27 April 2011

Open Letter to Jon Meacham

by Frank Turk

Dear Mr. Meacham –

Back in 2008, you were working at Newsweek and your team of professionals decided to take on the question of marriage and whether or not it should be redefined. As I responded to you in full back then, I don’t have anything new to say on that subject, but I wanted to let you know I’m familiar with your work and your outlook on “Christian” things.

This month, TIME magazine has published its list of the 100 most-influential people in the world, and it’s an interesting compendium. From my desk, anyone who has heard of more than 30% of these people is probably a pretty avid world news buff. But as a list of people with substantial influence, that list can hardly be criticized for its inclusiveness or broad interest in how “influence” is demonstrated.

Rob Bell turns up on their list, and you’re the one who drafted his entry, crediting him for his contribution to Christian thought. Here’s what you said:

I particularly enjoyed the photo TIME included with your report as it included a subtle halo around Rob’s head, but I’ll bet you didn’t choose that photo. You did, however, choose to say something specific, and then adorn it with praise for Rob: a vexed church has wrestled with the question of hell for 2000 years.

I read that a few times in and out of context to make sure it's what you meant, and I'm convinced. So from my perspective, I only have one question for you: is it true?

What I am not going to do here is fall into the trap of arguing with you about it -- or arguing at you, since it's unlikely you'll respond to a Christian Lifestyle blog with fewer readers than Gismodo. But what I am going to do is think about that question for a moment in the hopes that others will join me in considering the matter.

How would we know the answer to that question? Is there a way to know whether or not the Christian faith (and specifically, the Christian church) has made any decisions about the doctrine of hell? If there's not, I think Rob Bell is actually a kind of snake-oil salesman -- because let's face it: he's portraying a doctrine of hell which he thinks other people ought to adopt. He's a partisan guy -- and we can see that in almost every interview he's done for his book so far. That is: he wants us to know that for certain the Greek word "Aeon" doesn't mean "forever and ever" (at least, not in reference to hell -- in reference to heaven he's convinced that the good stuff doesn't ever stop). He thinks that we do God a disservice by saying hell is punishment that lasts longer than the crime(s). He wants people to get a firm grip on the doctrine of hell -- and not fear it. We should embrace it as a commentary on what we do to ourselves.

What he doesn't want for them is a doctrine in which hell is an unquenchable verdict.

That's strange, isn't it -- if the story of salvation in the biblical discussion is, as you put it, contradictory, perhaps the problem is that Rob has put too fine a point on it. And if that's the case, I wonder why his influence is seen as so useful by yourself and by TIME.

So I ask you: is it true? If it is not in fact true, should you do anything about it?

Look: sometime around 60 AD, there was this fellow Paul -- he wrote a lot of books and letters in his day, so you may have heard of him. Anyway, around 60 AD he was rounded up by the religious leaders of his day, and by the Romans, and he was put on trial for what one account calls “serious charges,” but it was likely for sedition and upsetting the peace of the city of Jerusalem.

When Paul came up for trial, and he was asked to explain himself – to defend himself against the charges at-hand – he did a strange thing: he appealed to what actually happened to him. He said: “I am not insane, Most Excellent Festus. What I am saying is the sober truth. And King Agrippa knows about these things. I speak boldly, for I am sure these events are all familiar to him, for they were not done in a corner!”

For Paul, the question of who Jesus was, and what his purpose was on this Earth, was a question of truth -- of things not done in a corner which cause speculation or uncertainty but of things for which there are many witnesses.

But what is truth, Mr. Meacham? Is it something we need today, or is it something we have outgrown?

I ask that of you, and I leave it to you. I hope that there is something true, and that it finds you ready to receive it.


Admiralcreedy said...

Love it, thanks for this, I too was slightly miffed by the way Bell was portrayed in 'Time'.

Robert said...

Thanks, Frank...it is good for us to set our mind on these questions so that we can address the root of this problem. If only Mr. Meacham would read this...and if so, with his predispositions put to the side. Of course, if he says there is no truth my question would then be is that a true statement. Bell could be asked the same thing. Jesus is clear in the Bible...I don't see why people think it is so hard to understand the Bible. Well, except for the fact that they don't read enough of it to get the context (if they read the Bible at all.

donsands said...

