LOVE WINS - A Review

I finally got down to Rob Bell’s book in my reading list, and I finished it this week. The first thing you notice about Love Wins is it’s not written for pastors, elders, or Bible teachers; it’s written for that guy sitting next to you in traffic, the one who hardly ever thinks about religion.

Parts of the book are arranged on the page like poetry, one short incomplete sentence stacked over another, and sometimes each line is
just
one
word.

It’s often difficult to draw firm conclusions about specific ideas from poetry, so it’s not easy to do that with Love Wins. Rob often seems to say one thing here, and the opposite thing there. To some extent I think that’s intentional. A major thesis of the book is the fact that we know far less about God and the hereafter than we often pretend to know. In a way then, Rob’s style demonstrates his thesis.

If you’ve read the “Yes and Yes” chapter in The Gospel according to Moses, you know I believe the proper response to the apparent contradictions in the Bible is not to take a stand one way or the other, but rather to say “Yes,” to both halves of the paradox. Rob says exactly the same thing, on page 127.

While some may object to this as an affront to the intellect or a copout on important doctrine, it’s just as reasonable to view it as a proof of faith. After all, who has more faith: the one who insists he must understand everything in the Bible, or the one who believes God is big enough to make sense out of two apparently contradictory propositions?

So far, so good. And I especially endorse Rob’s take on heaven, which he presents not as something to be reached in the afterlife, but rather as a way of being, which starts here in this life for believers. It is, I think, a perfectly orthodox interpretation of the scriptures. Salvation is not a single choice to be made and then relied upon thereafter. On the contrary, Paul presents salvation as something we must "work out . . . with fear and trembling" throughout this part of our immortal lives. And Jesus didn’t teach us to pray “Let us come into thy kingdom when we die.” Rather, it was “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth [right here, right now] . . .”

Rob’s perspective on heaven as a state of existence in the present world has vital ramifications for how one lives today. It’s the difference between a Christian who leaves his religion in the pews when he walks out of church on Sunday, and a Christian who loves his neighbor with actions, all day every day. When you carry heaven in your heart, it’s much easier to be heavenly.

Several other points Rob makes in Love Wins deserve praise. I appreciated Rob's effort to expand his reader's thinking about how faith in Jesus leads to a loving relationship with God, and about who enters heaven. Like Rob, I believe many Christians are going to be very surprised at the company they'll keep in the hereafter. And again, there are strong parallels between much of what he wrote and The Gospel according to Moses. I'd love to go into more detail about this and other helpful points he made, but space is limited here, so I want to pass from praise to the one concern I had when I put down the book.

Like so many others, I'm worried about Rob’s perspective on hell.

In many places, it seems to me Rob says hell is a temporary condition, a teaching tool God uses to convince those who pass out of this life unconvinced.

Note my language, please. When I write, “it seems to me,” that’s because I can’t be sure. Again, this book is written like a poem, and different people may get many different meanings from the same line in a poem. On page 117 for example, Rob seems to say if we choose hell, then God will let us have hell. Rob doesn’t limit that statement in any way. He doesn't say God will only let us stay in hell a little while, for example. But the over-arcing sense I got from this book was of a hell that’s not really “hell” in the traditional sense of the word, because as Rob writes on page 86, “there’s always the assurance that it won’t be this way forever.”

Unless I completely misunderstood Rob, he thinks hell is temporary. That idea is repeated in many places, across several chapters. Eventually, everybody suffering in hell will see the light, and enter God’s presence.

Rob quotes many scriptures to support this idea. Unfortunately his scholarship is often deeply flawed. He sometimes quotes a verse to make a point, when the prior verse in the scriptures makes exactly the opposite point. He even goes so far as to quote the first half of a verse without mentioning the second half, when the second half refutes his interpretation of the first.

Here’s just one example, although I could offer many others:

On page 91 Rob discusses Jesus’ famous teaching about two kinds of people: 1) those who try to take care of the hungry, thirsty, alien, naked, sick and imprisoned, and; 2) those who don’t. At the conclusion of that passage, in Matthew 25:46, Jesus compares the fate of those two kinds of people. He says:

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Rob writes about two Greek words in the verse, but rather than examining the words Jesus actually used, Rob focuses on the roots of those words. It’s as if a Chinese student learning English applied the meaning of the word “finite” to the sentence “The universe is infinite.”

Based on that approach, Rob concludes that the word usually translated as "punishment" should actually be rendered "trimming" or "pruning," and the word usually translated as "eternal" should instead be understood to mean "a period of time." So he suggests the first half of Matthew 25:46 should be translated this way: “Then they will go away to a period of pruning . . .” He then moves on without mentioning the second half of the verse.

