Monday, May 02, 2011

Outline for My Contribution to a Panel Discussion on Rob Bell, Tuesday, May 3, at Denver Seminary

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.

Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary

A Guide to the Rational Analysis of Rob Bell

One of the ways in which the damned will be condemned is that they will see themselves condemned by their own reason, by which they claimed to condemn the Christian religion—Blaise Pascal.[1]

I. The Bible on the Seriousness of Teaching the Bible

A. The office of teacher, preacher

1. Judgment of teachers (James 3:1-2)

2. Preparation for teaching (2 Timothy 2:15; Titus 2:7-8)

3. The need for knowledge in teaching (Malachi 2:7)

4. The danger of false teaching (Jeremiah 8:8; Matthew 15:1-8)

5. The danger of false prophets (Matthew 7:15-23)

6. Satan is the father of lies and must be resisted (John 8:44; James 4:7-8; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

B. The importance of critical thinking as a Christian

1. Love God with all your mind (Matthew 22:37-40)

2. Test the spirits (1 John 4:1-6; 2 Corinthians 11:14)

3. Test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21-23)

C. Theological reasoning

1. Sound exegesis (biblical theology): 2 Peter 3:16

2. Sound theologizing logically (systematic theology): the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27)

3. Avoid paradox, enigma, mystery as much as possible: we need to grow in the “knowledge of God”

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.—1 Peter 3:18

4. Theology for the glory of God, the advancement of the kingdom (the mission of God), the good of the church and the world (Matthew 6:33; 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17)

II. The Rob Bell Phenomenon

A. Books: Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Love Wins

B. Nooma videos: short, impressionistic, personality-driven

C. Ethos: undogmatic, exploratory, open-ended, skeptical, often flippant

D. Method or style in theology: raise questions, generate confusion, suggest possibilities; embrace tension and paradox; rejection of rational certainty (see Luke 1:1-4).

Faith: mystery, paradox, speculation, hope

Reason: truth, knowledge, certainty

E. Bell advocates pantheistic books: Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything (in Velvet Elvis); Huston Smith, The Soul of Christianity (in Love Wins). Against, see Doug Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age.

III. Love Wins: Some Issues

A. Apologetic purpose: win people who have rejected Christianity because of its doctrines of heaven and hell.

B. Good points

1. The earthly and present tense value of the Kingdom of God. Influence of N.T. Wright. See also the work of G.E. Ladd on the Kingdom of God.

2. Addresses texts which seem to teach universalism

C. A few of the many problems with Love Wins

1. Not clear on justication by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8); may deny it

2. Not clear on substitutionary, penal atonement of Christ; may deny it.

3. No rigorous reasoning concerning the afterlife

a. Suggest post-mortem salvation, salvation in other religions (see Ephesians 2:12)

b. Touches on passages without sufficient development

4. Bell seems to advance three propositions in Love Wins

a. Everyone is saved: God wants all to be saved; God gets what God wants.

b. Everyone is not saved. We can refuse God’s love.

c. We don’t know if everyone is saved or not.

5. These statements are inconsistent with each other; they cannot all be true

6. We need better thinking about issues of ultimate concern (Isaiah 1:18)


  1. D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Crossway, 2005). Helps explain some of the weaknesses of the emerging church, of which Bell is somewhat associated.
  2. Douglas Groothuis, “What about Hell?” from The Christian Research Journal. On line at:
  3. Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, August, 2011). See chapters on hell and religious pluralism especially.
  4. Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity from the Challenges of Postmodernism (InterVarsity, 2000). Advocates a very different view of truth and epistemology than does Bell.
  5. Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest, Integrative Theology (Zondervan, 1987-1993). A thorough and rationally sound method of theologizing.
  6. J.P. Moreland, Kingdom Triangle (Zondervan, 2007). Guide to the importance of a Christian mind, spiritual discipline, and charismatic power for ministry.
  7. Christopher Morgan, Robert A. Peterson, eds. Hell Under Fire (Zondervan, 2003). Defends the historic, orthodox view of hell.
  8. Robert A. Peterson on this, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1995). His arguments against universalism and annihilationism are found in chapters eight and nine respectively.
  9. Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is There, 30th anniv. ed. (InterVarsity Press, 1968; reprint, 1998). A stellar model of apologetic and cultural engagement from an evangelical perspective. Explains the faith/reason dichotomy that Bell employs.
  10. Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (1971; reprint, Tyndale, 2001). Modern classic.
  11. T.L. Tiessen, “Hell,” in William A. Dyrness and Veli-Matti Karkkainen, eds. Global Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 372-376.

