Exploring Love Wins 1
April 1, 2011
Filed under: Universalism
Exploring Love Wins 1
April 1, 2011
Filed under: Universalism
I will begin this series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, with a prayer. I am asking that you pause quietly and slow down enough to pray this prayer as the way to approach this entire series:
O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing:
Send your Holy Spirit and pour into my heart your greatest gift,
which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue,
without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.
Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.†
Our goal is not to win; our goal is not to classify Rob Bell; our goal is not see who is the most faithful; our goal is not to say who has the best review; our goal is not to debate other reviews. Our goal is to explore together the Bible’s teaching and the themes of this book by using Rob Bell’s book — and as we explore these themes to come to reasonable conclusions about what we are to believe. [If you'd like to spread the word about this conversation, please tweet it or FB share it above.]
Universalism and pluralism are perhaps the biggest challenges to the church’s traditional theology today. I did not say universalism and pluralism are “threats,” though one could say it that way. I say “challenges” because I am convinced many in our churches are at the least easy-going inclusivists and many are somehow confident universalists (or almost that). If you are not hearing this issue in your church it is probably because the environment is not safe enough to probe the question in public. Rob Bell is hearing this message loud and clear. I’m glad he’s provoking people to think about it.
We will meet this challenge to the historic, orthodox belief of the church, not by pounding the pulpit of exclusivism, which will confirm the convinced but mute the voices of those who really do have questions. We can rise to the challenge by entering into the reality of the problems and by proposing fresh, creative, biblical and theological resolutions that compel the church to think clearly about the magnitude of its claims — that salvation is found in Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ alone. What C.S. Lewis did in his generation with The Problem of Pain, and then later with A Grief Observed, as well as with The Great Divorce, needs to be done in our generation. I’m neither suggesting that Rob Bell is on par with Lewis nor that Love Wins is that book. What I am saying is that the issues emerging from this universalistic challenge to the church are vital because there is no book that meets the challenge. Love Wins puts the question on the table.
Are you willing to open up to the questions he will ask in this book? Are his questions, some of them that broach universalism and second chances and God’s expansive love, viable and safe in your church?
This series will explore what Rob Bell says in his book, and it will riff off of what Rob says. Don’t expect blow by blow arguments. In some ways I want to take up the challenge myself. In other cases I will probe into Rob’s arguments and disagree with them. Sometimes I will agree with him.
First, Rob Bell says Jesus’s story “is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us” (vii). This God-loves-us story has been hijacked, he says, by a “growing number of us” and he says there are “millions of us.” The hijacked version of the story is that a “select few Christians will spend forever in … heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better” (viii). This hijacked story says it is a “central truth” and Bell says this story is “misguided and toxic.”
Serious questions: In your church’s teaching, will be most people be saved? many? some? few? Is your church one in which most or some or few will be saved? Or is your church one that is agnostic about this question? These are the questions that haunt this book and these are the questions that many are asking, or want to ask but are afraid to ask. I am asking you to weigh in on this one.
I can put it this way: In light of how the gospel is preached in your church, and assuming 95% [I don't of course know but let's say that number is right] North Koreans have never heard the gospel, what percent of North Koreans will spend forever with God? Maybe this kind of question makes you feel uncomfortable, but it’s one we have to face. That is one of the deepest concerns in Rob Bell’s book. It’s time to be honest about what we think. The gospel claim is that salvation is found in Christ alone (Acts 4:12). What about those who have not heard? Where do you stand?
Do you ever ask what kind of image of God is conveyed if most humans will be excluded from the good presence of God?
Second, Rob says lots of people have questions about the Jesus-ness [my word] of this hijacked story. And they want to come to Jesus and to the Bible and to the Christian tradition and ask questions about that hijacked story. “There is no question,” Rob claims, “that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous” (x).
Third, in order to be complete in my sketch, Rob says what he teaches in this book … that “nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me” and he connects his own approach as part of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith.”
I’ve got questions here because I don’t know who is defining “orthodox” … there’s an entire history about the questions about the afterlife — who will be there, how to get in and what keeps you out — that involves complex theological problems and to say what Rob says requires some careful nuancing of that history and those issues. But notice his words: “taught, suggested, or celebrated.” That word “suggested” is loose enough that I’d say what he teaches in this book has been suggested, but that’s not the same as the “historic, orthodox Christian faith.” Suggestions and faith are not the same.