Here is a brief review of the content in Rob Bell’s latest book, What Is The Bible? In my prior post I commented about why such a review is necessary as well as the things I like about the book. I will not repeat those here. In this post I go straight to the point of the concerns I (and others) have about the book.
The biggest observation of Rob Bell’s book is this. His clearest statement of what he thinks about the Bible, in my view, is found on page 295. I’ve quoted it below exactly as it appears in the book. He writes in broken lines and incomplete sentences; how post-modern of him. (It also makes you get through the book a lot faster.) He says this about the origin of the thoughts in the Bible,
Someone wrote that.
That’s how someone understood that event.
Don’t drag God into it.
The Bible is a library of books reflecting how human beings have understood the divine.
People at that time believed the gods were with them when they went to war and killed everyone in the village.
What you’re reading is someone’s perspective that reflects the time and the place they lived in.
It’s not Gods perspective-
And when they say it’s God’s perspective, what they’re telling you is their perspective on God’s perspective.
Don’t confuse the two.
Throughout the book he credits the biblical concepts to the ever-evolving human consciousness. But here he makes it very plain. His view is that the Bible contains the opinions and perspectives of humans, not words and thoughts that come from God. This idea of course is not found in the Bible itself since it repeatedly states, “Thus says the Lord,” “God spoke,” and “Jesus said” approximately 600 times. Bell’s position comes from his own thoughts and those of classical liberal theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher and Rudolf Bultmann. This view of the Bible has been consistently rejected by evangelical churches over the past one hundred years.
My greatest concern about the book is Bell’s position that the Bible does not have its own authority. He devotes an entire chapter questioning if the Bible is authoritative or has the authority to tell people what they must do. He answers by saying, surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t even claim to have authority. Instead, he says authority is “something you have.” And in case you didn’t get what he said, he restates it, “So what is authority? Authority is when you give weight, power, and influence to something.” His view appears to be that authority is not seated in God or the Bible but in the individual. The individual has the ability to choose who and what has authority. This view actually makes humans, themselves, the authority instead of God.
My second greatest concern is what Bell says about Jesus Christ’s death on the cross to make atonement for people’s sins so they can be forgiven. A straightforward reading of the Bible leads one to see that blood atonement for the remission of sin is God’s consistent plan running throughout the Old and New Testaments. This was in His mind before He created the world. Bell disagrees saying, “God didn’t need to kill someone to be ‘happy’ with humanity” (p.245). He finds the idea that God would send His Son to die on the cross “awful,” “horrific.” He objects, “What kind of God would that be?” His explanation, rather, is that the people of the day came up with their own idea that Jesus died on the cross for their sins because they needed to bring an end to the Hebrew temple’s sacrificial system. Though the books of Exodus and Leviticus report that God created the sacrificial system, Bell says people made it up, not God (p.244).
I think it is obvious why I would say these two things are my greatest concerns. These ideas espoused by Bell are a fundamental reinvention of Christianity from the ground up. To embrace Bell’s ideas requires one to reject the basic teachings of the apostles and the historic teachings of Christianity.
But there is more. In chapter thirty-six, Rob answers the question, “So the Bible is the word of God?” He answers, “Yes.” But then he goes on to add, “lots of things are” God’s word. Wait a minute. In case you’re wondering if I read that correctly, he restates it saying, “Wait – lots of things are the word of God? That’s what you find in the Bible” (p.266). He says the Bible claims many things are the “word of God,” like “the heavens and the stars,” “the mouth of a baby,” “your conscience,” “the poets and philosophers of the day,” “lots of books, lots of other words, lots of other experiences.” He says, “There are lots of words of God and you can and should listen to all of them.” According to Bell, the Bible is not uniquely God’s word. It is like the many writings of other religious beliefs and non-religious beliefs. He says they are all God’s words and should be heeded (shocking!).
It is hard to understand how Rob expects the thoughtful reader to take his ideas seriously. On the one hand he says all books and thoughts should be taken as God’s word on equal par to the Bible. Yet on the other hand he claims throughout the book that the Bible is people’s evolution of conscience and rejection of the barbaric, violent ideas of the day… which, according to Bell, are all God’s word that should be accepted. When the Hebrews discovered the Babylonian’s story of creation, for example, filled with violence and murder, they created a competing creation story and called it Genesis, minus the violence. But that doesn’t make sense. If the Babylonians’ story was the word of God that should be heeded, what gives the Hebrews the right to reject God’s word and invent their own, completely different story? How can God’s word say polar opposite things? Apparently in Bell’s view God’s word says innumerable opposing things. And apparently he does not believe the book of Genesis records actual events but rather is all fiction.
As if these thoughts had not gone far enough, Rob also suggests that Satan is not an actual being. Rather he is an invented concept. He says about Satan, “You can see how the idea of an opposing, evil, destructive force/spirit/god/goddess emerged as people became more sophisticated in their thinking” (p.275). The creation story and Eden were not invented until the Hebrews came up with the idea in the fifth century B.C., according to Bell. So it wasn’t until then that the Satan figure was added to the Bible, apparently as a completely fictional character. After all, Bell states, “talking snakes were a common literary device in stories from around that time in history” (p.276).
I do not find Rob Bell’s ideas about the Bible credible. Rather, I find them dangerous and a radical revision of the entire meaning of Christianity. Embracing his ideas would require one to reject the straightforward teachings in the Bible including the most important one of all, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). I cannot recommend this book to anyone as a source of helpful insight on the Bible. Pastors and leaders, however, will find it helpful in seeing some of the issues at work in non-Christians as they wrestle with their understanding of how the Bible should be viewed. Sadly this book will plant these thoughts in the minds of many more.
You may also be interested in this:
Those looking for a reliable resource to aid in understanding and getting more out of the Bible should consider these:
Clarifying the Bible by Mitch Maheris great for a basic or beginner level overview of the whole Bible.
Promises Made – The Message of the Old Testament by Mark Dever is a more in-depth book.
Promises Kept – The Message of the New Testament by Mark Dever is a good choice for a more in-depth look at the New Testament.