Rob Bell, Love Wins 4

Chapter 1 of the book is entitled ‘What about the flat tire? [sic...]‘ It is an example of the  questioning methodology recommended in the preface: for twenty pages, Bell offers a stream-of-consciousness meander around questions concerning the accounts of how salvation is achieved, and what that says about God. The purpose of the chapter is unstated, and (to me) unclear; is Bell wanting to validate the questions he imagines his readers might come to the book with? Or is he wanting to disturb the reader who believes that she has all this sorted out on the basis of what she has learned of the historic Christian tradition? (Or perhaps both?)

The first is a noble purpose: it is a service to your readers (or hearers) to say to them ‘it’s OK, you’re allowed to wonder that. It’s not a dumb question, it doesn’t mean you’re not saved – stick with me and we’ll see if we can find some answers together.’ But you have to make good on the promise, discuss the issues you’ve allowed them to formulate clearly and obviously. To say ‘great question – that’s a real problem, isn’t it?’ and then not to offer any further reflection by way of answer is no help to anyone. I suppose in doing this my approach would be more analytic than Bell’s; I’d want to tabulate the questions raised, say ‘we’re going to discuss these in chapter 2, these in chapter 4, and so on.’ The point of this would be to make sure that the questions were followed up on and (just as important) that the reader could find her way to where they were followed up on. My concern with Bell’s more discursive approach is that, on several issues, having invited the question, he offers nothing further in the book. This is simply unkind to a reader.

The second purpose can also be appropriate. If the assumed orthodoxy is in fact wrong (and there is some of this in the chapter – see next post), then it needs to be gently and lovingly deconstructed and remade. Even if it is right, faith should be encouraged to think, and there are times when an unreflective acceptance of this or that should be challenged. If God’s people are to be effective in displaying and declaring the good news of Jesus to the world, they need to be able to give reasons for the hope they have within them. All that said, the wise pastor is careful in introducing questions people have not yet asked. Being ready to help them to explore more deeply is one thing; introducing them to problems they had never imagined and might not be able to cope with is another.

The chapter begins with the tale of a Gandhi quotation in an art show in church that became famous through the promotional video. A written comment (anonymous – aren’t they always?) asserts that Gandhi is in hell. Bell queries the certainty of the comment; are we so sure that only a ‘select number’ will ‘make it to a better place’? (2). What kind of God would make that the deal? A similar story follows, about a teenager, a self-declared atheist, dying in  a car accident, prompting the comment ‘So there’s no hope then.’ Bell asks ‘No hope? Is that the Christian message?’ (3). (I’ll say more about this in the next post.)

These two stories prompt him to articulate a series of questions about access to salvation. Who has hope, and why? He mocks, quite unpleasantly, the idea of an ‘age of accountability’ (p. 4; I don’t know I’ve ever met anyone who believed in an age of accountability; but maybe in the USA some do?), and wonders about what gets you to be a part of the ‘in-crowd’: luck, or upbringing, or baptism, or church membership? If, as some claim, it is saying a sinner’s prayer, then what about those who said it and didn’t understand it, or no longer believe it?

All of this strikes me as profoundly unhelpful. Processes of Christian initiation are well-defined in all major Christian traditions, typically including (in some order) repentance of sin and personal profession of faith, catechesis, baptism, reception into church membership, ongoing sacramental participation, and continued practices of discipleship. Whilst there is a hypothetical question sometimes raised about the eternal destiny of someone whose participation in this process of initiation is incomplete or in some way imperfect, the question is usually left unanswered, with an appeal to the mercy and righteousness of God, and our inability to second-guess that. If Bell has a question about the appropriateness of a well-ordered account like this, then he should specify it with exactness; if his point is merely that there are a variety of untenable popular speculations about the ‘soteriological minimum,’ then indicating that these speculations are not serious but merely ill-informed is necessary for a responsible treatment.

Bell’s next move introduces a recurrent theme of the book. Is salvation merely about ‘going somewhere else’? (6); if so, does that make you careless of what goes on here? Bell says:

If this understanding of the good news of Jesus prevailed among Christians, the belief that Jesus’s message is about how to get somewhere else, you could possibly end up with a world in which millions of people were starving, thirsty, and poor; the earth was being exploited and polluted; disease and despair were everywhere; and Christians weren’t known for doing much about it… (6-7, emphasis original)

Ouch. (Although I want to ask how true the caricature is. Evangelical Christians in Britain aren’t ‘known for doing much about it,’ but every bit of hard data I have seen suggests that we spend far more time volunteering, and give far more money to aid/development charities than any other section of the population. We’re not too bad on creation care, either. Of course, we could – and should – do much, much more, but the public perception is badly skewed when compared to the actual data. Perhaps being ‘known for doing’ is less the issue than actually doing.)

