Could Rob Bell work for InterVarsity? [Updated]

March 5, 2011

[Update]

Resources:

  • Mark Galli’s article at CT (except for the mushy last paragraph).
  • Tim Keller, The Reason for God. “How Can a Loving God send people to hell?” (Chapter 5). Available here.

Celebrity pastor Rob Bell has caused an uproar in the evangelical world over the last week thanks to the release of his promo video for a new book, Love Wins. For an overview of the controversy check out this New York Times article.

The book isn’t due to be released until March 15, 2011. However, the New York Times describes Bell’s position:

In a book to be published this month, the pastor, Rob Bell, known for his provocative views and appeal among the young, describes as “misguided and toxic” the dogma that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.”

Obviously this statement doesn’t tell us everything we need to know in order to evaluate Rob’s view. He might be espousing a view called annihilationism that holds that those who die outside of Christ are punished by non-being, they are burned up and ceased to exist. This is not a majority view in the evangelical world, but it is held by some well-known evangelical leaders such as John R. W. Stott.

Of course, Bell might also be espousing a form of Christian universalism that holds that Jesus’ atonement is for “the whole world.” And that, as such, it achieves what it set out to do: redeems the whole world. Those who die outside of the conscious faith of the Church still may die “in Christ” because he gave Himself for the whole world.

If there’s anything good that can come from a very public persona espousing a minority theological view, it is the opportunity for renewed discussion around the subject. In fact, it is a great opportunity for pastor-theologians (and all pastors are theologians before they are leaders or managers or whatever else) to teach clearly what the Scriptures teach on this important topic.

This controversy poses another question: could Rob Bell work for InterVarsity? A big part of my job is hiring staff to work with our graduate and faculty chapters in VIrginia and the Carolinas. Would I hire Rob Bell?

Based on the public record the answer would be no. Here’s why.

Here’s what the InterVarsity Doctrinal Basis states on the matter:

[We believe in…]

The victorious reign and future personal return of Jesus Christ,
who will judge all people with justice and mercy,
giving over the unrepentant to eternal condemnation
but receiving the redeemed into eternal life.

I will not hire staff who cannot embrace this statement of evangelical belief. As statements go, I think it covers the essentials of the doctrine without getting caught up into the specifics of the torment itself.

The Doctrinal Basis maintains the historical and orthodox understanding of eternal punishment, but puts it in the broader context of God’s being and mission. In other words, while it is an important doctrine it isn’t a doctrine with which we ought to lead in our preaching and teaching (most of the time). And yet, there is danger in ignoring it too.

To put it more succinctly, I would rather dwell on the beauty, the excellencies, and the glory of Christ Jesus and His Gospel than on unpacking the specific nature of the ways in which the unrepentant will suffer in the life to come. However, it is important to note that the Gospel message presupposes a discussion of eternal suffering. You cannot get away from it and to do so would be dangerous. Yet, as I wrote above, we should not make it a subject of repeated and protracted study.

It is also important that we dwell on and explore the benefits of Christ that we receive and enjoy in this life as well as the life to come. Eternal life begins now. On that point, Rob Bell is correct.