Love’s Labours Won: A review of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

In contrast, I do have to say, this was a short read.  I finished most of it during my wife’s music rehearsal for a church retreat.  I think part of this has to do with Robel’s

unconventional 

formatting

which

takes

up

extra

space 

He does it to drive home a point, on occasion, and so the book is shorter than it looks.  (House of Leaves had a similar issue.)  I heard someone describe this as “Rob Bell writes the way he talks,” and going from some of his videos that I’ve seen, I’d say that’s a fair assessment.

I’m going to tackle this in sections, because while the book does form a cohesive whole, it goes about its task fairly systematically, with each chapter almost forming an independent essay.

The Preface:

In the prelude to the rest of the book, Robel puts forth his purpose, in what I thought was fairly clear terms.  Here’s a couple excerpts.

“There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do.  The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it…  I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that.'”

My mixed feelings about these two paragraphs are, in a nutshell, my mixed feelings about this book.  First, that he has an excellent point, that so much of what has accrued around the image of Christianity is not the message of Jesus–things ranging from Harold Camping’s predictions to more fundie Christians’ rejection of modern music get in the way of the gospel, the Good News, and turn people off to Jesus that would not have been turned off to Jesus otherwise.  On the other hand, Truth isn’t always palatable, and I think we run into error if we evaluate the Truth of a statement based on how it makes us feel.  But he’s not necessarily claiming that here: so far all he’s said is he’s writing to these people.  Let’s move on.

“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better…  This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”

The witch-hunters will already be lighting up their torches, but hold on a moment.  He says this doctrine (and the belief that this doctrine is central to Christianity, in the sentence I skipped) is in error and “toxic,” but he doesn’t yet say which part.  As we read further we’ll see that he doesn’t deny the existence of heaven, or of hell, so it’s not the whole doctrine that he finds in error… so which part?  Is it the “with no chance for anything better” part?  The “forever” part?  The “torment and punishment” part?  He’s not going to say yet–that’s for the bulk of the book.  I, myself, would disagree with that doctrinal statement as he stated it, and I am no universalist by any stretch, so we don’t have our damning evidence of heresy in this statement, no matter how it sounds at first.

“…I’ve written this book because the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them…  Lots of people have voiced a concern, only to be told by their family, church, friends, or tribe, ‘We don’t discuss those things here.’  …I believe the discussion itself is divine.  Abraham does his best to bargain with God, most of the book of Job consists of arguments by Job and his friends about the deepest questions of human suffering, God is practically on trial in the poems of Lamentations, and Jesus responds to almost every question he’s asked… with a question.  …There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous.  …That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith.  It’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences.”

Right up front, Robel tells us that he’s here to engage us in discussion on a tough topic, a tension.  He doesn’t seem to have any plans for giving us a definitive piece of systematic doctrine, so much as he has plans to raise questions, poke at long-held beliefs, and challenge his readers to re-examine the biblical authenticity of their traditions in light of other, conflicting-yet-orthodox Christian traditions.

He’s trying to get people talking.  And if that’s his goal, I think he’s succeeded.


Chapter One:

This is the question-asking chapter, breaking down traditional beliefs to make room for later exploration.  Starting with the “Ghandi’s in Hell” story from the book’s trailer, Bell asks a series of questions about the implications of the traditional evangelical understanding of heaven and hell.

“Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish?  …Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?   …If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate?  How does a person end up being one of the few?  Chance?  …Being born in the right place, family, or country?”

Notice that asking these questions at no point automatically means that his answer to them are “Yes” or “No.”  So far all he’s doing is inviting us to look at our beliefs from an angle we may not have looked at them from in a long while.  Honestly, the way some evangelicals approach their beliefs in the afterlife, their beliefs would have a hard time holding up under this level of scrutiny.

Then, a story:

“Several years ago I heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high-school student who was killed in a car accident.  Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died had been a Christian.  She said that he told people he was an atheist.  This person than said to her, ‘So there’s no hope then.’  …No hope?  Is that the Christian message?”

What Robel does is explore the power relations behind the teaching of an exclusive heaven with clearly defined entrance criteria.  That is, in a belief where heaven is only attained by a select few, those who hold such a belief always think that they themselves are of those “few,” and most others are not.  Through telling this story, Robel points out the arrogance that tends to be produced by such a belief is antithetical to the attitudes Jesus promoted.

