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Love Wins: Chapter Seven, The Good News Is Better than That

Pastor Bell has laid out all of his arguments concerning the nature of heaven and hell (on both sides of death).

He’s mapped out his soteriology.

And in the final chapters he’s working to drive his point home. In chapter seven he does so with creative look at the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Bell runs this parable through the filter of his belief that heaven and hell operate side-by-side. These are words that describe a quality of existence (I think Bell would say that Jesus’ offer of “abundant life” was the offer of heaven now. He didn’t say that, but I think its a consistent reading).  The older brother traps himself in a hellish existence, he’s at the party but can’t enjoy it. The younger brother comes to experience the party, heaven.

Bell notes that the younger brother had a version of the story that ran counter to the father’s thinking. This son’s story described himself as unworthy  and disqualified to be a son. He had to trust his father’s story: He was forgiven.

The older brother also had his own version of history. He viewed himself as “slaving” for years. This, in spite the parables description of the father of being a generous man. He sees the father as being a miser. Pastor Bell point out that the goat that he complains about not receiving wouldn’t have been much of a gift. There’s not much meat on a goat to throw a party with.

But the father wasn’t being cheap and the father wasn’t bound by either sons’ definition of fairness.

Bell writes that both brothers, despite their diverse paths, where forced to wrestle with the same question: “Do you trust the father’s version of the story?”

This is a beautifully written piece. Genuinely moving. And ending with a loaded question. The sons’ question becomes our question: Do you trust the father’s version of the story.

The problem with this is that Pastor Bell front loaded his presuppositions into the parable, namely that this a story about heaven and hell and choosing one or the other. N.T. Wright, on the other hand, sees this parable as being specifically about Jesus ending Israel’s exile. The Jews had physically returned to the land but on a theological level they still in lived exile– the Roman occupation was evidence of this. According to Wright, the older brother represented the Pharisees and their disapproval as to how Jesus was going about ending the exile. Namely, inviting the marginal and outcasts back to himself.  Wright acknowledges that the text is commonly interpreted more broadly as well– a story about forgiveness.

I’m only bringing this up to loosen the grip that Bell’s presuppositions about what the parable is about. He needs to demonstrate that Jesus intended the parable to be understood this way. And quite frankly, Pastor Bell hasn’t. But Bell’s interpretation leads the reader to believe that that if one believes in a literal hell with eternal judgment that this individual is a modern embodiment of the “big brother.”

The actual question is do you trust the father’s version of the story as understood by Rob Bell?

That’s a different question. Isn’t it?

For time’s sake I need to stop there. I’ll finish the chapter tomorrow. I will say that in spite of my misgivings here, and my misgivings with his handling of scripture throughout the book that he makes some if his strongest objections to the theology I was raised on in this chapter.

 

Love Wins: Chapter 6, Part Two

This is a continuation from yesterday’s post.

Pastor Bell moves from his argument that Jesus was literally the rock in Exodus 17 and returns to a survey of the New Testament. Bell show cases scripture that captures the cosmic vastness of our salvation. We see in Ephesians that Jesus is working to restore the unity of “all things.” Paul crashes through any provincialism in Colossians 1 by declaring that God was revealing the mystery of salvation to the Gentiles. This, of course, was a wrecking-ball on the nationalistic bent that was misguiding Judaism and some Jewish Christians. Bell writes:

“This use of the word “Gentile” is significant, because for many of Paul’s Jewish tribe, whatever God was going in the world God was doing through, and for, them:

Their tribe,

their people,

their faith.

The ones who believed and lived like them.

Us, not them.

We, not you.”

p. 75

 

Pastor Bell’s survey is a needed correction for our small, individualized “Jesus-n-me” salvation that so prevalent in our churches. Yes, Jesus died more my sins– along with those of every citizen of the planet. He correctly points out that Jesus isn’t the property of Christianity and that Jesus himself declared the planet-wide efficacy of his sacrifice:

John 12, “And I , when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

John 6, “This read is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

“He takes this very personally.

He is willing to die for this,

“for the life of the world.”

Jesus is supracultural.

He is present within all cultures.

and yet outside of all cultures.

He is for all people,

and yet he refuses to be co-opted or owned by any one culture.”

p. 76

Pastor Bell is placing the story of today’s church on a parallel path as the Jerusalem church. He’s setting up the argument that Jesus is present in all cultures and free to save people within those cultures whether or not they are aware of Jesus or whether or not they actively surrender to Jesus’ lordship or accept his forgiveness or not.

