Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Christianity IS Good News in Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

"God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In hell. Huh?" Image source.
Let's talk about Rob Bell's book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I've just read it and I'm happy to report that it was fantastic. It touched on many different topics- heaven, hell, the nature of God- weaving them together into an entire worldview in which Christianity truly is good news.

I really love Bell's descriptions of heaven, hell, and Jesus. He dedicates an entire 40-page chapter to the idea of heaven, and you guys, it's a really compelling read. He examines the bible's use of the term "eternal life" and the idea of heaven existing both now and in the future, both here on earth and elsewhere, and that ultimately heaven and earth will become one. (Remember how Jesus prayed "your kingdom come"?)

Personally, I believe that the Christian life isn't about getting people "saved" so that they're okay after they die, but it's about working to bring the kingdom of God to the earth now. That's pretty much the idea that Bell presents in his chapter on heaven.

(Click here to listen to the song "Heaven is a place on earth". I feel that would be appropriate background music for this blog post.)

Similarly, the book describes hell-on-earth. There is violence, there is suffering, people treat each other inhumanely. And "hell" is the best word we have to describe such horrors. And after death, there will also be a hell for people who continue to reject love and goodness.

What I love most about Bell's descriptions of heaven and hell are how relatable they are. He writes about our experiences of love and happiness on earth, and how heaven is even more of that. And how we experience suffering on earth, and we make choices that hurt others and it all ends badly, and hell is even more of that.

Before, back when I was a Real True Christian and believed in the "traditional view" of hell, I believed heaven was infinitely, unimaginably good, and hell was infinitely, unimaginably bad. I also believed that Real True Christians go to heaven, and everyone else goes to hell- but I didn't want my non-Christian friends to go to hell, so I was all about evangelism.

Because I believed that the pain of hell was so infinite, something I could never imagine, something that could never be compared to anything on earth, it didn't matter how much my evangelism hurt people, as long as it increased their chance of escaping hell. The people in my college Christian fellowship would always talk about how we were scared to do evangelism because what if it ruined a friendship? We were going to tell people about their sin and how they deserved to go to hell, and we knew we would come across as hurtful and judgmental. (We did it out of love though- we genuinely loved our non-Christian friends, and our belief in a traditional hell twisted that love into something nasty.)

But since I believed in an infinite hell, the risk of hurting people and ruining friendships was a small price to pay. Negligible, next to the torture they're going to face in hell.

Given an infinitely good heaven and an infinitely bad hell, nothing we do in our earthly lives matters, except those things that push people closer to "accepting Jesus" and going to heaven. Sometimes Christians are criticized for only caring about "getting people saved" and not doing much about helping people who are suffering now- if you believe in an infinitely bad hell, and all non-Christians go there, then it has to be that way.

That's why it means so much to me that heaven and hell in "Love Wins" are comparable to our experiences here on earth. If I'm treating people disrespectfully in the name of evangelism, well I'm kind of creating my own little hell. And the rewards of heaven or sufferings of hell are not big enough to make that not matter.

And Bell emphasizes it's not about "getting in" to heaven, it's about being the kind of person who can live happily and peacefully in a world with perfect equality. If you're jealous, or selfish, or you think you deserve more than other people, you won't do well in heaven.

On that note, let's talk about how exactly you "get in" to the heaven described in "Love Wins." The book presented a few variations on this, so it's not clear to me which one exactly Bell believes, but it's something along these lines: Heaven is accepting love, goodness, etc, and hell is rejecting them. Sometimes the book uses language about God- rejecting or accepting God's love, something like that. And you'll probably get an eternity of chances to accept or reject it.

It's very significant that that Bell doesn't at all relate heaven and hell to believing certain facts about Jesus. (That's probably why he was criticized so much by Real True Christians when this book was published.) I completely agree with him on this point- it doesn't make any sense to base eternal judgment on one's understanding of an event that happened 2000 years ago. God is love, God is everywhere, and we all have an equal chance to accept or reject love. That's what heaven is really about. Doesn't matter if you are aware that love comes from God. (And can I just say, I also love Bell's description of Jesus.)

However, the book did have one huge weakness: It did not address the idea that "we are all so sinful, we deserve hell by default," which is what I used to believe, what I was taught by evangelical Christianity. In this line of thinking, every sin- no matter how small- is an infinite crime against God. If you're not perfect- if you sin EVEN ONCE- then you can't be in heaven with God. If you keep the entire law but stumble at one point, you're a lawbreaker, am I right?

In other words, all people should go to hell, and it's only through believing in Jesus that some of us can get out of it. (And if you don't think it's "justice" for everyone to go to hell for the smallest of sins, well, you're so warped by sin you don't even realize how sinful you are, you have no idea what justice really is.)

So it's not exactly accurate to say that in the "traditional" view, people go to hell for believing the "wrong" religion. Technically, they go to hell because they are sinful and deserve to go to hell anyway. Everyone- Christians and non-Christians- deserves to go to hell. Isn't it nice (merciful) of God to send Jesus to die and create a loophole to get a tiny minority out of the hell we deserve?

Because Bell never directly addresses this idea, I think it would be very easy for people who believe in that version of hell to completely dismiss him. (He's not taking sin seriously, right? Does he even care about God's holiness?) And maybe even for people who want to believe the good news of "Love Wins" but are still stuck on "but but but ... God's justice means everyone goes to hell... right?" (I was stuck there for a while. I think it was Dianna Anderson who got me out, with some variation of the "why would God's justice be a completely different thing from our understanding of justice" argument.)

