Book #3 on my Sabbatical reading list (Pastor) was written by Eugene Peterson — a no-nonsense believer in Christ, who is fond of communities that gather around word and sacrament on Sunday mornings, made up of believers who desire to offer themselves to God in worship. He questions the kinds of high-tech, high-energy, "entertainment-based" hours of inspiration on Sunday mornings that are so popular these days (when he describes such kinds of gatherings, he names them "worship" with quotations, suggesting that they truly aren't worship).
It seemed like an appropriate contrast, then, to turn to book #4 on my list (Love Wins), written by Rob Bell, a young, hip, energetic, tech savvy, entertaining, highly acclaimed pastor and teacher — founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. Bell fills auditoriums around the world, as he questions traditional understandings of concepts like heaven and hell. Imagine my surprise when I opened my copy of "Love Wins" and read the first endorsement on the inside jacket cover:
"In the current religious climate in America, it isn't easy to develop a thoroughly biblical imagination that takes in the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ in all people and all circumstances in love and for salvation. Rob Bell goes a long way in helping us acquire just such an imagination. Love Wins accomplishes this without a trace of soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction in its proclamation of the good news that is mostly truly for all." — Eugene H. Peterson, Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology, Regent College, and author of The Message and The Pastor.
This much discussed book ("Love Wins" produced about 2,840,000 results on Google this morning) has received the attention of far wiser pastors and theologians than me, and I don't presume to add anything to what they have already accomplished. I am haunted by one simple question, though: "What if Bell is right?"
Bell's major premise about heaven is that the result or reward of Christian faithfulness is not only to be found after death, but is intended to make a profound difference in life lived today as well. Bell writes:
When the man asks Jesus how he can get eternal life... 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, promising the man that there will be treasure in heaven for him if he can do it. All of which raises the question: What does Jesus mean when he uses that word "heaven"? (pages 40-42)
Bell's major premise about hell is that concepts like "hell" and "eternal punishment" are used by Jesus to describe what happens, in this life and the next, when we reject what God has in mind for us.
What we see in Jesus' story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next. There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously. (page 79)
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. (page 82)
Given these two opening premises, the question of the book becomes: If God wants all people to be saved (and Bell offers numerous Bible passages to argue that this is the case), will God get what God wants?
Will God, in the end, settle, saying: "Well, I tried, I gave it my best shot, and sometimes you just have to be okay with failure"? Will God shrug God-sized shoulders and say, "You can't always get what you want"? (page 103)
Bell's conclusion is that over the course of a lifetime, we set our own direction. Some of us seek to draw near to God, others of us seek to put distance between us and God. God loves us all enough to allow for that to happen (in this life, and to be continued in the next). At the same time, God is relentless in pursuing us, and Bell can't imagine God letting something as small as our earthly death prevent this from happening. He imagines that even after death, humans will be offered opportunities to experience God's love. (And what's more, because of God's relentlessness, eventually love wins.) In this regard, his concept of the after-life is very similar to what C. S. Lewis offered in "The Great Divorce" (HarperOne, 2001).
He spends a chapter arguing against substitutionary atonement (Isn't everyone doing that these days?), and reminds us that death and resurrection are how life works (seeds, cells in a human body, sacrificial heroism...). Another chapter outlines the possibility that Jesus is working through many religious systems in surprising ways to redeem the world. And it may be that those who disagree with this are like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son — so limited by their own understanding of what God is doing in Jesus, that they are incapable of rejoicing with God, and joining the party in celebration of the Prodigal Son's return.
Many people have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. 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. (page 182)
So back to the original question: What if Bell is right? If Bell is right, then,
- Evangelism is winning others over with God's love, not using hell to scare them into believing.
- Christian faith is not about who's in and who's out, but about how we can become instruments of God's relentless love.
- God's story is shocking and surprising enough to break us free of the limited story we've been living under, and allow us to experience life under a completely new story.
- Our understanding of the grace of God is expanded.
- Our license to question the faith or the beliefs of others is taken away.
- Our faith is one that is rooted in joy and peace (not fear and a sense of self-preservation).