Yesterday was an interesting day. My first destination was interesting: the Jewish Federation of Northwest Indiana. A Jewish man who is a follower of Jesus and a member of our church invited me to a luncheon with an introduction to the Passover Seder meal. I felt extremely welcome as perhaps the only Gentile in the place. They were all interested in my ministry and family. It was a very meaningful presentation on the events of Passover and a sacred meal which remembers God’s mighty acts in delivering His people from slavery. Then we shared a lunch together loosely based on the elements of a full Seder meal. Nice. God’s theme of redemption did not begin in the New Testament and I gained a richer appreciation of God’s early redemptive work as recorded in the Old Testament. Everything in the New Testament builds on this foundation.
I got up from my chair and drove 4 hours to watch Iowa defeat Indiana State in the first round of the NIT. All the while, I was sitting next to one of my best friends. Lon is a Christian Counselor with ministry training who has a keen interest in theology and happens to be married to a girl my wife and I grew up with. It’s endless what we have to talk about. Our discussion turned to Rob Bell and the controversy surrounding his new book. If you know theology, my opinion is that Rob Bell is trying to be like Paul Tillich, a theologian from the 1950’s. He wore big plastic glasses and started writing a series of popular theology books. The most famous was The Courage to Be, which, in my opinion was very similar in topic and impact to the new What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Bell. Tillich’s book was not really aimed at academics. It wasn’t full of long footnotes because it was trying to have a conversation with the thinking public. He went on tours, gave lectures and became a pop culture icon. When he visited the campus of the University of Chicago it was pretty big news. TCtB focused on the sense of God that all of us have in common. It became part of a larger conversation. Frustrated many, encouraged others. So I think Tillich is Bell’s template. He’s talking past the academics, trying to speak to a different audience. Now that would be fine, but here’s the problem.
Since Bell left the pastorate he never mentions being part of a community of faith. A lot of Bell’s recent public comments seem to be based on how the church needs to keep up with the world “just because.” In talking about gay marriage he said “that ship has sailed” and the church needs to affirm people where they are. No biblical justification offered. So, while I’m not one of these alarmist people who freaks out every time Bell does something new, I am a bit more concerned about the foundation of his ideas lately. I would like to hear some public comments about how he’s attending a church and serving others and in conversation about the stuff in his books somewhere besides book signings. I’m not actually going to purchase and read this book until I know more about Bell’s context. But the man does know how to come up with fresh language for talking about what he believes. Preachers should take note of that.
This brought me to reaffirm a couple things I’ve always believed. First, what Christians believe has to be grounded in what we understand the Bible to be saying. We need to give the Bible authority to speak into our lives no matter what year it is, or we’re just making up our own religion. Second, what we believe has to be continually lived out with others in the church. We are called by Jesus to be a community. I’m naturally held a accountable knowing I’ll have to see my friends there who may ask me how it’s going. If I fail to attend, someone will notice and check on me. We all need that encouragement to be faithful. By being present and caring, I do the same for others. And when we have disagreements we can talk about it based on the Bible until we get it right.
You can’t really get Jesus in a package that doesn’t include the church. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about God with my faith community.
Follow the above link for a fresh take on Bell’s book and the curious controversy surrounding it…
For those who aren’t yet sick of the Rob Bell-Love Wins controversy, I think I’ve found BOTH a good way to finally make sense of the LOST finale AND visualize one of the theories of heaven/hell/Kingdom in Bell’s book.
Using the metaphors of Luke 15 (Father w/2 sons parable) and the always-open gates of the heavenly city (Revelation), this view suggests that free will continues after death. There is only one true story of grace. The prodigal son chose to live a false story, but when it ran its course he traded it in for the true one. Result: enjoying the party forever! The elder son also chose to live a false slavery/obligation story, even just outside the party. His stubborn refusal to accept the grace story keeps him from enjoying the party. But the invitation is always there for him to relent and kick up his sandals inside. When he’s had enough of his good boy creepiness (=hell), he can come inside (=heaven). So, goes the theory, will it be in the fullness of the Kingdom. The gates are open. Whenever the LOST get ready to be FOUND, they leave the ultimately dissatisfying story-of-their-own-making and come on in to the ultimate reality.
The LOST finale features a doesn’t-quite-ring-true post-island storyline. One-by-one the survivors feel called to meet at a church. As they gather, they sense they’ll have to leave something behind. At least one decides, he’s not ready yet. The rest gather in the church. They’re told they’ve been living in a pseudo world they mutually created so they could still be together. But it wasn’t real. Their time together on the island was real and what’s next will be even more real. But they have to leave this intermediate world behind. They rise. The church doors open to the most glorious light imaginable. They follow their guide into the brightness of their intended, but resisted, destiny. The implication is, eventually, everyone will make this choice.
