Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Love Wins by Rob Bell

Popular Grand Rapids, Michigan pastor Rob Bell's bestseller Love Wins has reportedly stirred up loads of controversy among conservative evangelicals, even before its release last year. And it's not hard to see why, given the book's premise.

And his opening chapter (and in the video released on Youtube beofore the release of said book),

Bell presents to his audience the following scenario. During a church art show, one of the participants had including a quote for Mahatma Gandhi. And someone else had tacked on a note reading: Reality check: he's in hell.

"Gandhi's in hell?" Bell asks his audience, "Are we sure? Do we know this?" (page 1) He follows this up with a number of other thought-provoking and difficult questions, such as that of the self-professed atheist who dies as a teenager. To the response that "There's no hope then," Bell responds pointedly "No hope? Is that the Christian message?" (Page 3). And then there's that matter of the missionary getting a flat tire on the way to the local village. If someone dies there, is he/she forever lost?

Too many Christians would answer "yes," to that last question, I'm afraid. Why? As I've argued elsewhere the core reason for this is not really scriptural, but rather concerned with the survival of Christanity as a faith. But the reason Bell uses this example is becuase he knows that, according to our core morality (which most beleivers, evangelicals included, I'd guess, would agree is given to us by God), it would be nonsensical for God to judge someone according to standards of which s/he is simply ignorant, of no fault of his or her own. We understand this. It flies in the sense of our understanding of morality that God would not.

The example of Gandhi in hell raises an even more provocotive question. Why would a person believe that this is so? Didn't Gandhi live an exemplary life compared to most of us, including the majority of professing beleivers? The almost inevitable answer to that will run something like this: good works are not what counts. You could live the best possible life, and still not make it into heaven if you lacked the required faith in Jesus Christ. In other words, whoever wrote that is necessarily divorcing faith from works. But the book of James teaches that faith without works is dead (not a saving faith), and many places in the New Testement teaches that we will judged according to our works. The question that follows from this should be, therefore: If one is NOT a professing Christian, and one nonetheless leads a morally exemplary life, is one, therefore, one of His followers after all? I am assuming here, of course, that one is genuine, and not self-serving, in his dedication to works, as Gandhi certainly appeared to have been. One might ask if something is even possible without a conscious decison to follow Christ; I would respond that such is certainly possible if one happens at least to be seeking truth.

If one accepts the general postion regarding salvation held by evangelicals, however, did, in fact, Gandhi have enough faith to avoid the inferno? He certainly was aware of Christ and Christianity, so one must not count him among the ignorant pagans, whatever one's opinion regarding their eternal destiny might be. Gandhi is quoted as saying,"...I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew." So was this enough?

Indeed, merely inquiring if it was "enough" suggests, as does the "tire" scenario, that God allows people into heaven on the basis of technicalities, which, of course, have nothing to do with the condition of one's heart, which should be the only real criteria. But most evangelicals would disagree about Gandhi, becuase the above statement by him suggests Pluralism. And for ther Christian faith to be the Truth, none other can be on par with it. This is the real evangelical gripe against Gandhi.

And it's the same with Rob Bell. I actually found his book to be confusing in places. At times he sounds like a universalist, yet never stakes a firm position. His argument that salvation is NOT primarily about getting "how to get to heaven" (in spite of what we're commonly taught) is, I think, a point well taken. Most of us have heard that the salvation promised by Jesus Christ is all about how to get to heaven when we die. But Bell makes it clear, from his discussion of Jesus and the young rich man, that Jesus meant much more than this. In other words, our admission into the Kingdom of Heaven does NOT begin after we take our final breath in this world, but right here, right now, in accepting Him into our hearts, and through our obdedience to His teachings.

Is Bell a universalist, as his critics charge? The answer might be both "yes" and "no." He does appear to accept hell as a reality, but his general beleif seems to be that hell is remedial and corrective rather than eternal. He might, therefore, be best described as a beleiver in univeral reconciliation. Hell in the world beyond this is a reality, but we are not forever lost. If God truly wants everyone to come to Him, and he is truely all powerful, then eventually he will save everyone in the end.

Much to the chagrin of evangelicals, I might add.

There have been a number of books written, mostly by Bell's evangelical critics, in attempt to counter him. One of such book, which I've read, is God Wins by Mark Galli. Gallie argues that that hell is eternal, but the fate of certain individuals, such as ignorant pagans, is simply a mystery, but we should jut trust God that everything He does will be just. One thing I've noticed ironic about the title of this particular book is that if God des win, doesn't love win also? For is not God also love?

The following quotes form Bell's book show the God often falsely represented by evangelicals:

"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,” Bell writes.

“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."

Bell is right on target with these astute abservations. It is telling that many of Bell's critics (not Galli) have responded with anger. Most infamous was a tweet by John Piper, Baptist Pastor, and author of the recent book Jesus: the Only Way to God, who wrote "Rob Bell is history."

I strongly suspect, however, that Rob Bell represents the future of Christianity.

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