Rob Bell’s Achilles Heel

bellOn Tuesday, March 12, 2013, New York Times bestselling author, Rob Bell spoke to a captive audience in Brooklyn, NY on the topic of his new book “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” (HarperOne, 2013). The most interesting part of the talk for me was an event Bell recalled from his past. One Easter Sunday morning, while on his way to church, he realized “that I didn’t really know if I believed in God.” The thought then crossed his mind: “What if I just got up and said ‘It’s Easter Sunday, welcome. I’ve been thinking, and in the end, ‘I think we might be screwed’.” [1]

Bell’s Doubt

The Doubt Declared

Yes, what if you came to believe that? What, precisely, would that mean? Even more importantly, perhaps: what should you do about it? To approach these questions, it might be helpful to try and get clear about what was troubling Bell. In his talk, he follows up these remarks with the observation that we all doubt at one time or another. So doubt is the culprit; but a particular sort of doubt. Bell’s Doubt, as we might call it, the one he entertained on the way to church, can be put as follows:

(BD)     I don’t know if I believe in God.

Now at first glance, this looks like a nod in the direction of agnosticism. It’s not the sort of thing, one thinks, that an atheist would ever say. An atheist, if she knows anything at all, knows she doesn’t believe that God exists. She has to believe that, since she believes he does not. Still, while (BD) might be on the road to atheism, it hasn’t yet arrived. This suggests that Bell’s Doubt is best seen as a loss of confidence in what he previously did believe. So perhaps his doubt can be more perspicuously stated as

(BD*)   I don’t know whether my belief that God exists is true.

And there’s certainly nothing wrong with entertaining (BD*) if you’re Christian. I should think it’s a normal part of intellectual and spiritual growth. Now if (BD*) capture’s the doubt in question, it looks like we have a case in which Bell holds a belief, that belief happens to be true (I think so anyway), but unfortunately Bell finds himself in the unhappy position of not knowing that it’s true. From his point of view: maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. His big worry, I take it, is the latter (“I think we might be screwed”).

The Doubt Disconnect

It is important to see that there is a curious (logical) disconnect here. First, from the fact that I don’t know whether there is a God, it doesn’t seem to follow that we all might be in trouble—not unless my not knowing is somehow taken to be a reliable measure for anyone’s not knowing. (“Since I don’t know—and I’m your pastor and in a position to know—none of you do either.”) What follows, at best, is that Bell’s own Christian belief might be in trouble, not that Christianity as a whole is.

Second, notice that he doesn’t tell his congregation, “We are in trouble”; he says only “We might be.” But why so? For this reason alone: Bell doesn’t know whether God exists. But surely that inference is invalid. That I don’t know whether p is true won’t entail that p might be false. I don’t whether Goldbach’s Conjecture is true—that every even integer greater than 2 is the sum of two primes. How does it follow that the Conjecture could be false? For if it is true, then it is necessarily so; it couldn’t possibly be false. This isn’t surprising, of course, since that’s just the way things go with mathematical theorems. But now consider the God of classical theism. If he exists, he is a necessary being; he exists in every possible world. In that case, however, it simply isn’t possible that God exists should be false. But then clearly, Bell’s not knowing the truth value of God exists won’t go any distance at all towards showing that it’s possible that God exists isn’t true.

So I’m rather relieved that Bell didn’t—I assume he didn’t—announce to his audience that they all might be mired in a false religion. That would have been a logical catastrophe. Nevertheless, Bell did have serious cause for concern. For if you don’t know whether God exists, you don’t know whether Christianity is true. And that’s a problem, especially if you’re a Christian pastor. (A pastor who doesn’t believe in God is rather like a scientist who rejects the existence of planets, or a philosopher who refuses to believe in premises.) No doubt this is obvious to you, but if biblical justification is wanted (always good to have it), it would be this. Think for a moment about the Apostle Paul. Confronted by a Corinthian church that had apparently spurned the whole idea of bodily resurrection, the Great Apostle traces out with laser-like precision the perilous consequences for Christian belief:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised (1 Cor 15: 13-15).

It’s a risky, falsifiable business this Christianity. For if God doesn’t raise the dead, then Christianity is factually false, in which case Bell’s “preaching is useless” as is the “faith” of those listening to him (an ever growing number it seems). But here’s the kicker: if there is no God—precisely Bell’s worry—it’s a rock-ribbed certainty the dead won’t be rising any time soon.

