Salvation is a hot-button topic in modern-day Christianity. To some, maybe even most, it’s a matter of either being “in” or being “out.” There’s no middle ground. No fence-sitters allowed here. I used to be in this camp. All that mattered to me was that I was saved and it was a command from God to let everybody know that they had better join me or suffer the consequences of hell. Black and white. Cut and dry. That’s how it is.
And then I actually started reading the Bible.
Rob Bell is a controversial pastor – albeit unintentionally. I believe the man believes in what he preaches and what he teaches, so when he says he never meant to be an upstart, I believe him. It isn’t a noble cause to dedicate one’s life to simply stirring the pot, to shake things up a bit. Martin Luther wanted to restore Catholicism, not start Protestantism. He had a noble goal in mind, but the masses reacted in such a way that he had no choice but to separate. With that said, I think we have a similar case when looking at Rob Bell.
His book, Love Wins, is a good book. I have read it. I have spent some time pondering a lot of the things he brings up. Whether he wanted to be a pot-stirrer or not, he’s very good at stirring the mind to engage the text of Scripture. There are passages like Matthew 10:22; 24:13 or Luke 21:19 that talk about enduring to the end in order to be saved. Or how about Matthew 25:31-46 and Jesus talking about allowing the sheep to enter because of the love they showed to people – regardless of whether or not they actually knew Him? All of a sudden the black and white packaging around the message of salvation becomes much more colorful.
No, Rob Bell never once says that everyone’s getting into heaven regardless of what they do in this life. He is not a Universalist, although there may be echoes of this in some regards. After reading his book and understanding some of the issues he raises, though, I’m beginning to wonder if he sometimes sounds universalistic only because there are some echoes of universalism in Scripture? I completely understand that this question makes a lot of people uncomfortable and that isn’t my intention here; I merely ask the question to provoke one’s mind towards God. This is also what I believe to be Bell’s agenda; stir the mind in a way that draws one closer to understanding God.
I am personally not a Universalist. It just doesn’t make sense to me. In all honesty, I think Universalism, if taken to the extreme, leads to complete apathy where we just don’t care about anything we do in this life because no matter what we’re joining God in eternity. That’s not what we have when we come to Christianity. The Christian view is that everyone – including the ones who like to brag about their salvation – is going to be held accountable before God for the lives we lived here. Where Bell’s book goes from this point is into a discussion of what happens after one gives an account to God. Hell? Eternal punishment?
One of the most interesting points he raises in the first chapter is the idea of an eternal hell where people are constantly conscientiously punished. Think about it. You live 50, 60, 70 years apart from Christ and because you never came to accept Him you’re now punished for the equivalent of thousands upon thousands of years? That doesn’t really make much sense to me either. That, as Bell says, doesn’t sound like a just God.
Bell’s main argument is that we choose our own hells. We’re capable of choosing freely, aren’t we? That’s what enables true love, as C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity. So if we’re able to choose freely, then, as Bell argues, we’ll get what we want… but also the baggage that comes with it.
A story in Scripture that he highlights is the rich man who Jesus tells to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. The man walks away devastated by that commandment because he had many possessions. Now, Bell’s point with this story is that the rich man seems to have continued hardening his heart towards the will of God. He didn’t want to give up what he had; he chose his own hell and will suffer the consequences after he dies, which is another interesting discussion from Bell. He rightly suggests that we ultimately don’t know whether or not we get second chances after we die. Near the end of the book he convincingly argues that we shouldn’t wait to find out the hard way, but you see his point: It’s difficult to say with absolute certainty that we don’t get another chance after this life to repent to God.
What I found lacking with his book, however, is any discussion of the “elect” passages in Scripture. There are plenty: Matthew 24:22; Mark 13:27; Luke 18:7; Romans 8:33; 11:7; 1 Timothy 5:21; 2 Timothy 2:10; and Titus 1:1 just to name a few. All of these passages seem to indicate that there are certain elected individuals who will be with God for eternity. Bell raises the issue towards the beginning, but doesn’t address it directly later on.
Also what I didn’t appreciate from the book was the lacking discussion of resurrection. Perhaps it’s because I’m also reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope, which deals with resurrection directly, but I find it to be a crucial discussion especially when dealing with eschatology (end times theology). As Wright argues, heaven is not the final destination; the resurrected world is.
Looking over his book now, though, I find it impossible for a full discussion on every tributary of eschatology to fit into a 198-page book. Rob Bell is a smart man; much smarter than the kind who would think he wrapped everything up in such a short amount of text. It wasn’t his intention to discuss everything fully, but rather to get the discussion going. Given the chaos that has been stirred in the Christian society, I think he did just that. Only, I think he raised a lot more emotions than discussions.
It would not do Rob Bell any justice for me to close the door on the discussions he raises. What I mean is; if you’re interested, buy or borrow the book, read it for yourself with no one else’s opinion influencing your own (or, as I like to say, with no literary goggles), and then join the discussion. Too often, I think, we over-emphasize loving God with all our hearts, souls, and strengths that we forget to do so with our minds. It’s at this point I turn to C.S. Lewis:
“God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all. But, fortunately, it works the other way round. Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself,” – Mere Christianity, 78