I see the “Jesus tea-strainer” hermeneutic at work all the time. While I didn’t use the phrase, it was near the heart of my criticism of Jason Micheli in my guest post on his blog last week.

The rest of Bell’s interview is a disaster. Rohr (a Franciscan) says that we Protestants completely misunderstand the atonement. He says that it’s “actually heresy” to say that Jesus is God. Actually it isn’t.

Sermon 06-02-13: “Devil in the Details, Part 1”

June 6, 2013

Devil In the Details_1_600

If we are Christians, we are at war. We face an Enemy who constantly works against our health and well-being, our family and friends, our success, our happiness, and—not least—the work that we do on behalf of God’s kingdom in this world. As if this struggle weren’t bad enough, many of us modern Christians also struggle to believe that the Enemy even exists. If Satan were real, wouldn’t he want to keep us in the dark about his existence? 

Sermon Text: Ephesians 6:10-17

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes and graphics.

When Stephanie and I were planning out my last few worship services here in Vinebranch, she asked me, “Is there something that you’ve been wanting to preach over these past several years that you haven’t gotten to? If so, you’ve only got a few weeks left.” I said, “No. Nothing I can think of. Although there are probably several things I’d like to re-preach—preach over again—because I messed it up or didn’t do it well the first time.” Then I half-jokingly said, “How about a do-over sermon series?” Do-over! Remember those days on the playground or ball field? I call do-over on some scriptures and topics that I’ve gotten wrong or haven’t done justice to in the past. Stephanie thought that this was a great idea. In fact, she was a little over-enthusiastic about it, if you ask me! Read the rest of this entry »

A hopeful universalism?

June 30, 2012

When I read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, from which critics unfairly inferred that he was a universalist, I said on this blog and to others that this book wasn’t written for me. It was written for people who lean in a fundamentalist direction on the question of hell—who haven’t allowed themselves to consider the difficult questions that the doctrine raises.

As for me and my tribe, we need a book written from the opposite perspective: We need to be re-convinced that God could actually send someone to hell. We emphasize God’s grace to the point that we easily forget what it is about which God has proven himself gracious—namely, our sin.

With these issues in mind, you might imagine how I responded to the cover of a recent Christian Century magazine. (Note: the article hides behind the subscription firewall, but you can purchase the individual article.) I groaned. Here we go: as if the typical reader of the Christian Century needs more reason to doubt the doctrine of hell.

But the story itself—as opposed to the cover—wasn’t bad at all. In fact, it was quite good! The author of the cover story, Paul Dafydd Jones, nails my tribe perfectly when he describes mainline Protestant reaction to Bell’s book:

On the other side [of the theological spectrum], little more than a bored, smug shrug emanated from mainstream academics and mainline Protestants—so bored it hardly amounted to a shrug, so smug it implied that those still opposing universalism were no more than reactionary Neanderthals. This (non)reaction barely registered, but that’s all the more telling. In certain circles, universalism is no longer the preserve of theological radicals. It’s gone mainstream.

The author reviews a few books on the subject of hell, including Erasing Hell, a critical response to Bell’s book by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle. He liked it more than you might think. He writes that it’s a “respectful critique of different kinds of universalism, some decent exegetical work and a laudable resolve to connect faith and social justice.”

I haven’t read the Chan and Sprinkle book. (I read another response to the Bell book, this one written by Christianity Today editor Mark Galli called God Wins, as I’ve mentioned before.) But I’m completely sympathetic with this critique from Jones, who, in discussing surprising parallels he finds between Chan and Sprinkle and Karl Barth, writes:

Chan and Sprinkle’s commitment to thinking with Barth doesn’t go far enough… A good example of this comes late in the book, when the authors write that “Jesus satisfied the wrath of God . . . the same wrath that ultimately will be satisfied, either in hell or on the cross” (my emphasis). Why the either/or? Primarily because Chan and Sprinkle balk at one of Barth’s most profound intuitions: that Christ’s death is the death of sin as such; that, by way of the cross, God rejects and overcomes all wrongdoing. On this reckoning, the cross is a decisive articulation of God’s wrath—a decisive no against sin that ensures that the positive yes of grace sweeps slowly but surely and savingly toward each and every one of us. Indeed, isn’t this what Paul meant when he wrote that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:21–22)?

In other words, if God’s wrath were only satisfied through Christ for those who place their faith in him—and all the leftover wrath, if you will, were satisfied through those in hell—then we’re back to Calvinism, with its vision of limited atonement: Christ died only for the elect, not for all humanity. No, I’m with Jones: if you go for penal substitution, go for it all the way. As he says later:

The next step is to say plainly that Christ’s engagement with sin—an engagement that encompasses Christ’s life, death and resurrection—is such that sin has no future. I don’t want to suggest here that sin is no longer part of human life. It clearly is, and the world in which we live often shows signs of getting worse, not better. My point is this: in light of Christ’s person and work, sin no longer sets the terms for our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. On the cross, specifically, Christ draws the full weight of human sinfulness—past, present and future—upon himself, rendering himself the one in whom all sin is overcome.

