On meeting Rob Bell
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.