A Biblical Critique of “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith” – Rob Bell
by Kevin Moore
“Just because it is a Christian book by a Christian author and it was purchased in a Christian bookstore doesn’t mean it is all true or good or beautiful.” – Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, Rob Bell, p.83.
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Colossians 2:8. (All Scripture verses are from the ESV).
The purpose of this review is to seek to compare the teaching presented in Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith with Scripture. It is not an attempt to judge Mr Bell, but it is an attempt to investigate his teaching, which is in the public domain, using Scripture as the plumb line, to determine if it agrees with orthodox Christian doctrine.
Jude tells us, “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” and the apostle Paul tells us that, “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work”; and it is on this basis that the review has been written. The author’s concern is for Christians who may be led astray by those who “have crept in unnoticed…” and in accordance with Paul’s instructions to Timothy to “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” – 2 Timothy 4:16.
Scriptures and Doctrine
“And, do not believe, dear friends, that when you go into revival meetings, or special evangelistic services, you are to leave out the doctrines of the gospel; for you ought then to proclaim the doctrines of grace rather more than less. Teach gospel doctrines clearly, affectionately, simply, and plainly, and especially those truths which have a present and practical bearing upon man’s condition and God’s grace.” – C.H.Spurgeon.
Mr Bell (I will use Rob from now on for readability not for familiarity) describes the doctrines of the Christian faith as springs or bricks. He asserts that they can be tested and questioned and taken apart and “if the whole faith falls apart when we re-examine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it?” (p.27). He essentially says that if we are dogmatic about a particular doctrine then we are somehow limiting God; but if we take away an essential part of the doctrine and our faith remains, then it shows that our faith is strong.
He views the doctrine of the Trinity as a spring, as opposed to a brick, (p.22) and he redefines the historical account of the manner in which the name “Trinity” was reached and believes that as a doctrine, “it was added later…” and it can flex and stretch. Rob says that he affirms the doctrine of the Trinity but leaves the reader thinking that it can be questioned and if taken away and faith is affected, then that faith was not particularly strong in the first place. However, the teaching of the Trinity is a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith which stretches from Genesis to Revelation; simply because the ‘three-in-oneness’ of God was given a name does not mean it was added later. Understanding God’s Triune nature is essential to the Christian faith.
Similarly, questions are raised about the virgin birth but affirmed on the next page (pp.26-27); it is implied that the doctrine is not important and that it is faith that counts, not the doctrine on which the faith is founded. Rob actually questions the virgin birth and makes the reader question whether Mary may not have been a virgin. We read:
“And what if you discover that in the first century being “born of a virgin” also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse?
The Bible however, is clear that Joseph, “kept her (Mary) a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus,” (Matthew 1:25) and that, “she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit,” Matthew 1:18. The questioning is unnecessary, because without the “brick” of the virgin birth, faith would be in “another Jesus” and thus vain.
Developing the expressing of our faith in words, we read:
“The Christian faith is mysterious to the core. It is about things and beings that ultimately can’t be put into words. Language fails. And if we do definitively put God into words, we have at that very moment made God something God is not.”
This echoes what was said on p.23:
“Our words aren’t absolutes. Only God is absolute, and God has no intention of sharing this absoluteness with anything, especially words people have come up with to talk about Him.”
Surely this comment undermines God’s revealed truth in His written Word. People did not come up with the words to talk about God, they are God-given; the Bible is the inspired Word of God. If God cannot be put into words then what is the point of the Bible? If “words aren’t absolutes” how on earth can anything that is written in the Bible be read objectively? Words are just words on their own but they are used to express absolutes. How do we learn about God’s character and attributes if not through His revealed Word?
Among the many verses that show that the Word of God is absolute, are:
“Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68.
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:38.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” Mark 13:31
Rob also says that “the Christian faith is mysterious to the core….” which seems to imply that the Christian faith is a mystery and that “being a Christian then is more about celebrating mystery than conquering it.” (p.34). This denies the fact that as Christians we celebrate the mystery that has been revealed. Granted, there are some things which our finite minds are unable to understand, but the mystery of God’s salvation has been clearly revealed.