Robel then breaks apart one of the teachings that has been used to address issues with the traditional evangelical stance on the afterlife, the teaching of “The Age of Accountability.”  He rightfully points out that this teaching is problematic and arbitrary, and that if carried to its logical conclusions, would lead to all sorts of error. 

“If every new baby being born could grow up to not believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child’s life anytime from conception to twelve years of age would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child end up in heaven, not hell, forever.  Why run the risk?”

Robel then asks about the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and points out both that Christians do not always agree about what needs to go in the Sinner’s Prayer, and that the term or even the concept are not found in Scripture.  He asks about people who have said the prayer as a child but later stop being Christians, or about people who live Christlike lives but have never said the Sinner’s Prayer.

Ultimately, the point is, evangelical Christians tend to focus on the afterlife, on “going to heaven,” as though it were the whole point of Christianity–“what life is about.”  He–rightly so–points out that Christians tend to place far more of a focus on getting to heaven than Jesus did in his teachings, which were about being active on earth as much as going “somewhere else.”  He points out that a Beam-Me-Up-Scotty approach to heaven (my words, not his) tends to remove the believer from being active in this world, from helping the exploited and the poor.

Even the idea of Jesus himself can be inadequate, Robel says, to define what matters–the idea that “all that counts is how we respond to Jesus.”  But he points out all the false Jesuses that exist for people: the Jesus of the Crusades, the Jesus of the religious rapist, etc.  He says, “Some Jesuses should be rejected,” the inaccurate and unhealthy portrayals of Jesus that some of the religious will offer.  He points out, as he did with the Sinner’s Prayer, that the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus” is not found in Scripture.

Robel then goes through the New Testament and points out all the instances in which Jesus seemed to approve of someone or affirm their salvation, and all the conversion experiences: the centurion whose faith made Jesus marvel, the thief on the cross, Paul, the Phillipian Jailer, etc.   He points out how the often seem to conflict or diverge, that none of them are as consistent as standard Christian doctrine would expect them to be.  “Is it what you say, or who you are, or what you do, or what you say you’re going to do, or who your friends are, or who you’re married to, or whether you give birth to children?  Or is it what questions you’re asked?  Or is it what questions you ask in return?  Or is it whether you do what you’re told and go into the city?”

With all this deconstruction (some of which, in my opinion, veers onto shaky theological ground, I’m not certain the centurion counted as being “converted” just because his faith made Jesus marvel) Robel’s point seems to be that the biblical presentation of salvation is much more complex than our theology makes it, and we have to be willing to live in the tension.  When we cannot even define what conversion is–when the Sinner’s Prayer and the Age of Accountability are problematic–when even the demons believe in Jesus, so that doesn’t count for much–we are left with the idea that we may not quite know everything we think we do regarding salvation, heaven, and hell.  Of course, Robel will use the following chapters to then build on the possibilities such uncertainty allows for.

Myself, I think some healthy uncertainty is necessary here.  I am human, I am not God, and so I do not understand how the spiritual realm works.  Robel has a point in that many Christians have lost this healthy level of uncertainty regarding things that are not clearly stated in Scripture.  I do think, however, he takes such uncertainty rather far.  But I’ll show you what I mean as we go.

Chapter Two:

This chapter is one that I find I wholeheartedly agree with.  This is Robel’s chapter on heaven, and he does an excellent job of breaking down the idea that heaven is only “somewhere else.”

He does some word studies on the idea of “eternal life,” which church-raised Christians have been trained to always associate with heaven.  This is not necessarily the case.  He makes very good use of the rich man’s question in Matthew 19 to demonstrate this.

 
“Jesus, however, doesn’t do any of that [inviting the man to confess or repent or believe].  …Jesus refers to the man’s intentions as ‘entering life’?  And then he tells him that you do that by keeping the commandments?  This wasn’t what Jesus was supposed to say.  …The big words, the important words–‘eternal life,’ ‘treasure,’ ‘heaven’–were all there in the conversation, but they weren’t used in the ways that many Christians use them.”

