Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Of Passive Men and Flailing Pastors

It was a good day for a long drive with the windows down. Plenty of sunshine and blue sky. Lots of time to think to be grateful. And think.

My trip took me to a prison. I spent a few hours with a friend. He's a good guy and I always learn something from him. Today we were talking about our fathers. I was also trying to recruit him to become a pastor.

In sharing our stories with each other, we got to talking about the different ways that men can be passive. How passivity in a man can become addictive, a form of bondage, and how a wife's response is often counter-productive. We ruminated on the ways that this passivity can get passed on to the next generation. It's a form of giving up, of disconnecting, of disengaging. It's part laziness, part selfishness, part apathy, part despair. It's also toxic.

We also got to talking about the ways pastors can flail in their ministry. There are pastors who are very religious, but disconnected from reality. There are pastors who are above others. There are pastors who are popular but then disappoint. There seems to be an expectation of pastors to never fail. But there is also an expectation for pastors to be useless. The common experience seems to be that pastors will let you down sooner or later; they are ultimately unreliable, just like everyone else.

For the boys and men in our church who have passive fathers and flailing pastors, what is their fate?

And what is the antidote?

My friend in prison is honest with me about his life, his experiences, his assessments of people. He can see through people. He knows what failure is. And recovering. Together we discussed some options for dealing with a past that included passive men and flailing pastors. It involved authentic introspection, identifying the ways that we were passive, the ways we flail.

How do you impart courage into a passive man? What's the antidote for cowardice, the fear to engage and love and make decisions? There is help, it doesn't have to be a mystery. It's not about ignorance, it's about desire.

What to do with the flailing pastors of your past? Forgive them? Be wary of them? Learn from them? Pity them? Mock them? Reconnect with them? When a pastor flails, it often results in others falling away from the church, their faith, even God. The pressure to not flail can be oppressive. And yet flailing pastors will always be part of the church experience, of our culture. Why the scorn for flailing pastors?

I know a lot of passive men. I could be one of them. I know pastors who are flailing. I could be one of them. I have been passive, and it was toxic. I have flailed, and it has hurt others. What do I do with that part of me? What do I do when I see that in others? When those men and pastors are part of my life?

Initiative. Decisions. Confidence. Choices. Engage. Listen. Learn. Sacrifice. Desire. Lift. Care. These have been my attempts to erode my passivity, to make amends for my flailings.

Hmmm...well, yes... there is plenty on which to ponder.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

My Brief Review of Love Wins

Article first published as Book Review: Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, And The Fate Of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell on Blogcritics.

There is a long-standing belief that Christians go to heaven and that God sends everybody else to burn in hell, in eternal conscious torment.

This way of phrasing the situation is common. It is also unhelpful. It misrepresents heaven and hell, God and Christians. And so Rob Bell decided it was time to present another way of of looking at this controversial belief, thus Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, And The Fate Of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

In covering ground from Genesis through Revelation, pastor Rob Bell concludes heaven and hell are right next to each other, and that you get endless invitations from God to enter heaven and depart hell — both now and in the life to come. The implication is that there will be people in hell, that hell will be temporary, and that eventually every person who has ever lived will repent of their sins in response to God's love as demonstrated through Jesus.

For Christians who are repulsed by the long-standing belief of hell as eternal, conscious torment, Bell's idea are a welcome relief. But Bell has also fired up immense controversy amongst those Christians who adhere to eternal conscious torment — which is a majority of conservative evangelical Christians. Using the same Bible, both sides have conjured up opposing views of God and the afterlife. Whose interpretation is right?

In his book, Bell methodically addresses some key ideas that undermine the traditional view of hell as eternal, conscious torment while making the case for his understanding that love wins. He tackles what the Scripture teaches about heaven, hell, free-will, resurrection, atonement, gospel, and love. Each of these topics are highly-contested theological ideas. Scholars have written thousands of pages on each of those topics, denominations have been formed on varying interpretations of these ideas. And Bell wrote a short book trying to summarize the whole Bible — not an easy task, one open to much criticism and misinterpretation.

