Eugene Peterson wrote a blurb for Rob Bell’s new book on hell.

His comments in a recent interview are worth noticing, because it points to a problem. He is careful not to agree with Bell, but makes it very hard to disagree with him.

Rob Bell has views that are (at least) similar to those that early founders of Evangelicalism explicitly rejected (as their college creeds indicate). Now the Evangelical founders may have been wrong, but Bell is disagreeing with them at one of the points where they agreed with the vast majority of the Christian tradition.

Rome agrees. Orthodoxy agrees. Evangelicals all agreed that hell was a place of eternal torment. Bell (perhaps?) does not agree. Noticing this shift is not bad manners and disagreement that is not stronger than Bell’s own language (or that of Jesus) can be pretty potent!

Here are some comments on the interview. I have added (Question:) to indicate questions given to Peterson, (Peterson:) to show his response, and (JMNR:) to indicate my comment.

Now the interview:

Question: What are your thoughts regarding Rob Bell’s book and the controversy it ignited?  What inspired you to endorse the book?

Peterson: Rob Bell and anyone else who is baptized is my brother or my sister. We have different ways of looking at things, but we are all a part of the kingdom of God.

JMNR: Peterson is framing the issue as if disagreeing with Bell means you think him damned. No man is competent to say who is damned, but we may be competent to decide which views are damnable.

Bell says he is a Christian. As I hope people do with my own claims, I take him at his word. He has written a book, however, presenting questions, claims, exegesis, and arguments.

If one thinks some of his claims are false, his exegesis sometimes bad, and his arguments unsound, the critic need make no arguments about Bell’s personal salvation. His views can be wrong without the man being evil.

If as Bell points out, good people can do bad things, then good people can also believe bad things.

Peterson: And I don’t think that brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God should fight.  I think that’s bad family manners.

JMNR: Rob Bell has written a book that is hard toward those who don’t agree with him. His rhetoric is loaded from the start. This is fine, but to complain when people make strong arguments back is inconsistent. Jesus used tough rhetoric so I am not complaining, but do think it weird for defenders of Bell to become faint over parodies or pointed questions.

Heated argument is not “fighting.” No blood is flowing.

Bell called for a discussion. He says his views are Biblical and claims they are historical. (Origen!) Disagreeing is not fighting.

Peterson: I don’t agree with everything Rob Bell says.  

JMNR: It would be helpful to know exactly “what” Peterson disagrees with.

I am sure Peterson is not doing this, but blurbs like this can sound like the college president who agrees with a controversial faculty member, but doesn’t want to lose a donor. He lets the faculty member take the hits and then stands on the sidelines.

Peterson: But I think they’re worth saying.  I think he puts a voice into the whole evangelical world which, if people will listen to it, will put you on your guard against judging people too quickly, making rapid dogmatic judgments on people.  I don’t like it when people use hell and the wrath of God as weaponry against one another.

JMNR: I read Bell’s book. As a former Anglican, I have heard all this multiple times in my own forty-odd years. Can Peterson point to one thing Bell says that is different than what has been said by universalists since Victorian times? Isn’t the only thing new “who” is saying it (a popular preacher who is Evangelical) and not what is said?

Is the Evangelical church such a cult of personality that old ideas from cool people are suddenly worth hearing?

I challenge anyone to find anything new in Bell that has not been better said in scholarly and popular books in the past.

The book is not about “rapid dogmatic” judgments. It is about the afterlife. Nobody should make rapid dogmatic judgments. My considered, Socratic judgment is that Bell has written a book that adds little but sound to a serious issue. His views are not new and have been rejected by the mainstream of the Church on countless occasions.

Peterson: I knew that people would jump on me for writing the endorsement.  I wrote the endorsement because I would like people to listen to him.  He may not be right.  But he’s doing something worth doing.  

JMNR:
Exactly what is he doing worth doing? I am not jumping on the endorsement Professor Peterson if you can tell me why I should listen to Bell. Is his scholarship impressive? Is his exegesis? Is he a great writer? Why is an attack on eternal punishment worth doing?

Peterson: There’s so much polarization in the evangelical church that it’s a true scandal.  We’ve got to learn how to talk to each other and listen to each other in a civil way.

JMNR: I agree.

But Peterson cannot think all “polarization” bad or there would not be an Evangelical (as opposed to say Roman) Church.

Charity doesn’t mean we cannot have hard talk . . . just no tougher than Jesus.

In philosophy we will use tough talk and then go have drinks. . . and that is a good model.

Bell has written a book that leaves the impression that he thinks hell is impermanent. I stand with the Pope, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Councils, Billy Graham, the Founders of Biola . . . and almost everybody else in Church History in saying, “We have thought about that, heard the arguments, and reject it.”

What has Bell added that is new for me to consider? George McDonald even told the story better. If he did not convince me, Bell never will.

Question: Do evangelicals need to reexamine our doctrines of hell and damnation?

Peterson: Yes, I guess I do think they ought to reexamine.  They ought to be a good bit more biblical, not taking things out of context.

JMNR: Who could be against this? Is the use of the Prodigal Son story by Bell an example of good use of Scripture and taking things in context?

Peterson: But the people who are against Rob Bell are not going to reexamine anything.  They have a litmus test for who is a Christian and who is not.  But that’s not what it means to live in community.

JMNR:

I am not against Bell. I like the fact he has helped people I know. I like his style. I like some of what he says. I like his glasses, but I dislike this book and these views. They are wrong and the Church has condemned them multiple times, in multiple places, at multiple times.

Of course, that assumes one can get to his views in a book so vaguely written that it is hard to be sure. I am assuming Bell thinks Hell is not a place of eternal torment of men who are aware of their state. He also thinks that one can “leave” hell. Both ideas have been tried many times and found (generally) wanting, though the first view is vague enough to depend on how it is teased out.

I will reexamine everything and do. Every year I try to challenge my most basic beliefs, but it takes a new idea to challenge those beliefs. Rob Bell has said nothing new.

To live in a community means to have no “litmus test?” What does this mean? Can one believe just anything and be in community? Can one deny that Jesus is Lord knowingly and be in communion with a Church community? What is this community?

A litmus test is after all a valuable thing for telling what is acid and what is base. Some people misuse a test, but some tests help define the bounds of community and help us choose.

Peterson: Luther said that we should read the entire Bible in terms of what drives toward Christ.  Everything has to be interpreted through Christ.  Well, if you do that, you’re going to end up with this religion of grace and forgiveness.  The only people Jesus threatens are the Pharisees.  But everybody else gets pretty generous treatment.  There’s very little Christ, very little Jesus, in these people who are fighting Rob Bell.

JMNR: Those certainly are not fighting words or judgmental words Professor Peterson. Disagreeing strongly with Bell means we have very little of Christ? Is that a litmus test?

Preach Jesus. See Jesus. Love Jesus. Jesus is full of grace, love, and forgiveness. His is also King, Warrior, and Judge. He is just and holy. He offers all sinners a chance to repent, but he stands in judgment to all sinners.

The notion that Jesus only threatens “Pharisees” is absurd. The Communist who rejected God and Jesus and killed millions in the name of science and Marx is threatened by Jesus. The whoremonger is cast into the lake of fire. The liar goes to Hell. The person who hates goes to hell. Many people go to hell, including the pharisaical.

There is no doubt that my own soul is dirty. Every day and every hour I pray, “Lord Jesus Christ son of God have mercy on me a sinner.”

That is not incompatible with saying Bell’s book is no good and Peterson’s defense fatuous. That is too bad, because from what I can see both Bell and Peterson are great men wasting time on a bad cause.

Articles by John Mark Reynolds

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