As far as I can tell, any classic, middle-of-the-road Christian can offer a hearty "Amen" to a great deal of Rob Bell's theology.
The former pastor of Mars Hill Church believes God exists and can be experienced and yet cannot be contained by rational explanations. He affirms the divinity and humanity of Christ, as well as the Resurrection. He believes the Spirit is active in our lives and in the world. He believes the Bible is authoritative at some level—that is, he always tries to understand his life in light of his reading of the Bible. He is indignant about self-righteousness and injustice, and contrary to popular opinion, he actually believes in a judgment: He says people who abuse and exploit others and creation will not participate in the glorious restoration of heaven on earth. Yes, he holds out hope that perhaps everyone will someday be saved, but in one sense, so do many evangelicals. Even God is said to wish that no one should perish.
So unlike some of my other fellow believers, I cannot say, "Farewell, Rob Bell." Instead, I think of him as my brother in Christ.
This may surprise readers who believe I wrote God Wins to refute Bell's controversial theology. Only in part, though that part is not insignificant. I mostly stumble over his epistemology—his understanding of how we come to know what is true, and by what method we determine how to live authentic lives. As I argued in the book, this is precisely my concern about evangelical faith as a whole. The thesis in my book and in this essay is that in this respect, Rob Bell is not only an evangelical, but an evangelical's evangelical, the evangelical par excellence.
This is admittedly a sweeping and dramatic assertion, which cannot be worked out in the course of an essay. But let me sketch in broad terms what I mean. I'll use Bell's latest book as the primary example—not because it is unusual, but precisely because it so perfectly represents what's going on in large segments of Christianity today.
Where Theology Begins
So, where does Bell locate the source of faith and theology? His new book is titled What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne), and it's natural to expect epistemology—how we know what we know when we talk about God—to come into play. And it does, and it's embedded all through the book. Some examples (my italics for emphasis):
When I talk about God, I'm talking about a reality known, felt, and experienced . . . . (page 62) When God is described as father or mother or judge or potter or rock or fortress . . . those writers are talking about something they've seen, something they've experienced and they are essentially saying, "God is like that." (89) So, when we talk about God, we're talking about our brushes with spirit, our awareness of the reverence humming within us, our sense of the nearness and the farness, that which we know and that which is unknown. (91)
In other words, Bell believes our knowledge of God is grounded not in doctrine, the Bible, the preached Word, the sacraments, our institutions, or even what Jesus revealed (all ways theologians ground our knowledge of God), but in our experiences and our intuitions—especially that sense many have that there is a deeper reality in, with, and under this life. This is an appeal to general revelation, how God makes himself known naturally to the world. Classically understood, these intuitions also include an awareness that we stand under divine judgment for our sin, but Bell does not go there. Nor does he hint that we might ever doubt our intuitions—he assumes we can trust them.
Of course, not everyone intuits the things Bell suggests we all intuit. For example, one night on a fishing trip with my son, gazing up at the vastness of space, I said, "I wonder if people find it harder to believe God these days because we don't get to look at stars like this anymore, living in lighted cities as most of us do."
My son, who majored in physics, replied, "Well, some people look at the vastness of the universe and conclude that it points to the meaninglessness of human life on earth." One person's intuition that "there must be something more than science tells us" is another person's intuition that there is nothing more.
That said, there are some people in whom God has begun a good work, and they resonate with the intuitions that Bell identifies. In using this approach, Bell aligns himself with the Romantic tradition, which arose as a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment era. As I noted in an earlier essay for CT, this approach is very much in line with 19th-century liberalism, especially with the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), who championed in a systematic way the "religion of feeling." The point is not that Bell is nothing but a liberal. Rather, the point is that Bell's attraction to a religion of feeling has been and is shared by American evangelicals. By us.
Our Religion of Feeling
The stereotypical evangelical expression of this is found in the born-again experience, which first became a phenomenon during the Great Awakening in the 1740s, when it was called "the new birth." It was rationalized—meaning, it was reduced to mere technique—by Charles Finney, and it has become a stock technique of revivalists ever since. The preacher works up in his audience feelings of shame, guilt, and impending doom (judgment), only to release them with the promise of forgiveness if people repent of their sins and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. This results in an extraordinary psychological experience for individuals, many of whom look back to this occasion as the moment they were "saved."
