For those inside of or familiar with the evangelical Christian culture, Rob Bell has been a bit of a pariah lately. After publishing his book Love Wins which challenged the idea of hell, he came under a storm of criticism from major evangelical leaders such as John Piper. Recently with him receiving his own show on Oprah’s channel, he has been criticized again by evangelicals. Read more about it here.
Whether or not you agree with Rob Bell’s assertions, I am interested in getting to the bottom of the criticism against him. Why did many influential evangelicals have such an angry reaction towards him more so than other theologians/pastors they may disagree with? I believe this has to do with how Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and his ideas attack the simplistic narrative that many evangelicals create.
The simplistic narrative of salvation is damnation is this: if you accept Jesus you live in heaven for all eternity. If you reject Jesus and don’t believe in Him you will be tortured forever in Hell. It’s a simple matter of good and evil. Good is rewarded forever and evil is punished forever.
However, Rob Bell challenged that narrative by arguing that the idea of a place of eternal torment is not only unBiblical but downright disturbing. After all, one cannot both be called a loving perfect God and yet torture people for eternity for a lifetime of sins. This simply does not make sense. This idea by itself was not enough to bring down the wrath upon Rob Bell. After all, many believe in annihilationism, the belief that the “wicked” will simply be killed in the lake of fire, not tortured forever. However, Rob Bell took it a step further into uncertain territory. He presents the position of universalism, the idea of the complete reconciliation of humanity to God. Rob Bell did not espouse this view himself. In fact, he says he is not a universalist, but he does say it is a positive view, and that we have to trust God will make the best decision for all people. He also argues that for many people, hell is on earth through horrifying circumstances or cruel people. In many ways, we create our own hell when we prop up or support systems that are based on something else other than love.
Whenever a straightforward idea is challenged, people often become angry. After all, there is a strong belief in many circles that true truth is simple. CS Lewis was opposed to that idea of truth being “simple.” He talks in Mere Christianity how even the most seemingly simple chair is made up of endlessly complex components and the same can be said of truth. Truth is always complex. Evangelicals acknowledge this as well, if not in word, then in practice. For example, many evangelicals shy away from the use of fire and brimstone sermons. In theory, they should be effective, as the two choices are accept Jesus or burn forever. Yet, many don’t use them anymore even if they still believe in eternal torment. That is because they realized that such sermons only create religions of fear and drive people away rather than lead them to God. Yet the idea itself remains or slightly changes. For example, the fire and brimstone has toned down in recent years when mainline Protestant pastors speak about hell and has become more of a place of complete separation from God.
I am a firm believer in the idea that narratives reign much more strongly in people’s minds than doctrines. If a Calvinist and an Arminian share the same narrative on God’s love or salvation/damnation, they will likely get along better even though their doctrines are different. When you challenge someone’s narrative that they use to guide themselves, it tends to make them very angry.
You can see this with Jesus as well. He challenged the Jew’s narrative not only of who they expected the Messiah to be but also their narrative of Jewish supremacy. He regularly uplifted the one’s Jews considered lower than dogs and then criticized what they considered to be true piety constantly. Ultimately this led to the Pharisees and other groups becoming very angry with Jesus.
This is why those who challenge narratives, especially when you have a high profile position, should be prepared for the anger that follows.