Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Review of Love Wins: Chapter One


Rob Bell begins the chapter with a story, but then he unloads a long string of provocative questions.

I imagine he's asking these questions because they're the same ones that get posed to him as a pastor.

He's also learned along the way that asking questions is how you...learn. Far too many Christians have quit asking questions. Ought not we critically examine our beliefs, test them against reality and the Scriptures?

Here's the leading question of the chapter - and the book:
Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number "make it to a better place" and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? (2)

It's easy to see someone one posing this question to Rob from across the cafe table over a cup of coffee. A young man who grew up in the church, who asked too many questions, who got too many cliche answers. A woman with a sensitive spirit who probes the mystery of Scripture and who connects with a wide array of people with wretched stories.

The second part of the question - a controversial summary:
Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life? (2)

You can almost hear the sneer in the voice of the one posing this to Pastor Rob. For some it's a sneer, or cynicism, or bewilderment. And what should a pastor do at this point? Try and give the "right" answer? Or, maybe, help this questioner ask better questions. Which is what Rob attempts to do in this chapter.

He notes that this particular line of questioning raises questions about the kind of God who would do such a thing. It also poses a question of how you get to be one of the "select number" get to avoid "eternity in anguish." And it's a good question: "How does a person become one of the few? (2) How would you answer it?

Rob points out that there is not agreement on what a person is to do. He asks if you are to take a class, be baptized, join a church or have something happen in your heart, or say a specific prayer. And he points out that there's not agreement on what exactly to say in the prayer, or even what to call the prayer. And what about people who said the prayer, but maybe didn't fully understand what they were doing. (5) He then asks a question that seems out of context:
What about the people who have never said the prayer and don't claim to be Christians, but live a more Christlike life than some Christians?

The next statement and question also seems out of context for the chapter:
Some Christians believe and often repeat that all that matters is whether or not a person is going to heaven. Is that the message? Is that what life is all about? Going somewhere else? If that's the gospel, the good news - if what Jesus does is get people somewhere else - then the central message of the Christian faith has very little to do with this life...." (6)

Followed up with another zinger of a question:
So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn't ultimately matter, as long as you've said or prayed or believed the right things?

These are provocative questions that seem forced into his line of questioning, yet they are important ones to consider. It reveals the audience Rob is seeking to rattle: those Christians who don't really think about their beliefs, or the consequences of those beliefs for other people, their community, or their world. Their beliefs lead them to activity that focuses primarily on getting other people to go to heaven - and as Rob observes, at the expense of caring for the poor, caring for Creation, caring about their neighbor.

There's a barrage of questions. Rob points out that some would say in response to all this complexity, that everything can be boiled down to "how you respond to Jesus" (7). Rob agrees. But then he has to go and ask another pesky question: "Which Jesus?" (7) He goes on to point out all the different kind of Jesus's that have been portrayed that ought to be rejected or disbelieved. A man molests a daughter while reciting the Lord's Prayer. Christians herd Muslims into a building and then gun them down. Jesus who comes across as antiscience. "Some Jesuses should be rejected." (9)

So if you reject the unauthentic Jesuses, how do you discover the real Jesus? Rob mentions how people bring up the Romans 10 passage: "How can they hear without someone preaching to them?" And Rob wonders: what if the missionary gets a flat tire? (9) "Is someone else's eternity resting in your hands?  

That's a scary question. And it deserves a good answer. But this chapter is about questions, not answers. Rob wants you to consider - what are the implications for what you believe? And what do you believe? How did you come to believe it? And do others have to believe the same way you do? Do they have to come to the same belief you do in the same way?

Ready for more questions?
If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him- a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works or good deeds - and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren't all those verbs? And aren't those verbs actions? Accepting, confessing, believing - those are things we do. Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?
How is that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that good news?

Isn't that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart - that it wasn't, in the end, a religion at all - that you don't have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus? (11)


Now we're getting to some of the core questions of the book, of Rob's thoughts, his theology, the seeds for his answers to come later in the book. If you're like me, you're a bit overwhelmed with the onslaught of questions. But if you're not the type of person to ask a lot of questions, or you don't want more questions - you want more answers, you might be very annoyed with Rob.

His next set of probing questions might really annoy you. He's going to push back against the simplistic ideas we have about how one comes to be saved. He mentions stories in Luke 7, 18 & 23, John 3, Luke 20, Matthew 6, 7 & 10, Luke 19, Mark 2, 1 Corinthians 7, Acts 22 and Romans 11 that all reveal different ways that people were saved. (12-17) Jesus is central to all of them, but not in the same way.

Here's his summary of questions about how Jesus saves you according to the above referenced Scriptures:
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?
Or is it whether you do what you're told and go into the city? it the tribe, family, or ethnic group you're born into?

Almost done with the chapter.

"...some would say, 'Just believe.'" (17)
Rob points out in Luke 11, Mark 3, and Matthew 16 that there was some uncertainty about who Jesus was exactly. Pharisees, family, and disciples had "a difficult time grasping just how Jesus [was]." (17)

Rob seeks to cause uncertainty in your mind and heart about what you believe.

