Rob Bell and the new generation

Travis asked me about Rob Bell and the new generation of Christians yesterday, in the light of the present controversy regarding his Love Wins book release. My answer is a bit long for his blog comments so I will post it here.

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Travis, I think neither one will happen. Rob Bell will not become irrelevant simply because his book was a lemon and his theology found wanting. He is loved by many people and they will be committed to see him mature and move forward. Young people are a relational bunch: they stick to their friends and they believe people can change, especially when those people are open to conversation. They are NOT consumers who shop around for the most-correct theologian they can find in the yellow pages and then commmit to follow them and their groupies until someone points to a better show.

I think the critics of Rob Bell will suffer more than Rob Bell. Many were too quick to wash their hands of him and host inquisitions for his book. This week's Gloat-Fests of fundies high-fiving each other will give a sour taste that will linger far longer than Bell's accusations.

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In fact, I think the meanness extended to Rob Bell will cause many to see him as the victim of bullying and there will be a move to restore some dignity to him, as Eugene Peterson has done by offering some kind thoughts without fully agreeing with his theology. His message may not resonate with the new generation but his story probably will, and that is why it is possible that Rob Bell might, in the end, win!

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I want to add some more thoughts on the new generation's search for a better eschatology, as I understand it. Not so much on universalism, because I dont run into it very much, but on the search for a more biblically sustainable view on heaven and hell.

If you have read my blog before you will know that I dont have a dog in this fight – I do not consider Rob Bell's church to be "emerging". Its a mega church and structured like many other larger, hierachical traditional churches, rather than the simple, organic, emerging fresh expressions that almost never have a paid professional on a stage.

That doesnt mean his church sucks. It just means its not emerging, no matter what Al Mohler says. Mohler uses the word "emerging church" like some people use "K-Mart shoppers" and "disco-dancers" but that should not be taken as an accurate description of what the emerging churches and fresh expressions actually look like.

I also haven't read Rob Bell's book and do NOT intend to buy it [I prefer to invest my money in good books and I don't think this is one of them] but if Kevin DeYoung's quotes from the book are any indication of what Rob Bell believes then I find myself siding more with DeYoung in his review called "God is still holy and what you learned in Sunday School is still true", at least in his first 2 points, than with Rob Bell. [Alhough I agree with David Fitch's assessment of DeYoung's critique as not very helpful in engendering discussion.]

And what I learned in my NZ Sunday School about heaven [and about how Americans will not be there] has not held up to Biblical scrutiny. We should be open to examine the Scriptures and see if these things are so, without getting our heads ripped off.

I think the new generation of Christians are suspicious of the default fundamentalist-premillenial view of heaven and hell and are open to learning what other streams of Christian thought have to offer.

Regarding the next generation and their view of the last things, I think

1. They will continue to examine the broad resources of Christian theology including those from Eastern, Coptic, Syrian and Western church fathers as well as more recent streams of thought.

2. They will desire a view of the end times that moves beyond a Jack Chick hell, a Left Behind rapture, and a Hal Lindsay burning-planet-ecology.

They will continue to be suspicious of an end-times perspective that cannot differientiate itself from the fundamentalist imbalances of the past 30 years.

3. They will assume that because God is a just God, there will be justice in the end.

After all, the concern for justice is a hallmark of the emerging church. Why should we then want to affirm the final victory of injustice? Is it simply because we confuse the idea of a final judgment with misplaced, medieval notions of hell as a place of eternal torment? Andrew Perriman, Does Emerging Church have a problem with final judgement?

4. They will acknowledge that its a difficult subject. Regarding the issue of hell and heaven:

– its not as crystal clear as some teachers make out,

– much of what the Bibles gives us on the topic is through parable and dream and vision.

– our preconceived notions of hell and heaven might have been move flavored by Dante than the Bible,

– the many words and concepts used for "hell" in the Bible could only be taken as interchangebly pointing to the same reality with a lot of effort,

– they will treat the matter as complex, mysterious and worthy of humilty in our explanation of it and will [hopefully] be wary of going further in their certainty of what we know about heaven and hell, and who does and doesnt go there, than the Scriptures themselves.

