Farewell Rob Bell? Beloved pastor victim of unfair criticism

Op-ed about the controversy surrounding evangelist Rob Bell’s book Love WinsPublished in The Collegian on March 11, 2011.

Is renowned American pastor Rob Bell a universalist? No one knows for sure, but Bell became a Twitter celebrity last week after it was revealed that his new book, “Love Wins,” challenges the idea of hell maintained by most “orthodox evangelicals” today.

Two weeks ago, HarperOne released a video and synopsis of Bell’s new book saying he argues “that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” A foreseeable uproar followed. Condemnation came from Twitter and the blogosphere, warning laypeople about the danger and heresy of Bell’s “universalism.”

The consensus was clear: Bell had crossed the line, and his theology should be rejected by those who hold to orthodox beliefs about the afterlife.

But there was one problem: no one had read Bell’s book. And no one will for two more weeks. It has not yet been released, and the only clue about the content of the book comes from a two-sentence synopsis written by someone other than Bell. One blogger claims to have read a few chapters, but he did not say what was in them or claim to have any certainty about whether or not Bell was indeed a “universalist.”

Granted, many critics claimed only to be warning their readers for what might be to come. But some found sufficient reason to condemn Rob Bell himself. “Farewell Rob Bell,” tweeted John Piper after he read a critical article about the synopsis of Bell’s book. (What he means by this I cannot figure out. Is Bell no longer saved?)

But Piper did not explain his send-off to his 128,000 Twitter followers, sparking what he had to know would be a huge controversy within the church. This response, like most others, was needlessly divisive and inflammatory.

Twitter wars like this between pastors are just as harmful as the faint possibility that Bell might turn out to be a pseudo-universalist. Using Twitter to cry heresy and condemn pastors (or any individual, for that matter) should be well below the likes of Piper.

But concerns about online etiquette aside, this whole fiasco reveals a serious problem with modern American evangelicalism. The tone in which the doctrine of hell is taught and affirmed is not consistent with the content of the doctrine.

It is easy to rattle off one’s “orthodox” belief about hell as a place of eternal punishment for the unregenerate and eternal suffering for the enemies of God. But for those prone to doubt and skepticism, any meditation on hell is terrifying, even crippling. Bell’s critics, amidst all of their flippancy, seem to have forgotten this fact. As they campaign around the Internet triumphantly dismissing those whose belief about hell might be somewhat different than theirs, they are forgetting the immense weight of this doctrine and the true implications of what they are affirming.

One wonders whether the accusers can even relate to those who have seriously considered what it would be like to suffer forever and therein found the gospel simply too frightening to believe.

If our ultimate goal as Christians is the preservation of our individual and very precise doctrinal beliefs, then maybe Bell’s critics are justified in being so casually dismissive. But if our goal is first to reach out to and love the lost, including those struggling with the implications of believing in the existence of eternal damnation, then Bell’s critics have absolutely failed.

Nobody has denied the existence of hell, and there is no reason for the divisive accusations that are splitting the church and making quite an amusing spectacle for the enemies of the faith.

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