Friday, June 03, 2011

Thoughts on Love Wins

After reading a lot of different opinions on Love Wins, the newest book by Rob Bell, I decided I should probably read it for myself.   So I did that.  What follows are my thoughts on the book.  I think the best way to go through it is roughly chapter by chapter.  If you do not want to read the details here is my brief summary:  I do not recommend this book.  While poetically written, the issues at hand are quickly muddled.  There are some excellent observations in the book, but the conclusion is a distortion of scripture at best and heresy at worst. 

So if you want to know why I have arrived at that summary, keep reading:

The first chapter of the book is nothing but questions.  Lots, and lots of questions.  These questions are intentionally asked to point out the contradictions and logical flaws in Evangelical theology when it comes to heaven and hell.  One of the things that Bell exposes is that in this regard contemporary evangelical theology is a mess of mixed ideas.  Specifically, there are contradictory ideas that people have free will to choose or not to choose AND everything happens for a reason.  I am willing to bet many Christians probably do believe both of these things, and they never think how in opposition they are.  These convergent streams of thought come to a head at the issue of salvation.  It seems that at some level Rob Bell himself is trying to hold versions of these thoughts and this book is his how he weaves together his own beliefs.  I made a comment early on, that Bell needs to read Wesley because it seems that a notion of previenent grace would have been helpful in answering a lot of his questions.   

Questions are asked to help find answers.  The troubling part about this first chapter, is that these questions are not made to find answers.  The questions that Bell asks are used to ask even more questions, or they are largely rhetorical.  Like all rhetorical questions, they are less questions and more statements that chip away at something.  Without stating it, Bell is using the questions in this chapter to weaken a theological position that he is going to completely tear down later.  This position is Penal Substitution  or really just about any traditional understanding of Atonement.

The next chapter that focuses on heaven is the strongest part of the book.  Bell does a great job at dismissing some of the more ridiculous myths about heaven (like all sitting on clouds playing harps).   One of the best points that Bell makes in the book is in this section.  Bell writes accurately, "What we find Jesus teaching over and over and over again is that he's interested in our heart being transformed, so that we can actually handle heaven."  He then follows up that thought with this one:  "Eternal life does not begin when we die; it starts now."   Bell makes the point that being a Christian is not all a mystical afterlife, but it is about a changed life that starts now.  Bell makes a very astute observation I have never thought of before.  He points out that the Bible never says that when we are made new in heaven that it will be easy.  We assume that there will be a magical switch flipped that makes us perfect.  Other than it makes it easier for us, there really is know reason to assume this, and it helps give a complete picture about why holy living in this life is so important. 

The rest of the book, really is devoted to Bell's understanding of hell.  First he discusses hell as a place, and then gives his theological reasoning for what he believes.  It is really at this point that Bell really loses me.  First he argues that Hell is not a metaphysical location, but it is instead a state of being.  At least I think.   Bell never really clearly states his position in a definable way.  He, at best, just gives impressions of what he believes.  The closest Bell gets to actually defining hell in his understanding is when he writes:  Hell is our refusal to trust God's retelling of our story.  Right. . I am not sure that really means anything.  Since nothing is put down in certainty, from this point forward I am writing about how I understood Bell's thoughts . . so I could be wrong in my understanding. 

The way that Bell arrives to his understanding of hell not being an actual place of judgment is highly suspect at best.  First (and this is a problem elsewhere in the book as well) Bell is highly selective in what he pays attention to in the scripture.  He states what he says are all the instances of hell talked about in the Bible, but he leaves a few out like Matthew 25:41: "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."   One of the major arguments that Bell makes in this area involves a terrible twisting of scripture.  Bell takes Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the Rich man and the argues that this is not about the afterlife and judgment, but is instead about making God honoring choices in the present.    Now in part this is true, because the story does serve as a warning.  However, to completely write off the contents of the story as pure allegory is not a good idea.  Especially, with the way that Bell goes about doing this.  The crux of his argument is that that Hebrews did not really care or give much thought about what happens after death.  Really?  Existential angst, the fear of death, is a universal part of the human condition. To write that ancient Jews would not have given thought to what happens after death is foolish.  To discount an entire scripture based on this faulty reasoning is irresponsible. 

Much of the last third of the book or so is devoted to Bell explaining what he believes happens after death.  As best as I understand, Bell believes that people do live in hell for a while, meaning hell is there "state of being".  However, Bell argues that in the end God gets what God wants.   What God wants is the salvation and redemption of everything and everyone.  He specifically cites Philippians 2 and  Psalm 22 as his reasoning for this.    Many of the critiques of  this book is that Bell is a universalist.  He is not in the traditional sense.  The standard view of universalism: "many paths up the same mountain" is a posistion he denies in the book.  However, Bell does believe in universal salvation.  He does seem to believe that in the time frame of eternity everyone will eventually turn to and accept God.  In doing so they will be redeemed and freed from their hellish state of being.   

Bell's argument is based in God's love.   He believes that God loves everyone so much that God never, ever gives up on them even after death.  God, after all according to the bible, is love.  The fallacy in Bell's argument is that he completely leaves out another fundamental element of God's nature:  God is just.  Because God is perfectly just, God must punish sin.  This is why the cross, the sacrificial act of Jesus to pay our penalty is the ultimate act of love.  Without God's pardon, without the grace of the cross, God's love is weakened.   Bell's argument may be appealing to many, but carried out to it's logical conclusion it presents a God that is weakened, a Cross that is pointless, and a God that is not radically loving. 

Bell presents the gospel without the gospel.  He presents following Christ as a Lord but not a savior.  Bell categorically and unconditionally denies atonement in his book.  Ironically, in Bell's book love loses because by denying God's love for us on the cross, the love that saves us from hell, he denies the very nature of love: "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.(Romans 5:6-8)

It is my strongest conviction that Bell is wrong in what he writes in this book, and because of how this book is written it can be very misleading and I think it is best avoided.