Again, the Scriptures say:
“Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.” – Rom. 11:25 (1)
“Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.” – Romans 16:25.
Clearly, Jesus has given us understanding and it is no longer a mystery (2) or mysterious.
Rob appears to confuse the meaning of the word ‘mystery’ with the depths of God – God’s wisdom and ways are far beyond the understanding of human beings (Romans 11:33) and hence He deserves all glory, but this does not mean that the Christian faith is mysterious. On the contrary, the Gospel is plain to see and can be easily understood when presented correctly.
Repeatedly, we read the Bible referred to as a book, or a collection of writings, and as ‘mysterious’. True, the Bible contains things which are difficult to understand but the wider picture, the absolute sovereignty of God, is not presented. The story of Joshua and the fall of Jericho is quoted, and the fact that they destroyed everything in the city, but there is no mention that this was God’s judgement on the terrible sin of the Canaanites and it does not seem to acknowledge the fact that God, “will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (Romans 9:15; Exodus 33:19).
On the next page we read, “Is God really like that?” The easy answer to the question is, “Yes, God is really like that!” All of God’s character attributes should be studied, not just the fact that God is love – He is also holy, just and righteous and will not tolerate sin.
Rob quotes 1 Corinthians 7:12, “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her”.
Again Scripture seems to be undermined with the words, “So when a writer of the Bible makes it clear that what he is writing comes straight from him, how is that still the word of God?” (p.42); but the passage fails to fully explain what is meant. Paul is unaware that Jesus spoke specifically about this situation and he thus distinguishes between what was recorded about Jesus’ teaching about divorce and Paul’s understanding of how Jesus’ teaching would apply to this situation. Paul’s instruction here is authoritative and inspired and is not simply human wisdom. This also needs to be seen in the context that in 1 Corinthians 7:10 he says, “not I, but the Lord…”; this whole section is about God’s ordinances.
On p. 44 we read, “Is the Bible the best God can do?” The natural response is to think, ‘Should this sort of question be included in a Christian publication?’ Is Rob questioning God’s ability to reveal Himself and give His testimony concerning His Son?
On p.50 Rob quotes Matthew 16:19, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”; and he says that Jesus, “is giving his followers the authority to make new interpretations of the Bible.” The teaching here about binding and loosing is very concerning. It is asserted that Jesus is giving His disciples authority to make new interpretations of the Bible without mentioning that this authority was given to the founding apostles and not just anyone who claims to be a Christian.
On pp. 53 – 54 Rob appears to undermine the objective interpretation and understanding of Scripture and says that we need to decide what it “….means now, today” (p.55). Proper Biblical exegesis involves understanding the meaning of the Scripture and then applying it to our lives, not the other way round, which is what is suggested when we read that, “nobody is objective”. It is asserted that no one is objective when they study the Bible. This is partly true but he seems to forget the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the fact that He will guide us into all truth. 2 Timothy 2:15 tells us to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”
On p.56 Rob seems to be getting confused with “binding and loosing”. The fact is that Jesus said, for example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’”. Given that Jesus said these words with authority it is safe to assume that they are binding. However, if anyone says that they are giving a new interpretation it must be viewed in light of Scripture. This passage seems to deny the sufficiency of Scripture so when this section of the book is reached the reader is given the impression that they can interpret Scripture any way they like. To approach Scripture and say, “What does this Scripture mean to me, today?” is problematic. Ultimately, it does not matter what it means to you; what matters is what it means and then how to apply what it means.
P.57 focuses on the use of the word “seemed” in Acts 15:28, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements:”
“They (the apostles) don’t claim to have an absolute word from God on the matter; they at best claim guidance from the Spirit of God, but they even hold that loosely”. (p.57).
This assertion effectively questions the apostolic authority of the founding apostles. The decrees were given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; they would not have ordained anything that was contrary to the Holy Spirit’s intentions. (See also Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage).