Pastor Bell notes Jesus words, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father expect through me.”

Bell elaborates:

“This is as wide and expansive a claim as a person  can make.

What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is going in the world to know  and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”

(p.77)

“And then he leaves the door open, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.

“He is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every particle of creation.”

(p.78)

 

At this point it would be good more me to pause and affirm where I agree with Pastor Bell. Christ (although he is not the rock in Exodus 17), is working in every culture. We see it in Acts. God waits to give the Holy Spirit until Pentecost, when there’s a large international presence in Jerusalem. God empowers the 120 to share the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection with a multicultural audience. God gives Cornelius– a gentile– visions that lead him to Peter. God leads Philip to share faith with the Ethiopian. Even the most staunch traditionalist can be reminded that Christ is committed to all people and not merely those who look, think, and believe like us.

Bell reminds us that it is possible to encounter Jesus without knowing his name. He reminds us that we have not cornered the market on Jesus. He challenges not to make “negative, decisive, and lasting judgments about poeple’s eternal destinies.” (p. 80).

Check.

Check.

And check.

And the chapter ends.

Despite what I can agree with in this chapter, I’m left with some irreconcilable differences in terms of theology.  It is one thing to affirm that Jesus is drawing all of humanity to himself– all of it.  It’s quite another thing to suggest that you can be saved without being aware of Jesus, consciously accepting the forgiveness of sins, a submitting to his rule.

(Note: I’ve realized that all my page references are for the Nook and don’t correspond with the print versions of the book.)

Love Wins: Chapter Six, There are Rocks Everywhere (Part One)

Pastor Bell continues his exploration of soteriology (how we are saved) in chapter six. Bell is working to make the case that people come to Christ through means more diverse than saving the “Sinner’s Prayer.”

He opens with two stories of men who came to Jesus in unconventional ways. The first was a man who experienced God’s presence on a drug high and was led to follow Jesus. The second story involved a man who was near death in a workplace accident. He saw a white light and began to sense that his life was not right. He prayed “please forgive me” repeatedly. He lived to tell this story. For him this was the moment of conversion.

Certainly these are examples of God “drawing all people to himself.” (John 12:32)

However, Pastor Bell chooses Exodus 17 as the text to explain those stories. The resulting theology lies outside of the Christian tradition. The chapter describes the Israelites’ journey after they flee Egypt. The people are hungry and thirsty and belligerent toward God and Moses both. God instructs Moses to strike the rock and water comes out. The Apostle Paul references the incident, “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” 1 Corinthians 10:4-5.

Bell makes the choice to interpret the Apostle Paul with a wooden literalism:

“According to Paul,

Jesus was there.

Without anybody using his name.

Without anybody saying that it was him.

Without anybody acknowledging just what– or more precisely, who– it was.

Paul’s interpretation that Christ was present in the Exodus raises the question:

Where else has Christ been present?

When else?

With who else?

How else?

Paul finds Jesus there,

in that rock,

Because Paul finds Jesus everywhere.”

p. 73

This interpretation of scripture ignores the typology that fills Moses’ writings. In the Book of Hebrews we learn that the temple was type of Christ. The architecture was designed in a way to explain God’s holiness. The thick curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the of the temple. Access was limited to that Holiest of places to teach Israel that God is morally different from them and that sin created a division between God and humanity. When Jesus died, God tore the curtain to teach Israel that through Jesus’s sacrifice the division between God and man had been overcome.

But Jesus was not the curtain. The curtain was a “type” of Christ.

Just like the rock was not literally Jesus. The rock was a type of Jesus. Not unless Pastor Bell is advocating a form of Christian Panentheism. Paul did say that Jesus in “in all, through all, and holds all things together.” Jesus does hold the universe together but he is not a part all matter. The creation accounts in Genesis are clear that God is something separate from his creation. I’m not suggesting from this one passage in his book that Bell is a panentheist. That would be something of a rush to judgment. Is is interesting to note, though, that historically some theologians who embrace a “wider grace doctrine” have also embraced Christian panentheism.  It is fair to say that this notion that Jesus literally was the rock is not indigenousness to a Christian world view. Note: I cannot stress enough that am I not branding Bell a panentheist. I’m struggling with a handful of pages from among multiple books by Bell. It’s simply not a large enough sample of thought to land on that conclusion. I am,though,  adding this passage to my wishlist of topics I want Pastor Bell to unpack more.

