Is Rob Bell Too Provocative? (and other thoughts)

My last post was on how the Piper types could help the Bell types and initially I wanted to see what the Bell types could do for the Piper types but in honesty, I don’t really know how a to offer the opposite intelligently. Maybe you do, feel free to comment.

What I keep hearing from some is that Rob Bell is being “too provocative”, so here are some thoughts on that.

Let me up front here and mention for those who might not know me, I appreciate a lot of what Rob Bell says and does.  I love the creative artistry, the brilliant wordsmithing, and the pastoral heart that extends way beyond Mars Hill. I’ve shown just about all the Nooma videos to our students, taken people to see him on his speaking tours, been handing out his beautiful book on suffering and hope Drops Like Stars, indeed, I’m an appreciator. It’s ok, in some sense, I like just about everybody, and in another, I have a problem/issue/concern with everyone too – I honestly think that’s normal and healthy.

I am also among the countless that appreciate Rob not taking the “safe route”. I appreciate the many like him that ask the tough questions that we have been/should be should be asking and wresting with. It tells the world that we are not afraid to question our beliefs but still trust Jesus. If there’s ever an issue that should be wrestled with, it’s the fate of every soul who ever lived.

Over the years, I’ve heard many complain on Rob being “too provocative”. That’s part of his gift-set. In addition to his creativity and speaking ability, he is able to communicate especially well to the “over-churched” and the intelligent “non-churched” and to do so, it would not serve him well to be a traditional type or a corporate type among other types. Given the scope of the Mars Hill ministry, his personal platform, he’s quite the exception.

But isn’t telling someone to not be “too provocative” similar to telling someone to not be “too beautiful”? Certainly I’ll be the first to say some beautiful people have objectified themselves for their own personal gain – people like Pamela Anderson and myself would be obvious examples. But being beautiful or being provocative is also in our nature and some people are more gifted with it. For me the trait is not a moral issue, it’s the how/what we do with it. Lastly, I think it’s easy to make the case that Jesus certainly was provocative.

All that said, I am very prepared to disagree with Rob’s thoughts in this book, future books and sermons, just like there were things about Velvet Elvis I wasn’t sure of. (Loved the book, but I remember thinking at some parts, if I was brilliant, I would have said it differently :). Like everyone, sometimes you hear things in a sermon that you not really sure of either (sometimes I listen to a recoding of mine and think the same!).  But this is what I and so many others like about him – he doesn’t need me to agree with him.  It’s in this sense, that people like Rob Bell are ideal for X’ers and Millennials, (even some Boomers) because they do not project themselves as controlling authoritarian figures who preach they have the only way to know/understand/love God. In a world of personality tests, gift assessments, talent evaluations, different approaches by different people sharing their message in different ways to different audiences makes a good deal of sense.

Perhaps my biggest concern for people like Rob Bell would be to not take advantage of his platform or to be “too provocative” for the wrong motives. Further, I think we all have seen what happens to evangelical egos when they are left unchecked. Turning into Gollum would be the same betrayal of any sexual or financial scandal. May he rely on the strength of the Lord to keep Christ-like in all his ways. We pray for you Rob Bell.

I am anxious to read Love Wins and I think this whole debate in some part, has been good for us a church. More on that another time. Also, my wife, a good friend are headed into New York to see Rob on Monday. Let me know if we can coordinate a ride or meet up (it’s general seating).  Here’s the event page and if you can’t come, you can watch it online here.


  1. Jim Peterhoff says:


    While I do enjoy some of the conversations that Rob Bell brings to the forefront, I do have a few issues with him. They are however, my own reasons for not enjoying him and if his teachings benefit others for the good of the Kingdom and the Name of Christ; Praise God!

    1) I feel that the questions he often raises are asked with a voice where the answer should be known. As an example, he says, “What if the word virgin did not mean what we thought it means; what if it means a ‘young girl?'” After watching numerous videos I can almost picture his itonation and his voice making you think that, “Holy cow, Mary wasn’t a virgin in the traditional sense!” I can’t explain why but I do feel most of his questions seem to be leading questions.