P.67 denies the teaching of “Scripture alone”. The footnotes say everything we say and do should be grounded in the Bible but then implies that those who adhere to “Scripture alone” seem to believe that the Bible just fell out of the sky. The comment at the top of p.68 sums up the view of the Bible, “When people say that all we need is the Bible, it is simply not true.”
“Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” John 18:37-38.
“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth…” 2 Tim. 2:24-25.
This section will investigate Rob’s view of the truth. On p.62 we read that the statements made in the Bible “aren’t first and foremost timeless truths”; the Bible is not an owner’s manual. If this is the case why do we read:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” – 2 Timothy 3:16.
Having undermined the doctrine of “Scripture alone” we now discover that truth can be found everywhere.
On p.78 we read:
“And not only is truth everywhere, not only is the whole earth filled with the kavod of God, but the writer Paul makes a fascinating observation about people in his letter to the Romans. He says at one point, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves.” Gentiles is his word for people who don’t follow God, and law is his word for the Scriptures. So he says that people who don’t know anything about God are able to do the right thing on a regular basis. Without having any instructions from God or the Bible, these people are still able from time to time to live as God created us to live. For Paul, truth is available to everyone.”
One might assume that Rob means that truth is everywhere as Romans 1:19-20 teaches, but I’m unsure if he means that. The above quote does not present the true meaning of Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:14. Of course, people are still capable of doing the right thing but this does not deny their total depravity and their inherent and imputed sin. The point that Paul is trying to make in Romans 1-3 is that “there is none righteous” and that the Mosaic law convicts Jews of sin; that God’s moral or natural law written on the hearts of Gentiles convicts them of sin and that “man is without excuse”. The wrath of God is rightly revealed against them because they cannot attain righteousness by the law. Simply put, Paul’s purpose in Romans 1-3 is to convince people that they are sinners.
Rob rightly states that, “For Paul, truth is available to everyone.” That is, Paul would agree that the truth of the Gospel is available to everyone. However, it is also claimed that for Paul, “truth is bigger than his religion”. The fact is that Paul’s religion is truth – Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and no one can come to the Father except through Him.
These claims are bordering close to universalism; anybody from any perspective, from any religion, from anywhere is capable of speaking truth. Of course anyone can speak truth; an atheist can say that 1 + 1 = 2 and this is true. The argument continues that you can claim truths from another religion as your own; but surely this will only lead to a ‘spiritual smorgasbord’. From the perspective of Rob’s reasoning this is understandable, given that Scripture is not the final word on truth and there are truths in other religions which must be from God.
Rob’s reasoning on p.79 is that Christians can effectively claim any truths from another religion. We read that because Paul has testified that a prophet from a decadent society has spoken a truth, then he is affirming truth wherever he finds it. In actual fact Paul is wisely using this statement to warn Titus of the fact that the Cretans even call themselves liars and he has to be bold in rebuking them for their false teaching.
Rob believes that as a Christian he is “free to claim the good, the true, the holy, wherever and whenever I find it. I live with the understanding that truth is bigger than any religion and the world is God’s and everything in it.” Rather than believing in the revealed truth of the Word we are to find truth everywhere and claim it as God because God is truth; see 1 John 5:20.
Volume 5 of “The Fundamentals” booklets published towards the beginning of the last century described truth as follows (taken from “Life in the Word” by Philip Mauro):
“Such is the power of the living truth to impart life; and herein lies the difference between the truth which God has revealed in His Word, and truth which may be found elsewhere. For there is much truth which is not living truth. The multiplication table is truth; but it is not living truth. It has no quickening power. The theorems of geometry are truth; but they are not living truth. Never yet has any man been heard to testify that he had been the wretched and hopeless slave of sin, and had continued in spiritual darkness, fast bound in misery and vice until his eyes were opened by the great truth that two and two make four, or that three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles; and that thereby his life had been transformed, his soul delivered from bondage, and his heart filled with joy and peace in believing. On the other hand, in the case of a true conversion, it may have been but the shortest and simplest statement of ‘the Word of the truth of the Gospel’ Col. 1:5 that was heard and believed, such as that ‘Christ died for the ungodly’ Rom. 5:6, yet it suffices, through the mighty power of Him who raised up Christ from among the dead, to quicken together with Christ a soul that previously was dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 1:20; 2:5). Thus the Word of truth becomes, in some inscrutable way, the vehicle for imparting that life of which the risen Christ, the incarnate Word, is the only source.”
