Friday, April 1, 2011

How I Dealt With Love Wins, by Rob Bell

I originally read this quote on another blog, and knew it was the perfect introduction to a Love Wins post. I laughed, and thought I would use it:

"Just in case you’re an irrelevant Christian who listens to Nickelback instead of Mumford and Sons, has a burden to reach Latin America instead of Africa or Europe, and who has held out on signing up for a Twitter or Facebook account, Christians are in an uproar. Rob Bell released a promotional video last weekend for his upcoming book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived."

To be fair, I met a few Bible college students the other night who did not know of this internet debate. But one thing is certain, Mumford > Nickelback.

I debated writing my own thoughts. Everyone and their mom has an opinion on this book. What's one more blog post? The decision to write was that I have strong feelings about what I read and have observed. Instead of repeating myself over again, one long post will suffice. I read Love Wins in two days and tried my best to remain objective. I thoughtfully worked through his arguments and stories before formulating my own opinions.

Before I begin, let me say that this topic has reminded me why I hate debating, and why I love discussion. I learn more about a topic by discussing things with my good friend and blogger, LJ, than I do in debates with other people.

In discussions, I'm more open to other peoples opinions, I am more willing to change my own view, I'm more willing to say that I am wrong, I offer more respect and feel more respected, and feel I am more patient.

Some people like to debate. Some people can debate healthily. I can't.

Furthermore, I don't hate Rob Bell. I'm not going to call him a wolf or whatever. I don't hate that he wrote this book. He has the right to write and publish whatever he wants. Do I think it was a poorly written book? Yes. Why did I write this post? Because I have strong feelings about the book's content, and some people wanted to hear my opinion. Simple as that.

I believe that Bell has a huge love for people, which I think fuels this book. His anecdotes are powerful. His passion, contagious.

He has been, and probably always will be, a huge influence on my life and communication style.

So now, here are things that I did not like about Love Wins, by Rob Bell.
(followed by additional thoughts)

1. In the opening pages, Bell claims that the story of Jesus has been hijacked. 

"There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus's story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn't interested in telling. Because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it's time to reclaim it. 
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better. It's been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus's message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear." -Bell

That the way every pastor and every Bible scholar has told the story of Jesus, it's a massive corruption from what God intended. As I read it, the first few pages let us know that everything we've ever been told about God's love is corrupted, and that Bell has written this book to set things straight.

I can't help but see this as a slap in the face to everyone who has told the traditional story of Jesus. We hijacked it? Turned it toxic and into an anti-Jesus message?


2. The thesis of Bell's book, as I read it, is that God's love is so great, that after death, people get a second chance of redemption. Hell is a place of temporary correction. To argue this, he looks at Matthew 25:46, arguably the most important verse on this subject matter:

"And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Bell argues that the very idea of 'forever' and 'eternal' as we understand it, is not what the Biblical writers intended. Unendingness is not a biblical reality.

"But 'forever' is not really a category the biblical writers used.
One meaning of aion refers to a period of time, as in "The spirit of the age" or "They were gone for ages." When we use the word "age" like this, we are referring less to a precise measurement of time, like an hour or a day or a year, and more to a period or era of time. This is crucial to our understanding of the word aion, because it doesn't mean "forever" as we think of forever. When we say "forever" what we are generally referring to is something that will go on, year after 365-day year, never ceasing in the endless unfolding of segmented, measurable units of time, like a clock that never stops ticking. That's not this word. " -Bell

Eternal, here, is the greek word aiōnios.

Bell argues that the ONLY way to interpret this word is 'a temporary intense moment of time' an 'age' 'a time with a beginning and an end' . But as I read this Greek lexicon, it gives the outline of Biblical usage for aiōnios:

1) without beginning and end, that which always has been and always will be
2) without beginning
3) without end, never to cease, everlasting

Granted, there are four places where NT translators chose to translate the word aiōnios, or it's derivative as 'an age', or 'period of time': Romans 16:25, 2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:2 and Romans 16:26.