It’s not exact, but there’s enough inter-textuality here to shed some light. It’s interesting. Again, this is not my view (because too many other Scriptures aren’t accounted for-see my previous post.) I’m not even sure it’s Bell’s personal view. But some Christians have believed it. So…
Makes me wonder 2 things:
1. Did the LOST writing team use this view of universalism to guide their finale? (Regardless of their own faith convictions, it made for one innovative narrative)
2. Did Rob Bell get this book idea at an amazing LOST party last year?
So maybe Bell is LOST after all! He-he!
Grace and Peace
If you’re a Christian leader you probably heard about Rob Bell before 2 weeks ago. But if you don’t live under a rock you’ve heard of him since then! His new book—Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived created a firestorm when a promotional video was released. It questioned traditional views on hell.
If I had to choose a Facebook category for my relationship with Rob Bell’s ideas, “it’s complicated” would win. I’ve really enjoyed some of his sermons and Nooma videos. He definitely has a pastor’s heart. He’s studied the Bible in the original languages. He gets our culture. He’s not afraid to offend. He’s a gifted communicator. All things I respect. But he’s a whipping boy for conservatives (and some of my friends.) He’s a hero to others (and some of my friends). So if I really liked or disliked something he said or did, I had to think twice to avoid offending someone. He’s a guilty pleasure one day (like brownies at 11:30pm) and big bother the next (like a zit on your chin!)
But he made his boldest move yet with Love Wins. The video was brilliant to create buzz. Last night he frustrated me with a live web event. At midnight I downloaded the book and finished by mid-morning.
Let me begin by saying Rob Bell is not a heretic. His personal views are not totally revealed, but the options presented are consistent with some ancient Christian teachers. Let me also say I can’t embrace all he presents about salvation and the afterlife. But who else could have gotten us all talking about such important issues? The book is clearly not written to debate with people like me. It’s written to engage with people outside of church life. I think it can do this well. It attempts to explain how heaven and hell fit into the good news of Jesus. He starts with the deep reservations many outside the church have with a God who eternally punishes most of humanity. This point can be offensive to Christians, but not to his audience.
He’s as controversial as he can be in the first couple chapters. He messes with our tidy notions of the gospel by showing vastly different metaphors Jesus (and Paul) used. He says a woman wrote Hebrews (not sure this is an actual conviction of his) and that traditional views of the afterlife have been used to oppress the masses through the ages. He calls his gramma’s cross-bridge painting creepy! But eventually he settles into examining the relevant Scriptures. He creatively (somewhat ambiguously) lets his views come through over time. More than ever it’s hard to pin him down at times. As usual, no footnotes. He supports his views only with Scripture references and stories.
Heaven is the fullness of God’s Kingdom on a renewed earth. In an important sense for Bell’s Jesus, heaven is wherever God rules. The goal of salvation is to reunite earth and heaven. Heaven ultimately won’t be another “place” we go, it’s another reality that comes here. This part can be strongly supported by Scripture.
One genius of the book is in the case he makes that salvation, heaven and hell have a lot more to do with this life than we may realize. We should listen to Bell on this. We’ve all known people who’ve made a hell on earth by rejecting God’s vision for life. Many Christians have experienced eternal life as peace on earth now. Often Jesus’ talk of hell is a warning to religious people to change their behavior. It’s surprising that he often says sinners may be in the Kingdom and religious people may not. He spends a lot of time explaining the behaviors and attitudes of people who experience heaven. Rather than implying a magical character change for Christians at death, Jesus implies the importance of letting grace change you now. (a view Nazarenes have always embraced.)
Bell says this change is what would allow us to enjoy heaven (the fullness of the Kingdom). But, bravely for a man in Grand Rapids, he emphasizes free will. It’s our choice. God’s love let’s us choose. Hell is essentially refusing to accept/trust God’s version of our story. We bring destruction on ourselves whenever we reject God’s love & forgiveness. 2 images dominate.
1. Luke 15’s parable of the father with 2 sons shows our options. Finally give up living a faulty story and come home to the party (prodigal son) or stubbornly refuse to enjoy it (elder brother).
2. Revelation 21:25 (describing the heavenly city coming down for God to finally make his dwelling among humanity.) “On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.”
Bell says “And then there are others who ask, if you get another chance after you die, why limit that chance to one-off immediately after death? And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God.
As long as it takes, in other words.” (p.55)
This is a form of universalism, but Bell doesn’t exactly say it’s his view. He rightfully demonstrates that a minority of Christians in every age have believed this way. His motive is evangelism. He spends the rest of the book attempting to make a compelling case for accepting/trusting in God’s story now. Why miss a moment of eternal life? His goal is to reach those for whom one and done eternal punishment is the one barrier to accepting the Christian story. “You don’t have to believe this to be a Christian,” Bell says.
