You may have heard that Rob Bell published a book about hell called Love Wins. A few media outlets picked up the story, including some magazine called Time.
It has created quite the uproar in the church with accusations flying left and right, before and after it’s publication that Rob Bell is a “universalist”.
I would like to suggest that Rob Bell isn’t a universalist, but a fundamentalist.
Here’s what I mean…
When we hear the word “fundamentalist” in the church we often think of men in suits and ties, hard wooden pews, fiery preachers like Terry Jones, Jack Schaap or Mark Driscoll, and groups like Westboro Baptist. While even those who call themselves fundamentalists can’t agree on what all of those fundamentals are, they usually share a few fundamentals in common including: the inerrancy of scripture, the submissive role of women at church and in the household, hate for the world, and anti-intellectualism primarily in the form of equating belief in evolution to sin. These of course are but a sampling of some of the more common tenets of fundamentalism many outsiders associate with the movement, but for the sake of blogging brevity they will suffice.
It really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that people are drawn to fundamentalism. Sure, for those of us on the “outside” there doesn’t seem to be much of an appeal, but those who take up the banner of fundamentalism do so because the name itself implies that it is more true to the Christian faith than any other brand of Christianity. In other words, fundamentalists cling to the core truths or fundamentals of the faith while other traditions add, twist, or corrupt the truth of the gospel. So, people tend towards fundamentalism in all of its forms because on the surface it seems to many to virtuously hold fast to the purest form of the Christian faith no matter how controversial or offensive that may be to modern sensibilities.
The truth, however, is that there is nothing fundamental about fundamentalism.
If we only were to take a moment to examine the substance of the “fundamental” truths so many so-called fundamentalists cling to we would discover that, in fact, they are not fundamental truths of the biblical narrative, but exceptions to it.
While so-called fundamentalists purport to have a high view of scripture, placing it at the center of their lives as the basis for their faith, in reality their view of scripture and the faith is grounded not in the Bible, but it what “they have always been told.” This is why you hear those of this persuasion complaining that things in the church “weren’t that way when they were growing up” or you hear them longing for the “good ole days”. The “fundamentals” of the faith they hold so dear more often than not arise more from their upbringing than an unbiased interpretation of scripture. This is in part what spurs the furor of fundamentalists. When you critique their faith you are not only criticizing their God, but more importantly, their family. When you “focus on the family” this critique becomes an unforgivable sin.
More fundamentally though, this is really an epistemological issue. For the fundamentalist the Bible is a collection of propositional truths. Every sentence is absolutely true for all time regardless of scriptural context. Because the Bible has been chopped up into chapters and verses it lends itself very easily to the selective focus of fundamentalism.
So, for example, fundamentalists would have you believe that in order to be a Christian you must first hate the world. They would tell you this is true because 1 John 2:15 says so. What they don’t tell you is not only is John talking specifically about lust in that context, but that that same John was also the one who wrote “For God so loved the world.” If loving the world means hating the Father, then God hates himself. That’s a bit of a problem.
Fundamentalists would have you believe that women should be silent in the church, or at the very least they should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, serving in no position of leadership because in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul seems to say so (once) therefore it must be true in every situation for all time. If this was the fundamental narrative of scripture and not the isolated opinion of the apostle Paul regarding a specific problem in a specific church, then we would have no book of Ruth or Esther, Jesus would never have used women as key assets in his ministry, Paul himself would never have thanked women for their role in ministry in every single one of his letters, and most problematic of all we would have no account of the resurrection.
Women were the first ones at the tomb on Easter morning because the men were hiding in fear for their lives. If they were supposed to remain silent, no one would have ever known that the tomb was empty. Without women there would be no Christian faith. So, as much as someone like Jack Schaap may won’t to claim that he will “never get his theology from a woman”, in fact his entire theology his built on the words of women.
Of course, fundamentalists would also have you believe that your options are literal 6 day creationism or heresy and an eternity in hell. Nevermind the fact that before there was even a Bible, Jewish rabbis during the time of Jesus were already writing that the first 2 chapters in Genesis should not be read literally. The church father St. Augustine would echo this sentiment 400 years later in his treatise The Literal Meaning of Genesis and it wouldn’t be until the 1920s that “creationism” would even become an issue in the church. Even that group was more concerned about social Darwinism than the theory of evolution itself.
Perhaps most famously fundamentalists would have you believe that the truth and power of scripture lies in its ability to be a perfect source of history and science, never standing in tension with itself despite being written by dozens of different authors over several centuries. They would tell you this is true because the Bible says this about itself. It doesn’t.
When Paul talked about the “god-breathed” scriptures in 2 Timothy 3:16 he never imagined his personal letters to a church would one day be canonized. When the psalmists talks about God’s law being perfect he is referring very specifically to the Levitical covenant God made with His people, not a Bible that wouldn’t yet exist for millennia. The truth, power, and even inerrancy of the Bible is not found its minutae, but in the way it perfectly reveals God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and redemption to creation.
If we take the time to actually read the Bible instead of relying on word of mouth and we do the hard work of trying to hear the overall narrative of scripture instead of cherry picking a handful of verses, then we find a story of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, redemption, and hope. In the beginning mankind tries to take over creation with a piece of fruit, but God forgives and begins the plan of redemption. Then mankind forces the hand of God to start over by sending a flood, but God offers grace, salvation, and hope in the midst of the storm. God frees His children from slavery only to see them exploit their newfound freedom, but yet He continues to offer hope in the midst of their chaos. In the climax of God’s story He sends Himself to once and for all redeem His creation. When the church he leaves in charge can’t get things right he offers them words of love, grace, instruction, and forgiveness. And in the end He promises ultimate salvation, redemption, justice, and hope.
These are the fundamental truths of the biblical narrative. We worship a loving God, full of grace who forgives us of our sin, redeems us as His children, and offers us hope of life with Him.
So, when someone like Rob Bell declares his hope that a loving God will never cease to extend grace, forgiveness, and redemption to His creation it is because he is clinging to the fundamental message of the Bible.
The church doesn’t need any more Biblical excpetionists like Mark Driscoll, Jack Schaap, or Westboro Baptist. The church needs more true fundamentalists who are willing to read the Bible with integrity and boldly proclaim the fundamental message of God’s love, grace, forgiveness, and redemption to a world desperately in need of hope and healing.
Grace and peace,