In other words, the rich young ruler wasn’t asking about where he would go when he died, when he asked about “eternal life.”  He was asking about this world, this earth, this life.  “Eternal life” is as closely related to Jesus’ idea of “life more abundant” as it is to the afterlife, if not more so, and understanding this changes how we read Jesus’ teachings.  “Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now.  It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.”

Robel’s discussion of heaven in “this age” and heaven in “the age to come” echoes the idea of the “Already, but not yet” kingdom.

Robel does an excellent word study on the word “eternal,” explaining that it’s not the same thing as “forever” or “everlasting,” year following year following year into infinity, but that it’s closer to timelessness, atemporality, “transcending time, belonging to another realm altogether.”

He also goes through the Old Testament prophets and their descriptions of the Peaceable Kingdom, the New Earth, when all will be renewed.  Not a spiritual realm, not a “somewhere else,” but heaven here, physical, with “soil under the fingernails.”  A return to Eden.

“When we talk about heaven, then, or eternal life, or the afterlife–any of that–it’s important that we begin with the categories and claims that people were familiar with in Jesus’ first-century Jewish world.  They did not talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipate a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth.

“…Jesus takes the man’s question about his life then and makes it about the kind of life he’s living now.  Jesus drags the future into the present…  What Jesus taught, what the prophets taught, what all of Jewish tradition pointed to and what Jesus lived in anticipation of, was the day when earth and heaven would be one.  The day when God’s will would be done on earth as it is now done in heaven.”

So for Robel, heaven and eternal life have multiple meanings: one part now, here, on this earth, as we “pursue the life of heaven now,” but “also then,” the someday, when heaven comes to the New Earth.  Thus, this biblical view of heaven encourages the believer to change the world around him or her, to “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.”  This isn’t a distant somewhere else where we’re going, so we can check out on the lost cause of a world we’re living in now.  This is a heaven that is here as well as there, now as well as then, already and not yet.  Robel’s three definitions of heaven: “There’s heaven now, somewhere else.  There’s heaven here, sometime else.  And then there’s Jesus’s invitation to heaven here and now, in this moment, in this place.”

Robel also talks about two parables, first in Matthew 25, and second in Luke 18, in which someone who expected to attain heaven does not, and someone who did not expect to attain heaven does so.  “…what Jesus does again and again is warn us against rash judgments about who’s in and who’s out.”  I couldn’t put this better myself.

Chapter Three:

Now we start to broach the subject of Hell.

Robel does a bit of an exploration of the various biblical words that are translated “Hell.”  Because, if you didn’t know, the word “Hell” is not in the Bible, it’s an English word, and there are several Hebrew and Greek words that got lumped together in our concept of Hell.  He explores many of them–Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus–but left out the lake of fire, presumably because it doesn’t come with a name.  That, I thought, was rather sloppy.

The concept of Hell is big enough that I can’t explain my own take on it in a single blog post.  Look for “Hell Week,” a week of blogging on the subject of Hell, on this site in the coming month.  For now, suffice it to say that Robel does an okay job with the terms which may-or-may-not refer to Hell which he covered, but he could have done a lot better.

Robel then goes on to talk about Hell on Earth.  He tells several stories about the worst that humans do to each other.


“I tell these stories because it is absolutely vital that we acknowledge that love, grace, and humanity can be rejected.  From the most subtle rolling of the eyes to the most violent degradation of another human, we are terrifyingly free to do as we please.  …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.”

He then goes on to explore the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

“Jesus teaches again and again that the gospel is about a death that leads to life…  This rich man Jesus tells us about hasn’t yet figured that out.  …he’s unable to let go of the world he’s constructed, which puts him on the top and Lazarus on the bottom, the world in which Lazarus is serving him.  He’s dead, but hasn’t died… the kind of death that actually brings life.”

So, as with heaven, Robel believes that there is “hell now” and there is “hell later.”  That humans rejecting God make a hell wherever they are.

He also points out that Jesus only ever warned religious people about Hell, not the nonreligious.  Again, if you think you’re “in,” beware: you don’t know that for certain.

He makes a good point about how a lot of what Jesus said that people take as warnings about Hell in the Someday are really warnings to his listeners about the destruction of the temple, though Robel over-politicizes a few statements as he explains this.

