John Calvin, in his Institutes, writes, “On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.” [Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Book I, i. 2] More than any other Christian theologian in history, we owe John Calvin the greatest debt of clearing the way for a distinctly Christian epistemology. Calvin rightly understood that all knowledge begins with knowledge of God. An erroneous knowledge of God would likely result in an erroneous knowledge of God’s creation, and most assuredly, knowledge of man, or to be more specific, knowledge of ourselves. Hence, it follows that knowledge of oneself can only follow knowledge of God.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the study of how we know. When someone makes a claim that we do not believe, almost to a person the response is, “how do you know that?” When philosophers and theologians ask this question it is much more technical but the principle remains the same. As finite beings, the question that we all must face is how do we know anything? How can we know anything? A being that is not human is responsible for creating human beings! Think of it like this: Adam was not and then he was. By what means would Adam be able to make sense out of anything as a created being. Just as life cannot come from non-life, intelligence cannot come from non-intelligence. How could it? How can something move from non-intelligence to being intelligent? At a minimum, there must be some intelligence within it in order for it to improve upon its own intelligence. Adam was one created being among many. Unless someone told him that a tree was a tree, he could never have known what a tree was. Someone might argue that he arbitrarily identified trees as trees. However, that only begs the question of why he thought it necessary to call it something to begin with. It does not take long for one to recognize that man has a very thorny problem with his claim to knowledge. Hence, it follows that man has a conundrum of massive proportions when he claims to know any facts about reality apart from God. The point of this paragraph is that man is by necessity, a “knowledge dependent” creature. Humans depend on God for their knowledge of all things. Secondly, knowledge of God is a prerequisite for an accurate knowledge of anything else in creation. Finally, man is part of Creation. Hence, it follows that if we have a flawed understanding of God, we will unavoidably have a flawed understanding of man.
All knowledge comes to man via revelation. That is to say, all knowledge is revealed knowledge. Paul wrote, “…that which is known about God is evident to them.”(Rom. 1:19) He then says God’s attributes “have been clearly seen.” (Rom. 1:20) All knowledge man has, he has received from God through nature, to include an implanted innate knowledge. Moreover, God has even been more specific as He has graciously provided us special knowledge through divine revelation. Moreover, Paul concludes that all men are without excuse because God has made Himself know to them. (Rom. 1:20) The fact that we know enough about God to be culpable makes for an interesting response to Rob Bell’s thesis that the traditional understanding of eternal punishment, at its foundation, is unfair. The Apostle Paul would seem to argue here, without ambiguity, that all men are culpable for their actions. Moreover, Paul says that unregenerate men uniformly take an unethical disposition in their knowledge of God. The language here is universal. The most serious indictment in Romans 1 is located in verse 28. This is the ethical constituent of knowledge. Paul says, “And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind.” (Rom. 1:28) Paul goes on to say that those who practice these things are “worthy of death.” (Rom. 1:32) I wonder how often Rob Bell spends time in his writings commenting on the first chapter of Romans. Paul says that fallen humanity does not honor God as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations. Paul says that humanity has corrupted the image of the true God into one that is vile and reprehensible. Humanity, according to Paul has exchanged the truth of God for a lie. Therefore, according to Paul, God has turned humanity over to degrading passions. Paul’s view of God and Bell’s view of God seems remarkably dissimilar. Hence, it follows that Bell’s description of the human condition and Paul’s description are also remarkably antithetical to one another. While Bell spends a great deal of time on the goodness of humans, Paul spends a great deal of time discussing the depraved nature of the human condition.
Rob Bell repeatedly says in his writings and even in interviews that God is doing something in him and in the world. I am sure someone has asked Rob Bell this question, but I have never heard it and I certainly have not heard Bell’s answer: Rob, how do you know that God is really working in you? Thousands of religious leaders have come along in the past and hundreds in contemporary times claiming that God is working in them also. How can we know that God is working in you? Maybe it is just you working in you. Maybe it is a demon working in you. I am not contending that it is. I am just raising the question. After all, Rob, isn’t that what you like to do most? Jesus did not come to bring questions. The Scriptures were not composed to raise questions. They were composed to provide clear answers.
Rob Bell says that God would not sentence a 17 year old to eternal punishment because the punishment does not fit the crime. He reasons that 17 years of sin should not result in eternal punishment. In the first place, this illustrates the fact that Rob Bell has not come to a biblical understanding of God’s holiness. How does Bell know that this punishment is out of line? What is the basis for his moral judgment that such a sentence would be, well, immoral? How does Bell know what is truly moral and what is not. From where does Bell derive his ethic? How does he know what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for 17 years of offending an infinitely holy God? It seems to me that Bell cannot avoid arbitrariness in his reasoning. Bell’s method for knowing God seems to deviate from Scripture. The Romans 1 temptation to exchange the image of God presented in Scripture and even nature is a real temptation for everyone. Bell seems to want to create a new image of God and project that image onto the God Himself. Thus, it follows that Bell’s understanding of God necessarily results in a flawed understanding of sin. How could it be otherwise? If you do not understand the righteous nature of God, then you cannot understand the sinful nature of man. Moreover, failure to understand God’s righteous character unavoidably results in a failure to understand and appreciate the nature of sin. Rob Bell begins with man and works to God. He imposes on God a human understanding of love. This is backwards. He then looks at sin from a sinful, human perspective rather than allowing Scripture to inform his view of sin. This unavoidably causes Bell to belittle sin. However, make no mistake about it: Rob Bell’s entire thesis regarding the nature of eternal punishment begins with a serious flaw in Bell’s epistemology. At the foundation of his method for knowing, Bell leans heavily upon autonomous human reason rather than divine revelation. Anywhere divine revelation creates tension within his reason Bell imposes his own authoritative self on the biblical text. A perfect example is his point of view that the creation account is a poem as opposed to historical narrative. There are no markers in the text to indicate it is anything but a forthright account of the historical beginnings of the universe. Bell uses similar methods throughout his theological grid.
Rob Bell has exchanged the image of God for one that appeases his philosophical presuppositions. He leans on human reason and scientific method as his authority for interpreting Scripture and his epistemological method. As a result, the impact of sin on human reason comes through as Bell reinterprets God, man, and sin to arrive at a very different understanding of the gospel than the one handed down in the Christian community for nearly 2000 years.