A couple weeks ago I read Rob Bell’s, “Love Wins” and frankly - I was really confused by what all the hoopla was about. And it really ticked me off at the number of people who either did not read the book and felt like they could comment on it OR clearly did not understand (or misrepresented) what Rob Bell was attempting to say.
Rob starts the book by taking fundamentalist evangelicalism to its logical (and absurd) conclusions. He holds a mirror up to our beliefs and gets us to recognize how tied our soteriology is to Dante’s Inferno and Greek Dualism (although he does not use those words). The problem is more than just an abstract theological exercise – it is of critical importance to proper understanding of the way of Jesus and our role in THIS world, right NOW. Bell writes with tongue planted firmly in cheek:
“If this understanding of the good news of Jesus prevailed among Christians, the belief that Jesus’s message is about how to get somewhere else, you could possibly end up with a world in which millions of people were starving, thirsty, and poor; the earth was being exploited and polluted; disease and despair were everywhere; and Christians weren’t known for doing much about it. If it got bad enough, you might even have people rejecting Jesus because of how his followers lived.” (Pages 6-7)
He then does a nice job of re-framing the questions of the afterlife in the indigenous soil of the scripture. In this sense, Bell does not (contrary to popular opinion) dismiss Hell as non-existent. Rather, he recognizes the very diverse ways that Christian thinkers over the last 2,000 years have thought about God’s redemption of the world outside of our current narrow, fundamentalist view.
This book is clearly meant to be more pastoral than academic in nature. As such, my good friends Tom Oord and Brint Montgomery do a much better job of reflecting on questions like the nature of God and human freedom arguments than I could ever hope to do. These are critical issues to wrestle with, in my humble opinion, and I’m glad that Rob has stirred the pot to get us thinking about them. But to summarize Rob’s argument:
“…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 heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.” (p. 107)
Personally, I wouldn’t go as far as Rob assumes here. I think he underestimates human depravity and stubbornness – I would re-title the book, “Love Usually Wins”. (And yes, I get the irony that the Neo-Reformed Poster Boy is more optimistic about grace than this life-long Wesleyan). I guess I have a hard time using words like “all” and “everyone” on one hand and taking human freedom and God’s non-cohersive love seriously on the other. But that is just my opinion. And so while I don’t completely agree with him, Rob seems to be easily within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.
In the end, this book is not just an ivory tower speculative discussion, this conversation goes to the heart how we communicate Jesus’ Gospel. The church growth adage that “the message doesn’t change but the methods do” is simply not true. Theology needs to be a continuing conversation in which we wrestle with and re-imagine faith within the broad boundaries of orthodoxy. Theological models that worked well for worldviews of 200 years ago may find themselves in need of further conversation in 2011. Rob shows his concern as a practitioner:
“And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don’t love God. They can’t, because the God they’ve been presented with and taught about can’t be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.
“And so there are conferences about how churches can be more ‘relevant’ and ‘missional’ and ‘welcoming’ and there are vast resources, many, many books and film, for those who want to ‘reach out’ and ‘connect’ and ‘build relationships’ with people who aren’t part of the church. And that can be helpful. But at the heart of it, we have to ask: Just what kind of God is behind all this?
“Because if something is wrong with your God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins they 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)
If I remember my church history correctly, Reformed Theology emerged as an attempt to help people escape from salvation being a tool of manipulation and control by the Roman Catholic Church. (This is the only context in which five point Calvinism makes any sense at all to me!) Reformed Theology desperately wanted salvation to be from start to finish all about God and his grace and not about other people’s interpretation of who is in and who is out. And if I remember correctly, burning people at the stake or other methods of torture were commonplace attempts by ecclesiastical authorities to keep that power. I think that “Love Wins” is in many respects a re-discovery and re-imagination of the reformer’s spirit when it comes to salvation. And that may explain the angry responses by those who are in positions of ecclesiastical power.