The book appears to deny that a man can be saved simply by receiving and hearing God’s Word, and also deny its power to convict and heal a soul. Jesus does not “free us to embrace whatever is true and good and beautiful wherever we find it” because He is truth and He is all sufficient.
On p.83 we read:
“I don’t follow Jesus because I think Christianity is the best religion. I follow Jesus because he leads me into ultimate reality. He teaches me to live in tune with how reality is… For Jesus then, the point of religion is to help us connect with ultimate reality, God”.
It would appear that Rob is more interested in Jesus’ teachings than what He actually came on earth to do and what He achieved on the Cross. True Christians follow Jesus, not because they think Christianity is the best religion, but because He is the way, the truth and the life and no one can come to the Father except through Him. Personally, I know He died to save a wretched sinner like me from the wrath of God and His righteous judgement against me and He has reconciled me to Himself and has justified me in His sight; this is what orthodox Christianity teaches.
On p.161 we read:
“To make the Cross of Jesus just about human salvation is to miss that God is interested in the saving of everything. Every star and rock and bird. All things.”
Revelation 21 does speak of a new heaven and a new earth and God will one day restore all things to their rightful place but the Cross of Jesus is about the redemption and reconciliation of man to God through repentance and obedience to Him in faith. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” 1 Timothy 1:15; the Cross of Christ is for the salvation of mankind.
P.164 emphasises this experience:
“They understood that people are rarely persuaded by arguments, but more often by experiences. Living, breathing, flesh and blood experiences of the resurrection community… it was less about proving and more about inviting people to experience this community of Jesus’ followers for themselves.”
This is experienced-based thinking which denies the need for teaching and the power of the Word. If it was “less about proving” why did Paul reason with people in the synagogues and why did the apostles testify to the truth if not to prove that Jesus is in fact resurrected from the dead?
On p.66 Rob talks about someone “becoming a compelling force for good in the world” after they have surrendered their life to God – after He saves them. He seems to be redefining what the good news of the Gospel is. He says that if a person has the good news then that becomes good news for all those that they come into contact with. Whilst it is true that Christian living can indeed be good news for those around you, the Gospel is only good news to those people if they too believe. If they are convicted of their sin and repent and turn to Christ, then it becomes good news; otherwise, they may derive some benefit from having a friendly Christian neighbour but they are still dead in their sins. The good news of Jesus Christ is available to all but it only becomes good news from an eternal perspective when a person repents and believes the gospel.
This idea of following the way of Jesus is summed up on p.167:
“It is when the church gives itself away in radical acts of service and compassion, expecting nothing in return, that the way of Jesus is most vividly put on display. To do this, the church must stop thinking about everybody primarily in categories of in or out, saved or not, believer or nonbeliever. Besides the fact that these terms are offensive to those who are the ‘un’ and ‘non’, they work against Jesus’ teachings about how we are to treat each other. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbour, and our neighbour can be anybody. We are all created in the image of God, and we are all sacred, valuable creations of God. Everybody matters. To treat people differently based on who believes what is to fail to respect the image of God in everyone. As the book of James says, ‘God shows no favouritism.’ So we don’t either. Oftentimes the Christian community has sent the message that we love people and build relationships in order to convert them to the Christian faith. So there is an agenda. And when there is an agenda, it isn’t really love, is it? It’s something else. We have to rediscover love, period. Love that loves because it is what Jesus teaches us to do. We have to surrender our agendas. Because some people aren’t going to become Christians like us, no matter how hard we push.”
