[See Part 1 here.]
The next piece of evidence to consider here is the first two chapters of Love Wins.
Chapter 1 serves as an introduction to the book. Entitled “What About the Flat Tire?”, this chapter seeks to overwhelm the reader with questions that appear to expose holes in the evangelical doctrine of conversion. The title of the chapter refers to an imaginary scenario in which a missionary, God’s instrument for the salvation of some group of people, gets a flat tire and is unable to arrive at his destination. What happens then? Are these people forever condemned because someone else got a flat tire?
With question after question, Bell deconstructs the distinction between those who are saved and those who are lost. His purpose is to erase boundaries that have been drawn by evangelicals (and many other Christian groups) in an attempt to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” He is clearly uncomfortable with these kinds of distinctions.
Some of Bell’s remarks are worth hearing. There are certainly some problems with the popular evangelical idea of the “age of accountability,” which I also have addressed here. I don’t have all of the answers on that issue, mainly because I do not presently believe Scripture offers us much information to go on there (though I am open to being convinced otherwise). I applaud Bell’s observation that the phrase “personal relationship with God through Jesus” occurs nowhere in Scripture. Of course, when we speak of biblical truths we are not limited only to biblical language to describe them. The word “Trinity,” for example, is not a biblical word, but it is a biblical concept. The phrase “personal relationship” does express something of a biblical truth, but it is a term with limited effectiveness. After all, as John MacArthur has pointed out, there is nothing in all of creation that is not somehow related to its Creator. So I would welcome a thorough revision of popular evangelical language about conversion. While we’re at it, why don’t we get rid of “asking Jesus into your heart” as well? What does that even mean?
But most significant for our purposes are the statements Bell makes about the God of orthodoxy in this chapter. I say “statements,” even though they are framed as questions, for they are questions with assumptions behind them that communicate a powerful message:
Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?
Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?
A few lines later, Bell asks these questions about this way of thinking:
What kind of faith is that?
Or, more important:
What kind of God is that?
Bell is absolutely correct that this issue has everything to do with what we believe about God. And he has made clear, with explicit statements in the preface and with loaded questions in Chapter 1, that if God sends a large number of people to Hell (as the church has always confessed), then he is not a loving God. This issue will come up again in a future post.
To his credit, Bell concludes chapter 1 by saying his book is not just about raising questions but also about offering responses to those questions. I find that to be more honest and helpful to the reader than the postmodern gobbledygook you often find in books like this one.
Chapter 2 is about Heaven. It opens with a painting of a large cross that forms a bridge across a wide and terrifying chasm from earth to a beautiful city, representative of Heaven, and there are people crossing this bridge from one side to the other. Bell says this painting formerly hung on the wall at his grandmother’s house where it used to frighten him and his sister as children. He then makes passing reference to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 18:6 that those who cause children to stumble deserve to have a millstone hung around their necks and then be tossed into the sea.
To his credit (though with a bit of inconsistency), Bell refrains from saying either that his grandmother or the artist who painted the picture should be executed in such a manner. Nevertheless, there are two things that are noteworthy about Bell’s observations on the painting. First, Bell is not a careful handler of Scripture at all. Matthew 18:6 does not refer to giving children the creeps. “Little ones” in Matthew’s Gospel refers to Jesus’ disciples, not to children in general. And Jesus clearly uses the word “stumble” to refer to what happens when someone sins. So the saying is not about harming the tender psyches of children. It is about leading disciples of Jesus into sin. I raise this point now, not because this verse has much to do with Bell’s overall argument, but rather because it is indicative of a pervasive tendency throughout this book to play fast and loose with the text of Scripture. It is, unfortunately, not an isolated example.
Second, Bell’s initial reaction to the painting is not theological but emotional. Even though there is not a single person who is falling off the cross and down into the terrifying abyss below, Bell continues to maintain a gut reaction against the thought that there can be any danger involved when it comes to eternity. The painting, which pictures a multitude of people escaping danger, offends him because there is danger in it in the first place. This observation speaks volumes about how Bell goes about the theological task.
Having said that, I do want to commend Bell for most of what he says in chapter 2. It is entitled “Here is the New There,” and he rightly critiques popular evangelical notions of Heaven as a far away place to which we migrate at death, leaving this doomed world behind forever. Bell is right to argue that the ultimate hope for believers is not to go away to some other place but rather for Heaven to come here when Christ returns, when we are raised from the dead, and when creation itself is renewed. He helped me see the connections between how we live in the present in light of this wonderful reality. Christians should show appropriate care for the earth as an expression that the future has already broken into the present in the resurrection of Christ. Bell is such an artful communicator that I found these truths resonating with me in a new way as a result of this chapter.
It is important to understand the robust earthiness of the gospel. We proclaim a Messiah who rose bodily from the grave, and who will raise us bodily to be with him forever. Moreover, the earth itself will experience a “resurrection” of sorts when the sons of God are revealed at the resurrection. The creation, subjected to futility because of King Adam’s abdication of his throne, will be restored when King Jesus, the Second Adam, returns to establish his reign (Romans 8:18-25). Human beings wield God-ordained authority over the earth, and as goes the king, so goes the kingdom. This is the ultimate hope of Heaven. Kudos to Rob Bell for reminding us again.
For further reading on this theme, I would suggest Anthony Hoekema’s book The Bible and the Future. You can also read some blog posts I wrote a while back on eschatology at my old blog site. My friend Alistair graciously collected all the links together here.