Guest Post

Rob Bell goes after stumbling blocks

Bell's new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every
Person Who Ever Lived
, due out at the end of the month, is being promoted
as "putting Hell on trial" and questioning the notion that a loving
God could commit millions and billions of people to eternal torment. When the
press release and accompanying video were released last week, the Christian
blogosphere exploded, with conservative
Christians of various stripes critiquing Bell and calling him all sorts of
names, none more damning than "universalist."

This isn't a new
topic in American Christianity, and it hasn't been limited to
liberal circles
. So it's disappointing (if unsurprising) to see Bell's critics greet his
reconsideration of hell with shock and derision. (John Piper dismissed Bell
with three words: "Farewell, Rob Bell.")

It's frustrating
to see all this controversy over someone raising a question that's been around for ages. I'm glad, however, to see
someone of Bell's stature take it up. As of this writing, Bell has received 338 comments on his Facebook post of this compelling video:


Unlike so many reflections on life after death, Bell
ties our theological understanding of salvation and damnation to the very nature of
God. Is God the one whose wrath Jesus saves us from? What sort of God are we
worshiping, are we asked to put our trust in, if we must be saved from such

Of course, the depth and quality of Bell's argument remain to be seen--we will be able to gauge this
when the book comes out. He's been criticized in the past for delivering old
conservative evangelical theology in hip packaging.

But I'm hopeful. Bell
seems to grasp that this issue is a serious problem for many outside the
church--or lurking in the doorway. In the video, he identifies a central
critique of Christians: that our faith is "an endless list of absurdities and
inconsistencies." Bell strives to preach the gospel to the unchurched, and he
may simply be heeding Paul's admonition to remove stumbling blocks to belief in
Christ. The question this raises isn't an easy one--salvation is a key concept
in Christianity--but it's a crucial one: which of the details are critical to
orthodoxy, and which are mere stumbling blocks? What's necessary and what can
be reinterpreted?

Paul tells us to
"resolve" never to put a hindrance to the gospel before another person--and resolve
is what it takes. Bell is putting his reputation on the line with this
discussion; he's been lumped with Brian McLaren (I wish somebody would insult
me like that!) as a false prophet who's decimated the gospel message. If he
were a politician, we would say he is alienating his base.

But this is how
reformation happens. Following the call to honest discernment means accepting
some risks. I was proud recently when several retired United Methodist bishops
published a letter calling United
Methodists to get rid of language in its book of discipline that describes
homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian life." Of course, retired bishops
are in a secure place to say this; Bell has years left in his career.

But that career
may be an increasingly blessed one if Bell's ministry continues to be shaped by
pastoral and theological reflection--and if he keeps inviting others into
conversation about the depths and breadths of Christian belief and practice.

Bromleigh McCleneghan

Bromleigh McCleneghan is associate minister of Union Church of Hinsdale in Illinois. She is author of Good Christian Sex (HarperOne).

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