What with all the hubbub surrounding Rob Bell’s latest book, and with Joel Osteen having been in Nashville last week, I thought now might be as good an opportunity as any to reflect on why I so strongly disagree with both of them. And really, it’s for the same reason.
On the surface, they seem to be quite different. Joel Osteen is an advocate of the “health & wealth”, pop-Charismatic religion often termed the “Prosperity Gospel”. Rob Bell is a trendy, edgy leader of the postmodern “Emergent” church movement that is in part a reaction to the kinds of abuses seen in churches like Osteen’s. But in many ways, the two men are very similar. Both have huge followings, built largely on the success of popular books and high-quality media productions. Both are likable and well-spoken public figures. And, in some surprising ways, their theology shares commonalities. As Martin Luther would say, both are theologians of glory.
I should begin by saying that I haven’t (yet) read Rob Bell’s newest book, Love Wins, but I have read most of his other books, including Velvet Elvis and Jesus Wants to Save Christians. I had every intention of reading Joel Osteen’s books in order to more fairly and accurately represent his position, but after forcing my way through Become a Better You I couldn’t stomach the thought of any more (Osteen does not possess Bell’s giftedness as a writer).
In reading books by both pastors, I was reminded of what Martin Luther called Theologia Crucis — the Theology of the Cross. An idea he first expressed in his Heidelberg Disputation, Luther contrasted the “Theology of the Cross” with the “Theology of Glory”. At the risk of oversimplifying a major theological position which led to the Protestant Reformation, I’ll attempt to narrow Luther’s distinction between these two theologies to a few key points.
Luther believed that people are unable to figure out who God is or what he is like apart from how he reveals himself to be, and that his nature is most revealed in the Incarnation — specifically in Christ’s death on the cross. A God who both judges sinners and offers himself as a sacrifice for sins is so unlike anything one might reasonably have expected him to be that we can only encounter him in his special self-revelation. Theologians of the cross see that God’s power and majesty are hidden in suffering, which looks like folly to man. Theologians of glory, on the other hand, imagine God according to what they expect him to be like, often taking the things to which they ascribe the most value and projecting those values to be God’s values. In other words, they worship a “god” who is like themselves.
When our theology is seen through the lens of the cross, we realize the depth of our sin, and know that we are totally incapable of doing good or knowing God on our own. The theologian of glory may acknowledge that he is flawed and sinful, but believes that he has the capacity for goodness within himself. He will rarely if ever speak about the cross, focusing instead on things like mystical experiences, moral achievement, or God’s general revelation in nature.
The 21st thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation reads: “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” In other words, theologians of the cross call a spade “a spade”. They call sin “sin”. Theologians of glory avoid talk of sin, and reject God’s revelation of himself. They believe their evil works are good, and call evil what God calls good: things like judgment and damnation.
Theologians of the cross understand that our ultimate good can only be won through the completed work of Christ. Doing God’s will often results in our suffering here and now, but we endure with perseverance as we share in Christ’s sufferings knowing that we will one day also share in his glory. Theologians of glory work to receive their reward in this present life, but in the process risk the forfeiture of their souls. Theologians of glory come in many different forms, but all display the same nearsightedness that focuses on the here-and-now at the expense of eternity.
Joel Osteen and Rob Bell are both classic examples of theologians of glory. Their conceptions of God are quite different from one another, but both preach a version of Christianity far removed from the realm of biblical orthodoxy.
Osteen makes no attempt to hide his now-centered theology. His entire “ministry” is geared toward helping people have their “best life now”. Prosperity theology promises unrealistic and unbiblical expectations of material and physical blessings. Its proponents, including Osteen, believe that human beings should be happy, healthy, and successful, and so they attribute these values to God. Suddenly, it is God who desires above all these earthly blessings for all people.
Prosperity preaching does not preach Christ and him crucified. Sin — if it is mentioned at all — is seen as “less than your best”, but not as something that God hates. Not as something that ought to produce a fearful expectation of judgment. Not as something which carries with it a death sentence that must be brought to bear on either the sinner or the sinless Savior.
By teaching unregenerate people that they have God-given “seeds of greatness” within them that will allow them to “follow their heart” and be blessed; by repeatedly refusing to pronounce God’s judgment upon sin and false religion, Osteen calls what is evil good. By rejecting the gospel message as revealed from cover to cover in the pages of Scripture, he calls evil what is good.
Rob Bell’s glory theology is sneakier. In typically postmodern fashion, he avoids making definitive positional statements, masking his vacuous theology in supposed intellectualism. Yet in his writing, his preaching, and his NOOMA videos, his message is consistently focused on what he sees as God’s plan for this world. By his understanding, Heaven and Hell are present realities that are affected by the choices we make in our daily lives. Therefore, our greatest responsibility is to “resist hell coming to earth” (Velvet Elvis, p. 7) by opposing “poverty, injustice, and suffering… they are all hells on earth” (ibid).
Just as Osteen’s preaching magnifies and misinterprets the Bible’s teaching on prosperity, so Bell interprets Scripture through the lens of social justice. While many of the things he asks Christians to do are indeed good and biblically-sanctioned activities, the glory is misdirected. Bell and other “emergent” pastors say that what they are doing is for God, but this is because they — like the prosperity preachers — worship the projection of their expectations of what they believe God should be like.
The fact is that God has revealed himself in the Word. He has shown us how he expects us to give him glory, and that is through living in light of the cross. All of our deeds — even deeds as worthy as fighting the effects of poverty and injustice — are worthless if not in worshipful response to the sacrificial suffering and death for our sins, and Christ’s bodily resurrection from the grave. Attempting to please the Father through these acts without thought to Jesus and the cross is no different than the Pharisees, or the religious establishment of Luther’s day, with their rituals and indulgences but no true faith.
In Bell’s latest book and recent interviews, he asks the question, “what is God like?” In answering this, he makes the claim that the vast majority of people who have ever lived will spend eternity with God, whether they have placed their faith in Christ’s work or not, because God is love and “Love Wins”. He even goes so far as to insinuate that if the traditional, orthodox view of Hell is true, and that there will be people suffering eternal torment for their sins after God’s final judgment, then there must be something wrong with God. Bell, too, confuses good and evil.
Enough of my interpretation of Osteen and Bell; I’ll let them speak for themselves. Here are two short examples of the teaching of Joel Osteen and Rob Bell. How do these men view the cross and the resurrection? Do they see Christ’s work as the only hope for sinners separated from God’s grace, or as the means to some other earthly end?
Joel Osteen’s view of the cross:
Here, the resurrection means that God is a “right now God” who is going to supernaturally make our dreams come true if only we will “receive it”. It has nothing to do with the defeat of sin and death and the promise of an eternal reward, but with the defeat of circumstances that hold us back and the promise of a temporal reward.
Rob Bell’s view of the cross:
Bell’s presentation is much flashier, but it’s the same message. Resurrection is all about making our lives matter now. Again, there is no mention of sin and salvation. Like Osteen, Bell manages to avoid the truth of Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection from death, focusing instead on mystical experiences — “an unexpected, mysterious presence who meets each of us in our lowest moments”. Instead of health & wealth, Bell glories in significance & spirituality.
The Theologia Crucis
I’ll end with this great hymn by Charles Wesley, who, at the time he wrote this hymn within days of his conversion to Christianity, had a much richer understanding of what Christ had done for him than either of these false teachers. He was a theologian of the cross.
For further reading on Luther’s Theologia Crucis, here are a couple resources: