Rob Bell used to be a positive, motivating name in the evangelical world. I remember my first experience with his Nooma video series in youth group. We watched his love video in which he gathered sticks and branches and poured gas on them probably as a symbol for God’s consuming love. I don’t remember. We also watched him walk down a street, carry his crying son in the rain, walk on the beach, watch a guy shovel snow, plant two full-grown trees, etc. Rob Bell was one hip evangelical dude, and his videos were great for youth pastors who didn’t like preparing lessons.
But later in high school, I discovered Way of the Master Radio. It starred a couple guys named Todd Friel and Ray Comfort. They also said Kirk Cameron was part of the show in the intro, but I never heard him actually on the show. Anyway, I loved how Friel and Comfort tore down the emerging church movement. They talked about the dangers of something called the social gospel, which I learned was when Christians weren’t interested in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and were more concerned with doing horrible things like loving their neighbors. The show would almost always end with Ray Comfort doing some street evangelism. What I liked about it was that Comfort always used a formula:
1. Ask people if they think they’re good.
2. Whether they say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, go through the ten commandments to see if they kept them all and make sure they understand that they are not good.
3. Tell them that because they aren’t good they are going to (and I quote) “burn in hell for all eternity.”
4. Let them know about the good news of Jesus Christ.
5. Ask them to consider it before they go to bed that night and tell them a prayer they could say to receive Christ.
I like formulas. Math was my best subject in school. Straight-forward, objective, easy to measure how well you’re doing. There’s always a right and wrong answer. Sometimes Comfort’s formula would work. Other times, it wouldn’t.
I remember one episode in which Todd Friel was going through the formula over the phone with a woman who absolutely didn’t need the formula. When asked if she thought she was a good person, she told Friel ‘no’. Friel continued to go through the ten commandments so that she would really understand how awful she really was. The woman broke down. She became very upset and went on a rant of how utterly guilty she felt. I don’t remember the details, but I believe she was a victim of some sort of sexual abuse or spousal abuse and it was obvious she was blaming herself for the wrongdoings of others. She was aware of the bad news and she already believed she was going to hell. And yet, they still followed the formula. They cut to a commercial break during her rant and we never heard her on the show again.
I still listened to the show after that because I was hooked every time they talked about the evils of popular pastor Rob Bell and social gospel. I wrote Facebook posts which photos of Rob Bell with captions that read “Is this the face of a heretic?” The posts were about Rob Bell being a heretic. And all this was long before his controversial book Love Wins came out. I farewelled the guy before John Piper made it cool.
I stopped listening to Way of the Master Radio when it hit me that their criticism of progressive Christians like Bell became subtly more and more hostile. I don’t remember the exact comment, but Todd Friel said something obviously horrible that might come out of the emerging church, laughed, and said, “They probably would do that!” I shut the program off immediately and never listened again. I may not have agreed with Bell and the social gospel, but I knew that his church was still doing good, loving things. I realized that constantly expecting the worst from such sincere people was toxic. So I cut it out.
I didn’t think about Rob Bell for another three years until Love Wins came out. If you’re not familiar with the book, Bell describes his somewhat universalist beliefs. Slightly before the book came out, evangelicals were already labeling Bell a heretic for challenging orthodox Christianity. His book wasn’t received well at my conservative Christian college. It was too feel-good, too unorthodox, too challenging. One professor devoted a whole chapel talk to analyzing the book and telling us whether or not it should be read. He concluded with a solid ‘no’. It’s no good. I still disagreed with Rob Bell at the time, so I was relieved with the professor sided against the book.
I read the book while working at a Christian summer camp in Ohio, and I loved it. I rocked my beliefs and opened up completely new possibilities. But it absolutely shook me. Since I was surrounded by kids all that summer, I didn’t have much time for introspection, but I still held in the back of my mind Bell’s questions and points. The questions he raised about heaven and hell stuck with me, and still stick with me. Was I on a slippery slope toward progressive Christianity? Maybe not yet. I didn’t think about hell a lot.
And that’s the thing about evangelical Christianity today. The beliefs of it are not far off from fundamentalism. In fact, evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Christians agree on almost all basic theological doctrines. Where they differ in the execution. While fundamentalists are stereotypically the ones to preach hellfire and brimstone, evangelicals tend to be on the lighter side of things. When pressed, they’ll say they believe in eternal conscious torment for unbelievers, but that’s not something you’ll hear about from evangelical church pulpits so much. It’s not as friendly.
I’ve come to a point in my life where heaven and hell are not important to me. I don’t know if they exist, and I don’t even know for sure if an afterlife exists, but saving people from hell isn’t what would make my life seem fulfilling. It’s odd. I feel like I’m betraying my natural ability with math and its objectivity, its quantifiable measurements of success. But thanks to the two Rob Bell books I’ve read (Love Wins and What We Talk About When We Talk About God) and the time I heard his interview on comedian Pete Holmes’ podcast not too long ago, I’m moving toward a more subjective measurement of success in my faith. It’s not measured by numbers, but by daily encounters and connections with something greater than myself. I can’t quantify it and I can’t put it on a resume, but I can be influenced by it and challenged by it. That’s what’s important to me, and that’s where I find my hope for humanity and all of creation.
Do I believe Rob Bell’s a heretic? Yeah, he’s a heretic. What he says goes against Christian orthodoxy. I guess I’m a heretic too, though. Christian history has needed a few heretics, hasn’t it?