Why Do We Love C.S. Lewis and Hate Rob Bell?

Here at the Credo House in Edmond Oklahoma, Tim Kimberley (@pastortimk) and I are teaching a series on the top theologians of church history on Tuesday nights. I have insisted that C.S. Lewis be part of the mix due to his abiding theological influence on so many people today. Though he is called a “lay” theologian by many, in my mind, he is nothing less than a theological giant due to his contributions to apologetics at the academic and popular levels. (After all, apologetics is a subset of theology and C.S. Lewis, though a professor of literature, did teach philosophy for two years at Oxford!) We taught to a packed house with people sitting on the floor. Why? Because they all love C.S. Lewis. When asked how many had read C.S. Lewis, just about every hand in Credo went up. He is an evangelical hero who, theologically speaking, may not make the cut of evangelicalism today. Truthfully, I don’t think he ever liked the label himself. But he is loved by evangelicals nonetheless. In fact, he is loved across denominational and traditional lines. Christianity Today named Lewis’ Mere Christianity as the most influential book of the 20th century. Another evangelical magazine, Christian History, named him among the top ten most influential Christians of the 20th century. Whether you are an emerger or an evangelical, Baptist or Presbyterian, a cessationist or continuationist, a Calvinist or an Arminian (not that all of these are mutually exclusive), C.S. Lewis is not only kosher, but staple. In fact, even Pope John Paul II said that Lewis’ The Four Loves was one of his favorite books!

However, C.S. Lewis was not without “issues” that cause many to scratch their heads. Practically, he liked to smoke a pipe and cigarettes, and frequently enjoyed a beer at his bi-weekly “Inklings” meetings (and you know how bent out of shape people can get over those things!). Theologically, there is some stuff people try to sweep under the rug as well. In fact, though I say C.S. Lewis is loved by all, I do remember walking into church one day years ago. They were giving away a bunch of the “overstock” books from the library. I saw a church elder throwing away a lot of books as well. They were all C.S. Lewis! When I inquired about his odd blasphemous actions, he said that C.S. Lewis was a heretic because he did not believe in inerrancy. While this is something of an extreme example, I think it is important to realize that not everyone likes C.S. Lewis. Almost everyone, but not all. Why? Because he had some “non-evangelical” leanings. Besides not believing in inerrancy, he also believed in the theory of evolution, denied substitutionary atonement in favor of a “ransom to Satan,” bordered on a Pelagian idea of human freedom, seemed to advocate baptismal regeneration, and regularly prayed for the dead. To top it all off, he held out hope for the destiny of the unevangelized, believing that Christ might save them outside of direct knowledge of him (inclusivism). With all of these foibles, I seriously doubt any evangelical church would take a second look at his resume were he to apply for a pastorate at their church today. In fact, this list alone would be enough for many to call him a heretic. However, we still love him. We still read him. We still defend him. We still hand out his books by the dozens to friends and family who are struggling with their faith. This man who had his Christianity affirmed by Dr. Bob Jones but questioned by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is beloved by just about everyone, making him off-limits for serious criticism. Why?

Consider another man: Rob Bell. From what I have read and seen, he seems to have far fewer theological problems than C.S. Lewis. In fact, on paper, he is probably more evangelical than C.S. Lewis. He might even make it through the interview process at most evangelical churches. He, like Lewis, has written many works about the Christian faith. His latest book, Love Wins, is a runaway bestseller. However, evangelicals don’t like Rob Bell. He is not beloved. His writings are not handed out like tracts, except for in niche groups. He does not have broad Christian appeal. In fact, he may be the most hated Christian author alive (at least in some circles). Why? Well, on the tip of your tongue is this: because he believes in universalism (the idea that all will be saved). Well, maybe not “believes,” but he does hold out hope for such. Rob Bell supporters often appeal to C.S. Lewis, stating that he believed similar stuff as Rob Bell (in as far as holding out hope for unbelievers relates to inclusivism). In fact, Rob Bell seems to love and be inspired by C.S. Lewis in his thoughts and ideas.

