In What Is the Bible?, Rob Bell does for the Bible what he did for Hell in Love Wins – completely distorts it to the point that it loses all meaning and purpose. Using his now familiar style of asking more questions than providing solutions, Bell creatively and effectively leads his readership to consider his views on Scripture as being superior to more orthodox ones. In the process he guts the Bible of its true value.
Bell promises to teach his eager audience how to read the Bible in a whole new way (p. 4, cf p. 219). What he does, in fact, is merely repackage in modern form the same old ideas stemming from the early days of Higher Criticism. In the 18th century leading churchman such as Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) successfully floated that the Bible was a human book, written by men to promote their particular agendas, and views, about everything from life to God. This new way of reading the Bible led to theological liberalism. Later Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) made demythologizing the Scriptures popular. The idea was that most of the Bible was comprised of inaccurate myths and stories told from a human perspective. Yet, while these stories were untrue, there were lessons and principles that could be gained from the fabrications. The task of the Bible reader is to find the meaning behind the myths. Combining the higher critics with Bultmann, Bell has reintroduced an old way of reading the Bible to a new generation without any reference to the past and the devastation it caused.
The one positive take-away from Bell’s method is his pleading for the Bible reader to move beyond the surface. We need to ask the text questions, look under the rocks, dig deeper. Where Bell strays is through faulty use of word studies, unbiblical resources, and misguided insinuations, whereby he is able to come to conclusions unsupportable by the text. Therefore Bell believes Moses is still sexually capable at the end of his life (pp. 10-11), claims to know with certainty what Jesus wrote on the ground in John 8 (p. 30-31), thinks it is crazy when churches limit the ministry of women (p. 34), believes Ruth seduced Boaz (p. 49), says that Ehud is the story of how violence does not solve anything (p. 70), purports that Abraham is “in on the joke” of Isaac’s sacrifice (p. 110), distorts Christ’s resurrection (p. 185), rejects the account of Ananias and Sapphira (pp. 235-240), claims God did not set up the sacrificial system (p. 244), rejects the idea that Jesus had to die (pp. 239-246), says that predestination is ridiculous (pp. 247-252), denies God’s wrath (pp. 256-258), believes all people are saints (p. 260) and have been forgiven (p. 261), says the Bible contradicts itself (pp. 275, 279-282), rejects a personal Satan (pp. 275-277), and promotes biblical inspiration only in the same sense we might say that music is inspired (pp. 281-287).
Probably the main message drawn from What Is the Bible? is that the Bible is a thoroughly human book. It “is not a Christian book”; it “is a book about what it means to be human” (p. 4). It is not about Jesus and a narrow way to God (p. 16). Rather the Bible is a book produced purely by people sans any direct revelation from God (pp. 116-117, 188, 243-246, 266-267, 291, 295-296). As a result, the Bible has all the problems, errors, contradictions, and wrong values that can be found in any human literature: “The Bible was written by people. People with perspectives, grounded in their cultures and times and places” (p. 243). Thus “God didn’t set up the sacrificial system. People did” (p. 244). This leads to the invention of the crucifixion. Bell writes, “God didn’t need to kill someone to be ‘happy’ with humanity. What kind of God would that be? Awful. Horrific. What the first Christians did was interpret Jesus’s death through the lens of the sacrificial system [which of course they created, not God]” (p. 245). We, according to Bell, have misunderstood the cross-story all along. “The truth is, the story as we read it is actually a giant leap forward. It’s a story about humanity growing in maturity, leaving behind the idea that the divine needs blood. That’s the giant leap that’s happening in the New Testament. The Bible is a reflection of a growing and expanding human consciousness” (p. 245). In response to a direct question, “Is the Bible the Word of God?” Bell does his usual dance: “Yes. Lots of things are” (p. 266). The Word of God can be found through books, human words, and experiences. “There are lots of words of God and you can and should listen to them all” (p. 267). In other words, there is nothing unique about the Bible; it is just one source, of a multitude, that is God’s word (see p. 173). Biblical accounts are often exaggerations (p. 80) and pure fabrications (p. 103) according to Bell. Nevertheless we are assured that we can learn something from the stories anyway (pp. 94, 103, 240).
The other major theme Bell advances is his form of universalism which he popularized in his previous book Love Wins. Bell rejects a God of wrath (pp. 226-258), believes that everyone is a child of God and forgiven (pp. 51, 105, 112, 115, 145, 200-201, 252, 256-258, 260-262), that all things will be reconciled (p. 53), and we are all saints, not sinners (p. 260).
Bell can distort virtually every message found in Scripture merely by proclaiming that the Bible is open to many interpretations. He references Rabbi Kushner’s commentary in which each chapter offers a different interpretation of the same text (pp. 79-81, 317). This proves, Bell believes, that there are not right answers or interpretations: “There are lots of ways to read it…you dance with it” (p. 81). But bottom line is that we sit in authority over the Bible, rather than it being in authority over us (p. 272).
What Is the Bible is a warmed over liberal approach to reading Scripture. There is nothing new within its pages, although Bell promises a whole new way of reading the Bible. The author has merely refreshed and popularized this older, destructive form of approaching Scripture for a new generation, many of whom will lap up Bell’s poison to their detriment.
What is the Bible? How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), 322 pp., hard $15.00.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel