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.

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.

Interacting with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Part 4 of 6)

Chapter 4—Does God Get What God Wants?
In this chapter, you begin by portraying some statements from selected church websites, illustrating what you perceive to be a difficulty (contradiction?) as they speak of God as all-powerful, good, gracious, loving and also of those who don’t know God spending eternity apart from him, enduring conscious eternal torment. You make a few snide comments along the way to convey your opinion of these statements, but then you identify the crux of the matter and, really, the crux of your argument in this chapter (if not the whole book): 1 Tim. 2:4. Have you been fair to teachers and churches whose statements of faith you cited? Do you believe that they don’t know that this verse is in their Bible? Shouldn’t you have evaluated some of their explanations of this verse and why they don’t think it contradicts the idea that many people will, in fact, not be saved? You also have trumped up 1 Tim. 2:4 as though it were the sum total of God’s plan, a weight I don’t think this verse will bear. So, to ask the question that serves as the title of this chapter as though it only applied to this verse is a little misleading. There are texts in the Bible that speak of God wanting to punish sin (e.g., Rom. 9:22). Does God get what God wants here? Does he get to punish sin? If not, why not?

You state, “The writers of the scriptures consistently affirm that we’re all part of the same family” (99). I can think of two verses that make this explicit (Acts 17:28-29 and maybe Eph. 3:14-15), though the idea may be present elsewhere, but you cite no verses to support this assertion. Though this is true in one sense, isn’t there another, more significant sense in which all people are not God’s children? Thus, we have the need to be adopted. Moreover, in this same section, you assert that “what we have in common…outweighs our differences.” How so? And why is this significant? You then, immediately, write, “This is why God wants ‘all people to be saved.’ History is about the kind of love a parent has for a child, the kind of love that pursues, searches, creates, connects, and bonds.” What is the “this” at the beginning of this statement? The commonality we share as human beings? I don’t see how that is a good reason or a reason that God articulates in the Scriptures for why he wants all people to be saved. And, a question I raised in the Preface returns here: does God love everyone in the same way, as a Father loves all of his children? If so, why Israel? Why is the concept of election in the Scriptures at all? You spend the next few pages citing verses from the Bible that use universal language of God’s love for all. Is it not irresponsible to list these verses to make an argument that God gets what he wants and saves all without discussing the many passages that speak of God’s particular love for and salvation of a particular people? Moreover, those whom you’re critiquing within the wide stream of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith,” don’t just ignore these passages; they actually address them and have good contextual arguments for why “all” doesn’t mean “all without exception.” Yet, you have not responded to any of these arguments.

Over the next several pages, you portray three basic approaches to handling this dilemma. The first one is the traditional view that people must respond to God’s love in a certain way during this life in order to avoid eternal separation from God’s love. The second one involves an understanding of the image of God within us that maintains the possibility that we could become less and less human over time, so that in the age to come we actually cease being human at all. Finally, you state that there are those who hold to the possibility of a second chance after death for those who rejected God’s love during their lives. Without actually stating that Martin Luther believed this, you bring up a quote from Luther about this position, which your readers will surely understand to indicate that Luther held this option open. However, you must know that the very next sentence of this letter from which you quoted has Luther saying, “No one, however, can prove that he does do this” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 43, pg. 54). Now, this perspective seems to be your own, although you never actually come out and claim it. But, I must ask, after all of your criticisms about other folks’ speculations about the afterlife, are you not just speculating about the “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God” (107)? Also, does this impinge on your earlier argument that the Bible carries no understanding of “eternal” as in an endless amount of time?

Next, you desire to garner more support for the view that “God will ultimately restore everything and everybody” from church history. Is this because you fear that people may accuse you of being novel? Heretical on this point? You bring in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eusebius for support. It would have been nice if you had quoted some of these men (instead of misrepresenting Martin Luther!). Then, you add that Jerome, Basil, and Augustine indicated that many people of their respective times believed this. Again, actual quotations from these writers would have been helpful. You then assert summarily that “central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory” (108). Does this conclusion come from their writings? Or is this your own assessment? I would disagree with this assessment. Does it not add to a king’s glory when he punishes rebels?

You must admit that God doesn’t melt the hearts of all in this life. So, then, aren’t you merely speculating about whether or not he will melt the hearts of people after this life? You raise the question whether God would refuse to reconcile someone “desperate for reconciliation,” but the question really should be how God would respond to someone who does not want reconciliation. The portrayal of humanity in the Bible that I see is that we don’t want reconciliation; we don’t want God’s love on God’s terms. And those who end up being punished eternally are those who never want reconciliation with God. Never. Forever. It’s perhaps ironic that at this point you use the imagery of someone pounding on the door, wanting to come in, but God is on the other side not letting them in because it’s too late and if they had been there earlier wanting to come in, he would have granted them entry. The irony comes when you juxtapose this image with Jesus’ parable in Matt. 25:1-13.

Furthermore, your claim that this belief that “history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God” is “at the center of the Christian tradition since the first church” (109) needs to be clarified and qualified. How do you define “the center of the Christian tradition”? How do you determine what belongs there? What evidence could you show for this? All of this talk about how wide the stream is (mentioned again on 110) in Christian tradition makes me wonder how this imagery fits in with Jesus’ speaking of a narrow way.

Then, you talk about the quality of the story we are telling. “It’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story” (110). By what criteria do you determine a good story? Moreover, isn’t it more important that we ask, “Is this story true?” Furthermore, this isn’t the whole story! A story involving a good king who endures constant rebellion and rejection of his good ways rescuing a great many rebels by changing them into faithful subjects while finally, decisively putting down all other rebellion and punishing the rebels who refuse to cease their rebellion sounds like a good story to me.

After this evaluation of the competing stories, you assert about your own story, “Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it” (111). No, sir, if it is not the true story of the God of the Bible, then it is not a good story, nor is if “fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it.” You add, “To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.” You haven’t adduced a single example of anyone who held this view being shunned, censored, or ostracized. Indeed, you argued that it was generally accepted (though, historically, you will find that this is not the case). Did you add this statement because you fear you will be treated this way? Moreover, just because you’re able to claim that a few figures from church history have held to some form of this view (which I don’t contest) does not mean that all views are acceptable or able to fit within the wide stream of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith.” Indeed, that word “orthodox” points toward a standard of some kind, some boundaries along the way. Do we have legitimate criteria to determine whether what you are arguing fits within the boundaries?

When you finally come to the New Heaven and the New Earth at the end of the book of Revelation, you refer to several things listed that won’t be permitted inside. But you don’t comment on what the text says about those who perpetrate those characteristic sins. Their inheritance is in the Lake of Fire, not in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:8). If you envision the new world as a real place, what is the lake of fire?

Next, you state, “Love demands freedom….We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want” (113). What if we want it…forever? Then you ask what struck me as a strange question: “How could someone choose another way with a universe of love and joy and peace right in front of them?” Do you see this kind of universe right in front of you??

Back to the New Jerusalem, you comment on its gates. Could it be that this detail was included to indicate that all threats have been eliminated, rather than indicating that “people are free to come and go” (115)?

You conclude this chapter by indicating that not only does God get what God wants but we also can have what we want. Do we get what we want on our terms, or on God’s terms? If we want “heaven,” do we get it/there any way we choose? Or does God give us what we want by saying, “Here is the Way; walk ye in it?”

Interacting with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Part 3 of 6)

Chapter 3—Hell
You begin the chapter portraying the promise of hell for unbelievers in a very poor light. Your statement, “God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy—unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever. That’s the Christian story, right?” (64) caused me to wonder: Should God punish sin at all? Do you think God should punish?

Your sketch of the OT presentation of Sheol as the place of the dead was basically straightforward. You portrayed the vagueness of the OT discussion of the afterlife quite well. With regard to the word death, you state that “the Hebrews often used the words ‘life’ and ‘death’ in a different sense than we do. We’re used to people speaking of life and death as fixed states or destinations, as in you’re either alive or you’re dead” (66). I note the word “often,” so you would acknowledge that the OT writers can speak with the same categories we do? Your illustration with Moses in Deut. 30 may in fact be an exception, but I take your point. Ultimately, death is portrayed as separation/alienation from God, which is what happens when people die also. One massively important text I would have been interested in reading your take on was Dan. 12:2.

Now, I think your discussion of hell as Gehenna in the NT is missing some important pieces of information about the first century Jewish thinking about Gehenna. Jews of Jesus’ day would not have simply viewed this as the local trash dump. Rather, Jer. 7:32 and 19:6-7 seem to suggest that this valley would be the location of the final judgment. This is where God would take final vengeance on his enemies. Moreover, child sacrifices used to be offered in this location, so the Jews of Jesus’ day had theological ideas meshed into this valley where trash was indeed dumped. To characterize Gehenna as simply the local dump is to whitewash the genuine seriousness with which Jesus utilized this imagery in his teaching and preaching.

You turn then to a story of your visit to Rwanda where you saw children missing arms and legs that had been cut off with machetes. You then write, “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs” (71). Am I to infer that you’re claiming that hell is the experience of these children/families in Rwanda? You add later, “I tell these stories because it is absolutely vital that we acknowledge that love, grace, and humanity can be rejected. From the most subtle rolling of the eyes to the most violent degradation of another human, we are terrifyingly free to do as we please” (72). But do you believe that all people reject love, grace, and humanity from birth by nature? This would be one aspect of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith” that understands we are free to do as we please and that we always, by nature, choose to reject love, grace, and humanity, until and unless God transforms us.

