On Rob Bell, Hell and Mennonites

A newly released book called Love Wins by Rob Bell is (supposedly) causing a huge controversy in Christendom. The issue is over the doctrine of hell, which the emergent Bell hasn’t been very clear about in certain interviews and promotional videos lately. Because it’s no secret that in the past Mennonites have been fond of Rob Bell, and that even more recently, the October 2009 MB Herald issue featured Bell (under Currently in Sermons), some of us are wondering how the Mennonites are reacting to the current publicity over Bell’s latest work on his road to universalism.

As expected, a few postmodern Mennonites are beginning to sound off on this issue, like the odd Mennonite blogger here and there, an MB Forum discussion here, and even some young Anabaptist radicals. Even Menno Weekly has gotten into the hellish debate. After recommending readers to glean from the opinions of heresy’s front line defender Brian McLaren, their article then states:

It has been astounding to see the speed with which Bell has been denounced as a heretic and the forceful unwillingness to even raise the questions he poses. For me, this is a red flag. Why are so many vigorously defending a relatively specific doctrine of hell?
When you look at the Bible, there is no one consistent understanding of hell. For that matter, the concept of an afterlife in much of the Old Testament was non-existent. God blesses and curses you through your descendants, not in an afterlife (see the Ten Commandments). There is no consistent version of hell in the Bible, and what is there most certainly doesn’t look like what most people envision. The image of a red guy with a pitchfork and horns comes from Dante’s Inferno, not the Bible.
The doctrine of hell is powerful. Combined with a select few leaders who determine who’s in and who’s out, the fear of hell fuels enormous power and control. Even raising the question, as Bell has done, challenges the enormous power that many have enjoyed for centuries.

Rob Bell and what we believe about hell and heaven
By Alan Stucky (pastor of Pleasant Valley Mennonite Church in Harper, Kan.)

Bringing reason to this postmodern madness is an enlightening review that Menno-lite has come across which definitely shines a bright spot light on the subject. Part One of the following very helpful book review (by a pastor at a Bible believing church in Colorado) notes that at the end of Rob Bell’s book there are no footnotes or references to back up his dangerous theology on this extremely important doctrine. (Perhaps he learned from his big mistake of recommending his readers study Ken Wilber for three entire months in endnote 143 of his book Velvet Elvis.) Instead of footnotes or endnotes in Love Wins, Bell has simply included a list that he encourages readers to look into and learn from. Mennonites will find it particularly interesting that among these…

Bell also lists Mark Baker’s edited book, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary images of the Atonement. Baker’s book includes Brian McClaren, liberal theologian, other’s from Church History and still others who are outside Orthodox Christianity. Baker is a bright man with a PhD from Duke University and an associate professor of mission and theology at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary. He lists better ways to share the Atonement of Christ other than using blood as the “metaphor” (Bell has talked about this in interviews just prior to the release of the book). I would argue a strong Biblical case that without blood (not as a metaphor, but literal blood), there is no Atonement of Jesus Christ for our sins. No other image represents the Biblical message of the Old Testament and New Testament!

It also lists Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Monk who was a Roman Catholic Priest who has written many books on spirituality including The Naked Now: Learning to See How the Mystics See. In 2008, Rohr presented a lecture entitled, Jesus and Buddha: Paths to Awakening calling us to be like Jesus and Buddha in our honesty. Rob Bell has quoted Rohr throughout the years. Rohr, in interviews has admitted to being a sort of a Christian Universalist (everyone to heaven for eternity and no one to Hell).

Source: Old School Theology is Just Fine: a book review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins (Part One) [Wednesday, March 16, 2011]

Bell’s reference to Mark Baker comes as no surprise. Baker is a professor at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, CA., and it should ring a bell with the Mennonite Brethren that he was recently left with no choice but to apologize for his remarks regarding penal substitutionary atonement (see here). A critique of his book, “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross,” which was required reading for pastors attending Fuller Seminary’s “2004 President’s Theological Conference for Pastors,” can be found here:

Recovering the Scandal of Liberalism: Disdaining the Cross
By Richard Nathan, M.A.*

As far as Bell’s recommendation of Fr. Richard Rohr, the readers of this blog will be familiar with the naked spirituality of this mutual friend of both Bell and Brian McLaren (see here and here). This alone should set off loud, clanging warning bells.

