People are still talking about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. This is a remarkably good thing. While I think many of Bell’s arguments remain undeveloped and I disagree with what are at least his apparent sympathies with universalism, let’s give credit where credit is due.
Bell’s winsome style is captivating. His pastoral sense of the concerns of spiritual people (as opposed to religious people; whatever that distinction really means) is spot on.
We all want to be loved and accepted.
We cannot bear the thought that we would be rejected for the flaws and faults we know we have.
We are appalled by the idea that people we love or respect or admire might be condemned to perdition.
We live in a multicultural world and sense correctly that we must find a way to live peaceably and respectfully with people who do not share our religious beliefs.
As a result, he has thousands upon thousands of people talking about the nature of God, eternal life, and justice.
Among the problems I have with Bell is his starting point.
Mark’s Galli’s excellent book God Wins spells this out with particular clarity, and I owe him a debt of gratitude for helping get my thoughts straight about this. As Galli points out, Bell distorts the biblical narrative. (Please don’t blame Mark Galli for any errors I make in what follows.)
Let’s start with Rob Bell’s approach. He writes this about traditional Christian teaching: “God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy—unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever.” (Love Wins, p. 64)
Let me put this a different way that I think is consistent with Bell and that reveals a basic, crucial, and misguided assumption. God is good. Check. God is loving. Check. God created everything good. We’re doing fine so far.
Now we’re about to go off the rails.
Everything is good because God made it. Since God is good and loving and kind he could not possibly condemn anyone to hell for making mistakes. Bell suggests that the historical Christian teaching has been that God put us in the world with a passing grade (heaven-ready as it were) and now stands back to wait for us to fail so he can send us to hell.
A merciful God, says Bell, just wouldn’t act like that.
Well, he’s right. A merciful God would not act like that. But that’s not the Christian story in the first place. Let’s set it straight.
The good God created a good creation. Check. The Creation is fallen and in rebellion against God. Ah, Bell softens this so as to be hardly visible.
The Christian starting point is not that everything is good and that a perfectionist God throws a wrathful tantrum about those who make a mess. On the contrary, Scripture teaches that the Creation is already separated from God. God responds to the brokenness of the world with judgment for sin we have already committed.
That judgment is simultaneously just and merciful. The Cross of Christ pays the debt for sin: a debt we could not possibly pay ourselves. The Cross reconciles us to God and makes us heirs of eternal life. Our part is to accept this freely given gift.
To put it in a nutshell, Bell probably does not reject the doctrine of The Fall, but it doesn’t figure prominently in his discussion of judgment and mercy. As a result, he obscures how it is that a loving God could also be a God of judgment.
What we’re talking about here includes what theologians sometimes call a low doctrine of humanity. And I know what some of my readers are thinking: You just think people are no good! Well I’m done with feeling guilty! That’s why I’m not religious in the first place!
There is a lot of teaching that passes for the Gospel that instructs us to rid ourselves of unwarranted guilt. God loves us just the way we are because he made us that way. We should love ourselves just as we are. This is partially true and incomplete.
The good God authored a good creation but we are now heirs of The Fall. We were born into a fallen world with fallen hearts. God loves us before we are love-worthy. That kind of love doesn’t leave us unchanged. It makes us more than we were when God found us.
Loving myself the way I am is not the Gospel. Knowing that through the Cross God loves me as I am and that this love is changing me is the Gospel.
Let’s look at this practically for just a moment.
Imagine you have done something unkind, said something thoughtless, or nurtured uncharitable thoughts. If you’re like me, this actually requires no imagination at all. Just an honest memory.
If we take the approach to things that Rob Bell’s writings suggest (even if he doesn’t explicitly advocate it), we have two options.
We can assert that we’re good. This is just human, we might say. The misery we’ve caused was unintended or not that bad or not our problem. The misery we feel is a product of unwarranted guilt so maybe we need to check in with a counselor. In other words, we wind up indifferent, self-absorbed and with a lingering sense that things are not as swell as we’re telling ourselves.
Or, we can say that this was indeed bad, but we’re still good enough. Now that’s a concept that will never give us rest. Good enough. We will either be left worried whether we are good enough to avoid condemnation or we will resign ourselves to a tepid life with no hope of unadulterated joy.
The Gospel teaches something radically different. When I acknowledge and repent my sins I experience elation, not shame. At that moment I know a love that even my worst moments can never repulse.
I have no need to defend my past failures and selfishness, because they have been redeemed. God is working on me and will never tire of the project.
Through the Cross of Jesus Christ, God’s judgment looks a lot like mercy to me.
(The image above is Mary Zore’s “Mercy” found at this link.)