This will be the last chapter overview and critique that I will provide before summing up my conclusion in the Part 8 of this series. Bell’s book actually has 8 chapters, but the last one is little more than a rhetorical flourish, so I will conclude this survey on chapter 7.
Chapter 7 is entitled “The Good News Is Better Than That.” In it Bell offers an extended reflection on the parable of the prodigal son in an attempt to argue that the two sons represent two different ways of relating to God. Even though both are at the same party, one gladly receives the forgiveness of his father, but the other stews in his own bitterness at the fact that the father has received back the younger son with joy. The argument Bell makes here is we determine whether we are in Heaven or Hell by the way we receive the love of God:
Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.
This is a further example of the way Bell subjectivizes divine judgment. Hell, for him, is not the result of God’s deliberate judgment against sinners in the defense of justice. It is the natural consequence of our refusal to assent to his love. Hell is the space we create between ourselves and God when we take no delight in his redemptive purpose. Note here how Bell removes wrath from the character of God and makes it a natural consequence of our sin:
We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell.
There are three main criticisms I have of this chapter:
(1) Bell forces the parable of the prodigal son to address questions it was never meant to address. The setting for this parable is the grumbling of the Pharisees and tax collectors over the fact that Jesus received tax collectors and sinners and ate with them (Luke 15:1-2). Jesus tells three parables in response: a parable about a lost sheep (vv. 3-7), a parable about a lost coin (vv. 8-10), and a parable about a lost son (vv. 11-31). In all three stories the main point is the same: when that which is lost has been found, it is time to rejoice! In the third parable Jesus casts the older brother in the role of the one who refuses to rejoice in order to demonstrate for the Pharisees and scribes how much their grumbling over the reception of lost sinners is at odds with the heart of God. The parable should not be pressed for details about Heaven and Hell. That is not the question Jesus is addressing here.
A parable is a kind of analogy. Analogies are generally focused on one point of similarity. For example, when Jesus said to the disciples that if they had faith like a mustard seed, they could move mountains, what was the point? It was that even small faith is powerful faith, for the power resides, not in the faith itself, but in the object of faith: God. If we press the details of the parable and say, “Well, a mustard seed is something that grows, so Jesus is saying that if I have growing faith, I can move mountains,” then we have just misinterpreted Jesus’ point. It may be true that faith grows, but that is not what Jesus is communicating with that analogy. He is communicating the fact that even small faith can accomplish much. The point is the same here. We must avoid the tendency to make a parable walk on all fours and address issues it was never meant to address. Bell is not careful with the biblical text at all throughout this book.
(2) Bell veers into the universalist doctrine that all human beings have already been forgiven of sin:
our change of heart,
our believing God’s version of our story
doesn’t bring it into existence,
make it happen, or create it.
It simply is.
On the cross, Jesus says,
“Father, forgive them,
for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23).
Jesus forgives them all,
without their asking for it.
Done. Taken care of.
Before we could be good enough or right enough,
before we could even believe the right things.
Forgiveness is unilateral.
God isn’t waiting for us to get it together,
to clean up, shape up, get up–
God has already done it.
There is just enough truth in this to make the error difficult to grasp. But Scripture does not speak of the gospel in this way. Scripture does, to be sure, teach that forgiveness is accomplished on the cross at God’s initiative, not ours. God reaches out to the ungodly to justify them. But the key is that he does so when they believe. There is no salvation apart from faith in Scripture. The accomplishment of redemption is of no effect for us until it is applied to us by union with Christ, which comes through faith. How else could Paul speak of us as children of wrath prior to being made alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-3)? The promise of the gospel is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” The gospel of Rob Bell is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, for you are already saved.”
Now, I’m still not going to call Bell a universalist because he does leave enough wiggle room to say that there may be some who resist the grace of God into eternity. But for all practical purposes, all of the theological furniture of universalism is right here.
(3) This chapter contains quite a bit of blasphemy. I wish I could put it differently, but the evidence is right here. Much as he does in the preface, Bell describes traditional theology and speaks with contempt for the God represented in it. Here is one sample:
Because if something is wrong with your God,
if your God is loving one second and cruel the next,
if your God will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years,
no amount of clever marketing
or compelling language
or good music
or great coffee
will be able to disguise
that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.
Let’s 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. God is the rescuer.
These kinds of statements do not accurately represent the orthodox tradition that Bell is rejecting. One of the rules that good and careful writers follow when they argue against a position is to make sure they represent that position in its best possible light. Represent the views of others in a way that they would approve, or else they won’t take you seriously. If you have not taken the time and effort to listen to what others are actually saying, you have not taken them seriously, and you have not succeeded in refuting their arguments. You have erected a straw man (false representation) only to show how easy it is to knock it over.
Bell shows no awareness of the best representations of penal substitution. Those who are careful to develop this doctrine in biblical ways have long noted that God is both the rescuer and the one from whom we are rescued. We stand under God’s wrath, and yet because of his great love for us, God sent his Son to propitiate himself. God provided the sacrifice that we could not provide to deliver us from his coming wrath.
Instead, Bell takes one half of the truth (God as our rescuer) and uses it to deny the other half of the truth (God stands against us in wrath). Along the way he speaks with utter contempt for the half of the truth that he denies, truth about God that is an essential component of the gospel. I don’t know how to characterize this other than as blasphemy. Seeing one aspect of what the Scripture represents about God’s character, Bell turns away in disgust and wants nothing to do with it.
In my final post on this book, I will summarize my conclusions.