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.”
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.”
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.