Love Wins and Truth Prevails, But Speed Kills ‘em Both

Same Story, Different Teams

love winsThis weekend, we had our first family trip to the emergency room for my two-year-old which meant that I missed out on the fireworks in the Christian interwebs over Rob Bell. If you didn’t catch it either, Sarah Pulliam Bailey at CT did a great roundup and here’s the summary: (1) Rob Bell released a trailer and provocative synopsis for his new book on Heaven and Hell, (2) Justin Taylor, Denny Burk, and others wrote that it outed Bell as Universalist (but later backed off on more negative language), (3) Christians took sides and went nuts on everything with a “Publish” or “Post” button.

Most of us have probably forgotten by now, but a nearly identical set of events happened about 18 months ago to John Piper – the only difference was the teams were swapped. Piper said something vague and controversial, famous people who already don’t like his stuff denounced it, and then lots of emergent and neo-reformed types signed up for Twitter accounts.

As is my custom, I’d like to sidestep the actual theological issues at play and ask: How and why does this keep happening?

The Medium is the Message

Now I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Justin Taylor in person, and I have to say he’s one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. However, I know Rob Bell about as well as I know Brad Pitt which means two things: I don’t know anything about his heart, and I’ve seen him on TV enough to know he’s very gifted in the area of rhetoric and creating vivid images.

Because he understands and teaches the art of using speech and images to move people into action, it’s hard not to think that he didn’t see any of this coming.

Of course, whether or not he actually planned what happened we cannot (and should not) say, but it takes only a moment to see that it had all the elements of a perfect storm. Everything was left unanswered: the trailer is a series of questions, the synopsis is designed to pique interest, the bloggers were only sent selected chapters, and so on.

By never directly stating what he really thinks and releasing just enough to get everyone excited, Bell and Harper Collins hit a home run. Bloggers just couldn’t resist being the first to weigh in, and everyone else couldn’t help but weigh in on their weigh ins.

In terms of publicity, it doesn’t really matter what Bell actually thinks. The longer he stays silent, the more traffic the blogs and tweets generate, and the higher Bell’s sales go.

The result? Love Wins wins.

If Bell does, in fact, espouse Universalism he can say, “Wouldn’t you rather side with me – the nice guy?” And if he ends up clarifying himself and denying full-fledged Universalism, he can still say, “See, not jumping to conclusions is part of how Love Wins.” (Remember, however, that when Piper clarified his statements, his frenemies didn’t care – the blood was already in the water).

A brilliant and successful publicity effort.

But a sad and predictable fallout.

The Law of Christian Media

Back when the tornado hit, I mentioned an interesting piece of Internet lore called Godwin’s Law which states:

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

And back when I used to run a Christian message board, I liked to say that the Christian version was,

As a Christian online discussion grows longer, the probability of calling someone a heretic or false teacher approaches 1.

Now be careful you don’t misunderstand this. It isn’t meant to downplay the fact that some people do in fact espouse heretical views (while it’s not en vogue today, the Scripture say are to reject not only false teaching, but also false teachers – yikes!). These “laws” aren’t statements about the truth, they are simply observations about the nature of online debate.

In the old days of the Internet, message board discussion threads would go on for (p)ages, no would budge, and eventually someone got angry enough to play the Nazi/heresy card.

But in the social media world, it works in reverse. The key metric is no longer the length of time people spend discussing something, but the amount of time between a current event and when someone pushes a “publish” button about it. The result is that something like this is true:

As time for reflection grows shorter, the probability of a conflict between truth and love approaches 1.

Speedy Responses Are Like Gas on a Fire

Of course, there is certainly a place for posting things in a timely manner even if they are controversial. For example, Justin Taylor posted an obituary of controversial theologian Clark Pinnock a few days after his death that included a sober assessment of Pinnock’s views and impact. It was important, necessary, and accurate.

They key difference was that when Pinnock died, everything about his life and thought was known. However, when current events are still unfolding – unrest in Egypt, Michael Jackson’s death, a half published book, etc. – the opportunity for misinformation or accusations of misinformation is huge.

With Love Wins, this is exactly what happened. It certainly appears that Bell wants you to think that traditional non-universalist views are problematic, but until those final chapters are out there and Bell makes a definitive statement, we’re left to speculation.

For now, if anyone says something negative about Bell’s ideas, it’s subject to the “You’re not loving” defense. If, on the other hand, you defend his views you get slapped with the, “You’re not on the side of truth” attack.