There are some worrying assertions here. It is true that the Church should give itself away in “radical acts of service” but I would like to investigate the claim that when there is an agenda, then it is not really love. I agree that the message of loving people and building relationships and having some sort of hidden agenda is wrong. We should simply love our neighbours as ourselves, as we have been commanded to, but to suggest that wanting, for example, my non-Christian family members and friends to be converted is an unloving agenda is ludicrous.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” – John 3:16-17.
God does have an agenda and it is based on love.
“But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” – John 20:31 (See also: Luke 19:10 and 1 John 1:4.)
I would argue that when you have a Christian agenda it is really love!
Is Rob saying we shouldn’t evangelise? Of course, 1 Corinthians 10:32 says, “Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God,” but the modern mind’s concern about offending people is a great weakness and threat to evangelism. Surely we should be more worried about the eternal state of a person’s soul as opposed to the temporary threat to their self-esteem from a clear presentation of their sinful condition and need of a Saviour. The Bible also says this concerning “offence”:
“And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offence and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” – Isaiah 8:14.
“And they took offence at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour except in his hometown and in his own household.” – Matthew 13:57 (See also: John 6:61; Romans 9:33; Galatians 5:11; 1 Peter 2:8 and 1 Corinthians 1:18).
On p.148 Matthew 25:31-46 is quoted, about the Final Judgement, but again the understanding appears confusing. We read of the “righteous” (v 37) that “Jesus measures their eternal standings in terms of not what they said or believed but how they lived, specifically in regard to the hell around them”. So, it does not matter what we believe but what we do. This does not accurately portray the Jesus of the Bible. Orthodox Christianity agrees that we must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved but what is proposed here is nothing more than salvation by works.
The Nature of man (heaven and hell)
“The withholding of the doctrine of the total depravity of man has wrought serious mischief to many who have listened to a certain kind of preaching. These people do not get a true healing because they do not know the disease under which they are suffering; they are never truly clothed because nothing is done towards stripping them. In many ministries, there is not enough of probing the heart and arousing the conscience by the revelation of man’s alienation from God, and by the declaration of the selfishness and the wickedness of such a state. Men need to be told that, except divine grace shall bring them out of their enmity to God, they must eternally perish; and they must be reminded of the sovereignty of God, that He is not obliged to bring them out of this state, that He would be right and just if He left them in such a condition, that they have no merit to plead before Him, and no claims upon Him, but that if they are to be saved, it must be by grace, and by grace alone. The preacher’s work is to throw sinners down in utter helplessness, that they may be compelled to look up to Him who alone can help them.” – C.H. Spurgeon
On p.131 Rob seems to confuse the traditional Rabbi who chooses his disciples based on their excellent qualities with the manner in which Jesus called the disciples. Jesus was no ordinary teacher, His call is effectual and it is the same call that He has on sinners today. To assume that, “The rabbi believes you can do what he does. He thinks you can be like him.” is similar to Jesus’ effectual call is missing the point and is similar to ‘Word of Faith’ teaching which argues that we can be like Jesus because he was just a man filled with the Holy Spirit. Of course, the grace of God brings salvation and trains us in righteousness and to be like Him, but Jesus does not say “you can be like me” in the sense implied here, but rather He says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Matthew 4:18.
The teaching on p.133, that, “Peter loses faith in himself” is effectively elevating man and lowering Jesus Christ to the level of a man. Sound biblical interpretation is rewritten and reinterpreted to conclude that the reason Peter started to sink was because he lost faith in himself and not in Jesus! He believes that Jesus’ frustration with the disciples was their lack of faith in themselves. He basically asserts that Jesus has faith in His disciples and then asks the reader to, “…spend some time here, because the implications of this truth are astounding”. Why is this so called ‘truth’, astounding? It will boost my self-esteem and it turns the whole concept of having faith in Jesus into having faith in me. How can the reader believe that this is a truth, especially as according to Rob’s own admission it is impossible to state that anything is a truth?