Love Wins insists that Jesus' death on the cross atoned for the sins of the whole world, of every person who ever lived. Love Wins understands hell as necessary and needed judgment for evil actions and thoughts, but it is restorative and corrective judgment. Love Wins frames the gospel as good news for the wicked, forgiveness of their sins and the grace-full offer of reconciliation by God. Love Wins believes that people can choose heaven or hell, now and then; and that every person will someday choose heaven. Love Wins demonstrates how resurrection explains the way the world works, and that Jesus' resurrection points to a day when God will make all things new. Love Wins sees heaven as that time and place where God will get what God wants — the rescue and restoration of all Creation.

Love Wins requires the reader to rethink what they've been taught to believe about heaven and hell, God and love, Jesus and the gospel. But it's a requirement that takes thinkers back to the Scriptures, the primary source for what Christians believe about heaven and hell. Rob Bell takes you back through the two Testaments, presenting a Biblical view of the world that is Jewish in its origins, and Jesus-centered in its proclamations. This will result in an understanding of heaven and hell that differ from what has become pop-culture visions of the afterlife.

Pastor Rob Bell's interpretations are certainly open to debate, his controversial conclusions need scrutinized. And while many may dismiss or reject the idea of Love Wins, it is certainly proper and Christian to hope for it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Does It Really Matter What You Believe About Hell?

For the sake of argument, there are three general positions that Christians take towards the belief in hell:
1) Hell is a real place of eternal, conscious torment (ECT)
2) Hell is a real place of temporary, restorative judgment (TRJ)
3) Hell is an imaginary place

There have been different reports out indicating that many Christians don't live as if they believed in option 1. Though many denominations are on record as holding to a belief in hell as ECT, their members act otherwise. Evangelicals are known for their emphasis on evangelism, and they still struggle with getting their congregations motivated to save their neighbors from a hell of brimstone and burning sulfur.

So despite what doctrinal statements are declared or pronounced, the overall American Christian behavior belies a belief in hell that is either temporary or non-existent or at least not all that bad. Maybe it'd be fair to say that based on people's behavior, they either don't ever really think about hell, or else kind of view it from a Gary Larson point of view.

An interesting dilemma arises: should their be more teaching and preaching on hell in order to get more people to live according to a real fear of ECT? This would seem to lead to an over-emphasis on hell, out of line with how Jesus himself preached in light of hell. It seems to lead to a "fire-insurance" kind of Christianity.

Should hell even be any kind of motivator for evangelism? It would seem that the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus teaches that even if a dead man came back from hell to warn people about the agony of the next life, it would not be effective. If this is the case, what should our attitudes be towards the hell that Jesus describes? It seems it is proper to teach about hell as a reality, but to not be inclined to use it as a motivator for people to get saved. 

So what's the use in believing in hell? How should a belief in hell affect how I live my daily life? If I believe in ECT, then shouldn't I be using every waking moment to try and convince every living person to convert? How could I ever go to the movies for fun or take a vacation or even raise a family if I knew that it distracted me from keeping people out of ECT? If I believe that hell is TRJ, then I'd end up focusing more on the consequences that actions have in this life, letting the bad consequences experienced now be motivation for turning to God for help now.

Do you think it matters what people believe about hell? How do you justify your behavior in light of what you believe about hell? 

Is the doctrine of hell up for debate? Can we learn anything new about what the Scriptures teach about hell, or has it all been figured out already?

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Who/What/Where Is God? Exodus

What are your big questions for God?

A common one has to do with God's goodness and the existence of evil in the world.

It's really interesting that in the Scriptures there is a big story about God's own people suffering, of their oppression by an evil system of slavery. These people cry out to God for help, he hears their cry, and sends them someone to deliver them. It's the story of the Exodus.

There are layers and layers of insights and truths about God and life and humanity in the Exodus story. It's Israel's own story of their deliverance from Egypt and how they entered the Promised Land. What's so fascinating about the stories they retell about themselves is the raw honesty. Moses was a flawed leader. Israel was a stiff-necked and stubborn people. God got really, really angry with them. Within weeks of delivering them from Pharaoh's raging army, Moses had to talk God out of abandoning them in the desert of Zin.