But who can wait until the book comes out? Who can keep silent on such a juicy, explosive topic?

In the end, technologically driven priorities like speed and distraction win, while Christian virtues like truth and love lose.

The Most Dangerous Button on Your Computer

In today’s world, when something important happens there is no searching for a notepad, no finding a pen that works, no saying, “Aw shucks, the mailman already came today. I guess I’ll have to sleep on it.” Instead, we are surrounded by dozens of shiny buttons enticing us to “publish,” “post,” “comment,” and “send.”

Facebook asks us:

And Twitter says,

but James warned us that we should be,

“Quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19).

This is especially true when there’s nothing definitive only intentional provocation to listen to. In that case, the words of Admiral Ackbar are are quite apt.

Addendum: Remember, I’m not pointing the finger at the best selling authors, major bloggers, or public theologians (their responsibility, I think, is different). This is about you and me, the little guys who in under 5 minutes can create a blog and say whatever we want. In 30 days or so, we’ll all know what Bell thinks. In the mean time, will we answer the constantly beckoning call of Facebook and Twitter, joining the storm of controversy and distraction, or will we display the fruits of the Spirit like patience and self control? More importantly, when the next storm comes into town, will we stay inside until it blows over or go outside and play in the wind?

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at

61 thoughts on “Love Wins and Truth Prevails, But Speed Kills ‘em Both”

  1. You hit the nail on the a way. “I met the guy and I liked him”, “He was real nice and smart”. We Christians have fought too many fights based on who we liked more. Not who made us grow up the most.

    This seems to be about who you would rather hang around with. The person that gets you to ask better questions, or the ones that give you all the answers.
    Right or wrong, Clark Pinnock got a lot of people to ask new questions, which lead to new insights. That is really his legacy.
    I hope Love Wins leads to some really good discussion, study and revelation.
    Unfortunately, no calm, reasoned voice from the Exclusionist Sortology group seems to be found.
    Justin Taylor, Denny Burk and Rob Bell bring value only if they get us asking new questions

  2. You are so right man. We all need to practice curbing our enthusiasm for instant bashing. I am so not good at this… I have no excuse. I need to get better at dealing with something in the moment and waiting to talk about it until my initial feelings have had a chance to rationalize.

    1. I too wondered about the connection between Bell, Hipps, and media ecology, but since that’s not something I know anything about, it seemed unwise to speculate in that regard.

      In this post, my finger is not pointed at Bell or Talyor, but at us.

  3. Fabulous insight, John. Rare is the fruit hangs lower than a juicy opportunity to react to others’ reactions. Add motive and baggage and you’ve got yourself a powder keg.

    While predictable in many ways, I am nevertheless saddened by this whole situation and the intensified intra-evangelical polarization that will likely ensue.

  4. Dear John,

    Thanks for the interaction. Your point about being slow to speak/publish is well said, and it’s one that I receive. How many times have I said or written something that I wish I hadn’t? Enough that I would be too embarrassed to enumerate them here. So thanks for the good word on that point.

    I still think, however, that it’s not out of line to respond to what Bell has said. Even though the entire book is still forthcoming, he has said a lot in both the video and the chapters that I previewed. As long as the interaction is about what he has said (not about speculations about what he might say), then it seems to me the discussion is a fair one to have.

    From my reading of the book so far, it seems to me that Bell has a profound antipathy for the traditional doctrine of hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment. In the book, he calls the doctrine “misguided” and “toxic.” Truthfully, it sounds to me like Bell has left little room for the wrath of God at all.

    In any case, thanks again for the interaction. Blessings to you!

    Denny Burk

    1. Dr. Burk,
      Oh the number of emails I, too, wish I could retract!

      I totally agree with you that the questions Bell asks can be answered with Scripture. What I’m saying here is that the citizens of the Internet are much like people in the pew – they often respond more to meta communication than to the actual content of our posts.

      In the case of Bell’s book, when we respond to it before it’s released – even if everything we’ve said is 100% biblically accurate and even if Bell is the actual Devil disguised as a hipster – the only message many people (especially those squeamish about passages regarding false teachers) will hear is, “I’m condemning a man for a book that hasn’t been released.” I’m just glad I’m not a public theologian who has to decide how and when to respond to this stuff :)

      Make sure to look me up the next time you make it back down to Dallas – I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee.

