The story of Rob Bell has resonated with many. Raised in a fundamentalist home that stressed the “do’s and don’ts” of religion, born and bred in a church that taught there is only one way to heaven, and trained to evangelize by threatening the fires of hell to unbelievers, Bell threw off the shackles of his childhood by questioning traditional beliefs, celebrating doctrinal doubt instead. As Bell himself says, doing so proved liberating and not just for him but for thousands.
For that reason, the film The Heretic may have a provocative title, but it really says little that those familiar with Bell’s pilgrimage will not already know. Fans and haters alike may be interested to hear Bell himself voice his repulsion at the intolerance that characterizes fundamentalism (or evangelicalism; they seem to be one and the same for Bell), especially its “turn or burn” message. And friends and nemeses will both be curious to hear Bell chronicle his rise as a megachurch pastor early on and the subsequent opposition that erupted when he questioned orthodox doctrinal beliefs. But the film will disappoint if one is looking for a new revelation into the world or message of Rob Bell.
Nevertheless, I found myself surprised still. Sure, I expected Bell’s usual disdain for the tradition he has jettisoned, but what I didn’t expect was the conspicuous absence of anything substantive to replace it. For the revolution Bell claims to have inaugurated, I kept looking for that key moment when Bell moved past everything he is against and told his disciples what to follow him for. But that moment never came. Down scrolled the credits and I couldn’t believe that the film had ended. Did I miss it?
The real surprise
Visually, the film is genius in the way it sets Bell up contra mundum. With street preachers spewing hatred into megaphones outside his speaking venues, with Franklin Graham denouncing Bell from the pulpit, the “heretic” appears out of the shadows as the savior to all oppressed by American Christianity. Those interviewed did not hide just how mesmerized they are by Bell’s free-thinking spirit. They too share Bell’s story. Exhausted by the guilt trip, no longer will they tolerate the intolerant message that unless they repent God will punish them in hell forever. No longer will they be controlled by power mongers with a message of fear and condemnation. Still, when all the dust settles, and all the protesters go home, does Bell have something formative to say to his disciples?
Here is the real surprise: For all his postmodern tactics (questioning, raising doubt, embracing uncertainty), the radically new message Bell has for those who have joined his revolution is nothing but classic liberal theology. That’s right, the liberalism of yesterday.
For instance, Bell’s starting point is not all that different from the father of liberalism himself, that is, Friedrich Schleiermacher. At a pivotal moment in the film, Bell shares why it is that Christian religion today has failed. And here is Bell’s answer: Christian religion is not relevant. He labors to explain that it doesn’t connect with the LGBT crowd nor with those in touch with the soil. What is needed, therefore, is a message these groups and others will find comforting and affirming, a message they will find tolerating and loving.
Don’t miss just how significant this point is for Bell. He is pulling back the curtain to reveal his motives, to show us his theological method. How does Bell know who God is, how to interpret what God’s done, and what type of message Jesus has for the world? Simple, by looking first to what kind of message will be embraced by the world we find ourselves in. It’s not the Bible as the word of God that is our authoritative starting point—no, the Bible is a tool used by the powerful to abuse the powerless. It’s not even Jesus Christ—no, in the name of Jesus just about every act of violence under heaven has been justified. And it’s certainly not the church, the very belly of the beast—no, the church (especially the American church) is an excuse to parade “our tribe,” excluding everyone who does not believe our way is the only one true way. Rather, the starting point is human, cultural experience. First, we must determine how to be relevant again to the culture; only then will we have a message worth sharing.
For Bell, two conclusions follow. First, we must scrap certainty. Bell confesses that when he first started pastoring he started with what’s true and then tried to get people to believe it. But then he realized that such a black and white approach meant reading the Bible like a fundamentalist, looking for solutions. That approach proved to exclude people. Rather than seeking solutions, we should be seeking solidarity with our fellow man. Rather than truth claims, we are to be after a shared experience, one that welcomes all faith traditions.
According to Bell’s disciples, this approach is revolutionary and refreshing. Yet as I listened and watched, I couldn’t help but remember that classic definition of liberalism by Gary Dorrien at the opening of his book The Making of American Liberal Theology:
The essential idea of liberal theology is that all claims to truth, in theology as in other disciplines, must be made on the basis of reason and experience, not by appeal to external authority. Christian Scripture may be recognized as spiritually authoritative within Christian experience, but its word does not settle or establish truth claims about matters of fact.
If one did not know better, one might think Dorrien was describing Bell; Schleiermacher for the 21st century.
But there’s more.
The scandal of intolerant love
Second, if Bell’s starting point matches liberalism, it is not surprising that his theology does as well. Determined to dispense with “religion” due to is cultural irrelevance, Bell develops a theology that will be pertinent. And what kind of theology appeals to a secular culture? A theology of inclusive love. Nowhere is this inclusive love more apparent than when Bell defines the gospel. That may seem like an odd claim; after all, 99.9% of the film says nothing about the gospel. Even Jesus makes few appearances. Very true. But just when you think the film will end without making truth claims, a truth claim concludes the flick, defining the gospel according to Bell. What is the gospel? “You’re loved exactly as you are.” Based on Bell’s strong emphasis on relevance and tolerance, it’s fair to say that being “loved” means being “accepted.” The gospel means being accepted exactly as you are; no repentance required.
