Do I think Tony Watts has a case against Rob Bell. Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
I was sent an advanced copy of the book “Love Still Wins” for a review. In preparation for debate as I told the author, it would have to wait. I had one other book before it and then I was able to get started on this one.
It was a topic I take very seriously. My wife had been a great admirer of Rob Bell for some time and I’d heard some of his videos which I thought had excellent points. I had also read Love Wins and while there were some valuable ideas in there, overall, the theme was dangerous. The biggest problem I had was I don’t know where Bell stands. If he’s a universalist, could he just come out and say it? He never does. Of course, I find it even more problematic that he’s not come out in support of redefining marriage.
I appreciate that Tony Watts, the author of Love Still Wins, has written a response to Rob Bell. Watts and I reach the same conclusion in that Bell’s teaching is wrong. I’m not sure if I’d go as far as Watts to say heresy. I have seen the debate several times as to whether or not universalism is a heresy. This has even been among conservative Christians who don’t hold to universalism.
Despite our agreement on the conclusion, I did think there were some matters that were lacking in the book. First off, I do think the style that Watts writes in is not going to be one that reaches people who are followers of Bell. Watts writes in a more “preachy” manner than anything else using biblical terminology. You see terms throughout such as referring to the regenerate and unregenerate. I know what that’s talking about, but I wonder how many readers who aren’t as skilled theologically will catch on. It is terminology one doesn’t often hear used today and terminology that I think will be a turn off.
Second, I find some of Watts’s language to be ambiguous. Watts writes on page 19 about popular culture and I was a bit puzzled at this. Popular culture was never defined. For instance, if a message is made that is geared towards sports fans, is that using popular culture? Is it wrong? How about books that have come out about the Gospel According To X, where a pop culture series is looked at for Christian themes. Would Watts have a problem with this? I don’t know.
Third, some of Watts’s case itself in hermeneutics I found to be troubling. Watts tells us that we need a plain or literal interpretation that would be according to the ordinary sense. But plain and ordinary for who? A 21st century American? A 19th century Englishman? A 17th century Japanese man? A 12th century Frenchman? A 5th century German? A 1st century Jew? All of these will have a different idea about what the “plain meaning” of the text is. (It’s also worth pointing out that the term literal really means “According to the intent of the author”.)
In fact, this gets us into the other big problem I had with this part. Watts says an important part of a sound hermeneutic is to have a distinction between Israel and the Church. As an orthodox Preterist, the reasons I found given to make that distinction were incredibly lacking. Most any Preterist would be able to explain these easily. In fact, I find the dispensationalist hermeneutic to be one incredibly damaging. Consider how many people are said to be “prophecy experts” today and yet when they speak about Middle Eastern events, they always turn out to be wrong. How many people have come and gone that were “The Antichrist”? Yet at the same time, these same people will go after the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and rightfully so, and use as one of their arguments that their prophecies are always wrong. Of course, I believe all prophecies of Scripture are true, but I don’t agree all interpretations are true. Because of this idea being put in there, which I find completely pointless to the overall scheme of defending the doctrine of Hell, I found myself unable to appreciate much thinking that I did not really trust Watts’s hermeneutic and wondered that if these passages were being misapplied, how many others were?
In fact, some statements he put up of Bell’s along these lines I found myself agreeing with. He claims that Bell thinks any view that claims objectivity is warped and toxic, with this quote especially. “The assumption is that there is a way to read the Bible that is agenda- and perspective- free…. When you hear people say that they are just going to tell you what the Bible means, it is not true, they are telling you what they think it means.”
Now the only part I disagree with is that they could be telling you what the Bible means. Some interpretations are right after all! Yet if Bell’s point is that we all come to the text with prior agendas and perspectives, he is absolutely right! I as a Preterist am tempted to read passages that way and interpret them according to that prior framework. The same for a dispensationalist. It also applies for a Calvinist or an Arminian and for a Young-Earth Creationist and an Old-Earth Creationist. We will never learn from Scripture if we come to it always presupposing our interpretation is correct. One part of good objective Bible Study is to try to see past your own culture. (That includes seeing past your idea of what the plain and normal sense is.)
Another passage he gives where I agree with Bell is when he says that Bell writes that “To think that I can just read the Bible without reading any of my own culture or background or issues into it and come out with a ‘pure’ or ‘exact’ meaning is not only untrue, but it leads to a very destructive reading of the Bible that robs it of its life and energy.”