Bell’s Dogma

The question is: what’s to be done? Well, if the problem is a lack of knowledge (as Bell suggests), then wouldn’t the solution be to figure out whether there are any decent reasons for thinking that God does exist? As we all learned at Socrates’ knee, the problem with beliefs that just happen to be true is that

they are not willing to remain long; and they escape from man’s mind, so that they are not worth much until one ties them down by (giving) an account of the reason why. After they are tied down, in the first place they become knowledge, and then they remain in place. [2]

What’s needed, then, is a reason(s) for thinking our beliefs are true—that reality is the way we take it to be. The strange thing about Bell’s process for dispelling doubt is that it doesn’t appear to be truth-oriented at all. There is no attempt, so far as I can tell, to acquire or assess any reasons for belief. His method for theological belief revision, by his own account, is entirely subjective, pragmatic, and non-truth-conducive:

What I realized was that the conceptions I had of God weren’t working for me…some of the conceptions I had didn’t work anymore. Some of the dogmatic, like, “Yes, this is true,” I realized that there was something about it, that it lost some of the energy and life to it. [3]

Bell notes further that it was

through that experience of sort of coming face to face with the very real possibility that we are alone here and there is no point, I came to find new understandings of God–understandings that filled me with life, which is the measure of a good view of God. Are you with me, like, “Is this where the life is?” “Does it shape me into a better person?” “Does this open me up in ways that nothing else can?”. [4]

Did you catch that? The “measure of a good view of God” isn’t that there are reasons for thinking there is a God corresponding to that concept. It’s whether it works for you. As Patricia Churchland once said in another connection, “Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost.” Faced with “the very real possibility” that there is no God, Bell takes the easy road, settling instead for inventing some “new understandings” of God. Are these understandings true understandings? Is there a God corresponding to them? We’re not told here, and perhaps that’s not the point. What Bell does say is that he likes them better than the old ones. They fill him with life and energy, make him into what he feels is a better person, and result in personal flourishing. No doubt they result in huge book sales as well. Certainly, this is the sort of talk we’ve come to expect from Tony Robbins. But from a pastor of a Christian church? Not so much.

In the end, it seems very likely that Bell is operating with a dogma of his own: we should adopt those understandings of God we find most empowering to us personally.

Bell’s Difficulties

What shall we say about the dogma? It’s hard to know where to start. Here I’ll simply mention three of the more pressing issues. (I’m sure you can think of more.) First, this wholesale capitulation to (theological) pragmatism is unnecessary. As I said before, Bell didn’t actually confront the “real possibility” that God didn’t exist. Not one bit. What he confronted was his own knowledge deficit. It just doesn’t follow that there might not be a God, so that we’d better get ourselves a newer, more pleasing substitute. The danger in this move—especially if you cast truth aside—is that you might just end up creating God in your own image, investing him with exactly the properties you want him to have.

So here’s a thought experiment for you. Suppose we find a return letter to the Apostle Paul from the Corinthian church which reads as follows:

Dear Paul, we hear what you’re saying. God will raise the dead. But you don’t get it. That’s a very narrow, culturally ghettoized point of view. It will turn lots of people in our (Greek) community away. We have to adapt or die. Your view isn’t going to shape us into more loving, compassionate people. It’s going to polarize us from others. The real measure of a good religious belief isn’t whether it is true in some ultimate sense, but whether it’s going to produce fruit in our lives. We don’t think the belief you’re insisting on will do that. In fact, it’s actually going to be destructive of relationship, since it contributes to a conversational impasse in which I must see the Other as wrong. How loving is that?

Well, you can see the problem, and this leads to a second issue with Bell’s view. It will imply a vicious sort of religious relativism. Once you disconnect yourself from truth, and look solely to “what works” to assemble your beliefs about God (this a widespread epidemic), you’re going to end up with a mind-boggling array of conflicting viewpoints. For a belief that empowers you (whatever that means) might not empower me. None of these beliefs about God will be in any sense privileged, as they would be if there were one that was simply true (cf. John 17:3–“the only true God”). What we’re left with here is only “conversations,” where the aim is to listen (nothing wrong with that), appreciate our diversity (nothing wrong with that either), but not to discover the truth of the matter—unless that truth is simply the truth of “what works” for each of us.

I don’t have to tell you that this is not where the Great Apostle left things with the Corinthians. If their problem was not knowing whether there was a resurrection, he dealt with that knowledge deficit directly and decisively. You can know there is a resurrection, since Jesus rose. And here are the reasons you can know that:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born (1 Cor 15:3-8).

Now that is a message for Easter Sunday! That’s how you know that Christianity is “true and reasonable” (Acts 26:25). You don’t invent new beliefs. You spend the time and effort to acquaint yourself with the relevant evidence. This takes care of your deficit in knowledge in a way that ensures you’re not engaged in Peter Pan theology and mere wish fulfillment.

The fact of the matter is that Bell’s Dogma doesn’t actually dispel doubt at all; it only transfers it to something else. For let G* be Bell’s new understanding of God. Then I take it that Bell would affirm that it’s true that God* exists (where ‘God*’ is the being he thinks corresponds to his new concept G*). But I don’t see that there’s anything in what Bells tells us that would forestall his thinking (next Easter Sunday), “I don’t know whether God* exists. Hence there’s a ‘very real possibility’ he doesn’t. Tomorrow I’ll have to look for an even newer understanding to replace the one I now have.” No wonder they call it the “emerging” church!

