Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Love Wins by Rob Bell, a Review

This post is about Rob Bell’s recent book, Love Wins. I would like to explore a few ideas around the all encompassing subtitle: “A book about Heaven, Hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” And then give an overview of the book’s 8 chapters. Because the text is from 5 sources, I’ll use the following color scheme to differentiate: Black=Quotes from Love Wins; Red = Quotes from C.S. Lewis; Green = Quotes from the Bible and Luther. Blue = My comments. Needless to say, I’ll barely scratch the surface, but here goes.

“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?” asked the Witch. “Let us say I have forgotten it,” answered Aslan gravely. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.” “Tell you?” said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. “Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands behind us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the fire-stones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the scepter of the Emperor-beyond the sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.”

“Fool,” said the Witch with a savage smile that was almost a snarl, “do you really think your master can rob me of my rights by mere force? He knows the Deep Magic better than that. He knows that unless I have blood as the Law says all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water.
“It is very true,” said Aslan, “I do not deny it.” 
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

It could be that when Satan fell and took a third of the angels with him, there was "deep magic" that was set loose to wreak havoc in ways that we cannot begin to understand. There are many things which we have little information on; death and the afterlife are examples. Yes, the scriptures talk of these things, but the details of the 5 w’s (who/what/when/where/what extent), not to mention “how”, are open to much speculation.

Before I married Rita at her family’s Catholic church in Michigan, I had to attend a pre-marriage class at a Catholic church in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I was living at the time. As a Baptist I found the teaching interesting but lacking in Biblical emphasis. Somewhere along the way, the subject of heaven came up. I told the class that I knew for sure that I was going to heaven when I died and everyone looked at me in amazement. Conversely, I probably thought that as Catholics they weren’t going to make it based on their works theology. We have a way of pigeon-holing each other on this subject. This is the type of attitude that Rob is trying to counter in his book.

Luke 6:6-11 “Now it happened on another Sabbath, also, that [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. And a man was there whose right hand was withered. So the scribes and Pharisees watched Him closely, whether He would heal on the Sabbath, that they might find an accusation against Him. But He knew their thoughts, and said to the man who had the withered hand, "Arise and stand here." And he arose and stood. Then Jesus said to them, "I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy?"  And when He had looked around at them all, He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." And he did so, and his hand was restored as whole as the other. But they were filled with rage, and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.”

These religious men did not say,”praise God! isn’t that wonderful, the man’s hand is restored!” or, not even, “That’s amazing, how did you do that?!” They ignored the good while their thoughts latched onto the sides of their little boxes.  The claustrophobic confines of their belief systems were unable to see anything outside their folds as acceptable. They were dogmatically throwing out everything they saw as part and parcel of what they deemed as error. But Jesus, to put it mildly, is an outside the box thinker whose superlatives are beyond compare. He asked these self righteous leaders a simple question that exposed the error of their thinking. They were silent in their response but no doubt thought, this man is a threat to our jobs, our corrupt relationship with Rome, and our necks if we let him go on. Jesus did not fit into their mold and they didn’t realize that Jesus came to break their mold and set them free; not from the “Law”, but from their perversion of it.

Rob Bell thinks outside the box too. I have had the privilege on several occasions of attending Mars Hill when Rob was "preaching" and thoroughly enjoyed it. Consequently, when I have listened to people and church leaders talk about what they perceive to be errors in the book (even when many haven’t read it)- it saddens me. I have read it and I find it to be thought provoking for sure, but ground breaking as well in tackling some of the passages that we often ignore or don’t know what to do with. Rather than acknowledge the validity of these points or the need to look closer at some things, his critics have swept everything aside with a broad brush stroke.

In the “Further Reading” section of Love Wins, Rob mentions a C.S. Lewis book, the Great Divorce. The Great Divorce is about a dream that the narrator has where some people from hell are allowed to visit what is described as a kind of entrance to heaven. During the course of the story, all of those who have gone to visit don’t like it and want to go back. Here are a few quotes from it, starting with the introduction:

“Blake wrote the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I have written of their Divorce, this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant.

