Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rob Bell's Love Wins

I'm late to the “Love Wins” debate/discussion, but better late than never! (I should also note that-- for better/worse-- I have no other significant experience with Bell's work.)

Probably the most famous portion of the book—and the moment at the heart of attempts to market the book—is its opening on Gandhi (1-2). Bell relays the story of someone responding to the inclusion of a Gandhi quote on a piece of art. Someone attached a note on/near the art which said “Reality check: He’s in hell.”

Bell’s reply: “Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?”

A few thoughts. As in the rest of the book, Bell asks a ton of questions here. I didn’t count, but there may be more questions than statements—and there are certainly more questions than answers.

From one angle, this is a good sort of frustration for Bell to offer his readers. Asking questions is in line with God’s approach (whose first recorded words post-Fall are questions). Questions are also frequent in the ministry of Jesus. They promote thought on complex topics. They’re helpful for people to take ownership of what they believe. And so on.

But questions can come from a bad place. To note, the Devil’s first recorded words are also questions—and Satan uses questions to mess with Jesus in the Wilderness! In sum, questions stir the soul—for good and sometimes for ill.

Combining the two points: Questions make it difficult to infer the motives from which the questions emanate. Are the questions to stir thought, to play defense, to offer a temptation, and so on? And thus, questions also make it easier to map our own concerns and supposition onto those offering the questions. Not surprisingly, then, Bell’s book has been addressed with everything from serious wrestling to simplistic attacks.

So, what is Bell trying to say with the Gandhi example and the questions that follow? There are a few likely possibilities. First, Bell may want to subtly promote a doctrinal position (or at least promote thought about it) that is outside Christian “conventional wisdom” (or even outside the pale of Christian orthodoxy)—some form of “inclusivism”, “annihilationism”, or “universalism”. (I don't think that's his primary goal, but more on that later.) Bell speaks directly to inclusivism, perhaps alludes to annihilationism and seems to flirt with universalism.

“Annihilationism” is the belief that those who do not want to be with God in Heaven will be “annihilated”—their souls will be destroyed. (Various views on annihilationism speculate on when that will take place.) In a nutshell, instead of receiving eternal punishing (punishing throughout eternity), one will receive an eternal punishment (in the sense of finality). Although not the conventional view on Hell, etc., it is within the pale of orthodoxy since there is strong Scriptural support for the position. (Bell doesn’t address this directly—which is really surprising-- unless his primary point is not "doctrinal".)

Universalism is the belief that (most) all will be saved through Jesus, whether they accept Jesus or God’s grace on Earth or not. There are a variety of approaches here, but they range from a God who isn’t all that Holy or a God who is Holy but provides a second chance in the afterlife (that is rarely if ever refused). Neither is acceptable.

Inclusivism is the belief that all are saved through Jesus (John 14:6)—but behind that, by God’s grace. So, one could be saved by embracing the grace of God—through the saving work of Christ Jesus—without knowing anything about the bearded man from Galilee. This view allows for a smoother transition from the OT and provides a compelling answer to some difficult questions, such as how God deals with “those who have never heard the Gospel”.

Here’s how C.S. Lewis expressed it (Mere Christianity, book 2, chapter 5): "Here is another thing which used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ [see: John 14:6]; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him."

Here’s how Bell puts it (154-155): “What [Jesus] doesn’t say [about Jn 14:6] is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions…He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”

Bell continues by recognizing that an open door here can lead to many different inferences: “As soon as [this] door is opened…many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so on. Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.”

Such a statement is clear enough, but especially in the context of an approach where Bell is reticent to make (strong) statements. When he makes a strong statement in that context, the statement seems that much stronger. The upshot:  Bell seems like an inclusivist (or at least, wants that to be on the table), rather than a universalist.

So, beyond doctrine, where might Bell be going with his Gandhi opening? I think he’s clearly concerned about one point. (I think he would add a second point; if not, it’s worth adding anyway.)

For that, let’s go back to the preface:

“The plot [of Christianity] has been lost…hijacked…” (vii-viii) Is there any doubt here? Yes, often—throughout history and from a variety of angles. There are the squeaky wheels who advertise falsely or poorly for Christianity. There’s hypocrisy in the Church. There’s an over-emphasis on religious doctrine and social issues—or at least a misperception, in the public’s eye. And so on. In particular, Bell is concerned (presumably through what he sees in everyday ministry) with those who see or sell Christianity as Pharisaical, hateful, narrow, joyless, etc.

He opens the preface with “Jesus’ story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.” (vii) I think I know what he means—and I’m ok with that; if I had to reduce “the story” to one thing, then yes. But such an exercise leads to all sorts of misconceptions and heresies. So fortunately, we don’t have to reduce God or His story or Jesus’ ministry to one thing!

Bell also reassures us that “doubts are ok”. (ix) Absolutely, yes; they are the flip side of faith. All of us have doubts and varying degrees of faith—about all sorts of things. That’s the nature of living in a world with (highly) imperfect information. But this is an uncomfortable point for many people, especially in the realm of religion and theology. And so, this is an important point for Bell to make.

