Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Review of Rob Bell's Love Wins: Part I

As I have time to work through Bell's new book, I will be posting my comments here. Bell's new book has obviously, and rightly so, sparked a firry controversy. On the one hand, there are those who have denounced the book as sub-Biblical, universalistic, and heretical. On the other hand, there are those who have either embraced the book as a good and meaningful contribution to the doctrine of hell, or, although not embracing the book, have defended Bell for raising necessary questions, and challenging views that perhaps are wrongly held as dogma. Which perspective is correct should really be determined by the content of the book. Is Bell honest with his presentation of facts? Is he faithful to the text of Scripture? Is he seeking to open up dialogue on a confusing issue, or is he seeking to prove a perspective? Moreover, is Bell a universalist? Or is this a false accusation? All of these questions, and more, will be addressed as I comment on the book. I have already read a few chapters, and my initial reaction and warning is that nearly every line requires a comment. I will not be commenting on every line, of course, but I will be commenting on everything I believe to be significant and/or revealing. The Preface is relatively short, so I will begin by covering most of what is said in it:

Bell begins his book by providing, first, a presupposition, and second, a reason for writing the book. As for his presupposition he states, "First, I believe that Jesus's story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere." (vii) What Bell means by "us" is "every-individual-on-the-planet-who-has-every-lived." This is clear from his half-quotation of John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world...") which assumes an interpretation of world as referring to every individual. He goes on to say, "That's why Jesus came. That's his message. That's where the life is found." (vii) Bell's understanding of the love of God is that it is the same for every person. God loves every individual the same, and in the same way. In the way that He loves Moses, He loves Pharaoh. Just as He loves King David, He loves King Manasseh, and just as He loves the apostle Paul, He loves the Judaizers. What is perplexing, though, is that Bell has reduced the gospel to a half-quotation of John 3:16 which emphasizes the love of God which he wrongly interprets. It is not necessarily a problem to quote only a portion of a verse, but that is only if one has correctly understood the portion quoted. Bell essentially says that Jesus' message and purpose was to announce that God loved and loves everybody. There's no wrath; no anger; no judgment; nothing. This, of course, is easy to believe if one ignores the rest of John 3:16-18. The text goes on to say, however, that God gave his monogenh: ("unique" or "only begotten") Son. This is a reference to the cross; the bloody cross; the cross where sin was condemned in the flesh (Rom 8:3). The cross unto which Jesus was given over because of our transgressions (Rom 4:25). And this cross had a purpose. The cross was indeed an example for all who would follow Jesus, but it was also much, much more. This giving of the Son was "so that paÇß oJ pisteuvwn (everyone who believes) in him should not perish, but have eternal life." Is this language of perishing not also central to Jesus' message? Bell certainly does not seem to think so, even though God's love and God's wrath are placed right next to each other. Indeed, why did Bell choose to quote the first portion of John 3:16, and not for example, John 3:18b ("the one who does not believe has already been condemned"). Bell is supposed to be a pastor, and pastors are supposed to preach the whole counsel of God. They do not have the authority to pick and choose what they would like to emphasize and leave out. If they believe that one portion of Scripture might offend, and another might uplift, they do not have the option to discard that which may bring them criticism, and even persecution.

Bell goes on to say that "Jesus' story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn't interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do." (viii) What he says next, however, is quite revealing about Bell's agenda. "The plot has been lost, and it's time to reclaim it." (viii) Before Bell's book was released, it was criticized and it was defended. What was typical, and still remains typical for Bell's defenders is the assertion that Bell is merely raising questions. He is attempting to dialogue about a "perplexing" doctrine such as the doctrine of hell. He is joining in the "conversation." Bell himself has publicly said that he enjoys "the conversation". However, his words here paint a different picture. "It's time to reclaim it," he says. This is not only an assertion that what has been preached as the gospel is false, but it is a declaration, a call to arms, a summons to battle, a decree that says, "We have the real gospel." Now I agree with Bell, and this will become clearer as we progress through the book, that much of what Bell has a problem with, is in fact sub-Biblical. He is typically dissatisfied and disgusted by a fundamentalist gospel that preaches nothing but damnation, no grace, and is also quite Arminian in its understanding of the human will. But Bell's solution, his counter-gospel, is typically no gospel at all. He has gone from one extreme to the other. What is clear from the above quote, is that Bell has an agenda. What remains to be seen is whether his agenda, his gospel, his message, has any foundation.