Now we get to the controversial part.  Robel starts to play with the idea that, in the Bible, punishment always leads to correction.  (We have to take his word for this, because I can’t remember that always being the case.)  He quotes from some of the prophets about reconciliation, return, and restoration–verses that I think properly apply to the exiled nation of Israel, not to all people.  He hints that this can be applied even to Hell.

He starts to do a word study on “eternal punishment” as opposed to “eternal life,” using the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 as his starting point.  His translation of “eternal punishment” is “‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction” as opposed to “‘punishment forever.'”

This strikes me as stretching too hard in a word study: the word can also be translated “torment,” and indeed makes sense that way the only other time it’s used, in 1 John 4:18.  “Perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with correction” doesn’t quite make sense the way “because fear has to do with torment/punishment” does.  Yes, the word is derived from the word “to prune,” but that doesn’t necessarily make that its meaning.  And furthermore, this is a single use of a single word–hardly enough to say that all references to Hell are corrective rather than punitive.

Before he gets too into this, however, the chapter abruptly ends.

Chapter Four

This is the chapter that has most of the parts which people will reject.

Robel’s first point is this objection to the doctrine of a forever Hell: If God wants everyone to be reconciled to him, and he’s God, how can he not get what he wants?  This objection has so much wrong with it, within Christian theology.  God didn’t want humanity to be separated from him in the first place, but he couldn’t ignore their rejection of him.  God has to play by God’s rules–that’s part of his nature, part of being God.  Hence the whole necessity for God himself to have to take humanity’s punishment, simply to reconcile anyone to himself.  God didn’t want to have to go to such an extreme–we have Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane to show us that, it wasn’t something he looked forward to.  But he did.

Robel proceeds to go through several passages which say that “the nations will know that I am the Lord,” or “All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.”  This, to me, seems an elementary misreading of these passages.  When a verse says “all nations,” does it mean every single individual within those nations?  When it says “all peoples,” does it mean every single individual?  No–it means representatives from every nation or people group.  It’s such a basic mistake to make, that I’m surprised to see it from the same man who gave us the excellent word studies of Chapter Two.

Robel rightly points out that love must contain freedom, that God cannot co-opt free will and force people to love him.  He then begins to explore the different ways that Christians try to reconcile the loving God and the all-powerful God with this inviolate free will.  Notice that here he offers several possibilities, even though it’s clear which way he leans.
–He notes that most people think that a person’s nature won’t change in eternity, and so if they were nasty and mean and self-centered in life, why would they stop being so after death?
–He notes that some believe that, in a forever of years, we can either nurture the image of God within us, or continue to efface it.  “Could the divine image be extinguished in a person, given enough time and neglect?  Is there a possibility that, given enough time, some people could eventually move into a new state, one in which they were in essence ‘formerly human’ or ‘posthuman’ or even ‘ex-human’?”
–He notes that some play with the possibility of a “second chance” after death, for those who didn’t get to accept Jesus in life.  Martin Luther, apparently, toyed with this idea.
–Then he puts forward what is obviously his own stance, that if there’s a second chance after death, why is it a one-shot deal?  Why not “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God”?  “At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence.  The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.”  He claims that this stance was held by some early church fathers, such as Clement and Origen and Eusebius, and has a history within Christian orthodoxy.

“At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins, and all will be reconciled to God.”

I am not enough of a church historian to know what sort of credibility the idea of a Temporary Hell (essentially that all Hell is Purgatory) because of the Irresistible Nature of God’s Love has.  But I can point out that Robel has just made a MAJOR ERROR in the INTERNAL CONSISTENCY OF HIS BELIEFS.
 
The problem with the statement that “given enough time, everybody will turn to God” is the time part.  Robel did such a good job in Chapter Two of breaking down the idea that “eternity” is not the same as “everlasting” or “forever.”  If “eternity” has more to do with transcending time or being outside of time, then time does not pass in eternity.  And if time does not pass, then it is nonsensical to speak of “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time.”

Rob Bell can’t have his cake and eat it too.  He can’t have an eternal time-transcendent timeless heaven simultaneous with a eternal-but-temporal hell containing an infinity of second chances. 

