Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bell's Book

I just finished reading Rob Bell's new book called Love Wins. It is supposed to be about hell. It 's supposed to be about Bell's restatement of the traditional Christian view of hell. It's supposed to be Bell's heretical restatement of the traditional Christian doctrine of hell. At least that is what I had heard and read from the barrage of evangelical reviewers and bloggers. Some who never even read the book! Some rather well known evangelical leaders have written Bell out of the evangelical camp for this book. One well known big church pastor and author commented simply, goodbye Rob! Maybe I missed something but I read the book and I am somewhat puzzled by the reactions, or overreactions. Seems to me there might be some other issues at work in some of these critical reviewers. Maybe some professional jealousy, perhaps? Don't know for sure. That doesn't happen among Christians, does it? Just saying. Bell is enormously popular. He is the main pastor of a church that attracts over 10,000 people a week! He writes and does video curriculum. He is an engaging, gifted speaker. He is a brilliant thinker and is able to concisely convey a vast amount of knowledge in a readable style. He has his finger on the pulse of contemporary culture. That is not to say that Bell is original in his thinking ( who is? That's a good thing not a putdown). In this book, he channels many well known theological giants from the past. He could have footnoted more of them. He does give a short list of books to read. There are echoes of C.S. Lewis, Pinnock, Forsyth, Bloesch - and even Barth, just to name a few. What gets lost in this current controversy over Bell's book is that eschatology in general and the idea of hell in particular is a subject that has a long and varied history. You might get the idea from reviewers that Bell is the first to raise the issues he does! Christians have thought and taught a wide spectrum of belief on this topic - in other words, up to today it was ok if you were somewhere in a range of belief - you were still considered orthodox. Maybe not evangelical but at least Christian! Even universalism which Bell has been charged with teaching in this book (but I could not find it) was able to be contained in this wide spectrum of orthodox belief and taught by some of our less well known Christian theologians, ie, Origen, Evagrius, Gregory of Nyssa, Jacques Ellul (at least they considered themselves Christians!). Others have taught a universalism of hope - meaning that Christ's atoning sacrifice was not limited but intended for all humanity. Karl Barth seems to say this at times. So do Hans Urs von Balthasar, Richard Neuhaus and Gabe Fackre. ( I realize most of the above named Christian thinkers would not be called evangelicals but they are still pretty heavy weight Christian thinkers!) Annihilationism was taught by John Stott, Philip Hughes, John Wenham and Michael Green - all who are evangelical thinkers. Annihilationism is the belief that God does not force his grace on anyone and allows some to reject it and thus be excluded from the everlasting kingdom of God but they do not experience everlasting torment in hell since their souls pass out of existence. Additionally, there is a long history in the church of teaching divine perseverance. This is the belief that God in his love never gives up pursuing people even into the pit of hell. After death. Allowing for second and third and as many chances as a person needs to respond to God's love. Teachers of this view expound scriptures like Eph 4:8 and 1 Pet 3:19 and 4:6. Some of the theological heavy weights who have held this view are Cyril of Alexandria, Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, George MacDonald (a great influence on C.S. Lewis), P.T.Forsyth, and Donald Bloesch. (as far as I can tell Bell doesn't hold to either of those beliefs, but he might, he can be ambiguous at times). So, all of this is to say that there has been a rich history of thinking and teaching about what happens when we die. Bell's book falls well within this tradition. Furthermore, Bell's book is written with an apologetic purpose. He has two groups of people in mind. First, are those who have only a superficial understanding of Christianity. Probably, many of these people show up at his church having been invited by other Christians. Bell is known for having Q&A sessions after he preaches. All a lot of people know about Christianity is what they have seen in the media or heard about third hand. Or maybe picked up from a person at work who claims to be a Christian. And it's pretty negative. Maybe they have seen so called Christians holding up signs saying all gays are going to hell. Do all Christians think that anyone who is not just like them in behavior and belief are going to hell? Bell wants to address this question. The second group of people are Christians who perhaps have been taught there are no other options. Believe in Jesus and go to heaven when you die ( in fact they think that is all there is to Christianity) and if you die without believing in Jesus then you go to hell. Hell is this place of terrible torment that lasts forever. Hell is the place where non-Christians "get theirs" vindicating the Christian life (of sacrifices) Christians have chosen. Bell is very quotable -what he says about this is "a discussion about how to just get into heaven, has no place in the life of a disciple of Jesus, because it's missing the point of it all." For those Christians who think the only or main reason to be a Christian is to escape hell and make it to heaven - Bell's book would be an eye-opener. In my reading of Bell, he does not deny the existence of hell. He does not deny God's just judgment. He does not deny the atoning death of Christ although he reminds us of the many ways the Bible talks about the merits of Christ's death (there has been a wide spectrum of belief in Church history about the atonement of Christ, too). He does want to affirm God's grace and God's love which he believes gets lost too often in our discussion of what happens when people die. He absolutely wants to confront the tendency of some Christians and Christian churches to act like they know what God's thinking is about the eternal destinies of other people. I would say that was his major reason for writing this book. Bell, remember is a pastor, not a trained theologian. He is writing out of the need for pastoral care for his flock and for others who might want to know what he is thinking. Here is what he says," for some the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don't articulate matters of faith as they do.... a destructive, violent, understanding of God can easily be institutionalized in churches, systems, and ideas.... some churches are not very life giving places, draining people until there's very little life left... their God is angry, demanding, a slave driver, so that God's religion becomes a system of sin management, constantly working and angling to avoid what surely must be the coming wrath that lurks behind every corner, thought, and sin." Bell knows people who have been in those kinds of churches or who know people who are - and wants to say that this type of Christianity is toxic ( a word he uses a few times). Bell poses a lot of questions in his speaking and writing. He asks questions. He probes. He ponders. He asks us to reconsider, rethink, restudy, go back to the Bible and take another look, go to our teachers and ask questions, read other teachers. This is a good thing I think. Yet, it seems many Christians are afraid to do this. Thus, we see the reaction to Bell's book. Some were quick to label it, (even before reading it!) "controversial, extreme, on the fringes of accepted belief, outside the camp, etc. That's too bad. For another thing Bell writes is, "we shape our God and then God shapes us... our beliefs matter. They matter now, for us and they matter then, for us. They matter for others, now and they matter for others, then. What is God like?" That's doing theology. We swim in a wide stream with many other Christian thinkers and teachers over a long history. Rob Bell reintroduces us to some of them. He asks us to rethink, and to ponder an aspect of the Church's eschatology - what happens to people when they die. Do people have any hope? What sort of hope is it? What about God's judgment and what about hell. What about God's love? How do they relate and why should I care?