Your statement, “Some words are strong for a reason. We need those words to be that intense, loaded, complex, and offensive, because they need to reflect the realities they describe” (72) brought Ezekiel 16 to mind, among other passages where God himself uses offensive language. It also brought to mind the intensity of many of the critiques of your book. If readers conclude that your book is dangerous, would you not expect them to use intense language to critique and challenge your book in order to protect their flocks?

Your next statement, however, caused me to shrink back a bit. You write, “And that’s what we find in Jesus’s teaching about hell—a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity. Something we are all free to do, anytime, anywhere, with anyone” (73). What God-given goodness and humanity? Has the image of God not been fractured since the fall of Adam and Eve?

Reflecting on Jesus’ command to gouge out one’s eye to prevent being thrown into hell, you comment, “Some agony needs agonizing language. Some destruction does make you think of fire. Some betrayal actually feels like you’ve been burned. Some injustices do cause things to heat up” (73). You seem to be couching this in consequential language, as though a person going to hell is merely a result of his sins. What about the language of “being thrown into hell”? This probably would have been understood by his hearers as a reference to God as the one who does the throwing. He doesn’t seem to envision people stumbling into Gehenna or finding themselves in Gehenna or Gehenna as a simplistic result of their actions. The language of being “condemned” to Gehenna is also used—with the understanding of God as the one who condemns.

Next, you take a look at Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus from Lk. 16. You say that the gospel Jesus preaches in Luke indicates that “everybody is a brother, a sister. Equals, children of the God who shows no favoritism” (75-6). Can you actually show that from Luke? Next, you indicate that the religious leaders were listening to this story. Where do you get that from? They may have been, since they are mentioned in Lk. 16:14, but I’m not sure the point of the story was for them to be sure they didn’t ignore “the Lazaruses outside their gates.” It seems to me ultimately to warn them of the danger of ignoring Moses and the Prophets.

You also speak of the gospel being about “a death that leads to life. It’s a pattern, a truth, a reality that comes from losing your life and then finding it” (76). Isn’t the gospel about a particular death (Jesus’) that leads to a particular life (Jesus’ resurrection, which those who are united to him by faith my share), rather than an abstract pattern? From this, you point back to the rich man in Hades in Jesus’ story, and state “He’s in Hades, but he still hasn’t died the kind of death that actually brings life” (77). Are you implying that he has a chance in Hades to die the right kind of death? Is there an expectation that this is possible from Jesus’ story? You go on to reiterate a point you made earlier with these terms: “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death” (78-9). I think this generalization is ultimately unhelpful and denies/ignores much of what God is doing in the world through Christians who maintain a serious concern that people not go to hell when they die, while also doing much to alleviate their temporal suffering in this life. In fact, Jesus’ story about Lazarus in the rich man seems to teach that these concerns should be combined. Moses and the Prophets would have changed the rich man so that he would have treated Lazarus differently and avoided a torment-filled afterlife, if he would have listened, that is, responded rightly. Thus, if the Pharisees were listening, they may actually be intended to connect with the rich man’s brothers in order to get the force of Jesus’ warning. Thus, perhaps, you write, “There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” Should we consider which is worse?

Later, you indicate that Jesus warns of the coming wrath in order to challenge the people “to not go the way they’re intent on going,” which will ultimately draw the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (81). Don’t you think his Jewish hearers would have understood him to be referring to God’s wrath in light of OT teaching? You add, “Because of this history, it’s important that we don’t take Jesus’s very real and prescient warnings about judgment then out of context, making them about someday, somewhere else. That wasn’t what he was talking about” (81). Are you generalizing? He never spoke of judgment in another time and another place? What about other NT writers? You comment again on Jesus’ audience as Jewish people, God’s chosen people. But isn’t Jesus coming to say a) you’re wrong; you’ve broken your covenant with God; and b) you must align yourselves with me, if you want to enjoy the (new) covenant relationship with God and avoid judgment?

As you begin to look at passages more generally that refer to judgment but don’t mention the word hell, you discuss Sodom and Gomorrah. You take Jesus’ words in Matt. 11 (though you cite Matthew 10) that it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for Capernaum to indicate that there’s still hope for Sodom and Gomorrah (84). Really? If his point is to hold out hope for Sodom and Gomorrah, then his statement to Capernaum is not very powerful. Isn’t he rather saying something like this: “You know how bad it will be on Judgment Day for Sodom and Gomorrah? Well, it’s going to be even worse for you.”

Over the next few pages, you select some key passages from the prophets that promise restoration for God’s people after they’ve endured the punishment of exile for a time. Are you turning this into a general principle that God always punishes in order to restore? This actually sounds similar, at first, to the idea that God brings salvation through judgment, but you’ve universalized it. You bring in Egypt as an example of prophetic hope held out even for a nation that was the enemy of God’s people, which you seem to marshal as evidence that God will do this for all nations. Even if this were the case, do you assume that these promises would apply to every single inhabitant of these nations? Moreover, why do you not spend any time looking at the balance of the prophetic texts which points toward judgment without any apparent hope for restoration?