"The traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage, postmortem journey represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope." NT Wright, Heaven is not our Home, CT

5. They will resonate with a view of biblical prophecy that answers the questions of immediacy among its initial hearers before bouncing 2000 years into the future to give us a 'relevant' message for today. It's a narcissistic view of biblical prophecy that assumes Jesus was giving his hearers a message that was irrelevant for them and all about us, about our times, about our particular countries.

6. They will acknowledge nuances in meaning and will not assume that because a theologian who lived 1600 years ago said "hell" or "heaven" that he was picturing the same reality that we do when we hear the same word. I commented this morning on Scot McKnight's post regarding what the Eastern Orthodox believe about hell [Part 1 and 2]. . .

I noticed Al Mohler uses John Chrysostom’s mention of “hell” as proof that John believed in the same reality of current day Reformed thinkers. But then I read Chrysostom’s Easter sermon and he seems to be talking about 'hades' or the grave:

"Hell was in turmoil having been destroyed.
Hell was in turmoil having been abolished.
Hell was in turmoil having been made captive.

O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?"

7. They will not select a new eschatology out of rebellion or protest, or because it makes God out to be mean or intolerant (as Mark Driscoll suggests in To Hell with Hell), or just because the old one does not suit their sensibilities. That is insulting! We are talking about Generation Text who are only one click away from the world's largest library.

I think if they [we] suddenly discovered that God was a lot meaner that we thought, we would still follow him because He is God, not because we find in Him a blend of human qualities and preferences that matches our own ideals.

No, if a new generation is to commit itself to a re:worked understanding of heaven and hell then it will only happen if that understanding is informed by a comprehensive and coherent understanding of what the Scriptures actually say about the topic, an understanding that we would expect to have precedent in historic Christian orthodoxy, which may have been previously glossed over and temporarily blinded by present concerns and prejudices.

I might be naive, but when that happens, I think there will be more consensus than confusion. Even among the Reformed, as I saw happening a few years ago when NT Wright challenged our inherited idea of heaven and challenged us to read our Old Testament.

N. T. Wright actually does believe in heaven; he just doesn’t believe that Christians go there to live forever after they die. That may sound strange to some ears, but what he says on this point is actually orthodox Christian truth.

Denny Burk, Does NT Wright believe in heaven?

So, am I too optimistic?


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • CaroleTurner says:

    Great post! I completely agree with your observation. I blogged yesterday about this, I titled it “My review of the Reviews of Rob Bells book, Love Wins” 🙂

  • Watching N. Waiting says:

    I notice that you show a tweet from someone claiming to apologize on behalf of Martin Bashir. I’m not sure I understand that. Bashir was doing his job as a news anchor – and I would suggest he, in fact did a very good job in asking Bell if the implication of what he’s written in “Love wins” is that it doesn’t matter what one does with Christ in this life (accept or reject). I actually thought that was a very perceptive question. Bashir was using logic and Bell… well, he didn’t seem to want to be pinned down by logic. (though, I will say that there are probably more than the two alternatives suggested by Bashir)
    Not to single out Rob Bell here… But having sojourned for a while in the ’emerging’ church (whatever that means now) the thing that bothered me was that there was this total acceptance of postmodernism’s rejection of logic (or maybe I should rephrase that as: there was the idea that accepting postmodernism meant throwing out logic and there was often too much of a willingness to do so).
    …Anyway, my impression from the interview with Bashir is that perhaps Bell hasn’t come to grips with all of the implications of his theology (as outlined in the new book – which I have to admit, I have not read). However, I don’t want to make the mistake that many critical Evangelicals have made – they seem to think that we are all static at some point and incapable of changing our minds & hearts and so they write him off completely. I suspect Rob Bell’s position will evolve over time especially as there is more discussion.

  • Thanks for that hard work Andrew. I appreciate your heart and clarity.
    Thinking about you on your travels, and following from Canada.