    2) I find much of what he says very confusing and ambiguous and have a difficult time trying to fill in the blanks. In the Nooma video “You” he speaks about Caesar’s way vs. Jesus’ way. It seems like the way he speaks of the cross is it was Caesar killing Jesus because He wasn’t in agreement with the political, military empire of Rome. So, was the cross used as only a tool to show just how far in opposition the two are?
    In another Nooma video (I don’t remember which); he speaks of everyone being forgiven. As the video progresses it seems like he starts talking to Christians but its unknown (though Velvet Elvis says that Hell is full of forgiven people). It really makes me wonder, “Who is forgiven? Where does repentence play in the picture? Etc.”

    Because of these things I wish there were times when he would just come out and openly say what he means instead of beating around the bush on various topics. I don’t think he’s too provocative, I think he’s too ambiguous. I think in the postmodern era, we look at questions and mystery and say embrace it. I have no problem with critical thinking! However, there are times that a teacher should also present the facts.

    If I’m a lost person watching a Nooma video and thinking after he asks a question of being a song in tune with God, “all I need to do is live like Jesus wants me by being compassionate?” Is that the right answer?

    Those are just a few thoughts.

  2. Thanks for reading – fair comments – thanks.

    1. The Hebrew word you are referring to is “almah” and it means both, young woman and virgin. I think it’s a legitimate discussion and it’s one that has been talked about on and off throughout the history of the church. (Yes I believe in the virgin birth of Jesus). I’ll get back to Rob in your other points.

    2. I remember that part in “You”. I think he’s explaining it from Caesar/Rome’s view instead of our Christian post-resurrection perspective. In that way (the way of the world), I thought it was helpful.

    Regarding Velvet Elvis, it may be time for me to re-read that. Could you point out where that part is (hell is full of forgiven people). Does that mean people that are God has forgiven but they have still rejected God? Or people that have sought forgiveness from God but were then rejected. I am assuming not the latter and not sure where the problem is with the former if that is how it is posed.

    Come on brother, I thought you said you read and love Justification :)

    3. If I am a “lost” person (a term I dislike how we use today), I could be thinking I’m glad this tall skinny nerd doesn’t actually think he’s got all the answers but he certainly is insightful.
    Still, living like Jesus and being compassionate is a great summary. I know we would like to see repentance, sanctified by the Holy Spirit, eager anticipation for the Second Coming language too but again, that line is a fantastic start.

    I do like your argument about Bell being too ambiguous though. You’re right – he certainly is. Could he be less, sure. Would I like him to be? Yes at times I would like him to finish the thought. Could others be less dogmatic, probably so. For me, I like a teacher who sends me away wrestling and praying as opposed to copy and pasting information in my mind.

  3. Jim Peterhoff says:

    1) With the Hebrew word, I think the context of how it was originally meant to quote an Old Testament prophecy is important. I don’t think the meaning really could be misconstrued (though again it is an interesting discussion).

    2) I have no problem hearing a Roman perspective, but I find it weird I hardly ever heard of Bell speak of the Christian perspective of the cross. The main reason I heard of Jesus’ death is that Caesar put him there. That’s a side-point though.

    I would have to pick it up off the bookshelf. The thing about a (sometimes) photographic memory is I don’t always reference very well. It was a typical Rob Bell fancy-looking page:

    Heaven is full of forgiven people

    Hell is full of forgiven people

    Heaven is full of people God loves and Jesus died for

    Hell is full of people God loves and Jesus died for

    Something like that and it continues from there to talk about how the difference is all in choice of living.

    And as far as Justification, I DID LOVE IT. The difference is Wright brings great questions to the table and then really does a great job with his exegesis and conclusions. There is no ambiguity.

    Finally, I also agree that plenty of teachers, preachers and pastors are way too dogmatic. They could learn to be more open in bringing out discussion and critical thinking points on faith. As always, I would love to find those middle-grounders…Wait, that’s who Scot McKnight and NT Wright are!

  4. Thanks for mentioning people like Wright and McKnight. Always appreciate our discussions.

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