[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), 175/563, p. 84.


Michelle said...

When/where will this Panel Discussion take place? Are all who are interested invited, or just students/faculty?

Michael Baldwin said...

This is excellent, thanks for sharing.
I like things with a good structure and this certainly has it!
Really well-thought through comments imo.

Douglas Groothuis said...

It will be 7:00 PM in the chapel. Officially, only students and staff may attend, but there should be plenty of room,

Bill Honsberger said...

So how did it go???

pete dayton said...

please tell us how it went I am teaching on Love Wins on Saturday and would love some feedback

Douglas Groothuis said...

I hope the audio will be posted. If it is, I'll let you know on the blog.

Anonymous said...

This is great stuff Dr. G!! Thanks for sharing! Wish I could have gone to the panel Discussion.

Yossman said...

I went to a Bell presentation in the Twin Cities. Indeed, Bell has an enormous charismatic personality. Coming from an advertising background I tend to get annoyed by people who's content depends largely on their presentation. Moreover I found Bell not really addressing the issues that were raised in his book. He invited the audience to ask all sorts of questions and gave at times funny, at times enigmatic answers.

Yet during the course of the event I started to feel sympathy for Bell. For sure, I think Bell's greatest danger is to be worshiped by the left wing of the evangelical movement as a sort of guru who gives answers to your questions that make you think about for days. What I notice Bell doing however, is to function as an intermediary between the levels of cutting edge scholarly evangelical thinking and the broad field of held evangelical beliefs among church going folk.

There is good and bad in it. It may not be pleasing to hear more questions than answers. But let's be honest, the more we study theology the more we discover ambiguity, uncertainty and open-endedness, that, though not rendering our faith void (after all we serve the living Christ), leaves us with a chastened epistemology. Bell is far from a guru; after all, I hear him merely enigmatically regurgitate the fascinating discussions we have in our theological classes. And even Bell doesn't have the answers we'd all like to have. It is to his merit, though, that he is willing to raise questions and challenge Christians to be a little self-assured about a lot of things. I like that. I don't know how far one can go with this, outside the academic world, but it's worth a try.

Two things Bell affirmed that I agreed with and one thing I like about him.

1. Who are we to judge whether someone goes to hell or not? Who are we to draw boundaries that separate insiders from outsiders? Matthew 25 warns us that we are in for surprises. I like surprises, esp. ones that keep more people out of hell than my theology would allow.

2. Bell seems to move away from doctrinal statements to an affirmation of the need to follow Jesus and practice what he did. It may not be sufficient to make this move and simply discard a rich heritage of evangelical theology. At the same time, we evangelicals might have too much doctrine. We used it too capture the truth in timeless statements for us to look at. They have the danger of relieving us of the urgent imperative to actually do what Jesus said. Besides, doctrines can function as a smokescreen, making us think we have adequately described truth, whereas in reality we have merely devised our own theological construct and replaced the rich biblical material with it.

3. We need more creativity in evangelical theology. Maybe I haven't read enough to make this statement, but I believe that too much of our theology is constructed to safeguard the truth as we understand it. Would we be more creative, we might venture out and contextualize our theology more for situations that Jesus calls us to remedy. I find Bell to be pretty creative, though his is more form than content.

Lastly, I haven't read 'Love Wins.' No doubt, it's been the talk of the town, but, really, I'm busy reading N.T. Wright, Moltmann and Pannenberg. And for now, that will keep me busy.

Dr Paul S De Sousa said...

Hi there - is there a link to the audio on this debate.

kinds regards


PS- thanks for the great reference book you wrote.

Dr Paul S De Sousa said...

Hi there can I possibly have the link to the audio.



Douglas Groothuis said...

There is no video or audio. Sorry.