On Rob Bell's Love Wins and Other Thoughts

Recently there has been quite the brew-ha-ha over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins.  Here, I want to share some of the Biblical passages that cause me to be cautiously open to Bell’s take on these things.  Open in the sense of being willing to converse.

What we preach is clear, Christ crucified. (1 Corinthians 1:23)  But when we do theology, we are venturing into a speculative human enterprise. 

(think I'm being too "postmodern" in my characterization of doing theology?  Consider what you believe about human nature.)  We have to read between the lines when we pose questions concerning the fate of the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived, people who have not, or can not hear the good news of the Kingdom of God, sometimes because it has been so completely obscured by the church.  The good news is that we engage in this speculative enterprise with those that have gone before, and Lord willing, with a community of people to hold us accountable and help keep us on track, even while being open to radical shifts if necessary.

So why would someone even believe in a universalistic approach?  For starters, there are passages that suggest that may be precisely how thing work out: “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Says Paul in Romans 3:22-24  Or this:Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. Romans 5:18

“Does all mean all?” some have asked.

Of course, no shortage of commentaries have explained away any universalistic interpretation of these verses, but what I find interesting is the tension.  People would like to suggest that there was no Biblical reason for a universalistic position.  They would like to suggest that their interpretation is obviously the only legitimate one.  But from my perspective, at least on the face of it, there is clearly a tension.  We just looked at two passages which, if taken alone, do suggest a more universalistic thought process, an all powerful God who saves all.  I don't think that is the case, and I'll get to why in a moment, but Biblical interpretation is a human enterprise.  So, we should behave and act charitably toward each other on this journey toward knowing God.

Now all of that being said, my perspective is that there is no love with out justice, and no justice without an assignment of guilt. Some would like to suggest that God does not condemn us, he only loves us.  But if we are to take the scriptures seriously, consider John 3:17-18.  "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already  because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son." - Point taken.

The more interesting question for me then is this: how generous is God?  How powerful is he?  When he says that he loves the whole world, and is not willing that any should perish but all should come to repentance, does he mean most of the world, or only some small fraction there of?

A close look at the first few chapters of Romans sheds some light on this I believe.

Romans 1
20 “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

If people are without excuse, then it stands to reason that they can know God even if they had never heard.

Paul goes on:  25 “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.”

If they exchanged the truth, than they had access to the truth.  We can assume that either Christ appeared in ways not recorded in scripture, or more likely in my mind, people have access to God without intellectual knowledge of the work of Christ.  Consequently, I believe you can move from worshiping the sun to worshiping the sun maker, Jesus Christ, even if we know nothing about his person or the work that he did hear on earth.  People can look at the world around them, experience the omnipresence of the Holy Spirit, believe that Spirit within them, and have it credited to them as righteousness, just as Abraham did.

Romans 2
6 “God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”  7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil, 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good.”

Look at verses seven again

“To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” – Amazing!

 12 “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”

It seems the apostle James is not that different than Paul after all. Maybe it is not “by faith alone” to the extent that the Reformers made it out to be.  (James 2:24 "You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.")

Paul goes on: 14 “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”

I love this passage.  Think about it, a person who has never heard the name of Christ, crying out to the gods as they know them, and on that day when they meet their higher power, Jesus Christ, for some of them, maybe many of them, their conscience stands in their defense.  God says, “well done my good and faithful servant.  I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was hungry and you fed me.  You believed and practiced the law of God written on your heart, and it is credited to you as righteousness.” Just as it was for Abraham.

In other words there is a tension.  We know that there is "no one who obeys, no one who does good."  But we also know that “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.”  And “that God is not willing that any should perish.”

Here is another stunning set of verses.
“26 So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?”  Really!?!  What a magnanimous God we serve.

29 “No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.”

Put this in the context of the Jewish people. (People not familiar with the "four spiritual laws")  WE know how it all works (not really of course, but bear with me) we have the books of Romans and Hebrews, and 2000 years of speculative theology on the meaning of all of this.  But apply the principles of the previous passages to the time before Christ, apply them to people who have never heard.  What I am saying is that while what we teach is clear, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, most people in most times and places have been ignorant of these facts.  But what we are seeing is that anyone, at anytime, can call out to God and be saved.  The question than is, is God’s hand too short?