What bothers me is that Bell is arguing that the ONLY way to interpret this word is temporary, not our idea of eternal. His lack of flexibility here bothers me.

But what if he is right?

The word is semantically flexible. If punishment/correction is only a period of time, then what about the rest of the verse? Is the alternative, eternal life, merely a temporary period? What happens when our 'eternal' life is over? Do we cease to exist?

I see this as a huge inconsistency.

"And they will go away into 'temporary punishment/correction', but the righteous into 'temporary life'."

What does that even mean? I think this is the most important argument Bell needs to make, and it falls short.

3. The second book under 'Futher Reading' is fictional classic The Great Divorce*, by C. S. Lewis. The book chronicles the narrator's journey. He starts at a bus station that we later find out is hell. Riding the bus into the clouds, he and the other passengers reach heaven. Residents of hell quickly discover that they hate heaven. They are ghosts, whose feet are stabbed by grass. Heaven is such a greater reality, that it turns the residents of hell into mere shadows.

All of hell's residents are given the opportunity to stay in heaven, but most choose to climb back into the bus to return to hell.

I decided to re-read The Great Divorce after finishing Love Wins. In the preface, Lewis gives this warning:

"I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course-or I intended it to have-a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world."

I could be oversimplifying, but in my re-read of The Great Divorce, it seemed that Bell's theology was shaped heavily by this fictional book. Bell's description of hell, the postmortem choice and descriptions of heaven share a lot of characteristics to The Great Divorce.

[*I did find the entire book, The Great Divorce, on a website. A great book worth a read.]

4. I'm not that smart. And I've only read the book once. So I look to our leadership in the Church. To respected pastors and Bible scholars for their opinion on Bell's arugments. As I read the many opinions of pastors and Bible scholars that I respect, I haven't found one that agrees with the Biblical arguments that Bell presents.

Here are the only positive reactions I've found:

Greg Boyd says Bell is not a universalist.

Matthew Paul Turner says not to demonize Bell.

Brian McLaren supports Bell, but most do not consider McLaren a reasonable Biblical voice (just being honest).

Ed Dobson didn't read the book, but supports Bell anyway.

If there are others, feel free to list them. I'd like to hear their thoughts.

5. I'm tired of hearing, "You need to read it for yourself," and other similar comments. Is it good advice? Yeah. Do I have a good reason for being tired of it? No. I just wanted to vent.

6. I hate how it's brought the worst out in Christians. Viral blogs are full of commenters gnashing, biting, and arguing about theology. The real tragedy is when we divide love from theology. What's more, is that more Christian attention was put on Bell than the catastrophe in Japan.

7. Bell asks a LOT of questions. Good questions. We have good, satisfiable answers to these questions. But Bell ignores traditional answers. Intentionally, I assume, writing in a way to lead the reader through a series of emotions, opening them up to his answers. But traditional answers shouldn't be ignored.

Most of Bell's questions build emotion in his readers.

"If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate? How does a person end up being one of the few?
Random selection?
Being born in the right place, family, or country?
Having a youth pastor who 'relates better to the kids'?
God choosing you instead of others? 
What kind of faith is that?
Or, more important:
What kind of God is that?" -Bell
In order to appeal to the heart of the reader, Bell is asking these frequently asked highly emotional questions. The problem with these questions, and the problem with Love Wins in general, is that it starts at the opinions of man (man's definition of love) to point out the problems of a traditional Biblical God.

Rather, we are to start with Scripture, to see that God is Holy and man is sinful. We find that the phrase Love Wins is true, but differently than his book would have us to believe.

Other thoughts:

1. I don't know what Rob Bell was thinking. I enjoy trying to figure out how people think, and why they say the things they say, write the things they write, talk the way they talk. That's why I love watching movies. I'm not just experiencing a plot or characters. I'm trying to figure out what is going through the directors head, why the screenplay was written like that, etc.

