LOUISVILLE, Ky. (ABP) — A Southern Baptist seminary president suggested that Rob Bell's new book Love Wins could have been alternately titled "Velvet Hell," a play on Bell's 2005 book Velvet Elvis that offered "a fresh take on Jesus" by one of the country's most influential evangelical pastors.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said during a 90-minute panel discussion on campus March 17 that after reading Bell's much-anticipated Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, he toyed with several ideas about how to sum up its message.
"One of the ways I thought of describing it was 'Velvet Hell,' just because there is kind of a cushioning of the whole idea," Mohler quipped.
Mohler and three other panelists credited Bell's book, which challenges traditional Christian views of heaven, hell and eternal damnation, for "poking holes" in many common misconceptions that deserve to be challenged.
"I think Rob Bell would have done a tremendous service to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ had he raised some of these questions and addressed them saying, 'Here are many misunderstandings and on the basis of Scripture here is how we clarify them in ways that are authentically true to the totality of the biblical revelation and to the gospel story,'" Mohler said.
Instead, Mohler, two theology professors and a blogger who was among the first to question whether the book teaches "universalism" — the belief that everyone eventually will be saved — concurred that Bell's latest release does a disservice in appealing to postmodern sensibilities by separating God's love from God's holiness.
Denny Burk, dean of Boyce College, said Bell's book portrays a "God of love and not a God of wrath."
"The flip side of 'God is love' is he is not wrath, and he has not committed himself to a holiness that must see every sin punished," Burk said.
Russell Moore, theology dean and vice president for academic administration at Southern Seminary, said the "chief assertion" that God is love is found in the book of First John, "where John is also saying God is light and in him is no darkness at all."
"John is also warning that there is a spirit of Christ and there's a spirit of anti-Christ," Moore said. "John is also warning that the whole world is under the sway of the wicked one, and John is also warning 'Little children, keep yourselves from idols' — there's danger here."
"So apparently the apostle John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, doesn't see a distinction between a God who is love and a God who is just," Moore said. "As a matter of fact that is for the most part what the entire New Testament is about: how do you reconcile God's love and God's justice, and it's found in the cross."
Mohler said any discussion of God's love must be in the context of God's character and the acts by which God demonstrates his love.
"The Bible says categorically, unconditionally that God is love, but the Bible also says categorically, unconditionally that God is holy," Mohler said. "When we teach theology we have to remind ourselves that we are not talking about a God that is divisible into a righteous part and a just part, a merciful part and a gracious part. Rather he is — to use the language that theologians have used for centuries — he is infinite in all of his perfections."
Burk said the primary way God showed his love toward humanity was in sending his son to die for their sins.
"When you think about the innermost meaning of the cross is, it is this," Burk said. "You and I deserved an eternity of wrath in hell that would be unending."
"Wrap your mind around this for a second," he continued. "It is a horror that doesn't end. There's no anesthetic and you never settle in. And we all deserve it. The Bible is teaching that all the wrath that was due to us, God emptied out on his son at the cross. On the cross where Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied. He used up all his anger that he had towards us on Jesus. At the heart of the atonement is this. You don't understand the cross without this."
"You don't know the love of God if you don't know the wrath of God," Burk said. "The precondition to understanding the love of God is you have to see what God had to overcome to save you. These things may seem paradoxical, but they are together everywhere in Scripture."
Mohler said the reason for holding the conversation on campus was not "just because we found a ripe target for a juicy conversation." Mohler said he wouldn't have worried if the book had been written by author John Shelby Spong, who is identified so far on the left that most evangelicals aren't influenced by him.
"Rob Bell is a different story," Mohler said. "He has a tremendous influence, especially with younger evangelicals. I think that's why we have to talk about this, because we are very concerned about the loss of the gospel; not just getting a doctrine wrong, but the loss of the gospel in this."
Justin Taylor, associate publisher at Crossway Books who was project director for the English Standard Version Study Bible, described his role in launching a discussion over Bell's theology that has dominated religion news sites and blogs for weeks.
Taylor said about a month ago someone sent him a copy of the publisher's description of Bell's book that appears on the back cover of the then-unreleased book. Taylor said he fired up a blog asking "Is Rob Bell a universalist?" but because of his own experience in the publishing industry decided to hold off until the book's release in case the publisher's note was inaccurate.
On Feb. 26, Taylor said several people e-mailed him a promotion video that turned out to be the book's preface. Taylor said the video posed questions "that in a way confirmed to me that this certainly sounds like universalism and is moving his ministry and this theology in an alarming direction."
"So I put a blog post up and lamented where it seemed like he was going but also expressed thankfulness that he appears to be laying his cards on the table," he said. "From there, maybe a firestorm or tsunami is the best way to describe what happened as a result."
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.
Watch the panel discussion.
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