Rob Bell in Boston — May 25

Oh, my. Déjà vu all over again. Same place: Finagle-a-bagel on Boylston St. Same day/time Wednesday, 6:40pm. Only this time, I overheard a guy on his cell phone talking about “a lecture”. I immediately thought, “Could this be Rob Bell at Trinity?” Back on April 6, it was Brian McLaren, and the exact date for Mr. Bell’s lecture was unspecified at that time.

Anyway, I quickly and I might add deftly crossed Boylston, forcing the UPS truck in the far lane to use his brakes slightly. When I got to Trinity, indeed it WAS Rob Bell at 7pm, with the added note, “No late entry”. My problem was that I needed to locate my wife at a nearby store and inform her of my intentions. I had a cell phone, but she did not. And I had 15 minutes to pull it off.

Well, enough about my little drama. I did make it, and found a seat in the back row. The downstairs was essentially full with a few heading to the balconies. The crowd around me seemed largely young, but I could see grey heads here and there.

Finally the Trinity Episcopal pastor of Christian Formation began the meeting, and before introducing Mr. Bell, he had the crowd sing hymn #603, “When Christ was Lifted from the Earth”:

1. When Christ was lifted from the earth
His arms stretched out above
Thro’ ev’ry culture, ev’ry birth,
To draw an answering love.

2. Still east and west His love extends
And always, near or far,
He calls and claims us as His friends
And loves us as we are.

3. Where generation, class or race
Divides us to our shame,
He sees not labels but a face,
A person and a name.

4. Thus feely loved, tho’ fully known,
May I in Christ be free
To welcome and accept His own
As Christ accepted me.

I’ve included the lyrics because they seem very compatible with Mr. Bell’s message.

With the singing completed, and without an invocation (maybe that was the hymn’s function), the pastor introduced Mr. Bell, and out he came front and center to excellent applause. He began to talk, but there was no amplification. So the pastor got up and flipped the switch on his microphone. Then Bell walked back to where he came from, and re-entered, to the delight of the crowd. This cute little action is a good example of his appeal: he seems to really “get it” relative to engaging physical and verbal expression. In the title for his talk, the first word characterizing him is “Storyteller”, and that is certainly true: he’s a good one!

Mr. Bell’s second characterization is “Theologian”, and I guess that is a correct appellation in a populist sense; however his creative output has not been that of an academic theologian, and this talk last night came closer to a sermon than a theological treatise. The format entailed a talk of about 35 minutes in length, with another half-hour or so of Q&A. The event began about 7:05, and was over about 8:20.

The major emphasis during the evening was expressed as, “God… loves… EVERYONE!” While the title of his most recent book is, “Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived”, he spent the majority of his time on the “Love Wins” aspect, and less on musings about heaven and hell. He used many stories from the Gospels, and he also noted the connection between the original Garden of Eden where everything with mankind went wrong, to the garden where the first encounter with the risen Christ was recorded, and where rectitude was re-established.

In addition to Biblical references, he also gave a number of testimonies from his church family, stories of triumph because of God’s love in people’s lives. I think his point was that once we accept that we are unconditionally loved by God just as we are, then that is the beginning of positive change for us.

He did make a reference to the Atonement, and while he didn’t really explain all of its rich meaning, he did suggest that it included the physical environment as well as matters of the human heart.

In terms of heaven and hell, Bell spent most of his time on possible meanings of the words translated in English as “eternal life.” He seemed to conclude that a good way to look at it – from the words of Jesus – was “This world, and the world to come,” with the emphasis on the world, as opposed to some other location. In terms of “hell”, his only references to it were as “hell-on-earth” when a person rejects the love that God extends to them. Left unsaid was what would ultimately become of such a person. Overall, he suggested that our emphasis should be on “this world”, for justice, and for making it better by our love.

About the only clue about the world to come was that he postulated that pedophiles would not be a part of that world – how could they, he seemed to say? And one could imagine that others who rejected God’s love might be somehow excluded in this world to come. This would seem to be at odds with a blanket universalism (i.e., everybody gets saved) that Bell is accused of, and perhaps states explicitly elsewhere.

I came away from this event thinking that while Bell does not teach in a manner that touches me profoundly, he does come across as more “Christian” than did Brian McLaren a few weeks earlier in the same venue. Like McLaren, he is very likeable, and also like McLaren he seems to set up straw men arguments that a reasonable person should reject, with the alternative a more progressive viewpoint. For example, he stated that the Christian life had to be something more than simply a “sin management” program. I agree.

Thus, while I prefer his approach and content to that of McLaren, based on hearing them both in person for about one hour, I didn’t hear enough to assure me that his teaching is totally within an orthodox umbrella, so even with all his giftedness and likeability, my suggestion is to be skeptical about implications of some of what he is saying, and to understand that while one cannot over-emphasize the profound love of God for all human beings, one must also take seriously the consequences of the rejection of that love, both in this world, as well as the world to come, as clearly outlined in the Word of God, and as taught by the Christian church since its inception.

3 comments to Rob Bell in Boston — May 25

  • Forrest

    I think it is very important that Christians really filter out false or confusing teachings by comparing them to what is said in the Bible. I just listened to John F. MacArthur preach a very “unpopular” message about the wrath of God and it amazed me because of is strength and truth and honest. I thought about the responses of people in my life who would find MacArthur an offensive, old bigot. But I felt encouraged by his message, not because I want to point the finger at anyone, but because I felt relieved to hear the truth preached amid a sea of lies. It was a clear, direct and convicting, and it made me want to worship the Lord.

  • Dick

    Yes, I agree, and the secret as you indicated is trusting in the effectiveness of the Word of God to inform us concerning truth or error in various teachings. We’re told to “…test the spirits to see if they are from God…” (1 John 4:1) The very fact that we are admonished to do so clearly indicates that this is possible accomplish successfully, and the key is the Word, coupled with our commitment to undertake the tests.

  • Dick

    An excellent review of Mr. Bell’s book, “Love Wins” can be found here. (scroll to the top of the page) Mr.Errare articulates very passionately and convincingly the middle ground we must commit to in dealing with these theological issues.

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