So I’d like to go on record. I had a Love Wins bumper sticker on my car, long before it became so politically charged.I found myself last month thrust into the middle of a debate that apparently I had already decided on. At least that’s what the rear of my car says.
Also, I had pre-ordered Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” a month before it ever became so controversial. When I saw Rob’s promotional video, and subsequent Twitter mania and blogging madness, I was overwhelmed with sadness. It seems like the divide among evangelicals is just getting deeper and deeper. And now, at the center of the controversy is Hell.
Ot at least that’s what people are saying.
But I think, it’s something else, something deeper.
In his book, Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell first awoke the ire of some of his more persistent critics with this paragraph:
“What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births?…What if that were seriously questioned? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian? Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or does the whole thing fall apart?”
Now Bell goes on to vigorously affirm the virgin birth. His point isn’t to deconstruct this. His point is what people call Foundationalism. Which is just a big word for certainty. What he is trying to say (and does it quite well) is that this whole thing is faith. And if we approach it like it’s something that is scientific fact, or an unquestionable reality it’s not going to be sustainable. Just try telling your kids never to ask questions about their faith…it might work, until college.
And this, in my opinion, is Rob Bell’s gift to the Christian world again with this book. Sure, it’s got it’s weak points, and things I disagree with (I’ve never read a book I agreed 100% with). but over all the best thing Bell did was shine a light on somethings that a lot of Christians have thought of as impervious to questions. To be honest, most Western Christianity perceptions of hell is probably much more influenced by Dante’s Inferno than by the Scriptures.
Because Scriptures don’t talk about it that much.
Now I believe and affirm God’s judgment (so did Bell, by the way). I think that the Day of the LORD is a day that we should anticipate with joy. It’s going to be a great thing, and not for everyone. But I think that we’ve gotten pretty good at drawing some pretty large assumptions about who is in and who is out. And Rob Bell did a great job challenging those assumptions. But before you think he’s stepping out on a huge limb…think about some of the company he keeps.
C.S. Lewis wrote a great parable in the Great Divorce about the afterlife. Buses drive everyday from Hell to Heaven, but no one would get on them. Their pride or unforgiving attitude wouldn’t let them go. But the buses kept running. They wouldn’t leave Hell because Hell was in them (a point Bell made thoroughly).
And to press the matter, I don’t think Bell was doing much beyond what Jesus did. Because when Jesus did talk about judgment most of the time, it was about the surprise about who was going to be in and who was going to be out. There was one parable, in particular, that I’d like to point out. It’s this one. The parable of the Wheat and the Tares. It’s Jesus warning his disciples not to assume that they’ve got God’s preferred future all figured out. It’s a warning against the certainty of judging others futures. The whole point was for God’s people to be careful about rigidly defining just who “God’s people” are. Because in the words of Rob Bell, “Heaven will be full of surprises.”
Now Rob Bell doesn’t just ask questions. He presents a view, and it is somewhat of a controversial one. To get the whole view, read the book (seriously it’s just a bit longer than this blog). But know, Bell never denies that Hell exists. He emphasizes that Hell is a present and future reality. What he does have is a generous view of salvation, who God is and how God will judge. But Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Seminary (one of the most respected seminaries in the world) helped me out a bit with this. He asked a great question about the backlash to Bell’s book,”Why is the Christian world so much harder on people with salvific generosity than people with salvific stinginess?”
That is, why do we tend allow people who have a very rigid view of who’s in/who’s out, someone with a negative view of the nature of God, to have a voice at the table, but when someone who believes on the other spectrum comes along…it’s heresy.
I think it’s because Bell is asking these questions, that are good questions, ones we would do well to pay attention to…even if we don’t land where he does.Because they shake the certainty that we’ve built around answers to questions that honestly Scripture just doesn’t talk about as much as we think it does.*
I’d like to remind us that certainty can be a good friend to arrogance.
Did you know that in the ancient Hebrew, they didn’t say everlasting, or eternal, or forever? That’s more of a Greco-Roman idea. Instead they would talk about the age to come. They trusted that God would judge the world setting it right, and every person would face the raw goodness of this God. But they never tied this age to come with words like forever. And what’s interesting is why…to talk with certainty about what God was going to do or not do in the afterlife was treading on dangerous ground. It was seen as arrogant. They trusted that God had a future for them, and that God was good. But they would never say eternal. Just the Age to come.
And in that age to come, I’m convinced Love Wins.
I’m keeping the bumper sticker.
*Read the book…particularly about Bell’s treatment of everytime the word Hell is mentioned in the Bible. It takes him 2 pages, and it’s exhaustive. Seriously.