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

Chapter 7—The Good News is Better Than That
Full disclosure: this chapter gave me the most grief for a number of reasons.

Your initial story about the woman who gives you the piece of paper with the number on it, reflecting the number of days that have passed since she harmed herself, made me want to rage against you as a pastor. But that’s not my place. You use this story to cast doubt on whether this woman would understand anything about a God who loves her without her having to earn that love. But couldn’t you introduce her to that concept? Isn’t it your job to re-build her broken categories of what love is about? Couldn’t you show her that Jesus loves her since he experienced awful physical abuse at the hands of people he loved?

Then, you expound the parable of the gracious father from Lk. 15. You introduce this parable in order to show that each character—the father, the older son, and the younger son—is telling a story about the reality of their life together as a family. Each person’s story differs and each of the sons must choose which story they will live in light of. You also make much of the picture that we’re given of this party that the father throws upon the younger son’s return, after squandering his inheritance and shaming his father. The elder brother is jealous and angry and refuses to go into the party. You determine that the party could be representative of heaven, and the elder son’s refusal to participate as hell. You summarize, “Jesus puts the older brother right there at the party, but refusing to trust the father’s version of his story. Refusing to join in the celebration. Hell is being at the party. That’s what makes it so hellish” (169). You seem to be making this point in this way to contrast with typical notions of heaven and hell being “two different places, far apart from each other.” Isn’t it significant that the older brother actually remains outside? The party is going on inside the home; the older brother remains outside. Thus, Jesus portrays separation.

You go on to state, “Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story” (170). This falls in line with your earlier delineation of hell as a particularly intense experience resulting from our rejection of “the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us” (93). Does Jesus make this point in the parable? Does Jesus even indicate that this parable is at all about “heaven and hell”?

You escalate your rhetoric a bit after this. After acknowledging that people tend to hear the good news of John 3:16, you add, “Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell” (173). Is it fair to define “in the right way” as “the way the person telling them the gospel does,” because surely the people you’re referring to would retort that the “right way” is the way Jesus demanded? Moreover, shouldn’t God punish people who reject him, who refuse to trust him, who refuse to believe his telling of their story? What about John 3:18? What about John 3:36? You go on: “God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony” (173-4). Really? Is this really how you understand what traditional evangelicals teach about the punishment for unbelief? I think you have badly misunderstood your brothers and sisters who think this way. No one believes that God becomes a fundamentally different person. Rather, God responds to people’s rebellion, their refusal to believe, in a certain way; they have set themselves as God’s enemies forever, and he responds accordingly. You then call God into question, if he were to act this way, by comparing him with an earthly father. Is this really appropriate? This goes back to my earlier question: why do you believe that all people are God’s children in the same way? Why does the Bible speak of Christians being adopted, as though we weren’t God’s children before our adoption? You add, “If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good” (174). Can God be loving and angry at the same time? And how do you decide what is good? These polarities muddy the issues because they do not reflect the complexity of God’s emotions as they are described and illustrated in the Bible.

At the foundations of your writing is your view of God, and you are touching on this issue in this chapter. You write, “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 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” (175). Wow. Untenable? Unacceptable? Really? So, if this view of God has grown up as a legitimate view of God within “the historic, orthodox Christian faith,” throughout Christian history, held by many great theologians, how can you call it “unacceptable”? Why should we accept Origen’s view, for example, instead of this view as articulated by Luther, Calvin, Augustine, or many other important and not-so-important theologians within the “wide stream” that is “the historic, orthodox Christian faith”? With all due respect, Rob Bell, this doesn’t sound like a “generous orthodoxy” to me. But I digress.

I agree with you when you write, “We can trust God’s retelling of our story. And to trust God’s telling, we have to trust God” (176). But, I’m not sure I can trust your retelling of God’s retelling of my story.

You summarize again: “To reject God’s grace, to turn from God’s love, to resist God’s telling, will lead to misery. It is a form of punishment, all on its own” (176). Indeed; but is God the one who punishes?

You then discuss the significance of understanding that God is love and how some people have gotten confused by thinking that judgment, wrath, and punishment are part of God’s essence. That’s surely a helpful distinction to make, but how carefully shall we define love? The title of your book, Love Wins, doesn’t really help us if we don’t understand what kind of love we’re talking about, and I’m not sure you ever got around to actually articulating a biblical understanding of love. Moreover, noticeably absent here (and I think it’s almost completely absent throughout the book) is God’s holiness. Should we really take John’s statement in 1 John 4 that God is love to be fundamentally definitional? Is the statement really designed to carry the freight that we often load onto it? The Bible (especially Leviticus) repeatedly affirms that God is holy, and God’s holiness is given as the reason why his people must also be holy. Indeed, Jesus reflects this in the Sermon on the Mount when he commands his disciples to be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). So how does God’s holiness fit with God’s love in your understanding of love? Is holiness part of God’s essence? Furthermore, since judgment, wrath, and punishment may not be said to be part of God’s essence, does that mean that we can disregard them or sweep them away in light of God’s overwhelming love? Doesn’t the Bible hold all of these aspects together in healthy tension?

After this, you write an excellent paragraph that I think most evangelicals would agree with wholeheartedly (I know I do): “Life has never been about just ‘getting in.’ It’s about thriving in God’s good world. It’s stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it’s about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy in the same good world” (179). However, I think many would want to add to this statement. Have you swung the pendulum too far back in your attempt to prevent folks from being “so heavenly minded they’re of no earthly good”?