There are five big stories that Israel tells about itself in the Old Testament, about their existence, about their covenant relationship with their God YHWH, and about what happened to them. Creation is the initial story of how they believe the world got started. Covenant is the heart of the story of how God brought Israel into existence. Exodus is the defining story of when Israel became a nation. Kingdom is a messy story of how Israel staggered it's way through political and economic realities. Exile is the fifth story, the very tragic story Israel tells of what happened to them due to their failure to keep the covenant they had made with YHWH.

If you want to know more about God, if you want to find better answers to your questions, you'll want to learn how to read the Old Testament. These are the stories about God that Jesus grew up with, stories about who he is, what he has done in the world, and where we can look for him to act next. Exodus teaches us that God always hears the cry of the oppressed. It also teaches us that God uses humans to deliver people from oppression. And we learn that there are humans who resist being used by God to rescue people from oppression, to help be part of the answer to their prayers. God's got to find a way to prevail using very flawed people in a very messed up world. 

Exodus is Israel's story of how God delivered them from an evil system of slavery that had oppressed them for a few hundred years. God rescued them from their demise by raising up Moses. It took eighty years for God's rescue plan to come to fruition. It would take another forty years to actually get Israel to the Promised Land. We learn that it often takes God a long time to answer prayers. Are you okay with that?

God also wanted to get his people back to the Promised Land, the ridge of mountains and fertile valleys that had been promised to Abraham all those years ago. God's work to deliver Israel out of Egypt was part of God's work to keep his part of the covenant. God proved his loyalty to Abraham by providing a rescuer like Moses to save Israel from Egypt. It's this story that helps us understand the story of Jesus and Israel and Rome.

In keeping his part of the covenant, in getting the ancestors of Abraham back to the Promised Land, God was giving his people a land where they could worship him and live according to his Way. An essential part of the Exodus story includes introduction of Torah, the Ten Commandments and all the statutes by which Israel was to live as God's community. Torah was God's gift to Israel, the instructions on how to live as the light, commands that would result in them becoming a blessing to the world. Exodus is deliverance from Egypt, but Exodus is also deliverance of Torah. 

We learn that not only does God hear the cry of the oppressed, but he responds. But his response is part of a bigger work in the world. Part of God's answer to their prayer for rescue is Torah. The people want freed from slavery, but what will they be freed TO? How will they live once they are delivered from bondage?

Torah is laws and commands and instructions on how Israel will live as a new nation with new freedom amongst the moon-worshipping, death-obsessed, empire-tyrannized nations. Keeping Torah would bring blessings for Israel and surrounding peoples. Rebellion against Torah would bring curses. For to rebel against Torah is to rebel against the God that rescued them - a real poke in the eye that cannot go ignored. 

Observing Torah helps Israel become the special nation God intended for them. If Israel became like Egypt, they would be cursed. If Israel enslaved aliens, they would become cursed. If Israel worshipped the sun and moon and idols of stone and wood, they would be cursed. If Israel stooped to justice stained by bribes and favoritism, they would be cursed. This helps explains some of Jesus' harsh words for the political and religious leaders of Israel. They were not living out Torah, God's instructions for how to live as a blessing to the world.

When you look around at the suffering today, when you look around at the prevalence of evil today, you might wonder what God is doing about it. The Exodus story reveals a lot about how God has worked in the past to relieve suffering. The Jesus story is another essential story about how God responds to evil in the world. One of the lessons we learn is that God answers prayers through the willingness of people to serve and save. Jesus is an example of someone who was willing to go to great lengths to be used by God to help set people free from evil. The big story of Exodus is still being written, it is still our story.

Maybe the next Exodus is depending on someone like you. God took eighty years to prepare Moses. Moses didn't know he was being prepared for anything until the eightieth year. God has to work in our world with people as they are, with nations as they are, with empires as they are.

God is always at work -  redeeming, rescuing, restoring. But it's a two way street - he can save us from evil, but he also saves us for good. Torah was his instructions on how to live a good life in a wicked world. If you want God's help - he doesn't just help you get out of a bad spot, he helps you get into a good place - but it's on his terms. Jesus comes to us, in our life, to both free us and to prepare us to help free others. Will you let Jesus be Moses to you? Will you let Jesus make you into a Moses for others?