(I do not question the authenticity of all such experiences, nor God's ability to use them even when they are emotionally manipulative. I went forward at such an altar call as a teenager, weeping uncontrollably as I repeated the Sinner's Prayer. God apparently is willing to use even tainted means to awaken us to his grace.)
Among the more balanced revivalists, like Billy Graham, this conversion moment is characterized as a "decision," a rational act of faith and trust—thus, Graham's radio program was called The Hour of Decision, and his magazine, Decision. One thing that separated Graham from many others was his refusal to manipulate emotions.
But this has not been the case with a great many revivalists, from the camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening to the local revivals in fundamentalist churches all across America, like those I experienced as a teenager in the Felton (California) Evangelical Free Church. The annual revival was part of the "church year," a time when youth especially were driven to emotional despair, only to be raised to new life if we would, once again, go forward and recommit our lives to Christ.
In many Christian circles, though, the proof of conversion is not the decision to go forward, but the experience of remorse and release that accompanies the moment. In these circles, one is assured of salvation not because one merely said the Sinner's Prayer, but because of the experience surrounding it. Otherwise one is suspected of mere formalism.
This need to prove one's faith by the drama of one's conversion experience goes way back. To become a full member of a New England Puritan church—to be baptized, take Communion, and vote—you had to convince church leaders of your genuine conversion experience. The point is this: There is a significant strain of evangelical religion that grounds genuine knowledge of God first and foremost in the experience of faith. That's how you really know you are saved and part of the family of God.
Until recently, this sort of experience was understood to be unusual, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There was no expectation that this sort of event would repeat itself (well, except at annual revival meetings). It was assumed that these were extraordinary visitations of the Spirit, and that one would expect to live the rest of life without such experiences.
That understanding has changed radically in the past couple of decades, and again, Bell expresses this in ways that are representative of much of evangelical teaching today (italics added):
I believe God wants us each to flourish and thrive in this world here and now as we become more and more everything we can possibly be (18). When Jesus talked about faith, he talked about fruit. . . . You tasting, seeing, encountering, and experiencing the full life of God and never being the same again . . . gaining a living, breathing awareness of the love of God and sharing it with others (148). I believe that you are already experiencing the presence of God with you in countless ways every single day (122).
The implicit promise is that we can experience God 24/7/365, if only we opens our eyes to God's presence all around us.
This reflects a growing trend in contemporary spirituality, which has its roots in the pioneering work of Richard Foster. To be clear, Foster is not enamored with experience as such, and actually makes a point to remind his readers that the dark night of the soul is a regular, if not usual, experience—especially for those most mature in the faith! God's seeming absence is what so often characterizes the life of God's saints, from John of the Cross to Mother Teresa. But evangelical readers are instead most fascinated with the practices that will awaken us more deeply to God's daily, hourly presence.
One recent example is Margaret Feinberg's latest book, Wonderstruck: Awaken to the Nearness of God (Worthy). I read the book in galley form, and actually endorsed it, because Feinberg is a friend and there is so much in the book I happen to like. Her unbounded enthusiasm is evident from the beginning:
God invites us to look up, open our eyes to the wonder all around us, and seize every opportunity to encounter him (27). God is not merely at your fingertips but within your grasp (27). Open your arms and your eyes to the God who stands in plain sight and works miracles in your midst. . . . Pray for—and expect—wonder. . . . Live awake and aware because the wonder awaits (28). As followers of Jesus, we have the opportunity to live each day in wild amazement of God. If we pay attention, we can begin discovering the wonders all around us (173).
Two pastor friends make the same sort of promises to their congregation. In a recent sermon, the senior pastor told his parishioners to "seek wonder" and said that if we journey with Jesus in this life in openness, we "will know joy." The following week his associate told the church to "open yourself to the God of wonders. Give him your scarcity and he will turn it into opportunity."
There is a lot of truth in all this. The Christian life is not mere assent to doctrine or the faithful performance of ritual, but an invitation to encounter the living God. With the eyes of faith, we should be able to see more wonder. This is why I am not loathe to attend this church nor averse to endorsing Feinberg's book. For certain personalities, this sort of thing is the perfect cup of tea. And for those of us who tend to be less bubbly—well, it never hurts to hear that God's grace can make itself known from time to time in our daily routines.
