On meeting Rob Bell

Rob Bell & Wayne Clarke

Rob Bell & Wayne Clarke

I met controversial American pastor Rob Bell last night. To say there’s been a lot of fuss about Rob Bell lately is an understatement. He’s a superstar to many, the epitome of the cool, relevant communicator. But recently he’s been rejected and reviled by evangelical leaders in the States. He’s been on the news bulletin of major US networks. He’s on the front cover of Time magazine.

All because of one book. He’s written controversial books in the past, but his new one “Love Wins” deals with heaven hell and eternity, God’s love and God’s judgement. What has upset so many people is his claim that all or nearly all the people who ever lived will be embraced by God into heaven, a very earthy heaven of perfect love and justice. Not everyone knows that heavenly state in this life, but those who have rejected God’s love, or simply never heard it, will get multiple second chances to respond after they die. This idea of “post-mortem conversion” is a not a new one, but for many evangelicals it has aroused anger and the outright rejection not just of Rob Bell’s views, but of Rob Bell as a person and a brother Christian.

I had the chance to meet Rob Bell last night in my role as a BBC radio presenter. I had a full fifteen minutes to interview him, longer than the cursory three minutes most “celebrities” allow interviewers like me. I then heard his talk to a full house of 1,200 people at Liverpool Cathedral and the lengthy Q and A that followed.

So what’s he like? As a person he is very likeable. He was comfortable enough to make jokes and to laugh at my jokes. He talked to me about people from Liverpool being called “scousers” and what that meant. He is also surprisingly tall.

He has clearly been hurt by the recent criticism. It has affected his wife and family and his church congregation and that has not been pleasant, though he sees the critics as a symptom of the problem in the Christian church that he has been addressing for years. He mentioned the Yorkshire web designer who has the Twitter name “Robbell” and has received vile insults and threats from Christians, thinking he was the preacher. Rob Bell the preacher conveyed an honest vulnerability and sadness at the way the world is and the way the Church is.

He is clearly a gifted communicator. Like the best preachers, he told stories and included many telling illustrations. But he also quoted the Bible, passage after passage, reference after reference, with deep conviction and respect. If he is a liberal, he is the most Bible-loving liberal I’ve ever met. Very much of what he said rang true for me and seems to be a crucial message for our time. His insistence that people need to urgently heed a call to turn to Jesus and his teachings, his desire to see the world changed and to see hurts healed and sins forgiven, are both timeless and timely.

Rob Bell is not a universalist, not in the way most people understand that term. He believes that salvation is only found in Jesus. He believes that some will resist the love of God and be finally in a place apart from God we call “hell”. And his view of hell is not as heterodox as some are claiming. Leading evangelicals of our day are questioning the standard “everlasting conscious torment” view of hell that many of us have inherited. On some matters it is okay to agree to disagree.

On reflection there are two things that Rob Bell teaches that I can’t agree with. One is the way Bell sees no distinction between “judgement” and “justice”. Our God is a God of justice and righteousness, and his heart is to see a world filled with his righteous ways. This making of righteousness is something he calls us his followers to do as well.  God is also a God of judgement, which is something he tells us not to do. As our maker, God imposes right judgement on those who continue to oppose his kingdom of justice and joy. Bell writes and speaks as if the God of judgement is merely a God of justice, but that takes from God an essential part of his character.

The second thing I can’t agree with is the question of turning to faith in Christ after death. This notion of an evangelical purgatory where Hitler and his like will be continually offered the opportunity to repent and have faith in Jesus seems to be without scriptural basis. I’m not denying a rich tradition of people being judged by God on the basis on the revelation they have received. I’m sure heaven will hold some surprises and people we never expected to see will be there. But that’s not the same as Bell’s view of a nearly empty hell.

In all meeting Rob Bell was a delight. I’ve worked in broadcasting long enough not to be star-struck when I meet people who have some measure of celebrity. So it’s not just the pleasure of meeting the man who is courting so much publicity. It’s the joy of meeting a brother in Christ whose endeavours I respect even if I don’t agree with everything he says. God bless you Rob Bell and keep on shaking up the church, we need it.

My interview with Rob Bell will be on BBC Radio Merseyside at 8am on Easter Sunday. I’ll post the full audio here after it’s been broadcast.

7 Responses to On meeting Rob Bell

  1. Chris Mercer says:

    HI Wayne I had hoped to be there but couldn’t get tickets…thanks for this unbiased and thoughtful writeup..We may all differ in our thoughts and conclusions as the Church has done for centuries but to revile and hate as some have done is so wrong as discussion provokes thought and thought changes outlook and is good for the faith…blessings Chris Mercer

  2. Derek Bond says:

    A great article and well expressed comments and opinions. Well done.

  3. Tim Hyde says:

    What a privilege to meet the guy of the moment. I agree, that the purgatory idea is a bit weird, I prefer the idea that God will just do what he says he set out to do, to reconcile all things through Christ. Who am I to say that he can’t do that or even attempt to explain how? – “I cannot tell how he who angels worship will…”? There are probably many closet univeralists in the evangelical world and many more liberal and universalist than Rob Bell!! I better run for cover! But God bless Rob Bell for having the courage to stand up and ask some important questions for our time.

    People who think that the only way to have dialogue is to hurl insult and labels at someone don’t deserve to be listened too. They show very little of the “love” and humility that wins in the end. And the book hadn’t even been published when they started hurling the insults. Very sad to hear that it has become so personal, affecting his family. That isn’t love.

    blessings, Tim

  4. Hi Wayne,
    I found your blog through facebook, thanks for this article.
    I have listened to and read a good deal of Rob Bells stuff (among a whole host other authors) and Have always been challenged to think “what do I really believe?” I don’t think Love Wins is any different. I enjoyed the book.
    I for one am not afraid to read something that I don’t agree with or fully understand, I have to be open to the fact that someone may have a healthier or different scriptural perspective on life, that I can learn from and I do not believe that just because we as (evangelical)Christians confess Jesus as Lord we have an absolute authority on truth, there is too much of God permeating all of creation for that kind of arrogance.

    To discredit, reject and demonise anyone because they think differently to you is so very very sad, and in the end, I am convinced that we will all find that we are wrong about something, and as you said “I’m sure heaven will hold some surprises.”
    Many blessings and thank you for showing some much needed grace, to who is after all, just a man on a journey.

  5. Thanks for this Wayne. Looking forward to the audio later. Unfortunately I couldn’t get to any of the UK dates, and have Love Wins on my Kindle waiting to be read.

    Like many others, the thing I find saddest about this whole story is the way that Rob and his family are being impacted upon by the actions and words of other Christians. Surely I should be more concerned and upset about that than about how orthodox or heretical his teaching on hell is.

    We’ve just had our Good Friday service, reflecting on the cross of Jesus. We finished with the words of Jesus, ‘Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’

    People will not be convinced by our message because we are right, or because we win the argument, but because the sacrificial love and grace of Jesus is evident in our lives – it is, as Rob says, a case of love wins.

  6. Nigel Coles says:

    thanks Wayne – good one.

  7. Thanks for the post Wayne. Sad that Christians can be so unkind to one-another. I’ve almost finished reading his book. There is lots in it that I fully agree with, but like you a few things that I don’t. I’m not usre if I really like his writing style, although I’m sure many do. However he is very easy to read & his book has a great pace to it.

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