Rob Bell – A Parable of Salvation

Posted March 22, 2011 by Jim
Categories: Books, Theology

Tags: , , , ,

Love WinsLast time, we talked about the technical theology stuff. Is Rob Bell a universalist? Having read Love Wins twice now I have put together a short story, a parable if you will, that I think illustrates Rob’s theology on salvation as laid out in his book. I do not know Rob Bell and have no idea if he would agree with this description so please know that this is my own work. Let me know what you think.

John sat quietly in the hard wooden chair and reflected on his life. He had not been a good person. He had done terrible things in his thirty-eight years of life. He had seen worse.
Drugs.
Abuse.
Murder.
Rape.

Life in his inner city neighborhood was hard. Hellish. Not that John believed in hell. He had seen the people on the street corners with their signs and yelling at people through bull horns. He had also seen them leave. He had seen them take off their expensive jackets so when they climb into their SUVs they don’t get too warm when the heated seats turn on. One day John approached a man driving through the neighborhood. He shot the man and took his car and his money. One man died so that John could have a little more. This was how things worked where John lived.

Two men entered the room, interrupting John’s thoughts. They looked at the IV line running from his arm and at some equipment. They pushed some buttons and John felt a cold rush in his arm then a warmth taking over his body. His eyelids felt heavy and he nodded off into sleep.

Vaguely aware of blackness all around him John tried to open his eyes but couldn’t – or maybe he could but there was no light. John was aware of emptiness. He extended his arms groping for walls or even a floor but could not feel anything. John felt a complete loneliness envelop him. He felt cold. He felt vulnerable. Then, as if his whole body went numb, he felt nothing.

When he awoke John was not tired but confused. He was laying on cold dirt unaware of how he got there. He looked around and saw trees, a forest all around. Then he saw it in the distance. A city. He saw the warm glow stretching into the sky. Then he realized that he felt the warmth when looking at the city light, but when he looked he also felt shame.

Deciding to wait for morning, John laid back down and tried to doze. Morning never came and it never got any warmer. He didn’t know how long he’d been waiting but it seemed timeless. He saw no moon or stars. He saw nothing to eat but he wasn’t hungry. He walked around the forest but saw no one else, he was utterly alone. It could have been weeks or months but there was no way to keep track of hours or days.

John walked toward the city, his shame growing as he came closer to the open gate. When he thought he could stand no more he was there. He stepped in fearing immediate and whole rejection. A man nearby smiled as he approached. “We’ve been waiting for you, John,” the man spoke.

“You know my name but you can’t know the things I have done. You would not welcome me if you did.”

“Do you not know? Your wrongs have been paid for.”

“But, I was never a Christian.”

“Christ did not die for the sins of people who have said the right things,” the man explained, “he suffered for you because he loves you and he wants to have a relationship with you.” Gesturing outside the gate from where John had just come. “Of course, not everyone is ready to accept that gift. There are people wandering alone in the forest. You’ll never see another out there as it is a place of darkness but you are always welcome here. It is your choice. God will never forsake you.”

Rob Bell is not a universalist, strictly speaking. I think that he is a fairly open Christian inclusivist. Based on Love Wins, no one comes to the father except through Christ does not mean you must be a Christian or a member of a church or even a good person. It means the saving power of Christ’s suffering and death and resurrection is the reason you don’t have to be alone. God loves you so much that he is willing to send his son to die in order that you will be reconciled to him and spend all of eternity in relationship with God in paradise today or when you are open to returning home in humility.

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Is Rob Bell a Universalist?

Posted March 20, 2011 by Jim
Categories: Books, Theology

Tags: , , , ,

Lately there has been a lot of back and forth about Rob Bell‘s new book Love Wins. Much of the negative commentary on the book are hinged on Rob’s theology being universalist. Generally, universalism is the idea that all souls will be reconciled to God. Some believe that means eventually and some believe that means whether you want to be reconciled or not. Either way it is a stark contrast from Christian exclusivism which is the “traditional” “conservative” view and teaches that unless you believe and receive in this life and before your earthly death you will be going to hell. There is another view as well, inclusivism, which has to do with a loophole in salvation theology for those who have never heard the gospel message. (Really, it’s more complicated than that, but this will suffice for now)

Rob Bell and his publicist seem to be skirting the universalist label for some obvious reasons. If it is shown that he does not subscribe to universalism then much of the negative commentary is easily shrugged off. On the other hand, because universalism is largely considered unorthodox even the wide and diverse historical orthodoxy argument won’t do much to dig him out.