My concern, though, is that so many Christian teachers oversell, and therefore inevitably underdeliver—or better, put God in the position where he will underdeliver. I suspect that in many cases, they are merely using hyperbole to drive home a point, but I'm convinced that readers and listeners take such exaggerations literally because they desperately want them to be true. But there is no way anyone can "live each day in wild amazement of God," or that each of us can "flourish and thrive in this world here and now as we become more and more everything we can possibly be." Such experiences happen now and then in this life, but will be fully realized only when sin and death have been defeated and love and peace reign in the coming kingdom, when finally every tear is wiped away, when we see God face to face (Rev. 21).
In the meantime, we live in this present age. And this present age is, according to Paul, an age characterized by groaning:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:20–23, ESV).
To be sure, we now also know joy, but only because the promise of our redemption is assured by Christ's death and resurrection and made known to us by the Holy Spirit. But it's not a present experience of redemption—of flourishing and thriving, of becoming all that we can be, of amazement at the immediate encounter with God each day—but the assured hope that redemption is coming. "For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience" (vv. 24–25).
To wait in patience is just the opposite of what we are often encouraged to do. Instead, we convince ourselves that we don't need patience as much as will power, because if we do everything right, we can make divine encounters a daily, ongoing, and enthralling experience. But with this comes the corollary: There must be something wrong with me, something lacking in my devotion, if I don't have these experiences. By contrast, Paul's admonition to wait in patience suggests that it's normal not to have such experiences.
Yes, they do happen. In his grace God gives us periodic glimpses of the future, tastes of what is coming. This happens in those famous conversion experiences, and in healings, in miracles, in those moments when God's presence is keenly felt. I myself have experienced a healing of severe pain in my leg. I have also almost been "slain in the Spirit" (but got hold of myself just in time!). And as the Spirit leads, I speak in tongues. I have also had ecstatic experiences when the love of God penetrated my whole being.
And in a life of 60 years, I can count these experiences on one hand. Because I've had such experiences, I understand perfectly the desire to have them all the time, and to imagine that maybe there is a technique, a method, a way to pray, a way to be open and alert—something!—that will allow me to experience this daily. Believe me, I tried that for a while and discovered that, yes, I could manufacture something very similar to a genuine spiritual experience. But it soon became clear that the search for daily wonder was creating a religion of Mark Galli. It wasn't helping me love my neighbor, though it did help me judge my neighbor as relatively unspiritual, at least compared to me.
A Normal Life of Love
I believe there is yet another reason we're fascinated with divine encounters: our boredom with the life God has given us.
Instead of a life of experience, Christ calls us to a life of love. And a life of love for the most part means attending to the tedious details of others' lives, and serving them in sacrificial ways that most days feels, well, not exciting at all. Rather than sweeping the kitchen, cleaning the toilet, listening to the talkative and boring neighbor, slopping eggs onto a plate at the homeless shelter, or crunching numbers for another eight hours at the office—surely life is meant for more than this. We are tempted to wonder, Is that all there is to the "abundant" Christian life? Shouldn't my life be more adventurous if God is in me and all around me? How am I going to be all I'm supposed to be if I have to empty bedpans in Peoria? I would just die if I had to do that.
Yes, you would. Jesus called it dying to self. Love is precisely denying the self that wants to glory in experience. The cost of discipleship most of us are asked to pay is to live the life God has given us, serving in mundane ways the people he has put in our path. To be free from the self and to discover such love is the essence of abundant life.
As Paul put it, in the final analysis love is not about speaking in tongues, having prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries or knowledge, having experiences of wonder, or being all we can be. Love instead "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Cor. 13:7). Yes, endures. It endures now because it hopes. And it hopes because it has not yet been given in full what is promised, but only glimpses here and there, mere appetizers to the great kingdom feast.
It is not hard to see why the religion of experience—the experience that Rob Bell is now writing about—tempts one to make feeling an idol, or how a religion of feeling leads to the watering down of great gospel themes. Historians of theology have shown such connections time and again. What's hard to understand is why so many Christians who claim they stand for the faith once delivered to the saints don't see that the road of experience leads nowhere except to the barren desert of the self.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.