Another thing we learn from the above Sacred Outfitter review is that Bell’s book is endorsed by Eugene Peterson, author of The Message (paraphrase that a generation of biblically illiterate Christians has grown up on) as well as by Brian McLaren, who says, “In Love Wins, Rob Bell tackles the old heaven-and-hell question and offers a courageous alternative answer. Thousands of readers will find freedom and hope and a new way of understanding the biblical story – from beginning to end.” When McLaren recently spoke to the Mennonites at CMU he revealed what these ‘courageous alternative’ questions and answers are really about.

In the end, it won’t matter what Rob Bell says about Hell. All this publicity serves to prove is that, like his friends Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr, and now Mark Baker, Rob Bell is fulfilling what the Word of God already told us – that people would be gathering together teachers to tell them what their itching ears want to hear; alternative answers, otherwise known as fables or myths, changing the truth of God into a lie.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;
And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
2 Timothy 4:3-4

If you want to know the truth about hell and universalism, open your Bible and read it, not the blood drained gospel of Rob Bell.


Read Part 2 of the Sacred Outfitter review of Love Wins here:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Old School Theology is Just Fine: Review of Love Wins (Part Two)


15 thoughts on “On Rob Bell, Hell and Mennonites

  1. Thank you so much for taking a stand and defending the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, from God’s Word. Our Son was defending Rob Bell’s books. I want to show him your website. I have been receiving Lighthouse trail’s Newsletters for about a year. Their articles have really helped to open my eyes to the Emergent Movement in so many churches. God Bless You! I will be praying for you, Lorna

  2. I’m slightly hesitant to post a reply on this blog, but on the off chance that it might be helpful I’ll offer a couple of thoughts.

    As the writer of both the MWR article and the Young Anabaptist Radicals article (which are basically the same, save some editing from MWR staff) it might be helpful to clarify my intent. To be clear, the article that I wrote was not reacting to Bell or any claims he’s made. I have yet to receive my copy of the book and simply can’t do it. I was responding to the reaction to Bell’s book, not the book itself.

    What’s more, I wasn’t even taking a side on the issues of universalism or hell. I’m not even saying there isn’t Biblical basis for hell. What I was saying in the quote that you included above is that what is being defended as the “doctrine of hell” (as you put it) is exactly that: a doctrine, more than a Biblical reality. Hell does exist in the Bible, but what is being defended by conservatives is not a Biblical understanding of the wide range of belief on Hell but rather what is being defended is a very specific modern understanding of Hell that benefits certain people in power.

    You closed by encouraging people to open up their Bible’s and read the truth, so I’ll close the same way. I applaud this sentiment and would encourage you to do it as well. May we all find the truth of God in the scriptures, not just the truth we would like to believe. One thing that I’ve learned as a Christian and a pastor is that just about the time you start to really clamp down and hold on to a particular belief is just about the time God choses to rock your world and turn everything upsidedown. My God bless both you and me with the gift of an upturned world.


    • That explains why the articles are the same but different. Thank you for making things perfectly clear. But what is the biblical reality? The Bible is filled with very descriptive references to hell.

      How can there be “a Biblical understanding of the wide range of belief on Hell?” Either you have a biblical understanding of Hell or you have one of those wide ranged beliefs on Hell. As well, hopefully this is not the case, but when you talk about “a very specific modern understanding of Hell that benefits certain people in power,” it almost sounds like you are using the language of emergent deconstructionism, like Brian McLaren:

      “This is, one of the huge problems is the traditional understanding of hell. Because if the cross is in line with Jesus’ teaching then—I won’t say, the only, and I certainly won’t say even the primary—but a primary meaning of the cross is that the kingdom of God doesn’t come like the kingdoms of the this world, by inflicting violence and coercing people. But that the kingdom of God comes through suffering and willing, voluntary sacrifice. But in an ironic way, the doctrine of hell basically says, no, that that’s not really true. That in the end, God gets His way through coercion and violence and intimidation and domination, just like every other kingdom does. The cross isn’t the center then. The cross is almost a distraction and false advertising for God.”
      Brian McLaren – Lief Hansen Interview (PodCast)
      Podcast: http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3?www.enteuxis.org/leifh/bleedingpurple21b.mp3
      Transcript: http://web.archive.org/web/20070806231227/http://www.understandthetimes.org/mclarentrans.shtml

      • hmmm, I’d have to think about the MCLaren quote for a bit before I’d respond to that. It’s a new one to me and I’d need to understand it’s context more. The short response to that is that McLaren and I might wind up sharing some similar beliefs, but I wouldn’t say that he’s my primary resource. We just might happen to be sharing some of the same sources, but I honestly haven’t read enough of him to know the difference.