There are some mysteries to hell. But and the same time it is a teaching of Christ that should make us cringe, especially when we read our Lord's words. Fear is the begining of understanding, fear with faith.

Thanks for another well written letter.

stratagem said...

"For this I was born and for this I came into the world: to testify to the truth" -Jesus Christ (Jn 18:37).

Anonymous said...

I think that the TIME piece does have it right--sadly right. Bell is influential. What we don't want to overlook is WHO he is influencing. Bell's influence is not in the church anymore. It's in the world. His denial of TRUTH now speaks to the world and tells them, "It's OK to live like you want to; Hell is an empty threat. God wouldn't really do that to you. He actually wants to deliver you from the Hell of your own making. Isn't He loving?"

Bell's refusal to accept truth with which he disagrees is meant to reach the unsaved and unfortunately he will have influence with such teaching.

Sir Aaron said...

Do people actually read Time?

I really don't get the debate of hell. It seems clear as day to me. If there is no hell, then what is the point of the gospel?

Anonymous said...

When the world writes about Christianity it always irks me. That Time article contains one of my biggest pet peeves - the writer rips verses out of context to say that the Bible is "contradictory."

Why is it when it comes to Scripture, folks abandon the most basic principles of reading? I'm sure the author probably wouldn't quote a novel the way he quoted the Bible, nor would he want people to read his articles utilizing a cherry pick method.

Don't get it. And don't like it.

Chris Cole said...

Where Bell gets it wrong (and what Meacham is ill-equipped to understand) is that the eternity of Hell isn't a matter of eternal punishment just for limited sins committed in a limited time. If that were the case, then the papist doctrine of Purgatory would be sufficient. On the side of the condemned sinner, sins continue while in Hell, i.e., he continues to hate God and curse Him. In addition, the aggrieved party, God, is eternal and infinite, so the judgment must be consistent with that, i.e., also eternal (though it can never be infinite).

Frank Turk said...

Let's be a little careful, please:

1. Rob Bell doesn't really deny "hell" -- he denies the view of hell as eternal torment. He thinks that hell is something else, and it is bad. It's just not something that lasts forever.

2. Rob Bell does not think it's OK to live any way you want. He just has a very limited picture of what it means for there to be justice. Consider this: he said explicitly to Adrian Warnock that he thinks a 17-yr-old who dies has not sinned enough, or done enough wrong, to warrant unending torment. He says that the punishment is greater than the crime by the sheer length of it, and that is unjust.

Is he wrong about these things? of course I think so. But let's make sure we are concerned about his actual mistakes and not caricatures of his mistakes.

sdcougar said...

'In Testaments of Love, Leon Morris asks, “How do we
harmonize the assurance that ‘God is love’ with the assertion
that ‘our God is a consuming fire’? Most of us never
think about such problems, and in the end our idea of love is
indistinguishable from that of the world around us.”' [q. in Love, Prayer and Forgiveness: When Basics Become Heresies http://tinyurl.com/y9p4vez ]

That was thirty years ago! Don't think Morris's book ever caught on. We are in deep need of Back to Basics teaching for the eveyday Christian, then teachers like Bell will find few Christian ears.

rockstarkp said...

did you mean to spell Gismodo wrong?
or did you intend "Gizmodo"?

either way, good stuff.

stratagem said...

So to Frank's two points made above, RB might feel that Hitler would stop cursing God while he's being punished and totter out of Hell at some point as a reformed sinner? Or does Hell start out as punishment and then transition into a rehabilitation center? And if it does, I suppose RB also believes that Hell would no longer exist because there'd be no one left in in eventually?
In short, RB's concept of Hell doesn't seem to hang together. And as someone else pointed out already, this version of limited Hell removes a lot of the motivation for people to consider repentance and faith in Christ. (Which is, of course, totally OK as an outcome in Satan's eyes).

wordsmith said...

