Rob Bell’s Love Wins, or possibly Karl Barth for the masses (Part 1)

In the last post, I mentioned that, in many ways, Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins is, in some sense, a repainting of major elements of Karl Barth’s theology for a much wider and more accessible audience. As a recap, Barth essentially overturned the Augustinian and Calvinist doctrines of Election by applying the doctrine not primarily to humanity as a whole, but specifically to Jesus Christ. God Elects Jesus Christ, saying both “No” and “Yes”, and through Jesus extending that “No” and “Yes” to all of humanity. Further, I claimed that Barth essentially “calls the bluff” of the Calvinist doctrine of Limited Atonement by saying, “Are you so sure Christ doesn’t save everyone? What if he did succeed in saving everybody? Would that be such a bad thing?”

We don’t have to get farther than the first page to see Bell also questioning this “bluff”:

Ghandi’s in hell?
He is?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without a doubt?
And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting us know?

Much of the first chapter of the book, in fact, is Bell, in his typically artistic style, showing just how much the Calvinist doctrine of Election really does look like Bad News, at least for the vast majority of people who’ve ever lived. Bell covers such a wide range of objections to the typical notion that “a few people go to heaven while the majority of ‘unsaved’ go to hell” that it’s not possible to cover them all without rewriting his chapter. A few of the highlights he mentions, though:

  • “[W]henever people claim that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed – and everybody else isn’t – why is it that those who make this claim are almost always part of the group that’s ‘in’? Have you ever heard people make claims about a select few being the chosen and then claim that they’re not part of that group?”
  • If there is such a thing as an “age of accountability”, and we could guarantee everyone ended up in heaven by prematurely terminating every life before, say, the age of 12, wouldn’t that be the best thing to do? After all, why run the risk?
  • If the message of the Gospel is primarily about going somewhere else (heaven) after you die, then it doesn’t really seem to have anything to say about this present life. “Is that the best God can do?”
  • If justification is all that matters, Christian’s “wouldn’t have much motivation to do anything about the present suffering of the world, because [they] would believe [they] were going to leave someday and go somewhere else to be with Jesus.
  • The “Jesus” that most people encounter may not be a terribly accurate picture – for instance the Christian caricatures that are portrayed in the media depicting Jesus as “antiscience, antigay, standing out on the sidewalk with his bullhorn, telling people that they’re going to burn forever”. In Bell’s words, “Often times when I meet atheists and we talk about the god they don’t believe in, we quickly discover that I don’t believe in that god either.”
  • Looking back at my previous post, “What happens if the missionary gets a flat tire?” Bell: “So is it not only that a person has to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do – but also that someone else has to act, teach, travel, organize, fund-raise, and build so that the person can know what to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do?
  • We talk a lot about a “personal relationship” with Jesus. However, as Bell points out, the phrase “personal relationship” is found literally nowhere in the Bible.

Summing up part of his first chapter, Bell writes:

If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him – a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds – and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren’t those verbs?

And aren’t verbs actions?

Accepting, confessing, believing – those are things we do.

Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do?

How is any of that grace?
How is that a gift?
How is that good news?

In this passage, and many others, Bell further echoes a major tenet of Barth’s theology: that theology fundamentally begins with God, not with humanity. Our discussions about Heaven and Hell almost always revolve around us, which seems to sort of miss the point..

Bell spends an entire chapter (Chapter 4) revolving around the question “Does God get what God wants?”. As a basis for this question, Bell in effect uses an old objection from theodicy: if God is all powerful, and God really does want all people to be saved, “Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?” As I’ve already noted, Bell is going to suggest, along with Barth, the possibility that God does not fail in the end, but doesn’t necessarily get what he wants either. Because this is, in my opinion, the fulcrum of the entire book, I want to spend the rest of this post talking about how I read Bell’s argument progressing, complete with multiple quotes.

Bell begins by painting two rival views around this problem. The first view is that, in effect, for love to be authentic, there must exist the possibility that it is rejected. Because we only have one life to live, we have a choice to make whether to accept or reject God’s love, and then the game is up. If God, at any point co-opts our decision, then he has fundamentally violated the nature of what love even is. On the other hand, theologians in times past (including Martin Luther himself) have questioned whether there is a possibility that people could turn to God after death. If we get another chance after we die, why not limit it to a single chance – why not let it run on as long as it takes in a sort of Christian re-incarnation type of way (though not necessarily on this earth)? The idea here is that eventually, the love of God would “melt every hard heart” and even the “vilest offenders” would at last turn to God. Bell doesn’t really like either of these positions at face value. But before he goes further, he makes two observations that I think are critical in the larger picture of what is going on with this book. Bear with my extended quote:

First, an obvious but unfortunately much needed observation: People have answered these questions about who goes where, when, why, and how in a number of different ways. Or, to be more specific, serious, orthodox followers of Jesus have answered these questions in a number of different ways. Or, to say it another way, however you answer these questions, there’s a good chance you can find a Christian or group of Christians somewhere who would answer in a similar way.