Exodus is still the defining story for Israel. Do you need an Exodus? Do you need rescued? Do you need new instructions for a new life? God always hears your cry. God will bring people into your life to help answer your prayers. And God will have instructions for you to follow.

Go here for more study questions.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

My Review of Love Wins: Chapter Eight

The End is Here.

That's been a central idea of Love Wins. Instead of keeping our eyes on a future life way out there somewhere else, we ought to keep our eyes focused on life now with our neighbors, here. In the End, God comes down to us, to dwell with us Here. Here is where the End will occur - with a God who is Love. In the End, God wins. In the End, Love Wins. In the End, Love will be Here.

Whatever you've been told about the end - the end of your life, the end of time, the end of the world - Jesus passionately urges us to live like the end is here, now, today. Love is what God is, love is why Jesus came, and love is why he continues to come, year after year, to person after person. (197-8)

This is the core of Rob's summary. An emphasis on God as Love - an emphasis gleaned from an immersion of the Scriptures, from Genesis thru Revelation. God is holy, just, glorious, jealous, and righteous - but the Great Commandment is for us to Love God and Love our Neighbor (just as God in Christ loves us). It's not an emphasis on love to the exclusion of holiness or justice, but an emphasis that points to the heart of God.

...I believe that the indestructible love of God is an unfolding, dynamic reality and that every single one of us is endlessly being invited to trust, accept, believe, embrace, and experience it. Whatever words you find helpful for describing this act of trust, Jesus invites us to say yes to this love of God, again and again and again.  (194)

So here is a focal point of the controversy, of the rejection of Rob's argument: "endlessly being invited" instead of eternal conscious torment. From Rob's point of view, Scripture points to a God who loves covenantally, who loves through substitutional atonement, who loves through global redemption. A God who blesses his own people, but then curses them. The curse is part of the judgment, but it is also the beginning of the restoration. The judgment is a form of discipline that is to bring about repentance and righteousness. Judgment is designed to be ultimately restorative for those that God loves. God punishes rebels so that he might bring about their reconciliation.

Jesus invites us to trust that the love we fear is too good to be true is actually good enough to be true. Jesus invites us to become, to be drawn into this love as it shapes us and forms us and takes over every square inch of our lives. Jesus calls us to repent, to have our minds and hearts transformed so that we see everything differently. (195-6)

What's the motivation to repent if hell is not forever? If the conscious torment is not eternal, what's the motivation to cease rebelling and embrace reconciliation? As Rob seems to insist, God's love compels love as a response.  Obedience to God through fear of fire, or appeal to restoration? Is it possible that people will still repent of their sins though they don't believe in the traditional teachings of hell? Yes. But then what to do with the images and words of Jesus himself that seem to point to eternal conscious torment?

These are strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities. Jesus tells us these stories to wake us up to the timeless truth that history moves forward, not backwards or sideways. Time does not repeat itself. Neither does life.

While we continually find grace waiting to pick us up off the ground after we have fallen, there are realities to our choices. While we may get other opportunities, we won't get the one right in front of us again. That specific moment will pass and we will not see it again. It comes, it's here, it goes, and then it's gone.

Jesus reminds us in a number of ways that it is vitally important to take our choices here and now as seriously as we possibly can because they matter more than we can begin to imagine. (197)

When Jesus spoke words of judgment to his fellow Israelites, it was within a particular historical and cultural context, within an economic and political reality. Those words he spoke were for them, not us. The phrases and ideas recorded by the Gospel-writers were done so in light of those contexts and realities. And so we "listen" in on their wrestling to believe and understand. As Hebrew Christians, immersed in the First Testament, expectant for a deliverer, they grappled with what actually happened through Jesus. The Messiah they had waited for did not accomplish what they had anticipated - he did something bigger and better and more beautiful. And so it is for us.

Can our choices "matter more than we can begin to imagine" if there is no eternal conscious torment? Is there another compelling way to think about the connection between our decisions today and our experience in eternity aside from the fear of burning for billions of centuries? What will God do with all the rebels and idolaters, the doubters and deceivers, the ignorant and innocent little babies? Will the mass of humanity writhe in agony as fulfillment of God's justice? Does this bring glory to God?