For a while, I followed John Mayer on Twitter. After a few months, I realized I couldn't understand anything that he was tweeting. He thinks differently than everybody else. That's why he writes songs no one else can write. He's an amazing writer, but I have no idea what inspires him, or why he goes in the direction he chooses. He's an artist.

I think the same is true for Bell. He's an artist and a genius. He doesn't think like everybody else. His methods have always been unorthodox. From what I understand, he had struggling grades through communication, speech, and sermon classes in school. Not because he can't communicate, but because he doesn't communicate like everybody else. Because he tries new things. Because he goes into uncharted territory.

Why did he write Love Wins? Because he enjoys controversy? Because he thinks all of Christianity really has been hijacked? Because he wants to create meaningful discussion? Because he's a wolf? Because he enjoys being different? Because he wanted to sell books? Because NOOMA videos don't sell as many as they used to? Because he wants to redefine 'love'?

I don't know.

2. Justin Taylor is responsible for the book's massive publicity. I first heard about Love Wins because I read saw Taylor's blog posted by one of my friends on Facebook. Taylor blogs for I read the blog, and posted it on my own Facebook, as I do with a lot of blogs that I read that I find interesting. It eventually went viral because so many people re-posted it. What I didn't know is that Taylor's blog had been revised several times. The original post called Bell a 'servant of Satan' and other off-color remarks.

And then there was John Piper's infamous tweet: "Farwell Rob Bell",

These were both written without actually reading Love Wins. Both jumping the gun, and displaying immaturity.

Greg Boyd put it best in his blog post, Rob Bell is NOT a Universalist (and I actually read “Love Wins”):

"Which is why this is a good conversation worth having…
but not on Twitter…
and not by accusing and labeling and bidding a brother “farewell” before you’ve even read the book!
THAT is madness!"
3. The name 'Rob Bell' and his long time used phrase 'love wins' now carries a great deal of baggage (I know it already did, but more now than ever). I've always liked it when Bell said, "Love wins." It's a powerful phrase. And I still believe it. Just not in the same way he means it. From now on, when I mention Bell, or use a NOOMA video, there will always be an unspoken (or spoken) awkwardness.

In short, he's lost more of his credibility.

4. I'm not sure why people love this book. Some of my friends love this book.

Maybe they agree with Bell's arguments.

Maybe they didn't do the Greek research.

Maybe they don't take the Bible literally. Or take all parts equally inspired by God.

Maybe they love books, speakers, or ideas that make conservative Christians angry. Maybe they get a kick out of making certain people feel uncomfortable.

I don't know. If you love this book, feel free to tell me why. I'm open to listening.

8. I’m not sure what to make of people saying ‘this book is art’ and shouldn’t be judged theologically. If it shouldn’t be judged theologically, then it shouldn’t be taken theologically. Then I better stick it next to my copy of The Great Divorce.

9. I didn't deal with most verses that Bell uses. That would make this post entirely too long. Isn't it already too long? Thank you for sticking with me this far. For an exhaustive discussion on Bell's Scripture usage, see Kevin DeYoung's review God is Still Holy.

10. My good friend wrote this convicting conclusion on his tumblr

"I love Rob Bell and I love John Piper too for that matter. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what either one says. What matters is the searching of Scriptures within context, within community, with one another and God that what is written there has Authority, Mystery, Love, Grace, Justice, Mercy, Adventure, Creativeness, Uniqueness and Power to change lives."

11. Bell asks a lot of good questions about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. He brings up the 'age of accountability'.

"Some Christians believe that up to a certain age children aren't held accountable for what they believe or who they believe in,so if they die during those years, they go to be with God. But then when they reach a certain age, they become accountable for their beliefs, and if they die, they go to be with God only if they have said or done or believe the 'right' things." -Bell

Here is what I believe on the issue.We could debate for a lifetime on who goes to heaven, and who goes to hell. In all of these questions, I rest in the fact that God is Judge. The impossible dilemmas we see are split-second decisions to Him. And His decision goes. And who are we to question? A fascinating ending to the book of Job shows us one great man's reaction to a holy God's presence.

