Thursday, March 31, 2011

Love Wins - My thoughts on Rob Bell's new book

After seeing the interviews given by Rob Bell in the national media last week for his latest book, Love Wins, I bought it and read it. There hasn't been this much controversy in Christian circles about a book since The Shack or The Da Vinci Code.  I was at a conference this past weekend with other Navigator staff and I heard someone call it a "cursed book".  I couldn't wait to read it.  Click here to view Rob Bell's promo video for his book.

If you want to read a brief, well-written response (instead of what I've come up with), go here (Amazon review).

There are a couple things you should know about Rob Bell:  He is an excellent and creative communicator.  Whether its his preaching, his writing, or his production of video media, his style and teaching are funny, effective and explosively divisive.  He's been called many things: a rock star preacher, the next Billy Graham, a Universalist, and a heretic who teaches a false gospel.  My sense is that he loves Jesus deeply and he has great compassion for those he feels are on the outside looking in (the poor, the lost, those who don't "fit" into evangelical circles. etc.).  He writes like he preaches and it is often compelling.  He has an intentionally provocative style which certainly comes through in this book, and there are far more questions than answers or conclusions.  From the start he acknowledges that nothing he is saying is new.  (He borrows quite a bit from C.S. Lewis, Tim Keller, N.T. Wright and others).  So I definitely recommend reading this book, if only to participate in the conversation.  But do so with a praying and discerning heart.  (See Acts 17).

"Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number 'make it to a better place' and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever?" (pg.2).  This is the fundamental question at the center of the book.  Another one: "Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?".  The book is drenched with Bell's incredulous and intelligent responses to these basic questions.  He spends considerable time addressing the question of how you become one of those who "go to a better place".  "Whenever people claim that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed - and everybody else isn't - why is it that those who make this claim are almost always part of the group that's 'in'?".  These questions stack up, and so does his criticism of evangelicals.  As a conservative evangelical myself, I can say that we often (sometimes intentionally and sometimes not) have judged and alienated those who don't follow Jesus.  We have observed their choices and lifestyles and categorized them, instead of having compassion on them like Jesus did.  We have focused on their foolishness while somehow ignoring our own.  Nonetheless, Bell's vehement critique of the "E-club" gets old after awhile.  Like listening to a one-string banjo.

I want to briefly discuss two of his main points, one I agree with and one I do not.  

His discussion of heaven is very good.  He is critical of the assumption that heaven and eternal life are something that exist somewhere else and later.  "Eternal life doesn't start when we die; it starts now.  It's not about a life that begins at death; it's about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death." (pg. 59).  This life comes through Jesus Christ when we choose to follow Him - eternal life now.  "Jesus talked about a reality he called the kingdom of God.  He described an all-pervasive dimension of being, a bit like oxygen for us or water for fish, that he insisted was here, at hand, now, among us, and upon us. . . Jesus invites us, in this life, in this broken beautiful world, to experience the life of heaven now.  He insisted over and over that God's peace, joy, and love are currently available to us." (pg. 61-62).

He also encourages the reader to think about about the gospel primarily in terms of joyous participation rather than just as a ticket reserving your spot in heaven.  "Life has never been about just 'getting in'.  It's about thriving in God's good world.  It's stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it's about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy in the same good world." (pg. 179).  This sounds like what Jesus describes as "life to the full" in John 10:10.  I like that - we have an opportunity to experience the sanctified, joyous life that awaits us in the redeemed, re-Creation NOW, HERE, through the Gospel.  This is good.

His discussion of hell and judgment is interesting.  He has grabbed hold of the idea that we can experience hell here on earth through our choices.  By rejecting God and choosing to exclude Him, we experience hell now, and increasingly so over time.  This is Great Divorce imagery and quite true to an extent.  He spends a great deal of time flushing out this point.  He also rejects the idea of God's final judgment to an eternal torment, and instead seems to embrace the idea that, "given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God's presence.  The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most 'depraved sinners' will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God." (p.106-7)  He also writes, "untold masses of people suffering forever doesn't bring God glory.  Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn't.  Reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn't.  Renewal and return cause God's greatness to shine through the universe; never-ending punishment doesn't." (p.108)  (I find myself wondering where God's holiness fits in here?)  He references "a long tradition" of serious Christians who also held this view (Clement of Alexandria, Origin, Gregory of Nyssa, Eusebius, Jerome, Basil).  This certainly leans heavily towards a universalist view.  Lastly, he references Revelation 21:25 as a biblical example of people having limitless opportunity to be reconciled to God, even after the appearance of the New Jerusalem and into eternity.  "We read in Revelation that the gates of that city in that new world will 'never shut' . . . gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out.  If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go." (p. 115)  Bell consistently encourages us to not make theologies based upon one verse, but does it himself in this instance.  And he seems to dismiss the numerous passages and images in the Scriptures that indicate there is a final judgment (Matthew 25, Revelation 20:1-15, Daniel 12:1-3, 2 Thess. 1:8-9, and 2 Peter 3:1-10 among others).     

In my opinion Bell has become so uncomfortable with the idea of lasting judgment that he's now completely rejected it.  

Sidenote: A serious mistake we can make is presuming to know WHY he's gotten to that place.  "Oh, he's just a liberal!  He's just one of those emerging church guys!  He's just preaching what people want to hear so he can keep the seats filled!  He just this or he's just that!" - Big mistake.  Only God knows the true journey of his heart.  To presume we know shows that we are ignorant and narrow-minded. 

Interestingly though, with all the questions he asks, he never actually claims specifically that there is no eternal punishment.  Nowhere in this book.  He simply gives example after example, posing question after question (How could God still claim to be loving if He sends billions of people to eternal torment?  If God wants all people to be reconciled to Him, doesn't God get what God wants?  Do we actually have to trust Jesus to rescue us from God?).  Is he chickening out? Perhaps Bell's main purpose is to get us to think.  Maybe it's to stir up the E-club to think and act with greater compassion and grace.  Maybe even he doesn't know what his purpose is.  One initial visceral response I had to his promos and interviews on TV and online, was that he was only reinforcing this stereotype that Christians are judgmental numbskulls.  I think it's likely people would see this book and his media blitz as more evidence that the orthodox Christian worldview (more simply - the Gospel of Jesus) is irrelevant and impotent.  That's probably happened to some extent.  I'm relieved that God is bigger than NBC and YouTube.

This book has some very positive, intelligent things to say.  The best chapter (the last) is actually the shortest.  It lacks the biting, provocative style of the rest of the book, and probably represents what his true voice actually is.  But his biblical thinking also has some serious holes.  I've already heard a couple people praise this book because it affirms what they'd hoped all their lives (that God loves us too much to bring eternal condemnation upon us for our simple sins).  But the idea that we would try to make God or His Word into something that we're more comfortable with is troubling.  Doing that has caused more problems over the centuries than probably anything else.

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