That omission is understandable, when one considers that the word “eternal” in both halves of the verse is the same word in the Greek. Had Rob translated that word in the second half the same way he translated it in the first, he would have had this to explain away:

“Then they will go away to a period of pruning, but the righteous to a period of life.”

"A period of" life is not what a believer hopes to experience in the hereafter, of course, nor is it what the Bible teaches, either about heaven, or about hell. The actual Greek word Jesus used is unmistakable: it means everlasting, eternal, or forever.

Some compare Rob’s apparent theology on hell to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, but it is a flawed comparison. Purgatory, in the Catholic sense, is a place where believers who die in a state of grace suffer appropriate punishment for their venal sins, a process which completes their sanctification and allows them to enter God’s holy presence.

Whatever one may think of that theology, purgatory is not a place where people who reject God in this life have a second chance at faith along the lines Rob seems to suggest. Roman Catholicism, like traditional Protestant theology, is quite clear: those who die without accepting God’s grace in this life pass directly to eternal suffering in hell.

Now, having written those terrible words, I also want to be clear on one thing: I wish Rob was right.

I wish the Bible taught that there will be an infinite number of chances to confess, repent, and step into our loving God’s embrace. I wish the Lord would give us an eternity to make that choice, if necessary. I wish the Bible didn’t say, “. . . man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” I wish it didn’t say, “. . . whoever does not believe stands condemned already.” I wish Jesus hadn’t warned us the day will come when he will say once and for all, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” and “Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”

But the Bible is consistent about this: after this life come a eternity in hell or heaven for us all. The choice of where we’ll be is ours, and the time to make that choice is now, because when we leave this part of life, our fate in the next is sealed.

While I wish it wasn’t that way, who am I to protest that this isn’t fair or just? After all, God is God, and I am not. A slug might as well complain to me about pesticide. As God himself explains, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Who am I to explain ideas like love, mercy and justice to God, the one who merely spoke, and galaxies sprang into existence?

Still, I wish it wasn’t that way.

I read an old story somewhere recently (it may have been Adam Clarke's excellent Bible commentary, or perhaps Barnes), about two preachers discussing their sermons the previous Sunday. One says he preached on the topic of hell. The other asks, “And did you cry?”

That is how any true follower of Jesus feels about hell. To live in heaven on earth is to live with a broken heart for the lost on earth. Along with Rob, I would never presume to say Gandhi is in hell. “Judge not, or you will be judged” means such awful words are for God alone to speak. And I certainly don’t revel in the thought of people in eternal torment. On the contrary, I weep.

But because my heart does break at the thought of hell, the last thing in the world I want to do is write a book that lets an unbelieving reader think she can ignore Jesus in this life, because there will be (or even might be) a chance to set things right in the next.

Is that what Rob Bell believes? Or might believe? Even after reading and re-reading Love Wins, I still don’t know for sure. And that is precisely the problem.

There is a difference between speaking judgmentally about specific people, and speaking truth about God’s coming judgment. The judgmental aspect of Jesus' relationship to creation is very clearly written in God's word, because it would not be just, or loving, to be vague about a thing like that.

Sometimes the most difficult and uncomfortable things must be spoken very carefully and clearly, if love is really going to win.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:33 AM 11 comments  

River Rising - Deleted Scene

While looking for something else this morning, I came across this scene, which got cut from River Rising early in the editing process. In honor of the poor folks in the parishes around Baton Rouge and New Orleans today who are once again suffering from a flood, I thought I'd publish it here, as a reminder that miracles do happen, and "love . . . always hopes, always perseveres."

Visualize relentless rain falling on a slave plantation beside the Mississippi, and a great flood about to crest the levees . . .

***

Lying on the moist soil of her shack, Marah smelled something in the air. Smoke? She took a tiny bite of hard tack and chewed it slowly, drawing it out, making it last. Yes, wood smoke. Someone had built a fire inside their doorway, she supposed; maybe had a little dry kindling stored away, and decided a hot meal would be worth putting up with tearful eyes and ticklish lungs. She too would rather suffer a smoke-filled room than endure the cold comfort of another meal like this. But she had not had the foresight to gather wood from along the overgrown sides of the levees and store it indoors. She envied them. She took another bite. All too soon her little piece of bread was gone. Time to milk the goat. One of the other women had fed the last of yesterday’s milk to the baby a little while ago. The child would be crying for more in the middle of the night. Marah rose to her feet and paused before the door, staring out into the rain. Strange, this rain. It had gone on like this for a day and a half now, never faster, never slower, no lightning or thunder, just strong, steady rain coming down so straight it hung outside the doorway like a curtain. Wrapping her arms across her chest to clutch her elbows for warmth, Marah ducked her head and stepped outside.

