My 3 cents on Rob Bell’s new book

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell.

Well, there’s nothing like a good controversy to increase blog posts and book sales! Like many, I am saddened by the way the controversy is being handled. I chose to blog about this because it hits at the heart of something very dear to me: the oneness of the Church. Many who haven’t read the book (and probably some of those who have) may assume that Bell argues for an easy universalism, a cheap devil-may-care-and-nothing-matters-because-we-all-get-in sort of thing, and that there is no hell. Not surprisingly, many are on the warpath and are drawing dividing lines. I am simply hoping that we may foster some respectful consideration of one another.

Just to catch everyone up, the gist of the book is that the ideas Bell addresses have more to do with the nature and heart of God himself and the belief that “God is reconciling all creation to Godself” and that there is good reason to believe that he will succeed at this (hence the title, “Love Wins”.) Hell is a place we create for ourselves as we continue to resist and reject the life that God offers. I believe that opens up the door to larger ideas to discuss than just cheap grace.

To sum up this blog post (tl;dr): Relax everyone, and listen to one another.

Please consider:

1. This is not new stuff. This topic has been under discussion for 2000 years. Debate amongst Christians is not new either. Plenty of important issues such as, what is the exact nature of the atonement and what is hell and who gets to go to heaven and what does it mean to be saved and even how do we decide who is in the church have been discussed and debated zillions of times. There remains plenty of disagreement and we have survived and God still loves us.

There was a time during the formation of the early church in which the Apostles and others needed to keep the tightest reign on “sound doctrine”. This was particularly focused on what was understood about Jesus and the essence of the Good News. I can imagine Jesus’ followers standing around scratching their heads after he ascended back into heaven thinking, “What on earth just happened?” The early church leaders recognized that preventing confusion and lies about big, core issues like Jesus’ divinity and his death and resurrection were crucial to the budding life of this new entity called the Church and to the Kingdom Jesus had spoken about. They had to guard things carefully. And for them, it was truly an issue about for what and whom they would be giving up their lives. That’s a tad different than “my theological camp is superior to yours.”

Beyond the basics about Jesus, there has been and will continue to be much debate and questioning and rethinking doctrinal ideas within our ranks, just as there has been for 2000 years. It’s ok. Let’s use it for good and not for evil.

2. Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition. We no longer have to sentence someone who disagrees with us to death or cover them in honey and push them onto an ant hill. This is probably what is most distressing about this whole kerfluffle. Christians are treating those who disagree with their stance badly. They judge and demean and slander. They feel proud of their “correct” position, and use it as a measuring rod as if it means anything about themselves and their relationship with God.

I honestly do not believe that when we stand one day before Jesus he will look at us and say, “So, I am concerned about your stance on the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. Tsk. Tsk.” Or, “Were you dispensationalist or reformed?” No, I think he will be more concerned about how we treated the brother or sister who thinks about things differently. That truly seemed to be more important to Him. Oneness comes from making space for one another, not demanding conformity. And it also seemed to be his desire about how we are to show up in this world. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Jn. 13:35 That sounds like evangelism to me.

3. Dialogue is good for us. I recall a seminary professor from years ago who told us to be careful what we read because “there’s a slippery slope”. In other words, do not read anything that disagrees with our theological stance for to do so is dangerous because you might actually be changed by it. Back then, I never thought to ask what was at the bottom of the slippery slope. Now that I am older and wiser I have visited the other end of the slope, and you know what? Jesus is there, too.

If we do not allow ourselves to seriously engage thoughts and ideas that are different from what we hold, we stagnate. We also begin to believe we have actually apprehended and captured Truth, as if it all fits in our puny human minds. It creates a subtle shift in belief – right doctrine begins to trump the Person who is the Source of it all. Those who seem to be holding the “there is no more truth to be found” line seem to hint that to not agree with them means you follow a different Jesus. (Some don’t merely suggest it, they state it outright. Seriously guys, stop it.) Sometimes it is expressed that to disagree with them puts your eternal security and even the quality of your personal character in jeopardy. That’s a lot of faith to be placed in doctrine!  And it follows that the issues at hand would become dividing lines in the church.

I must add though, that as much as the truth-as-doctrine folks frustrate me (but they won’t take my blog seriously anyway because I am a woman so I can say whatever I want – ha!), they are certainly not the only ones guilty of dividing church and community over a doctrinal position.

Perhaps we can try to value one another over being right?

4. Don’t you wish this were true? Why would any Christian not want there to be a way for all to be saved and go to heaven? Why is there resistance to believing that the work of Jesus on the Cross and the redeeming love of God could be that powerful? What does this say about us?

I think it might reveal something about our own smallness of heart. Our sense of justice often has much more to do with retribution and spite than with the desire to see all things set right. Admit it, often we need the idea of hell in order to feel that those who have hurt us will pay. There is something in us still that gets a smug satisfaction from seeing those who have hurt us stuck outside while we get treated royally.

I count myself in here. I do not have a heart that can forgive without some struggle. I don’t know that anyone does, really. I need the help of God to forgive. But I am drawn to the idea that God can make my heart a big enough space to receive all who come with Him –a heart that might actually be able to tolerate heaven and the magnanimous mercy and grace that is its essence.

I am not saying I don’t believe in hell- quite the opposite actually. I’m just saying that what we think about hell may say much more about our own issues than about God.

5. Won’t this belief kill evangelism? Perhaps it will, if selling a free ticket to heaven is the only reason to evangelize and if that is the full extent of the Good News. If there is more, which I would argue there is, those who hearts are passionate for it will continue the work of evangelism.

There is plenty to do. There is a Kingdom to co-create and usher in. There are mountains to bring down and valleys to fill. There is outrageous love to be offered.  There are outcasts to befriend. The message as we do these things is the same: This is Jesus, Son of the Most High. Hear Him!

Our love for one another as we do these things just might shine a light on what he is like for others to see and embrace. Whether you believe God tortures non-believers forever and ever without end or if you believe God allows us to create a hell of our own choosing, there is still work to be done.

6. Let’s face it, all of our theology is a “bottom up” effort. Theology is the product of our good and necessary attempts to make some sense of the mysteries of God. However, the only lenses we have is to try to comprehend God are our tiny, foggy selves. Therefore, all of our theology will have something of ourselves projected onto God, even with the Spirit’s help. God doesn’t seem to be too disturbed by that, being accustomed to our cute arrogance. I often wonder if he feels similar to how I feel about my cat when she believes she has caught the laser pointer beam in her paw. Her concept of reality is too limited to know that it’s made of light waves and not matter and she can’t possible catch it. But I let her enjoy her victory for a moment – and then I move the pointer.

I don’t know about you, but I am hoping that my concept of God continues to grow and expand and with it, my theology. For each of us, may God continue to “move the pointer” out from under what we think we know so we don’t get caught up in the lesser things that divide us. (Lesser than Jesus, that is.) God is far more good and loving than we can imagine and may it never be that we think we have him all figured out. In that light, may we humbly choose each other over the arrogance of thinking we know anything.

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  • Tracey

    All very good thoughts here. Love the appropriate reference in #2. This is all very much fluffy cushion territory.

  • Karla Stewart Okala

    I have watched this “kerfluffle” with sadness. How can we think of ourselves as a holy nation, when we look so much like the world around us, calling each other names, putting each other down?

    I like the question in point #4: “Don’t you wish this were true?” Yes!! I do wish it, but I’m afraid that no matter how much God does to draw us to Himself that some will choose not to be drawn. We see it in the Bible again and again.

    Nice reminder, Ellen, that being open-minded does not mean that we are all-embracing.

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