"The LORD said to Job:
“Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?
Let him who accuses God answer him!” 
Then Job answered the LORD:
“I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but I have no answer—
twice, but I will say no more.” 
Then the LORD spoke to Job out of the storm:
“Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
“Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?"
Job, a wise, patient, holy man, when standing before God, could only reply, "I put my hand over my mouth." 

Likewise, I think all of our questions, debates, arguing over what happens in eternity will all fade as quickly as God makes his Judgement.

12. I will always believe that in the end, Love Wins.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What Do Zombie Films and Billy Graham Have In Common?

I love zombie films.

Well, the entire post-apocalyptic genre, but zombie stories in particular. Zombie movie marathon? Yes, please. And I'll bring the Funyons.

Is it the senseless violence? Sure, that's a part of it. Sometimes it's fun to turn off the realistic part of my brain and enjoy some intense action.

Is it a fascination with the dead? No way. Technically, they're un-dead. But regardless, this has little to do with it. There is nothing spiritual or demonic going on here. Usually just a man made virus, if they even take the time to explain the zombies at all.

Here is why I love zombie stories. Because I can't help but think,

"What would I do?"

Would I be the quiet guy who eventually has a nervous breakdown? Or would I be the unrealistic action seeker and die an early and needless and utterly preventable death? Or would I be the guy who keeps his cool under the worst of situations? The guy with a plan. The guy who inspires hope. The guy who unifies everyone together for the one common goal: to survive.

Post-apocalyptic stories have this way of asking what would life be like if everything had to start from scratch. The world we once knew is gone: laws, order, the American Dream. Now all that is left is chaos, disorder, fear. But there is always a leader who inspires hope to the hopeless. A promise of restoration.

I have been most impressed with the latest zombie story, The Walking Dead. A six episode first season of a well budgeted, high quality written TV show. The season ends with a great dialoge between the main character, Rick and a disgruntled scientist.

"You're lying when you say there's no hope. All we want is a choice. A chance. We need to try for as long as we can." -Rick

What drives Rick is this idea that somewhere, there is refuge from danger. Somewhere there is a safe life for him, his wife, and his son. So he chooses to fight. He chooses to keep going. Is his hope unrealistic? Naive? Immature? Or is his optimism the last best thing to hold on to?

So what does all this have to do with Billy Graham? You probably have already put it together: Hope.

People closest to Billy Graham describe him as a pessimist. His natural outlook on life is that things are probably going to get worse. In order to lead, he has to purposefully and intentionally communicate hope and optimism. Marshall Shelley, who wrote The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, describes him this way in this powerful quote,

"Optimism is not living in a fantasy world where nothing tragic ever happens; vital optimism is a confidence that tragedy isn't the last word, that the best is yet to be. Optimism is being able to acknowledge brutal realities and to the point an even greater reality - that our experiences are not in vain, our responses are not futile, and our efforts are going to be worthwhile. 
Christian leaders like Billy Graham most often link this optimism and hope to an abiding trust that history is going somewhere and that God, who specializes in redeeming flawed situations, is powerfully directing it. But hope is the basic psychology and biology. 
Sometimes, brining hope to a dispirited group is the most important thing a leader can do." 
Sure. I admit. It's no zombie apocalypse out there.

But it isn't great either.

In a lot of ways, things are very terrible for a lot of people. But sometimes the greatest thing we can bring to the world is hope. Hope that we can help change things. Hope that Jesus can still bring healing grace. Hope that tragedy does not have the last word.

And we intentionally bring hope with us.

Who would of thought the two had anything in common?

(Sorry I dont blog much anymore. I love doing it, but finding time is harder with a daughter and a full time job. I'm sure you understand. And thank you everyone for your constant encouragement. More to come soon.)

And how can we bring hope to hurting people?
Anyone love zombie films as much as me?