Interacting with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Part 5 of 6)

Chapter 5—Dying to Live
Your opening jab directed at the practice of sacrifice reveals a pretty narrow scope. Your comments about our lack of ability to grapple with the biblical pictures of sacrifice being due to our lack of familiarity with animal sacrifices must be limited to Americans (or perhaps Westerners more generally). However, you should be aware that other religions still practice animal sacrifice all over the world, and I expect that Westerners will become increasingly familiar with animal sacrifice (again) as our culture becomes more subsumed into the global realities in which we live. Your explanation of how sacrifice works, however, leaves much to be desired as well. You portray the sacrifices of all religions as though they were attempting to accomplish the same thing. Do you not realize the uniqueness of the sacrificial system of Israel laid out in the Bible? Do you not know how special it was that Israel actually had a God who explained to them what he would accept as payment for sins, and, yes to appease his wrath? You write, “Whole cultures centered around keeping the gods pleased. This was obviously a very costly, time-consuming ordeal, not to mention an anxiety-producing one. You never knew if you’d fully pleased the gods and paid the debt properly. And now the writer is announcing that those days are over because of Jesus dying on the cross. Done away with. Gone. Irrelevant” (124-5). This is how you frame the author of Hebrews’ argument about Jesus’ death being the fulfillment and the completion of the OT sacrificial system and, indeed, all sacrificial systems. You go on to write, “The psychological impact alone would have been extraordinary—no more anxiety, no more worry, no more stress, no more wondering if the gods were pleased with you or ready to strike you down. There was no more need for any of that sacrifice, because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice that thoroughly pleased the only God who ever mattered” (125). From reading the Bible, (and I know you preached your very first sermon series at Mars Hill through Leviticus), wouldn’t you say that the Israelites did not experience this anxiety, wondering whether God would accept their sacrifices? The promise repeated in Leviticus over and over again is that the one who offers the sacrifices “shall be forgiven” (at least 10 times in Leviticus).

Next, you return to your method of piling up questions by looking at apparently disparate biblical texts, and you are right to acknowledge that the NT writers were grasping for ways of communicating the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross, so that they utilized a number of metaphors. You’ve delineated them nicely: “What happened on the cross is like…a defendant going free, a relationship being reconciled, something lost being redeemed, a battle being won, a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again, an enemy being loved” (128). I might quibble with the wording of a couple of these, but you’ve included most of the basic metaphors used by the NT authors. And I certainly wouldn’t want to deny the validity of any of these metaphors, but I would want to ask two questions: 1) Do the NT authors prioritize these metaphors in any way? Is one of these metaphors primary, while each of the others comes in to supplement the primary one? If so, which one, and how can we tell? 2) Are these “mere metaphors”? What realities do they point to?

Then, you discuss the resurrection of Jesus. You illustrate a pattern that can be seen in all of life consisting of “dying to live.” You write, “So when the writers of the Bible talk about Jesus’s resurrection bringing new life to the world, they aren’t talking about any new concept. They’re talking about something that has always been true. It’s how the world works” (131). Really?? Aren’t you seriously downplaying the uniqueness of this event and its significance? No one expected Jesus to rise from the dead. When Jesus predicted that he would, his own disciples did not understand what he meant, and they didn’t seem to think he was talking about some principle that is generally true of lots of things. If they understood this to be related to “how the world works,” don’t you think they would have concluded he was teaching them something about that, perhaps in parables? But they didn’t get it at all.

In light of the resurrection, you comment on the cosmic significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and you rightly warn us of the danger of shrinking the gospel so that it loses its grand scope. Of course, you include individuals in this scope, and you quote a few NT passages that speak of salvation being for all, missing the same careful nuance that you lacked earlier in the book. Nevertheless, your point stands: there is a universal scope to the significance of the gospel events that we dare not minimize. After this, you point out how the cross and resurrection are personal: “This cosmic event has everything to do with how every single one of us lives every single day. It is a pattern, a rhythm, a practice, a reality rooted in the elemental realities of creation, extending to the very vitality of our soul” (135). Is it really just a pattern? Doesn’t Paul teach that there is a transformative power to the gospel message? Isn’t it our union with Jesus in his death and resurrection, along with the work of the Spirit in our lives, that enables us to live Christlike lives?