But anyway.  Back to our story:

“People have answered these questions about who goes where, when, why, and how in a number of ways.  Or, to be more specific, serious, orthodox follows of Jesus have answered these questions in a number of different ways.  Or, to say it another way, however you answer these questions, there’s a good chance you can find a Christian or group of Christians somewhere who would answer in a similar way.  …It is, after all, a wide stream we’re swimming in.”

Here is a point worth making: that Robel is not putting forward his belief in a Temporary Hell as the single biblical doctrine.  He’s not saying, “This is what the Bible says Hell is like.”  He’s not saying “This is how things are.”

What he’s saying is more like “Look, what the Bible says about Hell isn’t as cut-and-dry as some people make it out to be, and there are a lot of interpretations within Christianity, several of which are valid and orthodox, so feel free to explore the possibilities.  Here’s a couple other options, and here’s the one I think is most compelling.”

Is this true?  Are these other options within Christianity?

Some of this is dependent upon how one defines “Christianity.”  A heresy is a belief that is incompatible with the core tenants of the religion it claims to be part of: if a Christian claims a heretical belief, the belief he or she holds cannot be reconciled with Christianity.  Time it was, when we were all one church, it was easy to see which beliefs were heretical and which were not.  But Christianity is fragmented now, we have splintered.  So which beliefs are heretical?  Is infant baptism heretical?  Consubstantiation?  Total Depravity?

Can one hold an alternative belief regarding Hell and still be an orthodox Christian?

Because we are fragmented, I think we are limited to calling “heresy” those doctrines which are against the very basic core tenants of our faith.  That is, music style or baptism preference aren’t important enough to be heresy.  Any belief, however, which goes against orthodox beliefs on the nature of Jesus, the nature of God, the message of the crucifixion, the mission of the church, etc., is.  Think of the Apostles’ Creed–those basic beliefs which all Christian groups hold, and all fringe-groups-that-think-they-are-Christian-but-aren’t don’t.  The defining beliefs.

The doctrine of Hell isn’t one of those defining beliefs, I find.  It’s not important enough.  We know what God has commanded us to do: we know that no-one comes to the Father but through Jesus; we know that God is reconciling mankind to himself through Jesus’ sacrifice.  Within those beliefs, a Christian can believe whatever he or she believes about Hell–that it doesn’t exist, that it does exist, that it does exist but is temporary, that it’s another word for oblivion, that it’s another word for the second death, that it’s literal fire, that it’s figurative fire, that God sends us there, that we send ourselves there, that it’s an actual physical place, that it’s a spiritual state, etc.–and still be a Christian.

So yes, on this Robel is right.  If Universalism, Annihilationism, etc., are not heretical beliefs, then there is a range of beliefs within Christianity regarding Hell.

Not so sure I like the conclusion he draws from that, however:

“Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about ‘hell and torment and all that.’  Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will ‘go to heaven’ when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it…  Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe this to be a Christian.”

Yes and no.  Yes, not all Christians have believed in this, and you don’t have to believe in the doctrine of hell as described above to be a Christian.  At the same time, shouldn’t we be truth-seekers, desiring to find out what the world is, who God is, and operating within that knowledge?  I don’t like the idea of having to operate around “dealbreaker beliefs.”  “Oh, well if Christianity teaches X, I can’t bring myself to be a Christian.”

Are we trying to make Jesus more palatable?  Because we’ll run into problems if we try that.  He doesn’t box up neatly.  Yes, you can follow Jesus without having to believe in an exclusive heaven or a hell of torment… but you’ll have to deal with the fact that Jesus talked a lot about judgment and sorting and “the worm that dieth not.”

“Whatever objections a person might have to this story [of every person being drawn to God’s love in the end], and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it…  To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.”

Yes.

THIS.

What I like about this statement is, first, that Robel admits there are many objections, many problems, with the idea of a Temporary Hell… but that it’s Christian to wish for it to be so.  Too many “Christians” seem to get such glee out of the idea of others going to hell, and that’s not Christ-like at all, regardless of what you believe is truth.  But second, he re-affirms the need for conversation, for discussion without condemnation.

Evangelical Christendom’s reaction to this very book–before it had even come out, before anyone had read it–is itself exemplary of the failure to extend grace to those who believe differently within Christianity.

If we are to be like Christ, we must be willing to take the hard questions, and not try to shuffle them off or shut up the askers.  This is a tough question, the question of Hell, and it is a “tension we are free to leave fully intact,” as Rob himself puts it.

