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?
...is 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?