I started reading Love Wins this morning. I thought I’d post my initial impressions as I work through the book. I’m not offering these thoughts as final word on Rob Bell or his theology. I tend to agree with Scot McKnight; universalism is a widely held belief in Christian circles that is quietly held on a popular level. Pastor Bell’s book (and I’m not calling him a universalist, I’m a mere two chapters into the book) has given voice to this population. The release of Love Wins has begun a conversation that has pushed questions about the nature of the afterlife, Heaven, Hell, judgment, sin, grace, and God’s character into the forefront. Regrettably, this conversation did not begin well. My fear is that the acrimony that has filled the blogosphere has permanently poisoned the conversation, drawn dividing lines, and will cause Christians to talk past each other. I hope I’m wrong.
Here’s my initial impressions of the preface and the first two chapters. As a reader if you feel that I’ve misunderstood Bell, please weigh in on the comments.
Preface- Millions of Us
Pastor Bell has been criticized by some as being coy and intentional vague about his intentions some of his writings. I’ve only read Sex God before this, so I can’t speak to that criticism. But Pastor Bell seems straightforward in his intentions as early as page four:
“There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories that Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, an it’s time to reclaim it.” –p. 4
“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world so desperately needs to hear.” p. 5
So much for beating around the bush. Rob is suggesting that someone other than he is the heretic and that he’s interested in rescuing the faith and returning it to its real, but forgotten fundamentals.
Chapter One: What about the Flat Tire?
This chapter opens strongly. Rob Bell captures the heart of the question quite well. Is it moral for God to eternally judge millions of people for a faith- decision make during a brief eighty-year life? In Bell’s words, “Is millions of people going to Hell over tens of thousands of years the best that God can do? Bell questions Calvinism and the notion that God would create millions of people but only chose to save an elect minority.
These are excellent questions that deserve serious thought. A few weeks ago, Donald Miller posted about dealing with anomalies in our belief systems. Our doctrines about Hell and election do raise important questions that deserve better answers than are generally offered.
Bell notes that the doctrine of “The Age of Accountability” thats taught in some conservative circles contains an intellectual framework that’s compatible with a “wider mercy.” If children under the age of twelve are not old enough to me moral accountable for making decisions about sin and salvation and are ushered into heaven if they pass prematurely, then why wouldn’t God offer similar grace to a thirteen-year-old in a remote African tribe who died unexpectedly. Why would the twelve year old go to Heaven and the thirteen-year-old child spend and eternity in Hell. It’s a smart argument. However, Bell doesn’t consider the possibility that doctrine itself is wrong. The psalm that many base their belief in the age of accountability is probably about a ceremony celebrating the passage into adulthood. Bell’s point still stands: Some corners of conservative Christianity teach universalism for the twelve-and-under crowd.
I appreciated Bell’s teaching that the story of Christianity is not us “going elsewhere.” N.T. Wright reminded us in Surprised By Hope that Heaven is the Earth restored and rescued from the curse of sin. We are living on the site of the kingdom come.
However, I felt the chapter made an unfortunate turn at this point. Bell began to deconstruct our American formula for Christianity; that is “say the Sinner’s Prayer and how you life matters little.” Bell surveyed the Gospels and Epistles and rightfully pointed out that nowhere does Jesus use the words that a “personal relationship with Jesus” was the way to Heaven. In fact, Bell points out the variety of demands that Jesus placed on people. He told Nicodemus he must be born again to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he told the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions. He rewards the centurion for his faith and later applauds a moral outcast for praying, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” Bell piles up these conversion accounts, extracts what the person did to be save or to win the salvation of those around them, and then asks:
Is it way you say,
or who you are,
or what you do,
or what you say you are going to do,
or who your friends are,
or who you are married to,
or whether you give birth to children?
Or is it what questions you’re asked?
Or is it the questions you’re asked in return?
Or is it whether you do what you’re told and go into the city?’
The implications are unspoken but seem clear. If there’s something we need to do to be saved, why didn’t God just come out and say it clearly? But is the doing to be saved that bothers Bell.
“Accepting, confessing, believing—those are things we do.
Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?
How is any of that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that good news?
Pastor Bell’s equating belief and confession with works is problematic of course when you compare them with the words of the Apostle Paul:
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”
Bell seems to stop short of developing his argument to its logical conclusion but he seems to be implying the God is free to save someone whether they ever encounter Jesus in this life or not. Bell’s appears to be making a strong argument for God’s sovereignty, just not a Calvinistic one.
This is a long post for me so I’ll hold my thought on Chapter Two for tomorrow.