  5. With this debacle I have realized how much social media has also taken away what I understand to be scriptural conflict cofrontation & resolution, ala matt 18. Go to the person, not the little blue bird of 140.

    1. The uncomfortable trouble with the Bell situation is that we are compelled to be faithful not only to the passages about conflict resolution, but also to those about rejecting teacher of false gospels.

      The question for those who emphasize truth is: “Is it the right time to make such a call?” The question for those who emphasize love is: “When the time comes, will I be able to do what is uncomfortable?”

      For now, it’s all speculation, distraction, and publicity.

      1. “For now, it’s all speculation, distraction and publicity.”

        See, that is not entirely accurate. It’s not ALL speculation.

        I think you need to consider this thought: Justin, Denny and Kevin among others have taken what Rob said in his video, what they read of his book, and basically told us “Beware of this book and this man’s teachings” as a pastoral warning. I am thankful for the heads up personally so that other believers who want to follow truth can know what to expect in Bell.

        And, no one has made a firm announcement of his universalism, but stated in a guarded fashion that what he has ALREADY said and made available leans that way, so… be careful.

        And thank you for your even keeled take. I am often edified by your writings.

        1. Chris,
          Thanks for your kind words.

          But just to re-iterate again: I’m not concerned with the debate taking place at the level of public figures like Justin Taylor and Rob Bell.

          What I’m saying is that you and I are not public figures – even if Facebook and Twitter ask us what we think.

  6. Superb.

    Thank you very much for this. This really serves the church.

    And also made me chuckle reminding me of Admiral Ackbar!

  7. John,

    Hey man, I’m just a frequent user of Bible Web App, and it’s making seminary SO much more manageable. Just wanted to say thanks.

  8. I didn’t know who this historic Admiral Ackbar was, so when I clicked the link and saw “It’s a Trap!”, I literally did LOL! Most excellent.

  9. I generally try to stay away from the blogosphere as often as I can(both because it can get ugly, and I tend toward quick ungodly responses)however, I found your article to be one that I think is WAY more important than whether Bell is a heretic or not. If we claim that we believe and know the truth, then there is no room for us to not exercise much grace and love to guys like him. I greatly appreciate your article and know that I need this in my day to day conversations with people. Thanks for being obedient to God’s Word in your article, you have well represented our Lord.

  10. I just started reading Richard Mouw’s book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, which is especially appropriate to this situation.

    Two of Mouw’s points:
    1) Heated rhetoric makes it difficult to discuss important issues.
    2) If we (as Christians) are committed to truth, then we ought to be committed to understanding our opponent’s positions and describing them correctly.

  11. “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10 came to mind as I was reading your post.
    It’s funny, but I recently co authored a post that is relevant to this topic. While it was written based on different circumstances, it highlights the lure of social media to wantonly condemn and criticize people and causes.
    Thank you, John. Your voice is the voice of reason and wisdom.

  12. Who really rushed to judgment here, Justin Taylor who had not only the video and several chapters of the book to read, or others who quickly rushed to say, “Don’t say anything until the book comes out.”

    1. Again, I’m not saying Justin Taylor rushed to judgement. I’m saying you and I don’t need to weigh in on his weigh in – even if Facebook and Twitter ask us what we think.

  13. There’s no need to read the book to comment on the video. The video framed him to believe certain things. And the fact that the video , purposely or not, authors confusion about certain Biblical truths without clarification makes Rob Bell a very dangerous man. You don’t pique people’s interest at a cost of such a stumbling block.

    If you’re willing to lead the lost into destruction by further causing them to reject and negatively question the truth given in the pages of God’s word for the sake of selling your own book, then you are a dangerous man using the same deception that the serpent used in the Garden.

      1. While I might agree with this statement, “There’s no need to read the book to comment on the video.”

        What I am trying to say is that, “Just because a video exists, doesn’t mean that every single one of us needs to comment on it.” That’s Justin Taylor’s job, not ours – even if Facebook and Twitter ask us what we think about it.

  14. via twitter: @RealPeteRollins “Women, homosexuals & Mexicans can expect an easier time for a few days while #RobBell cops all the heat #thankupastorRob”
    At least we identified one upside to distracting hardcore evangelicals…

    1. Actually, that’s pretty much exactly what this post is about. I really don’t think it’s helpful for us to spend our time giving “hardcore evangelicals” a hard time for giving other’s a hard time – just because Twitter allows us to do so.