On the surface, this gospel seems to give hope. But notice what’s missing? This gospel has no Trinity, which makes sense for if it did then this gospel would exclude those of other religions (or those of no religion). This gospel also has no cross, at least not one where atonement is made, for that would imply that people are sinners in need of a sin-bearing substitute. And this gospel results in no justification, for that assumes a judgment has been escaped by trusting in one who claims his atoning work is the only way to reconciliation with a holy God.
Consider exhibit A: Bell’s interpretation of the exodus. A sovereign God displaying his glory through judgment against Pharaoh? Missing. The sacrifice of a lamb’s blood so that the angel of death passes over? Never mentioned. A God of holy-love who calls his people into a covenant relationship, one that insists upon exclusive fidelity to him over against the pagan gods? Again, Bell says nothing. What then does he say? If you’ve ever been bullied by the superpower, there’s hope because God is all about the underdog. No wrath, no redemption, no judgment, no salvation. Just political vindication for the little guy and hope for all pushed down by “the man.” H. Richard Niebuhr once said that liberalism believes a “God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross” (The Kingdom of God in America). How could Bell disagree?
Acknowledging his debt to Ken Wilber (The Religion of Tomorrow, a book advocating an inclusive vision for all religions), Bell is somewhat forthcoming that the gospel must be redefined as broadly as possible (God loves/accepts everyone just as they are). Bell forgets that the God of the Bible is defined by an intolerant love, a jealous love, a love that will not give divine glory to another and requires his people’s exclusive devotion over against idolatry (Isa. 48:9-11).
In Ezekiel 16 the Lord describes his people as a “whore” (and Bell has a problem with sin language?). When she was born, she was abandoned, left in the streets to die, wallowing in her blood. But the Lord saw her and spoke a redeeming word, “Live!” (16:6). When she grew up he then made her his bride, entering a covenant marriage (16:8). But she became a “harlot,” not only prostituting herself but doing so without charge (16:15-25). She had not only committed adultery with one lover, but become a professional prostitute, offering herself to many lovers (i.e., gods), turning herself into a “commodity to be sold,” says Erik Thoennes. What was God’s response? “No worries, I love you exactly as you are”? Try instead, “I will judge you as women who commit adultery…and bring upon you the blood of wrath and jealousy” (16:38).
Yet it’s this same jealousy that ensures compassion, steadfast love, and mercy as well. In Hosea it is because God is a jealous God that he loves his bride with cleansing mercy, guaranteeing the continuation of his covenant promises. Although Israel “went after her lovers and forgot me, declares the Lord” (Hosea 2:13), as her husband I will “allure her” and “speak tenderly to her” (2:14). Then “you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal’” (2:16). Far from a love that dispenses with justice, “I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness” (2:19-20). Bell has it backwards; only an intolerant love is inclusive enough to pursue a spiritually promiscuous bride. “The intensity of his wrath at threats to this relationship is directly proportional to the depth of his love,” says Daniel Block.
What’s so scandalous about the gospel is that God’s love for his bride is so intolerant and so jealous that the Son of God himself became incarnate, taking the place of the “whore,” drinking the wrath she deserves. That is true solidarity. The reason Christ as a wrath bearing substitute (propitiation; Rom. 3:25) is such good news is because only the incarnate God-man can ensure that God’s holy, just character is not compromised in his gracious, loving justification of the ungodly (3:26). God does not love despite his justice but because of it. Yet that can only be said if our God’s name is jealous; if his love is so intolerant of idolatry that he will lay down his own life to redeem his bride (Jn. 3:16-18). The problem with Bell’s message is that the love he ascribes to God is not scandalous enough to raise the question Paul answers: How can God be just yet the justifier of the ungodly?
You say you want a revolution?
Nearly a century ago, J. Gresham Machen pointed out in Christianity and Liberalism that liberalism is not just another version or type of Christianity; it is another religion altogether. If The Heretic reveals anything definitive it is this: Like liberals of yesterday, Bell sounds Christian, but ask him what the gospel is exactly, and you will discover it has little to do with a Father who loves so much that he sent his Son to a cross. The “heretic” claims to have liberated the masses from slavery in evangelicalism, but does he still have an evangel to offer them upon arrival in the promised land?
The self-identified “heretic” claims to have started a revolution. He wants to change the world. He says he’s got a real solution. Yet as those Mop Tops once said, “But when you talk about destruction…you can count me out.”
Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including Salvation by Grace, Owen on the Christian Life, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture, and Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. Currently he is the series editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. You can read more at MatthewMBarrett.com.