A long-simmering conflict within U.S. evangelicalism came to the fore recently—a conflict which, as Martin Marty points out, may be more significant in the long run than the question of whether evangelicals support Mike Huckabee or Sarah Palin for the presidency in 2012. Partly theological and partly generational, it pits Rob Bell, the 40-year-old founding minister of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan (not to be confused with the equally prominent Mars Hill Church in Seattle), against the likes of John Piper, the 65-year-old theologian, pastor, and author, who has long stood in opposition to newer developments in evangelical theology sometimes called “the emergent church.” Now, the conflict erupted into the public. If it’s any indication, “Rob Bell” briefly became the number one worldwide “trending topic” on Twitter, and Google searches for his name increased massively.
What is at stake? Superficially, it is a question as old and arcane as the one about angels and pinheads: Does hell exist? Bell’s critics are taking advance materials for his forthcoming book, Love Wins, as suggesting a negative answer. According to Bell’s alleged universalist stance, everybody is “saved”; there is no punishment for non-Christians. Since then, various media—online and offline, Christian and secular—have been reverberating with the charge of heresy.
At The Scoop, Richard Flory focuses on the generational aspect. Does Bell portend (dare I pun: chime in) a new orientation within evangelicalism?
On the surface, all of this may seem like so much intramural conflict. Why should the rest of the American population, let alone journalists, care about inter-generational tensions within evangelical Christianity? First, evangelical Christians represent a significant percentage of the American population—of all adults in the U.S., 26 percent are affiliated with evangelical churches. Second, and perhaps more importantly, since the late 1970s this influential cohort has consistently been a potent conservative political and cultural force in American public life. So any evolution in the outlook of American evangelicals bears watching.
At Religion Dispatches, Eric Reitan argues that the theological case against universalism is by no means as clear cut as some of Bell’s critics presume. Bell’s critics are guilty of some of the same offenses as the “new atheists” who think they can ignore arguments made by theologians, no matter how well reasoned.
No matter the long-term fallout, one thing is clear: Rob Bell’s book will be a commercial success.