The End is Here. We take today seriously, tomorrow has enough worries of its own. The consequences of the decisions we make now have ramifications now that we ought to pay more diligent attention to. The threat of hell is by itself insufficient to prompt rebels to repent. The work of God is the only hope we deceived humans have for receiving a second chance. If we ignore or reject or misunderstand God's overtures for salvation now in this life, that has consequences for now, in this life. But will God continue those invitations in the life to come? Or is this life it?

Rob seems to believe the invitation is endless. Only God can turn a heart towards him - and God will not cease until every man and woman repents. Rob believes that the fires of affliction, the torment of hell that we experience now will continue - on both sides of death - until we surrender and relent in our rebellion. Love never fails. 

That seems to be what Rob believes. When God comes down to Earth, everyone who has ever lived will dwell before him - their experience in God's presence will be heaven or hell - it's their choice. Their response to God's presence, their response to God's gift of faith and grace through Jesus will determine their experience in God's midst. Those outside the gate can walk through any time they want. It's their choice. And Rob believes that God will wait out their rebellion, that his patience and kindness will prevail. In the End, God will win. Through Christ, love will win Here.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Rob Bell & Bin Laden: Hell

Funny stuff.

My Review of Love Wins: Chapter Seven

The Good News Is Better Than That.

Better than what?

The word "gospel" literally means "good news." But in these days, the word "gospel" has become the shorthand way of framing our message about Jesus and Christianity. There has been a great emphasis on correctly stating and preaching the "gospel." For the normal person on the street, or in the pew, if you were to ask them what is the good news of Jesus, what kind of answer would you get? Despite all the books written about the gospel, the answer will lack nuance, depth, and scope.

I think Rob is writing to those people on the street, immersed in real life, giving them a working definition of the gospel that they can remember - more than that, that they can grasp with their heart and either truly embrace or clearly reject. Rather than the gospel becoming a complex set of doctrinal beliefs, Rob seeks to reveal the thumping heart and blood of the gospel in Jesus.

To do this, Rob retells a story/parable that Jesus made up about God and his love for sinners and the righteous. You can read it for yourself in Luke 15, it's about a father with two sons. One of the interesting angles Rob takes on this story is by pointing out the different stories at work in this one parable. Rob points out that both the younger son and older brother have a version of their life-story. The challenge is this: will they believe the story that their Father is telling them?

The younger son believes he is "no longer worthy to be called the father's son." (165) The older brother believes that he has been slaving for his father all these years without so much as a word of thanks, not even a small goat for a party. The older brother also believes that the father has been unfair.

The father, when the younger son comes home, tells a different story - here is a robe for your shoulders, a ring for your finger, and soon lets fill your belly up with roast beef and fine wine! And the father, when angrily confronted by the older brother, tells him a different story - "My son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours." (167) This is followed up with an invitation to join the party.

Rob points out that the challenge for each of the sons is about trust and belief - will either one of them trust the story the father is telling them? Will they believe their father? The differences between the two stories - the one we tell ourselves and the one the father tells us - Rob says it's "the difference between heaven...and hell." (169)

Heaven and hell seem to be right next to each other in this story - the younger son enjoying the party being thrown for him, the older brother fuming just outside the tent doors, refusing to enter, "to join in the celebration." (169) Rob is going to use this parable as a launching point for ideas about the good news, about heaven and hell. This is a unique approach, sure to attract lots of objections.

Rob has made the argument in earlier chapters about the temporary nature of hell. This comes into play in this chapter about heaven and hell as thought about from the perspective of the parable in Luke 15.
"Hell is our refusal to trust God's retelling of our story." (170)

What? This is not what most people think of when it comes to hell - where's the fire and brimstone?
But in reflecting through the story, Rob observes that belief and trust are essential to our experience with God - or without him. And this story that Jesus tells points to a moment of decision for each son - will they believe their Father, will they trust his words to them about their situation?

"We believe all sorts of things about ourselves. What the gospel does is confront our version of the story with God's version of our story." (171) Some people are full of flaws, they're marked by failure, they carry around heavy weights of shame and guilt. They believe they are not good enough. Certainly not for church. Or heaven. There are others, though, who believe they are good enough. Their pride keeps them out of church, keeps them independent, keeps them convinced that is God for the weak. And God brings to each of them, to each of us, another story which will challenge the story we've been telling ourselves.

