Can a book have value, even though most people reading it don’t agree with its philosophy or conclusions?
Can a book have value, even if the writer is flawed in his writing skill, his debating skills and his rhetorical approach?
When people read books they don’t agree with, they react in several ways. First, they don’t recommend that others read the book. Second, they find as many people as possible who also don’t agree with the book and trash it. Third, they refuse to see any value in the individual parts because they reject the book as a whole. This is a dangerous thing to do with books. The most insidious viewpoint to hold onto is one you will never challenge or allow others to challenge. That implies you are not willing to be wrong or to be shown how you are wrong. The greatest false beliefs are those which go unchallenged for a long time. Truth can always withstand the scrutiny of examination. That’s why the Bible has been around for so long.
Rob Bell is a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is claimed by others, but not by Mr. Bell, that he is part of two movements within Christianity: the Postmodern and the Emerging Church movements. I cannot confirm or deny either of those claims. He has written a book called “Love Wins”, which has been challenged and vilified in many places on the Internet. The book is an examination of the belief in Hell, and in God’s punishment for sin. Here is a good place to start with a critical evaluation of it. Here is a much longer – perhaps more thorough – examination of the book. I expect there will be thousands of such book reviews coming. The book was marketed in a controversial way (as you can see here) and as such was already condemned even before it was published.
I’ll be clear. There is much I don’t like about the book myself. But I will leave the critical examination to others. I want to be that ‘other’ voice in this sea of opinion. I want to list what I believe are the best parts about this book. I do this so that even those who disagree with Rob Bell will stop for just a moment and consider that God may have prompted him to write it. I don’t mean it is inspired or even full of truth. But God can still nudge along someone to write something, even if that person is not completely accurate. Who of us are?
The Most Valuable Parts of the Book, “Love Wins”
1. He asks great questions. He asks the kind of questions that church leaders hope non-believers never ask. These are thoughtful, direct and well-crafted questions. They are designed to attack the doctrines of hell and God’s wrath in such a way that we have to start from scratch in deciding why we believe the things we do. Here are some examples of the hundreds of questions he asks:
- Why does God tell us we have to forgive everyone, including our enemies, and then He doesn’t do the same with sinners going to hell?
- Does God punish people for infinite amount of years with eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?
- How does a person end up being part of the lucky few who don’t go to hell? Chance? Luck? Random Selection? Being born in the right place at the right time in history in the right family, speaking the right language?
- Is there no hope for someone who dies and is not a believer?
- What is the age of accountability? What happens if a person dies a day before that age? Does he go to heaven? What happens if he dies the day after that age? Does he go to hell?
- What EXACT prayer does one have to pray to get into heaven? What if we get the wording wrong? What about people who have prayed some version of the prayer? Or any prayer? Do they get in for making an effort to talk to God?
- Is Hell the best God can do with the unbelievers?
- So does the kind of person you are not really matter as long as you have prayed the right prayer or believed the right things?
- Can a good person who doesn’t pray the prayer and a bad person who keeps doing bad things after the prayer go to heaven and hell respectively?
- Do we have to care about this world if it’s just going to be destroyed anyway?
- What if the only person who ever shared Jesus with you was the man who beat you up every day and then sang hymns while he did it? Do you get to escape hell because the example of a believer was so bad?
- Can you do anything to receive God’s grace? If you have to believe, is it really grace?
- What about the guy whose sins were forgiven because of the faith of his friends who let him down through the roof with a rope? Does the faith of someone who knows you count? If it doesn’t, why did Jesus tell him his sins were forgiven?
2. He Doesn’t Believe Hell is a Single Issue: For instance, there is no doubt that Rob Bell believes in hell. He says it three times in the book that he believes there is a hell. But then he separates the issue. His questions (and perhaps his own struggles) relate to issues like “Who will go to hell” and “how long will hell last?” and “Will God ever give those in hell another chance?” For a long time in the Christian Church, these issues were all wrapped together in one package and we were told that if we mess with one part of the package it spoils the whole lot. But some of the current beliefs in the evangelical church about hell owe more to teachings in Dante’s “Inferno” than the Bible. Bell makes the case that these ideas need to be discussed and challenged.
3. He Shows us the Value of Dialogue alongside Systematic Theology: Modernists are those who like to have neat and tidy categories for everything. Postmoderns believe that it is always premature to decide on what truth really is until we have all the facts. Since we are never sure we have all the facts, we need to be careful about being overly dogmatic. In this book, his stated intention is to throw open the discussion on hell, heaven and divine punishment so that all the implications and questions can be asked and the answers dissected for accuracy. Most modernists like to have their beliefs wrapped up and decided upon so they are not open to challenge. Debate perhaps, but not challenged. It used to be that several doctrines were considering too sacrosanct to ever question. The doctrine of Atonement (the belief about what happened on the cross to our sin and how it affects us now); the doctrine of the Bible (i.e. whether it is God’s Word or man’s invention); The doctrine of the Trinity (a belief that God is one being in three persons) and the doctrine of the church (i.e. its legitimacy and form). If one questioned or differed on these doctrines, then they could be dismissed as wrong and heretical. Added to that list is the doctrine of Hell. Without a proper understanding of hell, the atonement, the trinity, the church and the Bible, one is considered outside the barriers of good theology. But if you study church history, you’ll come to realize that all these doctrines were debated in their day and survived. The earliest was the Trinity. Then came Atonement. Then the Church (it’s still being debated), and then the Bible. The only one that has not been seriously discussed by the most conservative elements of the church is Hell. Why? It is strongly believed if there is any softening of the position on hell, it will destroy the last reason we do evangelism. After all, if there is no hell, then why witness to someone? Yet, witnessing to people has almost become extinct in today’s church. Few individuals do any evangelism and we still maintain a conservative view on hell. So perhaps Rob Bell’s book will foster enough reaction so his questions will not be swept under the carpet.
4. The discussion on the word “Eternal”. Bell focuses much of his thesis about hell on the interpretation of one word: aion. It is the word often (though not always) interpreted “eternal”. In John 3:16 when it says those who believe in him will “not perish, but have eternal life”, the Greek word there for eternal is aion. Even though I think he does a less than acceptable job interpreting this word, he does right to question our understanding of it. The primary meaning is not “forever”. It does mean eternal, but not in the sense of time. More in the sense of permanency. Eternal life is also a quality of life and not just a reference point in time. God has eternal life with him and not just in the sense that he is eternal. We can never be eternal like God since we have a beginning point. So, I applaud Rob Bell for bringing this word to our attention. I await better scholars and more able communicators to tackle that word before I feel satisfied what it means.
What I don’t appreciate about the book can be summed up in two ideas.
First, he starts with what he considers the logical end game for God (i.e. God’s love will win everyone over) and then figures out how the Bible can end up there. That is turning the issue on its head. His logic and hermeneutics (the study of how we learn from the Bible) are not skilled and what comes out is a very complicated end-product. Most people reading this book will get lost in the vagaries of the theological machine he is riding.
Second, his Narrative viewpoint is not consistent. Mainly, he interprets the parables of Jesus as if they are part of the story being told by God to man. The Narrative approach believes that we must understand where the story was when Jesus taught and not where it is today. God is not telling the story the same way today. I understand that approach. But then, in a number of places in the book, he stops interpreting narratively and uses different Bible verses as “proof-texts”, reverting back to a modernist way of proving a point. I wish he had stuck with one approach or the other.
By all means, read the book. Tell me what you think.