Rob Bell and the Apostle Paul on the moral, intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of the people of God

Read time: 3 minutes

Now that much of the fuss over Rob Bell’s book has died down, and the spotlight of pre-emptive inquisition has shifted to Francis Chan’s as yet unpublished Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up, I have downloaded the Kindle edition of Love Wins and actually started reading it. To be honest, I was prompted by the remark of a good friend that whereas she found the writings of Tim Keller clear and concise, Rob Bell had her checking the indications for the medication she was taking to see if it might have affected her mind. That wound me up a bit. But we shall see. Maybe she’s right.

For now, I want to highlight this statement from chapter 1 and draw an important comparison with Paul’s argument against first century Israel in Romans 2:

If this understanding of the good news of Jesus prevailed among Christians, the belief that Jesus’s message is about how to get somewhere else, you could possibly end up with a world in which millions of people were starving, thirsty, and poor; the earth was being exploited and polluted; disease and despair were everywhere; and Christians weren’t known for doing much about it. If it got bad enough, you might even have people rejecting Jesus because of how his followers lived.

That would be tragic.

It’s debatable, of course, how far the church is guilty of such neglect. There is a lot of good unsung work being done by Christians all over the world in the name of the just Creator God. It just doesn’t make good blogging material. But I think, nevertheless, that we need to be much more aware—much more painfully aware—of the extent to which the God whose people we claim to be is discredited in the eyes of the world by the moral, intellectual and spiritual complacency of Christians. By the stupidity of Christians. By the gullibility of Christians. By the hypocrisy of Christians. By the squabbling of Christians. By the greed of Christians. By the passivity of Christians. And so on…

Paul’s argument against the Jews in Romans 2 was that despite having the Law—and all the blessings and privileges that went with it (cf. Rom. 9:1-5)—they had consistently shown themselves to be no better in practice than the pagan Greeks, whom they were so quick to condemn. So Paul told the Jew: you are “storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). Destruction would come upon Israel basically because the Jews weren’t known for their moral and spiritual integrity. That was tragic. It meant that “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (2:24).

We are not talking about a final judgment here or some transcendent state of affairs. Paul is addressing the social realities of Israel’s existence in the pagan world. The Jews in their synagogues should have provided the visible, public, corporate benchmark of righteousness by which God would at some point “judge” the whole Greek-Roman oikoumenē, just as in the past he had “judged” Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. This is why the doing of the Law was so critical. In fact, Paul goes as far as to suggest that the Jews will be put to shame on the day of God’s wrath against Israel by the righteousness of Gentiles (2:27).

So here’s the point. While we are arguing with each other over final destinies, convinced that if only we get our theology right, all will be well, we risk not doing those things which will qualify the people of God as a true benchmark of righteousness in a world suffering from starvation, thirst, poverty, environmental exploitation, pollution, disease and despair. As it is, there may be many righteous people outside the church who will expose our moral, intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy on some putative day of God’s wrath—if not on October 21.

donsands | Fri, 05/27/2011 - 02:12 | Permalink

There was a beggar, who had dogs licking his sores, and he lived quite a hard life. Yet he was loved by the Lord, and when he died he was taken by holy angels to Abraham.


There was a man who was beaten and left, after he was robbed by thiugs. a couple people walked by and left him lay there, and these people had a form of godliness. Yet, a supposedly ungodly type walked by and stopped and tended to the beaten one, and took care of him in a fine way.


And yet, if we give all our money to the help the poor, and share everything we have, and even offer to give our own body to be burned, if we have not Christ's love, then we are nothing.


As I read these 3 passages came to mind. I live to worship my Father in Spirit and truth, and to follow Jesus Christ and His word: trust and obey, there is no other way.


Don, let me get this straight.

Jesus said that if you forgive others, god will forgive you. In the parable of the Samaratin, he said that the people who were kind to the victim would be welcomed by God, irrespective of their wrong beliefs. He said peacemakers would inherit the kingdom of god, without saying whether they also had the right set of beliefs.

