Rob Bell has spoken. I’d rather listen to him in his own words than read about him through his critics. Therefore, I watched the video. If you have not done so you can here.
Let me break it into parts for review.
First, Bell begins with the premise that “God is love” and that when people heard the Christian message it was easy to call it “good news”. He prefaced that he does not intend to be controversial and that he doesn’t think God honors people doing something for the “shock value” of it. That being said, he felt that this long conversation that has been going since the beginning of the church is something that he is entering and that he is not saying anything really new or novel, but merely contributing his voice to the discussion.
Second, Bell was asked to discuss heaven which many Americans affirm to be real. Bell affirmed the reality of heaven and that it is a real place. He attempted to avoid cartoon and medieval visions of heaven, but rather he seeks to bring it back to a Jewish world-view, which he insist is based on the “goodness” of earth. He reminded us of the Scriptural vision that heaven and earth would be married one day.
Third, Bell was asked to talk about an intermediary state. He sidestepped this one throwing out an answer that there is “endless speculation” about conscientiousness after death, soul sleep, and so forth. He prefers to avoid being dogmatic here opting for mystery.
Fourth, Bell was then pressed on whether or not he is a universalist. He answered, “No!” He does not see God as co-opting the hearts of people forcing them to be in his presence. He sees this as a violation of the “laws of love”. Thus far, I have heard nothing different than what I have read by people like C.S. Lewis and even N.T. Wright.
Bell does say that he thinks all kinds of people from all kinds of labels will make it. He says that heaven-hell are realities now and that many people already chose hell on this earth. When asked if an atheist who was moral could be saved he skipped past it to emphasis that Jesus saw himself as the way and that he displayed grace. He talked a bit about both Jesus’ inclusivism and exclusivism. There was not a straight answer given here.
Fifth, Bell’s interviewer was Jewish. She said that one thing that she found offensive, and that her relatives and ancestors would find offensive, would be the idea that they were saved by Jesus. Again, Bell sidestepped this a bit talking about how the Apostle Paul took the story of the rock in the wilderness to be Jesus and he used it as an example of how Jesus’ gracefulness sustained those who did not even know he was there. Bell sought to explore the paradox and mystery of this, but his answer was a bit evasive.
Sixth, Bell was asked whether or not there creeds are essential. He answered that creeds are very helpful, but he pushed salvation back to be a grace-faith issue and that creeds are secondary.
Seventh, when asked about the grace-works relationship he moved outside of those categories to emphasis that once we realize the gracefulness of God good deed will follow.
Eighth, Bell was asked what was controversial about his book considering so many people have already said what he saying. He affirmed, again, that he is not saying anything new, but he did say that grace is offensive. He used language in favor of a “generous orthodoxy” and said that people have a tendency to become religious, seeking to define who is “in” and who is “out”. Bell won’t be that person.
Ninth, the discussion shifted toward the nature of resurrection. Bell emphasizes how resurrection affirms the goodness of creation and how “heaven on earth” is seen in human resurrection and creation’s renewal. Also, he used gospel-narratives about the resurrection of Jesus to argue that there is a sense in which the resurrection body is mysteriously different than the one we have now, but it was agreed that it is still “you” and it is a physical body.
He said a few things about the amazing impact of the resurrection upon those who witnesssed it and how it challenges our closed, scientific world-view by saying the universe is much more complex than we often imagine.
Finally, Bell fielded questions from the audience. Some answers were good and creative, others not so good (e.g. his answer to the question about Mt. 7 seems to only address one part and not another).
Now, let me share my thoughts on this. I appreciate that Bell embraces ambiguity. Anyone who knows me knows how much I despise when people say, “So, is it A or B?” Often, I want to say, “Well, it may be C or D or E.” Even on the doctrine of hell there is often too much systematization and oversimplification. So kudos to Bell for not being framed by the unnatural categories that people often assume to be natural (here I echo Derrida).
That being said, Bell did seem evasive at times. I like some answers somewhere along the line. I think most people do. I know Jesus was evasive and I have seen scholars and theologians evade on many occasions. I have evaded! I don’t know what the motivation for ducking some of the questions, but I assume it has a lot to do with all that is being said by so many people everywhere. Bell is simply refusing to give them a sound-bite for them to use to easily dismiss him.
So I am a bit let down because he dodged a lot. At the same time, every since I read Derrida I have come to see the wisdom in this. Sometimes a straightforward answer is unjust because the question is framed wrongly. Maybe this was his motivation.
I don’t think this conversation is over, unless people simply tire from the drama. This is possible. That being said, Bell has achieved his goal. He has us talking.