Mar 10, 2011

How to have a good argument with Rob Bell

No-one should set out to be controversial for the sake of it and its certainly a worrying sign when someone revels in the reputation of a controversialist.  Nevertheless, in a world in which the gospel will always be under attack (often by those inside the church) at times it is necessary to be controversial. If the leader is to protect the flock then he must expose error in order to guard the gospel.  Defending the truth must mean contending for truth.

The ideas contained in Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins are ideas that need to be opposed and opposed in the strongest terms. It matters. It matters because the gospel is at stake in what he writes. Is salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus or not? Bell has concluded that it is not, or at least not in faith in the way in which the Bible presents it. Ahead of publication a promotional video was released in which Bell raised a number of provocative questions that only buying the book would answer.  Some Christians have been critical of those who they believe have condemned a man for just asking questions.

Now that advanced copies sent by the publisher are being read we can see that the initial concerns of many are proving well founded.

Tim Challies in his review,based on reading an advanced copy of the book, quotes a couple of quite extraordinary statements.  As Bell looks at the subject of heaven and hell he states:

A staggering number of people have been taught 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…. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.

And in case we are in any doubt as to Bell’s conclusion. He comments:

People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways.

Sometimes people use his name;
other times they don’t.

I’m not sure whether Bell is a full-blown universalist (all we finally be saved) but what I am sure of is that his message of a Jesus who saves people who don’t even know that he has saved them is poison to the church. As a result the book is one that for the sake of the name and honour and reputation of Jesus must be opposed.

But how do we have a good and godly argument?

Nathaniel Dimock (1825-1909) was a Church of England minister and an evangelical. Although not widely known JI Packer commends him as ‘the saintly controversialist’.

He happened to live and minister at a time of great controversy in the Anglican church when truth was under attack from Enlightenment Rationalism and the Romish Ritualism that flowed out of the Oxford Movement.

As a result Dimock gave himself to writing extensively for over 30 years to countering error in the church. We can learn much not only about the need to refute error, as a sacred duty, but also the manner in which we ought to conduct ourselves.

Dimock wirtes in 1876 at the end of a work on the Eucharist.

It belongs to Christian controversy to set forth the truth, and the whole truth, but to set it forth in love. This conducted, controversy itself, though often a painful duty, is really a very sacred thing. And while earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, we may surely ask for God’s blessing on consecrated controvery. And asking, we surely expect that in His own good way God will graciously employ feeble efforts made in a sacred cause.

His manner was well recognised by those who knew him. After his death, Handley Moule (then Bishop of Durham) wrote in the foreward to the memorial edition of Dimock’s collected works:

In him the grace of God combined in perfect harmony a noble force and range of mental power, an unshakeable fidelity to conscience and Revelation, and a spirit beautiful with humility, peace, and love.

Even those who opposed him theologically could not help but comment on his gracious method.  A critical review of one of his books still recognises;

The courtesy and calmness and Christian spirit which Mr. Dimock shows in this pamphlet certainly entitle all he has to say to consideration, and demand grateful recognition from those who cannot agree with his conclusions

The conclusion of the matter is this: How we disagree with someone as well as how we contend for the truth are both gospel issues.

The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy about how a godly minister will conduct himself:

Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.

As many of us will no doubt enter into debate with Rob Bell (or at least with those who support his views) Dimock asks us a question to which we all know the answer;

Does anyone really suppose that the cause of Him, who would have us love one another, can be forwarded by nourishing in our hearts the bitterness, wrath, and anger of our grievous odium Theologicum, or that the truth of the Gospel will be advanced by addressing unseemly language?


  • Could you point me toward some resources on Nathaniel Dimock?

    • Hi Brian. Sadly there is surprisingly little written on Dimock. Jim Packers contribution is the best and can be found in ‘Evangelicals at Oxford, 1735-1905′. Some of Dimock’s works are available to read at (search for Nathaniel Dimock). Hope that’s of some help.

  • Can’t tell from this if you’ve had an advanced copy of the book and read it or whether you’re simply reposting other people’s version of what Rob Bell’s said?

    • Hi Helen. Hope you’re all well. Sorry it’s taken a while to get back. Four talks this weekend! It’s not quite either of the two things you suggest. I haven’t had an advance copy but I’m not merely reposting someone else’s view. I have had access to extended extracts of the book. So unless he contradicts himself in the sections I haven’t seen I think the conclusions are justified.

  • Have a look at this blog’s views on Mr B. I think she eloquently captures a crucial thought towards the end of it, when she talks about his reductionist teaching approach.

  • Thanks for this piece. I agree that how we discuss these matters is just as important–if not more important–than the conclusions we arrive at. No one can be absolutely certain their views on hell are correct. But we can all be certain that Jesus called us first to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

    I’m producing a documentary on this very topic this summer (Called “Hellbound?”, you can read more about it here: Hopefully we can practice this simple truth as we seek to bring the hell debate to the big screen.

  • Why enter into argument with Bell at all, if he is clearly a heretic? Justification by faith should not be up for debate

    Neither should hell.
    “…No one can be absolutely certain their views on hell are correct” ??
    But we can be certain what the Word of God says about it, and what the Word says is that it is a place of eternal torment and a lake of fire.

  • I have read Rob Bell’s book. I see it as long on questions and short on conclusions. I don’t fault him for his questions, but he does a disservice to his theological education in failing to fully discuss the orthodox Christian response.

    Having said that, I am reminded of Isaiah 56, which teaches that God’s grace is bigger than the law and bigger than our concept of who can enter the temple and who is saved, and reaches to the eunuch and the foreigner who love the Lord:

    4 For this is what the Lord says:

    “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
    who choose what pleases me
    and hold fast to my covenant—
    5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
    a memorial and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
    I will give them an everlasting name
    that will endure forever.
    6 And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord
    to minister to him,
    to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants,
    all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it
    and who hold fast to my covenant—
    7 these I will bring to my holy mountain
    and give them joy in my house of prayer.
    Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
    for my house will be called
    a house of prayer for all nations.”
    8 The Sovereign Lord declares—
    he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
    “I will gather still others to them
    besides those already gathered.”

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