I should say up front that I am a Rob Bell fan. Every now and then a communicator comes along that really alters the craft for the better. Rob Bell is one such communicator. He is creative. He blends humor, interesting facts, and some fresh insights into Scripture. I read Velvet Elvis and Sex God with a furrowed theological brow at times but also thoroughly enjoyed his creative agitation and fresh persective.
Love Wins is another matter.
People were quick to dogpile on John Piper, Justin Taylor and others who were early detractors of Love Wins, because they assumed they were jumping to conclusions. Having now read Love Wins, I believe unfortunately, their perspectives were valid in great measure. Love Wins is first a book of theological art, rather than “hard” theology. I say this because like Rob Bell’s trademark writing style, his theology is shaped on rather “artistic” ways of reading texts. This would be OK to an extent as long as he remained respectful of other viewpoints throughout. That’s what makes art, art. It’s one’s own work from deep inside. Everyone understands it isn’t a photograph of reality…it’s self-expression for beauty and creativity’s sake. However, Rob Bell isn’t just painting a canvas, he is making a series of serious theological claims, artfully.
It will become clear to the reader that Rob Bell believes traditional Christianity’s view is more or less unsophisticated, perhaps barbaric, and certainly lacking imagination. Based on Love Wins, I believe Rob Bell’s theology of heaven and hell to be unsophisicated and his exegesis sometimes inexplicable. This isn’t to say he doesn’t raise some very good questions that are someone has needed to ask for a long time. I’m also not saying it’s harmless and dismissable in the way some bad freshman research paper is. Love Wins is much more than that. It has some new and true insights. It’s obviously been agonized over by the author. However, second, the claims of Love Wins have real import, perhaps even eternal import. His reading of key texts of the Bible and discomfort with God’s judgment lead down a poor theological path of real consequence.
Disagreeing with Rob Bell’s perspective’s does not make one a Calvinist, a Fundamentalist, or any other “ist.” I am neither. I’m confident those who applaud Rob Bell’s new work for “raising questions,” won’t mind me raising some questions of my own.
Rather than write a billion word post, I will break the review into three smaller posts, this being the first.
What troubles me about Love Wins isn’t that Rob Bell brings up questions on a volatile subject. When one reads, Love Wins, it becomes quite obvious in the book’s opening pages more than “raising questions” is going on. There are indeed a number of sincere questions–many of which are simply classic Rob Bell agitation and exploration. Such questions are what endears Rob Bell to so many. However, there is no doubt those questions make an argument throughout the book that those who hold the orthodox Christian position are injuring the Gospel itself:
“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 the 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’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.” (Kindle ed. 48)
Later in the book, Bell does say there is room within Christianity to hold different view on the subject of heaven and hell (I agree in part, disagree in part). However, the overall tenor and claim of the book is that a God who would send people to an eternal hell is foreign to the Bible, fails to achieve what He claims He wants (the redemption of all people) and is theological inpalatable to many. The God who judges the sins of people and their rejection of Christ with eternal torment is altogether unacceptable to Rob Bell.
Here was something that haunted me throughout my reading of the book… it was a sense that Bell was saying that if God was in fact a God who judges the living and dead with eternal heaven and hell…He wouldn’t be worth following. Rob Bell caracatures such a God as moody, one who is all love until the judgment…then he morphs into the punishing God.
“If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good. Loving one moment, vicious the next. Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye. Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die? That kind of God is simply devastating.”
First, such a statement is based on a caricature of the traditional view of God…not a fair representation. Second, God is active in human history right now disciplining and judging evil in various ways. So, even if Bell’s caricature was right, it isn’t like God is some cosmic sweetheart right now. We pray because we believe God can and will act according to His will. Third, God is worth following because He’s God, not because we find Him acceptable enough to be God. God doesn’t need to satiate our human, Western conceptions of right and wrong, power and submission, inclusion or pacificm. Those who would follow Jesus must understand the call is for us to understand our humanness, weakness and biases and submit them to Christ’s Lordship, seeking to conform our desires to God’s. The question isn’t, is God good enough that I can follow Him? The question is, will God’s goodness to all creation seen in Christ compel me to be crucified with Christ and follow Him? There is a big difference in orientation and attitude. One is biblical. One is not.
God is good. God is love. God is all of those things…regardless of whether He meets the moral standards we set that we think are so high. Our standards of right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate are not as high as we think they are. God isn’t bound by our sensitivities, and He will not change to make himself more acceptable to us. He is who He is. Fortunately, as Rob Bell suggests, He does want all people to be saved. However, the Scriptures teach that salvation, while offered to all, is given to those for whom Jesus, God’s Son, is Lord (more on whether Bell believes this tomorrow). This doesn’t make God less great, as Rob Bell suggests:
“So does God get what God wants? How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great. According to the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, “God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear.” (Kindle ed. 1219)
The underlying concept Bell plays with through the book seems to be that God wants everyone to be saved so everyone must be saved in the end or God isn’t very great. This is based on some creative, sometimes unbelievable readings of Scriptures, which we will look at in the next couple of posts.
Again, it is not incumbent on God to meet what we think are our high moral standards. Even the best of us is not that good. Even our highest science is foolishness to God. Even our most profound conceptions and feelings of love are not fully pure. I hold the Scripture’s testimony to be that God, not love, wins in the end. Without God, love itself has no true definition free of human self-interest either in description or incarnation.
Rob Bell’s view of God’s love seems to redefine God as a cosmic pacifist whose most judgmental move is to give us what we want. If we choose hell, it’s not forever and it’s self-made through the consequences of the decisions we make. God will give us what we want? Is that the climax of history? We get what we want, because God is just that loving?
The biblical testimony isn’t that in the end we get what we want. It’s that God gets what God wants. He offers eternal life to all and bids us come to His Son, who will return to judge the living and the dead with a righteous judgment. We can trust that His judgement will be right. Perfect, in fact.
In the end…
The Bible tells us that God is love. God defines love. It is His essence. The full extent of His love is demonstrated on the Cross. In the end, whether we like Him or not, whether we find Him cuddly or cool, He is who He is…and He is love. Billions of people through the ages have found Him to be altogether beautiful and worthy in ways our tongues cannot describe–and believe in an eternal hell.
In the end…
God (who is love) wins.