Back in 2011, a book titled Love Wins made a big splash in the evangelical world and beyond. The author, Rob Bell, who was serving as a pastor at the time, made some very troubling statements that shed some light on his unorthodox theological positions. The result of the book propelled him out of his pulpit, onto Oprah, up the list of bestsellers by the New York Times, and the rest is history.
Recently, Rob Bell released his new book titled, What Is the Bible? While this new book may not cause quite the dust storm that followed Love Wins, it will have a lasting impact upon his audience. There is hardly a page throughout Bell’s book that doesn’t have a glaring theological error or an interpretative problem. As I read the book, I found Bell to be engaging and good at connecting dots to a storyline, but there are times when he connects the wrong dots, uses an improper hermeneutic, and goes beyond the realm of orthodoxy in his theology.
Bell’s book on the Bible seeks to point out how an ancient library of poems, letters, and stories can transform the way you think and feel about everything. Bell understands the importances of questions and he employs an aged tactic well, but his questions are typically antagonistic toward God’s Word. The problem is, Bell’s book seeks to change the way you feel about the Bible as he diminishes the authenticity and sufficiency of God’s Word. This is not a book about defining the Bible as much as it’s a book about how to read and understand the Bible.
Problems Defining the Bible
A proper definition of the Bible always begins with God, but Bell flips this to a heavy focus on the human author. He writes the following line at the beginning of chapter 2, “In the beginning, someone wrote something down. That’s how we got the Bible. Some people wrote some things down” (p. 19). While that is true, some 40 different human authors wrote something down over a period of 1,500 years—that’s not the proper starting place. The proper starting place is with God—the source of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16).
In a slick manner that doesn’t come right out and question the authenticity of God’s Word, Bell writes, “That’s years and years of people sitting around fires and waling along hot dusty roads and gathering together in tents and homes and courtyards to hear and discuss and debate and adapt and change these stories, poems, letters, and accounts” (p. 20). In a simple little line that contains much truth, Bell inserts the idea of people changing the Word of God. At this point, it’s abundantly clear, Bell’s view of the Bible is corrupt and he is seeking to pass along his broken understanding of God’s Word to his readers.
In a similar vein, Bell continues, “The authors of the books of the Bible, then, weren’t just writing—they were selecting and editing and choosing and making decisions about what material and content furthered their purposes in writing and what didn’t” (p. 21). Is that true? Did the human authors gather as much information as possible and then sift through it to see what furthered their agenda? This approach to the Scriptures diminishes the authenticity of God’s Word and relegates it down to the level of a religious editorial rather than holy Scripture.
While Bell claims that we shouldn’t read the Bible as if it simply fell out of the sky, and I would wholeheartedly agree, we can’t approach the Bible as if it’s “profoundly a human book” as he suggests (p. 22). The Bible is profoundly God’s book. Tragically, Bell completely overlooks the divine authorship of Scripture. Yes, the human authors and their intent matters when interpreting the Bible, we can’t be unbalanced in our approach to God’s Word. After all, it is God’s Word—not man’s word.
Remember how Romans 5:12 happened? It started with a conversation between Satan and Eve in the Garden of Eden where Satan asked her, “Did God say…?” The devastation of sin began by casting a shadow of doubt on God’s Word. In this book, Bell aligns himself with the motives of the enemy rather than the motives of God. Lowering a person’s view of Scripture will not strengthen the faith of God’s people.
Problems Interpreting the Bible
Anytime you interpret a document, it doesn’t matter if it’s an e-mail, the Constitution of the United States, or the Bible—the method you employ will determine the outcome. Loose hermeneutics will result in loose conclusions. A balanced approach to the definition of the Bible that focuses on the divine authorship of Scripture and properly connects the human authors in their appropriate place will lead to a proper method of interpretation.
When it comes to the science of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), it’s best to see God as the source of Scripture. Paul makes this point clear as he instructs Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16. At this point, the divine author and the human author are in proper sync—resulting in one intended meaning of the text that was recorded. However, on several different places, Bell makes loos statements such as, “You can read this story lots of ways” (p. 30). Actually, it’s best to read the story the way it was intended by God and the human author.
Bell concludes the third chapter by writing, “Did you see what just happened there” (p. 31)? The sixth chapter begins by saying:
When you read the Bible:
You can read a verse and study the individual words.
You can reflect on a sentence.
You can look for insight in the flow of several verses together.
You can study a paragraph or a chapter (p. 47).
These statements are indicative of the fact that Bell is teaching his readers how to interpret the Bible. As Bell finishes the ninth chapter, he encourages his readers to be inquisitive—sometimes flying close to the surface of the text and sometimes flying higher. He exhorts his readers to “keep asking, hunting, searching, questioning, assuming that there’s more going on here” (p. 78). His counsel is not terrible, but how he encourages them to search and connect dots leads to the wrong conclusion.
In the thirteenth chapter, one focused on the story of Jonah, Bell writes the following:
What do I think? I don’t think it matters what you believe about a man being swallowed by a fish. If you don’t believe it literally happened, that’s fine. Lots of people over the years have read this story as a parable about forgiveness” (p. 103).
