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."