Friday, March 25, 2011

Love Wins, Part II

In Chapter 4 of "Love Wins" Rob Bell asks, "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?" An incredibly valid question. Bell poses that restoration, reconciliation, and renewal all cause God's greatness to shine through the universe. Eternal torment, endless anguish, and never-ending punishment don't. He says, "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 can understand where he is going here. It's doesn't make sense to us. Those of us who grew up reciting John 3:16 know that God loves the world. But in context, we need to eventually read verse 18, which says, "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son." Whether you are Calvinistic in your theology or not, all of us are pretty sure that love is a choice. No one can be forced to love. To love out of anything other than free will simply defies the very definition of the word.

So, what is Bell saying? He tries to hold a tension here that says, "What if the freedom to choose goes beyond what we are aware of?" What if the choice to accept or reject Jesus extends past what we know of finite time on earth? The thing is, tension is not a bad thing. I think that we can hold that tension and leave it unresolved. There is a part of me that says, "Yes" to this and wants to think about the possibility. But there is nothing, other than my desire and wish, that would cause me to think this. I can't find anywhere in Scripture, unless I apply it somewhat shamefully and eisegetically (isolating verses out of their context).

Bell proceeds to support the idea that we need to move past this tension and to live our lives with it not being the main point. He touches on the fact that Christians have made the message of the Gospel be more about who is in and who is out versus the love of God coming to earth in flesh to reconcile creation. I can't disagree. The message of the Gospel has been hijacked. I can buy that. In the West, we have certainly made it so individual that it's more about a "personal relationship" than it is about how I find my place in the bigger picture and bigger story of God.

On page 155, Bell introduces a concept which he calls "exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity." Can we be inclusive and then exclusive? He says that it embraces Jesus as the way but allows it to be inclusive enough to believe that there were be some surprises and unexpected things that we encounter. He also says that "he (Jesus) leaves the door way, way open." But what does he make of Jesus' words that the way that leads to life is narrow in Matthew 7:13? How does he respond to that? It seems that Bell is taking Christ out of the very Christo-centric Christianity. Is this the case?

All come to God through Christ, some just don't know that they are coming through him. Really? Is that the case? He points to the Old Testament here and the fact that somehow, all who were saved within the Old Testament were still saved through Christ. How could that be? Jesus is never mentioned in the Old Testament? Or is he? Bell ties Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 10 to Exodus 17. The rock from which the Israelites drank was Jesus, they just didn't know it.

As Christians, we base EVERYTHING on Jesus Christ and what he accomplished. The thing is, I think that we have a tendency to remove Jesus from God. We play favorites, in some respect, with the aspects of God. Francis Chan wrote a whole book about the "forgotten God." But we can't remove Jesus from God. As much as we might like to think that the 33 +/- years that Jesus spent on earth was it, it's just not true. All creation was made in him, by him, and through him. He is just as eternal as the Father and the Spirit, it's just that he didn't take on human flesh until a specific time within human history.

Again, here is an area of tension that might best be left in tension rather than attempting to resolve it. As smart as I might think that I am, I cannot wrap my head around this idea. How does Christ's righteousness extend beyond the limits of finite time? That is the mystery of Christ. Instead of holding on to this tension, Bell chooses instead to make a parallel connection to modern examples. What if there is some remote tribe in the middle of South America who has never seen the Bible? What if they never heard the name of Jesus? Is it possible that they are saved without uttering the name of Jesus? Have there been people who have been in similar circumstances for the many centuries of human history? How does God save them? Does God save them?

I think that these are all great questions. I don't think that there are clear answers to them. I think that Rob Bell would agree, but it doesn't stop him from speculating. Instead of living in the tension though, Bell provides speculations, which can hardly be substituted for answers. Bell writes on page 154, "What he doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him (Jesus). He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him." True, but we also know that Jesus is THE way, THE truth, and THE life and that NO ONE comes to the Father apart from him. But he's right, we know he is the way, we just don't fully grasp exactly how that way gets taken.

Here's where I think we get into a very gray area and I wonder what the best resolution is. The end of the story could easily be that my responsibility is not to understand all of this but just to trust that I am doing everything to put my faith in Christ alone. It could be carried further to include the fact that I need to live a life of love, exemplifying the love and grace that I received and receive constantly through Christ. I am reminded of God's word to Job after 37 chapters of silence, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?" Nothing like a little divine sarcasm.

