After hearing the buzz--the negative kind--on the release of mega-church pastor, Rob Bell's latest book, "Love Wins," I reluctantly obtained a copy to read it for myself. I have been previously mislead by reacting to and even quoting respected Christians and Christian leaders taking their word for critical thoughts and accusations of such things only to regret it.
As a syndicated columnist, I know first hand the frustration of being misquoted, taken out of context, or someone making an unfair generalization of something I supposedly wrote when it seemed doubtful they even read the entire piece. So I sat down and read Bell's controversial little book in just a couple sittings--and I am not a fast reader.
It is a short read packed with mind boggling, exegesis-defying, systematic theology-ignoring assertions, sarcasms, and non-sequiturs. Bell's favorite method is to take what are clearly aberrant beliefs of "some" Christians and normalizing them to be what "many Christians" believe, especially evangelicals.
He is understandably critical of the speculations that occur from the pulpits of evangelical churches, especially when they pertain to heaven and hell, but then promptly offers his own speculations as to the "proper view" of the same subjects.
My wife asked one evening what Bell's book was about. I stared and just said, "I don't even know where to start." He is basically offering a brand of universalism--positing that everyone ever born ends up in a place, or state of mind, or participation in a good life, that goes on and on which some call "heaven." He likens it to a party where everyone attends but, like a party here on earth, some will not enjoy it as much as others due to whatever issues they bring to the party. In Bell's opinion, one problem with evangelicals is that we talk about entering heaven whereas Bell asserts it isn't about entering--everyone enters--it is about "participation." So over time--Bell's heaven (which reminds me of a "quasi-purgatory-like environment") gives everyone time to see what they are missing, jettisoning their issues, thus participating in the benefits and joys of heaven.
Hell is even more obtuse than Bell's conception of heaven. He writes: "We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell." It strikes me as a repackaging of the old, "Hell is what you make it." Bell adds, Hell is also, "our [personal] refusal to trust God's retelling of our story." Attempting to paraphrase what he means--Hell is the consequence of living out what WE believe about ourselves rather than what God declares about us.
It is a solid point to consider if we are talking about orthopraxy or the value of walking in practical godliness in this life, by faith, rather than by sight. But Bell's hell is an utter bastardization of the etymological, theological, scriptural and historical understanding of "Hell." At the end of the day, Bell stumbles over a God who can be both loving, while also being just.
His use of the Old and New Testaments are generally spoken of in terms of "story" marginalizing any real connection to anything in our day and never approaches any semblance of a systematic theology. His interpretation of the sacrificial system of Judaism, for example, is a product of culture, space and time to which we cannot relate. After all, when, he asks, was the last time YOU slit the throat of a goat or killed a pigeon and laid it on the altar?
Bell has a very low view of inspiration and the bulk of the Bible is more metaphor and lesson rather than history connected to a loving--yet just--God who came to redeem us from our sins. Bell sees the whole progression of the evangelical "gospel" as one contrived, confusing package of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. Admittedly he hits on some deserved criticisms of a simplistic faith which is sometimes--oftentimes?--presented in a very formulaic fashion. No problem there, but his "correction" is far worse.
Finally everything always falls or stands on one's Christology. What is Bell's? It would be hard for me to articulate it, since I had difficulty pinning it down. What I can say with some certainty is that it bears little resemblance to the Immanuel--who came to save us, not from God, as Bell charges is the message evangelicals present--, but from ourselves; from our sin which condemns us before a God who also happens to be holy.
In any book of this variety, there is generally some value in straining out the dross and taking to heart the valid weaknesses of our beliefs or at least the weaknesses of our way of explaining our beliefs. For the scripturally astute, Bell's book is worth reading because Thanks to the level of biblical illiteracy today, I do believe (myself generalizing) he expresses what many people really do think about God, heaven, hell and judgment; even many in our Sunday morning worship.
But this is an exceedingly dangerous book for the masses as it appeals to the base instinct of man to assess God on the basis of the delusion of one's self-determined omniscience writing off any aspect of God's nature which one might find disagreeable or indefensible. As I stated in a recent sermon, it is profoundly arrogant for anyone to precede justification for their particular belief with the statement, "I can't believe in a God who…For in the moment they make that declaration, they have lost any reasonable basis from which to argue. Such a statement presumes that defining God, what He is like, what He thinks, what He might do, is entirely up to them. In short, it presumes that THAT person is in fact God. In the Bible, Love Wins--to be sure; but in Bell's book, TRUTH loses in a big way.