I agree with this. The Bible was written in a high-context society. When Paul writes his epistles, there is already an oral tradition going around that did not need to be repeated. The Bible is written assuming you understand much of the culture, language, figures of speech, geography, etc. Consider the book of Revelation. Revelation rarely rarely quotes an OT Scripture, but it has been said that about 2/3 of the book is alluding to various OT passages and if you do not understand the genre of apocalyptic literature, you will horribly misinterpret Revelation, especially if you go by what the “plain sense” of it is.
This doesn’t mean that objectivity is not possible. It means that if we want to be objective, we must work at it. We must seek to understand the culture of the Bible even better. (Something most critics also fail to do.) When I learn about the world Jesus lived in even more, I will better understand the NT.
I find this in contrast to Watt’s view where he writes about Sola Scriptura on pages 20-21. I hold to this view if it’s properly understood. If by Sola Scriptura, you mean the Bible is the final authority, which Watts does say, and that nothing that we hold in Christianity to be true can contradict it, no problem. If you mean though that the Bible is sufficient in itself for understanding, I disagree. Reading the Bible in a cultural vacuum will get messages out of it that the authors never intended.
Fourth, I found that it seemed to me like Watts was often saying “It just is” in response to a question of “How is it right for God to send people to Hell?” On page 137 we read “God has spoken on the matter of hell, and despite our inability to reconcile it with what we might call ‘love’ does not matter.”
Well actually, I think it does matter a great deal. This kind of reply I think is just a silencer saying “Even if we can’t reconcile it, He’s God and He’s love and He can do what He wants.” I happen to think the charge is real and one that is worth answering. I wrote in the side of the book at this point “How does love win?” Does love win just because we say it does and wins by definition then? Why can’t Bell say the same thing? He’s right by definition. He can say “Love does not do this. Therefore, love wins.”
I wonder what kind of view Watts has. For instance, he says on page 123 that more will be lost than saved. This is based on Matthew 7. Yet what about Revelation 7? Revelation presents us with a great multitude no man can number. I consider Matthew 7 to be based on an immediately reply to Jesus’s ministry and not to the long term. Note that even in the next chapter Jesus talked about many coming from all directions to the feast of God. With Watts having a multitude going to Hell, I found myself wondering “How does love win?” Add in that this is especially so that this is because of the “divine decree.” Does that mean for Watts, God has decreed that more would be lost than saved. Why?
I also found myself unsure about Watts’s stance on those who’ve never heard. My position is simply that the judge of all the Earth will do right. Watts rightly emphasized the importance of preaching and pointed to Romans 10 with “How can they hear without someone preaching to them?” Yet a verse Paul quotes there is this one:
“Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.”
This is from Psalm 19. What is the voice in that passage? That voice is the voice of general revelation. I find pointing to a passage like Acts 4:12 to be problematic. No one can be saved apart from the authority of Jesus Christ, which is what is meant by the name. Does that mean they have to know the name entirely? I’m honestly not sure. I keep these facts in mind.
The Bible tells us we are to do the Great Commission. There is no justification for not doing it so we can’t use the idea that God can get a message out another way as an excuse.
The Bible also says that the judge of all the Earth will do right.
What about those who’ve never heard? Get them the gospel as soon as you can, but at the same time, realize that if there was no way we could have done it, He has His own ways. (This has been seen in dreams and revelations in other places.) In the end, no one on the last day will be able to say to God “It was not fair.” I conclude ultimately God will rightly judge based on the light each person had.
A final concern is that I would have liked to have seen more scholarly interaction. For instance, some references in the book were based on class notes. Surely one could have gone out and found an academic book with the same idea that would present the case just as well? Watts says he studied under Gary Habermas on the historicity of the the resurrection at Southern Evangelical Seminary. If that’s the case, why not read some of Habermas’s material on this and use it, such as in “Beyond Death”? There are other great books on this such as “Hell Under Fire”. Why were not any of these kinds of works consulted to get a more evangelical position on Hell? (For instance, I got the impression on page 135 that Watts believes Hell is really a place of actual fire) I would have much more appreciated seeing scholarly interaction to critique Rob Bell.
In the end, I do appreciate Watts’s desire to deal with what Bell has said, but I think that the ways that I’ve given would be important steps to consider in making the ideas more marketable for people who are in agreement with Bell.