On Rob Bell

So last week, after a long time wondering about it, I finally got around to reading (listening to) the controversial Love Wins by Rob Bell.

If I have any friends who have actually read it (I know a lot of us have opinions about the book without having read it), I’d love to discuss it.

Here are some initial thoughts:

  • He might be evangelical (more on that below).
  • There is one thing that reading this book solidified for me beyond doubt: Rob Bell is a brilliant, absolutely exceptional thinker and communicator. For every point in the book I disagreed with, I found just as many profound insights into aspects of the Gospel, and imaginative, compelling ways of communicating them. He is no lightweight, sentimental popular theologian; he is well and widely-read, and his intellectual bravery – willingness to think original thoughts and question common assumptions – should be a lesson to us all, certainly a challenge to me.
  • Right or wrong, his ideas in the book are worth listening to and thinking about for serious, thinking Christians.
  • There is no doubt that he definitely does espouse a version of universalism. He doesn’t express this ambiguously in the book. It’s quite clear. Although, some aspects of his precise conception of how it works are left unexplained – probably because he admittedly doesn’t claim to have figured it all out.
  • However, the way he formulates, and arrives at, his version of universalism is very… well, evangelical. That is, it comes from his interpretation of the Bible, not a rejection of the Bible. He perceives himself to be agreeing with Jesus and Paul and John, not evolving beyond their ideas, which leads me to my next point:
  • There are three main things that tell me that he was not trying to depart from the historic Christian faith, and his evangelical roots:
  1. An explicit statement to that effect in his own preface, where he said that he has no desire to be original, but thinks himself to be expressing very old, Christian ideas.
  2. His acknowledgements and thanks at the end of the book, the first of which was to Erwin McManus (who I’m pretty sure believes in the traditional hell), and from there he listed several personal recommendations for further reading, which included Tim Keller’s “The Prodigal God,” and NT Wright’s “Surprised By Hope,” both of which he  held in very high regard, and then he thanked his parents for getting him to read CS Lewis when he was younger. His love of these authors communicates an identification with the camp/community/system of religion that they exist in.
  3. A list of orthodox, evangelical beliefs he affirms within the book, which I’ve listed at the bottom.
  • These considerations make me question the way the evangelical world responded to Love Wins, and whether statements of “farewell”, as if he had departed the faith, were fair, just, and wise. It seems to me that the basic question Love Wins was trying to ask was not, “Should we continue to be evangelicals about Hell?”, but rather “Can evangelicals faithfully and Biblically embrace a vision of the New Creation in which all people and all things might eventually be redeemed?”
  • The question this book has genuinely led me to ask is, Whether or not Bell’s version of universalism is correct, can it be considered a legitimately evangelical position? In the same way evangelicals currently allow differing views on predestination, the gifts of the Spirit, or women’s roles in ministry – and just as John Stott famously said that annihilationism can be considered an evangelical position – is there enough uncertainty about what the Bible says about Hell that call we can accept certain formulations of universalism among the various possible eschatologies within evangelical Christianity? I’m just asking. I haven’t answered this for myself yet.

List of orthodox evangelical beliefs Rob Bell espouses in Love Wins:

  1. Jesus as the divine, incarnate Son of God, Israel’s promised Messiah.
  2. That Jesus died for our sins (including a penal substitutionary atonement interpretation of it).
  3. The bodily resurrection of Jesus.
  4. That Jesus will return to Earth and God will make a New Creation where everything will be perfect as it was originally intended to be in Eden.
  5. That God is just, hates evil, and will judge, condemn and punish evil.
  6. Hell is a real thing (whatever it means), and is the deserved punishment for those who reject God’s rule over their life.
  7. While he doesn’t express it, his whole book assumes that the Bible is how we know stuff about God (and yes, definitely including the Old Testament).
  8. Probably some other things I forgot.

Less orthodox things espoused in Love Wins:

  1. God won’t punish those who reject him with eternal, conscious torment.
  2. (If I’m interpreting him correctly) Those who have rejected God will, in the New Creation, be banished from the New Jerusalem in which only goodness is allowed, BUT, their banishment is never final, and it will never be too late for them to change their mind, and choose to enter God’s Kingdom.
  3. Those who have accepted God’s rule will be accepted into the New Jerusalem in which everything will be perfect, but they will also always be free to leave, and to go off and live their own way.
  4. Probably some other things I forgot.

Things his argument depends on:

  1. The precise meaning of the New Testament word commonly translated into “eternal”.
  2. To be honest a lot is hanging on that word.
  3. How much of Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man (going to heaven and hell respectively) is allegorical and how much is meant to portray an accurate cosmology.
  4. Revelation and all that.

Anyone who would object to the notion of God on the grounds of suffering, should only do so with the knowledge that there exists one religion that conceives of a God who experienced more of that suffering than any other being in the universe, in order to rescue us from it.

If “God” is to be found guilty, then this God must be among those put on trial, as a suffering God is the only God Christians have ever proposed.

Don’t preach against abortion if you’re not willing to help take care of abandoned children – and single mothers.

Don’t preach against corporate greed if you’re not willing to give your possessions to the poor.

Don’t preach against homosexuality if you’re not willing to invest part of your life into befriending and encouraging gay individuals. On that note, don’t preach against homosexuality if you won’t also preach against all bullying inflicted on homosexuals.

And don’t preach about Hell if you’re not willing to put your life on the line to stop people going there.

Stations on the Road to Freedom

Suffering

A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active,

are bound; in helplessness now you see your action

is ended; you sigh in relief, your cause committing

to stronger hands; so now you may rest contented.

Only for one blissful moment could you draw near to touch freedom;

then, that it might be perfected in glory, you gave it to God.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

On the day when the former things pass away, when there is no more pain and no more tears, when there is no more shame or fear.

On that day,

There will be no more failure.

From that day you will never let anyone down anymore. Your neighbour or your Lord.

No more harm will come from your hands, your lips or your heart.

Your failings in the present life will cease. For the former things have passed away.

Just hold on for that day.

The Pursuit of Knowledge.

“Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will cease; as for tongues, they will be stilled; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away…

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

– 1 Corinthians 13:8-10,12


Never do I feel more ignorant than when I browse the walls of a library. When I actually come close and look at the titles of each of these books, I feel overwhelmed with this sense of hopelessness; I am surrounded by such a wealth of knowledge, whose riches seem so valuable, but far too expansive to ever attain.

These are not books about nothing. When you read the outside covers of them, and choose to consider the information they contain, you can appreciate the effort someone went to in acquiring and expressing it. And, even though just about every book in my university library is of an incredibly specific topic, to my surprise almost every one of them that I take the time to read the back of actually seems pretty interesting. And as I put it back on the shelf, I so often wish I had the time to read it, and learn what it has to teach me.

There is so much to learn about the world, but just not enough time.

Continue reading

Even if.

Even when it means you need to sacrifice everything.

Even when you have to surrender your body to the flames, and your heart to prolonged torment.

Even when it hurts more than anything imaginable.

When it doesn’t even feel noble or romantic, but feels ugly and dark and confusing.

Even when it means the world will hate you.

Even if you lose everything or everyone you’ve ever loved, and gain nothing from this world in return;

neither respect, nor honour, nor dignity, nor gratitude.

…     …      …      …     …      …

It is worth loving people.

It is worth breathing every breath you have been given in this life, for the humble service of others.

Because to love is to know your creator.

And he will wipe away every tear, in due time.

C.S. Lewis on love.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung out and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.

But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.

The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

– From The Four Loves Ch.6. ‘Charity’.