With the release this spring of Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, we finally have confirmation of what many of us have suspected for years—he’s a flipping genius. Only a brilliant thinker and writer could make heresy sound like refreshing orthodoxy. But this is in fact what he’s done, with flair. Taking something so clear and unambiguous as the reality of Hell after death for nonbelievers and replacing it with false hope, and making even the most grounded among us scratch our heads, is no easy feat. The fact is we shouldn’t be surprised—this has been going on for 2,000 years.
One of the Bible’s most frightening passages is 1 Timothy 4:16: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
The implication of that verse scares me: we can be responsible for other people going to Hell by how we live and by what we teach.
Christians intuitively understand the way we live can turn people away from Christianity—at least most Christians understand this. In fact, at some point you may have turned away from Jesus because of a Christian who was less than committed. The apostle Peter tried to counteract this among first-century believers by advising them to be godly examples: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).
Living a godly life among non-Christians is pretty simple to do:
Don’t gossip at work.
Be the kind of neighbor your neighbors would want to have.
Don’t punch old ladies in the face.
Generally, it’s an easy principle to put into practice.
What’s not as readily understood or obeyed among Christians is the “what we teach” part. Our words can be responsible for propelling another person headlong toward the gates of Hell. It’s one thing not to share the gospel with someone. That’s an error of omission. It’s quite another to knowingly teach something contrary to Scripture.
Christians can negatively impact what another Christian believes. Specifically, we can influence another Christian to stop believing in Hell and steal from him his passion to reach his friends and family members for Christ. The end result of that action is much worse than directing one non-Christian to Hell. When one Christian influences another to stop believing in Hell, it has ripple effects throughout that person’s life.
If you rob a Christian of his or her passion to evangelize, what you lose is not the singular soul of a non-Christian to Hell, but every single non-Christian that Christian could have reached in his or her lifetime. Instead of becoming a Christian who multiplies his or her life 30, 60, or 100 times, like Jesus talked about in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:23), this person will become a believer whose influence is metaphorically buried in the ground.
Jesus foresaw this kind of thing happening. He warned his disciples, “Many false prophets will appear and deceive many people” (Matthew 24:11).
Very shortly after his resurrection and the birth of the early church, his words became a reality before the apostles’ eyes. False teachers sprung up everywhere. As the early church evangelized people around the Mediterranean, new converts began to deviate from orthodox Christian teaching.
In fact, the presence of false teachers became so great that Jude, Jesus’ own brother, felt the need to write a letter to all of the known churches at the time:
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you (Jude 3, 4).
Other apostles and church leaders sent similar warnings to churches they helped oversee:
“There will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1).
“Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings” (Hebrews 13:9).
“See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24).
The apostles described false teachers this way: as cunning, crafty, and deceitful schemers (Ephesians 4:14); as conceited people who understand nothing (1 Timothy 6:3-5); rebellious, mere talkers, and deceivers (Titus 1:10); corrupted, detestable, and disobedient (Titus 1:15, 16); grumblers, faultfinders, and flatterers (Jude 1:16); and as exploiters (2 Peter 2:3) and seducers (2 Peter 2:14).
While those adjectives may seem harsh, they’re accurate and well deserved.
Everyday False Teachers
Here’s the danger: when we read New Testament warnings about false teachers, our minds quickly bring up images of popular pastors and authors—like a Rob Bell—who write books devoid of solid biblical facts. If only false teachers were that easy to recognize.
The reality is the false teachers the apostles confronted had very little in common with our telegenic 21st-century pastors. Instead, the apostles confronted everyday people with regular jobs who were trying to raise families and do their best to make life work. They were normal people who had their own ideas of how Christianity ought to be taught, and freely expressed those ideas over dinner, on the job, or while caring for their children.
The cunning, crafty, and deceitful false teachers the apostles had in mind were 26-year-old moms with two kids, farmers down the road, and the fisherman everyone rubbed shoulders with at the market. Occasionally a popular pastor went off the deep end, but more often it was the everyday soccer mom on the street that everybody knew.
These are the folks we should be concerned about as church leaders, not Rob Bell. Years from now when his new book is being hawked for $1 at discount bookstores, the influence of everyday false teachers in our churches will continue.
The stark reality is you and I can become a false teacher at any time.
Or we can be influenced by one.
That’s why the biblical advice for how to interact with false teachers is as stern as the words used to describe them:
“Command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer” (1 Timothy 1:3).
“Guard what has been entrusted to your care” (1 Timothy 6:20).
“For the defense of the gospel” (Philippians 1:16).
“Refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9).
“Stand firm” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
“Fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 1:18).
Admittedly, these are hard things to do when the person teaching false doctrine is your grandmother, your friend in accounting, or your small group leader. But this is one of the important but unpleasant duties of every Christian.
Everyone Is Accountable
Outside of Billy Graham, there was probably no more influential 20th-century Christian than Mother Teresa. When asked if people became Christians before they died through her ministry to the poor in Calcutta, she responded,
Oh, I hope I am converting. I don’t mean what you think. . . . If in coming face to face with God we accept him in our lives, then we are converting. We become a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Catholic, a better whatever we are, and then by being better we come closer and closer to him. If we accept him fully in our lives, then that is conversion. What approach would I use? For me, naturally, it would be a Catholic one, for you it may be Hindu, for someone else, Buddhist, according to each one’s conscience.1
How do you think the apostle Paul would have responded to Mother Teresa?
I’m convinced he would have rebuked her!
No question about it.
“No way,” some might say. “This is Mother Teresa, a selfless saint who dedicated herself to serve the poor and destitute. I could see Paul going nuts on Rob Bell, but not Mother Teresa!”
I wouldn’t be so sure.
We are talking, after all, about the same Paul who opposed the apostle Peter “to his face” (Galatians 2:11) and rebuked him in front of his entire congregation in Antioch for inaccuracy in his teaching (Galatians 2:14).
Jesus himself clearly taught, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Did Mother Teresa get a memo from Heaven that Jesus changed his mind?
Paul warned, “If we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:8, 9).
That includes seminary professors.
Your Sunday school teacher.
And Rob Bell.
And believe it or not, even Mother Teresa.
1Mother Teresa, Daily Readings with Mother Teresa, edited by Teresa de Bertodano (London: HarperCollins, 1994), 74.
Brian Jones is founding pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley in Royersford, Pennsylvania. He’s the author of Second Guessing God and Getting Rid of the Gorilla: Confessions on the Struggle to Forgive (Standard Publishing). This article is adapted, with permission, from his latest book,Hell Is Real: But I Hate to Admit It, ©2011 Brian Jones, and published by David C. Cook. Find out more about his ministry and writing at BrianJones.com.