For Whom the Bell Tolls: Heretic or Hero? Part II

4 04 2011

What does hell mean to you these days? Can hell change with who writes about it? Is hell an endless nightmare for sinners and unsaved souls? 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.

It seems that this book is quickly becoming a kind of 21st century “Last Temptation of Christ.” If you don’t remember that movie, that’s understandable—it was one of those B movies that very few would have attended, but the depictions of Christ were sacrilegious enough to create quite a stir among evangelicals, who protested with signs and bull horns at every theater, thus boosting sales and giving it a cult following among atheists and anti-God types.

The difference in this case is that the biblical and theological truth about hell matters.  And the newest “temptation” is coming from a reputable evangelical.

Today, after church, I came home and read the book in about 3 hours. Observations from my reading:

1.    Rob Bell is an engaging and creative writer

2.    Rob Bell is sincere in his beliefs

3.    Rob Bell has some very interesting, creative and innovative arguments

4.    Rob Bell makes the salvation teachings of Jesus complicated, contradictory and inconsistent

5.    Rob Bell creates a straw man argument against some of the salvation, heaven and hell convictions of creedal Christianity

6.    Rob Bell is a master at using metaphor, images and creative thoughts to portray a new, unorthodox way of viewing Jesus, love and salvation

7.    Rob Bell takes massive leaps in scriptural logic to support a claim that in the end all will be saved

8.    Rob Bell believes that we will have many chances to come to God’s love after death—a close runner-up version to purgatory

9.    Rob Bell can’t support his main theme—that of universal salvation, i.e. “Love wins”—with a shred of scriptural evidence or historical precedent

10.   Rob Bell claims that his thoughts are mainstream and consistent with Christian thinking throughout history (by the way, he is correct—he is consistent with several heresies of the first four centuries, but I don’t think that’s what he meant)

11.   Rob Bell takes prophetic passages of the coming millennium for God’s people, and uses these passages to support his contention that everyone will eventually be saved

12.   Rob Bell seems to be ignorant (or is cloaking his disbelief) of the fundamental teachings of church fathers, synods, systematic theology, creeds and convictions of the Church (which makes Eugene Peterson’s quote on the fly leaf even more perplexing)

13.   Rob Bell makes broad claims that significant church fathers and reformers believed in eventual universal salvation, but doesn’t (and can’t) support it with any quotes, references or writings (convenient)

14.   Rob Bell is confused in his understanding of God’s glory, especially as it is revealed through judgment

15.   Rob Bell feels that classic western Christianity lacks creativity, is too narrow and is not open to new ways of viewing God’s love

16.   Rob Bell doesn’t believe in a literal hell, but rather believes that we create our own hell on earth by our choices

17.   Rob Bell refutes hell partially from the argument that hell is not a compelling enough story (huh?)

18.   Rob Bell doesn’t believe in the plenary substitutionary atonement of Christ as the only way to a relationship with God and the obtaining of eternal life

The most shocking quote and the theme of the book:

“At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence.  The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God” (page 107).

So, there it is folks. I’ve never been a fan of Rob Bell and even less so after reading this book. I can’t recommend the book to anyone who isn’t mature in church history, systematic theology and their Bible. Discernment and wisdom are needed. If one is lacking in any of these areas, this book can be confusing and misleading. Proceed with caution.


My friend Brian Carlson has written a provocative blog on the controversy, including video footage of Pastor Bell in his much talked about conversation with Martin Bahir on MSNBC last week. Brian has been a pastor for the past sixteen years and is currently the Assistant to President Bill Armstrong at Colorado Christian University. His last pastoral staff position was at Woodmen Valley Chapel. Brian and I met up last week at California Pizza Kitchen and I thought it might be fun to hear his perspective on the theological debate. Here is Brian’s opinion for your enjoyment.


Oprah, Buddha, and the Secret to Happiness

16 03 2010

The cover article of O Magazine caught my attention:  “The secret to Happiness: meet the man who’s got it.” Oh, marketing.  Never met anyone who’s not looking for the “secret to happiness,” and to top it off, meet the one guy “who’s got it?”  I was interested.  So, not quite having enough time to get the article read before checking out at King Soopers, Oprah got my $4.50.