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A sum can be put right; but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, ‘with backward mutters of dissevering power’ - or else not. It is still ‘either-or’. If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”

p.70 (Narrator from hell to an angel-like character): “It is about these ghosts. Do any of them stay? Can they stay? Is any real choice offered to them? How do they come to be here?... But I really don’t understand. Is judgment not final? Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?

It depends on the way ye’re using words. Son, he said, ‘ye cannot in your present state understand eternity: when Andos looked through the door of the Timeless he brought no message back. But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who have been saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on Earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell.”

p.75 “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there would be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”

Love Wins has 8 chapters and a preface. Here are a few comments and quotes:
1. Preface: Millions of Us
“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.’ You are not alone. There are millions of us.”
“Jesus’ story has been hijacked; the plot has been lost and it’s time to reclaim it. Nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me.”
2. What about the flat tire? The chapter title has to do with the scenario where a missionary is on his/her way to speak to someone but their car gets a flat tire, and they never get to speak to that person. Many other scenarios are brought up with the accumulating effect that the salvation story rarely follows a predictable pattern. Rob concludes with this pile-up of questions having to do with the who and how of salvation:
“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?”

This reminds me of the fact that Jesus’ famous talk with Nicodemus about being “born again” is never repeated with anyone else again; yet evangelicals have adopted it as a litmus test.
3. Here is the new there (Heaven)
p. 24 “For all of the questions and confusion about just what heaven is and who will be there, the one thing that appears to unite all of the speculation is the generally agreed-upon notion that heaven is, obviously, somewhere else.”

p.26” In Matthew 19 a rich young man asks Jesus: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?

For some Christians, this is the question, the one that matters most. Compassion for the poor, racial justice, care for the environment, worship, teaching, and art are important, but in the end, for some followers of Jesus, they’re not ultimately what it’s all about…

The rich man’s question, then, is the perfect opportunity for Jesus to give a clear, straightforward answer to the only question that ultimately matters for many.

First, we can only assume, he’ll correct the man’s flawed understanding of how salvation works. He’ll show the man how eternal life isn’t something he has to earn or work for; it’s a free gift of grace.

Then, he’ll invite the man to confess, repent, trust, accept, and believe that Jesus has made a way for him to have a relationship with God.

Jesus, however, doesn’t do any of that.
He asks the man: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
… That wasn’t what Jesus was supposed to say.”

p.46 “What you believe about the future shapes, informs, and determines how you live now.”

p. 34-40 “A couple of interesting observations about the prophet’s promises regarding life in the age to come.

First, they spoke about “all the nations.” That’s everybody. That’s all those different skin colors, languages, dialects, and accents; all those kinds of food and music; all those customs, habits, patterns, clothing, traditions, and ways of celebrating- multiethnic, multisensory, multieverything…

Second, one of the most striking aspects of the pictures the prophets used to describe this reality is how earthy it is. Wine and crops and grain and people and feasts and buildings and homes. It’s here they were talking about, this world, the one we know – but rescued, transformed, and renewed…

Third, much of their vision of life in the age to come was not new. Deep in their bones was the Genesis story of Adam and Eve, who were turned loose in a garden to name the animals and care for the earth and enjoy it.

Their description of life in the age to come is both thrilling and unnerving at the same time. For the earth to be free of anything destructive or damaging, certain things have to be banished. Decisions have to be made. Judgments have to be rendered. And so they spoke of a cleansing, purging, decisive day when God would make those judgments. They called this day the “day of the LORD.

The day when God says “ENOUGH!” to anything that threatens the peace (shalom is the Hebrew word), harmony, and health that God intends for the world.