A few years back Pastor Bell wrote a brilliant book, Sex God, in which he famously said “this is about that.” Pastor Bell understands that God uses physical objects and acts to represent spiritual realities. He reaffirmed this in his chapter about atonement. However, he does not allow that possibility in his reading of Exodus 17 and 1 Corinthians 10.

For Bell, this is that.

This, to me, is curious.

For time’s sake I’m going to have to break my thoughts on chapter 6 into two posts.

 

Love Wins: Chapter Five, Dying to Live

In this chapter , Rob Bell shifts his attention away from questions of heaven and hell and begins to explore the dynamics of how it is that a person becomes saved. Specifically he looks at the person of Christ and just how, exactly, dieing on the cross saves us.

Pastor Bell explores the descriptors God used in the Bible to describe salvation. Jesus is the perfect sacrifice that ended the need for future animal sacrifices (substitutionary atonement). Relationally, God reconciles all things to himself through the cross. Paul uses the world “justification” draws analogy from the world of courts, judges, and lawyers. Pastor Bell then cites Paul declaration that “Jesus destroyed death” (2 Timothy 1) and the Apostle John’s declaration  that “this is the victory that overcomes the world. In the age of Caesars, Christus Victor. Paul also uses the term “redemption” borrowed from the world of business.

Bell makes the argument that all of these metaphors had value as they explained a different aspect of salvation. Each metaphor borrowed from what was known and used it to explain something less known, that is the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Pastor Bell notes that throughout the history of Christianity that the church has gone through periods where it has resonated with some of these metaphors more than it has others.

Many readers will note that Bells writing this against the backdrop of an ongoing debate over the nature of justification, most notably the debate between Pastor John Piper and the Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright. I recommend Scot McKnight’s “A Community Called Atonement” for a beautiful survey of each of the metaphors of atonement found in the Bible. Pastor Bell will make many wary with his treatment of substitutionary atonement. He seems to be implying that this view of the cross has limited value in our culture since we don’t live under the burden of having to make animal sacrifices. It’s also unclear if Bell believes Jesus’ death on the cross was necessary to appease God’s wrath, or if this as a divine accommodation for people already conditioned to believe that animal sacrifices and divine appeasement was necessary. It’s fair to say that Bell has concerns about substitutionary atonement. In video book trailer he questions a theology where “Jesus saves us from God.” (It should be noted that this is a caricature of a substitutionary atonement doctrine that’s grounded in a strong Trinitarian doctrine. More properly stated its, “God in the person of Jesus absorbed his own wrath expressed which was expressed through the Father.) Perhaps Pastor Bell will unpack this more in future chapters.

It becomes more difficult to give Pastor Bell the benefit of the doubt when he explores the resurrection. Bell flattens the resurrection to merely describing the common cycle of life and death:

“To understand their claims, it’s important to remember that resurrection after death was not a new idea. In the fall in many parts of the world, the leaves drop from the trees and the plants die. They turn brown, wither, and lose their life. They remain this way for the winter– dormant, dead, lifeless. And then the spring comes and they burst into life again. Growing, sprouting, producing new leaves and buds. For there to be a spring, there has to be a fall, and winter. For nature to spring to life, it first has to die. Death, then resurrection. This is true of ecosystem, food chains, the seasons– it’s true across the environment. Death gives way to life.”

p. 67

Bell alludes to Jesus words that unless a seed falls to the ground and dies that there can be no life. And then he makes a poor conclusion:

“So when the writers of the Bible talk about Jesus’s resurrection bringing about new life to the world, they aren’t really talking about a new concept. They’re talking about something that has always been true. It’s how the world works.

Although the cross is often understood as a religious icon, it’s a symbol of an elemental reality, one we experience every time we take a bite of food.”

p. 67

I’m having great difficulty following what Bell is trying to accomplish in this passage. Yes, Jesus compared his death and resurrection to a seed needing to die before it can germinate and yield it’s fruit. Jesus was explaining the necessity of his death to disciples who wanted a triumphant Messiah.

But reducing the resurrection to an inevitable “elemental” cycle of life?