        I was intrigued by this statement of yours: “Either you have a biblical understanding of Hell or you have one of those wide ranged beliefs on Hell.” The reason that I’m intrigued is that you may have just brought up one of the key differences in how we (and various others) read the Bible. If you’ll allow me to make an assumption (please correct me if I’m off base) I would suspect that you would subscribe to an understanding of the Bible in which the Scriptures are 1) clear and always understandable 2) completely consistent and do not contradict each other and 3) an inerrant gift from God. (Again, I’m just making an assumption so if I’m off base here please correct me)

        I, on the other hand, subscribe to a view of the scriptures that is rooted in the understanding that the written text is a human representation of the relationship and experience of God with his people. Yes, it contains the divine story, but it also holds the fingerprints of thousands of years of revisions by hundreds of editors. Yes, parts of the Bible contradict, no, not everything is clear (even Jesus said he intentionally spoke in parables so people wouldn’t understand) and no, I don’t believe that the Bible is without errors.

        This is all to say that I don’t accept your statement that I have to believe in either the Biblical understanding of hell or a wide range of beliefs on hell. I believe that the wide range of beliefs on hell is the Biblical understanding of hell.

        My suspicion is that neither of us are particularly interested in changing our view on this point. As a result, I would be very surprised if we find any common ground.

        Again, let us hope that the grace of God is big enough to forgive bad theology. Perhaps we will both need that forgiveness.

        peace to you

      • If you are you asking if Menno-lite takes a literalist position (the belief that the divine Author of the biblical record has literally said what He means); the answer is yes. The belief that the Bible’s message is clear, understandable, and can be properly interpreted in a literal sense has been central to evangelicals since the Reformation. As John Knox said to Mary, Queen of Scots, the Word of God is plain in itself; and if there appear any obscurity in one place, the Holy Ghost, who is never contrary to himself, explains the same more clearly in other places: So that there can remain no doubt, but to such as obstinately remain ignorant!

        Regarding supposed contradictions and errors in the Bible, there are always viable answers – you just have to look for them. If you can’t trust the reliability of the Bible because of its small percentage of copying errors, can scholars trust the copies of the Iliad, Plato, Aristotle, Hoerodetus, etc.? (They do.)
        See the evidence: Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability

        The confusion in the church over Bible interpretation stems from a lack of expository study (exegesis). Postmodernism’s broad mindedness has resulted in a systematic removal of any certainty of truth in Scripture while replacing it with the view of the reader (deconstruction) – substituting or replacing the meaning God put into His Word with man’s ideas (from our imagination). One such example of this is, again, Brian McLaren, who says the parables of Jesus should be interpreted on the basis of our imagination (when the reason Jesus taught in parables was to fulfill prophecy: Matthew 13:10-17).

        By the way, that famous quote of McLaren’s where he questioned the traditional understanding of hell and said the cross was a false advertising for God (from an interview that went viral a few years ago) was very revealing, as we are now are seeing where this kind of postmodern Bible interpretation/deconstruction leads – down the wide road of universalism.

  3. I think you might be assuming some things about my particular view that isn’t particularly warranted. Generally speaking, I believe that Jesus meant what he said and that he was talking to us. I’m not sure how much more simple and clear you can get. That being said, I also believe that it is crucial to first understand what the first hearers and readers of the Biblical letters/poems/stories/teachings/laws would have understood them to be saying. I’m also fairly unwilling to make the text say something that it wouldn’t have said to those who first heard it. This is where my hesitation to say that the Bible is perfectly clear comes from. I’m not really starting with a McLarenite, post-modern understanding, but rather from an understanding of how the Bible was actually formed. Simply put (and hopefully not to arrogantly) I just know too much of what the process actually entailed to have such a simple understanding of the Bible. But, hey, if it works for you, rock on. I’m not trying to wreck your faith, mine’s just at a different place.

