Even at its peak, the emerging church was little more than early 20th century liberalism, with cooler hair. Rob Bell, one of the leading figures in the movement, solidified my stereo-type with his nation-wide tour called The Gods are Not Angry. I saw it last week (in 2008) and I could not help but think: “they should be angry at this.”
When I bought my $16 ticket, I felt fortunate because many of the dates have already sold out (now you can buy the DVD for $14 from Amazon). I went with another pastor, and I can honestly say that we were looking to be entertained in a sophisticated sort of way. We were curious about a christian event in a Hollywood concert hall, who would be in the audience, and what exactly an emerging/academic talk would be like (part anthropology, part history, part deconstruction, claims the website). This was a one-man show. It was all Rob, for all 90 minutes. No music (except for an awkwardly-mixed conclusion), no notes, no Bible, no lectern, no breaks. His notorious NOOMA videos did not appear once. There was a giant altar on the stage, which served as his only prop. Meanwhile, the crowd’s appearance looked overwhelmingly….like Rob Bell; uber-hip, trendy, and urban. There were more dark rimmed glasses in the room than bibles. The entire night was an illustration of style-over substance.
To summarize his presentation: ever since ancient times, people have realized they are dependent on forces outside of themselves for food, survival, and reproduction. These forces eventually became personified, then deified in the form of rain gods, sun gods, and reproductive gods. Offerings were introduced as a way of winning favor with the gods. Drought and disease was seen as the gods being angry, and so sacrifices were instituted to appeal to the angry gods by showing our devotion.
Into this world came Abraham, and when God approached Abraham and said, “I will bless you,” that was something fundamentally new. No longer were the gods in heaven or hiding, waiting to be pleased, but God was telling a person that He would bless him.
Yet still people did not know their standing with the gods, who were angry. Even for those who followed the one true God (whom Bell refers to as either “the divine” or “the ultimate reality”), worship was still a mystery. How were they to sacrifice? When? How much? Into this world comes Leviticus, answering these questions. For the first time ever, people knew what God demanded of them.
This then created a world where people tried to earn favor with God through their obedience to the Law. It was into this world that Jesus stepped, doing away with sacrifices altogether. And just as Jesus ended the sacrificial system, he also ended the world where God is angry with people. Now sacrifices are not needed to please God, because Jesus did that. Our job is to live our lives as sacrifices.
I confess that I found the first twenty minutes or so quite helpful. Bell connected dots for me about how sacrifices develop in a culture, and he showed how these false gods impoverish entire cultures. He gave me a new appreciation for how the Levitical Law is an act of mercy from God, because God ended the ambiguity of sacrifice. He also stressed the utter uniqueness of Yahweh in a way that was encouraging, and even gave me hope that he was about to preach.
But Bell went from there into what can only be described as careful and planned ambiguity. It was obvious that he is a smart person. When he rattled off the Mesopotamian and Sumerian gods by memory, he established that he is no dummy. So when he ended the night without explaining why the sacrifice of Christ appeased God’s anger, without explaining atonement, without even touching substitution, I can’t help but note the effort that took. He spoke for over 90 minutes on the sacrifice of Christ without explaining sin, or the resurrection—which is the same as not speaking about the sacrifice of Christ.
If a person is looking for a smoking gun pointing to heresy in what Bell said, he did not leave one. He did define repentance this way: “Repentance is what happens when your eyes are opened and you see what has already been done. ‘I’ve missed it, and now I see it’.” Later he said, “repentance is grounding yourself in Jesus’ resurrection.” Probably not heresy, but definitely not helpful, and patently unclear.
The Gospel was not explained. Instead there was a plea to realize that God is not angry with you, Jesus has made peace, so now go and do good works, acts of kindness and love. Essentially it was a “love Jesus, and buy groceries for the poor” kind of message. The problem is that even his illustrations of these deeds were shallow: it was as if Extreme Makeover was the end for which God created the word.
Earlier I wrote that this was basically 20th century liberalism. There was not much here that you would not get from Harry Emerson Fosdick. Except for this: the early liberals clearly stated what they believed, and where they differed from orthodox theology. Bell was not so kind to us. Instead, he walked around an alter for 90 minutes, without talking about the wrath of God against sin being poured out on Christ. He did not say, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.” He did not say, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Instead, he said, “Anytime someone makes you feel guilty about how you are living, that is part of the old system (pre-Christ).”
He did not say he is a universalist. Instead, he just said, “the only Christian ritual is to help you tap into the peace that God has already made with the world.” He did not tell them “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Instead he said, “The gods are not angry anymore.”
And this is the fundamental problem with Bell’s message. The Bible says that the wrath of God is continually being revealed against ungodliness. In other words, God is still angry. And Bell did an enormous disservice because the people did not hear the gospel, and they were not told to flee the wrath to come.