Robel goes on to talk about how people “choose to live in their own hells.”  This is an idea I myself ascribe to, though I think C.S. Lewis and Timothy Keller put it more clearly, in their books The Great Divorce and The Reason For God, respectively.

He ends the chapter with a re-affirmation of Hell’s existence, regardless of our theories regarding its permanency or lack thereof.  “If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option…  If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love…  If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours.”

Chapter Five

In this chapter, Robel talks about the crucifixion, and what it does.  He begins with an examination of how sacrifices work, and how Jesus’s death fulfilled and did away with the Jewish sacrificial system, a la the author of Hebrews.  Then he does the Paul speech by talking about how Jesus’s death reconciles God to man.  After that he dips into Romans and talks about how the cross was the price paid for our sins.  From there over to 2 Timothy to talk about the cross as Jesus’s victory over death.

In a moment echoing his multipassage examination of conversion experiences in the New Testament, he asks, “What happened on the cross?  Is the cross about the end of the sacrificial system, or a broken relationship that’s been reconciled, or a guilty defendant who’s been set free, or a battle that’s been won, or the redeeming of something that was lost?”

“The answer, of course, is ‘Yes.'”

Essentially, Robel says, what happened on the cross was so “massive and universe-changing” that the first Christians struggled to communicate all that it accomplished, and so they grabbed metaphors from the sacrificial system, legal system, martial acts, etc.  The Crucifixion is so huge that you need to see it from many different angles to get the whole picture.

And his point is, we need to remember not to fixate on any one angle.

“When people say that Jesus came to die on the cross so that we can have a relationship with God, yes, that is true.  But that explanation as the first explanation puts us at the center.  For the first Christians, the story was, first and foremost, bigger, grander.  More massive.  When Jesus is presented only as the answer that saves individuals from their sin and death, we run the risk of shrinking the Gospel down to something just for humans, when God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus’s resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything ‘on earth or in heaven’ (Col. 1), just as God originally intended it.  The powers of death and destruction have been defeated on the most epic scale imaginable…  A gospel that leaves out its cosmic scope will always feel small.

He ends this chapter with a reminder about the paradox of finding life through dying, as mirrored in the life we get through a death on the cross.


Chapter Six

This chapter opens with several stories, anecdotes, about people who had an encounter with God without the aid of an evangelist or missionary.  White light in near-death experiences, dreams, visions, etc.

He then talks about the rock that Moses struck in the desert, from which water sprung.  Paul, writing much much later, says that the rock was Christ.  Perhaps Robel takes this a bit literally, but he makes a point from it–that “Jesus was there, without anybody using his name, without anybody saying it was him, without anybody acknowledging just what–or, more precisely, who–it was.”

Robel is building to the point that, yes, no-one comes to the Father except through Jesus.  But could coming through Jesus come in a form we as Christians don’t expect?

“As obvious as it is, Jesus is bigger than any one religion.  He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day.  He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity.'”

This sounds a little scary at first.  Is he saying that all religions, all paths, lead to God?  Well, hang on, let him finish speaking.

“Imagine a high school student whose family is part of a Christian church.  She belongs to a Christian youth group, has only Christian friends, reads only Christian books and has to attend Christian chapel services, because it’s mandatory at the Christian high school she attends.  That student can potentially become so anesthetized to Jesus that she is unable to see Jesus as the stunning, dangerous, compelling, subversive, dynamic reality that he is…

“At the same time, there are Christians who have raised support, gathered supplies, traveled thousands of miles into the farthest reaches of the globe to share the good news of Jesus with ‘unreached people,’ who upon hearing of Jesus for the ‘first time,’ respond, ‘That’s his name?  We’ve been talking about him for years…'”

Essentially, Robel’s point is that there will be those who think they are “in” but are not, and those who you wouldn’t think are “in” but are.

He spends a few pages discussing John 14, “No-one comes to the Father except through me.”  “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.  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.  …there is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity [sic].  This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.”

Robel seems to blur the idea of culture and religion, here, and perhaps for him they are mostly one and the same.  But his point remains.  Can a Hindu get to heaven?  A Muslim?  A Buddhist? 

I am reminded of the fate of Emeth, the faithful Calorman, from the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia.

