O.K. I’m sure if you read other Christian blogs, you are Rob Belled out by now. The main reason I’m even doing a post concerning his book “Love Wins” is because some of you have asked my opinion and even offered me copies of the book. Well, I finally finished the book late Sunday night. It has proven to be an interesting, challenging, and controversial read to say the least. One of my biggest surprises was realizing that I’ve “hijacked” Jesus’ story and shared a message that is “misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the spread of Jesus’ message.” Who knew I was guilty of sharing a toxic form of Christianity? Anyway, before I share anything else, though, I want to share a few disclaimers:
1) I am not a Bell hater who has been looking for the right opportunity to slam him. Actually the opposite is true. In 2003 I heard Bell speak at a Youth Specialties conference and was an instant fan. Since then, I’ve used and recommended his Nooma video series and followed his ministry. At least a couple of times I’ve heard rumblings from academia that he plays loose with historic facts, but I’ve generally liked his creativity, the questions he’s asked, and the way he’s challenged my assumptions.
2) I’m 100% committed to Christian unity. Anyone who’s knows me or has served with me already knows that I’m all about bringing churches and ministries together across denominational lines for the sake of serving the community, sharing the gospel, and impacting the world. This unity, though, is often rooted in a common commitment to the exclusivity of Jesus, the essentials of scripture, and God’s mission to this world.
3) This post is just my opinion. Many of you are reading this blog because for some crazy reason my opinion matters to you. Others of you wish I’d keep my opinion to myself. Either way, although I’ve endorsed Bell to some of you in the past and shown a clear commitment to unity, this time my opinion may prove to be divisive. Realistically, unity in the church is dependent on a commitment commitment to Jesus and a shared set of beliefs and values. Sometimes those beliefs unify us and sometimes they divide us.
4) Bell asks important questions. He asks the questions that cynics, seekers, and especially disenchanted young evangelicals are already asking: Has God created billions of people over thousands of years only to select a few to go to heaven and everyone else to suffer forever in hell? Is this acceptable to God? How is this “good news”? He’s not only addressing the questions being asked, but he’s also exposing a growing fault line dividing young evangelicals between more theologically liberal and more theologically conservative camps. Even if I disagree with his conclusions, this book is forcing evangelical leaders to communicate what they believe and address foundational themes of the gospel. As I stated in an earlier post, one of the main reasons I’ve been concerned about the book is that I’ve left some big blanks for Bell to fill in concerning eternity, hell, and God’s wrath.
5) This book is not about a conversation. Bell has repeatedly said in interviews that through this book he’s simply entering the conversation in the wide stream of Orthodox Christianity. Yet in the preface Bell makes it clear that he’s written this book because “Jesus’ story has been hijacked” and that those who believe in the traditional view of hell share a message which is “misguided, toxic, and ultimately subverts the spread of Jesus’ message.” Now for any of you married guys out there, imagine sitting down with your wife, telling her you want to simply have a conversation with her, and beginning this conversation with terms like hijacked, misguided, toxic, and subversive. How long do you think that would stay a conversation? Obviously, others have taken the bait and entered the type of conversation we often refer to as an argument. I know it will probably never happen, but I’d love to see a roundtable discussion with Bell, N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, and John Piper addressing these issues.
Now that I’ve made the disclaimers, I have to say a lot disappoints me about this book. He plays loose with historical facts, and he’s even worse with the scriptures. I don’t want to give a page by page breakdown but two great posts on these subjects are on blogs by Kevin DeYoung and The Aquila Report.
SO WHAT’S SO TOXIC ABOUT THE TRADITIONAL GOSPEL MESSAGE?
1) An eternal hell vs. temporal hell. Bell has traded in the traditional view of an eternal hell and redefined it as time of pruning… an intense experience of correction… for a particular period of time (pp. 91-92). At the heart of this perspective is the belief that given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most “depraved sinners” will give up their resistance to and turn to God (p. 107).