This is not how 1st century Jews thought about the resurrection. The Pharisees and Sadducees were famous for their fights whether or not resurrection was as reality. Mary and Martha lamented Jesus’ tardiness at getting to Lazarus because they believed that death was final. Thomas needed needed to touch the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet before he could believe.

Resurrection was simply not viewed something viewed as inevitable a seed falling into the ground and breaking open before it bears fruit. Bell doesn’t unpack this statement and I’m left to wonder what his intend it. Either, I’m being suspicious of Bell and misreading this passage, or Pastor Bell is laying the ground work for a doctrine that states it is inevitable for all souls to experience a type of death before being resurrected and perfected. I wish Bell would have lingered in this point longer.

Bell then argues that for the cosmic impact of the next and resurrection. He correctly points out that the Gospel of John borrows its structure from Genesis Chapter One. John is making the argument that Jesus’ advent is the beginning of a New Genesis. Jesus is going about the business of making all things new. This extends to the physical earth and the future expulsion of the curse. But the resurrection is also for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. It’s for all people.

Bell lists verses that point toward the universal scope of atonement. 1 Corinthians 15– “in Christ all will be made alive.” Titus– “the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.” Romans 5– “one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all.” John 1; 1 John 1:2 –“the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the since of the whole world. Since Pastor Bell denies begin a universalist this would have been the right time for him to acknowledge the debate over these verses. Classic universalists see these verses as indicators that Jesus’ death and resurrection saves all people whether they are aware of it or not. Meanwhile, a more traditional reading of those verses states that these verses demonstrates that Jesus’ death made it possible for all people to be saved if they come to faith in Christ. Pastor Bell, however, chooses to not engage the conversation here. The reader is forced to concluded that Love Wins is not a objective or even handed book. Instead, Bell is working to advance a particular theology and he’s not particularly interested in anticipating and addressing objections to it.

I imagine that right now there’s a small cottage industry of pastors and theologians working feverishly to write books in response to Love Wins. It’s my hope among all the venomous and inflammatory books that will certainly be written that there will be one or two that will calmly and kindly take the time to walk readers through the exegetical difficulties found in Pastor Bell’s book. It also hope that these calm and gentle thinkers will engage Pastor Bell’s questions. I’m struggling with Bell as an expositor but I truly believe  he is formidable thinker in field of Philosophy of Religion. I confess: I’m losing faith in Bell’s ability to construct an alternate theology of heaven and hell that is true to scripture. At the same time he’s identified several anomalies in on our traditional theology that deserve to be addressed.

 

As always, if you believe that I am reading Pastor Bell’s book poorly please weigh-in.  I’m hardly offering the last word on any of this.

Love Wins: Chapter 4, Does God Get What God Wants?

This chapter opens with Pastor Bell returning to a form of the question he opened the book with. He looks at the traditional Evangelical view of Hell and asks “is this the best that God can do?” Specifically he does so in the question “does God get what God wants?” How is it that God designed a world where the most he can do is save a minority of the humans while countless millions are eternally punished.

Bell is asking if that is really the best of all possible worlds?

Bell uses this question along with multiple verses in the Old and New Testament that describes God’s compassion on all of humanity and his desire to see all saved to shake the foundations of the prevalent view of Hell. “Is history tragic?” (p. 53).

After casting doubt on the traditional view of Hell and preparing the reader to affirm that God does “get what he wants” , Bell offers the surprising answer “no.'”

“God in the end doesn’t get what God wants, it’s declared, because some will turn, repent, and believe, and other’s won’t. To explain this perspective, it’s rightly pointed out that love, by it’s very nature, is freedom. For there to be love, there has to be the option, both now and then,  to not love. To turn the other way. To reject love extended. To say no. Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself. If  at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God as violated the fundamental essence of what love is.”

p. 53

 

This definition of love bind God, both now and then, to all for human choice to love him back or not. To Bell, then, if God did not allow humans to repent in Hell (or hell as Pastor Bell conceives it), then it would not be love.

But the possibility of repentance in the afterlife doesn’t lead to the probability of repentance in the afterlife (at least not as far as Pastor Bell develops the idea by chapter 4):

“When we choose to reject our God-given humanity,we can easily find ourselves in a rut, wearing grooves in a familiar path that is easier and easier to take. One lie leads to another, one act of violence demands another, and on an one it goes, gaining momentum all the while. This is how addiction works: something gets its claws into us and, as it becomes more and more dominant in our life, it becomes harder and harder to imagine living without it.