Next, you turn to Paul’s handing folks over to Satan, indicating that his purpose was redemptive and restorative (89). I agree. But, though this was Paul’s purpose in excommunicating these folks, couldn’t the actual results be different? Isn’t it possible that these people did not respond to Paul’s actions appropriately and thus were never actually restored to the fellowship with God’s people? You then bring the idea of being “hell-bent” on something as having a bearing on this discussion. You write, “The point of this turning loose, this letting go, this punishment, is to allow them to live with the full consequences of their choices, confident that the misery they find themselves in will have a way of getting their attention” (90). But these passive terms are not used to describe what’s going on in these biblical texts. Rather, God exiles Israel; Paul hands over these folks to Satan; God condemns people to hell.

You return to Greek issues in Matt. 25, in Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats. The Greek word in question is not kolazo, but the noun form kolasis, and we do not have aion here but rather the adjective aionios, so that the phrase Jesus uses is not “an aion of kolazo,” but rather a kolasin aionion. Now, the claim that kolasis comes from horticulture is basically acceptable, but in the first century no one appears to be using the term that way. It has become, in ordinary conversation, a way of speaking of an experience of punishment. It does not in any way imply the goal of the punishment. I’m afraid you’ve committed the etymological fallacy here and thus misunderstood what Jesus is saying. The verb kolazo is used in the NT in Acts 4:21 and 2 Pet. 2:9; I’d be interested to see if you can find your meaning of kolazo working in these verses. Taking your definition of kolasis, then, would you be able to apply this to the devil and his angels? If not, why not? At the end of this section, you repeat your assertion, “But ‘forever’ is not really a category the biblical writers used” (92). I still don’t think you’ve demonstrated this at all. You bring in the story of Jonah at this point to show that the Hebrew word olam can refer to a period of only three days. But, Jonah is poetically referring to the belly of the fish as Sheol, so that olam could mean forever in connection with their understanding that death is typically final and permanent. Also, do you mean to imply that olam = aion?

Your final summary is clear but leaves much to be desired: “To summarize, then, we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us” (93). So, are we to understand hell as the automatic result of this rejection?

Here are a final series of questions that I think need to be answered that did not get addressed in this chapter at all. How is God related to these consequences? What do you do with Jesus’ language about God sending, throwing, consigning, condemning people to this experience? Do you envision God passively watching as people “reap what they sow,” while he simply pleads with them to respond differently, but ultimately remains uninvolved? What about the millions of folks who reject “God’s best” by victimizing other people but never actually suffer any hellish consequences? What about those who have accepted God’s love and are living accordingly but are then victims of the previously mentioned group?

Interacting with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Part 2 of 6)

Chapter 2—Here is the New There
What is heaven? You begin by calling into question the understanding that it is “somewhere else,” commenting on a photo of a painting in your home growing up. The painting portrays people walking across a dark and hazy chasm bridged by a cross, presumably portraying crossing over from this life into heaven. You then speak of the importance you place on raising your children so that they do not have to unlearn many things from their upbringing. Then you make a most interesting observation: “One of the only violent images Jesus ever uses is when he speaks about those who cause children to stumble,” referring to Jesus’ indication that such a person should be cast to the bottom of the sea with a millstone hanging round his neck (22). Really? Haven’t you missed a ton of violent images? Gouge out your eye? Cut off your hand? An unmerciful servant delivered to be tortured? Casting people into Gehenna? Moreover, isn’t Jesus actually referring to his disciples, rather than to children in general?

You indicate that the painting is all about envisioning people going on a journey somewhere else. I wonder if you’ve missed some significant profundity in this particular work of art because of your familiarity with it (and disdain for it)? Why do you also diss some of the images that come from the Bible when talking about heaven, such as the white robe? Your dismissal is cute but be careful not to dismiss the profound imagery that the Bible offers for wearing white clothes.

You note how some pastors compare heaven to a church service that never ends. This is truly sad! Even though I quite enjoy the church services I am a part of! All of the portrayals you offer for contrast are not related to the Bible at all. Indeed, you are critiquing popular notions of heaven, which immediately makes me think we really need to work in our churches to portray heaven in more biblical categories and correct some of the mistaken cultural emphases that have crept in.