No-one comes to the Father except through Jesus.  But what forms might “coming through Jesus” take?  I can’t say, myself, that I know every form that may take.  I just know that God is just, and God is merciful.

“…none of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will.”

Chapter Seven

This chapter is interesting.  He tells the story of the Prodigal Son, drawing much from one of Tim Keller’s books, and puts the whole thing in the realm of story-telling.

“The younger son has to decide whose version of his story he’s going to trust: his or his father’s.  One in which he is no longer worthy to be called a son or one in which he’s a robe-, ring-, and sandal-wearing son who was dead but is alive again, who was lost but has now been found.  There are two versions of his story.  His.  And his father’s.  He has to choose which one he will live in.  …Same, it turns out, for the older brother.  He too has his version of his story.  …in his version of events, he’s been slaving for his father for years.   …In one sentence, the father manages to tell an entirely different story about the older brother.  …The question, then, is the same question that confronted the younger brother–will he trust his version of his story or his father’s version of his story?”

A great interpretation of this parable.  But what does it have to do with Heaven, Hell, or anything?

Robel uses this parable to illustrate an aspect of heaven and hell–that they are more two states than two places, with one up and the other down.

“Jesus puts the older brother right there at the party, but refusing… to join in the celebration.  Hell is being at the party.  That’s what makes it so hellish.

“…Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.”

Interesting.

I’ve seen hints of this idea in other places in the Bible, about how Hell is not quite seperate from Heaven.  I think of the ten foolish virgins left outside during the wedding–they can hear, they can see, but they can’t join in the party.  And in Revelation, there are those described as being “outside” the city, left out.  Not in some other realm entirely, but there, at the party, just unwilling or unable to join in.

It all comes down, Robel tells us, to our ability to trust God.

“God extends an invitation to us, and we are free to do with it as we please.  Saying yes will take us in one direction, saying no will take us in another…

“So when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will ‘get to heaven,’ that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club.  The good news is better than that.  This is why Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties.”

In other words, heaven is about participation in the life God has extended to us, the “abundant” life, the “eternal” life.  It’s not so much about “getting in.”

Interesting.  Still, there are plenty of parables about being cast out or left out: can we take this parable to the exclusion of the others?

Robel ends by talking about grace, about how the older brother thought his goodness brought him closer to his father, but in realty it estranged him because he was trusting in himself, as opposed to the younger brother who knew he wasn’t good enough and threw himself on his father’s mercy.

I liked this chapter, but it almost felt like it belonged to a completely different book.

Chapter Eight

…is a short chapter, a conclusion, bringing the reader back to the idea that we must die to live, humbling ourselves and trusting the Father’s version of our story.  “Love is what God is, love is why Jesus came, and love is why he continues to come, year after year to person after person.”

This chapter is followed by recommended reading, including The Great Divorce, The Prodigal God, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross and Surprised by Hope (Lewis, Keller, Baker, and Wright, respectively).  In short… Rob Bell reads many of the same authors as I do.  Huh.

So, in summary…  Robel does believe in hell.  He believes that hell is something we do to ourselves by rejecting God, by refusing to participate in God’s story of redemption.  He seems to believe that hell is temporary, that God’s love will eventually reach even the hardest of hearts in the afterlife, but this belief is presented as one of many options, a “possibility,” in the unresolved tension that we as Christians can discuss but should extend grace to one another in.  So he does (probably) believe in Universal Reconcilation (he never comes right out and says so but strongly hints that this is the case), but believes that this is one of many beliefs on Hell compatible with christian orthodoxy, as with similar nontraditional views such as Annihilationism.

This belief, however, and the controversial nature of it, ultimately comprised only a small fraction of this book–I’d say less than a quarter of it.  The rest of it–Robel’s beliefs on eternity, heaven, religion, and the cross–are quite sound, often quite brilliant, and I think will cause no objections from any save the most traditional of evangelicals.  I love his chapter on heaven.

It’s a good book for sparking discussion, despite all the parts I disagree with.  Disagreeing in love is a healthy thing, it sharpens the mind.  But you will not find me calling Rob Bell a heretic, or denouncing him, or saying he will “burn” for what he teaches here.  None of that would be right, fitting, or Christlike.

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