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 anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth.”

p.59 “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.”
4. Hell

“There are only a few Hebrew/Greek words that are translated as "hell": Sheol, Gehenna, and Hades. Gehenna means the valley of Hinnom and refers to the city dump of Jerusalem. The gnashing of teeth that is mentioned refers to the dogs that raided the dump.”

p.67 “But, simply put, the Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined. Sheol, death, and the grave in the consciousness of the Hebrew writers are all a bit vague and “underworldly.” For whatever reasons, the precise details of who goes where, when, how, and for how long simply aren’t things the Hebrew writers were terribly concerned with.”

p.79 “There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.”

p.82 “Jesus did not use hell to try and compel “heathens” and “pagans” to believe in God, so they wouldn’t burn when they die. He talked about hell to very religious people to warn them about the consequences of straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love.”

“To summarize, then, we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.

And for that, the word “hell” works quite well. Let’s keep it.”
5. Does God get what He wants? This refers to the fact that God desires all people to be saved; and yet it is often taught that the majority will not be (for the simple reason that they have never had the opportunity to hear); so God does not get what He wants.

p. 102 “Is history tragic? Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth? Is our future uncertain, or will God take care of us? Are we safe? Are we secure? Or are we on our own?”

p.115 “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.”
6. Dying to Live

p. 136 “Jesus talks about death and rebirth constantly, his and ours. He calls us to let go, turn away, renounce, confess, repent, and leave behind the old ways. He talks of the life that will come from his own death, and he promises that life will flow to us in thousands of small ways as we die to our egos, our pride, our need to be right, our self-sufficiency, our rebellion, and our stubborn insistence that we deserve to get our way. When we cling with white knuckles to our sins and our hostility, we’re like a tree that won’t let its leaves go. There can’t be a spring if we’re stuck in the fall.”

“Lose your life and find it, he says.
That’s how the world works.
That’s how the soul works.
That’s how life works when you’re dying to live.”

p. 135 “Of course.
A gospel that leaves out its cosmic scope will always feel small.
A gospel that has as its chief message avoiding hell or not sinning will never be the full story. A gospel that repeatedly, narrowly affirms and bolsters the “in-ness” of one group at the expense of the “out-ness” of another group will not be true to the story that includes “all things and people in heaven and on earth.”
7. There are rocks everywhere. This has to do with the story in Exodus 17 where God brings water out of a rock that Moses has struck. Thousands of years later Paul says that rock was Jesus! (1 Corinthians 10). Jesus was there when they needed help; Jesus (rock) is here now everywhere. (summarized)

p. 147 “The insistence of the first Christians was that when you saw Jesus – the first century Jewish rabbi who taught and healed and called disciples and challenged the authorities to the point of death – you were seeing the divine in skin and bones, the word in flesh and blood.”

p. 150 “[Jesus] 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.”

p. 160 “Third, it is our responsibility to be extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people’s eternal destinies. As Jesus says, he did not come to judge the world, but to save the world” (John 12). We can name Jesus, orient our lives around him, and celebrate him as the way, truth, and the life, and at the same time respect the vast, expansive, generous mystery that he is.”
8. The Good News is better than that

p. 177 “God extends an invitation to each of us, and we are free to do with it as we please. Saying yes will take us in one direction; saying no will take is in another.”

p. 175 “Hell is refusing to trust, and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God. Sometimes the reason people have a problem accepting “the gospel” is that they sense that the God lurking behind Jesus isn’t safe, loving, or good. It doesn’t make sense, it can’t be reconciled, and so they say no. They don’t want anything to do with Jesus, because they don’t want anything to do with God.”

Rob has many comments on the Parable of the Prodigal son, which were influenced by Timothy Keller's excellent book The Prodigal God.

p. 182 “Let’s be very clear, then; we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer.”

p.179 “When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless giving circle of joy and creativity… An entrance understanding of the gospel rarely creates good art. Or innovation. Or a number of other things. It’s a cheap view of the world, because it’s a cheap view of God. It’s a shriveled imagination.

