Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Love Rob Wins Bell...

I've finally got around to reading the 'controversial' Rob Bell book 'Love Wins'. Its a very short book. Shorter even than it looks. Because (as I've said before)

Rob Bell

tends to write

large chunks

of the book

like this.

For emphasis, I assume.

But leaving that aside, what are my thoughts on the book?

I'm not sure I need to warn you of spoilers here, but if you read on, please be aware that I will be summarising my take on what Rob Bell says in this book and giving my opinions on his opinions. If you don't want to know what he says until you've read the book yourself, now would be a good point to stop reading.

(Regular readers of this blog will know that my current doubts are questioning things like the historical accuracy of the stories in the bible and whether Jesus really said the things attributed to him, but I shouldn't really bring issues like that into my thoughts on this book, so here I'll comment on this book without, for the most part, questioning most of its underlying assumptions, e.g. that the gospels are reasonably accurate accounts of what Jesus said and did, and who he was.)

Let's take the book chapter by chapter:

Preface: Millions of us
This is a fair point, well made. Christianity has never been a uniform thing, with one set of beliefs shared by all. Virtually all beliefs in any part of contemporary Christianity have been held by some people in generations gone by. There is no such, well defined, 'thing' as Christianity. Also, there are a lot of folk put off by the 'hellfire & brimstone' type preaching, so he's right. This book has an audience.

Chapter 1: What about the flat tire?
Loads of questions. As yet unanswered. Case over-stated. Makes you want to read on, but is a bit irritating. Let's see if the rest of the book lives up to this intro.

Chapter 2: Here is the new there
This is where the book gets interesting. What do we mean by 'heaven'? More importantly, what did Jesus (and the writers of the bible) mean by 'heaven'? Have 2000 years of history shifted our understanding?

Well, yes they have, and Bell makes the case quite convincingly.

Christianity is not about what happens to you after you die.
The gospel is not about what happens to you after you die.
Jesus's teaching is not about what happens to you after you die.
Eternity is not about what happens to you after you die.
Heaven is not about what happens to you after you die.

The bible talks about 'the current age' and 'the age to come'. The latter of which is not necessarily a reference to something post-mortem, but comes when God has established 'the kingdom' on earth. When the earth is renewed.

Basically Bell explains that what the bible means by heaven is not what our contemporary society understands by heaven. All well and good, and ties in with my favourite ever Rob Bell sermon, but what the chapter doesn't really discuss, in any depth, is what actually does happen to the believer or the non-believer after they die.

If the 'age to come' is an earthly age, even a 'heaven on earth' age, then will people die there? What happens then?

In reading this chapter I kind of felt that Bell had done a slight of hand and had ended up answering a different question to the one posed. Or maybe the bible really doesn't answer the 'post-mortem' question?

Yes, in general, I agree with all of his points, 'heaven' can be here not there, but what does happen when we die? That question isn't adequately addressed either here or in the rest of the book!

Chapter 3: Hell
This is the flip side of the previous chapter. Just as heaven can be here and not there, Bell shows that hell is also here, not there. Is there a post-mortem hell? The book doesn't fully answer that.

So hell is a present reality for some and will be a future reality for others, but what about when you die? This question - which seems to be the main selling point of the book - is not adequately addressed. Yes, he asks questions about it, but he doesn't really have a clear message to promote - by which I mean he doesn't say 'this is what might happen to someone when they die', rather he says things along the lines of 'that can't be right, can it?'

So, its thought provoking stuff, but offers little in the way of answers.

Chapter 4: Does God get what God wants?
This is the heart of Bell's reasoning. The bible says that God doesn't want any to perish. The bible says that God is all powerful. Therefore God will ensure that all will be 'saved' - whatever saved means (but we don't really go into that here).

Here I have to question one of the underlying assumptions of the book. The problem I see here is that Bell assumes that the bible has a single, coherent message. Essentially that all parts of the bible speak with the same voice. (I commented on this a couple of weeks ago when Rob Bell was on Unbelievable). The problem - as I see it - is that your whole view of what that one message is is entirely skewed by whatever passages you start with or choose to be your favourites.