But according to orthdox theology, which you espouse here, forgiving others and doing "good works" will not win you favor with god unless you have the right set of intellectual beliefs.

Which is it? Why was the Samaratin justified because of his kindness, even though he had the wrong set of beliefs? Why was the beggar welcomed by God? He couldn't have believed that Jesus died for his sins. Why exactly did god favor him?


Andrew is right. Justification of sin is in Christ alone. I can never make up for my sin. As the hymnist wrote:

"Not the labor of my hands

Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;

Could my zeal no respite know,

Could my tears forever flow,

All for sin could not atone;

Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to the cross I cling;

Naked, come to Thee for dress;

Helpless look to Thee for grace;

Foul, I to the fountain fly;

Wash me, Savior, or I die."

It's because Jesus first loved me that I love to do His will, which by the way I fail Him miserably every day in actually obeying His will. But, His garec does work in me at times, and I am His workmanship, and God receives all the glory, for He is worthy to be glorified.

Have a fine Memeorial Day Andrew, and Paul.


Richard | Mon, 05/30/2011 - 15:22 | Permalink

What I found most intriguing in the discussions around Love Wins is that Rob doesn't nail down a whole lot of items for certain re: the afterlife but he does hammer the need to respond to Christ in the here and now. 

It has also caused me to re-examine the contexts of many of the hell passages and ponder how the vast majority (if not all of them) are directly connected to a call for faithful living and acts of mercy/justice in a very temporal realm. 


"he does hammer the need to respond to Christ in the here and now."

I don't see Rob hammering the Gospel at all.  I agree that we need to hammer the Gospel in a world of darkness and sin, but I don't see it with Rob.

Perhaps you could quote him where he hammers the truth of Christ.

@don sands:

Not sure if you've read the book so here's a quote from near the end (I don't know how to get a page number on my Kindle):

These are strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities. Jesus tells these stories to wake us up to the timeless trut that history moves forward, not backward or sideways.  Time does not repeat itself.  Neither does life.  While we continually find grace waiting to pick us up off the ground after we have fallen, there are realities to our choices.  While we may get other opportunities, we won't get the one right in frony of us again.  That specific moment will pass and we will not see it again.  It comes, it's here, it goes, and then it's gone.  Jesus reminds us in a number of ways that it is vitally important we take are choices here and now as seriously as we possibly can because they matter more than we can imagine.  Whatever you've been told about the end - the end of your life, the end of time, the end of the world - Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here, now, today...

The section preceding that quote deals with parables like sheep and the goats, foolish virgins, unproductive servant, etc to summarize his description of an invitation to trust God and be transformed by God through repenting (he even uses that word). 

If I'm wrong in understanding that to be a poetic way of describing the evangelical Gospel, please help me understand where it falls short. 


Rob's words leave me wanting. There's no teeth to his thoughts. No hammering that I can feel.

How about a quote from JC Ryle on the same passage of Holy Scripture. (I see the deep thoughts of a fine seasoned pastor of our Lord, shaing His Word with humility and authority, and simple setting the truth before us):

"We may settle it in our minds, that there will be an entire change of opinion one day as to the necessity of decided Christianity. At present, we must all be aware, the vast majority of professing Christians care nothing at all about it. They have no sense of sin. They have no love towards Christ. They know nothing of being born again. Repentance, and faith, and grace, and holiness, are mere words and names to them. They are subjects which they either dislike, or about which they feel no concern. But all this state of things shall one day come to an end. Knowledge, conviction, the value of the soul, the need for a Savior, shall all burst on men's minds one day like a flash of lightning. But alas ! it will be too late. It will be too late to be buying oil, when the Lord returns. The mistakes that are not found out till that day are irretrievable. ....True Christians shall alone be found ready at the second advent. Washed in the blood of atonement, clothed in Christ's righteousness, renewed by the Spirit, they shall meet their Lord with boldness, and sit down at the marriage super of the Lamb, to go out no more. Surely this is a blessed prospect.