Of course, Rob Bell has a very loyal following in Grand Rapids and around the world. That may likely grow with universalists seeking him out. Either way, I doubt he’ll ever hurt for people to contribute financially to his ministry and to buy his books.

More thoughts on Rob and universalism next time. Probably Tuesday or Wednesday.

Love Wins and So Does Rob Bell

Posted March 19, 2011 by Jim
Categories: Books, Theology

Tags: , , , ,

I, for one, have been greatly enjoying the back and forth on the Internet lately on Rob Bell‘s new book, Love Wins. Well, perhaps, ‘enjoying’ is not really the right word. I think it is terrible that people react to rumors and speculation by condemning a respected leader but, I suppose, that is nothing new.

I think that Jimmy Spencer’s recent article is spot on. He says we are, “witnessing something big right now… a new split in Protestant Evangelicalism.” This split will be over the basic tenants of bringing the Kingdom of God to the people of the world. Is it about serving or about warning? If you haven’t yet seen Rob’s NYC interview from the 14th you really should. At the 45 minute mark Rob talks about serving and he comments, “Ultimately, at the heart of the Christian faith is this Jesus who keeps talking about being a servant… not here’s how you get everyone else to think and do things like you…”

This is one of several threads that run through Love Wins. Each of those threads are controversial but none of them are new. Even if you read history books of the early Christian Church you will find these themes discussed. The main difference is that those arguments were often won by the sword and, as much as they may want to, the sword is not an acceptable debate tool in the 21st century world. I couldn’t help but wonder when, on page 183, Rob makes the following point, “We see this destructive shaping alive and well in the toxic, venomous nature of certain discussions and debates on the Internet. For some, the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don’t articulate matters of faith as they do.” It is almost as if he foresaw the hot discussions swirling around the blogosphere in the two weeks between the promotional video release and the swiftly advanced book release date.

Does Love Wins go against orthodoxy? If you subscribe to the hardline conservative American gospel it does, absolutely. Other orthodoxies less so to varying degrees. Ron Martoia recently blogged about Rob’s book and wrote, “is there such a thing as THE orthodox position? And if we think there is just who said so?” There are obviously differing views on how to spread the good news of Jesus to the world and Bell addresses this multiple times throughout Love Wins: “Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.”

For me, though, the biggest chapters are six and seven. Again, like Rob and others have said many times, there is nothing new in these two chapters. That said, Rob is a master wordsmith and there are few writing about God who can say these things as well as Rob Bell. I won’t be sharing the precise statements that I think were huge for me. Partially because I don’t want to skew your own reading and partly because I don’t want to spoil the surprise that is the end of this book.

If you haven’t yet, get a copy of Love Wins and start reading. It is not a long read but it is very good.

Love Wins

Who is Jesus?

Posted November 6, 2009 by Jim
Categories: Personal, Theology

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Who do you believe Jesus is? Is there a right answer? When asked, Peter declares Jesus to be the son of God. Ok, most churches acknowledge that but they are still divided further. I am aware of at least seven different theological ideas of Jesus. Each one has a slightly (or sometimes hugely) different focus on the life and work of Jesus as well as how he saves the world. In America we largely hold the conservative protestant view that Jesus saved through his death on the cross. Other well-established Christian faiths, however, teach that the resurrection alone was the saving work. Some teach that it was Jesus’ incarnation and entry to the physical world that allowed salvation.

Brennan Manning asks, “How would you describe the Christ who is the still point of a turning world for so many people…?” I think that our description constantly changes as we grow and I wonder, if it does not change maybe that is an indication that we are not growing.