The fact is, the story of Jonah is not about a fish. Bell is right about that. However, to undermine the literal qualities about the story is to diminish the miraculous and this is an ancient trick—one Thomas Jefferson employed in his attempt to moralize the teachings of Jesus. The problem with Bell’s conclusion is that Jesus interpreted the story of Jonah through a literal lens and applied it to His own death, burial, and resurrection—and we know that was literal (see Matt. 12:40).
Problems with the Theology of the Bible
Through the book, Bell deliberately writes with a choppy method, circular reasoning, asking and answering questions along the way. On many different levels, he remains ambiguously unclear about where he stands on specific theological matters. But, that’s not true regarding every issue. Tragically, Bell makes it explicitly clear where he stands regarding the nature the Bible as he consistently points to the human rather than the divine authorship, connects the flood of Noah to ancient flood stories, places Jesus’ resurrection in long line of other resurrection stories, and claims that the Levitical sacrificial system emerged from a long line of ancient sacrificial methods to false gods.
As he comes to the conclusion of his book, the last main section (part 4) is comprised of 15 short chapters that answer popular questions about the doctrines found in the Bible. In one chapter devoted to Jesus’ death, Bell comes to some troubling conclusions. Bell claims that Jesus didn’t have to die—he was murdered. Cloaking his doctrine with ambiguity—Bell seems to sidestep the answer. If the Bible is merely a human book, as Bell teaches throughout his book, the storyline of the Bible will be confused. As Bell writes on page 244:
God didn’t set up the sacrificial system. People did…The sacrificial system evolved as humans developed rituals and rites to help them deal with their guilt and fear…Over time those forces came to be personalized, so it wasn’t just the sun—it was the sun god. And then gradually those forces and gods were given names. And personalities. And attributes. And over time this one particular story emerged about one God who stood over all the others, who was doing something new in the world.
That sounds spiritual, but it’s biblically incorrect. God, in eternity past—long before any human beings were in existence—established the sacrificial system. In Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, he said, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:22-23).
The fact is, Jesus’ death was not only the “definite plan” carried out by the foreknowledge of God—but He was also called the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” by John the Baptist (see John 1:29). If Jesus was viewed as the fulfillment of the Levitical sacrificial system as God’s Lamb and as Peter suggested that the cross—although horribly evil and murderous—was the plan of God, it would be incorrect to suggest that people set up the sacrificial system.
In his chapter on predestination, as you can imagine, it was never unpacked grammatically, historically, or theologically. It was merely dismissed with one question and answer and a few confusing conclusions between the two. At one point, Bell writes:
When I have been asked whether some are chosen or not, I always ask, How would you ever know such a thing? and more importantly, How would that ever make your life better (p. 253)?
The obvious answer to Bell’s question is simple—because God has communicated this truth to us in Scripture. Secondly, it makes our life better in the sense of coming to understand a proper revelation of God and His divine sovereignty over His creation. This should bring all of God’s children comfort.
Near the end of the book, Bell has a chapter (36) focused on the nature of God’s Word. The title comes in form of a question—Is It the Word of God? By now, it’s no surprise the way Bell answers the question. He says:
So the Bible is the word of God? Yes. Lots of things are…So one of the main points of the library of books that some refer to as the word of God is that there are lots of words of God and you can and should listen to them all? Exactly (p. 266-67).
In the footsteps of ancient liberals, Bell distracts his readers from the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture—and points them away from the Bible to God’s creation. Once again, this is backwards. General revelation—although important—is an insufficient guide that rests upon the special revelation of God’s Word. In a similar way of thinking, in his chapter on inerrancy, he asks if Luke ends his book with Jesus’ ascension because there was an ancient theory that Emperor Caesar, at the end of his life, ascended to the heavens to sit at the right hand of the gods. He concludes his chapter by asking and answering a very important question:
So is the Bible inerrant?
I have a higher view of the Bible than that (p. 282).
Finally, in the last pages of his book, Bell writes a note to his readers titled, “A Note on Growing and Changing.” It’s a little more than 3 pages of encouragement to push the limits, seek freedom from your former bondage, and celebrate it. He writes:
Groups have a center of gravity. Families, friends, churches, offices, and schools all have a dominant consciousness, a center of gravity, a party line. It’s the often unspoken agreement that keeps things running smoothly based on what to believe, how to behave, what’s acceptable, and what isn’t…This is why some churches ban books, this is why certain topics are off-limits at family gatherings, and this is often why people use words like heretic (p. 319).
Actually, we reserve the word heretic to describe people who have swerved from the faith or who teach a false gospel—attacking the very Word of God. Unfortunately, this is precisely the place where Rob Bell has moved. Possessing the articulate abilities of a smooth communicator, he leads people to embrace faulty interpretative methods that lead to a wrong view of God and wrong conclusions on essential biblical doctrines.
God is bigger, the Bible is greater, and our salvation is sweeter than the message delivered in Rob Bell’s book.
A copy of Rob Bell’s book, What Is the Bible? was sent to me by the publisher—HarperOne for the sole purpose of providing this review. The quotes cited in this review are taken from the published version of the book as received directly from the publisher and are documented by page numbers in the end notes.