      1. In all seriousness though, I think you owe more of a justification for why Justin Taylor was appropriate in trashing Clark Pinnock ON THE DAY he died. You may say that Taylor is a nice guy, but I think your personal interactions with him may be clouding your judgment about his actions. He has an egregious record when it comes to public statements.

        1. Man, I wished we still live close to one another so we could talk about this stuff more often.

          Based on many of the comment here – some of whom chided me for siding with Taylor and some of whom chided me for siding with Bell – I seem to have done a poor job of communicating my main point.

          Here’s another go: all though out church history, public Christian leaders have debated various theological viewpoints. In the past century, these debates accelerated somewhat though mass media. But I think that social media represents a much more significant shift in theological debate because instead of a few dozen leaders lobbying heresy charges at one another, now a few dozen million billion Christians on their iPhones in bathroom stalls do so on Saturday nights.

          I believe we engage in tis behavior in part because facebook, twitter, and the rest relentlessly ask us, “What do you think?” and we feel a nervous sense of obligation to respond.

          So I’m not siding with our calling out Bell, Taylor, Piper, McKnight, or any other public leader here. I’m attempting to take a side against all of us for spending so much time publicly declaring whose side we are on – in large part because modern technology allows us to publish such declarations.

          What good does it do?

          1. Thanks for the clarification you sent me via email. I think you made your point clear in the original post, but I mostly just failed to take heed to what you were saying (see above: speed kills).

            However, in the vein of further dialogue, I would be curious to hear clarification of this paragraph:
            “Now I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Justin Taylor in person, and I have to say he’s one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. However, I know Rob Bell about as well as I know Brad Pitt which means two things: I don’t know anything about his heart, and I’ve seen him on TV enough to know he’s very gifted in the area of rhetoric and creating vivid images.”

            I’m just not sure what someone is like “in person” has to do with evaluating their actions. I wasn’t intending to imply that you were siding with Taylor, just that I don’t think someone being a nice person should give them any reprieve when it comes to evaluating what they say in public. This is an area where I think that anonymity (although much derided) could actually provide us with clearer ethical thinking. For example, no one judges the street artist Banksy based on their personal impression of him (or her). Anonymity provides a neutral grounds for evaluation.

            (If I were going to play the Nazi card, I would say that Hitler was a nice person, a vegetarian and children enjoyed playing with him, but obviously I wouldn’t go there.)

            1. “Anonymity provides a neutral grounds for evaluation.” In some instances, I think this is true – take AA for example where people don’t share their occupations or other details so they can focus on their addictions.

              But when it comes to evaluating ideas and/or actions, I guess I’m not sure we’re ever very neutral. If I asked three seminary students one from Mars Hill Graduate school, one from Oblate Seminary (Catholic), one from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, none of whom knew Bell or Taylor, I’m guessing it would be fairly easy to guess their reactions.

              Personally, I think technologically enabled anonymous theology is generally spiritually inferior to theology in the context of “Life Together” (as Bonhoeffer might say).

  15. As a society, we are so attuned to the now. In the past, it was “yesterday’s news.” Just recently, it was “so five minutes ago.” Now, it is a “nanosecond ago.” It seems there is no time to educate ourselves, to think, to compose our thoughts, to weigh our logic, or even to check our grammar before hitting submit. We feel compelled to comment immediately; otherwise, the moment is lost, and with it, our self-assessed witty and/or insightful comment (which, from time to time, may indeed be witty and/or insightful). If we do not have sufficient time to think about our words and their impact, perhaps the comment isn’t worth submitting. Unfortunately, I have thoughtlessly composed a post and hit the send button too quickly on more occasions than I care to admit, but I’ve begun to heed the advice that “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt” (definitive source is unknown, but see Proverbs 17:28).

  16. thanks for being a voice for reason and civility. I appreciate the conversation here.
    It’s important to keep in mind that the goal of the video was to create interest in (and sell) Rob’s new book. Rob is provocative, he always has been. But he raises some interesting questions.
    An important step in clarifying your beliefs is to talk about and even defend them. So the fact that the publicity campaign for Rob Bell’s book has provided an impetus for Christians to actually do theology (to figure out what they think about God) is a positive thing. Even if you disagree with Bell, it’s important for Christians to wrestle with what they believe. Another great resource on heaven, what it’s like and who will be there is “Heaven Revealed” by Dr. Paul Enns, released this month by Moody Publishers. I recommend it. Here’s the amazon page:

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