Rob Bell is one of those celebrity pastors whose renown and influence extends far beyond the walls of his church. He is also a highly intelligent man. His marketing prowess and brilliance is unmatched in Christendom. The production quality of his videos is second to none and his promotional efforts are tireless. I have never seen an individual, Christian or not, who exerts more thought, control, and discipline over his personal image than Rob. Nearly every photograph in existence of the man is a masterpiece of communication and professionalism. Even his promotional efforts behind his latest book leave everyone else in the dust.
The man is unquestionably brilliant – however, he is also a heretic. In his latest video promoting his new book Rob Bell not only attacks the Christian doctrine of divine judgment, but more importantly, denies substitutionary atonement – the very doctrine of why Jesus died on the cross. These two denials place Rob very much outside even the broadest definition of Christian orthodoxy.
I’m not going to duplicate the work of others who are attempting, with varying degrees of kindness, to theologically correct Rob and his false teaching (the best theological review of Rob’s book is here) . What I am going to talk about is how this could happen to such a sensitive, insightful, and intelligent evangelical pastor in the first place and what we can learn from it.
Although it goes against common sense, one observation I have made time and time again is that brilliant minds are highly susceptible to all sorts of stupidity – including heresy. Oddly enough, highly intelligent people make an error in logic that the least intelligent people do not. If you talk to a child or someone with a low IQ, you will find that they consistently make a particularly good rational conclusion about the world and that is: “If I don’t understand X, then X is something I don’t understand”. Simple, foundational, logical, brilliant. Whenever these people encounter more challenging subjects as Keynesian economics, existentialist philosophy, or even Linux and it doesn’t make perfect sense to them, they logically conclude that they don’t fully understand the subject in question.
The problem is that where relatively less intelligent people come to a perfectly logical conclusion, highly intelligent people often come to an irrational one. Instead of saying: “If I don’t understand X, then X is something I don’t understand”, highly intelligent people tend to say “If I don’t understand X, then X is false”. Whenever these people encounter more challenging subjects and it doesn’t make perfect sense to them, they illogically conclude that the subject in question is nonsense.
When you apply this flawed reasoning to theology the result is disastrous. Where a Christian of modest intelligence will conclude that if he stands in theological opposition to the vast majority of Christian thinkers throughout the ages then he must have made a mistake, the Christian of high intelligence is tempted to conclude that if he stands in theological opposition to everyone else then *everyone else* made a mistake. This is what leads to heresy, for it is in the very nature of the heretic to believe in his own infallibility and to rebel against the correction of others.
But what about the great reformers? Luther, Calvin, and Grebel stood against the status quo didn’t they? Yes they did, but they also had considerable support from great thinkers that went before them and, more importantly, had the clear teaching of Scripture itself on their side. The problem with Rob Bell and others like him is that they have relied on their own personal insights and wisdom for a very long time and have drifted away from the submissive practice of Biblical exegesis. This has been my largest reservation with Rob’s teaching in the past, he relies far too much on his own understanding, and far too little on the Word of God. When any of us as pastors make the subtle shift from being a messenger of God’s Word to being an author of our own, we step off of the Rock and onto some very sandy soil.
If Rob had only concluded, as a person of modest intelligence reasonably would, that if he doesn’t understand how a God of love could also be a God of justice then his understanding of love itself must be superficial and incomplete then all of this could have been avoided. Not only that, but Rob would have also had the opportunity to grow his already formidable intellect. Instead he has followed his own path and is leading many others away from Christian orthodoxy. The truly scary thing is that Jesus Himself recommended a millstone necklace for those who do such a thing.
The lesson to be learned here is one of humility and submission. Even the very brightest among us are deeply flawed individuals. Isaac Newton may have been a first rate mathematician and physicist, but he was a second rate chemist, and a third rate theologian. None of us have the omniscience to reliably conclude that what we fail to understand is therefore automatically false. A little humility and submission to the ecclesiastical authority of church leaders past and present will go a long way in protecting us from such error. We as pastors have not been called to deliver the word of John or the word of Rob, but the Word of God. We do not use our own thoughts, philosophies, feelings, or insights to judge the Scriptures, we use the Scriptures to judge us.