"It is a brutally honest, exuberantly liberating story, and it is good news. It begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved. That in spite of whatever has gone horribly wrong deep in our hearts and has spread to every corner of the world, in spite of our sins, failures, rebellion, and hard hearts, in spite of what's been done to us or what we've done, God has made peace with us." (172)

Rob implies that when Jesus died on the cross, the sins of the world, of every individual who had ever lived, who ever will live, were forgiven. The blood of Jesus atoned for the sins of every person, forever. It's not fair, but it is generous. It is shocking, when you think about it. But, as Rob shares, "we create hell whenever we fail to trust God's retelling of our story." (173) When we see Jesus, we see God - and so what Jesus tells us about God, well, it's something we have to decide whether to trust it. When we don't believe the story that Jesus tells us about God and about ourselves, we miss out on the party.

One of the observations that Rob makes, though, is that the older son - and even the younger one -  he had a distorted view of God. This is what made it hard for him to trust the new story the father told them. The younger son gained a new view of of his father, and thus trusted him. The older son struggled much longer with the conflicting views - a longstanding belief that his father was a slavedriver, stingy... now challenged by a father who seems to be generously unfair and outrageously forgiving. Even towards him.

It's this idea of a distorted view of God that Rob is going to focus on - that the good news often preached today presents a distorted view of God. The summary: For God so loved the world that he gave us his one and only son, that whoever believes in him won't die, but will live forever. But if you don't believe in this God, this same loving God will throw you into the lake of fire, eternal conscious torment. Billions of years of screaming, writhing, agony for seventy or eighty years of rebellion against God. "A loving heavenly father who will to to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony." (173-4)

For those Christians that believe in eternal conscious torment, Rob's characterization of their belief and God will certainly irk and offend them. Apparently Rob has many friends, though, who are terrified and traumatized by the kind of God that would damn men and women to eternal conscious torment. Rob and others ask the question: "Just what kind of God is behind all this?" (175) The good news is better than the distorted view of God you've come to believe in...or disbelieve.

He goes on to write:
Because if something is wrong with your God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing, or compelling music, or great coffee, will be able to disguise that one, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.
Hell is refusing to trust, and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God. Sometimes the reason people have a problem accepting "the gospel" is that they sense that the God lurking behind Jesus isn't safe, loving, or good. It doesn't make sense, it can't be reconciled, and so they say no. (175)

Hermeneutics is the science and art of interpretation of Scripture. Rob's hermeneutics are obviously at odds with that of many other Christians. His hermeneutics of Luke 15, of the gospel, of God as revealed through Scripture clash with other classic beliefs. But Rob's hermeneutics are rooted in the Scriptures, so I think his ideas are worth wrestling with - which will lead either to a strengthening of our traditional beliefs, or a doorway into a more faithful reading of Scripture. As Rob says, "our beliefs matter. They are incredibly important. Our beliefs shape us and guide us and determine our lives." (176)

Rob is challenging our traditional and culturally popular notions of God. The good news we preach is connected both to the God we believe in, and the God our audience believes in. Rob is inviting his readers to reconsider the God that is presented in the Scriptures, particularly in Luke 15, as presented by Jesus. As Rob sees it, we are free to choose what to believe - we can believe the story that God is retelling us about ourselves, "or we can cling to our own version of the story. And to trust God's telling, we have to trust God." (176) To reject God, his story, his love and grace "will lead to misery. It is a form of punishment, all on its own." (176) God's is love, what God does is love, and the essence of love is such that "it can be resisted and rejected and denied and avoided, and that will bring another reality. Now, and then." (177)

Not only is Rob challenging the notion of what we believe about God, and about heaven and hell, but also what we believe about what this relationship with God ought to look like. He describes it as the difference between entrance and enjoyment. "...when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will 'get into heaven,' that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club. The good news is better than that." (178-9) The good news is better than fire insurance. 

