[On December 26, 2011 and January 1, 2012, I'm going to be running my two top viewed posts for 2011. I hope you enjoy these once again--or for the first time.
I'm pleased that today’s blog, which I first posted in April, was highly read. It's my take on Rob Bell's controversial book LOVE WINS. ME]
I tell you—I want to believe it. I think millions of Christians DO believe it.
“It” is what Rob Bell has written in his latest book, LOVE WINS. If you watch news shows like GOOD MORNING AMERICA or watch news channels such as MSNBC, you may have seen Bell interviewed the past month.
Rob Bell, in case you don’t know, is a very popular preacher out of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the creator of the NOOMA videos, which are extremely popular in mainstream Christianity. Bell has also written some bestseller books. SEX GOD is one of the best treatments of the subject of sexuality I have ever read.
If Rob Bell had stopped after the first 93 pages of LOVE Wins, I have a feeling there would be no fuss. Most of those pages are things he has already said, and he makes some very good points. For example: the way Christians, and I am using the term loosely, often come across so negatively to nonbelievers, is lamentable. Research continues to bear this out.
In chapters two and three, Bell does an excellent job of channeling great thinkers such as C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright, in explaining how heaven and hell don’t begin in the life to come—they begin today.
My one negative critique of chapter three is, Bell invested an enormous amount of stock in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, seeing it as an indicator of what life will be like in the age to come. I, personally, believe that parable is more of an explanation of Jesus’ attitude toward the poor. To be fair, many others join Bell in using the parable in this way.
Bell accurately points out how little the word “hell” is used in Scripture. This can be misleading. The concept of judgment is found throughout the Bible, culminating in the book of Revelation. I join the majority of Christendom as seeing these references as signs pointing to an ultimate eternal separation from God for many.
In Bell’s weakest moments, he pulls a number of judgment passages out of context, seemingly having them argue that God will offer mercy, redemption, and restoration to those recipients of judgment in scripture. He seizes upon the parts of Scripture that are ambiguous about the afterlife and combines them into a view that God will save everyone, or almost everyone, ultimately. To put it succinctly, God's love will change, virtually, everyone on the other side of death into a follower of Jesus.
I need to be careful here. I follow where Bell is going with some of the Old Testament examples. I get his point that God’s earthly judgment, for example, with the Israelites, does not mean they will be banished to hell forever. Nevertheless, I see it as going beyond the scope of biblical revelation to say this is the prototype for how God will relate to every human in the after life.
Again I say, if God so chooses—great! Who am I to judge? (I’m sorry… that last sentence made me crack up. :) ) However, this does not seem to square with the way God seeks to portray himself in scripture. It is almost like Bell is saying—I know this is what the Bible says about the character of God, but I want you to know, he does not mean it.
I've got to admit; it sounds awfully good. But here is the problem: the overwhelming essence of Scripture attests to a coming judgment, where some will be saved and many will be lost. The character of God revealed in Scripture seems to support this understanding as well.
Herein lies part of the problem with Bell in this book. Bell, like many of this age, has focused on love of God—to the extreme. God's holiness, God's justice, and God's anger take second place. He is more balance in this book than I thought he would be, but this is faint praise. I found something that Tim Archer, of HERALD OF TRUTH, wrote last week, which applies well here, “More often than not, we choose not to believe in God or some aspect of God’s nature because of our own wishes and desires, the way we wish things were.”
I saw LOVE WINS coming a few years ago, when I saw Bell’s video THE GOD’S AREN’T ANGRY. That video was another masterful work, but it also put God in a box. It connected the concept of God's wrath to the needs of ancient peoples, who visualized their deities as angry, wrathful, and demanding of appeasement.
Bell converted the wrath of God into a metaphor designed to address the fears and beliefs of ancient peoples. It was almost as if he was saying, “We’re past that now. Civilization has grown up.” Again, his is not the only voice that says this. Many in Christianity feel the same way. Bell has simply articulated these views to a new generation, in a powerful and engaging way.
Frankly, it’s not fun to disagree with Bell. To do so, sometimes, comes across as the equivalent of stereotypical old man, sitting in a lawn chair wearing shorts, dark socks, and dress shoes shouting, “You kids get off my lawn!”
I read LOVE WINS with the impression, he was seeking to find a way to package the Gospel, to make it more palatable for unchurched people. This I can understand, because so many unchurched people hate Christians. Consequently, I see Bell's message here “selling” well.
Not everyone in the secular world seems to be buying it though. Journalist Martin Bashir zeroed in on Bell in a recent interview on MSNBC:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BjAdRJZib3Q Bashir pointedly and repeatedly asked, if what Bell wrote is true, was not Jesus irrelevant?
I saw the interview, before I read the book, and thought Bashir was sharp and perceptive. After reading the book, I found Bashir’s “questioning” to be unfair and inaccurate. Frankly, I wondered if he had read the book, or if he was instead relying on reading summaries provided by his staff.
Bell very much comes across as supporting the idea, Jesus is the only way. In LOVE WINS, it is Christ's work and love, which ultimately point to salvation. Any Hindu, Muslim, Jew, unchurched person, or anyone else, will find salvation only through Jesus. What Bell does is offer them the hope of finding salvation after death.
At some point, Bell believes, even the hardest of hard-hearted sinners will turn to God—because of God's relentless love. To put it in a sound bite, Bell is saying you can surrender to Jesus now—or surrender to him later, but you WILL ultimately surrender to him.
The idea conveyed is, in the afterlife, lots and lots of people are going to be enjoying life with God. Those who continue to reject Jesus, will be on the outside looking in—a self-imposed exile. Sooner or later, they are going to give it up and join the party.
At the end of the book, Bell writes, if the reader wants more on hell, to consult C. S. Lewis’ THE GREAT DIVORCE. Having been a few years since I read that book, I did consult it.
I found a number of passages I had underlined in Lewis’ book. The more I skimmed it, the more I realized Bell’s view of hell in the eternity sounded similar to Lewis’ view. Lewis did not get into near as much trouble, perhaps, because he expressed his thoughts in the form of a fictional story.
Bell offers a scriptural Jesus, the Son of God in skin, who happened to also live the perfect human life. And if, you choose to love Jesus now, you'll enjoy the abundant life of knowing Him now. God’s reign, “heaven”, is expanded a little more on earth.
I’m reading where some Christian leaders are wanting to disfellowship Rob Bell. (Of course, they don’t want to disfellowship C. S. Lewis. Maybe it’s because years ago, Chuck Colson said C. S. Lewis was okay with him.)
Beware. If they do, they are going to have to disfellowship half of Christendom. The dirty little secret is a lot of people in the pews believe the same thing as Rob Bell—God is going to save most, if not all, people.
I suggest they not worry so much about Rob Bell. He has a high view of Jesus and of sharing good news about Jesus. He affirms the saving work of the cross and the glory of the resurrection. A lot of people in our pews don’t believe, on an emotional level, even that. Perhaps, that is what we first address.
Obviously, I don’t have all of the answers on hell. I gave it my best shot for my church yesterday morning in a sermon I called—not jokes please—“Why Hell?” (I just finished an overview of the book of Revelation; I thought I could relax by taking on a popular subject. J) All modesty aside, I am grateful that the sermon was well received, and you are welcome to listen to it by clicking on this link: http://srmp3.kentdavis.com/04-03-11am.mp3 Meanwhile, I’ll keep attempting to grow.