It is, after all, a wide stream we’re swimming in.

Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because the parts about “hell and torment and all that.” Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will “go to heaven” when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it. One place or another, no looking back, no chance for a change of heart, make your bed now and lie in it… forever.

Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives.

Second, it’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.

In contrast, everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story. It is a bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspring than any other story about the ultimate course history takes.

Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it. We can be honest about the warped nature of the  human heart, the freedom that love requires, and the destructive choices people make, and still envision God’s love to be bigger, stronger, and more compelling than all of that put together. To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.

Two comments on Bell’s observations. First, I think he is spot on with his commentary on the “bundling” that often occurs in post-Reformation Christianity. Specifically, as Christianity has become more “belief centric”, the specific nature and correctness of these beliefs has become increasingly important. After all, believing the wrong things may condemn you to hell. Best, then, to make sure you believe correctly, which for many has involved bundling all sorts of things into what it means to “be a Christian”. As I’ve posted many times, I do believe there are things which are properly “Orthodox”, but on this one I actually line up on Bell’s side – this is something we can have honest disagreements about (and some of us can be wrong about) without stepping over boundaries. This is not to say those beliefs don’t have consequences – Bell himself is adamant about this – but rather to say we can honestly disagree on this point and still call ourselves Christians. Obviously from the reaction to this book, that is not a universal opinion.

Second, Bell very effectively calls us to think about what the “best of all possible worlds” would be, and basically asks, “Do you think God can do that?” Whether or not we think God will do that is beside the point in this discussion – what is at issue is what we hope he will do. Like Abraham pleading on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, Bell reminds us that righteous people hope for the best outcome – the story where everyone does get saved, regardless of what the actual, eventual outcome will be. And importantly, they don’t do this in an insincere way, saying, “Oh, of course it would be great if that happened, but obviously it isn’t going to.” Abraham takes up the case of the wicked before God, trying in essence to bargain with him – a notion that seems foreign to the way most Christian communities relate to the “lost”.

Bell spends a few pages painting some beautiful images of “a new heaven and a new earth”, “a city whose gates are never shut”, and a time when God announces “I am making everything new.” I won’t attempt a stick figure drawing of them – you really need to read them for yourself. However, Bell returns to the original question (“Does God get what God wants?”) in what is one of the more poignant passages in the book. But before that he makes a four line statement we all would do well to remember:

Will everybody be saved,
or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices?

Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.

This simple statement is the largest piece missing in most reviews of the book, arguments against the book, and defenses of the book. The acknowledgement that these tensions exist, that we cannot resolve them, and that we must respect them is critical for this discussion to turn out in any sort of positive way.

I think it seems fitting to end this post with the ending to Chapter 4, because it ties so many themes together, and succeeds by changing the question altogether:

[T]here’s a better question, one we can answer, one that takes all of this speculation about the future, which no one has been to and then returned with hard, empirical evidence, and brings it back to one absolute we can depend on in the midst of all of this, which turns out to be another question.

It’s not “Does God get what God wants?”
“Do we get what we want?”

And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure, and positive yes.
Yes, we get what we want.

God is that loving.

If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option. If we insist on using our God-given power and strength to make the world in our own image, God allows us that freedom; we have the kind of license to do that. If we want nothing to do with light, hope, love, grace, peace, God respects that desire on our part, and we are given a life free from any of those realities. The more we want nothing to do with all God is, the more distance and space are created. If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love.

If, however, we crave light,
we’re drawn to truth,
we’re desperate for grace,
we’ve come to the end of our plots and schemes
and we want someone else’s path,
God gives us what we want.

If we have this sense
that we’ve wandered far from home,
and we want to return,
God is there,
standing in the driveway,
arms open,
ready to invite us in.

If we thirst for shalom,
and we long for the peace that transcends all understanding,
God just doesn’t give,
they’re poured out on us,
until we’re overwhelmed.
It’s like a feast where the food and wine do not run out.

And to that,
that impulse, craving, yearning, longing, desire –
God says yes.
Yes, there is water for that thirst,
food for that hunger,
light for that darkness,
relief for that burden.

If we want hell,
if we want heaven,
they are ours.

That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced.

It always leaves room for the other to decide

God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins.

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