“What makes us think that after a lifetime, let alone hundreds and hundreds or even thousands of years, somebody who has consciously chosen a particular path away from God suddenly wakes up one day and decides to head in the completely and opposite direction?

“And so a universal hugfest where everybody eventually ends up around the heavenly campfire singing “Kumbaya” with Jesus playing guitar, sounds a lot like fantasy to some poeple.”

p. 54

So universalism– in the sense that all will come to accept Jesus and be in heaven– is not the answer for Bell. That conception of universalism violates love. If people are denuded of  their capacity to reject God then God stops being love.

Bell acknowledges N.T. Wright’s solution to the afterlife– that people who reject Jesus eventually surrender the image of God in them and become posthuman in the afterlife. Wright offers a form of annihilationism: the soul is destroyed but the body continues.

But Bell spends most of his time exploring a third option: There is a heaven and a hell, but that God offers a second chance for those who don’t believe in Jesus in this lifetime.

And here’s where Bell’s scholarship becomes troublesome again.

He cites Martin Luther’s letter to Hans von Rechberg in 1522 about the possibility of that people could turn to God post mortem. Luther writes “Who could doubt God’s ability to do that?” And with that Bell enlists Luther as a theological ally.

Pastor Bell leaves out the following lines,

“No one, however, can prove God does this. But whether he give faith or not is immaterial. It is impossible for anyone to be saved without faith, otherwise ever sermon would be in vain, and would be false and deceptive, because since the entire gospel makes faith necessary.”

This is bothersome. First, Luther clearly placed this question in the realm of the theologically speculative. Secondly, Luther asserts something that Bell denies– that somebody must express faith in Jesus to be saved. Pastor Bell appears to revealing and hiding information based on whether it supports his argument. It’s the theological equivalent of the hatchet job Sherrod was subjected to– edit away until you get the sound bite you require.[1] What’s most disappointing to me is that Bell opens the chapter with “A Really Important Question.” However, the question becomes obscured with an new “A Really Important Question”: Is Bell a reliable guide to walk me through this issue? This historical selectiveness makes it fair to ask if Pastor Bell is being as equally selective in his survey of scripture.

Bell does point to four other early church theologians: Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nicea, and Eusebius. Four theologians in a two hundred year span. It’s not a “great cloud of witnesses” but a confirmation that Pastor Bell’s ideas are not new. Bell correctly points out that there’s been disagreement on the issue of hell and judgment amongst Christians for centuries and believe in hell is not an essential doctrine that defines whether someone is a Christian or not. Bell also points out that even if  Christian is unable to believe in an empty hell that he or she should long for it.

That’s a point I can’t contest.

 

[1] MSNBC correspondant Martin Bashir uncovered this “trimming” of the quote. Here’s a link to Martin being interviewed about his research. I find him to be harsh at time and don’t appreciate some of the motives he attaches to Bell. But, he did catch this issue.

 

 

Love Wins, Chapter Three: Hell

In chapter three Pastor Bell looks explores the doctrine of hell. Like heaven, Bell sees hell as something that occurs on each side of physical death. Hell and Heaven are not merely geographic places but qualities of life as well. If glimpses of  God’s kingdom can break into this lifetime then so can hell.

Bell opens the chapter with questions  intended to remind us that what we believe about the nature of heaven and hell indicate our beliefs about the nature of God.

Then Pastor Bell conducts a brief survey of every verse on the topic of hell. He reminds us that the Hebrew word for hell is “Sheol.” The descriptions of Sheol lack much definition. It’s described in shadowy, murky terms. Sheol describes death and the grave and little else. We’re also shown that God has power over life and death (Deutoronomy 32).

Bell then focuses on Jesus’ teachings on hell. He rightfully points out that Jesus actually uses the word “Gehenna”, which was the trash heap outside of Jerusalem. People tossed their garbage and human waste into this valley and lit fires to consume the trash. It was an actual place that everyone in Jerusalem was acquainted with. Bell sees this as metaphoric and hyperbolic language that describes the horrific consequences people unleash on themselves when they choose to live in opposition to God:

“And that’s what we find in Jesus’ teachings about hell- a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting out God-given goodness and humanity. Something we are free to do, anytime, anywhere with anyone.”

p. 39

“Some agony needs agonizing language.

