Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said,
"This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?" John 6:60
I have read Rob Bell's controversial book, Love Wins, and I can delay response no longer.
Many have harshly critiqued Bell's perspective, determining his views to have dipped into full distortion of the Biblical message. The heretical idea in question is that of universalism. Has Rob Bell, with one book, tip-toed into the heresy that all ways, all paths, all people, all worldviews, all in all leads to eternal communion with Christ Almighty?
I grew up and grew old in a small church. The congregation never ballooned to much more than 40 souls. We were, from inception, a small clan. Because our numbers were small, any personal departure from the community was a big deal. It made ripples. Departure equaled schism for our weak body, and schism we got. One member of the church was a former archeologist/anthropologist. I recall he had done work searching for Sodom and Gomorrah... fun stuff like that. It appeared to us that those past days sweating in the hot desert sand had hardened this man's convictions. What he held dear, he held firmly without flexibility.
The particular incident that caused the ruckus for this gentleman, and led to him divorcing himself and his family of five from our congregation, involved the usage of a single word. Jehovah. Jehovah, an early translation of the Hebrew letters YHWH, was, for some reason unbeknownst to my high school brain, an utterly unacceptable term for the name of God, according to the shrewd worldview of this gentleman. Sure, we, as a congregation, could acknowledge that the name Yahweh appears to be closer approximation of the Hebrew name, nevertheless, Jehovah came up in song lyrics from time to time, and we did not shun it.
For this man, utilizing the word Jehovah as a place holder for God's name was tantamount to spitting on the Holy of Holies. It was simply not to be done. The good sir, an elder in our congregation, made his views known, and upon hearing the word again sung during worship one day, found himself unable to remain a member of our sinful-tongued community. So he schismed. He and his family together. I never saw them again.
One more anecdotally connected incident...
Last week I watched the French (yet set in Algeria) film Of Gods and Men with my visiting parents in Salzburg, Austria.
It is a beautiful film.
It spins the tale of a group of monks caught between a failing government, and a roving band of Islamic militants.
The final monologue, spoken as a voice-over by the lead protagonist, is translated as such:
And I know how Islam is distorted by a certain Islamism.
This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They're a body and a soul.
My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who call me naïve or idealistic,
but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing,
will immerse my gaze in the Father's and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank you which encompasses my entire life includes you, of course,
friends of yesterday and today, and you too, friend of last minute,
who knew not what you were doing.
Yes, to you as well I address this thank you and this farewell which you envisaged.
May we meet again,
happy thieves in Paradise,
if it pleases God the Father of us both.
My mother, upon hearing this film-ending speech, was distraught over the good monk's theology. 'How could he say such things about Islam, an obvious distortion of the Gospel message? He should know better!'
Such emotional responses are valid to a degree, and if we were to put this man's words under theological scrutiny, I reckon it wouldn't hold up... but I don't think that that's the point here. The good monk is not writing a theological dissertation on salvation, by no means! He is writing a love letter. A love letter to God. To His creation.
The monk is assured of his own salvation, but he admits his own 'burning curiosity'. Do we not all have such thoughts? These monks were brought into a foreign land. They fell in love with the community around them. They fell in love with God's creation. For man, does that love turn to wrath? Should it? Certainly not. Justice and vengeance are the Lord's, not ours. We have no reason to judge the Muslim. We can share the Gospel with him, tell him about the grace Jesus brings. We can tell him how he doesn't have to work to get into heaven -- that in fact his works will not save him, but we are not the ones that need pass judgment.
So the monk will ask God about Islam when they meet face to face. This seems good and right to me. Furthermore, the monk does indeed wish that he and his killer will find each other both under God's luminous grace in Heaven. How is that not a beautiful prayer?
The only way to make many of Bell's statements work is to view them with the same lens --- the lens that looks to the heart rather than the mind. Perhaps that message alone sounds anathema, but I propose, or rather, I insist on believing, that Bell's message is centered on dealing with what certain polemical theological systems do to our innermost thoughts -- our innermost interactive thoughts with the God of this universe.
Yes, it's true, Bell leaves the door open for Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus to have access into the Kingdom of Heaven. That sounds super scary. Jesus states plainly that he is the only way to God. He is the way to salvation. He is the door. So how on earth can these religions that do not acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord lead people to Heaven's gate? Bell doesn't explain how. If he was writing a theological entreaty, he would have to do so... but he wasn't.
The most accurate critique of Bell's book is that it won't bring non-believers to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. Perhaps that is a fair litmus test; in many ways I agree that any work regarding God and salvation should do exactly that. I should read the last words of Love Wins, close the book, and immediately be driven to open up one of the Gospels. Indeed.
