For Whom the Bell Tolls: Heretic or Hero?

29 03 2011

What does hell mean to you? Is it an endless nightmare for sinners and unsaved souls, as mainstream orthodox Christianity has taught for centuries? Or do we create a hell on earth by our choices that lead to addictions, despair, depression and worry?

Those ideas are receiving fresh scrutiny from some believers after a prominent evangelical pastor, Rob Bell, founder and senior pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, questioned the traditional idea of hell in his new book, Love Wins.

I have ordered the book but not read it yet. Yet the amount of questions and controversy this book is drumming up motivated me to introduce the discussion and encourage you, if you’re interested, to look at the subject critically.

Some important denominations and theologians have moved quickly to criticize the book. Such leading pastors and theologians like Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Seminary; John Piper, noted author and pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church; Justin Taylor, an executive at Crossway books and a leading blogger, have all come out soundly against Love Wins. A forum was held last week at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville in which Christian writers and thinkers laid out their problems with Bell’s thinking.”

Atheists are not going to be impressed by this book. Skeptics are not going to be impressed by this book,” said Christian blogger Justin Taylor at the Southern Baptist forum. “The people who are going to be impressed by this book are disaffected evangelicals.”

Ben Witherington, one of the most influential evangelical theologians, is using his blog to take on Bell’s book chapter by chapter. If you are interested in the subject matter of hell and Bell’s perspective, let me encourage you to read Dr. Witherington’s analysis of the book. Though I’m not an Arminian theologically, as Dr. Witherington is, I found his argument and critique very orthodox and biblical.

Who is Ben Witherington? This is from his website:

Bible scholar Ben Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland. A graduate of UNC, Chapel Hill, he went on to receive the M.Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Durham in England. He is now considered one of the top evangelical scholars in the world and is an elected member of the prestigious SNTS, a society dedicated to New Testament studies.

Witherington has also taught at Ashland Theological Seminary, Vanderbilt University, Duke Divinity School and Gordon-Conwell. A popular lecturer, Witherington has presented seminars for churches, colleges and biblical meetings not only in the United States but also in England, Estonia, Russia, Europe, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Australia. He has also led tours to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

Witherington has written over forty books, including The Jesus Quest and The Paul Quest, both of which were selected as top biblical studies works by Christianity Today. He also writes for many church and scholarly publications. Along with many interviews on radio networks across the country, Witherington has been seen on the History Channel, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, The Discovery Channel, A&E and the PAX Network.

If you would like to read Dr. Witherington’s blogs on the subject of Rob Bell’s book, you can access them through the following:



Pray for the Japanese

21 03 2011

As we watch the devastation of Japan and the pain this country is experiencing, I am taken back to my days living there. For almost ten years, Liz and I lived in Tokyo and Okinawa. We worked on college campuses with Japanese students; daily we rode the crowded train for two hours standing nose to nose with Japanese businessmen. Liz rode her bike to and from the market and took our two children to the park. She talked, walked and played with other Japanese mothers and their children. We ate at the same restaurants and went through several earthquakes with all our neighbors. We loved Japan because we loved the Japanese people.

As I mentioned in my last blog, the Japanese people are going through what Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, has said is the “worst disaster to hit Japan since World War II.” It is a nightmare for this country. With some estimates as high as ten thousand dead, the familial reverberations and concern are hard to imagine.  Our TVs show the rubble of whole neighborhoods and, in one case, the annihilation of an entire northeastern town by the tsunami. We are now glued to news of what is happening with the three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, located 150 miles from Tokyo.

But what is amazing to the world is the calm of Japan under such disaster. I’m not surprised. The Japanese are a people of inner peace. They are a people who love nature—if you don’t believe that, look at the beauty of their flower arranging and bonsai trees. They are a lovely people who feel nature and feel their environment. Over the centuries of crowded cities and limited space, they have grown to appreciate simplicity. They, more than most, seem to grasp the boundaries and capacity of nature. We could learn something from the Japanese.

It seems remarkable to us in America that there is no looting or pillaging by the people of Japan. CNN and Fox News keep repeating with incredulous reports that no one is stealing anyone’s stuff. Amazing.  Such reporting says more about us than the Japanese. I’m not surprised. I have learned over the years that the Japanese have a profound respect for each person. All the centuries of isolation as an island people have produced a community of respect. Whenever you speak to Japanese about their nation, they always begin the conversation with “We Japanese…” They respect each other and they respect their community.  We could learn something here.

It seems incredible to us in America that the people of Japan show so little emotion. As we watch the coverage of the evacuation centers, we watch everyone calmly taking care of their loved ones and quietly helping each other. In some cases, whole families have perished and yet there is so little emotion. The Japanese have common phrases that describe their demeanor. The terms are honne and tatamae which describe heart and face. We are seeing the face of Japan on TV, but not the heart. 