Some destruction makes you think of fire.

Some betrayal actually feels like you’v been burned.

Some injustices do cause things to heat up.”

p. 40

Bell then moves to passages that don’t specifically meaning the word “hell” but clearly talk about judgment and punishment.  Bell sees these verses as warnings from Jesus to the nation that if they violate the kingdom core values of God’s people and resort to using violence to rebel against Rome that they will be crushed.  Pastor Bell is not alone with in this assessment. N.T. Wright introduced this view in mainstream thought in his book Surprised by Hope. This theory of interpreting Jesus’ words on the coming wrath has the strength of history behind it. In 66 AD, the Jews did stage a military revolt against Rome. Rome responded ruthlessly and decimated this impossible to govern nation making it an example to any other country foolish enough to rebel.

This reading of scripture regarding “the wrath to come” is not in and of itself heretical. This might be an instance where some of us might need to make  a mid-course correction in our theology. However, its important to note that Bell’s survey of that phrase has some important omissions. He failed to mention Luke 3:1-9. John the Baptist is preaching a baptism for repentance and the Pharisees come to be baptized. John sees their motivation. They see the crowds responding to John’s message and they are willing to submit to his baptism in order to maintain their popularity and power. And John calls them out:

7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Luke 3:7-9

This “wrath to come” isn’t referring to the destruction of Jerusalem. The preceding verses reveal that John is referring to the Day of the Lord. Further down in the passage, he says:

His winnowing fork is at hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (v. 17)

So there’s a wrath to come now, and then. I wish Pastor Bell would have wrestled with this passage. Perhaps he will in a later chapter. But, in this moment, it appears that he’s ignoring the anomalies in his theology.

It’s not that Bell denies the existence of Hell in the afterlife. However, Bell’s Hell is radically different from Dante’s:

  • Bell sees hell as a period of intense correction. In Matthew 25 Jesus explains what the end judgment will be like, the separation of the sheep and the goats. Bell interprets that phrase “eternal judgment” to mean “a time of intense pruning” (v. 41). Not “forever” but “intense.” Not punitive judgment, but restorative correction.
  • Bell describes hell as self-made. The punishment of hell, according to Bell,  is being given over to one’s one lusts, greed, smallness, and self-centeredness and then having to live with the consequences. The “fire” and “gnashing” of teeth is just as metaphoric in the afterlife as it is in this one.
  • Hell only lasts as long as a person insists upon. Bell subscribes to the notion that individuals are capable of repentance after death. He appeals to God’s nature as the basis of this belief.

It’s in the making of these arguments that I’m finding myself cringing and disagreeing with Bell often. Pastor Bell does reference much scripture, however, do to the style of the book– light and conversational– he doesn’t show his exegetical work. But the devil — and perhaps a literal and eternal Hell– is in the details.

Pastor Kevin Young recently made a long post (20-typed pages) in response to Love Wins. While I’m not sure that I see eye to eye with everything in this post, I think his 10 objections to Rob’s exegetical work are fair and largely on point. I highly recommend that you read those ten points. I know that for some, a post from the Gospel Coalition website, is conversation ender. However, if we’re willing to explore Bell’s ideas and ignore the ad homimon arguments that pharisaical  bloggers have tossed at him, we’re going to have to set aside any biases that one might have regarding the Neo-Calvinist movement as well. The ideas in Bell’s book don’t wear black, horn-rimmed glasses and the Young’s ideas shouldn’t be discarded without consideration because of the poor behavior off some in the Neo-Calvinist camp.

My thinking is that Young’s critique of Bell’s theology is correct and that Bell’s construct of hell doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. I think it would be helpful for Bell to release a paper that shows his exegetical work. It would look more like a doctoral dissertation than a popular book. But it would be valuable if the goal is to open up a serious conversation about the afterlife. Currently, I’m getting the impression that Pastor Bell’s strongest arguments are theological and philosophical. I’m just not yet convinced that they are adequacy anchored to a rigorous reading of the Bible yet.

As always, if you think I’m misreading the book, please toss your comments in below.

Love Wins: Chapter Two, “Heaven”

In chapter two  Pastor Bell unpacks his theology of Heaven.

Bell holds the theological position that Heaven is not a far off place where God dwells but the final condition of our planet. Heaven is what happens when Jesus Christ returns, judges everything, and purges the planet of the effects of sin. In N.T. Wright’s words, Heaven is what happens when God’s dimension is reunited with this world’s physical dimension.