It’s the gospel of goats.”
9. The end is here

p. 193 (when Rob was 7 years old) “With my parents on either side of me, I invited Jesus into my heart. I told God that I believed that I was a sinner and that Jesus came to save me and I wanted to be a Christian.”

p. 197 “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.

“Love is why I’ve written this book, and love is what I want to leave you with.”

“May you experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along. May you discover that this love is as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart no one else knows about. And may you know, deep in your bones, that love wins.”

So what do I think about the book? I appreciated it, enjoyed it, and was glad to see that someone had the guts to talk about things that most Christians are afraid to discuss. I also enjoyed the book for its humor and sarcasm; here is a good example:
p. 89 “ In Paul’s first letter to Timothy he mentions Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom he has “handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.” (Something in me wants to read that in a Darth Vader voice.)
Now I realize that the moment he mentions Satan, things can get really confusing. But beyond the questions—
“Handed over to Satan?”
Paul has handed people over to Satan?
Do you do that?
Can you do that?
How do you do that?
Is there paperwork involved?”
What about the "fate of every person who ever lived?"; especially if they have never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel or know the Biblical God? Rob, I think, is speculating within this cosmic sandbox, especially when the Biblical text is scanty, such as when the main reference to hell is an allusion to the city dump. I do not know the answer and I don't think anyone else, including Rob, really does, though it is very tempting to get dogmatic on this. My default view is that God is just, fair, compassionate, and holy; He will do what is right for every person. This does not absolve us, however, from reaching out to as many as we can with the Gospel. 
The one reference I could find on this was made by Josh McDowell and Don Stewart in their book: Answers to Tough Questions: "Although the Scriptures never explicitly teach that someone who has never heard of Jesus can be saved, we do not believe that it infers [sic] this. We do believe that every person will have an opportunity to repent, and that God will not exclude anyone because he happened to be born at the wrong place and at the wrong time." (1993, p. 137)

Psalm 33:12-15 “Blessed [is] the nation whose God [is] the LORD, The people He has chosen as His own inheritance. The LORD looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men. From the place of His dwelling He looks on all the inhabitants of the earth; He fashions their hearts individually; He considers all their works."
I talked with a co-worker from India (Hindu) once about Christianity and he said he thought of the world’s religions as spokes on a wheel; all beliefs led to the same place. I have a big problem with this type of argument, since there is a quantum difference between Jesus and any figure or belief out there. I do not believe in Universalism; the gospel of Jesus the Messiah has the best answers for everyone's questions and needs. The difficulty has always been with distributing and communicating the message. Ever since Babel, people have been running from the Truth in all directions. Acts 17:22-31 is a good passage as well; it contains an intriguing concept: "Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead."
Exactly when the "times of ignorance" turn into "times of accountability" for each person is the hard part to know. But the day is coming.
Until then, God cares about how everyone lives now:

Micah 6:8 “He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does the LORD require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Justice, mercy, and humility are key attributes that are repeated over and over in the Bible. I think that Rob sees a church that does not emphasize the practical application of these three attributes enough; and I agree with him on that.

Since this blog is called “Luther’s Baggage”, I should mention something on this topic from Luther. One of the first confrontations that Luther had was with Johann Tetzel when he began selling indulgences for Rome by scaring the people with images of fire and brimstone and the inevitability of judgment:
From Johann Tetzel, preaching to the people:
“Don't you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, 'Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with a small alms and yet you do not want to do so.' Open your ears as the father says to the son and the mother to the daughter.”
Luther’s reaction:
 O God, most good! Thus souls committed to your care, good Father, are taught to their death, and the strict account, which you must render for all such, grows and increases. For this reason I have no longer been able to keep quiet about this matter, for it is by no gift of a bishop that man becomes sure of salvation, since he gains this certainty not even by the "inpoured grace" of God, but the Apostle bids us always "work out our own salvation in fear and trembling," and Peter says, "the righteous scarcely shall be saved.

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