According to his website, Rob Bell designs “clean, effective websites” meant to help clients reach their “business objectives.” He prides himself on his “business-focused approach” and promotes it in a variety of ways, including using the social networking site, Twitter. Surprisingly, this little known web designer from the UK trended on Twitter last weekend. Why? Not because of his business specific web layouts, but because a more well known Christian pastor and theologian also named Rob Bell is coming out with a book entitled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Not only was the UK based website creator confused, but so were a myriad of other “Tweeples” as all hell broke loose regarding Rob Bell on Christian blogs and social media sites this weekend.
As his book title suggests, Bell is tackling one of the most contentious issues in post-modern evangelicalism. While evangelical establishment leaders such as John MacArthur and John Piper wax eloquently about the reality of hell and those destined for it, other so-called “emerging” Christian leaders such as Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt are challenging the classical Christian conceptions of paradise and eternal suffering. In Love Wins, to be released in March, the popular “rock star” pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Rob Bell enters into the fray to argue that “a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” According to his publisher, Harper Collins, Bell’s “message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.”
Whether its clever marketing, a controversial choice of words or the announcement of a new decidedly universalist Rob Bell, one thing is clear – the Twitterverse and blogosphere exploded Saturday when a video and a synopsis of Bell’s new tendentious tome were released on-line.
Bloggers from across the theological spectrum spoke to what little was released about the book with harsh words. Reformed leader John Piper quipped via Twitter, “Farewell Rob Bell” and Justin Taylor, who got the social media trend rolling with his blog “Rob Bell: Universalist?” lambasted Bell for preaching “false doctrine.” Both Piper and Taylor have yet to read Bell’s book. Not to be disingenuous, there were other Christian leaders, bloggers and Tweeters that spoke words of neutrality or support for Rob Bell. Nevertheless, the majority of Tweets were judgmental towards Rob Bell and his new book.
This is just another sad example of theological donkey kicking; the tendency for Christian leaders to strike out against a perceived threat without examining it first, much like a donkey kicks at what it sometimes mistakenly adjudicates to be an imminent threat. For centuries the Christian church has rigidly protected its core doctrines against heresy. Unfortunately, at times, Christian leaders and theologians pounced on theologies and works without thoughtfully reading the work or argument first. Whether by hearsay or through chosen disputable excerpts, Christian theologians in the past gave into the temptation to respond to another theologian without thoroughly reading and reflecting on their works first. Thankfully, these examples were few and far between as most Christian thinkers did their due diligence. Today, in an age of instant Tweets and “quick-post” blogs, Christian leaders are tempted to skip the process of peer review and editorial evaluation that could potentially stop or stall knee-jerk reactions to potentially paradigm-challenging theologies.
As social media sites like Facebook and Twitter fuel the fire of social revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East here in the USA they are regrettably stoking the flames of inter-Christian condemnation and hate speak. While Collin Hansen of the Gospel Coalition notes that this episode speaks to the power of the blogosphere and social media sites to host modern theological debate, it also highlights the great danger that Tweets and other means of on-line communication offer to the contemporary Christian church. As many leaders discuss and debate social media best practices, it is an all too unfortunate truth that Tweets and blogs in the hands of well-meaning Christian leaders can so often lead to widespread religious confusion, conflict and discord. Notwithstanding the possibility that Rob Bell’s book may break loose the long held bonds of a stringent Christian belief in hell, one thing is for sure – all hell broke loose in the Evangelical world last weekend because of a blog, an on-line video and the power of an 140 character Tweet.
+Christianity Today. “Rob Bell’s Upcoming Book on Heaven and Hell Stirs Blog, Twitter Backlash on Universalism.” Sarah Pulliam Bailey. http:// blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2011/02/rob_bells_book.html (accessed February 27, 2011 ).
+CNN. “Christian Author’s Book Sparks Charges of Heresy.” CNN, Eric Marrapodi. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/01/what-is-a-heretic-exactly-in-the-evangelical-church/?hpt=Sbin (accessed March 1, 2011).
+The Gospel Coalition Blog. “Rob Bell: Universalist?” The Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2011/02/26/rob-bell-universalist/ (accessed February 26, 2011).
+Rob Bell Web Design. “Home Page.” Rob Bell Web Design. http:// www.RobBellWebDesign.com (accessed March 1, 2011).
+Washington Post. “Evangelicals Take to Twitter to Debate the Doctrine of Hell.” Washington Post, Rachel Held Evans. http://onfaith.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2011/03/evangelicals_take_to_twitter_to_debate_the_doctrine_of_hell.html (accessed March 1, 2011).
+The Work of Rob Bell. “Love Wins.” Rob Bell. https://www.robbell.com/lovewins/ (accessed February 27, 2011).