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Controversy over new book is a feature of our times, says Bell

19 April 2011

by Ed Thornton

ROB Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill, an independent church in Michigan with a congregation of thousands, whose book Love Wins has provoked fierce criticism (News, 1 April), said at an event in London, on Monday, that he did “not think that trying to be controversial is a noble goal”.

Speaking at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, on Monday, be­fore a crowd of 1800, Mr Bell said: “I don’t do this to be really shocking. I’m interested more in what’s true, what can we trust . . . if that turns out to be controversial, I’ll accept that; but that was never the inten­tion.”

Speaking earlier, Mr Bell said that the debate on the internet surround­ing the book’s pub­lication — in which he has been labelled a “heretic” and a “false teacher” — was “a strange feature of our times.

“Ten years ago, this couldn’t have happened: you wouldn’t know what this many people think about something,” he said. “Rumours, slander, gossip, [and] half-baked opinions based on con­jecture wouldn’t get this much air time.”

Mr Bell began the event with a short talk in which he said: “God loves everybody, everywhere . . . The heart of the Chris­tian story is that Jesus came to give us the love of God so that we might experience it and share it with others.”

Mr Bell then responded to ques­tions from the Revd Martin Wroe, a trustee of the Greenbelt Festival, at which Mr Bell is speaking for the second time this summer, and from the audience.

Asked whether Love Wins, which questions whether “the story of heaven and hell we have been taught is not, in fact, what the Bible teaches,” was undermining the clarity of the Bible, Mr Bell said: “In the Gospels, when Jesus is asked a question, three times he responds with a straight­forward answer. He responds with parables, he responds with questions — ‘What do you think? Who do you say I am?’”

Mr Bell said that Jesus did not tell parables such as the Prodigal Son and then say “there are three applica­tions. There is no Power­Point.

“It’s just this story he tells and he creates this space, and you find your­self in it. . . it has a power and you know it’s true, but it’s true in a different way than a, b, c, d,” he said.

Asked whether he was a universalist, Mr Bell said that the New Testament often speaks of the re­newal and reconciliation of “all things” and states that “God wants everybody to be saved.

“Within the Christian tradition, there have been those who have said, given enough time, all things will be reconciled,” he said. “One of the things the book tries to point out is the Christian tradition has had a wide variety of perspectives on that.”

He said that he began “with Jesus’ immediate, urgent invitation to trust him now”, which he held “in tension with all the possibilities and the [way] scripture speaks of God’s heart and God’s longing”.

“The reason why I called the book Love Wins is the very nature of love is freedom,” Mr Bell said. “You can resist, you can reject, you can rebel against this God.

“So does God want everybody to be saved? Yes. Do we see right now people who resist this pursuing God’s love? Yes.”

Mr Bell said that in the book he talked “about hell and the reality of hell. . . I think we should leave room because the Bible leaves room for people to be free to reject and resist this God,” he said. “One of the images Jesus uses is . . . a feast, a celebration. Everyone’s welcome. Will everyone come? We see people right now who don’t want to come to the party.”

Speaking after the event, Mr Wroe said that Mr Bell was a popular speaker at Greenbelt because “he is a great communicator, he’s a great story­teller, [and] he’s not afraid of adventurous theological thinking.”

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