The rain hit her neck and rolled down her back. She made no effort to avoid the puddles as she walked, for the puddles were everywhere, and getting deeper. Wading right through, she followed the beaten path along the front of the shacks, heading for the small pen back behind. She did not look up. She knew the way so well there was no need. Besides, what would she see but pitch black? Holding her head down, facing the ground, was the best way to avoid the pounding rain. So when the light appeared at the edge of her vision and she raised up, Marah was already very near the fire that Newboy had somehow built. It roared and danced with life as if celebrating something joyful. Newboy stood on the other side gazing into a pot that hung above the flames. The warm light bathed his features with a yellow glow. His skin glistened. He stood perfectly still. The rain, falling into the flames, crackled and rose again as waves of steam that almost obscured him.

For a moment Marah thought he might be a vision. The fire might be a vision, too. How could anyone build a fire in this rain? How would you get the first tiny flame to catch and hold? And where would you get the dry wood? It was impossible. Yet there it was—there he was—somehow.

How?

Forgetting the goat, Marah walked closer. The warmth of the flames caressed her, made her feel almost comfortable again. Stepping into the circle of firelight cast around about, she got Newboy’s attention. He looked up at her across the fire and smiled. Suddenly she felt comfortable on the inside, too.

“Want some stew?” he asked.

Unconsciously she touched her stomach. “Sure.”

“I think it’s ready. Help yourself.”

“What’s in it?”

His smile widened. “Does it matter?”

She laughed and knelt and dipped one of the wooden bowls lying there into the pot and up it came, rich with vegetables and meat and smelling of heaven. She watched Newboy over the edge of the bowl as she drank from it.

“Good?” he asked.

She nodded and kept on drinking and chewing, following his every move as he turned from the fire and went to the nearest shack. Sticking his head inside he called, “Hey! Got some stew out here for them that wants it.”

The stew was better than good. It had a peculiar, delicate flavor. Tilting the bowl toward the fire she saw small floating green and rust colored flecks. Had Newboy somehow found spices? She sighed with pleasure. They had not even had salt in…how long? Since before the last planting season for sure. Maybe even the one before that. Yet here he was coming up with these delicious spices.

How?

Newboy moved on to the next shack, where he poked his head in and offered another invitation to come out and eat some stew. Moving on again, he was soon too far away for Marah to see him in the darkness and the rain, but she heard his muffled voice and knew he had continued, all the way down the line. What was he thinking? The pot was far too small for everyone. It held enough for maybe six or eight at most. And already the three women living in the first shack had emerged. Marah giggled as their eyes went wide at the sight of her kneeing in the rain beside a roaring fire, eating stew. Had she looked that way at Newboy when she walked up? The women approached slowly, each of them clutching a bowl made from a gourd. Marah rose to give them room as they clustered around the pot. Her own bowl was almost empty. Strangely, that one serving had been enough to fill her belly. But even though the stew was mighty filling, there would never be enough for everyone.

Now others gathered around the fire. To Marah’s surprise, nobody pushed or shoved. Everyone made room for those who came behind. Even Qana waited his turn. Marah supposed it was the shock of seeing the fire that kept them civil. What else could it be? She saw Newboy take his place on the far side of the fire, just where he had stood before when she walked up. Steam rose and fell in waves as he watched the others dip their gourds and hand carved bowls into the pot. Sometimes the steam almost obscured him. Sometimes it parted and she could see him clearly. The others did not seem to notice that he did not eat. Maybe he had eaten earlier, before Marah came along. One or two people thanked him as they passed along beside the pot. Most did not. No matter what, he smiled at one and all in a way that made her certain that he did not care about their thanks so much as he did about their bellies.

Qana had gone through the line twice before it finally occurred to Marah that the pot was not yet empty. How could that be? There were so many of them, and some had already taken two helpings, yet each hand that dipped a bowl into that small pot raised it up again filled to the brim. Could Newboy have refilled it in an instant of concealment by the rising steam? Could anyone move that quickly? And if so, where did he hide the raw materials? And the fire…she had not seen him add a log, yet it still burned. No longer did she marvel that the fire had been started in this rain. Now she marveled that it kept on burning. There was no pile of logs waiting to be burned. And the air was filled with falling water. No fire could burn in such a rain. Looking around, Marah wondered: did no one else see these things? How could they not? How could they simply eat and see nothing but the bowls they cradled in their hands as if to protect them from each other?

Was she the only one with eyes?

Posted byAthol Dickson at 6:16 AM 2 comments