Saturday, April 02, 2011

Love Wins 2

In the preface, we find three main assertions. First, the Gospel, Jesus’ story, is “first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us”. This story, according to the book has been “hijacked” by other stories that “Jesus isn’t interested in telling” because “they have nothing to do with what he came to do”. The book makes the claim that there is a “misguided and toxic” idea circulating widely among many, perhaps most, Christians in the world. This idea, this message, according to Rob Bell “subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message”. That message:
A select few Christians 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. Its clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is in essence to reject Jesus.

The book is an attempt to “reclaim” the correct, true plot of the Jesus story.

Second, the kind of faith Jesus invites believers into “doesn’t skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell”. However, there are some Christian contexts where questions are not welcomed. The book advocates that questions, inquiry and the discussion that it generates is itself divine. Rob states, “There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous”.

Third, nothing in the book has not been taught or believed by many Christians before Rob Bell. The content of the book it is claimed has been taught an “untold number of times”. He contends that the historic, orthodox Christian faith is a “deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences”. The book claims to introduce the reader to “the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus”.

What do we make of these claims three claims?

The first claim represents an issue of colossal importance because if Rob Bell is in fact correct then we indeed need to repent immediately of our misguided and toxic understanding of the Gospel and push restart. We need to reboot our theological hard drives. If we have the Gospel wrong we won’t have much else right. But is Rob right here? Has the Gospel story been hijacked? Does the majority of evangelical Christians in the twenty-first century have the Gospel all wrong? Have most of us totally lost the plot? Have we left behind Jesus’ primary point? Have we somehow misunderstood or twisted the truth of what Jesus came to do? Well, this is a huge question that would require survey of Gospel accounts let alone a wide-ranging study of Gospel presentations today. Neither of which did Love Wins provide. So, it is certainly an overstatement. But it is worth asking don’t you think? It is possible that given our cultural conditioning we have gotten at least parts of the Gospel wrong? Or perhaps we have overly emphasized some aspects and neglected others?

While it is not yet altogether clear what Rob thinks is wrong with the typical evangelical Gospel story we can see glimpses of what he is protesting and what he will consequently develop in the book.

Traditional View

Love Wins

1. A select few will ultimately be saved.

1. Many if not most or all will ultimately be saved.

2. There’s no second chance after death.

2. There are an innumerable number of chances to be saved in this life and the next.

3. Heaven is a place somewhere else.

3. Heaven is here not somewhere else.

4. The central truth of Christianity is about getting out of hell and into heaven.

4. Whatever the central message of Christian faith is, it’s not about getting in and staying out.

The second claim about the importance of question asking is interesting. And there is indeed some truth in what he’s said in my opinion. I have noticed that some have taken issue with Rob’s questions asserting that they are not questions so much as statements, rhetorical questions. These are not questions Rob is really asking, they say, they are rather questions to stir up controversy, to cause confusion, to create disequilibrium. I can’t say speak to what the motivation is behind the questions. It seems reasonable to suppose I guess that the author is not simply asking questions for the sake of it. He clearly is making a point with the book and is using questions to create something of a need in his reader to receive his answers. Whatever the motivation, I am convinced that many of the questions the book raises are in fact good questions. And many Christians sitting in our churches are secretly asking them, but afraid to raise them publicly. I have a person at my church come to me late last year and confess that they were an evangelical universalist. I suppose they thought I would be a safe ear. While many are not as informed about the issues as this particular Christian, I’d be shocked if we conducted a survey of people in our churches and not many of them were either pluralistic or universalists. There is the official teaching of the church and then there is what the Christians who sit in the pews believe. Often these are two very different things. So applaud the book for raising the issues surrounding heaven and hell and putting them front and center. I think that to assume that there aren’t many people who if they thought about it would be convinced that in the end God’s going to sort it out and a good God will not send most of the world’s population who have ever lived to an eternal conscious punishment.