     I’m currently teaching through the Gospel of Luke.  The past few weeks we’ve been studying verse by verse through the “Blessed” verses of the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6).  In this sermon, Jesus is teaching on the way of happiness (the Greek meaning for “Blessed”).  So, it was in this thematic vein of study that I found Oprah’s interview intriguing.

     I learned that the man who has the “secret to happiness” is Thich Nhat Hanh, an 83 year old Vietnamese Buddhist monk.  I discovered that Nhat Hanh is the founder of “Engaged Buddhism”—a movement that “involves peaceful activism for the purpose of social reform.”[i] Martin Luther King Jr. was so impressed with the work of Nhat Hanh that he recommended him for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.  He led the Buddhist Peace Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks in 1969, established the “Buddhist Church” in France, and has written over 100 books.  He had a best seller in 1995, Living Buddha, Living Christ.[ii] Oprah who did the interview herself, said this book “never leaves my nightstand.”[iii]

     The article is a running dialogue between Nhat Hanh and Oprah at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan.  Here are a few quotes to give you an idea of the interview:

  • Oprah:What is happiness?  Nhat Hanh: Happiness is the cessation of suffering.  Well-being.  For instance, when I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that are still in good condition…so when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness.  And when I touch it, happiness comes.
  • Oprah: Tell me how we do it.  Nhat Hanh:  Suppose you are drinking a cup of tea.  When you hold your cup, you may like to breath in, to bring your mind back to your body, and you become fully present.  And when you are truly there, something else is also there—life, represented by the cup of tea. In that moment you are real, and the cup of tea is real…That is the moment of happiness, and of peace…
  • Oprah: I never had that much thought about a cup of tea (my favorite line) Nhat Hanh:  We have the practice of tea meditation.  We sit down, enjoy a cup of tea and our brotherhood, sisterhood.  It takes one hour to just enjoy a cup of tea.  Oprah (another great line):  A cup of tea like this? [holds up a cup of tea]…One hour![iv]

The interview continues like this vein for another thousand words or more, but you’ve got the gist of it.  So, what can be said about the philosophy of the man who’s got the “secret to happiness?”  Can we take any of the monk’s thoughts seriously?

     Let me be fair and say that there is something good here.  What Nhat Hanh is saying (briefly here, but with more detail in the interview) is that we need to learn to live more in the moment.  We need to enjoy our “present.”  Even drinking tea can have happiness if we will relax, quit worrying about everything, and simply live more fully in that moment. We can all learn more about living in the present. I’ll admit I might have used a better example than tea drinking, but I also realize that the highlight of a monk life might be the tea break. 

Jesus said something similar:

So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

31 “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things…34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. (Matthew 6:28-34 NKJV)

On deeper reflection we find that not only do our paths part with Nhat Hanh, we’re not even in the same Tea House of understanding.   

     To better understand Nhat Hanh’s worldview one must understand the underpinnings of his Buddhist philosophy.  Note the first thing out of the monk’s mouth, “Happiness is the cessation of suffering.”  First thing.  Deepest conviction.  Nhat Hanh and all devout Buddhist monks believe that suffering is an illusion because the material world is an illusion.  Our material world is a temporary copy of the real, ideal world, as Plato also taught.

     From a traditional Buddhist viewpoint, all that matters is our soul and spirit.  The material world doesn’t exist.  This is why Buddhist monks become monks—to escape the nonexistent (I know what you’re thinking). Nhat Hanh, with his more “enlightened”[v] Buddhism at least believes in an engagement with the world, but the foundations belie his beliefs.

     The teaching of Jesus is 180 degrees that of Nhat Hanh.  Jesus not only taught us that the cessation of suffering is impossible but that it is in present suffering for righteousness that we find happiness.  Jesus said that real happiness comes through suffering, not in its cessation.  Jesus said that the way to happiness was finding God when we are suffering.   Here’s what Jesus said about the way to happiness,

      Blessed (Happy) are you poor (suffering in the present),

For yours is the kingdom of God.