The Biblical account referred to here is found in Matthew 14:22-33:
“Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
First, this account is an indication of Jesus’ dominion over the forces of nature and He went to the disciples out of concern for them. Peter went to Jesus following a command from Him and Peter’s desire to go to Christ reflects the affection which he had for Him rather than a desire to walk on water. The passage reflects Peter’s faith and dependence on Christ’s word and power and Jesus was willing to grant his desire as He perceived Peter’s sincere affection towards Him. Matthew Henry argues that Jesus told Peter to come to show His power, but also that he might sink to know his (Peter’s) own weakness in order to check his confidence. Henry says, “The strongest faith and the greatest courage have a mixture of fear. Those that can say, Lord, I believe; must say, Lord, help my unbelief.”
Clearly, this passage has nothing whatsoever to do with Peter having or losing faith in himself but rather it is about Peter’s faith in Jesus. Never does Jesus say, “Oh, if only you had a little more faith in your ability to do these things you’d be OK.”
We read that “God has an incredibly high view of people” (p.133). But the Bible tells us:
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” – Genesis 6:5.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9 (See also: John 2:24; Psalm 14:2-3; Romans 7:18; Romans 8:5-8; Job 4:17-19; Job 15:15-16; Isaiah 59:7; Isaiah 64:6; Mark 7:20-23 and Romans 3:10-18.).
On p.139 we read:
“I can’t find one place in the teachings of Jesus, or the Bible for that matter, where we are to identify ourselves first and foremost as sinners… Once again, the greatest truth of the story of Adam and Eve isn’t that it happened, but that it happens. We all make choices to live outside of how God created us to live. We have all come up short.”
Rob quotes Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, but does not explain the actual meaning of the verse. He also “can’t find one place in the teachings of Jesus, or the Bible for that matter, where we are to identify ourselves first and foremost as sinners”. But the Bible says:
“I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” – Luke 5:32.
“We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshipper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” – John 9:31.
“but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8. (See also: Romans 7:24; Revelation 3:17; James 4:8-10; 1 Timothy 1:15; Psalm 51:13; Matthew 26:45; Luke 13:2 and Jude 1:14-15.)
True repentance involves seeing ourselves as we really are – wretched and in need of a Saviour. True repentance involves deep conviction of sin and the knowledge that we have nowhere else to turn other than God through Christ Jesus our Lord. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” – 2 Corinthians 7:10.
We are dead to sin (its effect, that is, death) and alive to Christ when we are born again and attempts to describe this are made on the very next page; but there is a failure to sufficiently describe our need for being born again and that our very nature is sinful. On p.145 Romans 5:8 is quoted, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”. But surely this contradicts what was said earlier about our not being identified as sinners.
Philip Mauro Life in the Word, “The Fundamentals” writes:
“The Bible does not say that man is a noble being, ever aspiring towards the attainment of exalted ideals. It does not describe the career of humanity as ‘progress,’ as the brave and successful struggle of man against the evils of his environment; but quite the contrary, declares it to be a career of disobedience and departure from God, a preference for darkness rather than for light, “because their deeds are evil. The Bible does not represent man as having come, without any fault of his own, into adverse circumstances, and as being engaged in gradually overcoming these by the development and exercise of his inherent powers. It does not applaud his achievements, and extol his wonderful civilization. Quite the contrary. It records how God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Gen. 6:5). It speaks of man as being, “filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.’ (Romans 1:29-31). It says that “They are all under sin”, that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12). Man’s condition by nature is described as ‘dead in trespasses and sins’, “children of disobedience; among whom also we all had our conduct in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3).”
Jesus’ forgiveness is portrayed as, “This forgiveness, this reconciliation, is true for everybody” (p.146), yet forgiveness is only offered to those who believe in Christ and offer true repentance for their sins.
A peculiar view of heaven and hell is presented on p.146:
“Heaven is full of forgiven people. Hell is full of forgiven people. Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for. Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for. The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust.”
It would appear that heaven and hell are a mere choice.
