Saturday, November 07, 2015

Love Wins by Rob Bell (Book Review #87 of 2015)

This book is what happens when you don't lend out your manuscript to others to push back on. To let others with opposing viewpoints (or maybe even a similar one) find your errors in logic, contradictions, and other cognitive biases. I read this book after reading Tim Keller's The Reason for God and the contrast couldn't be more stark. Keller, whose book Prodigal God Bell ironically cites favorably at the end, writes with pristine logic and dozens of citations. Bell doesn't.

Bell's writing and critique of the Church are really similar to those of the New Atheist variety including Christopher Hitchens and former Pentecostal Jerry DeWitt. Some of his theological statements and biblical interpretation also remind me of John Shelby Spong (who is basically a deist).

The axiom at the center of Bell's logic is that a God of love cannot and does not choose. God's sovereign election has been a difficult truth of the Bible for millenia. I happened to read Love Wins while studying to teach Genesis 25-28 on Jacob. In Genesis 25:23, Rebekah is told the destinies of her two children before they're born. The Apostle Paul deals with the desire to consider this unfair in Romans 9:11-23, which is worth reading in its entirety (HCSB):
11 For though her sons had not been born yet or done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to election might stand— 12 not from works but from the One who calls—she was told: The older will serve the younger. 13 As it is written: 'I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau' (Malachi 1:2-3).

14 What should we say then? Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not! 15 For He tells Moses:

'I will show mercy
to whom I will show mercy,
and I will have compassion
on whom I will have compassion.' (Exodus 33:19)

16 So then it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy. 17 For the Scripture tells Pharaoh:

I raised you up for this reason
so that I may display My power in you
and that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth. (Exodus 9:16)

18 So then, He shows mercy to those He wants to, and He hardens those He wants to harden.

19 You will say to me, therefore, “Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?” 20 But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” 21 Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? 22 And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? 23 And what if He did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory— 24 on us, the ones He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

So, Bell's axiom is already arguing against clear Scripture. Just as the examples of Jacob's deceitfulness in Genesis 25-27 and of Pharoah's cruelty in Exodus, God works all throughout the Bible to accomplish His purposes through sin (see the Gospel accounts of Jesus' commentaries on own death or Acts 3:17-18). Bell approaches the Bible as the typical American -- God loves me, so why does he allow bad things to happen? The Bible is His story, not ours. If God is omniscient, then He must have known when he breathed life into Adam that he would sin and He would send Jesus to die to atone for it and put an end to the devil's schemes (Genesis 3:15).

Bell spends the book railing against what he claims Christianity teaches-- that we obtain salvation by what we do, say, believe, or think. This is not the Christianity of the Bible and certainly not what my church teaches. We are saved only by God's grace, as Paul writes in Romans 9 above -- "So then it does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy" Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." Bell writes like this is some radical new discovery instead of what has been taught by orthodox Christianity for thousands of years and emphasized most clearly by the Reformation, in this case he is similar to evangelist-turned-atheist Jerry DeWitt. Any other Gospel is a false gospel.

Bell is also correct that Gospel promises are as much about today as they are about eternity. Romans 8:1 tell us there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. This is very freeing and there are wonderful helps in Gospel-based counseling like Robert S. McGee's The Search for Significance. But Bell cites no such works, apparently thinking all of his ideas are new, evidently never bouncing them off anyone remotely familiar with the Bible before publishing. This is unhelpful to the reader who may have grown up thinking they can't drink, must wear their hair or skirt a certain way, or certain other things contrary to the Bible.

So, onto eschatology. First, in bells quick walk-through of New Testament scriptures related to hell, Bell errs in interpreting Jesus' comments about heaven and hell as "mostly about" today and not about the kingdom-to-come instead of realizing them to be, in many cases, both. He calls heaven what other books focusing on a theology of work call "calling," - working at whatever you feel brings you the most pleasure in God when you do it. If heaven is here, and all of its promise is here, then why isn't Bell performing miracles as the Apostles were performing them? He doesn't mention much supernatural, heaven being "here" is simply when hungry are fed and justice is done.

In other cases, Bell stretches to reach one possible interpretation of a passage and claiming it to be THE interpretation. Looking at Luke 18:18-27, Bell claims Jesus' list of of the Ten Commandments was focusing on the six dealing with interpersonal relations and that Jesus left out the one on coveting, because that's what hoarding our possessions reflects. It's a nice idea, but not necessarily correct. Jesus could have been giving a truncated list, or Luke could be truncating it as such so the readership got the idea that Jesus was referencing the Ten Commandments. Jesus leaves out of this list what he elsewhere calls the greatest two. So, Bell makes himself out to be a rather unhumble authority on Scripture. Another example is in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, one in a burning place while the other is comforted by Abraham (Luke 16:19-31). Bell interprets the "chasm" that separates them as the callousness of the rich man's heart. Bell turns this parable to be about the here-and-now for Jesus' audience rather than a here-and-then; the rich man being told he could not come back from the dead to warn his friends (implying also he has to continue suffering) to repent was simply a reference to Jesus' resurrection and that's that. If the rich man had truly repened in that moment of pain when asking Abraham for a drop of water, rather than seeking his own needs, then he apparently would be saved. Because of the false axiom Bell rests upon-- that God cannot choose.

Bell does not mention satan and demons much, I gather he does not believe in them as literal spiritual beings, like angels. He also does not seem to have a coherent eschatalogical construct (premillenialist, amillenialist, etc. although he seems to confuse a premillenial view of Jesus' reign on earth with the New Kingdom of Revelation 21?). But he endorses a literal New Heavens and New Earth at the end of the age of Revelation 21. Bell highlights the last verses: 25 Each day its gates will never close because it will never be night there. 26 They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. 27 Nothing profane will ever enter it: no one who does what is vile or false, but only those written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Bell writes that this kingdom's gates never close means that this city is present while those who have not yet repented and accepted Jesus as Lord are still roaming around outside. The gates are always open and they are always welcome to leave their old ways behind. But people are free to suffer in their own sin of their own choice and be left outside. The view seems to have been inspired by C.S. Lewis' allegory The Great Divorce, which Bell also references at the closing of the book. But in the end, surely everyone will join the party in the city gates and thus "love wins."

This universalism begs the question: why did the early church suffer like it did to spread the message of the Gospel? They weren't being persecuted for taking care of the sick and feeding the poor, which they were doing, but because of their message of "foolishness," - namely that Jesus Christ was God, suffered on a cross, was buried, and rose again. Why did Apostles take such pains to warn their churches of the "wrath" of God coming on the godless (Romans 1:18)? Why did they encourage their flocks to live holy lives? 2 Peter was written perhaps even after the Apostle Peter's death and certainly after Paul's. Peter exhorts believers in Asia to continue on in their faith through persecution?
1:9 "The person who lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten the cleansing from his past sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, make every effort to confirm your calling and election, because if you do these things you will never stumble. 11 For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly supplied to you."
In 1 Peter 2, the author reminds Christians that God will eventually bring justice on the ungodly and rescue His children just as he did Noah's family in the flood.

My question to Bell is: Rescue them from what? Decades spent needlessly suffering in the unloving world that doesn't acknowledge God before inevitably turning to Christ at the end? Is their reward simply being first in line? What do you do with 2 Peter 3:7 "But by the same word, the present heavens and earth are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men?"
Are you an annihlationist for those who do not know Jesus before His return? But you forsee a New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation 21 the way premillenials await a 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth (where at the end of 1,000 years we learn some still haven't truly submitted to Jesus)? An end where eventually everyone makes it into the city certainly doesn't line up with a plain reading of anything in the New Testament.

Further, what do you do with the resurrection of the dead? Jesus spoke much about His own resurrection as well as the resurrection at the end of the age. That doesn't seem to fit into Bell's thinking. Bell makes the same critique of heaven that Hitchens does-- it sounds more like North Korea. How can people rejoice when they know their loved ones are being tormented? This again sounds like an American lens: it's got to be about me and God has to do things that make sense to me.  If the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, because only God can be all-satisfying. God must be infinite, or He is not God, so it's not hard to imagine that in a perfect world with His presence I can be infinitely satisfied with Him; there would therefore not be room for sorrow.

The lack of clarity and logical rigor of the book makes me think Bell's answer is likely "I don't know." Bell chooses to believe some parts of Scripture and ignore others, I guess he gets to choose what's truth. As such, the book doesn't say much that can be defended easily. He hasn't done his homework (again similar to Jerry DeWitt, among others). If I could give it zero stars, I would. Bell's eventual elucidation of the freeing power of the Gospel gives me just enough hope that someone might hear the needle of truth in the huge haystack of error.

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