Chapter 6—There are Rocks Everywhere
In this chapter, you hone in on the story of Moses encountering a rock that provided water for the people of Israel in the wilderness, noting how Paul indicates that this rock was Christ. Just because Paul identified this particular rock as Christ, does that really lead to the conclusion that we ought to be able to find Christ working in a particular way in everything? You then tie this in with the reality that Christ is involved in the act of creation and in the act of sustaining the universe. But, just because all things hold together in him does not mean that we are able to recognize him in all things nor that we should look for him in all things. At least not in a way analogous to what Paul saw in the event narrated in the OT. Then, you shift to identifying God’s purpose to unify all things in him, mainly reflecting on Ephesians, and in this you’ve included a pretty good summary of the idea of the mystery made known in Christ.

Then, you make an interesting shift by stating what you see as obvious (though, I must confess, I did not see this coming): “Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity’” (150). How does this follow from God’s purpose of uniting all things in Christ? To say that Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion is an acceptable generality, if we define “religion” in a certain way, and I’m not sure exactly how you would define the term. Did Jesus intend to draw a group of people who would orient their lives around himself as the one and only true God? I would say that counts as a religion. Also, why do you choose to jab at Christianity by accusing “the historic, orthodox Christian faith” of creating cages and labels for Jesus? What’s the point of that? Aren’t you a part of Christianity? Also, couldn’t we argue that “Christianity” has taken their “labels” for Jesus from the Scriptures that God has given us to interpret who Jesus is and what he did while he was on earth and what he continues to do now?

You then tack on a few more verses that speak of Jesus’ relation to all people or the world, and you add, “Jesus is supracultural. He is present within all cultures, and yet outside of all cultures” (151). Really? Jesus is present within all cultures already? If that’s the case, why did Paul and other “missionaries” throughout the history of the church go into other cultures in order to introduce Jesus? Even within the book of Acts don’t we see Paul introducing pagans to Jesus, as someone new to the culture? Indeed, Paul is able to draw on some ideas from the culture to help them grasp Jesus’ significance, but the fact remains that Paul must explain certain aspects of Jesus’ person and work in order for them to grasp it. Also, to say that he is outside of all cultures, do you mean to say that his own culture—first century Judaism, of the Galilean sort—has no relevance for his own identity? Mustn’t we come to terms with Jesus as a Jewish Messiah? Next, you say that “we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he’s anyone else’s” (152). I’m not sure I follow what you mean here. Are you contrasting Christianity with other cultures who have a claim on Jesus also? So, let’s take any given Islamic culture, or a culture that is permeated with Islam rather than Christianity. Muslims believe certain things about Jesus; we could probably say they have a claim on Jesus as well. Is their claim on Jesus just as legitimate as our claim, even though they deny he was the unique Son of God? Even though they deny that he rose from the dead? Even though they deny he is one with the Father? By what criteria do we say a culture’s claim of or claims about Jesus are legitimate?

You go on to refer to Col. 1:23, where Paul indicates that the gospel “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” If Paul’s not using hyperbole here, or does not have some other meaning besides the face-value meaning of the words, the literal meaning if you will, why does he seem so eager to proclaim the gospel in regions where Jesus has not been named (Rom. 15:20)? Why is there an urgency to proclaim the gospel to those who’ve never heard about Jesus, if he already belongs to every culture in the world?

Next, you comment on John 14:6, writing, “This is as wide and expansive a claim as a person can make….And so the passage is exclusive, deeply so, insisting on Jesus alone as the way to God. But it is an exclusivity on the other side on [sic] inclusivity” (154). I found your attempt to combine inclusivity and exclusivity in this way unhelpful and unconvincing. But, you also comment: “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.” Sure, he doesn’t say any of these things in verse 6. But what about the surrounding verses, part of the same conversation Jesus is having with his disciples? The conversation begins with a command for his disciples to trust him. This command is repeated in verse 11. He speaks again of the one who believes in him in verse 12. So, isn’t it likely that Jesus intended them to understand that the “mechanism” that gets people to God through him is trusting him?

