I’m about two years late to the Rob Bell Controversy Party, so I’m going to make the most of it by blogging my long-winded reactions to every chapter, which I don’t expect many people to read anyway, but it will at least help organize my thoughts. I’m coming to this book with a fairly neutral opinion of Bell, having read and enjoyed Sex God and seen and enjoyed a few Nooma videos a few years back. I’m also coming to this book with a belief that the Bible does not state that everyone makes it to heaven, but I have a vague notion that Bell is claiming that the Bible may in fact state something like that, though I am not sure how strongly he is claiming that without reading the book, and I am attempting to come to it with as open of a mind as possible.
So, then, let’s begin Love Wins by Rob Bell.
Chapter 1: What About the Flat Tire?
Does The Christian Salvation Doctrine Make Sense?
The first chapter asks a lot of questions about the narrow, traditional Christian doctrine of how one gets to heaven, wondering if it all makes sense. It is unfortunately true that many people find this doctrine unattractive, though I think one’s biases toward it are strongly influenced by what kinds of Christians one is familiar with; it is also unfortunately true that the Christ followers who are the loudest are often the least furthest along in their walk towards Christ. But I digress.
Some of the questions are pretty good: “Does God punish people.. with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” I might reframe the question with some hand-wavy theological arguments that “God” doesn’t “punish” people in hell, and it’s the separation from God that makes it hell, but the finite vs. infinite disconnect is still a pretty significant thing to ponder.
Then Bell asks about the “age of accountability” that you might say many Christians use to make themselves feel better about babies not being sent to hell before they’re old enough to accept Christ. “What happens when a fifteen-year-old atheist dies? Was there a three-year window when he could have made a decision to change his eternal destiny?”
It’s a reasonable question, though I feel like Bell is trying too hard to extract black and white answers from something that is beyond our complete understanding. There’s a difference between refusing “open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most,” as Bell rightly criticizes in the preface, and accepting that we cannot concretely determine all the details about some of those things.
What if a young kid misses his chance? Or “what if the missionary gets a flat fire?” It’s easy to wave these sorts of salvation-opportunity questions away with appeals to the sovereignty of God, who is the only one who can truly know if anyone is saved, and who could know if someone who dies young wouldn’t have ever gotten saved anyway, or who could give everyone an opportunity regardless of how long their “window” is, etc, etc.
As Bell keeps dragging out question after question, it got to the point where I felt like he was just trying to jab at the traditional Christian worldview in any way possible, throwing anything against the wall to see if it stuck. “Which Jesus?” he asks. The one whose followers round up Muslims and gun them down, or molest their children while singing hymns? I think we all agree those terrible tragedies have nothing to do with truly following God. If we’re trying to figure out whether or not the traditional Christian worldview of actually following Jesus is the only true path to salvation, how does that have anything to do with despicable actions performed by people who, uh, clearly still had quite a ways to go?
Bell pulls out another red herring as he critiques the overused phrase “personal relationship” for being “found nowhere in the Bible” and not even used “until the last hundred years or so.” I don’t know, maybe that cliché was just a modern response to American pop culture’s knowledge of God without actually following God? (This goes a long way to explaining the questions about demons’ knowledge of Jesus at the end of the chapter, too.) As far as I can tell the things modern Christians mean by “personal relationship,” which seems to involve claiming to follow the God of the Bible and reading it and praying to him, etc, etc, are pretty much the same things that being a Christian has always meant, whether or not our modern little culture came up with a new reactionary phrase for it.
Then Bell descends into what just feels like trolling territory as he says “Christians have always claimed… that you don’t have to do anything” but just “accept and confess and believe,” but “aren’t those verbs? …things we do?” Wow! What a contradiction! Is Bell really completely ignoring the incredible difference between the “doing” of righteous activities to earn salvation and the “doing” of accepting the gift of salvation? That’s the sort of oversimplification you expect from middle schoolers chanting “If you love it so much why don’t you marry it?”
The icing on this needlessly antagonistic cake for me was the reference to “John, Peter, James, or the woman who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews.” My understanding (which could be wrong) is that scholars do not know who wrote Hebrews, and it is a subject of much speculation. Bell seems highly confident that it was a woman. He may be right, but I doubt he knows it. And in the middle of a twelve-page exploration of every possible questioning of the controversial traditional Christian belief of what we know about salvation, I thought it was pretty ironic for Bell to unquestioningly assert such a controversial un-traditional fact, especially considering it would only further upset the traditional Christians he’s already doing a good job of upsetting.
But then I tried to remind myself that I was trying to read this with an open mind. I pushed back all the theological analogies I’ve heard about how you still have to “accept” a “present” freely offered. The question of whether or not some response is required of us to obtain salvation is an interesting and fundamental one. I was reading the book from my traditional perspective and feeling like Bell was just trying to tick off traditionalists with irrelevant questions, but I realized that he’s also writing to an outside audience for whom these questions are very real and important, and the more I think about them, the more I like them.
What Is The Biblical Salvation Doctrine Anyway?
At any rate, Bell finally stopped asking questions about the minutiae of the applications of salvation doctrine and started looking at the actual Bible from which this doctrine supposedly comes. And I thought he brought some up some pretty good points about apparent contradictions from Jesus himself about how to get to heaven.
In Luke 23, the man hanging on the cross next to Jesus says to him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and Jesus assures him that they’ll be together in paradise… So is it what you say that saves you?
…in Matthew 10 he teaches that “those who stand firm till the end will be saved.”
…in Luke 19, a man named Zacchaeus tells Jesus, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor…” Jesus’s response? “Today salvation has come to his house.”
…in Mark 2, Jesus is teaching in a house and some men cut a hole in the roof and lower down their sick friend for Jesus to heal. When Jesus sees their faith, he says to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” His sins are forgiven because of their faith?
Is it what you say,
or who you are,
or what you do,
or what you say you’re going to do,
or is it who your friends are or what your friends do?
I skipped a few examples, some of which I think Bell is stretching to include at all, or that are more easily explained than others, or that I’ve heard explanations for (especially the infamous “saved through childbearing”), but it is interesting that Jesus suggests that different people are saved for different responses. The more I think about it, the fewer contradictions I see – we don’t know that the sick friend didn’t believe in Jesus, too, for instance, and perhaps only those who believe in Jesus will be able to stand firm till the end, anyway.
You also get into the sticky issue of Jesus’ statements about salvation before he died – how does that affect the current, traditional understanding about salvation coming from accepting that Jesus died for your sins and committing to follow him? Do any of Bell’s examples really contradict that? Well, what about Paul’s “all Israel will be saved”? (Romans 11) Does that really mean that at some point all living Jews will become Christians? What about those who have already died?
So despite my initial protests, I think Bell’s first chapter does bring up some interesting questions, both for those who are not Christians and those who are traditional Christians, and I’m interested to keep reading and see what he has to say next.