He makes a pretty good point that the Greek word aion which is translated as eternal or everlasting can also refer to “a period of time.” He uses this to make a point that hell could have an end to it. The problem is that the same Greek word is used for eternal life in the positive sense (like heaven). So if you apply the same logic to both, what does that mean for eternal life? Either way, according to Bell, the Bible leaves space for some type of post-mortem repentance and redemption. If Bell were correct, that’s a HUGE part of the good news for the Bible to leave out.
2) A God of wrath (or judgement) vs. God of love. One of my biggest disappointments is how Bell essentially says you have an either/or proposition when it comes to God’s love and God’s wrath. Bell heavily implies that either He’s a loving God or a wrathful God, but He could not possibly be both:
Is God our friend, our provider our protector–or is God the kind of judge who may in the end declare that we deserve to spend forever separated from our Father? (p. 102)
If your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality. (p. 175)
Well I have a couple of problems with his line of thinking
- Pretending as if God does not have a wrathful side is not being honest about the story we see in scripture. Anyone beginning in Genesis will quickly come to the story of Noah and the flood. Fast forward to the last book of the Bible, and in Revelation 19 we see Jesus on a white horse and a sword coming out of his mouth. He’s about to open the can. Even in the famously quoted John 3 we see the two working together. What do you think happens if you tell a cynic, seeker, or struggling Christian that God does not have a wrathful side, and they read one of these sections of scripture? Either they question your credibility or the credibility of scripture.
- Pretending that we have to choose between God’s love and God’s wrath denies that the two often work hand in hand. It’s not as if God is scizophrenic and switching back and forth between His loving and wrathful personalities. Even as humans we can understand how love can move us towards wrath. Exhibit A: I’m only 5ft 8 but if you mess with my wife or kid, you will encounter some serious wrath- because I love them. In the above mentioned scriptures we see a God who loves, a God who is grieved, a God who is moved by justice, and a God who punishes- all the same God.
3) An exclusive gospel vs. an inclusive gospel. Bell states, There is exclusivity… there is inclusivity… Then there is exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is hte way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum. As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth… What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody. Yes he means everybody- he is saying he believes everyone makes it.
Of course he does not address Jesus’ parables that seem to point to some level of exclusivity or a myriad of other scriptures:
wheat & the weeds- Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
the wedding feast- Matthew 22:1-14
ten virgins- Matthew 25:1-13
talents & faithful servants- Matthew 25:14-30
separating goats & sheep- Matthew 25:31-46
ready servants- Luke 12:35-48
rich man & Lazarus- Luke 16:19-31
As I read “Love Wins” I could not help but think that many of the “toxic” aspects of the “traditional” gospel message happen to be the parts that our Western middle-class culture finds offensive. The problem is that the gospel will offend every culture in some way yet different ways. Cultures actually exist where an all inclusive and a wrath free God could prove to be equally toxic. Although I’m 100% sold on cultural relevance and cultural sensitivity, if we begin removing the offenses of the gospel, what we have is an anemic version of the real thing.
I believe one the dangers with many of the similar modern theologies and spiritual theories is that they are being tested in blogosphere, the publishers house, on the stage, occasionally in the class room, but rarely on the battlefield of real ministry and spiritual warfare. Jesus taught his disciples in the midst of doing ministry in the dangerous mess of this world- the arena where true testing is done. In the Western world, we’ve achieved a relatively comfortable, persecution free existence, and if we’re not careful we’ll begin to believe that is exactly what we deserve.
On a very pragmatic level, I wonder what Bell thinks about the way the gospel is exploding in areas like China, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa. I wonder what he thinks about movements of the past including the Great Awakenings of early America and the great revival in South Korea this past century. The “toxic” gospel being proclaimed throughout these movements has included God’s love and God’s wrath, a literal heaven and a literal eternal hell, an exclusive Savior, and central to it all has been a blood soaked cross. Shouldn’t someone get on a plane and fly to China or Nigeria or Peru and stop this before it’s too late, before they’re all infected with this toxic message? Or could it be their turn to send messengers this way to remind of us of an eternal message that may not taste so good to the middle-class American palate?
Other blogs worth checking out on this: