In a recent interview by Kim Lawton of PBS Religion and Ethics, author and columnist Lisa Miller, Pastor Rob Bell, author of Love Wins, and Mary Vanden Berg, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, raise some important issues about where Rob Bell stands in relation to evangelical Christianity.
Miller notes that what upset people most about Rob Bell was that he calls himself a conservative evangelical Christian. If he called himself an Episcopalian, she observes, nobody would have batted an eye.
Miller, of course, is right. This is what sent Bell’s book, Love Wins, ringing throughout the land (pun intended). As Miller comments, Bell’s position on heaven, hell, and the possible salvation of every person, “is a radical upheaval of that entire worldview.” This is why popular conservative pastor, John Piper, tweeted, “So long Bell,” when he first heard of Bell’s position (even before he read the book). He was talking about Bell’s departure from traditional/conservative Christianity.
One could argue that Bell has moved out of the camp of evangelicalism into the camp of progressive Christianity. One of the fundamental differences between progressive Christianity and evangelical Christianity is how each group understands and interprets the biblical teachings on judgment.
Most progressive Christians do not ignore or deny the reality of judgment. In fact, I myself, as a progressive Christian, believe that judgment can be quite painful and severe. But, I believe that it is always redemptive, restorative, and corrective in nature, not punitive, retributive, or intended for punishment equal to the offense.
Bell basically takes this position in his book. In the interview with Religion and Ethics he says that judgment flows out of love, that it is important to start with love: “God’s love is for us to flourish in God’s good world. For us to flourish in God’s good world, judgments have to be made . . . that puts judgment in its proper place.”
The problem for Bell in the evangelical Christian community is that the Bible doesn’t always take that position. Both restorative judgment and vindictive/retributive judgment can be found in the Bible. Because the New Testament emerged out of a milieu pervaded by apocalyptic perspectives and beliefs, retributive judgment is quite frequent in the New Testament. Progressive Christians rightfully acknowledge that an apocalyptic orientation greatly influenced the first followers of Jesus, and many progressives would contend, influenced Jesus himself. (See my book, A Faith Worth Living: The Dynamics of an Inclusive Gospel, pp. 97–117).
I share Bell’s belief on heaven, hell, and the possibility of universal salvation. His understanding of judgment in the context of divine love is how progressive Christians interpret it. But what Bell has failed to do, and what he must do, if he hopes to stay within the evangelical Christian fold, is provide an adequate biblical hermeneutic for his position that somehow manages to maintain the high (idolatrous?) view of biblical authority that evangelicals demand.
In the interview with Religion and Ethics, Professor Vanden Berg, a representative of the majority evangelical position, says that “the Bible’s pretty clear that when the end comes that’s the end. You don’t have a second chance.” She concedes that it is possible that God could offer a second chance if God wanted, but for her the bottom line is: “What does the Bible say? The biblical text doesn’t say that at all.” This is the bottom line for most evangelicals: What does the Bible actually say?
The question is: Can Rob Bell offer a sufficient enough biblical hermeneutic to justify his beliefs that will hold water within the evangelical community. I seriously doubt it. I predict that Rob Bell will become a fresh, new spokesperson for progressive Christianity. Much the way Brian McLaren started out within the evangelical tradition, but clearly is now a champion of progressive Christian beliefs and practices, I predict Rob Bell will, also, cross over. It’s inevitable.