I preached a couple of years ago that, because of what Christ accomplished on the cross, the problem in the God-human relationship now resides only on the human side. Through the cross, God has taken care of the problem on God’s side—namely, the barrier of sin. I’m still, in other words, with C.S. Lewis’s camp: ultimately, hell is God’s giving human beings want they most desire, and that the gates of hell are locked from the inside. (See “Hell,” from Lewis’s profoundly good Problem of Pain.)

I hope this doesn’t sound like some kind of squishy near-universalism on my part. I believe people’s sinful choices on this side of death have eternal consequences. A person’s active cooperation with sin in this life can cause them, as Jesus warned, to commit the unpardonable sin. As my man Wesley preached, if a person continually fails to respond to God’s grace, he or she may lose the ability to respond entirely, at which point what can only follow is hell. As Lewis would say, this amounts to God’s giving people what they want.

Again, speaking to my tribe, many of whom don’t want to imagine that God would endorse or approve of hell, Jones nicely points out the logical necessity of it: If God is not going to force himself on us—and you can’t coerce love, after all—then God will respect our wishes.

It follows, too, that while damnation is difficult to imagine, it cannot be ruled out. God will not bully us into the kingdom; God waits, patiently, for us to receive and embrace God’s grace. And that allows the possibility—an absurd, baffling, but conceivable possibility—that some will forever resist God’s gracious advance.

Universalists who fail to appreciate this point aren’t so different from Calvinists: God, they would say, simply runs roughshod over human free will and saves everyone, regardless.

I respect any hopeful universalist who, like Jones, correctly grasps the fundamental problem of human sin.

While we mustn’t ever lose sight of God’s grace, we are obliged also to acknowledge the gravity of sin. We cannot suppose that God’s love is permissive, that God overlooks or condones our myriad failings. Just as sin matters in human life, sin matters to God. It is an abrogation of the covenant. It is the very reason that God’s saving grace passes through the horror of Calvary. And since the Bible posits some connection between sin and postmortem existence, theologians should take note. In so doing, one faces a truth that Calvin, Luther and others never let slip from view. No one deserves to be saved, given a refusal of right relationship with God. That God favors anyone bespeaks a love of unimaginable intensity and power.

Don’t misunderstand: Bell might be a universalist, although there’s no way of knowing from this book alone. As many others have said, Bell doesn’t say anything about heaven or hell that hasn’t been said—better, I would argue—by great thinkers like C.S. Lewis. More than anything else, I fault Bell for often writing as if great Christian thinkers throughout two millennia of Church history haven’t asked (and answered) these same questions or objections.

Criticizing “Love Wins” because it’s not Calvinist

November 4, 2011

This is old news, which I’ve written about, preached about, and referred to, but here is another take on Rob Bell’s controversial Love Wins. The writer, Austin Fischer, is a student of Roger Olson, whose blog I recommend to you.

Fischer’s short essay offers an alternate explanation for much of the criticism aimed at Love Wins. It’s not that the book teaches universalism or denies the need for conversion (which it doesn’t), it’s that it doesn’t teach Calvinism. Specifically, many of the book’s critics can’t abide Bell’s free-will theism.

This criticism should pique the interest of all of us who are—as all Wesleyan Christians are supposed to be—free-will theists. By all means, we agree with our Calvinist brothers and sisters who say that human free will is enslaved to sin. Left to our own devices, we are unable to choose God. We are unable to choose to receive God’s gift of forgiveness and saving grace.

Fortunately, God doesn’t leave us to our own devices, nor does he, at the same time, run roughshod over our free will. The mediating position between human free will and God’s sovereignty—which, among other things, is the Methodist position—is prevenient grace. As Fischer correctly points out, prevenient grace “heals our fallen will to the point that we can indeed make a decision for or against God.”

Not that this mediating position answers all of our questions about the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free will, but it does represent the consensus of Christian thought on the subject for the past 2,000 years, and it is, as we free-will theists would argue, the most biblical. Concerning one of Bell’s central ideas—that ultimately, by giving us heaven or hell, God gives each of us what we want—Fischer writes,

Along these lines, to say that the idea that God gives us what we want is unbiblical is, to a free-will theist, itself unbiblical. I would argue that every single time Scripture admonishes us to repent or perish, to do evil or good, to obey God or disobey, to follow or not to follow Jesus, it is telling us that God gives us what we want. And to put it mildly, there are a lot more verses in the Bible about this than there are about our will being fallen, though both are true and easily reconciled by free-will theism.

If you’ve read this blog for a while or heard my sermons on heaven and hell, you know that I’m not a fan of Bell’s book. I don’t entirely agree with Fischer that many of us fail to understand what Bell is saying because we’re not good readers. We fail to understand what Bell is saying because his writing is evasive. He raises challenging questions without attempting to resolve them. (Not to mention that, aesthetically, Bell’s writing style annoys me.)

It’s not that the Church, in its wisdom, is without answers to the questions that Bell raises, it’s that he fails to avail himself of those answers.