He goes to say:
When the gospel is understood primarily in terms of entrance rather than joyous participation, it can actually serve to cut people off from the explosive, liberating experience of the God who is an endless, giving, circle of joy and creativity. Life has never been about just "getting in." It's about thriving in God's good world." (179)

Jesus calls disciples to keep entering into this shared life of peace and joy as it transforms our hearts, until it's the most natural way to live that we can imagine. Until it's second nature. Until we naturally embody and practice the kinds of attitudes and actions that will go on in the age to come. A discussion about how to "just get into heaven" has no place in the life of a disciple of Jesus because it's missing the point of it all. (179)

Rob notices amongst many Christians that there is a certain lack of distinctiveness. Many surveys show that there is little lifestyle difference between Christians and non-Christians. When many Christians talk about their faith, the main point of it is so that they can go to heaven when they die. And there is something in us that recoils at that over-simplification. What is the connection between believing in Jesus and life transformation? I think that is what Rob is trying to get at in his articulation of the gospel - a belief, a trust, a relationship that bleeds into a way of life that looks and smells and feels like Jesus. And so he starts with what we believe, which is a very controversial place to go.

"We shape our God, and then our God shapes us." (183) With that phrase, Rob cautions us to rethink what we believe about God. More than that, to re-examine the effects of our life, and then work backwards to see what we really believe. What we believe about God deeply affects how we live. Do you believe God is a slavedriver? Or do you believe that "God is the rescuer?" (182) The good news is better than being ruled by a slavedriver God.

More on this - it's central to Rob's big point in this chapter:
There is another dimension to the violent, demanding God, the one people need Jesus to rescue them from. We see it in the words of the older brother, when he says he "never even disobeyed." You can sense the anxiety in his defense, the paranoid awareness that he believed his father was looking over his shoulder the whole time, waiting and watching to catch him in disobedience. 
The violent God creates profound worry in people. Tension. Stress. This God is supposed to bring peace, that's how the pitch goes, but in the end this God can easily produce followers who are paralyzed and catatonic with fear. Whatever you do, don't step out of line or give this God any reason to be displeased, because who knows what will be unleashed.
Jesus frees us from that, because his kind of love simply does away with fear. (184)

What kind of love does Jesus describe for us in the story?
"Our badness can separate us from God's love, that is clear. But our goodness can separate us from God's love as well. Neither son understands that the father's love was never about any of that. The father's love cannot be earned, and it cannot be taken away. It just is." (187)

And so:
Your deepest, darkest sins and your shameful secrets are simply irrelevant when it comes to the counterintuitive, ecstatic announcement of the gospel. So are your goodness, your rightness, your church attendance, and all of the wise, moral, mature decisions you have made and actions you have taken. It simply doesn't matter when it comes to the surprising, unexpected declaration that God's love is simply yours. There is nothing left for both sons to do but to trust.
Our trusting, our change of heart, our believing God's version of the story doesn't bring it into existence, make it happen, or create it. It simply is. On the cross, Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (188)

His summary:
Jesus meets us and redeems us in all the ways we have it together and in all the ways we don't, in all the times we proudly display for the world our goodness, greatness and rightness, and in all of the ways we fall flat on our faces. It's only when you lose your life that you can find it, Jesus says. The only thing left to do is trust. Everybody is already at the party. Heaven and hell, here, now, around us, upon us, within us. (190)

This is the Good News as Rob understands it. This is the God of the Scriptures that Rob believes. This is the Gospel of Jesus that Rob trusts.

I agree that the heart of the Gospel is God's love for us, as demonstrated through Jesus. I agree that trust/believing/faith is central to our relationship with God. I'm not sure the parable of the two sons can carry as much theological weight as Rob wants it to. And I think there is an oversimplification of the Gospel going on here in this chapter. Yet I think it is crucial for Rob to publicize the vicious views of God that are being created by the sloppy preaching of Evangelicals.

And I agree that too many people have turned away from God - not the God of the Scriptures, but the God of the different Christians who present a confusing and hard-to-love God. Rob sees in God a very non-violent being - but I think that there is much to discuss - and disagree with here. I see his point though about the way Christians can embrace a particular view of God and violence that leads them away from the way of Jesus.

Indeed, the good news is better than it is often presented. Is it better than what Rob presents?