I never really cared about Rob Bell. I’ve never read his books but I like his nice videos. They seem like they might be attractive to people, maybe help influence doubters or seekers to examine Christianity a little more closely. His blurb in Time Magazine, however, will do the exact opposite. From Time’s 100 Most Influential People:

Is hell real? it’s a question that has vexed the Christian church for two millennia [Cate’s Note: has it?]. Who gets saved, and, come to think of it, what does it mean to be “saved” in the first place?

Rob Bell thinks he knows — or, more precisely, he thinks we can’t know, because the biblical discussion of salvation (as with so much else) is contradictory…

Wielding music, videos and a Starbucks sensibility, Bell is at the forefront of a rethinking of Christianity in America. Traditionalists don’t like what they’re seeing, for Bell’s questions cut to the heart of a faith that requires what the poet Coleridge called a “willing suspension of disbelief.” (emphasis mine)

There are a lot of problems with these short paragraphs, but let’s start with the sly appeal to authority. Coleridge coins this phrase in a discussion of his personal method of revealing truth through poetry. In Biographia Literaria, Chapter 14 he says,

In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

Not only is Coleridge not talking about religious faith at all, but he’s referring to a way of revealing truth through characters and stories just a bit too fantastic. In this context, the willing suspension of disbelief is a way of engaging in a story in order to understand bigger and better truths about the nature of humanity, the world, and maybe even God. This might indeed be an interesting way to talk about Bell and his less-than-literal hermeneutical methods, but it certainly isn’t what comes across from the author of Bell’s mini-biography, nor is it what the average Time reader is going to pull from that statement.

If I were Bell, I would be horrified by the article. The only actual quotation of Bell’s used is relatively harmless, “In the book, I write about how some have believed that all will be reconciled,” he told TIME, “and while I long for that as I think everybody should long for it, I don’t take a position of certainty because, of course, I don’t know how it all turns out.” This sentiment is one the Church Universal could emphasize a little more; that we, that God himself, wants no man to be lost. I think we could also say alongside Bell that no one really understands the nature of eternity, ultimate separation from God, or what it will someday mean to live as people saved. But what comes across instead is a leader of the Church who doesn’t believe that the Bible is trustworthy, and who fits right into what the secular world would like to believe about us, that we are believers of fairy stories, and the best that could be said of us is that some, like Bell, are more humble about it than others.


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Posted by Cate MacDonald


  1. These things tend to be poor (ignorant journalists summarizing people they’ve made no effort to understand), and this one is no exception.

    I imagine Bell is indeed horrified by the writeup. Especially this line: “because the biblical discussion of salvation (as with so much else) is contradictory”. That’s not consistent with what he’s written in Love Wins, at least.


    1. Andrew, I thought of you when I used the phrase “appeal to authority.” Specifically, “I hope I’m using this right. If I don’t Andrew will tell me.”


  2. G. Kyle Essary May 30, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    As with every blurb written, there is a greater agenda at play. Jon Meacham, a mainline Protestant who always enjoys writing about the supposed decline of evangelicalism and traditional Christianity, has simply attempted to stir those waters again with this blurb.


  3. Yes. The Time magazine article was awful. It was much more about Meacham and his agenda /ideas than it was about anything the Rob Bell has ever said or done. I hope people are not actually thinking that this article reflects Bell’s views or the current discussion of these issues among evangelicals.


  4. Great stuff. The issue around Bell represents more an issue of isolation and dogmatic specific theologies in the western context. Most won’t stand by Bell, not because they don’t agree with him on SOME points, but that they don’t agree on ALL points. And since Bell does not agree with some on all points of theology, than he is a heretic. This, I believe, is the biggest issue with different branches and communities of Christians “standing” by Bell.


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