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“…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.” –Love Wins, Rob Bell, p.178
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Okay, so there’s tons we could talk about in this chapter. Ugh. In this chapter, Bell kept playing with my emotions. I was all over the emotional map. In one minute, I agreed so emphatically I nearly yelled “Yes!” out loud. And in another, I was so frustrated with what he had to say I had to put the book down for a second to regroup.
It’s been pretty consistent to this point. I love the questions and topics Bell brings up in the book, and even the reasons he gives for why they should be talked about. But his conclusions are so frustrating.
Towards the beginning of the chapter, he talks about The Prodigal Son and offers the three perspectives of the main characters. He ends up trying to make the story work for a Heaven and Hell sort of allegory that simply does not fit. It just doesn’t. Like many places in this book, Bell takes a story and reaches for a conclusion, and then begins to build on it. What we end up with is this sort of formula:
assumption + assumption = new truth.
I’ll talk more about specific assumptions in the quotes section below. Let’s just say that Bell forces his Heaven/Hell philosophy into this parable by neglecting some of the key aspects of the story, and only running with what might seem to fit into his thinking. In the end, I was not only left saying, “where in the world did you get that from, Rob” but I was also thinking, “Ok, even if I gave you that, what about…. and… Surely, there’s more to it than that.”
Prodigal Son Issues
So, to properly treat this chapter, we’d need to go through Luke 15 exhaustively to show the story for what it really is. Which I won’t do here and now. I will say this story is not about Heaven and Hell. Rather, it’s the story of relationship, reconciliation and forgiveness. To use this passage as a basis for the idea of Hell being proximate to Heaven is not only bad theology (we’d need more scriptures than one parable to make such a designation, especially in light of the scriptures that indicate otherwise) but it’s a little irresponsible. Well, a lotta irresponsible.
And this is the problem I have with Bell. I’m all game for a new revelation in scripture. I’ve missed all kinds of stuff in the Bible my whole life, and am still missing stuff, I’m sure. I personally take no issue with the conversation and discussion of new thoughts about what else the scriptures mean, or even what it really means and it needs correcting. Anyone who knows me, knows this. I’m addicted to this sort of analyzing of scripture. But if you are going to present radical ideas, you’d better have more than some assumptions and ill-formed conclusions. It doesn’t matter how good it sounds or how many people find it easy to hear. Bell’s soft approach to his newer thoughts seems to alienate even the mildly studied, yet open-minded Christians. The thoughts are feel good, but lack real substance for plausibility. So much so, that you are left asking… “why does he really believe this, because the reasons he’s given don’t feel like enough.”
I just expect more. Especially from him.
Godly PR and “Jesus saving us from God”
After the prodigal son gaffe, Bell offers a “Love Only” kind of God. Again, much like he does with the Prodigal Son, he picks and chooses the things he wants to believe about God. His point is that our gospel presents a God no one wants to love — a cruel, vindictive, petty God who punishes people “for all of eternity for a few sins committed in a a few years.” To which I must reply, again, that God is relational at heart.
And, that Hell is not punishment.
God’s grace is already extended to all. The world is forgiven. The punishment has been levied already on Christ. Hell is not the punishment for sin, rather it is the place for those who choose relational separation from God. I implore you, as a reader of this book, to grapple with a God as both relational being, and judgmental. In the following quote from Love Wins, Bell suggests God’s “essence” is love a la carte. That’s just not the case
“We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell.” (Love Wins, p 177)
So this idea of Jesus “saving” us from God would reveal a misinterpretation of who God is, and thus what the gospel is. Now Rob himself is not saying Jesus saves us from God. He’s just warning us that our version of the gospel inadvertently sounds this way.
Clearly, Jesus saves us from God’s judgment, not God Himself. A judge is the keeper of the law. They are not the jail themselves for the guilty, any more than they are the freedom for the innocent. Like a judge, God is a keeper of justice, and when he exacts that justice, He does not do so from a position of cruelty, malice or pettiness. But from love. Don’t fear the judge, fear the jail. Or if you do, fear them for different reasons. The two aren’t the same.
Bell says “However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.”(p 182) I say, if it’s true, then the job of the church is to do all it can to repair the perception. But we can’t run away from the truth because someone might take it the wrong way. Nor can we fundamentally change the truth to something everyone can easily accept. The truth is the truth. And we are to present it as such and let God’s Spirit do the rest.
With one chapter to go in this book, it’s become clear where Bell and I differ. Well, we differ in several things, but fundamentally our ideas of Grace and Love are different. Bell seems content to suggest that the unilateral nature of grace and forgiveness is enough to count as love. I feel love takes two, and that forgiveness is only one side of relational reconciliation. And since that’s what this thing is about with me… relational reconciliation, I’m afraid He and I will always be at fundamental odds.