Forgive me for being nerdy Methodist guy, but…

August 31, 2011

I love Mark Galli’s analogy of what we Methodists (and many other Christians) frequently call prevenient grace: the sense in which God’s Spirit enables human beings to respond to the gospel. As the analogy makes clear, we are free to accept or reject eternal life. But the very limited role we play in our salvation is hardly the point.

The point is that a loving God initiates and provides the means by which we can be saved. I made a similar point in Monday’s post about freedom: simply having freedom of choice, however good and necessary that is, hardly solves our human problem.

A man finds himself in the middle of a vast sea, treading water. There is no land in sight, no boat on the horizon. He is hungry and thirsty and rapidly tiring. He’s headed for death. This man may have free will to swim in one direction or another. He may choose to swim or to tread water. But when it comes to the most important thing, he has no choice—he cannot choose to survive. He’s going to drown.

Then along comes a rescue ship. When the ship gets close, it lets out a raft with three men on board. Rowing over to the desperate man, they stretch their arms out over the edge of the raft and grab him. He grabs their arms as they pull him into the boat. They take him on board the ship, give him medical attention, and get him home. The man is saved.

When this man then recounts his story to his family, how will he describe it? Will he say, “Well, the rescuers loved me so much, they pretty much let me decide my fate. And, really, it was my free will that made all the difference.” No, he will describe how utterly hopeless his situation was, how grateful he was to see the rescue ship, how wonderful those three men who pulled him aboard were, how excellent the navigator was to find him, and so on.

Galli employs this analogy to counter what he perceives as Rob Bell’s overemphasis in Love Wins on human choice in relation to salvation or damnation—heaven and hell are mostly a matter of God’s giving us what we want. Never mind, Galli might say, the ways in which sin offends God’s holiness. Never mind the ways in which hell is what we deserve. Never mind that hell is what we would get apart from God’s saving work in Christ.

Do we have a problem with hell because we underestimate our problem with sin?

Mark Galli, God Wins (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2011), 73-74.

Sermon for 08-28-11: “Roman Road, Part 11: Great Sadness and Constant Pain”

August 24, 2011

Part 11 of our sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Romans focuses on evangelism. Who needs it? The answer: everyone! The gospel, which literally means “good news,” is good news for the entire world. If we’ve experienced it as such, why would we not want to share it with others?

Paul felt “great sadness and constant pain” as he thought about how his people—his flesh-and-blood fellow Jews—had rejected the gospel. Do we feel at least a little of that same sadness and pain as we consider “our people”—whoever they may be? 

Who do we know within our own circle of friends, family, co-workers, and fellow students who need to experience the gospel as good news in their life? What is the Holy Spirit calling us to do about it?

Sermon Text: Romans 9:1-5

The following is my original manuscript.

I recently heard an episode of public radio’s This American Life, whose theme for that week’s episode was break-ups. The romantic kind of break-ups—breaking up with someone you love or used to love, and how difficult it is. A young writer named Starlee talked about how she had her heart broken—she was utterly devastated—when her boyfriend—the person she was made for, her soulmate, the person with whom she should be spending the rest of her life—dumped her. She was head-over-heels in love with the guy. Looking back on the relationship, she said, “It was hands down the corniest relationship I’ve ever been in. And by ‘corniest,’ I mean ‘greatest.’”

Among other things, the two of them developed a love for singer Phil Collins. It started as sort of an ironic thing, but after while they were convinced that Phil’s many love ballads were practically written to describe their love. If you like ’80s music, you’ll appreciate that when her boyfriend dumped her, the last words that Starlee spoke to him were, “How can you just let me walk away? I’m the only one who really knew you at all”—paraphrasing lines from his song “Against All Odds.” Read the rest of this entry »

Rob Bell on heaven

August 3, 2011

While reserving judgment on what Rob Bell says about hell in his controversial new book, Love Wins, I loved this thing that he said about heaven:

So when people ask, “What will we do in heaven?” one possible answer is to simply ask: “What do you loved to do now that will go on in the world to come?”

What is it that when you do it, you lose track of time because you get lost in it? What do you do that makes you think, “I could do this forever”? What is it that makes you think, “I was made for this”?

If you ask these kinds of questions long enough you will find some impulse related to creation. Some way to be, something to do. Heaven is both the peace, stillness, serenity, and calm that come from having everything in its right place—that state in which nothing is required, needed, or missing—and the endless joy that comes from participating in the ongoing creation of the world.

Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 47-48.

A different take on that Rob Bell book

April 8, 2011

Would someone please lend me the book, so I don’t have to buy it?

Someone lent Kevin a copy, and here’s what he had to say about it. Amidst all the criticism coming Bell’s way, Mr. Hargaden is understandably concerned about piling on, but he needn’t be. What I liked about this review is that he criticizes Bell from the other direction—not that Bell was bold and thought-provoking (or reckless and heretical, depending on your point of view), but that he was timid and soft in the head. I’ll have to read the book and find out if Kevin is off his rocker, but I’m guessing he’s not. (I’ve never read a Rob Bell book myself.) In the meantime, read his post and see what you think.

I’m inclined to like him, however, just based on the fashionable enemies he’s made.