Here comes the question I got Tuesday night a the Credo House “Coffee and Theology” study: “So why do we love C.S. Lewis but hate Rob Bell?”

This is the great question I hope to answer briefly.

First of all, no one hates Rob Bell (or at least, no one should). But, speaking for myself, I am very comfortable handing out C.S. Lewis books by the dozens, while I don’t keep a stock of Bell’s books on hand. There is not a book that Lewis wrote that I don’t encourage people to read and grow from. Even A Grief Observed, where Lewis attempts to retain his faith in God while questioning everything in the middle of a crucible of doubt and pain, is one of my favorite books to give to people who are hurting. But I doubt I would ever recommend one of Bell’s works to establish someone in the faith. In fact, I might only recommend them for people to see “the other side.” Let me put it this way (and I must be very careful here): While I fully embrace and endorse the ministry of C.S. Lewis, I do not endorse or embrace the ministry of Rob Bell.

You see, while C.S. Lewis has a great deal of theological foibles, his ministry is defined by a defense of the essence of the Gospel. The essence of who Christ is and what he did are ardently upheld by Lewis, saturating every page of his books. His purpose was clear: to make a compelling case the reality of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. All other things set aside, this is what you leave with every time you read Lewis. The problematic areas are peripheral, not central. One has to look hard to find the departures from traditional Protestant Christianity. They are not the subjects of his works and do not form the titles of his books.

However, with Rob Bell, the essence of who Christ is and what he did seems to be secondary. One has to look for those things as they weed through his defenses of non-traditional Christianity. Whereas Lewis’ ultimate purpose is to define and defend “mere” Christianity, Bell’s “mere” Christianity is but a footnote to a redefined Christianity. Bell’s focus is to challenge, question, change, reform, and emerge from traditions that bind us. Traditional apologetics, orthodoxy, and foundations are brought into question from beginning to end. Christ’s reality, deity, exclusivity, and the hope of the Gospel proclaimed receive an occasional footnote (if at all) from Bell.

Another way to put this is to say that in the ministry of C.S. Lewis, the central truths of the Christian faith are the chorus of his songs, with the occasional problem in the stanzas. However, with Bell, the chorus of his song is filled with challenges to traditional Christianity and if you listen really closely to the stanza, you might get an occasional line of orthodoxy.

Now, let me be straight. I have no problem with challenging traditions. I have no problem with questions, doubts, and reforms. I think we all need this. It is the essence of what we call semper reformanda (at least in a modified form). However, when your ministry is characterized and defined by this type of emerging reform and unsettled skepticism of traditional Christianity, you have stepped over the line and lost yourself and your right to have godly influence. As the old saying goes, “think out loud, but don’t think out loud from a platform.” Just because you are unsettled and questioning your faith does not mean you need to unsettle others.

And it is not just Rob Bell that is at issue. There are dozens of popular writers, pastors, bloggers, and authors who are singing the same chorus. They give lip service to the essence of Christianity, but from their platform it is only peppered in here and there. I think this is the core problem with what is/was known as the “emerging church.” It is not that we are against rethinking, reimagining, reforming, or any other “re,” it is that this became the central focus of the movement. Christ, the cross, sin, righteousness, and all other elements that create the essence of who we are became the subjects of challenges – mere lines in the song. This is why I distinguish between, say, Brian Mclaren and Dan Kimball.  Both men, early on, were considered part of the “emerging church.” However, though he challenges some ideas here and there, Dan Kimball (like C.S. Lewis) is committed to the essence of the historic Christian faith. Truth, doctrine, love, and righteousness are found in everything he writes and says. They are the chorus. With Mclaren, on the other hand, traditional Christian beliefs and practices form more of (what seems to be) an embarrassing afterthought that he proclaims only under duress.

This is why I don’t like comparing C.S. Lewis to Rob Bell. There is no comparison. Neither is it fair to team Rob Bell up with many of the great saints of the past, such as the Cappidocians or Origen (as is often done). Yes, they all have problems, but the question is, Do these problems define the essence of their ministry and passion? With Rob Bell (and many like him), they do. With most of the other historic figures that some try to put on Bell’s team, they don’t.