Heaven is not just a place but a quality of existence. It’s what happens when Jesus’ followers live in a way that anticipates the coming order. Bell notes this is why we pray “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Bell points to the prophets and reminds us that this Heaven includes “all the nations.” He writes:

“That’s everybody. That’s all those different skin colors, languages, and accents; all those kinds of food and music; all those customs, habits, patterns, clothing, traditions, and ways of celebrating–

multiethnic,

multisensory,

multieverything.”

p. 21

Bell then goes on to defend God’s wrath and judgment. He describe Heaven as something that Christ-followers will unable to achieve on there own that God will personally have to intervene to rid the world of everything that threatens “Shalom”:

“Central to their  vision of human flourishing in God’s renewed world, then, was the prophets’ announcement that a number of things that can survive in this world will not be able to survive in the world to come.

Like war.

Rape.

Greed.

Injustice.

Violence.

Pride.

Division.

Exploitation.

Disgrace.

Their description of life in the age to come is both thrilling and unnerving at the same time. For the earth to be free of anything destructive or damaging, certain things need to be banished. Decisions have to be made. Judgments have to be rendered. And so they spoke of a cleansing, purging, decisive day when God would make those judgments. They called this day the “day of the Lord.”

p.22

Bell also defends that idea that God is capable of anger:

“Same with the word “anger.” When we hear people who can’t believe in a God who gets angry– yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply? What kind of God wouldn’t get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life’s savings?”

p. 23

 

Pastor Bell then makes a case for Christian living. We are to prepare for God’s future order now. The coming judgment should unnerve us because “we each know what lurks in our own heart– our role in corrupting the world, the litany of ways that our own sins have contributed to the heartbreak we’re surrounded by, all those times we hardened our hearts and kept right on walking, ignoring the cry of someone in need.” (p. 23)

It’s at this point that my discomfort with the chapter increased. Pastor Bell takes us to 1 Corinthians 3 and Paul’s description of “The Day” that the prophets foretold. The Apostle Paul write about how “everything will be brought to light” and how things will be “revealed with fire.” Pastor Bell describes this as “Flames in Heaven.”  The imperfect is consumed. Paul writes, “the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved, even though as one escaping through the flames.”

And this next quote is where my discomfort level and disagreement grows:

“Jesus makes no promise that in the blink of an eye we will suddenly become totally different people who have vastly different tastes, attitudes, and perspectives. Paul makes it very clear that we will have our true selves revealed and that once the sins and habits and bigotry and pride and petty jealousy are removed, for some there simply won’t be much left. “As some escaping through the flames” is how he put it. ”

p. 29

Jesus might not have promised this instant change but Paul seems to have:

“… in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

1 Corinthians 15:52

Now in fairness to Rob Bell, the Apostle Paul does not explicitly say that our resurrected selves will be sinless. But to borrow and modify a question from Pastor Bell,  “Is resurrecting  humans as sinful beings the best that God can do?”

Pastor Bell then makes a connection between this passage and the stories of Jesus regarding the surprising people we’ll meet in Heaven:

“The fames of heaven, it turns out, lead us to the surprise of heaven. Jesus tells a story in Matthew 25 about people invited into “the kingdom prepared for [them] since the creation of the world,” and their first reaction is… surprise.”

p. 29

Pastor Bell goes on to note various passages in the Gospels where the morally marginalize are welcomed into the kingdom and while the spiritually self-assured are not.

Here’s where I break with Pastor Bell’s logic. First, I don’t see any connection between the 1 Corinthians 3 passage and those kingdom parables. Paul makes no literary allusions to any of Jesus’ teachings as I can see. Secondly, those kingdom parables are best seen as stories that illustrate Jesus’ ministry. He aligned himself with the sinners and socially marginalized because “it is not the healthy who need a physician but the sick.” The “surprise of heaven” is that the very people the morally self-righteous labels as too wicked to enter Heaven are the ones who embraced the Messiah.

Bell however sees the kingdom being filled through a different set of criteria:

Think about the single mom, trying to raise kids, work multiple jobs, and wrangle child support out of the kids’ father, who used to beat her. She’s faithful, true, and utterly devoted to her children. In spite of the circumstances, she never loses hope that they can be raised in love an go on to break the cycle of dysfunction an abuse. She never goes out, never takes a vacation, never has enough money to buy anything for herself. She gets a few hours of sleep and then repeats the cycle of cooking, work, laundry, bills, more work, laundry, bills, more work, until she falls into bed late at night, exhausted.

