Uh-oh. I think I may be about to ruffle some feathers with this one.
Should be fun. Let’s do it.
First of all, I should say that if you’re out there, and you’re reading this, and you think Rob Bell is the greatest thing since sliced bread…I am in no way trying to say that you are an evil person who deserves to rot in hell. (Although come to think of it, we’re all evil people who deserve to rot in hell…but you know what I mean.)
I am, however, saying that you’re probably a confused person who could use a fresh perspective. So, that being established, let’s take an honest look at Rob Bell.
The latest controversy that seems to be swirling around our favorite bespectacled, smooth-talking emergentist is his recent adoption of universalism (the belief that there is no Hell and one day the whole world will be saved). Bell has used a story about somebody who stated definitely that Mahatma Gandhi was in Hell as a jumping-off point for accusing such people of being presumptuous on the matter. (Ironic, since by vigorously calling into question the existence of an eternal Hell, Bell isn’t exactly taking an agnostic standpoint himself.)
Myself, I find the whole thing a little bit amusing, because even though I completely agree that Bell is spouting nonsense on the issue, crackpot Bell-isms aren’t exactly old hat. I’m at least as concerned about Bell’s take on the virgin birth, which oddly didn’t seem to generate nearly as much buzz when he first laid it out in Velvet Elvis (see the relevant quotation here). Just to quickly fill people in, Bell has breezily informed us that all that stodgy, dusty stuff called Doctrine is really not an important part of being a Christian. Hey man, as long as you’re, like, you know, finding God and discovering your inner wuggah-wuggah…it’s cool, man! Kinda like a trampoline, you know?
Yes, I did say trampoline. Hear this: From now on, we won’t call it Christianity. We’ll call it…trampolinianity! No, really, I couldn’t possibly make this up. Bell literally says that doctrine is like springs under a trampoline, and our main goal should be to “keep jumping” rather than “arguing about whose trampoline is better.”
So, how ’bout that virgin birth? Oh those silly Bible-thumping fundamentalists—they want you to think that stuff like that actually matters. I mean after all, what would it matter if it was discovered tomorrow that Jesus had a father named, oh let’s say, Larry (see above). Of course it would only mean that Jesus wasn’t really the son of God and hence was born with a sin nature just like the rest of us and couldn’t take away the sin of the world…but hey, Jesus is really just like us anyway, right? And you know, if our faith hangs on something insignificant like the virgin birth, then how strong was it to begin with? That’s like building a faith on bricks, where if you take one away everything falls apart. We need a faith…like a trampoline! Where instead of building on bricks, we’re building on springs, and if you take one or two away, no problem dude! Just keep bouncing away, because really all that’s important is that we’re bouncing into a deeper fuzzy-wuzziness as we commune with the Spirit. All that extra stuff like Doctrine and Facts will just tie us down. We want to be free, free…as free as the wind blows, or something like that.
What about Bell’s supposed “discovery” regarding the word “virgin” and Isaiah? To put it succinctly, it means precisely zilch. The truth is that while Bell and his ilk act like they are confiding some deeply dark and significant secret to you when they knowingly inform you that “the word for ‘virgin’ doesn’t really have to mean ‘virgin,’ ” their “argument” flops on several different counts. First, although the Hebrew word “almah” could more generally mean “young woman,” it could also specifically mean “virgin.” The alternate meaning is just that—an alternate meaning. And in fact, we have five other Old Testament uses of the word besides the one in Isaiah, and all of them clearly use the word to mean a literal virgin. But even putting that aside, Matthew wasn’t quoting from the original Hebrew anyway. He was quoting from the Septuagint, a Greek translation that the Jews had been using and reading from for two hundred years before Christ’s birth. And in the Greek, the word is “parthenos,” which unquestionably means “virgin.” It’s silly to imply that the Christians were just glomming onto the Septuagint for convenience’ sake, because it was the standard, conventional Jewish translation long before Christianity even entered the scene.
But the fact is that this semantic quibble is not even a real “argument” against the historical fact of the virgin birth anyway. Whether or not Isaiah literally meant “virgin” had no causal effect on what Matthew recorded as history in his gospel. He presumably had other evidence to believe that Christ was born of a virgin—perhaps even from conversations with Mary herself. He brought in Isaiah because he wanted to draw a parallel between what had happened and what he saw as a foreshadowing of the event in the Old Testament. It is therefore utterly pointless to use the debate over the original Hebrew as evidence that Jesus was not in fact born of a virgin.
Brothers and sisters, we need to have discernment. It is vitally important for Christians to understand what is happening here. Bell is not alone. He is just one part of a growing trend within the Church that emphasizes emotion at the expense of everything else, most importantly doctrine but also honest scholarship. I believe emotion has its place in the Christian life, but when we make it the be-all and end-all of our faith, to the point where really nothing else matters as long as we feel good—then Houston, we have a problem.
So here’s to a different kind of Christianity. Here’s to a Christianity with its head screwed on straight, rooted in the Word, rooted in sound scholarship, and rooted in clear thinking. And here’s to a Christianity where flakes who come with false, feel-good teachings are told to get off at the next stop.
By the way, if you’re looking for a thorough, thoughtful, scriptural review of Bell’s latest, I cannot recommend Kevin DeYoung’s 20-page breakdown highly enough. Yes, it’s long, but if you have or were thinking of getting Love Wins, I urge you to listen closely to what DeYoung is saying and use it as a guide. He cares about the truth, and he has done his homework.
Update: Some of you may or may not have seen Bell’s MSNBC interview with Martin Bashir. It has gone viral since being posted on the Internet, and with good reason: Bell is very uncomfortable in this interview. Some people accused Bashir of being repetitive and obnoxious, but the fact is that Bell only seemed to be answering his questions. He offered nothing of substance. For an excellent and honest dissection of the debate, see an interview of Bashir himself on the Paul Edwards program. Bashir is a Moslem convert to Christianity.