What can Bell do about this? I seriously doubt he is looking for advice from me, but here is what I would do if I were his campaign manager. I would tell him to take his cue from Lewis. Focus most of your works on defending the foundational issues of historic Christian truth. Those things that have been believed “always, everywhere, and by all.” Whether it is the existence of God, the exclusivity of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, or the sinfulness of man, these are all good points that give street cred. If you are going to claim the legacy of Origen, the Cappidocians, or Lewis, embrace the essence of their ministry, not the periphery of their thought. And, just to be fair, if Lewis would have moved his foibles from his back pocket to his front pocket, he would not be accepted much either.

131 Responses to “Why Do We Love C.S. Lewis and Hate Rob Bell?”

  1. I do like this summary of the differences between these two authors and thinkers. However, what this highlights most of all is that while we may enjoy or benefit from the thoughts and ideas of others it’s vital that we view them as just that – thoughts and ideas! So, we glean from each thinker what is beneficial to ourselves wherever we are in our Christian walk and we discard that which is not helpful. This is the basis of any sound study method.

    On another note: I went to Greenbelt earlier in the year to hear Rob Bell and came away very disappointed. I’d read a couple of his books and liked ‘some’ of the things he said. But, face to face, and facing questions from the audience it became very clear that while he was a lovely man, very polite, very tactful, very prudent, he did not seem to stand for anything as such. Every question was dealt with in a sort of – ‘some think this / some think that’ way while he himself sat on the fence rather than him ever actually coming out and making clear statements about his own belief, experience or the outcome of his study. For someone who challenges the status quo so openly it would have been nice to think he was doing so from a standpoint of some fresh principles.

  2. Your answer didn’t really resolve much at all. You are still picking and choosing that parts of Lewis you like and dislike. You’re still ignoring much of Bell’s works and sermons that show him in a more “evangelical” light. I’m sure if we all focused on a few lines from any theologians works, removed them from context, we could easily paint them as heretical. John Calvin killed a dude, shouldn’t we burn his works now too?
    And then for someone like MacAurthur to say that Bell isn’t a Christian because of his books is absolutely wrong and shameful. Just because someone doesn’t hold to a Calvinistic view of God doesn’t make them out side the bounds of faith. That’s ridiculous.

  3. Some around C.S. Lewis personally sure questioned his playing with the supernatural a little around the edges. The occult can be fascinating even to born-agains. Some say he was not truly saved because of his excursions on the dark side. I think it is for God to decide and hard to claim he was not truly christian. If you have known one of these more than mere mortal beings, it is easier to understand.

  4. Great post, and sound reasoning. Mere Christianity is what unites the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Focusing on secondary or tertiary considerations is risky, and if they’re non-orthodox, downright dangerous.

  5. Just curious, did Lewis ever Biblically present the Gospel in it’s entirety? And I will illustrate what is meant by Gospel.

    The Exclusive Store; Now Open To The General Public
    [Hurry, offer ends without notice] Our magnificent and awesome God has made available to you through Grace His exclusive treasure. This unique gift came in the form of a baby named Jesus. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14 [To enter in there are a few instructions]
    1) Even though you will see many doors on the building there is only one door that actually works. That door will be clearly labeled “Jesus”. So Jesus said to them agin, “Truly,truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep…I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved,” John 10:7&9 “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.'” John 14:16 “For theer is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” 1 Timothy 2:5
    2) This door however will be very narrow, it’s ok that’s the way it is supposed to be. “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you will seek to enter and will not be able.” Luke 13:24 “For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matthew 7:14
    Point 3 continued on next comment….

