The Emerging Church, part 5 – Rob Bell

April 28, 2008

Rob Bell is the pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan (not to be confused with the Mars Hill Church pastored by Mark Driscoll, in Seattle, Washington), a congregation that numbers 11,000. The Chicago Sun-Times has heralded Bell as the new Billy Graham. His books (most notably, Velvet Elvis and Sex God ) have been bestsellers, and NOOMA, a series of excellently produced videos featuring his teaching (now 19 in total) have sold over a million units…

Bell is not officially a part of “Emergent” (an organization within the emerging church), but he is closely associated with two of it’s leaders – Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt. I’d consider him a part of the theologically liberal stream within the emerging church (as would many others). 

The emerging church is big on orthopraxy (living rightly), and honestly, we should all be big on this! In Bell’s opinion (and I think he’s right about this), Christians too often fail to live out their faith as they should… He uses the analogy of a trampoline, equating Christian doctrines with springs. He makes the point that often we spend all our time focussing on the springs, rather than getting on with jumping (living out the Christian life). As I said, I think this is all too often true. I have major concerns about where he takes the anaology next, however. Consider this quote from his book, Velvet Elvis: 

“What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births?…

What if that spring were seriously questioned? Could a person keep on jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian? Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or does the whole thing fall apart?” (Velvet Elvis, pp26-27)

Now, granted, while I think we should strive to know the truth about every area of doctrine, sometimes we do make every hill a hill to die on and I think this is a shortcoming. If we work with Bell’s anaology, perhaps we can grant that some “springs” (doctrinal positions) are less crucial than others (for example: “Is the gift of tongues for today?”). I must however strongly disagree with Bell – though he “affirms the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more (p27)”, he suggests that a “spring” (doctrine) as crucial as the virgin birth (the identity of Jesus and the trustworthiness of the Bible) is not all that important… Really? Is the Bible less reliable than archaeology? Did biblical authors knowingly include error in their reports (as his hypothetical situation describes)? Can we not trust what the Bible has to tell us about Jesus? You see, a trampoline with no springs is no trampoline at all… if you remove the springs, you remove the bounce – there is nothing to propell you upward. 

I share the concern that there’s not enough orthopraxy going on… but I also know that it’s only a true orthodoxy that can result in a true, lasting, from-the-heart orthopraxy – we can only jump on a trampoline that has bounce! It’s only theology rightly understood that leads to doxology (praise of God) and biography (a life well lived). To see this in Scripture, take note of the flow of both Romans and Ephesians… both books lay out deep, wonderful truths, which then lead to a doxology, and then to sections on “how to live” in light of those wonderful truths…

Theology IS practical. It does matter.


Okay – no more of my soapbox. Below you will find some helpful reviews of Bell’s material:

  • This video critiques the theology behind “Dust“, one of Bell’s NOOMA videos: 



  • You can listen to a very helpful lecture/review of Bell’s Velvet Elvis here.  This lecture is also very helpful in understanding the emerging church in general, the postmodern outlook, and some things conservative church culture needs to consider.


  • You can find 9Marks’ brief and well-done review of Velvet Elvis here.


  • And you can find 9Marks’ 3 part NOOMA review below (part 3 reviews individual videos):

          > 9Marks Nooma Review, Part 1

          > 9Marks NOOMA Review, Part 2

          > 9Marks NOOMA Review, Part 3


For our other posts on the emerging church, click here.

~ Donovan 

*Update: For the sake of clarity, I have now included in this post the fact that Rob Bell “affirms the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more.” Though my critique of him was never that he did not hold to these truths, I can see that one might have misunderstood this post before that was included. I hope not. As stated above, my critique of Bell is the mindset that doctrine, and even very important doctrines, are not all that important…


8 Responses to “The Emerging Church, part 5 – Rob Bell”

  1. Tyler said

    hey donovan-

    this is great stuff. thanks for putting it all together. totally agree with you.

  2. […] Some good thoughts on Rob Bell and Emergent. […]

  3. Devin said

    This is quite frustrating. Bell does not deny the virgin birth. In fact, he says so in the sentence DIRECTLY following the quotation you have.

    “I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more.” pg27

    Why is THIS part left out? It seems like if people would include this in their posts, it would clear up a lot of confusion and hostility. Bell doesn’t use the example of the virgin birth because he deems it unimportant, he uses it because pretty much any one, both Christian and non, are aware of it, unlike, as you suggested, speaking in tongues. In this way, what he is saying is more readily grasped by a wider audience, including those perhaps not so knowledgeable of the deeper aspects of Christianity.

    Critique all you want, but do it in context please.

  4. bethelgrace said


    I’ve updated the post to help ensure its not misunderstood.

    I have to disagree with you when you say Bell does not deem the virgin birth unimportant – how important can he think it is if his suggestion is that we should just keep on bouncing if that “spring” were removed? As I mentioned in my post, without a firm grasp on the reliability of the Scripture and the identity of Jesus, we’re left with a trampoline without any “bounce”.

  5. marie denton said

    So then, is Bell on the fence as far as being considered part of the emergent church mvmnt?

  6. Joel said

    Great read and great video. Thank you for this. God Bless!

  7. jaigner said

    I believe it’s quite obvious that Bell is merely trying to prove a point with such statements. He’s not the first to do that. His writing is for a younger generations of evangelicals who are not content to merely accept everything they’ve been taught as fact. Bell’s thoughts are solidly evangelical and he clearly is focused on drawing all people toward Christ.

  8. bethelgrace said

    Thanks so much for your comment. However I must point out something that is inaccurate in your statement. It is a common misconception that the virgin birth, the trinity and other core Christian doctrines were “new” and not taught because we don’t see official doctrines set forth until various counsels, Nicea, etc. In actuality what we have is the official position of the church needing to be outlined due to false teachings that were rising up that contradicted the scriptures and the commonly held position by the church fathers. So, in short, the counsels were formed to fight heresy and did so by making abundantly clear what the orthodox position was, though that doctrine had long been held and taught in the Churches. Hope that helps. For more on these things I would recommend the book, The Story of Christian Theology by Olson. You may also read the early church fathers in english for free online in addition to see the doctrines for yourself in the best source available, God’s Word.

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