Rob Bell, Resurrection and dogmatic continuity theology

A couple of blogs I read have highlighted this video on the Resurrection by Rob Bell.

One was extolling it as an example of fantastic communication skills. [I think this is a ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’ sort of judgement. I wonder what’s your opinion of Bell’s style?]

Another on its excellent presentation of resurrection hope and the reality of life to come. It’s this bit I want to discuss. But first some positives:

He sure does capture the daring, extraordinary, paradigm-shifting and revolutionary Christian belief in the future fulfillment of God’s kingdom, resurrection and a new creation. And the challenge to believe Jesus’ own words that he is the resurrection and the life – that death is not the end, and to embrace the hope that Jesus offers in himself.

And he’s terrific on the discontinuity of death, violence, injustice, hatred. These things will have no place in the new creation; they do not ‘belong’ there and this is cause for rejoicing and hope.

And he’s absolutely right to insist that what we believe about the future profoundly and deeply should shape how we live in the present.

So please don’t read this as another Rob Bell bashing exercise.

But what caught my attention amid all the psychedelic special effects, was the strength of Bell’s continuity theology. Check it out from about 1.30 in. It goes something like this:

Resurrection means that God has not given up on ‘THIS WORLD’. This world is being restored and redeemed by God. So every act we do with ‘THIS BODY’ matters – every kind word, every good business transaction, every act of compassion, every kind word, every work of art – they all matter because ‘this world’ and ‘this body’ have a continuity into the future.

“They all belong and they will all go on in God’s good world. Nothing will be forgotten, nothing will be wasted and all has its place … Resurrection affirms this life and the next as a seamless reality embraced, graced and saved by God.”

Now pretty well all Christian eschatology has to involve some form of continuity and discontinuity between this present order and the one to come. 

But tying down just what continues and what does not is not as sure and certain as Bell makes out. He may be right. But he can’t be sure he’s right. No-one can.

The exact form of continuity between this world and the next is simply not explained in any detail in the Bible.

The promise of a bodily resurrection captures this. There is continuity in personhood and some form of an embodied existence. But there is also strong discontinuity – flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom  (1 Cor 15:50), it is a new type of ‘spiritual body’ fitted for life in a new order of existence. And Jesus makes clear that there is discontinuity in marriage for example.

So I question his view that ‘this body’ continues into the next world. It does not allow for a profound discontinuity that is there in Jesus and Paul alongside some form of continuity.

He also insists that ‘this world’ continues. I’m with him here. Some have interpreted 2 Peter 3:10-14 as suggesting this world will be completely destroyed and a new one made. But overall the biblical evidence points to a restoring of this world.

However, even here Bell makes too much of too little. He’s got a lot invested in a theology of strong continuity. Notice the ‘leap’ from saying God is redeeming and restoring this world to insisting dogmatically that every good thing done in this life will somehow continue into the new creation. ‘Nothing will be forgotten, nothing will be wasted’ he says.

What I’d like to know is how he can be so sure? It is not at all clear how or if all ‘good’ that is done in this life ‘continues’ into the next. He mentions works of art –  once you start asking questions it soon becomes apparent that we haven’t a clue what we’re talking about. ‘Which works of art will continue?’, ‘From what time periods and cultures?’ ‘What about art capturing the despair, sin, brokeness and injustice of this world? Will it also belong in the new creation to come?’

No, the thing that makes me most uneasy about the video is not Bell’s personal style or the big picture theology being presented – it’s his dogmatism on things on which there is no basis to be dogmatic; all given more ‘weight’ by the dramatic, insistent, highly professional and ‘prophetic’ tone of the production.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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9 thoughts on “Rob Bell, Resurrection and dogmatic continuity theology

  1. Patrick, yes, thanks for this post. I’m prone to this exaggeration. In the past I’ve written and talked about how the good things in this world continue into the next… my own most embarrassing example being a dodgy answer to the “Will my pet dog be in heaven?” question! So when I was preaching on 1 Cor.15 yesterday I was very careful not to promise too much. But, but… 1Cor15.58 is still relevant, and I’m not keen to (or even persuaded that it can be) restricted to ‘spiritual’ works.

  2. Thanks David. Wonder what your dodgy answer was!
    What Bell is also doing, and there is a strong flavour of N T Wright here, is developing a strong continuity eschatology as a MOTIVE for discipleship here and now. I don’t think this necessarily a good move. It’s too subjective and speculative and could easily end up spiritually legitimating our own political & social agendas. Better, as with 1 Cor 15:58 to focus on getting on with serving & loving the Lord and others and letting the details of the future be unfolded when the time comes ..?

  3. I haven’t read the book, nor watched the video. I have watched other Nooma presentations and Rob Bell is very appealing, very articulate and he works with people who know how to produce things in a way that it is very attractive, especially for the younger generation.
    I do, however, agree with your point about being dogmatic on something that he cannot be sure about. The future of how things will be have led to many to be very dogmatic,I much rather have the view that C.S.Lewis presented in The Last Battle. The children are in the new country but they are not fully aware, things seem the same but they are not, and it is the Unicorn who realizes that he is at home. The first strokes of the painting are in place, but the final picture is up to the Master.

  4. Thanks Ana – yes we are in the realm of story, imagery, symbolism to try and capture something of what continuity / discontinuity looks like. And story, imagery and symbolism can’t be pushed too far or too literally without straying into speculation….

  5. Hi Patrick,

    Can you point me towards biblical evidence that supports the restoration of this world rather than its destruction and replacement with a new world? And what would be another way of interpreting 2 Peter 3:10-14? I’m not contradicting you 🙂 Just would like to compare the alternative interpretations of that passage.

    In regards to Rob Bell’s video, it must be one of the most distracting videos I have ever seen!

  6. Great points. Ever since I read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope a few years back, I have had a growing sense that it’s possible to overemphasize continuity. I’ve begun to wonder if Wright is guilty of some overemphasis himself.

    In any case, this is the first blog I’ve read critiquing Rob Bell for being dogmatic!

    Also the special effects were a touch cheesy. Especially with the moving camera angles.

  7. Hi Caleb,
    been away …
    The textual evidence for destruction in 2 Peter is probably more the fire ‘exposing’ or ‘laying bare’ the earth, certainly not clear that it means burnt up – more like revealing everything before God’s final judgement. Texts like Romans 8:18-23 and Rev 21:1-5 are good examples that are best interpreted as continuity of this earth. But on a bigger level I think the whole theme of redemption loses a lot of coherence if creation is not actually redeemed but destroyed and remade …?/

    Hi Peter and welcome – glad to bring a different perspective ..

  8. […] Kieron followed people like Stephen Williams and Tim Chester who, while agreeing with some form of continuity rather than annihilation, caution against continuity as the main basis for social action, environmentalism and mission. In this they are pushing back against what they see as an over-continuity seen in Miroslav Volf and to a lesser degree in Chris Wright [and Rob Bell] […]

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