One final point. You might be wondering why theology has to be guided by Bell’s Dogma at all. Why not Scripture itself? Wouldn’t that be more reliable? Indeed, I think it would. Unfortunately, that option isn’t open to Bell. For on his view, we don’t have access to what the bible actually teaches. In his book Velvet Elvis, for example, Bell writes that many churches assume that

that there is a way to read the Bible that is agenda—and perspective—free…When you hear people say they are just going to tell you what the Bible means, it is not true. They are telling you what they think it means. [5]

In other words, no one knows what the bible means; they only know what they think it means. It’s the old “everything is an interpretation” axiom from Derrida (and more recently James K. A. Smith). It sets us adrift in a sea of interpretation with no way of even touching down to what God has revealed about himself in Scripture. No interpretation is privileged. We’re stuck with picking and choosing the one that “works” for us; that’s all we can do. We won’t know if our interpretation is right, but at least we’ll feel more empowered by our beliefs. You might be wondering: why can’t we just say that if a belief is empowering, then it’s also true? Well, it’s a free country; you can say anything you like. The problem is that your saying that (on Bell’s view) won’t be agenda—and perspective—free; in which case all you are entitled to conclude is that in your biased opinion empowering beliefs are also true. But there’s no reason for me to believe that, if I don’t share your interpretation (which, by the way, I don’t).

This is the Achilles heel of Bell’s theology. If everything is sheer interpretation, there’s absolutely no reason for me to think that anything he tells me about God is factually true. I have a hunch that eventually Rob Bell’s current beliefs about God will no longer work for him, and then we’ll we’ll see him moving on to another set of beliefs (accompanied no doubt by another best-seller to mark the transition). If you are among the many attracted to Bell’s current theology, you shouldn’t hesitate for a moment to reject his beliefs at some point down the road–that is, if you discover some newer, shinier, more empowering ones. This seems to be just the sort of belief revision he’d be required to bless. It’s also more or less what one would expect once you give in to the temptation to invent God in light of your felt needs. The good news, however, is that the current evangelical love affair with this endlessly-emergent theology won’t alter the fact that “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) is “true and reasonable” (Acts 26:25). You can anchor yourself to it and weather the storms of life and intellect, thereby freeing yourself from the postmodern throng who seem to be “ever learning [but] never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7).

Works Cited

1. Talk by Rob Bell, PowerHouse Arena, Brooklyn NY, March 12, 2013; video; 32:30.
2. Grube, Plato: Complete Works, 895.
3. Bell, PowerHouse Arena talk,video; 32:30.
4. Ibid., video; 32:30.
5. Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Zondervan, 2005), 53-54.
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4 comments on “Rob Bell’s Achilles Heel

  1. […] book exploring God, also seems to expressing the same idea as Enns in a recent HarperOne broadcast. Prof Davis quotes the relevant portion of the broadcast and then captures the problem with Bell’s “a good view of God is one that makes me a better […]

  2. 1) It is perfectly understandable to declare ‘we might be screwed’ if your own doubt meant you could conceive that no one was coming to humanity’s rescue.

    2) surely all preachers face questioning doubt and hold back there thoughts in order to serve their church community. All this shows s that we are on a journey and that said preacher (including Bell) is being responsible in not settling in one particular thought moment.

    3) Bells Dogma – surely he is describing a process of deconstruction and the first step to some from of construction. The ‘what works for me’ criticism is not useful because we all construct by ‘what works for me’ whether experientially, intellectually, philosophically, or theologically.

    4) Bell’s Difficulty – 1) you can’t know that he didn’t confront the possibility that there is no God just because he focusses on describing his own knowledge deficit.
    God in our own image view is a truism because it s not measurable. Everyone can call another group for doing this because we all judge by our own standards.

    5) the problem you face is tat very questions Bell raises about interpretations needs to be answered because all kinds of churches count themselves as biblical and hold different views. In this regard what Bell points out is that our approach to scripture and our joint questioning of the beliefs we hold is equally as valuable as the doctrinal statements churches congregate around. To deny this is to miss the real journey of Christians in our churches.

    • Rich Davis says:

      Hi Alan! Thanks for your thoughtful comments. A few replies.

      Re (1): Remember my point. ‘We might be screwed’ doesn’t follow logically from ‘I don’t know if God exists’. It might be “understandable.” I don’t dispute that. I only say that it’s based on a logically invalid inference.

      Re (2): It’s no part of my argument to suggest that preachers shouldn’t “hold back their thoughts to serve their church community.”

      Re (3): I don’t deny that Bell is trying to construct something. My comments assume that. As for your assertion that “we all construct by ‘what works for me’,” you’d have to prove that. That’s certainly a sweeping generalization.

      Re (4): I didn’t claim that Bell “didn’t confront the possibility that there is no God.” I said only that this possibility doesn’t follow from Bell’s knowledge deficit.

      “God in our own image is a truism because its (?) not measurable.” I really don’t know what you mean by this, Alan.

      “We all judge by our own standards.” If that’s true, then why think that the standards you’re using to critique my post actually apply to me? Are they merely *your* standards, or are they standards I *ought* to accept as well?

      Re (5): I don’t think you really grappled with my point about Bell’s self-referential difficulties re: holding that everything is an interpretation. You raise a different point about churches with differing views of the bible. Sure there are differences of opinion. How does it follow that everything is mere opinion?

  3. Ben Nasmith says:

    Great post. Thanks! What a tangled web relativism becomes.

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