The furore behind the newest book from evangelical Christianity’s very own ‘rock star’ the communicator extraordinaire and Pete Rollins fan (bound to be a heretic then): Rob Bell, is both bizarre and funny, and depressing – depending upon how one looks at it. I won’t repost the video, as everyone in the world has now seen it at least once. It is good though.
I suppose if I was in the Harper One publicity team I would have a grin the size of the Forth Bridge, as this amount of advance publicity in an age of falling book sales is bound to be very welcome.
If I was Rob Bell I suppose I would be thinking similarly, although probably a bit upset by having to put up with a bit of flack too, mind you he must be used to that by now though.
So the book is called ‘Love Wins’ – and like the vast majority of the mud and insult slingers I too have not read it. However, I have managed to read a few words by people like Brian McLaren who have read it, and I think I can manage an educated guess about how this is all going to pan out.
Eventually I suspect that people will realise that in fact Rob is not quite the heretic people are saying that he is. Being branded a ‘Universalist’, after all, is a handy ‘insult’ to throw at anyone apparently preaching a less than ‘hell fire and brimstone’ message, the same has been said about Shane Claiborne and others, and will be said over and over again.
So anyway in this post, I am going to attempt to:
1) Talk a bit about what the book seems to be about, and the ideas that would appear to be behind it (haven’t read it yet remember).
2) Wonder what all this row says about the Church.
So taking the first point first: where does Rob Bell seem to be coming from in all this, is he indeed a Universalist, (and would it matter if he was?)
First point is, I think its clear that Bell is coming from the same sort of direction as CS Lewis – he that is beloved by all, except for the ‘awkward’ parts of his output (and lifestyle) which we choose blithely to ignore. You might say that we all like Narnia, except for the bit at the end where the Muslim substitute guy gets accepted by Aslan, which we prefer not to think about.
Lewis’ theology is actually reasonably straightforward on this: we have free will. We have freedom to choose God, or not to choose God. There is a choice. Now for evangelicals this is highly problematic, because we need to be sure when that choice has been made, and how. So in certain circles there are little tests to be sure that the choice is clear – have you had the relevant ritual performed? Have you said the prescribed words? Have you undergone the specific spiritual experience required?
Of course this leaves out a whole swathe of humanity who live and die in ignorance of the necessity for them to perform the required rituals/prayers/etc and who thus die and are cast into everlasting fire and suffering. Because that is what God is like – dead horrible to anyone who never heard of him. That may or may not include by the way, depending upon one’s persuasion: unborn children and the mentally handicapped. Now in these latter instances we might manage to work around it by taking of ‘innocence’ suspending the usual doctrine of original sin to offer a free pass to those who it would seem too unfair to consign to eternal torment.
Many evangelicals also believe in Hell by the way – based upon about three passages of new testament scripture, they dont like the Hebrew concept of the grave (Sheol) they prefer the Revelation idea of a firey pit. Toasty. Any evangelical speaking out against the doctrine of hell, and suggesting that something in a fire might get burned up, or indeed even asking if everlasting life is only granted to those who go the other way, then what are people in hell doing being alive too? Are roundly grumbled at. Heretics.
A brief aside at this point on the ‘authority’ of scripture. Can we just make it clear that when it was written that ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3:16) The new testament was not yet available. This referred to the canon of Hebrew Scripture at the time, which, rather awkwardly, would have included certain books now considered apocraphyl. Ho hum.
Authority is an interesting word, and the best person of our generation by far to have thought it out with clarity is NT Wright, you can read some of his thoughts on this very subject here. But we must understand that opponents and sceptics of our faith are quite correct that aspects of the Bible seem to be contradictory – bits of the gospels dont seem to be factually correct – and different translations mean that we can make whole passages have entirely different meanings, because in the case of the Hebrew, the translators have to choose which vowels to put into the text. Our book is not a Koran. The Koran to the Muslims is what Jesus is to us – the living word of God. If we make the Bible into a Koran, what do we do with Jesus? The Bible contains revelation from God, and the possibility of further revelations. It is a collection of God breathed wisdom aggregated over centuries, with huge amounts of mystery and extraordinary stuff in it. It contains forms of literature which are scarcely to be found anywhere else now, and which were never intended to be read just as if they were Topsy and Tim. It uses literary devices which meant something to people who lived over 1000 years ago, and which have passed us by. I could write more, but won’t for now. Maybe another day.
So back to the concept of Hell - as we were taught it back in sunday school, Hell is very problematic. And, to be honest, very much open to interpretation.