Going Further
Lets take it one step further.  If people who have literally never had the opportunity to hear the gospel can be saved, (plenty of whom presently reside in the US) can not people who are emotionally incapable of hearing be saved—maybe because they were raped by a priest or pastor, or maybe because a “Christian nation” bombed the hell out of them, or incarcerated them without so much as a trial, or maybe shipped them off to our good friends in Egypt for some quality time with a uniquely gifted interrogator. (torture) But I digress…

Sometimes people in the Christian sub-culture don’t realize how fragmented our American culture is with its many hundreds of sub-cultures and groups.  Or what a barrier the “seeker sensitive” suburban Christian sub-culture is to people who are completely different.   Many people in this country who are significantly different than the rest of us are as far from hearing about Christ as any tribe in any forgotten corner of the world.  Churches on every corner not withstanding, it is exceedingly possible to grow up in America and never hear the gospel.  And I mean never.  Not once. 

I bring all of this up because our theology concerning people who have never heard the gospel is not an abstract exercise.  It is relevant to the here and now and a host of other practical Christian concerns.

Our Responsibility
Now does the fact that we have never heard, no matter what continent we are from mean that we are without excuse.  Not at all.  By our own standards we sin.  We decry judgementalism but judge others.  We call out for living “green” but live an American lifestyle of over consumption.  We demand justice for others and grace for ourselves, but give neither to our neighbor.  BUT, and here is the point, in spite of all this, and because of the work of Christ and Christ alone, I believe we can call out to the unknown God and be reconciled to him.  Not only can we be saved, but we are being saved. (Acts 2:47) People around the world our experiencing the great generosity of their creator and choosing to worship him, instead of some idol made out of electrons or stone.  (I present this collectively as a matter of solidarity.  It is not an us and them thing, it is a we thing.)

Now clearly our preference is that people would personally know the God who saves them, and to whom they cry out.  Nothing I have said thus far should diminish our passion for introducing people to Jesus Christ.  That is why Paul says in Romans 10:14 “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?"  And yet he goes on to answer his own unspoken question concerning those that have never heard when he says “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.”  Indeed!  God is so good!

The Life of Christ
Romans is just one place we see this kind of hope for humankind.  What really gives these passages their weight is the life of Christ.  You don’t have to read Romans with the same tone that I have just outlined.  You can definitely take a different approach, pull a Jonah, and wait with great expectations for the coming hell, fire, and brimstone.  But in light of the life of Christ, how can we not appreciate the magnanimous love God has for all of creation.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  The God who said not one small piece of the law shall pass away, said to the women caught in adultery, “than neither do I condemn you, now go and sin no more.” and said to the thief on the cross, "today you will be with me in Paradise".

Now think about that for a second.  How much theology did either of these two know?  Did they have a clue who Jesus was?  Did they confess with her mouth that Jesus was Lord?  If they did know who he was, and I think they may have, it was not intellectual.  What they knew was so much deeper.  They looked into the face of an awesome God, yet a man who had no beautify of majesty that we should desire him, and in a moment found redemption and reconciliation!

In Conclusion
Finally, let me just balance the equation.  The truth is, we can evade God, worshiping the sun, the moon and our own sex lives, rather than the creator of all good things.  And if we do… well, CS Lewis, Rob Bell, and Dr. Mouw have already put it better than I can.  If we do, we will be eternally separated from God, living in a hell of our own making on this earth, and in the life to come…  and we will like it. That is, if we could choose otherwise, we would not.

The big idea in my mind is this, in the end, it is exceedingly possible that significantly more people will be saved than some imagine.  In the end, love wins—however, it is a love which includes both freedom and justice.  How much further down this line of thinking Rob Bell goes I’m not sure, but it’s a dialog worth having because our beliefs, and how we posture those beliefs have an impact on everything that we do.

For a positive review of Love Wins, and Rob Bell’s theology, click here.

For a more negative, but charitable review, click here.


Kenny said...

Great thoughts! Really appreciate you taking the time to write this out. I've read to many dismissive blog posts about this book instead of good, thoughtful dialog about it.

Susan Stabile said...

I really enjoyed this book, David, and would love to talk to you about it. I wrote a post on it back in April when I read it.

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested to get your take on some of the broader questions you address in this comparative analysis...does a person have to call it Jesus Christ to believe it? Can a person live the principles without the label, full knowledge and exposure to the Scriptures intact? Some interesting ideas we can discuss by fire...a fire in my backyard I mean... :-)