They shall be with their Lord,--with Him who loved them and gave Himself for them,--with Him who bore with them, and carried them through their earthly pilgrimage,--with Him, whom they loved truly and followed faithfully on earth, though with much weakness, and many a tear. Surely this also is a blessed prospect.

The door shall be shut at last--shut on all pain and sorrow,--shut on an illnatured and wicked world--shut on a tempting devil--shut on all doubts and fears--shut, to be opened again no more. Surely, we may again say, this is a blessed prospect.....Let us never rest till we know that we have the oil of the Spirit in our hearts."-John Charles Ryle, 1856


ps One final thought is that if the Church in JC Ryle's day was for the most part nominal, what does that make us. That's a scary thing.


Then your issue with Bell is a matter of preference, not Gospel.  You prefer the "tooth and hammering" language of 1856.  Bell has contextualized that message for 2011.  And that's not a watering down either, Paul did the same thing when he debated unbelievers.  Just as Ryle calls for greater faithfulness to Christian living, Bell does as well.  That's actually a common theme through all of his writings and many of his sermons.  Inf act, "Love Wins" was originally the title of a sermon that he gave in which his talked about Christ's example on the cross being the key to the Christian life - just like great Christian pastors and authors before him: take up your cross and follow Jesus.


I enjoyed the passage from Ryle though. 


The Gospel doesn't change at all, really. It will be the same depth; the same conviction, the same power that saves a sinners soul from hell until the Lord returns.

I think Bell does water it down. He removes words like wrath, hell, sin, repent, etc. These words still have meaning that goes deep, and we need to use them.

It seems quite simply to me, and i am quite the dunce let me tell you. But the Lord is so gracious and good.

One thing about the Cross that Jesus was crucified to, if that's alright. Jesus took upon Himself my sins, everyone of the hundreds of thousnads of sins I have committed, and still commit against a Holy God. Jesus took my judgment; my wrath. He then gives me His righteousness, so that i am justified and clean. Cleansed by His precious blood, as Peter called it. What a Savior! What a father, to give His beloved Son for such a wretch as I.. The cross I carry has nothing to do with Jesus' Cross, except that it's because of His great love and mercy that I can now die daily to selk, and pick up my cross, so to say, which is what our Lord meant by that phrase.

        "When I survey the wondrous cross

on which the Prince of Glory died;

my richest gain I count but loss,

and pour contempt on all my pride."


Have a terrific weekend, and may we all draw closer to Christ through His truth, which is His Word, the Holy Scriptures, by His Spirit. Amen.



My point wasn't that the Gospel changes, but the words with which we describe it do as we try to communicate what Christ has done to a world that thinks a cross is a fancy piece of jewelry.  We wouldn't try and use in the English word, "Gospel" in China would we?  We'd translate it into a Chinese word that makes sense to them, yeah?  The same principle is at work here I think. 

Your assertion that Bell removes those words (hell, wrath, judgment, etc) or thinks Christians shouldn't use them is incorrect:

There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.  There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously

I think that's page 79 in a hardcopy (still getting used to my Kindle).  He actually ends his chapter on hell and judgment with a line similar to what you asserted above:

...we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us... And for that, the word 'hell' works quite well. Let's keep it.

That should be page 93.  You're welcome to not like Bell or his style but there's nothing watered down about his preaching. 



"We wouldn't try and use in the English word, "Gospel" in China would we?"

We are not in China.

I think hell is a place of eternal seperation from God, and it's a very, very scary place. To be forever and ever in torment has no comparison to the suffereing we experience in this life.

Bell certainly does water down the truth. He does. You don't see it. Many people don't, and that's the way it is.

The truth of God's Word is a very serious thing. James tells us "be not many teachers", for a good reason.

God's wrath is the scariest thing in the universe, and yet people seem to be more scared about getting cancer, or losing their job. To meet a holy God as a sinner without being washed in the precious blood of Christ is the scariest possible thing for any human.

We will see this differently, until the Lord returns, or we die. I look forward to both. I admit I hate to suffer in this life as well. Nobody likes suffereing but:

"we do not lose heart. Though our outer self  is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."-Paul, the Apostle