Thursday, June 30, 2011

John Stott, Rob Bell, and the Controversy on Hell

Rob Bell's Love Wins has caused a bit of controversy in the evangelical church.  There a number of unique dynamics to what has recently happened in this particular controversy.  Doug Wilson, in a video blog (here) drew attention to the fact that the evangelical community has had denials of certain aspects of hell within its ranks for a time.  He specifically mentions John Stott.  Wilson mentions that we shouldn't get all up in arms about Bell while forgetting Stott.  Because Stott is a well-known pastor and exegete it is, to use Wilson's words, "not so easy to get up a head of steam in attacking John Stott."  What Wilson says is true to some extent but I think he fails to recognize the differences.  Stott brought out his "tentative" annihilationism in 1988 with his dialogue with David Edwards in the book Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (IVP, 1988).  This was a part of the book and not the whole book's discussion.  After this disclosure from Stott there were a number of responses to him.  Many of these appeared in books dealing with doctrine of hell and they specifically dealt with Stott's presentation.  For example, the following books all intereacted with Stott's presentation and took him to task for failing to uphold the notion of eternal, conscious torment of the wicked:
Crucial Questions About Hell by Ajith Fernando (Crossway, 1991).
The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting Contemporary Challenges to Jesus' Teaching on Hell by Larry Dixon (Bridgepoint, 1992).
Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions by John Piper (Baker, 1993).  In this book Piper interacts with Stott and even provides background between his and Stott's personal exchanges on this issue.
Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment by Robert A. Peterson (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995.
There were also more scholastic articles specifically addressed to Stott's arguments.  For example:
"Dr. John Stott on Hell" by Robert L. Reymond in Presbyterion 16/1 (1990), pp. 41-59.  Dr. Stott replied, briefly, in the next edition: "A Response to Professor Robert L. Reymond" 16/2 (1990), pp. 127-128. 
"A Traditionalist Response to John Stott's Arguments for Annihilationism" by Robert A. Peterson in JETS 37/4 (December 1994), pp. 553-568.
The point to all this is that the evangelical community did respond to John Stott's presentation of hell.  This was done in a manner that was consistent with Stott's original presentation.  Stott's presentation came out in a dialogue in a book that, although is was semi-popular in level, did not have a huge marketing campaign behind it.  Rob Bell, on the other hand, marketed his book to the widest possible audience possible and there was a slick marketing campaign to garner controversy and sell the book.

What is interesting to me is how social media was used to promote the book and respond to the book.  Tim Challies in a recent blog (here) speaks to this issue of social media and the promotion/response to Bell's book.  Challies argues, to a certain extent, that "we were gamed"--meaning that the avalanche of Reformed responses on blogs and other social media actually helped generate sales for the book.  Challies is not denying that some sort of response was needed.  He wonders if there could have been a better response.  Many of Challies' thoughts are appropriate as we wrestle through how to use the modern media to respond to challenges to the faith.  It is interesting that when this latest challenge to standard evangelical belief came forward from within the ranks of "evangelicalism" it was met with appropriate resistance--in the same manner that Stott was in the early 90's.  Bell sought to use the modern social media to push his views and the response to those same views came in the same arena.  The blogosphere erupted in response and, even granting Challies' concerns, this was good.  The first line of defense came from on-line bloggers with theological savvy (i.e., Kevin DeYoung).  Had the evangelical community waited to "warm-up the printing presses" more damage could have been done.  Admittedly, as Challies points out, the quick response ramped up the controversy but this may not necessarily be all bad.  Rob Bell is an influential person and people do imbibe his teaching.  They need to be warned.  Furthermore, the evangelical church needs to continued to be reminded that some things are worth fighting for and the edges of the evangelical movement can only be stretched so far before one parts company with historic evangelicalism.

Controversy and apologetics in the blogosphere will obviously continue to be needed.  Hopefully we can learn lessons from this recent skirmish and face the next controversy with the needed speed and wisdom.