But regardless of how we might conceive of Hell, lets just think of is as a God-less (un)existence: the question Bell seems to be asking is – who goes there? Could it be then that he is suggesting that some non Christians actually end up with God rather than suffering eternal agony? Shurely shome mishtake!
I mean to suggest that somebody like the patriarch Abraham, who never knew of Jesus, was not a Jew or a Christian, but some kind of monotheistic nomadic Iraqi chieftain/warlord, might be allowed in would be ridiculous wouldnt it? Ahem. OK, bad example.
Or what about following Jesus’ guidance as to who goes to heaven? Unlike the pharisees and scribes who suggested that people who do good and love others might be saved, Jesus was very clear that to be saved one must follow the law – darn it, no sorry its the other way around – another bad example. Bad Jesus, back in your box.
By the way, the book of Proverbs is a good home for proof text fans, you can find almost anything you want in there, so in good old fashioned style, I find my own proof text there too: Proverbs 22:11 – check it yourself.
So Rob Bell suggests that Love wins – we might well ask, who is Love anyway? I’m sure the Bible says who love is, but I just can’t quite bring it to mind.
The bottom line is it is not for us to be assigning people to heaven or indeed hell – it is for us to be living as if heaven is right here, right now. The Kingdom of God, if we believe in living out what we pray for, is to come here now. (The kingdom of God by the way, is justice, peace, and joy in the Holy spirit – so I’m told.) Eternal life is not something to be looked forward to, eternal life has already begun. Let’s not waste it going on about how Gandhi wasn’t a Christian. If Gandhi followed Jesus, which I believe he shows masses of evidence of, then its going to be up to Jesus what happens to Gandhi isnt it? Trouble is, you know what Jesus is like – all that forgiving and everything. He’s not a good advert for evangelicalism Jesus you know. Far too liberal with sinners.
Even my friend Joe, who prefers to blog about chocolate, trains and Thanet than God, got worked up enough to talk about this subject – would you Adam and Eve it eh. He wonders if peace loving, self denying, others prefering, God-fearing Muslims might not be spared the eternal wrath of a vengeful Deity. Come on Joe, now you really are out of order. We all know that Muslims are evil. After all, with their middle eastern monotheism, their devotion to God and determination to see him proclaimed king over all the world, they are a bit like Abraham. Yeah ok, bad example again. At least CS Lewis wouldnt have let any of them into heaven. Yeah ok, another bad example. Bad Lewis – back in your box.
So moving on – what does this furore say about the Church? Does it show us to be loving, peaceable, overlooking one another’s faults, bearing with each other, humble, willing to accept that we might not know absolutely everything there is to know? Yes well – maybe just maybe we have shown ourselves up again, naughty Church – back in your box. Be careful though – you might find Jesus in there.
The problem is that it shows the church to be much more concerned with what is going to happen to us when we die, than what is happening to other people right now. Lets be clear, there are people in a state of hell rigth at this very minute, and they are here on earth. The Church was criticised once for wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, we too are in danger of sitting around rubbing our hands together with glee thinking about future paradise while millions starve, suffer and die. If we’re content to let others dwell in Hell in the here and now, I doubt we truly deserve to go anywhere good when we die.
This discussion shouldnt be about how we all get sorted out when the final moments arrive, this should be about why we’re so concerned with our own theories of eternal judgement rather than getting on with loving our neighbour. Even that guy Abraham looked at Sodom and prayed for deliverance for those who were to suffer. Today millions suffer, and will continue to do so. The poor you know, will always be with us. Somebody who knew what they were on about said that. Rob Bell says Love Wins – I agree, God wins, and we need to be quite clear that the Bible and Jesus message is not principally about ‘do this’ and you’ll go to heaven. The gospel is good news for the poor, not the rich.
A few other people who have been writing about this issue:
Kester has mentioned it once or twice in one of his ‘makes a change from talking about Pirates’ blog series. Look – he’s at it again.
It got a bit of a write up on Chrisitanity Today.
This guy actually read it! Heretic.
The slacktivist is concerned about ‘Team Hell‘.
Maggi Dawn writes very brainily about the concept of Universalism.
Justin Taylor is pretty sure he knows what’s what.
This is Rob’s site – he’s going to live stream the book launch, I wonder if he will have his handcart with him.
And if you want to know what CS Lewis thought about free will – here you go:
“God willed the free will of men and angels in spite of His knowledge that it could lead in some cases to sin and thence to suffering: i.e., He thought freedom worth creating even at that price.”