He hasn’t convinced me that this “eventually view” is the most biblical view. But neither would I be upset if this turned out to be true. I don’t want anyone to suffer the torment of hell. I want everyone to experience eternal life. (In the tradition of Wesley, Inclusivism is closer to my view, as in Wesley’s “On Heaven” sermon.) I have concerns that some could put this choice off, not feeling motivated to choose now. But Bell makes clear the destructive consequences of delay.
I reread portions of the book this afternoon and gained a less defensive perspective. I can’t embrace the book fully. But because he rooted this presentation in the Scriptures, demonstrated the centrality of Christ, and has a clearly evangelistic motive I’m glad he wrote this book.
I hope it creates an opportunity for more people to accept/trust God’s version of the story. Even if this “eventually” view is mistaken, once people are walking with Christ in the reality of the Kingdom, he can correct any errors. (Not that we should offer bait and switch if we don’t believe something has validity.)
Doctrine matters. Truth has boundaries. I’m more traditional than Bell. But at least we’re talking about heaven/hell. I hope more people find peace with God. I plan to engage people in conversation about the book. I pray this conversation gets us all in touch with eternal realities (saving/sanctifying grace) surrounding us every moment, offering to transform us in preparation for enjoying heaven forever. The Gospel really is good news and I can’t wait to experience it in fullness! It’s time we celebrated it. Easter’s right around the bend!
So what category do they all fit in? People who entertained me in the 80’s? 2 out of three ain’t bad. People who have recently gone even more insane than ever before? Only 2 verified at this point. Trending topics on Twitter in the last few days? BINGO!
Charlie Sheen has been riding that high normal people sadly feel when they get a brilliant idea at 2:30am. I’ll press “send” and ensure that my life is chaotic for the next three days! But he has named it “Charlie Sheen!” his new drug of choice. It’s “always on surround sound of crazy” and you can almost see in his eyes that he knows he’s gone. The absolute self-worship of what remains of the mind of a rock star actor. Yet, even in his “sheened” state he knows how to grab attention. And the world is more than willing to tune in to watch him self-destruct (read: “winning 2011”). I guess the human spirit has a launch button for when you pass rock bottom but don’t get the memo. I’m sad that such a talented and creative person was seduced into this nightmare (by his own evil desires? Only God knows…) America loves comebacks as much as they love self-destruction. But the original model may not ever be back. This isn’t funny because the trail of devastation is very real. So why do we watch?
Again, it’s tempting to laugh at Gaddafi. When I was too young to understand the issues I actually enjoyed the show as he defied President Reagan with the craziest messages I’d ever heard. It just needed a Gnarls Barkley soundtrack. It reminded me of my neighbor’s t-shirt. A hawk is swooping down on a mouse who is looking up. The caption reads “Last great act of defiance!” Then you notice the mouse is giving him the finger! I imagined the fighter jets decimating his house, which they did. But he actually lived to cruelly dictate for another 24 years! Even came out against Al Qaeda. It’s tempting to laugh until you think about anti-aircraft shells entering the bodies of civilians calling for freedom. Then crying’s not enough.
And Rob Bell is the lone evangelical making it to the top of the twit-heap for something not involving breaking a commandment! But of course we need to burn him at the stake before we know for sure what to charge him with. And I’m sure it’s tempting for the world to laugh at our pettiness. And Harper-One’s (publishers of his new book) accounting team will be the first people in history to actually laugh all the way to the bank. Winning!
So Twitter tells us what we’re looking at for better or for worse. And it seems to be where we reach for the angry button. A lot. Or the shock-value button. Or the crazy button. There are exceptions. My daughter’s sweet friend keeps using it to tell Justin Bieber she loves him and happy birthday and please follow me! And yes you can even follow various versions of “Jesus” in the twitter-sphere. Mostly it’s a social platform to promote ideas, whether those ideas are crazy, crazier, or savvy. Whether leveraged for money, fame, or toppling evil regimes. The choice is yours which messages you send or receive. Kind of like life.
N.T. Wright said that the resurrection had a purpose “to colonize earth with the life of heaven.” I’m wondering if there are better ways for Christ-followers to redeem this space. What are the best ways to fill the Twitter-sphere with the life of heaven? We can follow the trends or create them. But Jesus said he came that they might have life and have it fully. How can we offer life in a world gone crazy? Is it possible to rise to the top of twitter trends with a life-affirming message in-line with the good news? This is territory we have yet to love-bomb. May we overcome crazy winning with abundant life. May we find traction soon!
Grace and Peace