I also appreciated your warning, particularly directed toward pastors and leaders, to avoid the older brother’s mentality, to avoid thinking of God as a slave-driver, and to avoid thinking of our ministry as so much slaving that ultimately has little significance and is never good enough.

Then, you ask the big question: “What is God like?” (182) Your answer to this question saddened me beyond all I can express in words. It saddened me because, as a pastor, I think you’ve lost an aspect of the gospel—and I do mean the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus—which your people desperately need (and you also desperately need). You write, “Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer” (182). To be saved is indeed to be rescued. And God is indeed the rescuer. But those who would affirm the way you’ve framed the gospel in this statement would say that God rescues us from God; God rescues us from himself. Does this not make sense to you? What do you do with Romans 5:9, which says, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him”?? Paul says that we will be saved—rescued—from the wrath of God. God’s wrath. The wrath that God expresses. The wrath that God directs toward sin. Paul seems to think we need to be rescued from God, and he assures us that God has rescued us from himself. This is very near the heart of Paul’s point in the first part of Romans. The big conundrum of Romans—and indeed the Bible—is how a just God can forgive sinners. Your book seems to presuppose that the grand difficulty of reality is how a loving God could ever punish sinners whom he loves. Romans shows us how this holy, just God has provided the sacrifice that makes it possible for him to forgive sinners. Indeed, God rescues us from God. And you’ve framed it in a way that is not acceptable: that Jesus must rescue us from God, as though Jesus is fighting against God, or as though God has us in his prison and Jesus comes on his own to sneak us out while God’s not looking. Rather, God recognizes that all of his children have rebelled against him; they’ve all committed the worst treason. All of them have committed crimes deserving of death. God desires to provide a just way that they might escape their deserved doom, and he sends his Son, who comes voluntarily to pay the penalty we’ve all earned for ourselves. God accepts the self-sacrifice of his Son on behalf of any and all who will trust that his sacrifice counted for their sins and who turn to follow him out of rebellion against God. When people in your congregation do things that they know are sinful, displeasing to God, how can you comfort them that God is not angered by their sins, that God’s wrath is not coming to them? Do you tell them, because God’s a loving Father, he overlooks their sins, that their sins really aren’t that big of a deal to God? Without understanding what Paul teaches in Rom. 5:9 and other places about Jesus’ dealing with God’s wrath on the cross, how can you honestly comfort anyone who sins? Herein lies the fundamental beauty of the gospel that I think you have missed: the coming wrath is no longer coming for me; it came, Jesus endured it, bearing the condemnation of God that I deserve, and I no longer live in fear of death/judgment/condemnation/wrath/hell. You go on to write, “Jesus was very clear that this destructive, violent understanding of God can easily be institutionalized—in churches, systems, and ideas” (183). How so? Where does Jesus speak of this? You continue: “That God is angry, demanding, a slave driver, and so that God’s religion becomes a system of sin management, constantly working and angling to avoid what surely must be the coming wrath that lurks behind every corner, thought, and sin.” How does the understanding that God is angry connect with the idea that God is demanding or a slave driver? How are those related? And is it wrong to say that God is demanding? Of course, you can make “demanding” out to have a terrible connotation, but if we understand God to have genuine expectations of his people (“Be holy, for I am holy”), what’s wrong with that? You go on to write that “the violent God,” which I understand you to refer to a God who feels wrath and would pour it out on sinners, “creates profound worry in people” (184). I’m truly sorry for you if that’s your experience and the experience of some folks, but that is genuinely not my experience…at least for people who recognize that, yes, God is wrathful toward sin—and this is a very good thing—but God has graciously provided the way for sinful people not to experience his wrath. You continue: “Jesus frees us from that, because his kind of love simply does away with fear.” Oh sir, the means by which Jesus does away with fear was the cross; this is hardly simple!

Well, you return to the story of the two brothers at the party, and then you turn to Jesus’ crucifixion and comment on his statement, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” noting, “Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it” (188). Does Jesus forgive them all? Doesn’t he ask the Father to forgive them? And should we assume that the Father automatically forgave all of them? What gives us the right to assume that? You then list several texts that speak of forgiveness and salvation. What do you do with the many texts in John’s Gospel and the Book of Acts, for example, that speak of forgiveness coming in connection with faith and repentance? Can we just ignore those texts?

Chapter 8—The End is Here
You begin the final chapter with a story about your own defining experience/encounter with God as a young lad. You tell us this story because you “believe that the indestructible love of God is an unfolding, dynamic reality and that every single one of us is endlessly being invited to trust, accept, believe, embrace, and experience it” (194). Does the invitation continue going out forever? Really? On what basis can you say that the invitation is endless?  You go on to comment on some of Jesus’ parables in which people ignore or reject the invitation, and you write, “These are strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities” (197). But is there actually judgment and separation? You add, “Jesus reminds us in a number of ways that it is vitally important we take our choices here and now as seriously as we possibly can because they matter more than we can begin to imagine.” How so? It’s difficult not to conclude from everything you’ve written in this book that ultimately love will melt everyone’s hearts and everyone will be able to experience closeness with God at some point along the way.

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