Then Bell suggests the right answer to questions of eternal destiny is ‘how you respond to Jesus,’ and he agrees wholeheartedly with this (7), but immediately raises more questions – there are many false presentations of Jesus out there; perhaps someone who has rejected Jesus has rejected a false Jesus? (7-9) So we need active and informed evangelists who will tell people about the true Jesus (9). But – the chapter title – what if the evangelist gets a flat tyre? Does that contingent event damn others to hell? What kind of God would arrange a world like that?

Bell then turns to grace: if Christianity is a religion of grace, not works, he asks, how is it that we say you have to accept, believe, confess? (11). Again, this seems to me unhelpful. There is a stable and settled answer (well, there are two, actually, one Calvinist, one Arminian) to the question of how salvation by faith relates to a denial of works righteousness. If Bell thinks he has seen a hole in these standard arguments, then let’s have it, set out clearly against the best representative of the tradition. If not, why raise the question, particularly as he never pauses to point to the standard answers?

Bell then turns to a long string of Biblical citations, each of which, on a naive reading, seems to suggest that salvation comes from a different source. Mt 6 (the Lord’s prayer) suggests our being forgiven is contingent on our being forgiving; Mk 2 (the paralysed man lowered through the roof) suggests forgiveness of sins is contingent on the faith of friends; 1 Cor. 7 suggests a believing wife will save her unbelieving husband. Bell has many other examples. I simply don’t understand his point here: is he wanting to say that one or another, or the whole collection, of these texts is not consonant with the doctrine of salvation by faith alone? In which case extensive Biblical exegesis, exploring and disproving the readings that are routinely offered in commentaries, would be necessary to even make the point plausible enough to pause over and consider (to carry it one would have to show that the settled position that the broad witness of Scripture is to salvation sola fide is based on misreadings of texts; a extensive wander through the more radical ends of the New Perspective, perhaps). Perhaps he is simply wanting to destabilise, to shake his readers’ certainty enough that they are ready to consider alternative and radical proposals. But he is not going to offer anything alternative and radical about the nature of salvation, as far as I can see; his most radical proposal is on hell (see several posts down…), and being convinced that I have thought wrongly about salvation should not, logically, prepare me to question my ideas about hell.

There’s a nice line at the end of the chapter, that suggests that destablisation has been the main point all along. Bell points out that in the gospels most people are pretty confused about Jesus, except the demons, who know exactly who He is. Undoubtedly true, and a nice pause for thought. (The answer, of course, is that we lacked the categories the know who Jesus is prior to His passion and resurrection; after those events, and after receiving the gift of the Spirit, there is not much evidence of uncertainty and confusion about who Jesus is in the NT church…)

The whole chapter is concerned with asking questions The argument that the questions are designed to make the reader follow appears to go something like this: if it is true that only certain people make it to heaven, then it is vitally important to know what the conditions for making it are. But there is some confusion about the conditions, and anyway, they seem in many ways to be rather random (the flat tyre…). If all this uncertainty and contingency is really the reality, then it seems that God is arbitrary, capricious, and somewhat small-minded. There’s a problem here, which the rest of the book will deal with.

OK, agreed; but along the way some of the questions have been misdirected, encouraging the reader to question the wrong things. Others have been irresponsible, in that they admit of good and non-controversial answers from the theological tradition. It is as if Bell got carried away in a rush of Cartesian doubt, questioning everything and anything. The result is that his core point is obscured.

This is a great shame, because his core point is a good one.

10 Comments

  1. Adam Nigh
    Mar 21, 2011

    Great post, Steve. Thanks. I can attest that many in the USA, particularly among those who have an Arminian understanding of election, believe in an age of accountability. I was taught it as God’s truth in a conservative Baptist Sunday school growing up.

    Also, it is spelled “tire” in the US :)

    • Steve H
      Mar 21, 2011

      Hi Adam, thanks for stopping by.

      Come the eschaton, it will be spelt ‘tyre’. And ‘spelt’ will be spelt ‘spelt’.

      • Rachel
        Mar 21, 2011

        OK, as long as the bread of heaven is not made from spelled flour.
        Great series, by the way, Steve. I’m struck by the ‘Christians are not known for doing much about…’ comment, to which your response has the ring of truth; Mt 6:1 springs to mind!