So, I think Bell wants a different voice and less of a tin-ear when it comes to living out and speaking about our faith—to those who have not yet embraced the Good News. In other words, what bothered Bell about the Gandhi comment was its sanctimonious tone. That's why the inclusion of "And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?" seems like a key to understanding Bell's primary goal.)

Here’s another thing that’s ridiculous about the Gandhi comment: the idea that, even if Gandhi did not embrace the grace of God, he offered nothing of value to the world—that a work of art would necessarily be diminished by one of his quotes. This is a conflation of the idea that we have no good works before God with the idea that the works of all people can have value in day-to-day living. In fact, everything is wheat/chaff—and the questions are the extent of the wheat and the wisdom to discern and apply that wheat. Paul quoted pagan poets. God spoke through donkeys. God used Samson mightily. And so on. If it was good enough for Paul, it might be good enough for an artist.

Two other things worthy of note:

I enjoyed his perspective on the rich man and Lazarus (75): “The rich man saw himself as better than Lazarus, and now in hell, the rich man still sees himself about Lazarus. It’s no wonder Abraham says there’s a chasm that can’t be crossed. The chasm is the rich man’s heart! It hasn’t changed, even in death and torment and agony.”

I appreciate Bell’s emphasis on a broader definition of “saved” (26-27, 41, 45, 48-50). In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard talks about how the Christian Right tends to reduce the Gospel to adherence to a few important doctrinal beliefs, getting into a wonderful heaven down the road. Our views of the Gospel are usually attenuated—and focused on a future heaven instead of life now, on earth. Instead, eternal life has already begun for the Christian. It is both the now and the “not yet”.

As for reviews, I found these most helpful-- from sources that are generally quite thoughtful.

Here’s Stan Guthrie in B&C with a charitable take on Bell, focused on two books that handle Bell’s book relatively well (“charitably and forcefully” in Guthrie’s estimation)—one by Mark Galli and another by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle.

Guthrie cites Chan making an important point—that can lead to good questions coming from a bad place: “It’s time for us to stop apologizing for God and start apologizing to Him for being embarrassed by the ways He has chosen to reveal Himself.” If Bell or others ask from a posture of embarrassment about God, they are in error. Hopefully, they’re coming from a posture about embarrassment toward some Christians and the resulting damage to the Gospel.

N.D. Wilson in B&C is much rougher:

“It is obvious that Bell has spent a great deal of time with a great number of sinners. It is obvious that he cares for them, that he wants them to find the love and peace that only Christ can bring…That said, and with a desire to see Bell do a great deal of good for the kingdom he hopes to advance, Love Wins is a pitiful piece of coffee-shop thinking and foggy communication. It reads like an extended blog post, and feels like one too…a pile of wandering wondering without a clear destination…In the end, Love Wins does raise questions that should be discussed. But it raises them breathily and from a strange place, a place where cultural loyalties are too much in play, and God has been told to watch where He treads or we might have to find another one.”

Funny and arguably accurate, but critiquing style is a slippery slope. I don't think this applies to Wilson, but e.g., if most of your church members wear suits/dresses and you have a choir with robes, you should be ok with critiques of your subjective choices-- if you're willing to throw rocks about such things.

In any case, Wilson makes a funny observation about Bell on matters of style: “Bizarrely, Bell is at his most concrete and most confident when making aesthetic claims—and not only when he's talking about a surreal painting on his grandmother's wall. He puts on his critic's cap and passes incredible judgment on the history of the whole stinking world.”

On Bell’s style: “Bell doesn’t really argue his case. Rather, he hurls a set of disjointed statements to see what sticks…he clearly knows how to reach people untrained in the art of reading extended arguments filled with nuance…”

Oakes also connects Bell to Lewis: “Generous views of salvation do not, of course, necessarily entail the conclusion that hell is empty, and Bell never goes that far. Like C. S. Lewis, though, he would insist that a person has to choose hell: ‘God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free’.”

And then this on the incentives of having Hell and God not revealing the details clearly: “So if hell exists—has to exist—then how many are saved and how many damned? Revelation wisely withholds that information. Avery Cardinal Dulles said in these pages several years ago that if we antecedently knew that hell was filled with the massa damnata and heaven not much more populated than your typical Shriners’ convention, despair would result. Correlatively, if we knew that only a few—those notorious applicants for the role of Antichrist, like Hitler and Stalin—were in hell, lassitude would set in.”

Doug Groothuis reviewed Love Wins for CRJ, but unfortunately, it is not available on-line: 

Groothuis connects Love Wins to Bell’s other book, Velvet Elvis (a book with which I am unfamiliar), explaining that he was not surprised by either the style or substance of Love Wins. He is generally unimpressed with both, although he has commendation for Bell on his discussion of the fullness of “salvation”. He also expresses appreciation for Bell raising certain passages and questions that have not been “taken seriously enough”. 

All in all, Love Wins is an easy read and probably worth a look, especially for those who have been burned by or are in close proximity to Pharisees or Pharisee-lites. The fruit of reading Bell's book should be more humility and more passion for the souls of men and the works of God. 


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