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Quick Thoughts on my favorite quotes:
Hell is being at the party. That’s what makes it so hellish. It’s not an image of separation, but one of integration… In this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other… But in the story Jesus tells, he’s at the party, with the music in the background and the celebration going on right there in front of him. (Love Wins, p.169)
Here is a portion of Bell’s conclusion from the Prodigal Son. I don’t want to quote all of what he says, so I’ll try to paraphrase. He suggests heaven is the party being thrown for the son, and that Hell is the decision the other son makes to not join in, though it is right there in front of him. This, for Bell, means that Heaven and Hell are right next to each other, as he says “bumping up against each other.” I suppose in the big scheme of things how close or far Hell is from Heaven is moot. But I’m not going to address that idea anyway right now. I find it really disconcerting that he was able pull this idea from this particular passage… which clearly has nothing to do with anything he’s suggesting it says.
If I were to entertain this, though, I’d say that Hell is the pig sty where the prodigal son “came to himself” (another crucial idea Bell fails to mention). But even that would be a stretch.
I would like to ask this though. Wasn’t the son forgiven when he was in the pig sty. What if he’d never have come to his senses and had starved to death out there with the pigs? What would that say about the Father’s love? Nothing, right? Because the father’s love was unchanged. And the father had already forgiven his son for ruining the relationship.
The squandering of the goods is inconsequential in this particular story. Rather, the son “went away” and had no relationship with His dad. This story is about the reconciliation of that relationship, not about heaven and hell.
By the way, why didn’t the father go after him to find him (like Bell suggests God does earlier in this book). Why was he home waiting for the son to return instead of actively “looking for the one sheep” as it were? Bell told us last chapter that God would “keep searching,” but here we have a (God) Father waiting, not searching.
I don’t ask that to be flippant or cute. I want to illustrate that this is what can happen when you make a story meant for one thing try to be another thing. The story is not meant to answer all questions or to reveal the entire character of God. This story is about life now, not afterlife. It is meant to explain the importance of relationship to the “father” and such an importance should mean more to us than how good we’ve been (like the other son).
A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.(Love Wins, p.173)
I’ve beat dead the horse that Hell is not a punishment, rather a choice. So in regard to this quote I want to deal with this aspect of “in the blink of an eye become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor” deal. First off, we must remember that God is the same “yesterday, today and forever.” He “changes not.” So I’d fundamentally challenge this idea of God suddenly becoming anything. For two-thirds of the Bible (the Old Testament) the Holy Spirit put together story after story of God exacting judgment on his people. Not lighthearted judgments. Definitive judgments that no doubt about God’s disdain for those who act against their purpose for creation (or as is said, “His will”).
I don’t imagine God is pacing back and forth in heaven, worrying about how those stories make him look. In fact, it is quite the opposite. God wants to spell it out for us in bold letters. I AM a God of Judgment. He tells us he is a “jealous” God (relational term).
He enacts this judgment because the Israelites were chosen to bring God’s love to the world’s attention. But their consistent sin prevented them from serving this purpose. As the saying goes, “If you want it done right…” Enter Jesus. God in the flesh. In Jesus, God reveals another part of himself. Jesus, as loving as he is, still offered judgment on people’s lives, and he spoke in ways to remind us that there is more to him that meeting the needs of the local sick. Further, Jesus was created to do the will of God, and obeying that will meant taking on the judgment God meant for us, on Himself. “…God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19) Thus the judgment of God and the love of God collides together on the cross. The ugliness of God’s judgment produce the beauty in his grace. The evil (off-purpose, contaminated nature) on display on the cross makes way for holiness (the set apart purpose of our lives, chiefly to act on a loving relationship with Him). We are brought to God’s love through his exercise of judgment on the cross. To see God as less than justice would make the crucifixion less powerful than it should be. We need God to be just in order to understand and appreciate the lengths to which Jesus went to give us a shot at our intended relationship.
So God does not suddenly do anything. He remains in character throughout the whole of the Bible, from beginning to end. Romans 5 says, “the law[which brought God’s judgment]was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (bracketed added)
Forgiveness is unilateral (Love Wins, p. 188)
But forgiveness alone is not what reconciles relationships. It paves the way, but it doesn’t complete the journey all its own. Relationships require more than one. Thus relationship reconciliation requires more the one. Remember, the prodigal was forgiven when he was in the pig stye.
Tell me what you think about the portions I cover here, and some of the other things we saw in the chapter. I want to hear from you!
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