  2. Dave Ahl
    Mar 22, 2011

    Universal Salvation is NOT a new idea. Everyone seems to be commenting on this like it’s brand new but it’s been a major controversy in the Christian Church since its earliest days. Around 215 in Alexander, Origen argued that since the first fall (of Adam) was universal, so all, including Satan himself, have the chance to work back towards God’s original purpose. All will be saved, since all come from God. Although the Church in both East and West turned its back on Origen’s vision of a universal salvation (universalism), that was hardly the end of it. Evagrius Ponticus (435-499), a leading monk in the Nile Delta, who influenced generations of monks to come, echoed Origen’s universalism and repeatedly asserted that even those suffering in Hell kept those imperishable seeds of virtue. No wonder that his Church decided he was dangerous. But the idea lived on. Isaac, a seventh century monk from Qatar who was briefly the Bishop of Nineveh, took up the notion of Origen and Evagrius that in the end all will be saved. He wrote, “It is not [the way of] the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction.”
    While the Catholic Church rejected the idea of universalism, it did have a certain comforting appeal and, in fact, was reborn around 950 as the idea of a middle state between heaven and hell called Purgatory, a concept found nowhere in any Bible. As MacCulloch says in his monumental book, Christianity: The First 3,000 Years, “Few people can regard their drearily unspectacular sins as justifying hellfire, but most would agree with the Alexandrians that life on earth provides hardly enough time to remedy even those sins and enter Heaven without further purgation. Penance could be done in this middle-state, which was time-limited, and which moreover had only one exit, not to Hell but to Paradise.”
    Universalism without Purgatory continued to be put forth over the centuries so it should be no surprise that a populist preacher raises it again today. Yes, Bell says, “Love Wins” is not universalism per se, but I’m reminded that “a rose by any other name…” The big question in my mind is: How do you deal with it? The answer: Read and study the Bible.
    –Dave Ahl, http://www.BibleStudyMen.com

    • Steve H
      Mar 25, 2011

      Welcome Dave. Umm, who are the ‘everyone’ who are assuming universalism is new? I’ve not spotted that error anywhere that I recall. And as I’ve said, as far as I can see Bell is not teaching universalism.

  3. C. Ehrlich
    Mar 24, 2011

    The evangelical Christian who expects satisfying answers to all of these questions about hell is not being realistic. Rather than attempt to meet unrealistic expectations, perhaps Bell serves his flock better simply by witnessing to the fact that one can maintain the faith in the face of all these questions. I suppose that Bell’s “rush of Cartesian doubt” effectively demonstrates to many readers that he acknowledges questions that are at least as disconcerting as any of those that have bothered the reader.

    Speaking for myself, I think that my own faith might be subverted less by the difficult questions than by the idea that my teachers and spiritual leaders are self-consciously employing great caution in airing their own questions and puzzlements about the things they profess.

  4. Logan Runnalls
    Mar 26, 2011

    May I stumble into this conversation at this point? I hope my strange ways will not unduly step on anyone. If they do I assure you it is because I am still a clumsy a beginner and I ask a forbearance.

    Ehlrich, I am confused by your last sentence in this comment stream. Why would it be troubling to know that our spiritual leaders exercise care and caution when expressing their doubts and theological questions? I am not confident that merely muddying the waters is the appropriate response to the presentation of a stagnant certainty. So, I appreciate John Donne’s “Devotions” not because I am assured that someone respectable has doubted as I have but because he diligentially and carefully models a way through doubt into confident intimacy.
    It truly is a severe critique that a teacher and pastor would carelessly raise questions concerning our faith.

    In peace

  5. C. Ehrlich
    Mar 27, 2011

    Logan Runnalls, the “great caution” I have in mind is not that of the careful articulation and organization of one’s questions and doubts. (I greatly appreciate the carefulness with which you pose and explain your own questions here!) What I rather have in mind is the teacher who studiously avoids conceding the questions or doubts she has about the doctrines she professes. Or, if she does mention these questions, she tends to raise them only in such a way as to have them dismissed, or to have their force diminished (perhaps in an attempt to inoculate her students against them). And while I entirely understand the need to avoid confusing students (I’m thinking here of the incompetent grade-school math teacher who ought simply to teach the textbook rather than use the classroom time to pursue his own doubts and puzzlement), what would bother me is the deliberate concealment – for the purpose of more easily maintaining confidence or certainty – of the apparent problems and weaknesses of one’s doctrines, particularly where these might give reasonably well-informed and intelligent people room to reasonably disagree or doubt.

    • Logan Runnalls
      Mar 29, 2011

      Thank you for your clarification Ehlrich.

      peace

  6. Matthew Lamberts
    Mar 29, 2011

    Why do you insist that Bell be so ‘tidy’ and clean up his writing to be focused on a single point? I suppose a person shouldn’t just say whatever he feels like saying… or should he? You suggest that Bell should have been more focused. Maybe seeming rabbit trails and questions that aren’t answered is what encourages people to become seekers and to give theology more thought.

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