  6. 3)Once grace has shown you the door, you will want to get rid of your sin by having faith that Jesus paid the penalty you deserved and covered over your iniqity with His blood by His death on the Cross. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ Romans 3:23 “Then He[Jesus] said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.'” Luke 24:46-47
    4) Then Knock! “Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be open to you.” Matthew 7:7
    Frequently Asked Questions…
    1) Is there an entrance fee? No. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23
    2) Do you accept credit cards? No. The only way to purchase this treasure is by the Grace of God. “But God being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),… For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:4-5&8-9
    Point 2 continued next comment…

  7. 2) “He saves us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Titus 3:5-7
    3) How much does this treasure cost? Everything. “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he just deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishess to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.'” Matt. 16:24-25 “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”John 14:15
    4) Do you use rain checks? No.”Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.”Matt. 24:42″…Today if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts.” Heb.3:7b
    5) Do you participate in fire sales? No. In the event that a great fire occurs our store will close its doors permanently. “But by His word the present heaven and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men.. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. 2 Pet 3:7&10
    [Hurry in before it is over!] “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes I am coming quickly. Amen. Come…

  8. I love Rob Bell and C.S. Lewis, their books are great.

  9. Very well and respectfully written. I don’t think that I could have written it any clearer than your words have yielded.

    It always interests me to look at the fallout of such introspective conversations. I, first of all, agree with your assessment. Moreover, this is a subject requiring heart, humility, and a deferment to the knowledge that we will never have all of the things that we need to know about God, or even Christ for that matter, all lined up perfectly for everyone to understand completely, all at the same time. ;)

    I see that there are those who are quick to condemn Lewis and Bell, of which I am not one, in spite of the fact that I disagree with both of them on points. We are here gaining what we can as humans. And, I certainly hope that we are not leaning simply on our own understanding to carry out our faith in what Jesus definitively said was areas that we do not completely understand.
    Jesus did not come to condemn us. Is that not the model for our own lives? I am pretty sure that there are clear warnings against such endeavors.
    I know that the truth is the truth. I rest in the belief that I get that truth occasionally, fail repeatedly, repent religiously, and lean on some serious grace, while pressing on towards the higher mark. Peace and Blessings

  10. “Why Do We Love C.S. Lewis and Hate Rob Bell? | Parchment and Pen” was
    indeed a fantastic post. However, if it included even more pix it might be even much better.
    Regards ,Lorenzo

  11. Rob Bell asks better questions than he provides answers.

  12. I realize I’m late to the party here, but I read this post several months ago and just got around to reading Love Wins by Rob Bell and Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. Having already read this post, I was not surprised to see the similarities between Bell and Lewis on the issues of hell, atonement, and other religions (they were both open to… shall we say, non-traditional views and stressed their relative unimportance to a redemptive relationship with God). What I was surprised about was the ending of Love Wins (spoiler alert) in which… love wins. haha. But seriously, Bell concluded his book by inviting the reader into a transforming relationship with God through the love of Jesus. Controversies aside, I think that Love Wins was very God/gospel focused… maybe even more so than Mere Christianity.
    I’d also like to suggest that maybe people like Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, or even Marcus Borg might be… evangelists. Call me crazy, but I think that agnostics reading books by those authors might find that typical atheist/agnostic anti-Christian objections/doubts aren’t a good enough excuse to not enter a relationship with God. Further, in Love Wins, Bell’s point (as I read it) is that, whatever God’s policy on Hell, the most important thing to remember is that He’s a good God. Many non-Christians don’t know that.
    And lastly, I’d like to point out that the anecdote you quote (“think out loud, but don’t think out loud from a platform.”) might not apply to the case of Rob Bell for two reasons:
    1. As I already mentioned, Bell breaks down cop-out arguments against Christianity by demonstrating the ability to enter relationship with God despite them.
    2. You may disagree with me, but I think that there’s a chance Bell might be right on some (or even most) of his “unorthodox” suggestions. They might even have some positive implications in practice. And if there’s a possibility that Bell might be right and/or helpful, I’d prefer him to think out…

  13. Great article! I did my masters thesis on “Divergences from Evangelical Orthodoxy in the Writings of C.S. Lewis.” (A boring name perhaps but if you want to find a long cataloging of many of those “heresies” search “Heresy in Narnia” on amazon…) For me the end result was becoming quite convinced by Lewis. Taken as a whole, his theological understanding contained way fewer holes than the evangelical theology of my youth.


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