Monday, May 30, 2011

Love Wins Chapter Two: Here is the New There

In rereading this chapter I've discovered that I liked it much more in the rereading than I did the first time through the book. Perhaps I was not quite in sync with Rob Bell's style then.

Bell begins with a commentary on a painting that hung in his grandmother's house.  He raises questions about the theology implied in the picture. He notices that the message of the picture is about people who are crossing a fiery canyon safely on a cross. They are leaving one place and are headed to another. The implication is that salvation is all about getting from this world to heaven someplace else. Those of you who heard my sermon from May 22 will connect his point with the slide I showed about the relative importance of getting to heaven in some construals of what "church" is for. [Image is from Brian McLaren.]

In this notion heaven is somewhere else.

Then he moves on to the question that is raised about heaven, viz. Who will be there and who won't be there? I found the contrast between the two women on page 25 quite striking. The two are at the same church service and one has tears of joy in expectation that she will be reunited with her family who have died. The other with tears of grief that her family - presumably "unsaved" - will have no reunion with her. The pastor explains to the latter woman that that will not bother her in heaven because she will be having so much fun. That is, of course, troubling to the woman who grieves.

Bell moves on to focus on the rich man in Matthew 19 who asks Jesus what good thing he must do to get eternal life. Bell notes that for many Christians this is the central question. Jesus does not answer in any way like contemporary "evangelical" Christians do.  As Bell explicates the passage, Jesus tells him to do exactly what he needs to do in order to be a person fit for heaven.

Mixed in with this explication of what the man must do is a fair amount of explanation about the Greek word aion, or in English age.  Without going into the detailed analysis, suffice it to say here that Bell reminds us that in Jesus' tradition, the prophets spoke mainly of a coming age in which God's way would be fulfilled on earth. This time was the age to come. This would be a time of justice and peace. Jesus' teaching, like the prophets' teaching was about how to be the kind of persons who would be at home in this coming time of justice and peace. It is an earthy environment of justice and peace.

Bell moves on to the idea of judgment. I believe this is a central dimension of the book. To speak loosely for a moment: I think that there are many Christians who are tied to the notion of an otherworldly heaven and hell because they believe that if we give up on those, we have necessarily given up on there being a judgment. Bell takes pains to reject that connection. Bell believes in judgment and suggests that we all do. When bad and cruel things happen we want God to be angry and to judge and rule some things out. Of course, at the same time, we realize that we are also involved in injustice and wrongdoing. We want mercy. The prophets also speak of that: Justice and mercy will hold hands, embrace, and kiss.

Bell spends time going over what heaven means in the Bible, and how the kingdom of heaven relates to the kingdom of God. This should be a review for those of you who have been paying attention in church at FUMC.

A key couple of sentences: "How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age. Jesus teaches us how to live now in such a way that what we create, who we give our efforts to, and how we spend our time will all endure in the new world." (pp. 44-5) Bell says, "God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere." "…[W]orking for clean-water access for all is participating now in the life of the age to come." "That's what happens when the future is dragged into the present."  I take this last quote to mean that the divinely ordered age to come has an eruption into the presence in the form of compassion or peace or reconciliation.

Bell asserts that our eschatology (belief about the divine future or end) shapes our ethics. If we believe that we are destined to simply evacuate the planet, why do anything about this world?

As Bell reviews the stories of Jesus, we see the unexpected outcomes of who find divine favor. Those who presume on it, lose it. Those who receive it are surprised.  The question is: Are you busy NOW being the kind of person who will fit in in an environment of love and justice and are you busy now preparing the world in that direction?

The last few pages of the book are about time and another meaning of the Greek word aion. He concludes the chapter with an expansive understanding of heaven, which may seem paradoxical without working through the fairly compelling Scriptural account that he gives: "There is heaven now, somewhere else. There's heaven here, sometime else. And there's Jesus's invitation to heaven here and now, in this moment, in this place."

Monday, May 16, 2011

Love Wins, Chapter One: What About the Flat Tire?

In this chapter, Rob Bell seeks to do two things. The first thing he tries to do is to clarify the "traditional" doctrine and examine the consequences if the doctrine were true. He articulates the consequences in such a way that makes each possible way of understanding the doctrine seem unacceptable.  If we believe that some few people will live forever in happiness in heaven and all the others will spend forever in anguish, what kind of God is it that arranges such a system? If this is true, how can we make sure that we are in the first group and not the second? Does it depend on how persuasive a pastor we had growing up? Or now?  What is the age of accountability? What if someone never heard the Gospel? What if we heard the Gospel from someone who was vicious and cruel?  Bell reminds us that there are quite a variety of ways in which Jesus might be presented, not all of them are true or reflect God. Some Jesuses should be rejected, Bell claims.