How would we like things to end? And they all lived happily ever after? How does imperfect creation reflect a perfect God? Did God make a mistake by creating humans with a choice? How can this be the case? Here are three words which I have grown to embrace, accept, and sometimes trust: I don't know.

Rob Bell is frustrated that there have been some who have made the Gospel more about "us" winning and "those sinners" losing. I agree. None of us should ever forget that just like members of AA are considered "recovering alcoholics" we should all probably be labeled "recovering sinners" as well, knowing full well (if we're honest) that we occasionally fall off the wagon. When we make it "us" versus "them," it's so much less about grace and so much more about having made a good choice. I personally don't think that my "choice" was so much my own as much as God's divine help and grace. But we're not going into a treatise about predestination and foreknowledge here. The fact is that we are saved through Christ and Christ alone, it is a gift from God, no one can boast that they did something special. By waving signs that say "turn or burn" or any one of a number of really well-thought-out phrases (can you sense the sarcasm?), we aren't giving God credit for salvation, we're taking that credit ourselves. By creating an "us" versus "them" debate, we aren't promoting the grace that we have received and experienced, we're promoting a Christian form of Gnosticism.

Bell writes on page 197, "Jesus reminds us in a number of ways that it is vitally important we take our choices here and now as seriously as we possibly can because they matter more than we can begin to imagine." Here's the point that I wish Bell had emphasized more. We need to stop focusing on who is "in" and who is "out" and start living as if we were deeply concerned that there is a chance that some could be left "out." If we are more concerned about the fact that there are some people who do not trust in Christ alone for redemption than we are about the fact that we think we understand it and can point at everyone who doesn't, the message of Jesus would come across a lot closer to what I think Jesus intended it to be in the first place. We would make it less about our own salvation and more about the One who has provided that salvation.

I'm not saying that we don't call something what it is, sin is sin and it separates EVERYONE from God, but I am saying that the message of Jesus sure comes across distorted when we paint it as a message of love and yet turn around to cast judgment upon others. It doesn't mean that we accept and condone sin, it means that we accept and condone people as God's creation.

I don't agree with everything that Rob Bell writes, but I agree with some of it. There are probably a lot of people out there who don't agree with everything that I write or say, but they might agree with some of it. Rob Bell has written a book on a highly charged issue within the Church today. By sifting through what he wrote, I would like to think that I have begun to better understand where I stand on it, working out my salvation with fear and trembling a little bit. I would like to think that spiritual formation has happened just because I have engaged this topic and allowed myself to ask some questions that return difficult answers or even no answers at all. If controversy causes us to be self-reflective and formulate our belief system, then it's worthwhile. If it causes us to get our defenses up and start lobbing criticism without a self-reflective look, then shame on us.

Salvation didn't just happen for me 30+ years ago, it happens every day and will until the other processes of my spiritual formation stop because I have ceased to live and breathe on this side of eternity. If any of us have "arrived," maybe we should be in charge and give God a good answer about where we were when he created the foundations of the earth. If we haven't "arrived," then maybe we can take opportunities, as controversial as they might be, to figure out exactly what we believe, how we articulate it, and why we get so upset when someone starts trying to get a better picture of the "man behind the curtain."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Love Wins, Part I

In my short time on earth, I have found that the best way to combat misinformation is with information. It is never beneficial to go into arguments or debates unless you are informed and somewhat knowledgeable about whatever is being argued or debated. Somewhere along the way, it seems that people within the Church have forgotten that. There’s the old, “The Bible tells me so…” argument that works when everybody is operating under the premise that the Bible is the authoritative word of God (under which I operate). The problem is, the Bible is not crystal clear on certain topics and when this is the case, people speculate on those things that are not explicitly laid out in the Bible.

Are there places in Scripture where we are told not to speed while driving? No. Does that mean that it’s all right? No. Does the Bible speak out against underage drinking? No, but there are clear laws within our country that prohibit it. These are two fairly innocuous examples of specifics that the Bible does not cover. Most of us who have spent any time within the church can name some of the specific examples that are much more volatile than these.

But my point is this, when we are not given specific information, we do the best that we can to put together all that God says within the context of Scripture to find answers. Sometimes those answers are sufficient and easily accepted, other times, they are not. On volatile issues, they are more often not.

In the mid 1980s there was a controversial film that came out called “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Many within the evangelical camp came out against the film for its depiction of Jesus falling in love with Mary Magdalene and eventually having children with her. The most unfortunate thing about the controversy around this film was that most critics of the film were completely ignorant of the film as they had not seen it. Knowing some who were adamantly opposed to even the idea of this film, I can almost assure you that had they been pressed on why they had not seen the film, they would have said, “I don’t need to taste manure to know that it’s manure, I can tell from the smell.” Not necessarily the argument that I would use.

