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Rob Bell’s ‘What Is the Bible?’ Takes a Confounding Trajectory Away From Scripture as We Know It

Rob Bell
Screengrab Youtube @HarperOne

If evangelicals had a black list, Rob Bell would be on it. Bell’s new book What Is the Bible? is guaranteed to ruffle some feathers, and the speaking tour he’s about to embark on targets the geographical heart of evangelical conservatism—the Bible Belt.

Once considered a trusted voice and applauded for building the megachurch Mars Hill in record fashion, there was a time when Bell was a huge influence and voice in the evangelical world. However, after a few sermons pushing the envelope on biblical interpretation and his book Love Wins, in which he questions the legitimacy of hell, Bell experienced something akin to excommunication from traditional church as we know it. Although the church rejected him, Bell resonated with a more secular, post-modern audience. He appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show, gaining exposure to her audience and a subsequent group of listeners who were interested in spirituality, but not necessarily the church.

In a review of Bell’s new book, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) points out its core messages, the first of which being reading Scripture “literately” versus “literally.” What he means by this is that we need to approach each text with consideration of the genre that particular text hails from. For instance, we shouldn’t approach the Psalms (poetry) in the same way we approach the four Gospels. Additionally, one should always take the overarching narrative of the Bible into consideration when interpreting the text. This all sounds well and good, and agreeable at face value.

What is sure to sit as disagreeable with many, however, is his conclusion that Scripture is more human-inspired than God-inspired. Essentially, Bell is coming from the viewpoint that Scripture is errant. In an interview with Religion News, Bell says, “The Bible is not a book written by God; it’s a book written by people about God.” As the TGC article summarizes, “over time, [Bell] claims, Abraham’s offspring compiled and edited the Hebrew Scriptures to create a progressive and enlightened ethic aimed at ‘raising [the] consciousness’ of its readers.” For instance, the article points out, the sacrificial system outlined in Leviticus was put into place to help people handle their feelings of fear and guilt.

What is perhaps more concerning, though, is the implications this line of thought has on how we view Jesus and what he did for us. According to Bell, Jesus came to earth to put a human face to the words of Scripture, and not necessarily to atone for sin. Bell also postulates that Jesus was murdered—that he didn’t give his life willingly—and that the New Testament writers were interpreting the events through the lens of the sacrificial system they knew from the Old Testament. As the TGC article points out, however, this line of thinking is in contradiction to other things we are told in Scripture, specifically that Jesus did willingly go to the cross and that he did claim to be the only way to relationship with God the Father.

The interview with Religion News took on a much less critical view of Bell and his theology. Writer Jana Riess asks Bell how he responds to the criticism he’s received for Love Wins, and how he’s planning to respond the inevitable backlash over What Is the Bible. Bell explains he doesn’t engage the criticism. “It’s not really part of my work,” explains. The purpose of his work is to facilitate “people who would never give the Bible the time of day taking it back.” And, frankly, if someone has a problem with that, he doesn’t care. “There are too many people who are hungry, who are thirsty, who want to have this discussion.”

Bell encourages people to view the Bible as not so much about God and eternity, but instead about life this side of hell-less eternity. He says, “This book is about what it means to be human.” Bell cites the fact that a large portion of the Old Testament concerns itself with the day-to-day details of life—”politics and the poor, and sex and wine and the economy”—as evidence for this conclusion.

In line with this desire to reach people, Bell is doing a tour through the Bible Belt—aptly named the Bible Belt Tour. Bell says the tour is about “consciousness, violence and empire.” And although he doesn’t agree with the biblical view most evangelical leaders hold, Bell does enjoy preaching. His Robcast is “a sermon disguised as a podcast.”

While we can all appreciate the desire to reach people “who would never give the Bible the time of day,” one has to wonder where Bell is leading these people he reaches. When Jesus isn’t who he says he is in Scripture, who is he, exactly? And what is the good of leading people to him if we don’t really know who he is and what he did for us?