  • Andrew, I read this post to see your reflections on the “new generation.” Actually, I think that you tend to overgeneralize. There are different slices as I see it within the NG. I was especially interested in your comments of what eschatology the new generation perfers. You write: “They will desire a view of the end times that moves beyond a Jack Chick hell, a Left Behind rapture, and a Hal Lindsay burning-planet-ecology.”
    Well, how do you deal with Mike Bickle’s eschatology that the IHOP “new generation” swims in. Although Bickle has some new twists, his eschatological framework is as Hal Lindsey as you can get. Hundreds of the “new generation” are following and teaching his eschatology.
    Anyway, I trust all is well.
    Andy Jackson

  • My sense is that Rob bell is struggling (like many of us) with the tension between popular culture and his evangelical background. Pop culture has the ability to energize the conversation by connecting it to the mass experience, but it will take hard work and a lot of back and forth between culture and theology before the questions being raised find a new water mark.

  • Gary Ware says:

    Hey Andrew,
    I think you’ve got every reason to be optimistic. Biblical truth will be preserved and asserted in every generation. Various cultural influences will cause that truth to be examined and reaffirmed. It’s been a pretty messy process to view over centuries, but there you go.
    I’m a bit non-plussed over the pushback on Bashir, after all he was just asking questions. What’s wrong with that?
    I’m also confused how Rob Bell can describe an understanding of salvation as being toxic and be considered the victim and those who demonstrate their reasons for their disagreement with that stand as being bullies.
    The same goes for Eugene Peterson’s kind words for Bell include a characterisation that there’s “very little Christ, very little Jesus, in these people who are fighting Rob Bell.”
    Add to that the charaterisation that Bell represents a stream of Christian thought that extends through history while his critics seem to be the nadir of a couple of recent generations of imbalance.
    Your posts on this subject reveal an insight and fluency in the overall scope of the issue, so it’s confusing to see you characterise a need to recognise and engage with exegetical and historical issues which reformed theology (for instance) has dealt with extensively for centuries. That’s one of the reasons the pushback against Bell has been so prompt, not only have they done the study in the past, they’ve also experienced what happens when the basic positions Bell espouses have their head.
    It’s also confusing to read the reference to Chick, LaHaye and Linday as being representative of the theology of Bell’s critics when (to the best of my knowledge) I don’t think any of these affirm what could be characterised as a reformed position.
    I think it’s weird that a movement which has historically affirmed a wideness to God’s mercy (reformed theology) and who have been villified as killing any need for evangelism is being cast as the group wanting to keep people out of heaven, while the group who basically affirm that if no-one wanted to be saved then heaven would be empty because God’s done all he can do so we better get out and convince everyone to repent is now being cast as the group who believe eventually hell will be empty and that God will save every one even if they’ve never heard the gospel.
    It’s a funny world.

  • Andrew says:

    Andy, good thoughts and ihop is a good example although most of them don’t make it into my world of young emerging church planters.

  • doctor jones!!!!!
    i must say that i always enjoy your point of view.
    and all the thought and love and work that you put into it.
    thank you so much!!!!
    i’m not sure that anyone has been too hard on rob bell. it’s easy for us all to read things on the internet and on emails with our own voices and own tones added, that may not be there. in fact 99% of the bible studies i listen too online and on the radio by numerous different preachers, are always sharing the goodnews of Jesus, of the hope of Jesus… this is the one thing i miss when i’ve been watching Rob share… i haven’t heard much about Jesus. and in my broken life, i certainly need lots of reminders of Jesus and Him crucified, and Risen from the dead on the third day…
    though, it is hard to watch. i think that the Bashir interview was fair, and True Journalists are always asking questions that imply you said something, really to try and create some drama for the viewers… they do need to keep us watching so they can sell those advertisements! But, i did feel bad for Rob, i’ve been in that situation before, though not on American National TV. it’s hard when a journalist is pressing you. and though i felt bad, i also had great respect for Bashir who did his homework and acted and behaved very professionally. He’s a news reporter, he’s not Rick Warren interviewing Obama for the local church….
    i’m certainly no theologian, but i would hope that authors like bell and mclaren would have enough friends who are theologians that they could turn to for guidance, the same way that we all look to them to wrestle with their fundamentalist backgrounds. it’s great to see and hear them wrestling, and i believe it will have far deeper impact and really bring out the fruits of the Spirit if they could combine their wrestling with some great theology.
    email me when you have a chance, the violet burning have a great new album that the fans are raving about. i would love to share it with you.
    the story of our lives:
    liebe über alles, black as death, and the fantastic machine
    a story of sorts, 3 cds, 34 songs, could be our best ever.
    your kids and your wife will love it.
    my only joy is that i prefer the german: “love over all things” (liebe über alles)
    to the more narrow american, “love wins”
    much love andrew!!!!! and turn your new zealand friends on to the violets!!!!
    with great respect,