Bell recounts having heard a woman talk about the funeral of her daughter's a friend, a high school student killed in a car accident. Her daughter was asked by a Christian whether the boy was a Christian. She told him that he told people he was an atheist. The Christian replied, "So there's no hope, then."  Bell goes on to ask, "No hope? So is that the Christian message? " 

Bell suggests a variety of criteria for getting into heaven, but readily finds that they lead to patently unacceptable conclusions. He examines the proposal that to get to heaven one needs to have a "personal relationship with God through Jesus." He points out that this wording does not occur in the Bible nor in the whole history of the Christian faith until about a hundred years ago.  He goes on to have an interesting but brief discussion about whether believing or accepting is an act. If believing/accepting is an act, how can salvation be grace?

Second, Rob Bell refers us to a number of passages in the Bible that helps the reader to see that the "traditional" doctrine does not fully engage much of what the Bible teaches. It relies on a selective reading.  Bell takes us to Luke 7 where a Roman centurion has greater faith than Jesus has seen in all of Israel; Jesus promises eternal life to a thief in Luke 23. In John 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again; in Luke 20 Jesus speaks of those considered worthy to take part in the age to come.  These various stories do not give us a consistent picture of salvation. He goes on to effectively multiply examples of a variety of things that people do that seem to lead to salvation. There does not seem to be a consistent biblical path. Demons believe, but are they saved? (See Matthew 8, Luke 4, Mark 1, James 2 and many other places.)

The chapter closes with Rob Bell saying that Love Wins is a book of responses to the questions he raises in this chapter. I believe that the purpose of this chapter is to try to get us to look more carefully about salvation, heaven, and hell. It is designed to make us uncomfortable with easy answers and invite us to a more comprehensive look at the Bible and what it has to say about God's saving love.

Here is a video link to Rob Bell delivering the opening paragraph of the book and some other introductory thoughts: .  

Some questions to think about:
  1. What question in this chapter really made you think?
  2. What passage in this chapter surprised or confused you?
  3. Did anything Rob Bell said in this chapter bother you?

[To join a conversation on this book go to]

Love Wins: Preface

In his preface to Love Wins, Rob Bell makes three points to set the stage for the rest of the book.

First, Bell tells us that the central truth of the Gospel is the good news of God's love for the world and every single one of us in it. He goes on to say that he and others are concerned that the Jesus story has been hijacked to make a very different  point and it is time for the centrality of God's love for the world in Jesus Christ to be reclaimed. In particular, the hijackers are saying that a central truth of the Christian faith is that only a "select few" Christians will live forever in heaven and everyone else will spend eternity in hell. Bell says this is a toxic message that undermines the spread of Jesus' real message.

Second, Bell tells us that he has written Love Wins in order to grapple with the big and  important topics of salvation, judgment, heaven and hell. Jesus invites us into the heart of these questions. Open and honest inquiry into these and other theological questions are holy activities. Although some religious communities  frown on expressing doubts or questions, Bell counters that the Bible is full of controversy not only among believers, but between believers and God!

Third, Bell does believe this book represents a radical new teaching.  He intends to draw a new set of readers into an ancient and ongoing discussion.  He writes, "If this book, then does nothing more than introduce you to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity - well, I'd be thrilled."

As will become clearer as we move further into the book, Rob Bell comes out of an evangelical/fundamentalist background.  He and some others have been noticing that an increasing number of evangelicals are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a narrow Christian faith as they live into the post-modern world of religious pluralism and cultural diversity. Rob Bell wants to communicate with evangelicals and nonbelievers who need to hear the message of Jesus in a new way. One of the troubling dimensions of traditional evangelical theology is the set of doctrines around eternal life that Bell addresses in this book.

I agree with Rob Bell that the traditional evangelical doctrine of hell is not only implausible to a great many people, it endorses a view of God that makes God a monster, not a God of love.  If this is the God of Christianity, they rightly give up on Christianity. The "traditional" doctrine of hell is an obstacle to evangelism.  Of course, this might seem to be a somewhat paradoxical claim, in that a fair number of evangelists use the threat of hell to try to coax people into accepting Jesus.  Bell and others understand that this is a profoundly misguided strategy.

I also agree with Rob Bell that the discussion of these issues is necessary and good. Our honest conversation helps us to reach deeper understanding - not only an understanding of the positions of others, but also of our own convictions and faith. Perhaps you saw the old bumper sticker: "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." That is not the relationship between God and God's people portrayed in the Bible. There is much give and take. Controversy is common.

In this post I have referred to the "traditional" doctrine. I use quotes because I agree with Bell that there are a variety of understandings of these matters that have been advanced by faithful, prayerful Christians down through the centuries. The breadth of diversity  in the Church can be startling.  Bell is another faithful and creative voice that I believe is worth paying careful attention to.

Questions to think about:
  1. When has your heart rate risen or your stomach churned when you have heard someone hijack the good news?
  2. Do you prefer to have theological questions settled and certain, or up for grabs?
  3. What are some important principles you might offer for how to conduct conversations about significant questions about God?

[To join a conversation on this book go to]

Rob Bell - Love Wins

I have started a discussion group at about Love Wins by Rob Bell. I will be posting my weekly contributions about the book here. If you would like to join the discussion use the link to join.