Your discussion of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler is helpful to frame the discussion of what the NT writers refer to when they use the Greek term aion, often translated “age.” You are able to articulate fairly clearly that their conception of reality involved two ages, this age and the age to come. This is helpfully laid out by you and many other folks. However, when you actually begin discussing the Greek term aion, you lost me. You shift to speaking of how we use the term “age.” You write, “When we use the word ‘age’ like this, we are referring less to a precise measurement of time, like an hour or a day or a year, and more to a period or era of time. This is crucial to our understanding of the word aion, because it doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever” (31). What does the way we use “age” have to do with the meaning of the Greek term aion? Do you see places in the NT where the writers use the Greek term aion to indicate something like the phrase “They were gone for ages” in English? Then, you’ve brought in the concept of forever, which strictly speaking isn’t a part of the meaning of the word aion by itself. Rather, the NT writers convey the idea of “forever” with the phrase eis ton aiona. You finish this paragraph by stating, “The first meaning of this word aion refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end” (32). How did you determine this? The first definition I find when I look up the Greek word aion in the standard Greek lexicon says “a long period of time, without ref. to beginning or end” (BDAG 32, italics added). So, how can you assert that the word refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end? I agree that it can and does mean that on occasion, but on what basis can you say that this is its first (do you mean primary?) meaning? Also, do you intend to equate “the world to come” with “eternal life” (32)? Doesn’t Jesus portray “eternal life” in the Gospel of John as something that the believer possesses now, in this age?

Next, you begin to characterize life in the age to come based on the prophetic passages that describe certain aspects of the future. After highlighting the diversity that will be present in the age to come, you comment, “A racist would be miserable in the world to come” (34). Will any racists be present in the world to come? You also focus in on the earthiness of the prophetic vision of the world to come, and you write, “It’s here they were talking about, this world, the one we know—but rescued, transformed, and renewed” (34). Perhaps. But is it possible that they were simply using familiar imagery to convey an indescribable vision of a future reality? You also comment on things that simply won’t survive into the world to come, but what about the people who perpetrate these things? Let’s not simply talk about abstractions. What about rapists, greedy people, violent people, proud people, exploiters, etc.? Will these people “survive” into the world to come? If not, why not?

You highlight God’s justice and God’s wrath beautifully: “When we hear people saying they can’t believe in a God who gets angry—yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply? What kind of God wouldn’t get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life savings?” (38) You speak of mercy and justice belonging together and kissing one another, and then you indicate that this will be “the day when earth and heaven will be the same place” (43). Isn’t the picture we’re given of a reality in which heaven and earth are united but remain distinct?

Then you come back to critique the escapist mentality that often accompanies viewing leaving this place to go to heaven as the end-goal of Christian faith. You write, “It often appears that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die talk the least about bringing heaven to earth right now, as Jesus taught us to pray: ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ At the same time, it often appears that those who talk the most about relieving suffering now talk the least about heaven when we die” (45). Doesn’t this petition in the Lord’s Prayer encompass so much more than simply alleviation of suffering? Moreover, you rightly indicate that “our eschatology shapes our ethics” (39), which is partially true. There are surely other aspects of our lives that shape our ethics. Poor eschatology may have a negative effect on our ethics, but let’s not assume that proper eschatology alone necessarily results in proper ethics.

You raise the question as to what we will do in heaven. “One possible answer is to simply ask: ‘What do you love to do now that will go on in the world to come?’” (47) Well, what things can you say with any certainty “will go on in the world to come,” and on what basis would you have this certainty? Does your emphasis on everything being in its right place according to the created order in the world to come as a grounds for our endless joy displace the joy we ought to have in the Creator himself?

Next, you address a question I had earlier raised concerning the racist. You indicate that, indeed, he will be in heaven, but his racism would not survive the flames of heaven. So, the flames of heaven “purge” the racism from this fellow? How is this different than the Catholic doctrine of purgatory? Doesn’t the NT characterize this life as the time/place when/where our sins etc. are progressively purged, with the expectation that when Jesus returns, we will see him as he is, and this vision will transform us finally into his image (1 John 3:2)?

You criticize those who would use the language of “getting in” with regard to heaven (50). Doesn’t Jesus himself use this language? With the rich young ruler? “Enter life”? “Enter the kingdom of heaven”? Then, you criticize the idea that Christians will be transformed in the blink of an eye into totally different people who “know everything” (51). I’m not sure that this is a fair representation of what Christians typically mean when they use this language. Certainly, we envision still being the same people, but that there is a significant transformation when we see Jesus face to face, I think, is biblical teaching (see, again, 1 John 3:2).

You then turn your attention to the “who of heaven” (51-4). After mentioning the sinner who went home justified after his prayer for mercy (Lk. 18), the stragglers invited into the banquet (Lk. 14), and then a single mother with the world against her, you suggest that Jesus “warns us against rash judgments about who’s in and who’s out” (54). But doesn’t his teaching instead reorient the criteria by which we make judgments, even as he instructed people to judge a tree by its fruits? Ultimately, doesn’t he point the criteria toward himself and a person’s connection with him? Then, you discuss the criminal on the cross whom Jesus promises will be with him in Paradise later that same day. Do you press the immediacy of this pronouncement for a reason? Isn’t Jesus pointing to the reality that is coming after the criminal’s death? You then note, “Paul believed that there is a dimension of creation, a place, a space, a realm beyond the one we currently inhabit and yet near and connected with it. He writes of getting glimpses of it, being a citizen of it, and being there the moment he dies” (55-6). Doesn’t this acknowledge the somewhere-else-ness of heaven? At least right now?

