This appears to be behind the controversy over Rob Bell’s Love Wins, which we posted on last week. In his trailer for the book, Rob explained:
Millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news? This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith.
Try to ignore the caricature for a moment, and read between the lines: modern people don’t like Christianity, because they don’t like hell, or judgment, or the wrath of God, or needing Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice for their sins—so we need to change that message and find a new one, in which themes like that are replaced by more socially acceptable ones. This, for Christianity Today, is exactly what happens in Love Wins, and indeed the entire tradition of Liberal Protestantism:
But it’s here that we run up against Bell’s hermeneutic, that is, the principle by which he decides if a biblical teaching is relevant. Why, for example, is blood atonement a time-bound explanation of the Cross, but the divinity of Christ is a deep mystery we shouldn’t shun? Why are Paul’s statements about the universality of salvation taken literally, but his teaching on substitutionary atonement as mere creative writing? If there is a criterion driving these distinctions, it seems to be based on what Bell thinks contemporary people can swallow. I couldn’t see any other criteria at play … For liberals, the sensibilities of the age trump biblical revelation. Personal opinion outranks the consensus of the church. Fondness for metaphor and parable sabotage the particularity of the gospel.
But this phenomenon is by no means limited to Rob Bell – as you might think to read Christian blogs over the last month! – nor even to self-identified Liberal Protestants. Last October, for instance, an article appeared at www.biologos.org, in which the theistic evolutionist Karl Giberson responded to atheist Jerry Coyne. In a piece entitled ‘Exposing the Straw Man of New Atheism’, Giberson wrote:
I am happy to concede that science does indeed trump religious truth about the natural world. Galileo and Darwin showed this only too clearly, even if it is completely lost on Ken Ham and Al Mohler. If it were not for science we would still be living on a globe we thought was flat, stationary, and 6000 years old. Kudos to science for trumping religion on those claims … In The God Delusion Dawkins eloquently skewers the tyrannical anthropomorphic deity of the Old Testament—the God that supposedly commanded the Jews to go on genocidal rampages and who occasionally went on his own rampages, flooding the planet or raining fire and brimstone on wicked cities. But who believes in this deity any more, besides those same fundamentalists who think the earth is 10,000 years old? Modern theology has moved past this view of God.
This is a brilliant (and tragic) example of giving away the farm in apologetics, to make Christian belief more acceptable. Modern people like science and don’t like religion, so—rather than explaining that the Bible doesn’t teach that the earth is flat, or stationary, or 6000 years old—we’ll say things like ‘science does indeed trump religious truth.’ Modern people don’t like the God of the Old Testament, so—rather than telling the biblical story faithfully and in context, and exploring attributes of God like grace, holiness, justice and compassion—we’ll write off the God of the Old Testament as a relic that no thinking person believes in any more. As one person posted underneath Giberson’s article: ‘Mmm, Marcionism.’
When faced with biblical ideas that are unpopular or offensive to modern ears, apologists have a choice. We can deny, or radically reinvent, the doctrine (which is what people like Rob Bell and Karl Giberson, in different ways, seem to be doing), a phenomenon which Al Mohler recently called an ‘attempt to rescue Christianity from the Bible.’ This is often the easier option, at least in the short term, but it ends up reducing the Christian message to whatever our contemporaries can stomach, and ultimately creates a god, and a gospel, in our image. Or we can do the hard work of thinking about, and then explaining to others, how the biblical teaching is compatible with the character of God revealed in Jesus: how holiness and grace, the Old Testament God and the New Testament God, love and judgment, sin and hope, fit together in the Christian gospel.
Christianity contains all sorts of stumbling blocks to faith, and it can be very tempting to pretend they’re not there, or try and hide them under the bed (‘Stumbling blocks? Where?’) But it should be reassuring that Jesus and the apostles didn’t work that way. Quite the opposite, in fact. They deliberately identified the biggest, fattest stumbling stone there was—and preached nothing else (1 Cor 1:23).