  • Andrew says:

    Thanks Gary. I hope I have not lumped in all reformed thinkers with the left behind crowd because that would be unfair. But it might be helpful if the more prominent reformed theologians would contrast their eschatology with what preceded it, ESP. Their view of heaven in the light of Wrights critique

  • JLD says:

    “[I prefer to invest my money in good books and I don’t think this is one of them]”
    Amongst all the more intellectual responses, this one phrase stood out to me.

  • As I summed up my reflections of the Rob-apalooza on Monday night, he seemed to be trying to be apophatic (God is mystery) while stating he is evangelical though his definition of evangelical (Good News) is not in line with the statement of cataphatic faith advocated by the NEA. Therein lies the rub – and I don’t see him leaving the evangelical world because that’s where his core audience is.
    I’m not so sure Andrew that I hold your optimism re: the longevity of megachurch pastors. There is a proclivity to run after the shinny new thing – where are the church growth gurus today? Whatever happened to Josh MacDowell? I’m seeing a resurgence of interest in say Dorothy Day, Cornel West and other non-white male evangelical voices among the younger set – that is if they are reading any Christian authors. 🙂

  • Forgot to add – Bell’s detractors won’t let up cause they want to be the ones to pen the anti-Bell books so they can join Driscoll (who is amazingly silent here) & his Reformed renegades on the author/speaker conference circuit. I predict this will bomb as those who want cutting edge Reformed theology can already get it from Bell.
    I still think Borg v Wright is a much more meatier and fruitful conversation than this Piper v Bell convo.

  • I didn’t know you were using that cateogy – young emerging church planters – as the topic of your post. You were speaking about the “new generation.” Again, it would be good to specify which slice of the new generation your talking about. There is more diversity than I think many would like to suggest.
    Blessing to you and your family.

  • Andrew says:

    Andy – you are right to say i might have overgeneralized but then i can only speak about the young people i work among and they might be quite different than IHOPpers and RobBell’s congregation. thanks for your input.
    lots of diversity – yep agreed

  • Andrew says:

    Michael – your new web page for violet burning totally rocks and the music looks great. cant wait to listen.
    thanks for your thoughts. hope to see you in europe again soon

  • Mark E says:

    Thought provoking TSK….
    Glad someone recognises Bell is not emerging…
    many of those I met last week doing ‘fresh expressions and simple church’ were quite orthodox in theology, and not happy with someone who many of us within that sphere and outside of it (myself being outside) considered a prophet.
    Bell unfortunately, imho, knows the question being asked and does not answer them. And before someone claims Jesus like methodology for Bells evasiveness, Jesus was very clear on the fact ‘I go to prepare a place for you’ and ‘in heaven as it is on earth’. Bell is clearly arguing for hell and heaven on earth, ignoring Jesus clear admonitions to be sure of where you would spend eternity.

  • Ali says:

    Is NT Wright’s view that new? I’m really surprised…and I grew up in a NZ Sunday School.