The third claim is perhaps the least able to stand up under the weight of the evidence not in its favor. It is incontrovertible that there has been a wide range of views with the context of what can loosely be labeled Christianity through the two millennia of its existence. However, it is not accurate by any stretch to call orthodox a view that (1) tends toward universalism, (2) presents a “second-chance” theology, and (3) argues that nothing of what is central to the Gospel story is about “getting in”. This view can claim the label orthodoxy about as much as those found among the Gnostic Gospels. Sure there were so-called Christians used these texts and who thought of them as Christian Scripture, but they were on the very fringes of early Christianity representing only a very small minority.


Ron Krumpos said...

Which Afterlife?

In his new book "Love Wins" Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from "the greatest achievement in life," my ebook on comparative mysticism:

(46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

(59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

(80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote "In God we all meet."

James said...

However, to call a view that ... argues that nothing of what is central to the Gospel story is about “getting in” is not orthodox Christianity by any stretch.

Dismissing a theologian of the calibre of NT Wright (as you just have) as not orthodox is fighting talk.

Christianity has nothing at all to do with getting in - but it has everything to do with remaining in the covenanted relationship that God creates.

Joel Willitts said...

You've misunderstood me and misunderstood Wright.

Three thoughts: (1) Jesus talks excessively about entering the Kingdom. Getting in is central for both Jew and Gentile according to Jesus. (2) You are not appropriately applying the New Perspective language of "staying in". This is a statement about 2nd Temple Judaism not Jesus Messianism. (3) I intend to include all three points made there so don't focus just on that one point. The totality of those three are what I am asserting is not orthodox Christianity.

Christopher W. Skinner said...


Do you really mean to say that the central truth of Christianity is about getting out of hell and into heaven? Or, are you presenting this as Rob's view? If so, I'd have to disagree with you. Can you elaborate?

Chris Skinner

Joel Willitts said...

Well we haven't defined heaven yet which is important in such a discussion, but yes I think a central aspect of Jesus teaching was getting into the soon coming kingdom which I equate with heaven.

Ron Krumpos said...

My initial comment was primarily about alternate views of an afterlife. Rob Bell has never claimed to be a mystic, but is open to contemplative prayer and meditation. While not a Universalist, he does respect people of other religions.

Even within Christianity there are differing views of afterlife between Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Mormons, etc. In any discussion between people, there will be varying personal opinions and interpretations of scriptures. Most mystics, of any faith, would agree with Jesus: "The Kingdom of Heaven is within." If you want to find Hell just read, watch or listen to the daily news or study the unkind history of humankind.

Joshua Wooden said...


I don't want to squabble about things that are besides the main point here, but I have a point of loving correction. Jesus did not contend that "The Kingdom of Heaven is within." He said that the Kingdom of Heaven is not something that can be observed, nor can it be said it is "over there" because it is in our midst (see Luke 17.20-21). The Kingdom of God is spiritualized in one sense, but not individualized or personalized per se.

Jeremy said...

Very good post Joel. Very helpful.

Unknown said...

Makes me want to read the book. However, I would rather do so in the company of others because according to another blogger Love Wins raises many questions.

Matt Wilcoxen said...

Nice post, very helpful!

Ron Krumpos said...


You said "The Kingdom of God is spiritualized in one sense, but not individualized or personalized per se." I agree. The divine essence is omnipresent; we might personalize it when conscious of it.

CrazyLoverWannabe said...

You should know that my confession was not due to the safety of your ear, but your relationship to the author who swayed me toward evangelical universalism. Like him, I consider myself a "hopeful" universalist, unwilling to stake my (or anyone else's) eternity on this.

Regarding that first point (relatively few will be saved), I suspect Bell is alluding to the views of many so-called Calvinists in this regard. But, perhaps I'm wrong.

Joel Willitts said...

Thanks for clarifying. And I'm sorry if I completely mischaracterized the nature of the conversation. I do recall, perhaps its just in my own mind, a sense of cautiousness in how widely you wished to disseminate such a view in the context of a church culture such as ours. However, I might have misunderstood completely.

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