Personally, I would love to be able to understand more about how others see and understand Jesus. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how a church can reach out to other denominations within Christendom and, possibly more important, to those of other faiths. How can we reach out, not for the purpose of conversion but to partner as fellow faith-groups to help our community. How powerful could that be?

Spiritual Dashboard

Posted October 23, 2009 by Jim
Categories: Personal, Theology

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I think that most people view sin like the speedometer on their car’s dashboard. They say, “well, I know what I’m doing is wrong but it’s not that bad.” Or, “yeah, it’s pretty bad but not as bad as that guy.” This type of thinking puts us in a couple of awkward positions. One, it has us comparing ourselves to others which is not only unhealthy but it’s also not how God says He sees us. God doesn’t grade on the curve. He tells us not to compare ourselves to one another but to God’s law (Which is not meant to be even attainable but to show us how many bad choices we make… But that’s another post).

Second, this speedometer view of sin is malformed. The spiritual sin-o-meter is not a gauge like a speedometer it’s an indicator light like your check engine light. For that matter, as long as you’re accepting of God’s free gift of forgiveness, it’s not even a measure of transgressions but, rather, an indicator that you’ve gone off track somewhere. It’s a sign that you need to reevaluate your decisions.

Forming and cultivating a relationship with God does not mean that our sin is jettisoned. Our sin is always present in us because as long as we have that human nature we will all have a bit of evil desire in us. Thankfully, as Jesuit Bernard Bush notes, “God does not condone or sanction evil, but he does not withhold his love because there is evil in us.”

Remember to check those indicators frequently. If you find the check engine light on you need to investigate why and make those corrections or, at the risk of extending the metaphor too far, you may just have a breakdown.

Turning to Face Yourself

Posted September 28, 2009 by Jim
Categories: Uncategorized

Not everyone may have a dramatically memorable event as I have but I believe that there comes a time in every person’s life when they realize that their actions impact other people. I don’t remember how old I was when this happened to me but I remember the events like it all happened yesterday. I was at the local mall with my mom shopping for Christmas presents. I wandered into the book store and found something that I really wanted – for myself. She was out of the store so I seized the opportunity and bought it. Of course, I then couldn’t avoid her seeing the bag but I also couldn’t show her what I had bought or she would know it was for no one but me. She was right there so I had to think quickly, in a flash I had a brilliant idea. Who is that for? “I bought a Christmas present for you, mom.” It was perfect, it wasn’t for me and I couldn’t show her because it was a surprise!

When Christmas morning finally arrived I had completely forgotten about the gift. We opened present after present until there was nothing under the tree. I was asked about another gift, a special gift I had gotten on my own for my mom. I don’t even remember how I responded but I do remember the pain I caused her and how absolutely terrible that felt. So terrible in fact that I have never forgotten exactly how I felt.

I believe judgment in front of God will be much like this story. How terrible it will be to stand with God and face the truth of all the poor decisions and selfish actions you committed in your life. To see God pained and disappointed as these things are reviewed.

How unimaginable it will be to have you face yourself with God.

So what happened that Christmas morning after we left the tree? Was I spanked or grounded? Did I face a lecture about how to treat other people? No. My parents did none of it. Truthfully, they could not have done anything that would have made me feel worse or to understand any more how serious my actions were. I suspect that God will do much the same. I am not sure that eternal fire would be as bad as having to see how much you let God down.

The Rich Man & Lazarus

Posted September 12, 2009 by Jim
Categories: Uncategorized

This post is the first follow-up to Heaven, Hell, & How to Get There. If you have not read it yet, I suggest checking it out so you know where I am going next…

I think most are at least passingly familiar with the story told in the latter half of Luke, Chapter 16. It may be the most in-depth description anywhere in the Bible of what happens after we die, or so it would seem. Jesus could very easily have used this sort of example again and again in his teaching but he didn’t. Why? I suspect that God’s punishment is something that a human could never fully comprehend the horror of.  Because of that I think that Jesus uses examples which will scare the crap out of his human audience.

What do I think this horror of punishment is? Well, I don’t want to give everything away at once. That’ll be my next post…