Friday, March 18, 2011

The Unprofessional Book Review: Love Wins by Rob Bell (Part 1 of 3)


Several years ago, when Josh and I attended Grand Canyon University together, we had a professor who identified himself to us as an open theist. One day, just because we really wanted to learn and understand, we sat down and asked him questions. We didn't grill him, and we didn't berate him. We were listening. The number one question I recall us asking was, "It seems like your whole system makes nonsense out of God's wrath and anger at human sin. How do you understand what Jesus was doing for us at the cross?" His answer was something nebulous to the effect that Jesus loosed the bonds of death so that we can rise up above our present and no longer stand condemned by our sin. See, in our professor's system, it is not God who condemns the guilty - it is our condition of human sickness, which we must be cured of.

I offer that segue because I believe at the core of my own vitriolic disagreements with what Rob Bell is doing in this book is a profoundly different view of the cosmos. In his blurb for the book found on the Love Wins dust jacket, Eugene Peterson (the guy who wrote The Message) says this: " isn't easy to develop a thoroughly biblical imagination that takes in the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ...Love Wins accomplishes this without a trace of soft sentimentality and without copromising an inch of evangelical conviction..." If Eugene Peterson is right, if Richard Mouw is right that Bell is square in the center of evangelicalism, then without a shred of dramatis, I just want to say that I will never refer to myself as an evangelical again (I'm Reformed).

If I were to write a book on heaven and hell, I know where I would start. I would start with the holiness of God. I would start with the sinfulness of man. I would speak about divine justice and the fitness and beauty of God and the rightness of his defending his own glory and honor. In other words, I would start with sin. Unfortunately, the first appearance of sin that I could find in this book was on page 72, paragraph 4. (I nearly read this book in one sitting, so when I saw the word "sin" in the book for the first time, I sat up and noted it in the margin.) However, the pages where he does talk about sin, it is always seen as an action that people do to each other... the dictator who commits genocide (70)... the child who was molested (72)... the man who cheats on his wife (73)... the woman who was raped (71)... the man who modified his will to cause the maximum hurt to his family during the funeral (72)... and on and on. Never, not once is sin seen as something which we do in the face of a holy God. Not once. Here's an example: "Same with the word 'anger.' When we hear people saying they can't believe in a God who gets angry - yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply..." (38) and it goes on. God's anger is about our horizontal treatment of others, not about an affront to His holiness.

To my mind, this is unconscionable (I may use that word a couple of times in this review). It is essential to understanding the thing which separates us from God. Sin is not a substance that is stuck to us and needs to be removed. It is something we do as we slap God in the face and tell him he is mistaken about his importance in the universe. As long as Bell avoids the subject of sin against God, he is able to successfully caricature those who believe in an eternal, unending meanie hell without second chances. And caricature, he does:
  • "So when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will 'get into heaven,' that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club" (178).
  • "...the toxic notion that God is a slave driver" (180). [He uses the "slave driver" phrase a lot.]
As far as I'm concerned, the heart of the book is actually at the end. Starting on page 182, Bell talks about the theological view that really gets him going.
Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus paid the price for our sins, and so we can have eternal life...[what this does is] teach people that Jesus rescues us from God (182).
Finally, we're getting to what Bell considers to be a true sin. Here's how Michael Horton puts it, just so you can see that Bell is not playing with cartoons at this point in the book:
Although Jesus freely gave his life up to the Father as a sacrifice that he was not forced to give, it was a death penalty that God executed as the just judge of the universe. Turning his eyes from the mutilated body of his Son, now carrying the sins of us all, the Father abandoned Jesus Christ so that he would never have to abandon us in our deepest trial or most heinous sin. God saved us from himself in order to save us for himself forever.
-Michael Horton, "Saved From God," Modern Reformation, March/April 1996
Want to know what Bell really thinks of a God who hates and punishes sin?
Lets be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction...Inquisitions, persecutions, trials, book burnings, blacklistings - when religious people become violent, it is because they have been shaped by their God, who is violent (182-183).
So in Bell's view, the conflict in the universe is not a personal conflict. It is not man vs. God - it is man vs. impersonal forces. Yes, Mr. Bell. I can make caricatures of my own, as well.

But on to the paragraph that I noted in the margin as the worst part of the entire book, for me (and we're not even to the universalism part!):
The violent God creates profound worry in people. Tension. Stress. This God is supposed to bring peace, that's how the pitch goes, but in the end this God can easily produce followers who are paralyzed and catatonic, full of fear. Whatever you do, don't step out of line or give this God any reason to be displeased, because who knows what will be unleashed (184).
Many times, he confuses the Anselmian view of the atonement with legalism. He speaks with such distain for a God whose eyes are too pure to look on sin, and yet he somehow thinks that the result of teaching about God's anger at sin will be legalism.
That God is angry, demanding, a slave drive, and so that God's religion becomes a system of sin management, constantly working and angling to avoid what surely must be the coming wrath that lurks behind every corner, thought, and sin (183).
From that point on in the book, he lectures on the dangers of legalism and how Jesus came so we wouldn't have to live in legalism any more. Talk about straw man! So for the rest of the book (which I grant is only about ten more pages at that point) it's Bell vs. Legalism. Guess who will win in that contest! There is no serious attempt to interact with the Reformed tradition and its view of grace, justification, or salvation in general. It is all cartoons.

From here, we can see that if God is not angry at sin as sin, but rather at sin as wrongs against others, then it is much easier to make sense of his doctrines of heaven and hell. I want to briefly say that his view of heaven is much like N.T. Wright's view as expressed in his book Simply Christian. I have interacted with his (in my opinion) odd view of Heaven elsewhere. I will summarize Bell's view of heaven by quoting him:
There's heaven now, somewhere else.
There's heaven here, sometime else.
And then there's Jesus' invitation to heaven
in this moment,
in this place.
[At only 190 pages, this book really did need the awkwardly placed line breaks, otherwise it would have been 30 pages total, single spaced. This explains how I was able to finish reading it while scribbling sarcastic, angry notes in the margins, all in a total of four hours or so.]

There's somewhat of a parallel between heaven and hell, for Bell. Just as heaven is about the here and now, just as much as it is about the "age to come," so is hell. At one point, after talking the little boy who lost his arms and legs to a cruel dictator he decides to clear things up for those who think he denies that hell exists:
Do I believe in a literal hell?
Of course.
Those aren't metaphorical arms and legs.
I can't tell if he thinks he's hilarious, or if he believes he has made the greatest point in all mankind. In either case, the quote itself should be enough to show you that he sees hell as something we create - something that happens in us. This is also true of his view of the afterlife hell. I see a tremendous amount of influence on Bell from C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce - a book which is as lovely as it is confusing.
From the most subtle rolling of the eyes to the most violent degradation of another human, we are terrifyingly free to do as we please.
God gives us what we want, and if that's hell, we can have it.
We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free (72).
Tomorrow: We'll get to the question of whether Bell is a universalist in Part 2.

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