In case you missed part one, here it is.
This review confounds me. And I have learned from this process that it is supposed to. I, no kidding, have probably written this review five times since finishing the book. Every time, though, it never seemed to get the points I wanted to across. I mean, every time, it either got too wordy, focused on the wrong things, or lost the heart of what I was trying to say. I think in all honesty, it came down to the fact that I was trying to do too much, and that every time i started to talk about criticisms, it ended up taking away from the positive things that I think Love Wins brings to the discussion of of the role of the church and how we act on what we believe.
The fact is that it is the discussion that is most important. There are hard questions about the faith, and some maybe have been in the shadows or ignored for a long while, and if this book does anything, it is forcing many believers to check those very beliefs, ground themselves in the study of the Word, and have conversations with others to actually take ownership of their beliefs, and not simply rely on mother or father’s religion.
So, in the spirit of that, I will talk about the things that I have been discussing, and share my thoughts on those things. Here are the things that I am looking at and evaluating myself.
1. Does a real, eternal hell exist?
I believe that a literal and contextual interpretation of the Bible supports the concept of an eternal state of a separation from God. I don’t like the word “hell”, because I think that it really is a word used to help us imagine what that separation might feel like, and I think that there is evidence in scripture that Jesus does just that, when he compares it to the burning trash pit outside of Jerusalem. A physical description for a spiritual state. How might the Son of God accurately describe what it is like to be apart from God (like he would be for three days) to people that had yet to experience it? I think a flaming trash-heap that never stops burning is a close comparison. I just also have issue because of his interpretive biblical stance (trajectory hermeneutics) he kind of picks and chooses the verses he wants to use to help his position. For example, Luke 16, when Bell uses this image of the afterlife to support that hell isn’t eternal, he stretches interpretation of the passage. Here is what it says:
9″Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day.
20“And a poor man named Lazarus (S)was laid at his gate, covered with sores,
21and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.
22“Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to (T)Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried.
23“In (U)Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.
25“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that (X)during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony.
26‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’
Bell’s interpretation: “The chasm is his heart”.
Discussion point: There is good literal and contextual evidence for an eternal separation from God, despite how uncomfortable that image might be.
2. Does God send people to hell?
Rob Bell is quoted in a recent commercial for his book tour as saying (loose paraphrase, because I cannot find the clip): “Does God want to send billions of people to hell for not hearing about a Jesus they didn’t know existed?” Bell cites that if God is all-powerful, and is all-love, and that he doesn’t want anyone to go to an existence apart from God, then there has to be a misunderstanding about this whole “hell” thing. Bell rightfully, though, also reports that God can’t break his own rules. Citing the problems with free will, Bell indicates that God can’t make us love him. Bell can’t have it both ways. Either God is all-powerful, or God follows the rules he sets. Well, the answer is both.
To add to that, I struggle with Bell’s assertion that God “sends” people to “hell” and that God is a slave driver that has to be appeased by Jesus, as his interpretation of the traditional concept of sin and eternal separation. “Have nothing to do with that God” he says. Well, I agree. The issue that I struggle with however, is that Rob Bell and I apparently don’t agree on what sin actually is. Sin (and with it the consequence of spiritual death) are not things that God does to us, but instead are things that we do to ourselves. We condemn ourselves through sin. We don’t need God to do that for us.
Discussion point: Can the idea of an eternal separation exist if my understanding of sin doesn’t involve him sending me anywhere, but me sending myself?
3. Is the traditional, modern, church a lost cause? Am I exclusionary?
Bell asserts that the belief that you must “accept”, “trust”, “hope”, “pray” (etc.) about/in the sacrifice of Christ is an exclusionary idea. His interpretation of a “cosmic” God, or one that is much bigger than even this planet or humanity, cannot be exclusive. Using language like “can it be that only a few people make it into eternal bliss?” first, ignores that this is not the will of God (considering he gave us the Great Commission), and second, is not how I view the church. The purpose of the church on the earth is to ensure that no one is excluded from the hope of Christ. Also, time and time again, Bell carefully shapes all of the ideas and behaviors in the church that are reprehensible (for example, a rapist that sings hymns while raping, racism, ageism, neglect of the poor and needy) and then carefully attaches them to the idea of an eternal separation from God. Reading the book, I almost felt bad for thinking that the separation can exist, knowing that it lumps me (generalized as it may be) into a set of behaviors that are reprehensible by anyone who claims to follow Christ.
First, I don’t think the church is lost, and second, I don’t think that my belief that an eternal separation from God is a reality lumps me into that category.
Discussion Point: Can I be a authentic follower of Christ and still believe that “hell” can exist?
4. Do you need Jesus (by name and person) to be “saved”?
Bell uses the example of Moses and the rock as a metaphor for Christ, and then asserts that “Christ” rocks are everywhere. Bell is not a big fan of a regimented prayer for salvation. Well, on that he and I agree. I think we put too much emphasis on what words we need to say instead of what life we need to live. The issue is, unfortunately, that Bell stretches Christ out so thin, that at times (and I am unsure of this, but there is a video linked at the bottom) I wonder if he believes in the necessity of Christ at all. To that, I consider another story of Moses:
7(J)So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; (K)intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people.
8Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a (L)fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.”
9And Moses made a (M)bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.
In this very story, is the story of all creation:
1) Man sinned against God. (v7)
2) God provided a savior (a way to redemption and reconciliation). (v8)
3) Those that acknowledge the means of salvation, are “saved”. (v9)
The salvation (Jesus) was/is present all the time … we must, however, still look upon it for reconciliation. Now that process is a mystery, as Bell so eloquently points out in the first chapter of his book where he cites all of the different examples by which man can be saved, but the fact remains that all of those examples, though they differ in many ways, involve some kind of response to the person of Jesus.
Discussion Point: Is belief and faith in the person of Jesus necessary for the fullness of life here and in the hereafter?
5. How can a wrathful God also be a loving God?
This is the paradox that is impacting the very foundation of the community of faith today. It is summed up as this:
How do I balance a holy, righteous, and wrathful God with one whose mercy and love endure forever?
There are two camps it seems in the current church. One was more prevalent in an earlier generation (fire and brimstone anyone), though it is still present today in picketed military funerals and bombed abortion clinics. These are the ones that favor the former image. They favor a God who damns all the sinners (and thank God we aren’t those people) and rains judgement on their enemies. Most would agree that this image of God is, if not altogether incorrect, is at least missing the whole picture.
Well, there is another camp as well. This is the one that falls within Bell and others that believe the way that he does. This is the believer that explains away wrath and judgement as “misinterpretations”, especially in Old Testament contexts, or cites judgement as simple imagery. These are the ones that avoid the descriptions of God as righteous or holy, for fear that God might actually ask them to change something about themselves to match Him. (as a matter of note, Rob Bell uses the word “holy” twice in his book, with one of them being a reference to the type of god to “have nothing to do with”.)
The fact of the matter is that both positions miss aspects of the total picture of God. I wrestle with this all the time, attempting to understand the balance. Make no mistake, each of the descriptors in bold above are certifiable and undeniable aspects of the God of the Universe, no matter how opposite they feel. It is our life journey to work to see how they work together to get a complete, and whole image of our God.
Discussion Point: Is God big enough to sometimes have attributes that seem far apart from each other?
In closing, I feel even as I schedule this post to run, that I have simply done it again. That it is too wordy, and that I have missed the heart of the message. I am afraid that this will come off as Bell-bashing post. It is not. It is meant to indicate the importance that I feel to have these discussions with ourselves and others.
Below is a brief list of links to other reviews and sources for some information on the book. Enjoy.