Who put Rob Bell on the cover of Time Magazine?

We did.

Well, not you or me, but our champions. And not his face or name, but the cover story is about him and his new book. The story is worth reading, but not because you’ll learn much about the doctrine of hell, or what Bell thinks about it. What you’ll learn is an effective route to getting Christianity featured by a national news magazine.

What amuses the writer is not the questions Bell raises but the responses they have engendered among celebrity evangelicals:

Such a simple premise, but with Easter at hand, this slim, lively book has ignited a new holy war in Christian circles and beyond. When word of Love Wins reached the Internet, one conservative Evangelical pastor, John Piper, tweeted, "Farewell Rob Bell," unilaterally attempting to evict Bell from the Evangelical community. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says Bell’s book is "theologically disastrous. Any of us should be concerned when a matter of theological importance is played with in a subversive way." In North Carolina, a young pastor was fired by his church for endorsing the book.

And the writer is curious whether these vehement public reactions point to a deeper problem in the evangelical community:

The ferocity of the reaction suggests that [Bell] is a force to be reckoned with. Otherwise, why reckon with him at all? A similar work by a pastor from one of the declining mainline Protestant denominations might have merited a hostile blog post or two — bloggers, like preachers, always need material — but it is difficult to imagine that an Episcopal priest’s eschatological musings would have provoked the volume of criticism directed at Bell, whose reach threatens prevailing Evangelical theology. [Emphasis added]

I think the question “Why reckon with him at all?” is a valid one. We comfort ourselves with it when we see the defenders of other orthodoxies (climate change, political correctness, Darwinism) react ferociously when their thinking is challenged. And why not? Where the matter is truly settled, e.g. round vs. flat earth, the orthodox barely respond to a challenge at all, or at best draw straws with a sigh to see who will give the patient explanation this time.

Rob Bell’s question is a time-worn one, and so is the answer. Neither Bell nor his critics have anything new to say about the doctrine of hell, and I think the world understands this. So how to understand this quick, fierce response to someone who raises a supposedly settled question? A casual observer assumes that when the questioner is ostracized, the question is nowhere near as settled as the orthodox so loudly proclaim.

Being orthodox myself, I prefer to blame championism—the defenders of the faith must be seen giving a vigorous defense, in order to be worthy of their pay. We in the choir sing their praises. And the world gets another good Eastertime laugh.

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2 thoughts on “Who put Rob Bell on the cover of Time Magazine?

  1. Rob Bell classifies himself as evangelical (at least he doesn’t deny the title) and speaks to upwards of 10,000 people every week, live.

    This alone lends him a kind of credibility with “outsiders” as a public and influential voice of evangelicalism.

    I think the outcry is an attempt to “be clear” that the views expressed in this book are not the views of orthodoxy.

    This is one of the dangers of being anti-orthodox-denominational affiliation… There’s nowhere to go, no checks and balances, and the sheep can be easily misled any which way.

  2. Where the matter is truly settled, e.g. round vs. flat earth, the orthodox barely respond to a challenge at all, or at best draw straws with a sigh to see who will give the patient explanation this time.

    “Is the earth flat?” is an example here that’s unlike all of your other examples. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the population believes that the earth is flat. There probably are some who understand the scientific case for non-flatness but who insist that the scientific case is flawed and their own evidence (divine revelation of some sort, perhaps) of flatness is stronger, but such cases are exceedingly rare. Most importantly, even those who have the shallowest understanding of why scientists believe the earth to be a spheroid are in no danger of being lured away from the fold.

    Contrast that with Darwinism. That’s a vague term but let’s take the question “Do humans and apes share a common ancestor?” as a specific point. Darwinists say yes, and consider it a settled matter. But a large number of biblical inerrantists say no, and consider it a settled matter as well.

    Here there are significant numbers on either side. Moreover, adherents to either view are susceptible to being lured over to the other side — it’s not at all hard to find people who once believed the answer was “yes” and now believe the answer is “no,” or vice versa. Generally speaking the people who are swayed one way or the other are the ones who have a shallow understanding of what they believe. They’re swayed by arguments that are not really new at all, just new to them.

    My suggestion isn’t that the degree of heat over the debate (or other debates) isn’t about how sure either side feels the matter to have been settled in their favor, as viewed from within their adopted framework. It’s about how vulnerable they think the less informed on their side are to being lured away.

    Unlike the flat earth question, the human/ape ancestor question is “settled” only in the sense that different groups, reaching contradictory answers, each regard their position as sufficiently superior (when viewed from within their own framework) as to be beyond question.

    If the doctrine of Hell is a settled matter, it’s “settled” in this latter sense. People reach different conclusion from within different theological frameworks, but if someone is, say, a Calvinist, and they’ve immersed themselves in Calvinism and studied the arguments and counter-arguments in depth, then the matter is one that they might regard as “settled.”

    But the vast majority of people who “believe in Hell” are both fuzzy on the details and fuzzy on the reasoning behind whatever view they’ve been taught. And it’s a topic on which a lot of people hold beliefs they’re uncomfortable with.

    You say: Rob Bell’s question is a time-worn one, and so is the answer. Neither Bell nor his critics have anything new to say about the doctrine of hell, and I think the world understands this.

    But I completely disagree. The answer is time-worn within Calvinism (or Roman Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodox, etc.). It’s much less settled outside of those long-standing traditions, and many readers of Time magazine are either not part of such traditions, or are only superficially aware of the time-worn arguments and counter-arguments.

    For many, what Bell is saying is new (to them). And because belief in hell makes a lot of people uncomfortable, at least after you get beyond the question of where the “really really bad” people end up, it’s an argument many people will find appealing.

    That, I think, is why there is so much heat. It’s not about how “settled” a matter is, within some particular framework. For this, or arguments about global warming (an issue for which only a small fraction on either side could accurately articulate what the debate is really about), or various questions under the general umbrella of “Darwinism,” the heat is generated by the degree to which the most poorly informed adherents are vulnerable to being lured away.

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