Overall though, this book is able to make a biblical case for Christian universalism. (Bell doesn't use that term- he calls it "exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity" which means it is only Jesus who saves, but Jesus can save someone without that person having the "correct" beliefs about Jesus.)

Many critics wrote blog posts about how Bell used scripture all wrong in this book. This is a really weird criticism, in my opinion, because almost every page in "Love Wins" includes a bible reference. The whole thing is very much grounded in ideas found in the bible.

However, Bell seems to view the bible in a very different way than what I was taught by evangelicals. I believed that every single word of scripture was important and good and inspired by God, and we have to take very seriously the entire thing, even the parts we don't like. We have to use a lot of logic and do research and study ancient languages and find out the historical and cultural context and interpret everything, find out what God was trying to say. We need to believe in and obey whatever conclusions come out of this process, even if they make no sense, even if they seem awful and unjust. TOO BAD. That's what it means to respect the bible, yes?

But I don't think that way any more (thank God). And Rob Bell doesn't either. He isn't coming from the angle of "the bible is the end-all and be-all, nothing else matters, and we need to study every single bit of it or else the argument is invalid"- instead, he seems to be starting from questions like "What is God like?" and "What kind of story is history?" He's searching the bible for a God who's truly loving, a God actually worth believing in.

(Having said that, I don't want to give the impression that Bell is ignoring passages on hell. The book actually lists all the times where the bible uses the word "hell" and explains the context in each case.)

So there's a biblical argument to be made, and I think it's great. However, this is just a start. I've been reading the bible my entire life assuming the biblical writers believed "Christians go to heaven, non-Christians go to hell [ie infinite eternal torture] and that's God's justice" and for so many passages, it's really really hard for me to even imagine another interpretation.

Let's take John 3:16 for example. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

Obviously, "believes in him" means "believes that Jesus (who was fully God and fully man) lived and died and resurrected to save us from our sins (and this is the only way to be saved), and commits their life to Jesus" [in other words, "is a Real True Christian"].

Obviously, "perish" means "go to hell." (Which is obviously a place of infinite eternal torture.)

Obviously, "have eternal life" means "go to heaven."

So this verse is clearly saying that Christians go to heaven and non-Christians go to hell. Right? I mean, I read it, and I don't even realize I'm making all these assumptions (the ones in the "obviously" statements above).

I mean, I don't believe "Christians go to heaven and non-Christians go to hell", but what else can you even do with John 3:16?

"Love Wins" talks about the verses with the word "hell" and how it's not the hell that so many of us were taught. The book also talks about "life" and "death" having a deeper meaning about the quality of life we are living now. But really, it's just a start.

You could read this whole book, excitedly decide "wow, the bible DOESN'T actually teach the version of hell the church taught me! This is great!" and then go open the bible and read 1 verse (maybe John 3:16, but there are many others) and decide "oh... nevermind... non-Christians go to hell." (Even though that's not what John 3:16 says. Or is it?)

My point is, for those of us coming out of this "traditional view of hell", we need someone to teach us an entirely new way to read the bible. That's not what "Love Wins" sets out to do, and that's fine. "The Bible Tells Me So" by Peter Enns is a really good book for that topic. And I'm currently looking for others. Any recommendations?

All right this blog post is already super-long but there are just a few more things I'd like to mention. I have some concerns about the idea that "you create your own hell" because it seems to be based on the American evangelical misconception that my sin is just about me and my relationship with God.

By "you create your own hell", I mean that "Love Wins" says that you create a kind of hell when you choose to reject love and goodness. If we're talking about our earthly lives, I completely agree, and I believe this hell hurts others and yourself. But in the realm of life after death, this idea doesn't make sense anymore. I define "sin" as something that hurts people (other people or yourself), and how can you hurt other people when they're in heaven? In Bell's view of life after death, heaven means all is well, and hell is being miserable because of your own selfishness/jealousy/etc. But what about the idea of our sin hurting other people? So sin works completely differently in heaven than it does on earth? The only kind of sin that exists in the afterlife- the only possible way to choose evil over good- is "I have a bad attitude"?

I feel like this aspect of "Love Wins" is heavily influenced by the individualism in American culture and American Christianity. In the version of the gospel that I was taught, sin was a problem because it would break my relationship with God. Some sins also hurt other people, but that wasn't really the point. Something was a sin because the bible said it was a sin, and that's that.

In reality, though, our sins affect other people, and there are society-wide sins like racism that hurt entire demographics of people. Those who are underprivileged suffer disproportionately for the sins of the powerful. And having an individualized, over-spiritualized "our sin separates us from God" view of sin is a convenient way to ignore the ways you involuntarily contribute to the sinful and unjust structures in society.

I believe that in the kingdom of God- in heaven- there will be real justice and equality. No one will have to live in fear of violence- and therefore, no one will be able to behave violently toward others. There will be no inequality. It will be very different than the way we live here on earth.

Overall, I loved this book. Bell's descriptions of heaven, hell, and Jesus resonate with me. This is the kind of world I want to believe in. This is a gospel that actually makes sense and is truly good news. This is a God who really loves, who is love. It won't be convincing to those firmly in the "traditional view of hell" camp, but for anyone like me, who longs for the kingdom of God to come on earth, it's great to hear someone say "love wins."

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