Their face is calm, but their hearts are breaking. We shouldn’t be surprised. Today the Japanese are hurting. They will not show it externally, but internally they are agonizing. They seem peaceful and calm, but they are full of fear and dread. They need our prayers and our help. Cry out for Japan. Call out to the Lord to use this situation to bring greater glory to Himself among this people. Pray for a mighty revival. God is sovereign and He wants to use this to shake the honne of all Japanese, so that someday, they come to Him.

My Theological Reunion in Sendai, Japan

17 03 2011

Until recently, hardly anyone outside of Japan had heard of Sendai—now its on everyone’s radar.  Every major media network in the world is camping out in Sendai. 

As we have all watched the devastation of the 8.9 earthquake (9.0 by some recent reports) and subsequent tsunami in Japan, our hearts are deeply grieved.  My heart is especially broken for Sendai, the largest city near the epicenter of the earthquake.  The coastal towns in and around Sendai were the hardest hit by the tsunami, and the estimates today are that more than 10,000 may have died. 

Over two million people have been without water and/or electricity since the earthquake and tsunami hit.  Over 170,000 have been evacuated near the Fukushima Nuclear Plant.  Thousands have been evacuated and recently reported, “a third reactor at a nuclear power plant lost its cooling capacity, raising fears of a meltdown, while the stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries including big names such as Toyota and Honda.” According to Prime Minister Naoto Kan, this is the “worst disaster to hit Japan since World War II.”  He might be right.

Sendai, Japan has a special place in my heart.  It was in the mid 80’s that I was asked by the leadership of Campus Crusade for Christ to speak at an evangelistic crusade in this city.  It was the culmination of a summer outreach to college students.  The summer project and the evangelistic crusade were organized by a group of pastors who had a heart for college students. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was to be a kind of theological reunion for me.

I grew up in a Lutheran home.  Since my dad was a pastor, my childhood was filled up with all things Lutheran:  baptized as an infant (wearing a dress! Not kidding, but give me a break, I was only six weeks old), catechized at 16, a crucifer as a teen (which means I carried the cross, cross-handed into the service-Braveheart style) and drank real wine in communion. 

It was in the Lutheran church that I grew up under the watchful gaze of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. My dad knew his church history and theology well and we often had “table talk” discussions over the 95 Theses, Reformation in Europe, and the great debate at Worms. We also had our own freewheeling debates over infant baptism, the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and just how one gets saved.

I received my introduction to grace, love and baptism through my Lutheran parents and the church they loved. It was in the womb of Lutheranism that my heart was pre-warmed and prepared for the new birth. 

It was during the fall of my freshman year at the University of Georgia, after an ugly athletic injury, that a staff person with Campus Crusade shared with me a clear presentation of the Gospel.  Through that simple explanation of the cross and resurrection, I finally put together all the missing parts.  The theological dots were connected and Jesus fully and completely gave me the grace to say yes to Him.

Six years later I found myself as a missionary in Japan. It was while studying Japanese that I was asked to take a train up to the northeastern coast of Japan, to the city of Sendai.  I had never heard of the place and had to pull out a map of Japan to see where I was going.

It was in Sendai that I was met at the train station by a group of energetic pastors.  They were excited about the crusade and fired up to meet me.  Over sushi and seaweed that night, I was delighted to hang out with a group of grace-filled, evangelistically bold, theologically grounded men who shared of the miracles God was performing in Sendai.  And then I learned that they were all Lutheran pastors! 

What a shock to my little conservative evangelical system.  They were theologically conservative, drank wine and loved evangelism. I had not met such Lutherans before.  And they were pastors!

The Lutherans I had known in the U.S. were more of the neo-orthodox type.  The wine was fine, but it seemed that our paths seemed to head off in different doctrinal directions after that.  My father and mother, who loved Jesus, had theological leanings that were often the bane of our discussions. 
But here I was in Sendai, Japan, enjoying a deeper than average theological unity with a group of Spirit-filled Lutheran pastors.  We were all excited to see what God would do to touch the lives of these college students.  And God showed up mightily. 

The Lutheran pastors in Sendai gave me far more than I gave them.  It was on the train back to Tokyo that I realized the significance of my time in Sendai.  It was a theological reunion. It was the marriage of my Lutheran roots with my evangelistic zeal.  I do recall that I thought about my dad and his passion for Jesus; I also thought about Martin Luther and his boldness against man-made religion.  On that train ride home, I thanked God for sending me to Sendai. 

So, join me in praying for the believers and the many pre-believers of Sendai.  It might be that the little Lutheran church building that I visited twenty-five years ago has been destroyed—possibly swept off into the ocean.  But I’m convinced that the faith, perseverance and passion of the Lutheran believers in Sendai is rock solid.  May they be a “bulwark never failing” in the dark days ahead.  Pray for Sendai, Japan.