Following this, you take some jabs at typical exclusivist Christian teaching, noting that “everybody who doesn’t believe in him and follow him in the precise way that is defined by the group doing the defining isn’t saved, redeemed, going to heaven, and so on….You’re either in, or you’re going to hell. Two groups” (154). Wouldn’t those you’re critiquing here say that it is not they who define the way, but that it is Jesus himself, or the Bible more broadly, who defines the precise way of believing and following? Moreover, don’t the NT writers often consider the reality of humanity in this world in terms of two groups, the “in-group” and the “out-group”? What about 1 John, for example; especially 1 John 3:4-10, which envisions humanity categorized as either children of God or children of the devil, reflecting Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospel of John?

You also critique typical inclusivism as well, highlighting the idea that there are many roads to reach the same goal. It seems that you’re wanting to distance yourself from both of these positions, coming out with something else altogether. You then attempt to foresee an objection: “As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth” (155). You strongly deny that this is the case, writing: “Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.” Why not? I must admit that my first reaction to this “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” idea was just that. What difference, then, does Jesus make? What about the cross for these folks? You add, “He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe,” a statement which I honestly don’t understand at all.

You raise an important question after this: “When people use the word ‘Jesus,’ then, it’s important for us to ask who they’re talking about” (156). The questions that follow that are supposed to be options for ways one could elaborate on who Jesus is don’t seem to cover a broad spectrum. In fact, aren’t the options you’ve listed in the form of questions mostly irrelevant to who Jesus is? Is that your point? But what about the final option that you’ve separated off into its own paragraph? Is this your answer or the answer you expect that anyone from any religion could give? “Or are they referring to the very life source of the universe who has walked among us and continues to sustain everything with his love and power and grace and energy?” If that’s the acceptable characterization of Jesus, then I still don’t see how Muslims or Hindus could see that reality, since you’ve deftly included the incarnation in your statement. Would Hindus, for example, have any concept of the source of the universe or the power holding the universe together actually walking among us on the earth?

Then, you bring in the ordinances of Christianity: baptism and communion. You state, “These rituals are true for us, because they’re true for everybody. They unite us, because they unite everybody” (157). Really? How is this at all true? These rituals unite Christians because they reflect the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How can these rituals unite people who do not affirm or have never heard of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? How do baptism and communion relate to anything else? How do they point to the reality of Jesus’ universality?

In the final section of this chapter, you attempt to tie in the ideas of this chapter with the main themes of the book. You seek to remind us that “people come to Jesus in all sorts of ways” (158). You add, “Some people have so much baggage with regard to the name ‘Jesus’ that when they encounter the mystery present in all of creation—grace, peace, love, acceptance, healing, forgiveness—the last thing they are inclined to name it is ‘Jesus’” (159). So, “the mystery present in all of creation” is “grace, peace, love, acceptance, healing, forgiveness”? When people stumble onto these things, they’ve actually found Jesus, even if they don’t identify this name? Is that what you’re saying? Next, you expand on the idea that none of us have the market on Jesus by writing, “Whatever categories have been created, whatever biases are hanging like a mist in the air, whatever labels and assumptions have gone unchecked and untested, he continually defies, destroys, and disregards” (160). What if the categories we hold to are the categories that the Bible defines? Does Jesus defy, destroy, or disregard the categories with which the apostles explained who he is and what he did? Finally, you warn us to be careful about pronouncing on people’s eternal destinies. This is perhaps a needed warning, and I don’t want to cast it aside lightly. You’ve repeated that heaven is full of surprises, and I agree. However, we must be careful, I think, about giving people hope without a basis. Hope based on speculation is surely harmful to people. Also, do we not impinge on the memory of people who have died openly rejecting Jesus, when we tell their loved ones or other people that they were actually saved by Jesus anyway? I think I would rather tell people that we have no reason to believe that someone went to heaven when they died and to point them to Christ as the only satisfaction for their grief, than to tell them that I’m sure their loved one went to heaven based on no evidence whatsoever and maybe even against all the evidence to the contrary.

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