You return to aion by introducing Jesus’ understanding that “heaven is more real than what we experience now” (57). You suggest, then, that aion “refers to a particular intensity of experience that transcends time” (57).You go on to illustrate how we might speak of an experience that has either an intense positive effect on us or an intense negative effect on us as going on forever. Again, just because we may speak in these terms doesn’t mean in any way that the NT writers had to speak this way when using the Greek term aion. How do you come to this understanding of the term? Again, the basic standard lexicon entry for aion doesn’t mention a category of meaning that speaks of the intensity of an experience. Now, this begins the really confusing section. To give you the benefit of the doubt, I can assume that you accidentally didn’t shift to the adjective aionios, which is the Greek word that gets translated “eternal” in our English Bibles. It is related to aion, of course, but it is a different word, and doesn’t contain the simple reference to any general period of time. So, are you trying to indicate that aionios is an adjective that means “intense,” or are you trying to indicate that aion is a noun that means an “intense experience”? Here is how you clarify your point: “Let me be clear: heaven is not forever in the way that we think of forever, as a uniform measurement of time, like days and years, marching endlessly into the future. That’s not a category or concept we find in the Bible” (58). This is a huge claim! And I’m not convinced you have provided any evidence at all for why we should believe this claim. You go on to write, “This is why a lot of translators choose to translate aion as ‘eternal.’ By this they don’t mean the literal passing of time; they mean transcending time, belonging to another realm altogether” (58). If we grant that translators mean to indicate “transcending time, belonging to another realm altogether,” then does this actually imply anything at all about the intensity of the experience? And what about Matt. 1:33; Rom. 16:26; 2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 1:8-12, which all seem to be clearly referring to a period of time without end? You then apply your definition to Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler: “when Jesus talked about heaven, he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real, experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come. Heaven for Jesus wasn’t just ‘someday’; it was a present reality. Jesus blurs the lines, inviting the rich man, and us, into the merging of heaven and earth, the future and present, here and now” (58-9). I can grant most of this statement, but does that mean that Jesus didn’t envision this present reality to endure forever? Your next statement is one with which I wholeheartedly agree: “Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now. It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.” But, the big question that this chapter did not answer remains: Do we go to heaven when we die?

The gospel is certainly not all about going to heaven when we die. But isn’t that a truth we need to hang onto, with the recognition that heaven is not our final home? Let us affirm that the Bible announces a New Heaven and a New Earth and seems to indicate that Christians’ final destiny is to reign with Jesus on the New Earth. But let us also affirm that, should we die before Jesus returns to consummate the new creation, we will go to be with Jesus and it will be far better than the realities of this present age.

Interacting with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Part 1 of 6)

Several reviews have been written already regarding Bell’s new book, some of which defenders of Bell (and Bell himself, in a recent public interview) have accused of being mean-spirited, venomous, unloving, and even slanderous. I would question those labels of the reviews I have read, or I would at least desire someone to show some specific examples of what may be understood as an attack on Bell himself. After all, almost every book that is ever published receives some forms of negative criticism in book reviews, and we don’t find every author making public accusations of slander. Nevertheless, I hope to be a charitable reader.

With that said, I am writing this review primarily for my own benefit, but I intend to approach commenting on Bell’s writing in a way that perhaps he himself would appreciate. Namely, I desire to raise certain questions about parts of his book along the way. Thus, most of my comments will be addressed to Bell himself, using second-person pronouns. This is a way of being direct and it reflects my own reading strategy; I view every book I read as a conversation with the author. Indeed, I also desire to highlight some points that are incredibly praiseworthy. Throughout the book, however, my overarching question remains this: Who were you critiquing, Bell? I thought you were critiquing conservative, evangelical-types, but sometimes, being one who would accept that generally vague label, it seemed like you were critiquing someone else, someone I would critique also. The questions I’m asking are genuine questions; I really want to know these things, and I’m not in a position to assume that I know the answers. Knowing that as you articulate your own understanding of these matters you are critiquing other understandings, I will continually raise questions about why you deal with certain biblical texts and not others. It seems to me that often you did not deal with the most relevant texts in explaining your understanding of these matters. At times, I’m sure I’ve missed your point, but here I plead for more clarity. So, we will proceed with a chapter-by-chapter reading, raising questions and making observations along the way.

Preface: Millions of Us
Your opening gamut lays out God’s “expansive love…for everybody, everywhere” (vii), which is a great place to start! But, is this love the same for everybody, everywhere? If so, is this love that God has equally for everyone, everywhere the love that you are claiming “wins”?