With what she has been given she has been faithful. She is a woman of character and substance. She is kind and loving even when she’s exhausted.

She can be trusted.

Is she the last who Jesus says will be first?

Does God say to her, “You’re the kind of person I can run the world with?”

p. 30

Pastor Bell seems to offer competency to co-reign in the kingdom come as better standard for entrance into heaven-on-earth. However, in chapter one, Bell rails against any kind of works contributing to salvation:

“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?

Perhaps I’m misreading Bell. Maybe he sees her struggles not as “works” but as evidence of Kingdom-worthy character. If so, I would suggest that belief in the resurrection and a confession of Jesus’ Lordship (Romans 10:9-10) could also be offered as similar evidence of such character. I struggle with seeing surrender to Christ and following his Lordship out of gratitude a form of “works.”

Again, another chapter in which I read many commendable truths but then found myself ending the chapter in sharp disagreement. The Chapter on Hell is next. I’m anticipating that “the flames of heaven” and “hell” will be identical and that he’ll view hell as a type of purgatory. But I could be wrong.

As an aside, I was curious as to how a Eugene Peterson came to be comfortable with endorsing a book that fell outside of his personal theology. I love his answer.

Again, if you are under the opinion that I’ve read Pastor Bell poorly and that I’m misrepresenting him, please make a comment. I’m not making any claims at infallibility.

Theology aside, Pastor Bell is a heckuva writer. I could learn from him.

Love Wins, Preface and Chapter One

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

and

“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?’

page 14

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.”

Romans 10:9-10

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.

The Core Values of the Worship

 

This Sunday I taught a session of our church’s membership class and we explored the topic of worship. I showed a DVD clip of our worship pastor, Brian,  explaining the core values that the worship team operates under: Truth, Authenticity, Creativity/Excellence, and Relevance.

I’d seen this DVD clip three or four times before, but this time I was struck by a different truth: The core values of being a “private worshipper” Monday through Saturday should be the same as what the Creative Team displays on Sunday.

A worshiper pursues truth by regularly studying the Bible and finding opportunities to take in good teaching during the week– through books, podcasts, or small group experiences.

A worshiper is authentic. The person tells God how what he or she is actually thinking and feeling and not a sanitized version of themselves. An authentic worshiper knows how to about God without coming off as corny, hyper-spiritual, or self-righteous.

A worshiper is creative and committed to excellence. A worshiper attacks his or her job in the marketplace or home as if God were ultimately the employer (which he is).

A worshiper is relevant. The individual worshiper erases the artificial lines between the secular and sacred allows God’s kingdom to enter all of life’s arenas.

I recently heard someone say that worship is the trajectory of your life. I think these core values help point the way.

Staying Committed to Your Enemies

One of my hats at Grace is writing the small group materials that accompany the sermon series. This currently has me spending time in Mark’s Gospels and digging through the same pile of commentaries that the preaching team uses to prepare. I’m currently looking at the account of Jesus being healed by Jairus’ daughter.

This point isn’t in Al’s notes, so I’m not stealing any of his thunder– but I’m struck at what a non-issue it was that Jesus didn’t withhold his love and grace to a man who worked for a religious institution that was plotting his death. The conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders over Jesus’ commitment to societal outcasts (sinners) and his disregard for ceremonial laws (people are more important than the Sabbath) had escalated to the point that the Pharisee and Herodians began to plot Jesus’ death (Mark 3:6).

Jesus had a decided power advantage over Jairus in his moment of desperation. Jesus might have lectured him over being affiliated with this polluted expression of Judaism before healing him. He might have demanded that Jairus quit the synagogue before showing him kindness. Or he might have simply refused to heal him at all.

Instead, the text says nothing about Jairus’ working for the religious machine that plotted Jesus death. Jesus simply showed love to him.

Here’s a couple of questions for us to ponder.

Collectively, we tend to use the blogosphere to differentiate our theology and our beliefs from others. Is it possible to use the same medium to show love and commitment people we disagree with? Who does that well?

What would it look like for you to show radical commitment to someone who has hurt you? What could you do in the next three days to love someone who has injured you?

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