  • Phil Wood says:

    For someone who is studiously avoiding the Bell controversy I’ve been spending far too much time telling people I’ve been studiously avoiding it. So, at risk of actually buying a ticket for the circus I have only two things to say, 1) That Evangelicals get cranky and defensive isn’t news and 2) Veronica Zundel’s forthcoming book on the same theme is likely to be considerably better.

  • Agree with you re: the optimism. In America things will look a bit different, b/c there is a growing push-back among some younger generations against anything smelling of postmodern theology (the Gospel Coalition being one wing of that movement). But I am hopeful that by and large, the worldwide church will begin to see theological perspectives as “ranges” that are perhaps quite broader than we previously imagined, and in our mutual devotion to God’s story, we can promote dialogue, instead of discourage it.

  • Nate T says:

    Right on. Great post that actually frames the bigger issue. In the next generation it seems that people care more about how we live than where we end up. How we live (in relationship with God, with each other, with the world) is the start of the conversation that at some point will touch upon our ending. Instead of the ye ole fire and brimstone which always asked, “where will you be if you die tonight?”

  • Heather says:

    I find it upsetting that there are so many blogging about Bell’s book without having read it. To take someone’s review and base writing on it feels like when people take scriptures out of context to meet their purposes.
    I am only on the first chapter of Bell’s book and he asks many questions I’ve asked myself. Ive always had trouble reconciling the OT God with God in the NT, yet they are the same. I suppose Jesus made the difference in the NT. And if the Bible is the Word of God, what word would it be? I bet it would be different for most everyone.

  • We will not get heaven and hell right, until we get the Kingdom of God on earth right.

  • I thought this was an excellent post. Very good summary of my thinking at least, Andrew! Thanks!

  • Gareeth says:

    He made the mistake of thinking he was among compatriots on MSNBC. Fatal Fail.

  • Bahsir’s reporting style is blunt and he tends to bully his subjects – no one should go on any news show like this without being adequately prepared so one can at least anticipate a Bashir-type reporter would ask. He got off easy on Monday night as Lisa Miller does kinder softer Qs.
    I’d like to mention that HarperOne has a slew of books coming out on this topic – Evolution of Faith (Philip Gulley), Desmond Tutu (God is Not a Christian), Speaking Christian (Marcus Borg) and whatever NT Wright is cranking out. Let’s move this away from a Piper v Bell debate (which seems to be created by a group of mostly male bloggers who are already decidedly in one camp or the other) and expand the discussion. Despite what some may say, this isn’t a new topic (nor is doubting for that matter).

  • Inchristus says:

    Simply one of the best responses to the Bell brouhaha!!
    Thanks so much for your gracious and keen biblical insights!

  • ron cole says:

    Beautiful…I share you optimism Andrew.

  • Hi Andrew
    I’m reading Rob Bell’s book at the moment – mainly because I got sick of the number of comments that began with “I havent read the book but let me tell you what I think…”.
    A couple of preliminiary ‘the story so far’ comments:
    For me this seems to be a pretty light read – more of a starter for discussion than a deep theological work, and actually I think it should be taken as just that.
    I can see Rob Bell wanting to keep his evangelical views, but constantly tipping his hat to other alternatives about heaven and hell etc. I wonder whether this is where the angst has come for many of his critics – he simply isn’t definitive enough for them.
    So far I am finding the book inspiring insomuch as it is crystalizing some issues for me. I resonate with your comment about what we were taught in Sunday School.
    That said however I’m aware as I read the book that there are bible passages that Bell never tackles here, passages that would seem to disagree with some of his positions.
    That leads me to the conclusion (for the moment) that Bell has put forward his opinion, De Young is right – Bell is telling us what HE thinks. But for all that it is still only his opinion and I’m not sure that he’s got the whole picture.
    All this is fine of course, Bell is allowed to have his opinion. But I think wiser heads will seek to dig a bit deeper than this – Bell has piqued my interest in this subject, but I won’t be hanging my theology on his hatstand.

  • graham says:

    The book not worthy of your “investment” of time or money but is worthy of your critique – Surely the high road would be to forgo the purchase AND the blog traffic the book has created..

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