However, if I personalize the book, if I focus on bringing my understanding of the Gospel, of salvation, to the book's emotional core, than my response is much different. At the end of the day, that's all I can rightfully bring to the table, correct -- my own experience? Do I have a right to condemn the book for its evangelical lackings towards the un-Christian nations? I'm not sure...
Another film that recently ventured past my eyelids was Paul Schrader's 1979 George C. Scott vehicle, Hardcore. Now, Schrader is always a bit of a wild card when it comes to spiritual exploration, and Hardcore is no exception to the role. Schrader plops us not only into the seamy underbelly of the porn industry, but also the moralistic statutes of a hardlined dutch-reformer. At one point, our center-stage reformer dishes out the entire Calvinistic TULIP acronym to a helpful prostitute. Schrader takes the time to label each letter with its appropriate doctrine. To remind:
- T - Total Depravity. We are all horrifically corrupted and in complete submission to the service of sin.
- U - Unconditional Election. From eternity past, God has chosen those with which He has chosen to bestow mercy upon. Likewise, those not chosen are determined to face the consequential wrath for their sins.
- L - Limited Atonement. Jesus died only for the sins of the unconditionally elected.
- I - Irresistible Grace. The Holy Spirit cannot be resisted. If God chooses to save you, you cannot resist His call.
- P - Perseverance of the Saints. God's will cannot be undone, therefore, all who are elected will never fall away. Those who appear to fall away from the faith never really were elected, or they are not really falling away.
When I hear this list of doctrinal certainties regarding salvation, I want to gag. To dry heave. My response is so not because I find these measures inexplicably disconnected from scripture (indeed, there appears to be a fair amount of Biblical evidence for each of the postulates), but because it is a very hard thing to equate these principles with my conception of an all-loving God. If feels like saying, God is love, but...
When hearing this, I become just like my brothers, the disciples... who can listen to it?
How can a predetermined eternal damnation be compatible with a God of love?
Often, it seems, these two ideas are kept in tension. I reckon most Christians just let that tension sit there. Rob Bell doesn't. I'm not sure I can either.
Despite the fact that I cannot biblically deny the tenants of Calvinism, I haven't yet been able to succumb to its systematizing of Scripture because it undercuts my very understanding of the word love.
I think Bell looks at the position from a similar angle, feeling the awful weight of the Church's history upon him. If you take these past two thousand years of time in which the 'era of Church' has been instated, you will find much hate. The Church has hated. It has judged. It has done so with extreme prejudice and ugliness. And it is still shaping how we appropriate our worldview. Our tendency, particularly the Christian Church in America, is to create concepts of exclusivity. There is us, and there is them. There is the elect and the particularly unelected. We must save the heathens. We must bring them into our fold. The dark side of such attestations comes out in full force with the vitriol signs of "God hates fags" and the like.
Here's a controversial statement: maybe He does. Maybe God does hate fags. Maybe He would agree with such a statement. Maybe.*
(*To be clear: I am certainly of the disposition that God loves those people who identify themselves as homosexuals -- my point is simply to say it is God's place to make such claims, not ours)
But has He called us to make such claims? Are we called to judge?
What if we judge wrongly?
You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... Matthew 5:43-44
I love the Sermon on the Mount; so scandalous. To love those who hate you, to turn the check, to give extra to him who stole from you -- these ideals are so counter what the world feeds us.
Lewis certainly nailed pitch-perfectly a right understanding of God when Aslan the lion is described as safe, but not tame. God is a knuckle-ball pitcher; we can't ever quite predict what he'll do next.
An expansive view of God leads us to try and keep our conception of our Lord as vast as Scripture allows (I'll examine this idea further in my follow up post), so it seems good to leave that which is up to God, exactly that, up to God. Why burden ourselves with that which the King tells us to let him carry?
While still on that mount, Jesus said, Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2
Love your neighbor. Love your enemy. Believe that God is love. And however much you can love these people you meet, you see, how much greater is God's love for them!
Perhaps I am giving Bell too much slack, but I stand to reckon that his intention in Love Wins, and ultimately what I choose to take from it, is that our predominant character as followers of a loving God, is to love everyone, and to believe that no matter what, God is love, and that love will not be diminished, undercut, or undermined, in this life or the next.
In part 2 I'll take some time to examine the 'tough to hear' passages of scripture (I'm looking at you Romans 9!), as well as try to seek Biblical support for the idea of an inclusive & expansive view of an untame God.
Matthew 11:28-30, the words of Jesus: Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.