Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

For months now, I've been hearing about Rob Bell's latest book, Love Wins.  I haven't read any of Bell's previous books, but I have seen a Nooma video or two.  They didn't seem that radical to me, so I was surprised at first by the firestorm created by Bell's latest book.

I shouldn't have been.  His thesis, put much too simply that no one goes to Hell, is sure to infuriate many people.

Before I go any further, let me remind people that I'm a mainstream Lutheran, a liberalish Lutheran, a Liberation Theology Lutheran.  I'm not an Evangelical or a Pentecostal.  I take the Bible seriously but not literally.  I do not believe that Jesus was crucified because God knew I would sin 2000 years later, and Jesus had to pay for that.  You might ask, why was Jesus crucified then?  Because he was an enemy of the Roman Empire in all sorts of ways.

So, you might say I'm the perfect reader for this book.  Well, not exactly.  I'd like it to go into depth a bit more (for that, see N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, which covers much of the same territory; see my blog post that reviews that book here).  But Bell gives us plenty of nuggets to prove that he's done his homework. 

For example, at the end of the "Hell" chapter, he talks about the word "forever" and how Biblical writers would not have understood that word.  It's a bad translation of the word "olam," a word which means "long lasting" or "that which is at or beyond the horizon" (page 92).  Likewise, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, where the goats go to eternal punishment, that's really a misinterpretation of the phrase "aion of kolazo."  "Kolazo" is an agricultural word that means pruning and trimming so that a plant can flourish (page 91).

On page 87, Bell gives us a long list of verses from the Old Testament prophets to show us the persistent theme of healing, redemption and love.  Clearly, the man knows his Bible.

Bell has a strong sense of social justice, and he can point out the injustices that are so pervasive in our world.  He says that Hell exists, but it exists here and now, not in some future time when we die.

As Wright does so thoroughly in Surprised by Hope, Bell reminds us that Jesus didn't come to Earth just to get us into Heaven.  God's redemption of creation has already begun. Bell says, "How we think about heaven, then, directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age.  Jesus teaches us how to live now in such a way that what we create, who we give our efforts to, and how we spend our time will all endure in the new world" (pp. 44-45).

Near the end of the book, Bell explores the parable of the Prodigal Son and what it means for our lives.  He concludes: 

"Your deepest, darkest sins and your shameful secrets are simply irrelevant when it comes to the counterintuitive, ecstatic announcement of the gospel.

So are your goodness, your rightness, your church attendance, and all the wise, moral, mature decisions you have made and the actions you have taken.

It simply doesn't matter when it comes to the surprising, unexpected declaration that God's love is simply yours."  (page 187)

Hey, Bell sounds almost Lutheran there.  How I love that concept of grace!  I don't even have to accept God's grace--God has already given it to me. 

It's very easy for humans to corrupt these ideas in so many ways, to argue that we have to actively accept God before we're in, or that we have certain ways we must behave or believe.  Humans like to divide the world into binary oppositions:  in and out.  You go to Heaven, so do I, but all those icky people go to Hell--and won't they be sorry!!!!

It goes back to the discussion that many may have been having about Osama bin Laden.  Could God really love Osama bin Laden just as much as God loves Archbishop Desmond Tutu?  Really?

The parable of the Prodigal Son tells us yes.  Go ahead and fume.  I know that idea frustrates many people.  It's the part of the concept of grace that can be so infuriating:  I behave well, and that guy screws up, and God loves us both?  But I'm better!

So then the next question:  why should we behave at all?  If we all get to go to Heaven, why be good?

Well, many books have been written to answer that question.  But Jesus points the way most elegantly.  We can live in our tight, legalistic, morally superior attitudes.  But we'll miss out on all the love we might be experiencing.  We can go out and squander our whole inheritance on that which does not nourish us and then where will we be?  Eyeing the pig food, that's where.

For people like me, people nourished in a faith that gives this good news of love and grace, Bell's book is not that earthshattering.  But I think about my 5th grade self, when I went to a Presbyterian school; every Friday we had Chapel, and every Friday we were given searing portraits of Hell, and we asked Jesus into our hearts.  When anyone asks if I've been saved, I say, "Yes, many times."

For someone who grew up in a terrorizing faith, a controlling theology, Bell's book will either seem heretical or like very good news indeed.


PrSBlake1 said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you and I loved Bell's book. But what he's saying is really not much different than what I read in Paul and Luther - e.g. Grace. The whole concept of radical grace goes against our legalistic western grain. I have my own review of "Love Wins" which I will be posting next week. I enjoy your blog.... Blessings...

Kristin said...

I enjoy yours too! I look forward to reading your review. Thanks for commenting.