Rob Bell and the “universe”

Not for the first time I heard Rob Bell getting criticised the other day.  Nothing new.  Some of the criticisms I agree with (although, frankly, there’s so much God-given work to do in this world, why spend your time tearing down others.  Just get on with doing something worth while!).  Some of the criticisms I don’t agree with.

Anyway … The reason I heard Rob Bell get criticised this time was because he’s turned “new age” and keeps talking about the universe instead of God.  Here’s an example to show what was being discussed (you might want to skip to about 1 minute 20 seconds):

I found this criticism ridiculous, but seemed unable to explain why in that two minutes – so here’s a blog post where I can, hopefully, explain a bit better.

The word “God” is found throughout the Bible.  In the Old Testament it’s a translation of the Hebrew word “Elohim”.  But, here’s the thing, this was a very generic word in the middle east at that time.  Read ancient Ugarit literature and “Elohim” refers to a whole bunch of Ugaritic gods.  Elsewhere the word means other ancient gods, a whole range of semi-gods and even angels and judges.  If the writers wanted to distinguish the Israelite, Old Testament God, they used the name YHWH, normally written LORD in English Bibles.

In the Old Testament God is also described in a whole bunch of ways that were used by those around them to describe their own gods.  For example, the Canaanite god Baal was said to control the weather and would be described as the one who would ride on the clouds.  This makes verses like Psalm 68:4 very interesting! – “Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds.”

It appears that the Old Testament writers had no problem taking the words and phrases used by the surrounding cultures and using them to help communicate what the God of the Old Testament was like.

The New Testament is the same.  There the word God is the Greek word ‘theos” – which was the word used to describe all the Roman gods of the time.  In 2 Corinthians 4:4 the word is even used to describe the devil!  (look it up if you don’t believe me!)

To describe Jesus the New Testament often used the word ‘Kurios”, which means Lord.  This title was used by many masters around the world, “The Lord” being Caesar himself.

Throughout the Bible the writers took words and titles used by the surrounding cultures to describe the God of the Bible and Jesus.  There was nothing, absolutely nothing at all, special or unique about these words.  Instead they would take the ideas, phrases and words around them and use them to help people grasp the creator they were trying to describe.

Now, I think, if we’re going to be biblical we shouldn’t hang on so strongly to biblical words, but instead seek to use the biblical example.

I am convinced, through talking to many, many people, that most people’s understanding of the word “god” is nothing at all like the God of the Bible.  Most still have a very pagan understanding of God.  A mean, cruel, thunder bolt throwing, angry god who’s a long way away and demands good behaviour.  A god who’s making a list and checking it twice, who’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice.  Maybe we should be looking for terms and titles and metaphors that our culture uses that may help them understand our God?  In a world where the title god no longer helps people picture the creator we believe in, maybe we should seek other words and titles?  As far as I can see, this is biblical.

Whether ‘universe’ is a good one, I don’t know.

What else could we use?  Higher power?  The divine?  The depth of existence?  Presence?  The Force!!?

All I’ll say is that if you think the idea of using different titles for God is ‘new age’ or ‘pagan’ then you need to realise that the same practice is embedded in our Bibles.

About David

I'm the curate at St. Anne's Church, in the parish of Shevington, Standish Lower Ground and Crooke. I'm married to Carole and have two beautiful daughters called Sarah and Anabel
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2 Responses to Rob Bell and the “universe”

  1. Tim Thomas says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. Having reflected on your thoughts, I still have huge misgivings about Rob Bell’s use of the universe as a descriptor (or perhaps metaphor) for God. Why? Because ‘the universe’ as most people think of it is impersonal, whereas the Triune God of the universe is manifestly personal and relational. Using the universe (or the Force, for that matter!) as a metaphor for God is very misleading in my view, in that it leads people away from Jesus Christ, rather than to him. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    • David says:

      I agree with you that ‘the universe’ as a phrase is, in my opinion, too impersonal. As you rightly point out, the God we believe in is personal and relational. But for many people outside the church the word ‘God’ doesn’t necessarily bring a loving or friendly being to mind, but we use that. To use a first century example, the word ‘Word’ implied an impersonal force that controlled the universe (see the writings of Anaximander or Heraclitus) but John felt free to use the term and subvert it for his own purpose to describe the God who made himself flesh in Jesus. If he was writing today might he write ‘The universe became flesh and blood and dwelt among us’? Maybe, I don’t know.
      Ultimately all our language about God falls short.
      But I do agree with you that we need to make sure we’re doing all we can to be clear that we’re describing the personal, relational, God who revealed himself in Jesus. But how we best do that is up for debate and I won’t be criticising people who are trying to do it in different ways to me.
      Thanks for commenting, God bless.

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