I thought that picture was a smidge too hagiographic. Maybe they can put him in line right after Karol Wojtyla and Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu ("Mother" Teresa).

Solameanie said...

Frank, I'm glad you threw in the caution about not making caricatures of Rob Bell's errors. When well-meaning Christians in the public eye do that, it just gives Bell's side ammunition. "We're being slandered" is the typical rejoinder.

Frank Turk said...


I totally agree.

So there.

Scooter said...


Thanks for teaching us to respond to actual mistake, not the ones we have ready to go answers.

stratagem said...

Frank - what? Is that allowed on here? :0

Clark said...

Yeah the world sees 'influence' differently at times...nah, all the time. But these are the folks JEsus died for and we have to communicate with them graciously. Thanks for all you do. I just wrote an open letter to Francis Chan on my blog. But sense he's a brother I don't have to be nice, I can gouge him pretty hard! JUST KIDDING!

donsands said...

There are some who are so sensative to souls being tormented, that they can't believe hell is eternal, John Stott is one. Yet, John Stott does not make stuff up like Bell does. Rob is heading in the wrong direction, and he needs to fear our Lord. And by that fear, I mean see His majesty and holiness in awe. God is awesome. We over use the word awesome too much, don't we.

One of the best teachings I ever heard on the subject of hell was from RC Sproul. he did a masterful work in explaning the truth of the Word, and allowing for the secret things are God's.

Not Ashamed said...

Once again a pointed well directed letter to Meacham regarding the RB theology of hell and punishment. Is it me or does it ring of purgatory?
Also an interesting description that Meacham/Time place on RB.
"Weilding music, videos and a starbucks sensibility, Bell is at the forefront of a rethinking of Christianity."
Starbucks sensibility,Really? As if having coffee at Starbucks was the definitive benchmark of a seeker of Biblical truth.
What we need to continue to do is as you are doing, expose RB for his false teaching (understanding), pray he may repent and if not make sure that he is not only at the forefront but that he is in very limited company.

As is often the case, when the truth of scripture is "softened" or "compromised" those of the "Now THAT I can believe!" and the naive, flock to have their itching ears scratched and men like Bell have switched from snake oil to ear-scratchers.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Bell will be influential long. He was influential a few years ago when people thought he was orthodox. He has now shown himself to be what he is another liberal. Liberals are not cool and hip - they are old guys who wear Birkenstocks and black socks.

I think Piper had it right - farewell Rob Bell.

cmt122 said...

Here are a few of the notable folks who made the list. I would be surprised that any Christian would not expect Rob Bell’s name to be on this list. I mean come on it’s mostly actors and performers.
• Amy Poehler
• Colin Firth
• Oprah Winfrey
• Sting
• Mark Wahlberg
• Justin Bieber
“Meet the most influential people in the world. They are artists and activists, reformers and researchers, heads of state and captains of industry. Their ideas spark dialogue and dissent and sometimes even revolution. Welcome to this year's TIME 100”

stratagem said...

For the record, I DO think Bell is intellectually on-par with Justin Bieber!

DJP said...

Tsk. Bieber-hater.

Not Ashamed said...

Found this great little tid-bit on the RB controversy...entertaining.


James S said...

Man, that first line of Meacham's article was a good indicator of how stupid he is.
The question "Is Hell Real?" has vexed the christian church for 2 millennia?

Totally false.
Complete Rubbish.

It has vexed everyone BUT the christian church, (I mean the ACTUAL christian church of Jesus Christ, not the faux, outwardly christian but inwardly dead, sunday only, mainly for show, Holy spirit-less "christianity" in name only, which is really no christianity).

The real christian church are the people who BELIEVE on Jesus Christ, therefore believe everything He has spoken and revealed to us in the bible through the writing of His Word, and therefore know full well that hell is real because nobody has told us more about it then the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

Certainly it has vexed the world, and all the religions of the world, and all authority that is not christian, and all college teachers & professors of the world, etc...
but never the true christian church.

What a ridiculous opening statement, (and a helpful one to the discerning reader, because it immediately told us to disregard everything this fool says).

Nice one Frank. Another excellent post.