You go on to introduce us to the “millions of us” who have heard versions of the Jesus story that repulsed us. You summarize a version of this story (or at least a part of this story): “…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” (viii). Have you ever heard “the Jesus story” summarized in just this way? Really? Did you choose the phrase “select few Christians” intentionally? In general, I would agree with this statement as a part of Christian theology, but I don’t think I would ever articulate it in these terms, and, as far as I can recall, I have never heard it put in just these terms. You go on to indicate, “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.” Characterizing Jesus’ message this way is certainly laudable, but isn’t it missing something? If we’re talking about the Jesus of the Gospels (and I assume we are), then doesn’t Jesus’ message include warnings of judgment and a call for a certain kind of response? You go on to say that you’ve written this book “because the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them.” I agree totally that the faith of Jesus “doesn’t skirt the big questions” about these and a million other things; but, with these topics in particular, wouldn’t you say that Jesus’ message answers these big questions?

You were right to highlight some communities’ failure to “permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most” (ix). This is truly sad, and I’m glad that I’m not a part of one of those communities.

You then note how Jesus “responds to almost every question he’s asked with…a question” (x). Surely you’re using hyperbole here, though that is definitely a rhetorical strategy Jesus uses with great poignancy. But, isn’t it also important to notice that Jesus’ evasive responses are usually directed to questioners who do not seem to be genuinely seeking the truth?

You close your Preface by indicating that what you will be introducing in this book is not new. Did you fear that some people would believe that what you are writing was new? Indeed, you state, “I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching that’s any kind of departure from what’s been said an untold number of times. That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. It’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences” (x-xi). How do you decide what falls into the category of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith”? (We will return to this question several times.) We can acknowledge the wideness and the diversity of the stream of traditions, but mustn’t we also recognize that every stream has boundaries?

Chapter 1—What About the Flat Tire?
Your opening story about the painting with the quote from Gandhi and the note attached with a pronouncement on Gandhi’s current whereabouts to introduce the question “will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever” was effective (1-2). Would you have used the story if it were a painting of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, or others who don’t have the same reputation as Gandhi? If someone claimed that Hitler, for example, is in hell, would you argue the same way? Then, you ask, “Can God do this or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?” Do you expect a negative answer to this rhetorical question? The way you’ve framed the question seems to be pushing for an “Obviously not” response. Why is this not “acceptable to God”? Then, you ask, “How does a person end up being one of the few?” Your suggested responses start off fairly absurd (chance, luck, random selection) and then climax with “God choosing you instead of others” (3). Is that intended to be a summary jab at those who affirm God’s election of believers? If so, why is this objectionable? You follow this up with the questions, “What kind of faith is that? Or, more important: What kind of God is that?” Would you say that those who affirm God’s election of believers, as historically taught within the Calvinist tradition, is part of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith”? If so, why do you here choose to caricature it to make it look as awful as it can look?

Next, you tell a story about a student who was killed in a car accident whose peer pronounced that, because he was a professing atheist, there was no hope for the dead student (3). You hone in on the pronouncement of “no hope” here, and then ask, “Is that the Christian message? ‘No hope’? Is that what Jesus offers the world?” But, wouldn’t you grant that the young Christian student who made this statement believed that the Christian message surely offers hope, that Jesus surely offers hope, and that he was commenting on his understanding that the dead student’s profession of atheism had indicated a rejection of the message which offered hope to him? How does God respond when his love, his offer of hope, and indeed his sacrifice is spurned and rejected or ignored? In light of this story, you raise the issue of “the age of accountability” (4). I’m not sure belief in an “age of accountability” is as prevalent in evangelical churches as you’re assuming. Moreover, you’ve over-simplified a delicate issue that serious Christians wrestle with and the Bible does not address clearly. Rather than dismiss it outright, wouldn’t you value people actually wrestling with this aspect of reality? You then apply this line of thinking to the situation of the student who died in the car crash and question whether or not God just needed more time. Doesn’t that treat the boy as though he were “spiritually neutral”? You ask those who believe he needed to make a decision “to change his eternal destiny,” “And what exactly would have had to happen in that three-year window to change his future?” (5) How would you answer this question? Would you say that he was OK as he was, believing that God does not exist? Would you say that nothing needed to change? You then go on to proffer some of the possible answers to that question that some evangelicals might suggest. You then criticize the “sinner’s prayer” that many would say must be prayed in order to be saved. This is something that needs to be criticized in the broader evangelical church, indeed, for the Bible does not teach anything like this. Stemming from this, you begin to critique the view that Christianity is all about “going to heaven when you die,” a critique which N.T. Wright has already wonderfully leveled in Surprised by Hope. Wouldn’t you say that many church leaders in evangelical circles are no longer thinking in these terms? It seems to me that there is an increased emphasis on the reality that the Bible teaches that eternal life begins now, that the Bible emphasizes Christian living now among evangelical writers and pastors and churches.