Another argument might be, “I don’t decipher decoys by looking at other decoys, I know them because of how familiar I am with the real thing.” Legitimate argument? Yes. Relevant to this topic? Not sure. I think that it’s very difficult to make informed criticisms about something that you don’t fully understand or even worse, have not taken the time to really evaluate. While I am not recommending that everyone go and take in every controversial thing that comes down the pike, I think that there are times when it is important to educate yourself about something to gain a proper understanding and to make an informed criticism.

Heaven and hell have been topics of conversation within the church for centuries. During certain periods of church history, these topics have risen to the forefront and reared their heads in conversations and dialogues among the varying camps with differing beliefs regarding these issues. It seems that this may be one of those periods.

I began hearing of the controversy around Rob Bell’s latest book “Love Wins” a month or so ago. In my breezing through the internet information that I encountered, I gathered that people claimed that Rob Bell was saying that Gandhi was in heaven. Having read most of Bell’s books up to this point, it was not a given that I would read his latest, but after reading about the controversy, I decided that I would find out for myself.

Rob Bell is not shy about engaging with controversial topics. I will be so bold as to say that he actually embraces the idea. So, no one should be surprised by the fact that he has chosen to take on the subject of heaven and hell, their existence or lack of, and the residents of both. Bell says at the outset that nothing that he tackles in his book is new. In the preface, he writes, “please understand that nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me. I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching that’s any kind of departure from what’s been said an untold number of times.” That being said, I would recommend that anyone who delves into Bell’s book would also look at C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” and N.T. Wright’s “Surprised By Hope.” To be frank, Bell is not near the intellectual nor is he as theologically adept as either Lewis or Wright.

Bell asks a lot of questions. This is fairly typical of his writing style. He does his best to cause people to do self-reflection in hopes that they might challenge themselves to look beyond the norms of what they have been taught. I think that is a healthy and beneficial thing. The first chapter of the book is entitled “What about the flat tire?” The title comes from the question of whether someone living in a remote land should be held responsible for their unbelief if a missionary should get a flat tire on their way to preach the Gospel to them.

Bell begins the chapter by painting the many ways that one could interpret how to gain salvation based upon the biblical account. He writes, “Is it what we say, or what we are, or who we forgive, or whether we do the will of God, or if we “stand firm” or not?” He spins a web that I can only assume is his attempt at deconstructing the traditional belief structures which people have been taught. So he asks a lot of questions and then moves into the topics of heaven and hell.

Bell lays out in the first chapter the many ways that people have experienced a lopsided view of salvation. There have been many who have promoted the love and salvation of God while living a life that is contrary to that. I agree wholeheartedly that this has happened more times than I would like to admit. The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 1 that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. The offensiveness of the Gospel needs to come because it is the Gospel, not because we have misrepresented it. We should make no apologies for the Gospel’s offensiveness, only for the offense that we might add when we present it with anything less than the love and grace with which it was given to us.

Bell begins the second chapter with a picture that his grandmother had in her house of a cross bridging heaven and earth. There is a fiery pit below the cross where people have fallen and heaven is a walled city. He talks about how creepy the picture was and goes on to talk about the many ways that Christians have distorted the biblical picture of heaven. Here I would highly recommend a reading of N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” as his explanation is more exhaustive than Bell’s. People have made the Christian life about getting to heaven rather than about what happens to them on this side of eternity. They have made it an “us vs. them” and a “who is in and who is out” debate. The Bible gives some pretty clear pictures to us that heaven and earth will merge together to form the earth that God originally intended. The Kingdom of God is wherever God reigns and one day, he will reign supreme over all the earth.

Bell attempts to contextualize the messages of Scripture in a way that we can understand exactly how the original readers would have heard the various messages about God’s coming kingdom and the idea of heaven. He makes reference to the awe with which the Jewish people saw the name of God and how in reverence, they would often use “God” and “heaven” interchangeably. Bell writes on page 46, “Our eschatology shapes our ethics. Eschatology is about last things. Ethics are about how you live. What you believe about the future shapes, informs, and determines how you live now.” I very much agree.

Bell says on page 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.” I think that he's right. Unfortunately, there are many Christians who live for when that moment comes when they "enter the presence of Jesus" rather than realizing that if God is omnipresent, they are living in the presence of Jesus right now. They just need to allow that to start influencing the way they live their lives.