Bell goes on to describe the false "Jesus story". "A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians (italics mine) will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better." (viii) A "select few Christians," Bell says. Perhaps this is the doctrine in some small, sectarian churches. There might be some small little group tucked away in a barn somewhere that possess salvation all to itself. I would have a problem with this belief as well, for the Scriptures say that the elect of God are "nations" and "multitudes". Abraham was told to "count the stars" if he could, and his descendants would be as they are (Gen 15:5). No one knows the number of God's elect. Personally, I don't understand what Bell is getting at with this statement, because it's not a widely held belief. Is hell, punishment, and torment? Yes. Is heaven, peace, and joy? Yes. But the idea that there's some "select few" group is a sectarian belief, or it's Bell not understanding election.

Bell contrasts this "Jesus story" with "Jesus's message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear." (viii) Is this all that our world needs to hear? Is this Jesus' only message? One could come away from reading this and believe that Jesus was some pot-smoking hippie holding up two fingers wearing a tie dye shirt. Was it not Jesus who said, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:20)"? Was it not Jesus who said that it would be better to lose one of your members "than to have your whole body thrown into hell (Matt 5:29)"? Was it not Jesus who warned of false prophets (Matt 7:15)? Was it not Jesus who warned that many who claimed to know him would be cast away (Matt 7:21-23)? There's more to Jesus' message than kumbaya. There is love, peace, and forgiveness which is found in Him. But there is also condemnation, punishment, and destruction outside of Him. The two cannot be separated, unless one is dishonest with the text. It is one thing to say, "I reject this as true." It is another to act as though it is not even there. Bell is guilty of the latter.

After voicing some of his presuppositions, Bell states his purpose for writing the book. He says, "I've written this book because the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn't skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them." (ix) Although I would perhaps reword this statement; for the most part, I agree with what is said. Christianity is not anti-intellectual. Bell has in mind, again, ignorant fundamentalism. He rejects, rightly, a spirit or attitude which does not permit criticism, questioning, or pursuit of truth. As he goes on to say, "Some communities don't permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most." (ix) This is indeed a problem, for Christianity is not a religion of darkness, but of light. The Christian must, to use B. B. Warfield's words, balance authority, the intellect, and the heart. If authority is the sole ruler, then a person is reduced to mere traditionalism. In this, there is no room for inquiry. One must accept what has been handed down on the basis of antiquity or some other means of authority. If the intellect is a person's master, it will result in mere rationalism. The human reason becomes the measuring stick, or the standard, by which all things are tested. Yet what is never fully understood, what the "rational" man never rationally concludes is that human reason possesses, within itself, infinite deficiencies. If the heart alone is the sufficient guide, then only mysticism can be its end. All three of these must be balanced. In order to know divine truth, there must be a conversion of the heart. The heart must be softened and shaped into a cistern which may receive the living water. It must be sufficiently prepared in order to delight in the medicine which Christ brings to the soul. Just as a broken cistern will never be able to contain water, even so a dead heart will never be able to respond to words of life. It must be revived. And this reviving comes through the authoritative word. It is the word of God that sanctifies (Jn 17:17), and this word is authoritative. One will search long and hard to find the preaching of the gospel by the apostles taking place as a mere intellectual pursuit. The gospel was proclaimed with power. There was no, "Was Jesus raised?" There was only, "God raised him up, having released him from the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held in its power (Acts 2:24)." The authoritative word, coupled by the power of the Holy Spirit, is what converts the soul and makes the heart new. But how does the word reach the heart, without first traversing through the intellect? Indeed, the mind must first grasp what is being proclaimed. But this intellect, if it is not sanctified, profits a man nothing concerning divine truth. It must operate while knowing its proper place; not as the final measure by which all, including God, must be subjected, but as a servant submitted to Christ who is its wisdom. These three, authority, intellect, and the heart, properly balanced, will avoid the rigid fundamentalism which Bell rightly rejects while also withholding the Christian from flying into the opposite, and equally dangerous spectrum, pagan Liberalism.

There is still more that Bell says in his Preface which could be debunked, challenged, rebuked, and overturned. He essentially glorifies "discussion" for the sake of discussion. It is as if asking questions, no matter how stupid they might be, deserves a gold medal. Discussion and dialogue is a good thing. There are some issues which are quite confusing, and Christians discussing, debating, yes, even arguing can be quite profitable. But discussion and dialogue is not all that there is. There is such a thing as that dreaded word, "dogmatics". There are dogmatics in Christianity; doctrines which are to be declared, preached, and defended; and yes, they consist of much more than merely, "Jesus was resurrected," and "Jesus died for sins." Details matter, and in the Scriptures, we have details, lots of them. We do not have vague and general statements. We have lots of doctrines that are addressed from many different angles in many different places. The doctrine of hell is one of them. This is no vague issue. Hell, judgment, wrath, punishment, death, penalty for sin; these are things discussed on every page of the Bible. Dogmatics is what the modern church seeks to avoid, but it is dogmatics which the church is built upon, and it is dogmatics which the church must continue to preach... dogmatically...

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