Next, you raise the possibility that Jesus may be misunderstood or presented falsely. This is the “they like Jesus but not his followers” recognition that people tend to develop their understanding of Jesus based on how Christians (and those who profess Christianity) live, which doesn’t always cast Jesus in an overly positive light. But shouldn’t we be about introducing people to the Jesus described in the Gospels? Shouldn’t we call people to encounter Jesus in the Gospels and, as much as possible, don’t project the failings of Christians to be Christlike onto Jesus himself?

Then, you set your eyes on Christian emphasis on evangelism and the proclaimed necessity that people actually hear and respond to the gospel message in order to be saved, commenting on Rom. 10:13-17. You raise the question whether people’s salvation is then dependent on other Christians’ obedience. It’s a good question and needs to be engaged. But, rather than engage, you shift gears slightly, and note that someone who would argue with you would at this point indicate that you are making the issue too difficult and forgetting that it’s all about a personal relationship with God through Jesus. Do you really think someone would bring this up to disagree with your discussion of Rom. 10? It seems an odd point in the discussion for this to come up, but it is an important point. You state, “The problem, however, is that the phrase ‘personal relationship’ is found nowhere in the Bible” (10). How about the word “covenant”? How about the phrase/concept “knowing Jesus”? Don’t those get at the same idea as “personal relationship”? In fact, isn’t the phrase “personal relationship” just a way of referring to the reality of covenant without using biblical language? You emphasize that none of the writers of the NT use this phrase, and you (cutely) add in that it was a woman who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. Why do you stick this in your books (I noticed it also in Velvet Elvis)? No scholar that I am aware of would claim to know that a woman wrote Hebrews. Indeed, most scholars would point out a grammatical issue in Heb. 11:32 which requires that the author be a male.

At the heart of Protestant orthodoxy is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but you seem to imply that we don’t actually believe that. You challenge the emphasis that Christians place on our salvation being completely a gift, implying that the way we tend to characterize the message contradicts this reality. You write, “If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him—a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds—and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren’t those verbs? And aren’t verbs actions?” (11) Isn’t that a tricky question? I can think of lots of verbs that may not refer to specific actions. Hope, for example. And, as you must be fully aware, Protestant theology typically characterizes “believing” as involving a reception of a gift, which uses the imagery of the “empty hand of faith.” But beyond this minor quibbling, even if we grant that these things are “things I do,” doesn’t Phil. 2:13 provide us with a way to see how all of that is a result of grace, all of that is a gift, and all of that is the result of the good news as it impacts my life?

You conclude your chapter with a look at several stories in the Gospels that are intended to illustrate “salvation” in one form or another, and you ask a series of questions about these stories, about what actually “saves” the individual in view. You juxtapose the questions in such a way that it becomes difficult to maintain that there is “one way” of salvation. Concerning the stories of Luke 7, 18, and 23, “So is it what you say that saves you?” (12-13) Is that what you actually see in these stories, that their confession “saved” them? Is it not possible that these stories are told in this way to illustrate that it is God/Jesus in each case who guarantees and/or effects “salvation” (healing/justification/Paradise), but that their “salvation” is connected to each man’s response? Then, you juxtapose Luke 20 and John 3 and ask, “So is it about being born again or being considered worthy? Is it what you say or what you are that saves you?” (13) Are you expecting that these questions should require opposite answers? For I would answer each question “yes.” Those who have been born again are considered worthy (because Jesus has made them worthy), and your confession flows out of your identity. You then juxtapose Matt. 6, 7, and 10 and ask, “So do we have to forgive others, do the will of the Father, or ‘stand firm’ to be accepted by God?” (13-14) Perhaps the texts are teaching that once we’re accepted by God, we forgive others, do the Father’s will, and stand firm till the end. By situating all these questions together this way, ultimately, aren’t you actually putting Jesus in a bad light? How do you avoid implying that Jesus muddled these issues?

In Mark 2, when Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic on account of “their faith,” isn’t it probable that Mark is noting the faith of all 4 men, including the paralytic? (15)

Why do you juxtapose 1 Cor. 7:16 and 1 Tim. 2:15, both difficult texts, and both impossible to understand outside their contexts? (16)

Haven’t you left out a lot of important details about Paul’s conversion? (15-16)

No one denies that there are a variety of stories and ways for speaking of salvation in the NT, so why are you juxtaposing all of these stories? What is your point? Finally, at the end of chapter 1, you indicate plainly that your book is “a book of responses to these questions” (19). So, you have set us up to expect certain answers to the questions you raise. Some have defended you for merely raising questions; but, here you indicate that this book is intended to answer the questions you raise in a certain way. How do you handle those who answer the questions differently?