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Rob Bell and the new generation

Travis asked me about Rob Bell and the new generation of Christians yesterday, in the light of the present controversy regarding his Love Wins book release. My answer is a bit long for his blog comments so I will post it here.

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Travis, I think neither one will happen. Rob Bell will not become irrelevant simply because his book was a lemon and his theology found wanting. He is loved by many people and they will be committed to see him mature and move forward. Young people are a relational bunch: they stick to their friends and they believe people can change, especially when those people are open to conversation. They are NOT consumers who shop around for the most-correct theologian they can find in the yellow pages and then commmit to follow them and their groupies until someone points to a better show.

I think the critics of Rob Bell will suffer more than Rob Bell. Many were too quick to wash their hands of him and host inquisitions for his book. This week's Gloat-Fests of fundies high-fiving each other will give a sour taste that will linger far longer than Bell's accusations.

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In fact, I think the meanness extended to Rob Bell will cause many to see him as the victim of bullying and there will be a move to restore some dignity to him, as Eugene Peterson has done by offering some kind thoughts without fully agreeing with his theology. His message may not resonate with the new generation but his story probably will, and that is why it is possible that Rob Bell might, in the end, win!

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I want to add some more thoughts on the new generation's search for a better eschatology, as I understand it. Not so much on universalism, because I dont run into it very much, but on the search for a more biblically sustainable view on heaven and hell.

If you have read my blog before you will know that I dont have a dog in this fight - I do not consider Rob Bell's church to be "emerging". Its a mega church and structured like many other larger, hierachical traditional churches, rather than the simple, organic, emerging fresh expressions that almost never have a paid professional on a stage.

That doesnt mean his church sucks. It just means its not emerging, no matter what Al Mohler says. Mohler uses the word "emerging church" like some people use "K-Mart shoppers" and "disco-dancers" but that should not be taken as an accurate description of what the emerging churches and fresh expressions actually look like.

I also haven't read Rob Bell's book and do NOT intend to buy it [I prefer to invest my money in good books and I don't think this is one of them] but if Kevin DeYoung's quotes from the book are any indication of what Rob Bell believes then I find myself siding more with DeYoung in his review called "God is still holy and what you learned in Sunday School is still true", at least in his first 2 points, than with Rob Bell. [Alhough I agree with David Fitch's assessment of DeYoung's critique as not very helpful in engendering discussion.]

And what I learned in my NZ Sunday School about heaven [and about how Americans will not be there] has not held up to Biblical scrutiny. We should be open to examine the Scriptures and see if these things are so, without getting our heads ripped off.

I think the new generation of Christians are suspicious of the default fundamentalist-premillenial view of heaven and hell and are open to learning what other streams of Christian thought have to offer.

Regarding the next generation and their view of the last things, I think

1. They will continue to examine the broad resources of Christian theology including those from Eastern, Coptic, Syrian and Western church fathers as well as more recent streams of thought.

2. They will desire a view of the end times that moves beyond a Jack Chick hell, a Left Behind rapture, and a Hal Lindsay burning-planet-ecology.

They will continue to be suspicious of an end-times perspective that cannot differientiate itself from the fundamentalist imbalances of the past 30 years.

3. They will assume that because God is a just God, there will be justice in the end.

After all, the concern for justice is a hallmark of the emerging church. Why should we then want to affirm the final victory of injustice? Is it simply because we confuse the idea of a final judgment with misplaced, medieval notions of hell as a place of eternal torment? Andrew Perriman, Does Emerging Church have a problem with final judgement?

4. They will acknowledge that its a difficult subject. Regarding the issue of hell and heaven:

- its not as crystal clear as some teachers make out,

- much of what the Bibles gives us on the topic is through parable and dream and vision.

- our preconceived notions of hell and heaven might have been move flavored by Dante than the Bible,

- the many words and concepts used for "hell" in the Bible could only be taken as interchangebly pointing to the same reality with a lot of effort,

- they will treat the matter as complex, mysterious and worthy of humilty in our explanation of it and will [hopefully] be wary of going further in their certainty of what we know about heaven and hell, and who does and doesnt go there, than the Scriptures themselves.

"The traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage, postmortem journey represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope." NT Wright, Heaven is not our Home, CT

5. They will resonate with a view of biblical prophecy that answers the questions of immediacy among its initial hearers before bouncing 2000 years into the future to give us a 'relevant' message for today. It's a narcissistic view of biblical prophecy that assumes Jesus was giving his hearers a message that was irrelevant for them and all about us, about our times, about our particular countries.

6. They will acknowledge nuances in meaning and will not assume that because a theologian who lived 1600 years ago said "hell" or "heaven" that he was picturing the same reality that we do when we hear the same word. I commented this morning on Scot McKnight's post regarding what the Eastern Orthodox believe about hell [Part 1 and 2]. . .

I noticed Al Mohler uses John Chrysostom’s mention of “hell” as proof that John believed in the same reality of current day Reformed thinkers. But then I read Chrysostom’s Easter sermon and he seems to be talking about 'hades' or the grave:

"Hell was in turmoil having been destroyed.
Hell was in turmoil having been abolished.
Hell was in turmoil having been made captive.

O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?"

7. They will not select a new eschatology out of rebellion or protest, or because it makes God out to be mean or intolerant (as Mark Driscoll suggests in To Hell with Hell), or just because the old one does not suit their sensibilities. That is insulting! We are talking about Generation Text who are only one click away from the world's largest library.

I think if they [we] suddenly discovered that God was a lot meaner that we thought, we would still follow him because He is God, not because we find in Him a blend of human qualities and preferences that matches our own ideals.

No, if a new generation is to commit itself to a re:worked understanding of heaven and hell then it will only happen if that understanding is informed by a comprehensive and coherent understanding of what the Scriptures actually say about the topic, an understanding that we would expect to have precedent in historic Christian orthodoxy, which may have been previously glossed over and temporarily blinded by present concerns and prejudices.

I might be naive, but when that happens, I think there will be more consensus than confusion. Even among the Reformed, as I saw happening a few years ago when NT Wright challenged our inherited idea of heaven and challenged us to read our Old Testament.

N. T. Wright actually does believe in heaven; he just doesn’t believe that Christians go there to live forever after they die. That may sound strange to some ears, but what he says on this point is actually orthodox Christian truth.

Denny Burk, Does NT Wright believe in heaven?

So, am I too optimistic?