    Also, I didn’t say I didn’t trust the Bible because of the errors. Keep in mind that this is the book that I’ve built my life and vocation on. The Bible as a static book, divinely written is neither accurate nor is it particularly compelling for me. Seeing it as a living breathing document, created, discerned, and refined by the people of God over the centuries that contains a story that didn’t end but rather has carried on until today that I, and every other Christian must live into….yeah, that gets me excited. God is at work in that.

    Surprisingly I actually agree with you about the lack of good exegesis. I would just say that I’m not the one that needs to find a deeper understanding of the Biblical context. But of course, I also have the corner on all knowledge, human and divine. (Ok, read in some healthy sarcasm into the last couple of sentences ’cause I’m just kidding a bit) As to the uncertainty that postmodernity poses, it depends a bit on what one means by “postmodern”, but at times I do have some similar feelings about the complete deconstruction that often happens. Ultimately, that’s a whole other discussion that I’m not really interested in having right now.

    As another side note, since you raised it, I’m a little surprised you’re willing to put the Bible on the same level as Plato, Homer and Aristotle. (nice word for word copy from the link you provided, by the way) If your argument for divine intervention in scripture would hold true, shouldn’t the Bible be exponentially more pure and accurate than any of those other pagan works? What’s more, to be correct about literary criticism, there are plenty of questions with all ancient works of literature. It’s not as if scholars trust the non-Christian works without question and just have a beef out for the Biblical texts. The critiques of the Bible originated as critiques of all of the other works as well.

    Well, maybe I’ve gone and done the thing I was hoping to avoid: getting into an argument of particulars that has taken us down a rabbit trail and that probably won’t change either of our minds. I’ll call it a night, since it’s plenty late.

    I’ll check back in the morning to see if you’ve got any more thoughts. I’m not sure I’ve got enough energy to keep on arguing though.

    Again, peace to you and all you meet. May God build us both up and bring us closer to unity in Christ rather than division, even if we have different ideas of what that unity might look like.

    • Who’s arguing?

      God’s Holy, inspired, infallible Word that has been accurately preserved for us through the ages, is in a category of its own. It was written by an Author outside of our time and space, will endure forever, and is full of deep complexities yet is simple enough that a child can understand it. No other book contains hundreds of prophecies which have been fulfilled to the smallest detail. Christians have been burned at the stake for this Book or paid a great price to obtain it. Pastors in China who own one are beaten and imprisoned, in Muslim countries Christians lose their heads because of it. What price would you (we) be willing to pay for the Truth within its pages?

      Thank you for sharing what you really believe, pastor; that you have built your life and vocation on a book that you do not believe to be divinely written or accurate.

    • The only ‘common ground’ where Christians can meet in unity is the ‘blood soaked ground’ at the foot of the cross where Jesus Christ paid our penalty. Colossians 2:13,14

  4. Pingback: Brian McLaren defends Rob Bell’s views on Hell « Menno-lite

  5. Hey Olives,

    Here’s the problem. You believe in an inspired book! So do I. The problem is that I don’t consider myself an infallible interpreter of the word. Unfortunately even with a perfect book (which I believe it is) there is no one (other than God) who is perfect enough to interpret it. Thus, the olives, you have a problem. The bible is clear, understandable, and easy to interpret of course! Unfortunately you’ve got a little bit of a problem. You disagree with at least everybody else’s interpret of the Scriptures, at least if you go into every small detail. Why do you think there are so many denominations out there? Why do you think there are so many nondenominational churches out there? Oh ya, the Bible is easy to interpret and everyone who wants to can.

    Whoever you are, you are naive! Go read in wider circles, pray through it, and do some more exegesis. I encourage it!

    • Not true. Only God and his Word are infallible, but in His grace He has given us His Spirit to lead us into all truth. We CAN know the truth.

      Thank the Lord that there will be no denominations in heaven, and only then will we be like Him and fully understand everything. Until then, we are all growing in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ our Saviour. What He calls us to is faithfulness in the meantime.

  6. Pingback: Rob Bell’s book reviewed in MB Herald « Menno-lite

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