Sowing seeds of doubt, maybe? This assumes that doubt can be a good thing. And that certainty can sometimes be toxic. Maybe you disagree with this premise? If so, you'll be annoyed, offended, or confused by Rob's methods.

But could we agree that most people could use some clarity about what they believe and the implications for them? And the path to clarity sometimes requires you to start over again, in a sense, with what you believe. To allow everything to be re-examined in the light of Scripture and reality.

Here's how Rob ends the chapter - it's a directive for where he's going in the book and the grand scope of what he's seeking to accomplish:
We could go on,
verse after verse,
passage after passage,
question after question,
about heaven and hell and the afterlife
and salvation and believing and judgment
and who God is and what God is like
and how Jesus fits into any of it.

But this book isn't just a book of questions.
It's a book of responses to these questions.

(If at this point you're still reading this post, I'll admit I'm impressed. If I make it too short, I'll get accused of taking stuff out of context. If I make it too long I'll get accused of losing people because they don't have a long enough attention span to read stuff that's this long. I guess you're not one of those people!)

You can see why Rob makes people nervous. He's asking questions about the heart of Christianity, the identity of God, the role of Jesus. No wonder such strong opinions surface in reaction to Rob's ideas. We protest and fight about what we hold dear. So push-back is good. I'd like to hear your push-back with this chapter.

Is Rob asking unfair questions?
Is Rob asking misleading questions?
Is Rob asking too many questions?
Do you resist asking too many questions? Why?

Is Rob making the issues too gray in this chapter? Is there really that much confusion about how to become a Christian? Is Rob misusing Scripture to point out the different ways people become a Christian? Does Rob mischaracterize Christians who have a strong focus on going to heaven when they die?

For me, the weakest part of this chapter is the characterization of Christians. The power of the questions come from a particular kind of characterization. Even the initial question which is at the heart of the book is carefully phrased, and I think it comes across a bit misleading.

However, I do think that these questions didn't all originate with Rob. I think a lot of them came from Christians and ex-Christians and anti-Christians who really struggled to make sense of the faith. In their struggle, in their experiences, in their life they ended up asking these kinds of questions. Rob puts there questions in his mouth and asks them on their behalf for us to consider.

What don't you like about this chapter?

What resonated with you?


Lon said...

I must ruminate on this!

Les said...

Hey Tim,

I liked your analysis. I haven't read the book...yet. Alas, I have other books to read and digest. But I certainly have seen the evangelical community all abuzz over Bell's book.

I mainly just wanted to say hi. I also see that you are a prodigious blogger. How are things going at Anchor?

Let's catch up!

Les Aylesworth

Anonymous said...

I didn't expect a book like this to ask me questions. I'm not a biblical expert. In trying to answer the questions I realized my thoughts on heaven and hell may have more to do with my own perceptions than anything in the Bible. I didn't feel like my faith was challenged as much as I felt it may need to expand. - Amy F

Jim P said...

To ask questions I believe is prudent. Why do we believe what we believe? I do a tremendous amount of work in apologetics and the one thing I spend a lot of time on is getting the recipient to question why they believe what they believe.

Scripture commands us in
1 Peter 3:15
"But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear;"

Of course one must believe that scripture is inerrant. That could come from "being given the faith to believe". My own walk involved believing this by faith. Eventually through learning apologetics and the laws of logic I was able to learn for myself that scripture is inerrant or does not break any laws of logic. God can be proven philosophically as well.

So I agree one should ask questions of why do they believe what they believe. Using scripture as the source, using lexicons, and several sound commentaries should get one moving forward to have ready answers.

Not to jump start to the rest of the book, but I question Rob's motive behind asking the questions.

Anonymous said...

The Socratic method here here is, in my opinion, a brilliant way of poiting out that the concept of salvation is not nearly as simple as most Christians have made it out to be.

Thanks to the concept of "eternal security" (if you even think you have anything to do with your own salvation in the first place), I fully agree that the focus is too often that of evacuation: just say these words (and mean them at the time) and you're guaranteed your ticket into Heaven (and more importantly, out of Hell/Hades). This focus not only misses the point of the Great Commission, but the idea that we need not wait for death to work for God's Kingdom. We can experience the joy of being a part of His work right now, seeing (as Jesus prayed) God's "will be done, in Earth as it is in Heaven". Of course, the moment I mention the phrase "social justice", I immediately become a flaming liberal. In the interest of berevity, I will simply say that Christ Himself indicates in two passages in Matthew (7:21-23 and 25:31-44) that salvation requires some investment in others, on our part.

Of course, many become uncomfortable with the idea that anything is required of us for salvation, but I don't believe this is the same as suggesting we are in any way earning this grace. Other biblical passages imply that we will not be forgiven our sins (and how can we enter Heaven unforgiven?) if we fail to forgive others....this salvation is starting to sound like hard work!

In short, there are some serious questions to think about, and I certainly don't hold it against Mr. Bell that he puts them out there, even where I may not agree with some of the answers he has for some of these questions.

~ Mike Brooks