…If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.
(1 Corinthians 15:14)
Over the past several months I have spent much time examining the theology of Rob Bell, lead pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a sort of unwitting figurehead of the Emergent Church movement. My concern has been a gross lack of definition of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ being an actual physical and historical event, which caused me to speculate that Bell did not hold to this belief. This would have meant that Bell stands apart from the biblical accounts and sets himself next to men like Marcus Borg who do not maintain that this belief is foundational to our faith.
As I have said all along, any evidence to contradict my suspicion was welcome. Thankfully I can declare myself in error because very distinct evidence has been provided! The following is the audio from Rob Bell’s sermon on Easter Sunday 2010:
Rob Bell Believes in Christ’s Physical Resurrection
In the first part of his sermon he is very detailed about Jesus appearing in physical form. Bell is explicit in telling about the fact that Jesus could be touched, he could eat, and he was in one place at one time. He was clear that there was an empty tomb and that there is a physical presence to Christ as he met with his disciples and other followers.
Bell further explains that there is definitely something different about Jesus. Obviously the account makes this also clear. Jesus appears behind locked doors and then suddenly vanishes at will. In spite of the fact that he does eat food, there is a different way in which Christ is known and recognized. Bell makes the conclusion that since Mary, when meeting him in the garden, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus were unable to recognize him because he was changed. It may simply be that once someone is dead you would never expect to see them again, and so the mind is unable to recognize the person when they are standing before you.
Jesus is Different; the World is Different
No doubt what Christ did changed everything. It was the fulfillment of the covenant that God made with Abraham (Genesis 15) when he promised to bless all nations through him. Christ was indeed the offspring that was from the beginning and who did bruise the head of the serpent. In a very physical way Christ’s resurrection ushered in the hope of our own resurrection and the promise of a new earth to come.
The difference between orthodox Christian faith and the conclusions of Bell’s theology are very different. As I have shown from his recent book Drops Like Stars, Bell gives a decidedly different meaning to the resurrection. Now, some have said that he simply adds another meaning to the resurrection, and that it does not supplant the orthodox teaching, yet his consistent message betrays that speculation.
Rob seems to think that resurrection means that the world is made different, that it is changed. The trouble is that Scripture seems to remain silent about this. Indeed things are different because “our faith has become sight,” but in pouring over passages in the Old Testament it is obvious that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient and effective for Abraham, Issac and Jacob as it is for those who have lived in the last two thousand years. Yet the world is different, because the plan of salvation has been played out, God has revealed himself in Christ, and we have a new hope.
Hope Becomes Mission
Rob Bell does not seem to be satisfied with hope. Instead of resigning to wait patiently for the coming of our Lord, he glisses into a new meaning for the resurrection: our new mission. Listen for Bell’s charge in his sermon:
Resurrection is indeed evidenced by change in the world, but that change is not the objective. Change that is enacted by the Christian in the power and direction of the Holy Spirit is solely to point to Christ. Neither this world, nor our words, nor our bodies, nor our creativity, nor our help, nor our eco-friendly efforts, nor our beliefs mean anything unless they are pointing to Christ and grounded in his word.
We are not called by God to redeem our culture, to remake the world, to clean up the environment, or to end all injustice. Only Christ can do this and he has promised that it will be accomplished when he returns. Christ was clear on the way to the cross that his kingdom is not of this world, and this did not change when he rose from death. Writing after Christ’s resurrection, look at what Paul said to the church at Rome:
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:23-25)
Faithful in the Meantime
Will, who calls himself “the Reformed Fundamentalist,” sent out a tweet some time ago where he commented that he thinks he must choose between a church with good theology and a church that encourages faith in action. I initially wanted to react against it, but later had to admit that I too felt this way, which is definitely an underlying problem that drove me toward Rob Bell in the first place and what continues to underpin many churches and their hesitation to simply and biblically preach the gospel.
James 2:14-26 clearly lays out a case for how works are required of a person with faith. Indeed, faith means that a person has been made different, has been resurrected from death to sin, and a person who is alive cannot help but do something. Rob Bell is in no way wrong to challenge his congregation to do good things, to try their best to make the world a better place. In fact that was a major result of the resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit.
At Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon all those who were believers, and we believe that the Holy Spirit resides with us today. It is through the empowerment of that Spirit that we preach the Gospel and do good works in Christ. The Apostle Paul definitely exhorts us to good works, that is clear. But what does he see as the end of those good works? What does Paul give as the reason to do them in the first place?
Philippians 2:12-18 seeks to answer that question. Good works are no doubt a calling from God, but it is for God’s “good pleasure” and so that we may “shine as lights in the world” “in the midst of a crooked generation.” The point of good works, then is to please God and to point the way on the path to life, which is by faith in Christ alone (sola fide).
We await the day when, just as our salvation was completed by Christ alone, our world will be remade, our bodies resurrected, and our hope will be realized in the sight of his face. This is the meaning of the Resurrection: that we have a hope that this is not the end, but that there is more to come. A world groaning and the body of Christ reanimated and changed is a hope of a new heaven and new earth and the hope of our own resurrection, something we could never do on our own.