Cover of "The Reason for God: Belief in a...

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[For those who aren’t interested in being “in the loop” with evangelical pop culture drama – yes, it’s a sadly real thing – good for you, and please excuse all of the name-dropping that is about to follow.  Despite the lunacy in so much of this recent Rob Bell controversy, there are some important things being exposed, and that is what this post is about.  But before reading, say a prayer for or donate to relief for Japan – that’s way more important than this silliness.]

Pastor Matt Chandler once said in a sermon that Timothy Keller might be the next C.S. Lewis.  This is a hilariously gross overstatement, but what’s significant is that Matt Chandler said it – the same Matt Chandler who recently apparently tweeted, “Biblical literacy wins.” (if you don’t get the joke, don’t worry about it).  And don’t get me wrong.  Keller has my respect.  It’s nice to read a conservative, Reformed pastor who actually knows who Jacques Derrida is and understands neo-Marxist critical theory . . . though that’s not why I respect him 🙂  In his best-selling book The Reason for God – as with Rob Bell’s newest book – Tim Keller talks about hell and judgment.  Let’s see what he says (I apologize for not using page numbers, as I’m working with ereader versions on some of these quotes . . . I promise they’re still real!):

“The Bible says that God’s wrath flows from his love and delight in his creation.  He is angry at evil and injustice because it is destroying its peace and integrity.”

Then Keller quotes Yale theologian Miroslav Volf:

“If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end to violence – that God would not be worthy of worship.”

Keller responds in agreement:

“Volf says the best resource for [resisting the temptation of vengeance] is belief in the concept of God’s divine justice.”

Now it’s Rob’s turn:

“Decisions have to be made.  Judgments have to be rendered.  And so [the prophets] spoke of a cleansing, purging, decisive day when God would make those judgments.  They called this day the “day of the LORD.”

“God says no to injustice.  God says, “Never again” to the oppressors who prey on the weak and the vulnerable.”

“When we hear people saying they can’t believe in a God who gets angry – yes, they can.  How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution?  How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply?”

Sound like the same thing?  That’s because it is.  These are just snippets.  I’ve now read both of their books.  Both of them agree that a God of love is also a God of judgment.  Let’s look at what they say about human freedom and the possibility of hell.  Here’s Keller’s take:

“Since we were originally created for God’s immediate presence, only before his face will we thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential.  If we were to lose his presence totally, that would be hell – the loss of our capability for giving or receiving love or joy.”

“A common image of hell in the Bible is that of fire.  Fire disintegrates.  Even in this life we can see the kind of soul disintegration that self-centeredness creates.  We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them . . . Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever.”

In Rob’s chapter on hell:

What we find in Scripture is people living

“one kind of life [that] is in vital connection with the living God, in which they experience more and more peace and wholeness.  The other kind of life is less and less connected with God and contains more and more despair and destruction . . . some destruction does make you think of fire.”

“God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.  We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice.  We are that free.”

“To reject those Lazaruses was to reject God.”

“There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”  (what a universalist!)

Both of them reject a literal hell in the conventional sense and describe hell instead with a responsible interpretation of biblical imagery and as the result of free will gone wrong.  They have given the same explanations for the “rich man and Lazarus” story (Luke 16); they acknowledge that hyperbole and agonizing language are used to describe the agonizing reality of sin.  And, unlike what so many are saying who haven’t read Bell’s book or haven’t read it carefully, both Keller and Bell believe that eternal separation from God is completely possible.  They even both affirm the importance of a substitutionary theory of atonement.

Why these similarities?  Well, first because Bell and Keller are using the same sources – most importantly, the Bible, with some good interpretive tools, and then of course C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce (what’s funny is that Lewis claims in the preface to his book that it’s not meant to be especially theological, yet everyone uses him for theology).

So here’s the question:  why are all of these conservative Calvinists condemning Rob Bell and not Tim Keller or C. S. Lewis? Why is the evangelical right threatened by Bell if much of his theology is similar in important respects to one of their own (Keller)?  Is it because Keller’s allegiances prevent him from being scrutinized?  Or, is this not even really primarily about theology?  Might there be a deeper political element of power underlying the “who’s theology is right” rhetoric?

Here’s a comment from Austin Fischer that I think is instructive for those caught up in this debate:

“In such a climate, is it really possible to be moderate? Is it possible to have deep convictions but be willing to change your mind? Is it poss
ible to believe you need the voices of those you disagree with? I’m often told that the moderate sits on a slippery slope. That’s fair enough. But I suspect those criticizing moderates for being on the slippery slope have already slipped down…some to the left, some to the right. I don’t mind being on the slope. It’s when I’m not on it that it makes me worry.  Maybe we need more people on the slope.”