21  Blessed are you who hunger now (suffering in the present),

For you shall be filled.

     Blessed are you who weep now (suffering in the present),

For you shall laugh.

22  Blessed are you when men hate you (suffering in the present),

And when they exclude you,

     And revile you, and cast out your name as evil (suffering in the present),

     For the Son of Man’s sake.

23  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!

For indeed your reward is great in heaven,

     (Luke 6:20~23 NKJV)

Jesus has given us the “secret” to happiness.  Quite the opposite of Nhat Hanh’s view.  This life involves suffering, and it’s real.  But so is happiness.  If you are going through deep suffering right now, turn to Jesus.  He’s closer than a brother and understands your pain.  He not only understands it, He says that it’s in present suffering that we discover present happiness. 

[i] O Magazine p. 162

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid, p. 192.

[v] Oprah’s opinion, not mine

The Tiger in the Woods

24 02 2010

“I was unfaithful, I had affairs; I cheated…I’m deeply sorry.”[i]

-Tiger Woods

This past Friday (Feb. 19th) was another day in the history of disgraced superstars as famed golfer Tiger Woods apologized on every major media outlet for his serial infidelity.

But what made Tiger’s press conference unique was not the length, but the reference to his Buddhist religion. As his Thai-born mother sat nearby, Woods said part of his rehab would include a return to his Buddhist faith. Woods said his mother raised him as a Buddhist, and he practiced his faith “until I drifted away from it in recent years.”[ii]

In past interviews, Woods has referred to the practice of Buddhist meditation as giving him the focus needed in golf. “In therapy I’ve learned the importance of looking at my spiritual life and keeping it in balance with my professional life,” Woods said. “I need to regain my balance and be centered so I can save the things that are most important to me, my marriage and my children.”[iii]

“He was reaffirming his own family’s tradition,” said Robert Thurman, a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University.[iv] In January, Fox News analyst Britt Hume, in a roundtable discussion about the controversy, said that Tiger should turn his life over to Jesus Christ for the needed forgiveness of his sins.

Tiger’s comments about his Buddhist faith seemed timed to counter the comments by Britt Hume. No one knows for sure, but what is undeniable is Tiger’s desire to rehabilitate his image and his life through the worldview, tenets, and structure of Buddhism.

The religion called Buddhism was founded by Gautama Buddha, a rich nobleman’s son, about 150 BC, Buddha abandoned his wife and son to become a wandering ascetic in search of truth.[v]  Buddhist historians tell us that after 7 years of wandering, inquiring, and meditating, he found “the true path to enlightenment,” under the legendary tree of wisdom.[vi]  The teachings of Buddha are embodied in “Four Noble Truths”: truth of suffering; cause of suffering; cessation of suffering; and the truth of the way to remove suffering. According to Buddhism, “Existence is pain…the cause of suffering is craving…and the truth to remove suffering involves a comprehensive system of moral cultivation [through an 8 fold path].”[vii]

In Buddhism there is no God to trust or believe in. Buddha placed man within the tension of the eternal “now.” Buddhism offers the opportunity to be Buddha, if we do the work. It’s already there, it’s who we are,” said Darren Littlejohn, a Buddhist and author of The 12 Step Buddhist, a book about addiction recovery. He said Woods’ comments reflected the Buddhist belief that “life is suffering. It’s based on attachment, anger and desire.”[viii]

If Buddhists do violate certain precepts — killing, stealing and sexual misconduct among them — then they are subject to the law of karma.

“What people need to understand about karma is that it is based entirely on volitional action,” said Charles Prebish, a Buddhist studies professor at Utah State. “If one chooses to do an act that is morally inappropriate, then one will reap the rewards. In Tiger Woods’ case, one could say that some of those repercussions seem to be immediate. The negative karma that he accrued is starting to bear fruit.”[ix]

Meaning? Tiger’s rehab will involve Tiger trying to rehab Tiger with Tiger power! The Tiger within must break through his negative karma. The Tiger who met the press on Friday is the same Tiger that slept with countless women and is the same Tiger who will look deep within to find the hidden “middle path” that will lead to enlightenment. Good luck Tiger.