It is clear to me (from reading this book) that Bell starts with the Gospel of John and some of the parables in the other gospels. Everything else starts from that foundation. He starts with 'God so loved the world' and builds his theology from that.

If you were to start from other verses or passages, then you'd end up with a completely different set of beliefs, but still think of them as 'bible based'.

I agree, if you start with John and the parable of the prodigal son / loving father, then you will inevitably end up with a God who cannot condemn anyone to hell. But that isn't the only picture painted in the bible and there is no clear way that I can see of choosing which of the possibilities is 'right', if indeed any of them are.

Chapter 5: Dying to live
This is where the book loses the plot. He doesn't quite say this, but gets fairly close to saying that Jesus death and resurrection are just another death and rebirth motif, like leaves falling off trees in the autumn and coming back in Spring. Its like 'everything dies and everything is reborn, and Jesus is just one of those things', which isn't exactly the case. This is where some people will have serious issues with Mr Bell. But not as much as in the next chapter.

Chapter 6: There are rocks everywhere
This is the chapter where Bell basically says that some people can 'be saved' and 'come to God' without knowing about Jesus. Yes, he says, Jesus is the only mediator between God and man, but anyone, with any experience of the divine, in whatever religious context, is reaching God through Jesus, even if they don't know it. He actually does go as far as to give the cliche example of the mountain with many paths to the top.

Sorry Rob, but this isn't in the bible. No matter how hard you try, you won't find it there.

Now it may be that I am more inclined to agree with this kind of reasoning than I used to be, but this is where both Rob Bell and I diverge from what the bible says. Its just that I realise that and he apparently doesn't.

Chapter 7: The good news is better than that
Here Rob Bell pads out the prodigal son / loving father parable to the length of a chapter. For the prodigal son, he thought he could return as a servant, but the good news is better than that. For the older brother, he thought he was restricted by the Father, but everything the Father had was his, the good news was better than that. And so on.

If God is love now and shows his love to you now, will he suddenly change character, and his attitude to you at the moment of your death? Probably not. The good news is probably better than that.

This feels like an unnecessary chapter. Bell has already made all of his points, but the book needs to be a bit longer, so he's added a couple of chapters. More of the same, really.

Chapter 8: The end is here
So we get to the end. What is Bell's final message? Well, its more or less 'live life like each day could be your last'. In the end, his main question is not what happens after you die, but he is much more interested in what you do before you die.

He doesn't really say this, but I think he's saying that we should live life right now, and leave whatever happens in the future (both pre- and post-mortem) in the hands of a loving God.

And that's it. A book that doesn't really answer the question it apparently set out to answer, but does a bit of slight of hand and answers a few different ones. In ways that will make (and already has made) a lot of conservative Christians quite annoyed. But this book isn't about answering the questions, its about making the reader think about the questions and, hopefully, reach their own answers.

Some will read this book and will simply reject what it says.

Some will read this book and think 'so what?'

But some will read this book and it will give them hope for the future and a better picture of a loving God. Those people are who Rob Bell wrote his book for. I hope many of them find it.

In the time since 'Love Wins' has come out, a number of the outraged conservative types have written books in response. Books like: "Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We Made Up" by Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle (I hope he doesn't preach a message of baptism by total immersion!) and "God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins" by Mark Galli & Randy Alcorn. I have no plans to read any of these. Sigh.

1 comment:

Samantha, 22 said...

Thank you for this blog. I've started my own search for the truth about Jesus. I wish I had more time to devout to this task....

Anyway, I'm excited to read through more of your posts. I don't really have anyone in my life that likes to debate these topics because they don't want to accept that there ARE other ways of looking at it. I'm pretty sure of what I believe, yet, I'm logical. I want facts, I want to research, I want to bounce ideas about what I find off of people... just because. So, thank you... I'll become a frequent reader.