I would submit that this teaching on heaven and hell is essentially universalism. If heaven and hell are full of forgiven people then what is the point in either and what is the point of the Cross of Christ? Rob reasons that heaven and hell are present realities and this is confirmed on the next page when he states that “this is the life of heaven, here and now”. He views heaven and hell as simply living either ‘in-sync’ or ‘out-of-sync ‘with God, but this is a half truth. Hell is not full of forgiven people; hell is full of unrepentant sinners who suppressed the truth of God for a lie and who continue to be dead in their sins.
This view is a watered-down version of what hell actually is – eternal conscious separation from God. The idea of the “present reality” of hell denies its eternal reality and the significance of denying it could well be lost on the readers. As Christians we should do our utmost to prevent suffering, poverty and oppression here and now but we are living in the hope of eternal life with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Christ died for the ungodly, He saves us from the wrath of God and forgives us our sins when we truly repent and believe on Him. If a person does not repent they are condemned – in fact they are condemned already – and will suffer eternal torment no matter how good they have been on earth. To deny this is to deny the sufficiency and the need for the Cross of Christ.
P.169 presents the crux of this man-centred gospel:
“This is what we are all dying for – something that demands we step up and become better, more focused people. Something that calls out the greatness that we hope is somewhere inside of us.”
Rob Bell is an excellent communicator, his books and videos are well presented and are available through many Christian retailers; he is even endorsed by the Bible Society. However, content is far more important than presentation. Whilst he employs excellent presentation skills I would suggest that this article shows that he seriously lacks in content and sound reasoning based on proper biblical exegesis. He questions absolutes on one page and then claims truths for himself on another. I fear that in his attempt to assimilate all so-called “truths” he is likely to end up with no truth at all. A lot of his ‘truths’ are not based on what the Bible actually teaches. His appeal for “a new kind of faith” appears to be a reaction against an incorrect perception of faith in the first instance.
On p.34 readers are invited to “live the way of Jesus”. As Christians we are to live His way and follow His commandments but this act of obedience to Him and His Word only comes after true repentance and conversion and is called sanctification. Living the way of Jesus apart from a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ is futile and can be summed up as ‘works righteousness’. It seems that Rob Bell is more interested in the way Jesus lived and His teachings than the real reason that He came, to seek and save that which was lost. He asks unnecessary questions, he undermines the Scriptures and the need for sound doctrine and he promotes salvation by works and universalism.
There is, I believe, an accurate description of this book on p.83:
“Just because it is a Christian book by a Christian author and it was purchased in a Christian bookstore doesn’t mean it is all true or good or beautiful.”
The book title, “Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith” is appropriate. The Christian faith can be repainted by embracing a post-modern liberal mindset instead of a Biblical mindset; it can be repainted through poor Biblical exegesis; it can be repainted by assimilating so called ‘truths’ from other religions and other areas in life; it can be repainted by embracing mysticism and universalism and the philosophies of man; it can be repainted by failure to recognise the necessity for the fundamental doctrines of ‘the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’; it can be repainted by embracing ‘easy-believism’; it can be repainted by being man-centred instead of being Christ-centred.
Indeed, this book has ‘repainted the Christian faith’; in fact, he has whitewashed the Christian faith and leaves ‘believers’ with no belief system at all. The message is an anti-Christian false gospel.
Also of equal concern is the fact that a number of quotes in this book come from dubious sources of inspiration; readers should be aware of the beliefs of the people he promotes in his book. For instance Marcus Borg is a Unitarian Universalist and Ken Wilber is a psychologist and writer on mysticism and transpersonal consciousness; he practices Buddhism and is generally regarded as “New Age”.
1) “Paul discloses a mystery to the Gentiles to prevent them from being proud. The word “mystery” does not necessarily refer to something puzzling or difficult to grasp, but to something that was previously hidden and is now revealed. The mystery here has three elements: (1) at this time in salvation history the majority of Israel has been hardened; (2) during this same time the full number of Gentiles is being saved; and (3) God will do a new work in the future in which he will save all “Israel”.” (ESV Study Bible notes).
(2) Mystery (Gk. mysterion) is a common Pauline word and refers here to the entire revealed content of God’s plan to bring salvation through Christ. (ESV Study Bible).