I hope and pray the best for Tiger. Tiger will need all of our prayers. The path he is on will be profoundly difficult, albeit impossible.  For Tiger, luck and self-discipline will be key. He has no one but himself to depend on. 

Living a lifestyle of integrity is not easy for anyone. Even for the Jesus follower, let’s be honest—when we look in the mirror each day, we see what Martin Luther once quipped, “Iustus et peccator simul,” meaning “saint and sinner.” So, we don’t cast stones but rather we look at the poor state of Tiger Woods and we realize that there is a sinner within all of us. We are both saint and sinner, declared righteous in Christ, and yet encased within a sinful nature.

However, as Jesus followers we don’t believe in ourselves, we don’t believe in inner karma, middle paths, or the eternal now. We don’t look within; we look without!  We don’t look in the mirror each morning and chant, “I can, I can, I can,” rather we stare at the “peaccator simul,” and say “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” but, “Jesus can.” We look not at our suffering; we look at His suffering. We rely not on our power: we rely on His power. And this makes all the difference.



[i] AP sports story by Bob Baum in FoxNews Internet

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] AP February 20, 2010

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Walter Martin, Kingdom of the Cults, p. 235.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Encyclopedia of Religion, p. 95.

[viii] AP ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

Haiti and My Conflict

26 01 2010

Haiti and My Conflict

Like many of you, I have been watching the news updates on the devastating earthquake in Haiti.  Every network from CNN to ESPN is jumping on this major story.  And when you’re looking at real-life photos and real-time video it’s easy to become tearful.  We can almost smell the stench of death as we see bodies pulled out of the cinder-block wreckage.  The chaos and pain is unfathomable.  Watching little girls and boys wandering the streets with no parents, guardians or love is heart-wrenching.

The body count has reached over 100,000 with estimates that it will exceed more than a quarter of a million by the end of the week.  This is a catastrophe of apocalyptic standards.  The pain and turmoil of this nation rips my heart apart. 

I can’t speak for others, but I’ll tell you my initial and continuous reaction to this situation is a combination of compassion and anger.  I find myself ticked off at Haiti’s leaders!  I want to march in there, find the president and his cabinet, and hang ’em all!  I know this isn’t a very “Christian” pastoral response and I’ve asked God to forgive me for my attitude, but that’s how I feel.

But, at the same time, I have to wonder how God feels? 

How could Haiti’s leaders allow their people to live in such squalor?  How could they let the presidential palace, three times bigger than the White House, become so grossly ostentatious while the hillsides surrounding it are stacked with cardboard shacks and the people are reduced to eating mud cakes?  Greed, greed, greed.  God is angry!  God weeps!  And so do I.

My heart breaks with love and compassion for the precious, image bearers of God in Haiti, especially the women and children.   I had trouble sleeping last night as I dreamed of the kids with no mommy or daddy, no support, no protection from elements or evil.  I thought about the well-financed men who will come as tools of Satan, offering them food and shelter, only to drag them into prostitution, drug addiction and a life of bondage.  I get angry when I imagine the reality that faces these Haitian children.  God is angry!  God weeps!  And so do I.

But, simultaneously, I rejoice with the surprising, even shocking miracles that are bringing hundreds of children from orphanages in Haiti to the United States to be adopted by caring families.  I praise the Lord for the nine families in our church who are now holding in their arms these precious innocent image-of-God bearers.  God’s heart bursts with joy! God’s heart spills over with love!  And so does mine!

So how do we process such conflicting emotions?  How do we deal with both the righteous anger and the overwhelming compassion that are erupting within us?  Maybe we’re not too different from Jesus.  He had a lot of anger directed at the prideful arrogant Pharisee’s, but was moved with love and compassion for the outcasts and displaced.  I’m conflicted.