Much of what Bell does is focus people again on the fact that Christians should not be living as if things begin when they die. They need to live, bringing God’s kingdom to life, right now. I could not agree with him more. Creation care. Stewardship. Social justice. All of these things are ways that we can get on board and help Jesus’ prayer that God’s will be done on earth and in heaven happen right now.

When Bell gets into his discussion of Hell, he gets a little squirrely. He begins to talk about the words that are interpreted as "Hell" in the Bible. They are not as specific as one might think. Bell talks about people who God might look at as those with whom he could rule his kingdom. He begins to unpack the various Old Testament and New Testament words that are used for “forever” and “eternal.” He even makes a case for the fact that the two are different in that the idea of something being an “eternity” is more metaphoric than literal.

Bell goes through the words and their uses in Scripture, he talks about the many ways that people experience Hell on earth, and even talks about people choosing to live in their own versions of Hell. He just never gets to a place where he is willing to admit that Hell is a place where God would allow people to spend eternity. As of the first half of the book, he never mentions anything about Satan and the demons and whether or not they will ever come to repentance (what he claims will happen with many other people).

Bell believes that there are all kinds of hell "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." Bell claims that people's punishment will eventually lead them to see the error of their ways, but is this always the case? Are people given the opportunity after they die to still "change their ways?"

So, this post has gone on long enough. It will be continued in Part II, coming soon...

Thursday, March 10, 2011


“What is the greatest motivating factor in your life to change? When a difficult, adaptive change manifests itself in your life as a necessity, what helps you muster up the courage to "go with it" and allow yourself to be transformed?”

This was my status update for today, March 10, 2011, at 10:24 AM. I will anxiously wait to see the responses that might come through because I am genuinely interested in what makes people face change with more strength and courage. I could probably make some guesses, but I think that I will wait and do a follow-up on this.

Few people that I know or have encountered are “change junkies.” I know at least one in my life, probably two, but they are the exception rather than the rule. People genuinely do not like change, and if they do, it’s probably because the change most likely has little impact on them and their own personal preferences. Change is hard, disruptive, uncomfortable, and, at times, very painful.

Based on the assessment of my strengths through the Strength Finders test and a further refining look at those through a process called Core Clarity, people with my top five strengths can be classified as “stabilizers.” The funny thing is, sometimes that stabilization manifests itself as de-stabilization. In other words, if in order to get to the end goal it becomes necessary to disrupt things in order to bring about a more stable system, I’m all in.

Those who know me deeply are laughing right now because of the truth of that statement. If you meet me and have any length of conversation with me, you would most likely feel that you get a pretty good snapshot within the first few times of talking with me. What you see is what you get; I am a New Englander by upbringing and a New Yorker by birth. The combination of the two of those together would make some people utter some words that I will refrain from typing.

Jesus was a change agent. He came to the world because a change was necessary. Based on what Paul writes in Romans, and also the whole of Scripture, we know that things are broken and they need to be fixed. Sin has turned our world upside down and God made a way for that to happen. Jesus was and is the solution to the sin problem. While I won’t go so far as to call Jesus a change junkie, it was definitely his bottom line. I would go a step further and say that it was transformation, which might simply be defined as change with purpose and direction.

It follows then that those people who would consider themselves followers of Jesus need to ask themselves some very important questions, like, “do we really understand who Jesus is and what he came for?” If you go into a majority of churches today and listen to the murmurs that lie just beneath the surface, I would think that you would agree with me that the message that some have interpreted as Jesus’ message is a far cry from the radical message that we have documented in the Gospels. We have made the message about us and our own preferences rather than about our Father’s business. We have decided that it’s fine and good to say that Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost, as long as he takes care of me first. We have abducted a message that is about love, repentance, forgiveness, and transformation and made it a self-centered psychological “I’m OK, who gives a #$^& if you’re OK” message.

The sad part of it is that if you listened to the sermons that are being preached in these same churches, you would be hard-pressed to believe that they were the same church. It’s not that the message that is coming from the pulpits is false, it’s that there is a disconnect in how people are hearing that message. Somehow, people’s lenses and filters for hearing this message are distorted, and I have an idea how to take that distortion away: true discipleship.

I’m going to leave it there and see what kinds of response come to me on Facebook. This is some serious stuff to “chew on” and process, even for me. Are you willing to take a long, hard look at everything that you thought was true and have it de-stabilized? What if the end result was more amazing and fulfilling than anything that you could even dream or imagine? Think about it.