|Rob Bell, being hip and optimistic|
Hearing the controversies about Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and then actually reading the book, I’ve been struck by how much better Bell would fare in a mainline congregation. (I’ve also been struck by how popular the book is—I think Love Wins hit #4 Amazon #4 last week and hovers at #7 as I type.) Why would Rob Bell fare better as a mainliner? It’s not because we mainline types are “libbed out” and don’t care about the Bible any more, it's certainly not because of the infallibility of the mainline, but because the questions he asks can find honest engagement without rancor here. And really, mainliners here just engage (at their best) with the whole of the Christian church in time (reading not only Calvin and Luther, but also Gregory of Nyssa and Thomas Aquinas) and in breadth (taking in the insights of Roman Catholics and Orthodox, for example). It’s simply a way of engaging what C. S. Lewis penned as “mere Christianity."
Bell clearly writes from a contemporary American evangelical context. He talks about praying the “sinner’s prayer,” “accepting Christ” and therefore of “getting saved.” Good concepts, but very particular, coded language—as Bell points out, “personal relationship” with God is not found in the Bible. I have so much good to say about evangelicalism—and have been duly nurtured myself—but there’s simply a mean spirit that has emerged in response to Bell from some evangelical commentators (but certainly not all) that I’ve found neither beneficial for me or for Bell. So back to party-line evangelicals… Bell also asserts that the church is too often seen as “antiscience”? Yes… in certain circles. But I’ll speak personally: I’ve been in the mainline (in my case, Presbyterian) church and am working on engaging science with faith, first through my book Creation and Last Things, and more recently through a grant program particularly designed to engage scientific insight in local congregations, Scientists in Congregations. Have I met with disagreement? Yes. Outright dismissal? Never. And those are just my experiences and only two of them at that. It just seems a little better than what Bell’s experiencing. (But admittedly, who knows what would happen if my books hit the top ten? I’m willing to find out….)
Admittedly, Bell is a little too optimistic. As many other commentators have noted, he interprets Scripture in a particular direction. It’s a kinder, gentler Bible. For example on God’s condemnation, he seems especially concerned that Ghandi—Ghandi was so good; should go to hell? He was particularly annoyed by a response on a slip of paper to quote from Ghandi displayed at his church’s art show: “Reality check: He’s in hell.” Bell seems to infer that Ghandi could never be in hell. This makes certain sections of the Christian church go ballistic, but as I read Bell, and watch the promo video for Love Wins (which these days is more important than actually reading the book), his point is a little more subtle: Do we know for sure Ghandi’s in hell? No, we can’t say with absolute certainty. When Ghandi saw the full light of God's presence, how did he respond? As C. S. Lewis wrote so poignantly (which, incidentally, is one suggestion to Bell: include the chapter on hell in The Problem of Pain): the gates of hell are locked on the inside.
More can be written, of course, but I’ll close this post here: To understand the book we should take in the citation that alludes to the title: “God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.” Even in ultimate judgment, God gives us the dignity of rejecting the gospel. One of the most notorious responses to Bell has been John Piper’s tweet “Farewell Bell.” How interesting that judgment has been declared on a book that itself rethinks God’s judgment and emphasizes that God only says “Farewell” when we have shut the door on him. I say, keep it up Bell, but listen to the wider community of Christ. There you can fare well.
P.S. If you want a fresh perspective on Love Wins, read Donald Miller's review.