Love Wins Review: A Long Part 2

In part 1 of this review I suggested that Rob Bell’s controversial new book Love Wins


can be understood as part of a larger project, Bell’s
disentanglement of Christian faith from the sacred-secular dualism
inherited by by the church years ago that too easily bought into assumptions
of the popular philosophers of the day, which is to say Plato,
neo-Platonism, and, later, Aristotle, which set up an historical development that led to all kinds of bad stuff.   I know there are tons of details
about how Bell views the cross, and God’s holiness, and details of hell and human freedom and so many more
truly important things, but I want to appreciate his work on its own
biggest terms. 

And my input is that its own biggest terms includes how the legacy of  secular modernity, the ideologies of economic growth and faith in
unrestrained science–can any one say nuclear reactor in Japan?  Or gas fracking in Pennsylvania?—and a host of contemporary confusions go back to
the synthesis of the early church and Greco-Roman thought.  It is no
wonder that too often good Christian folk haven’t been involved in being
agents of justice in the world—they thought that social involvement
was “secular” or that scientific discourse was somehow a threat to true
religion or that art was inappropriately fanciful.  This theological dichotomy between the work of “nature” and
the separate, special “realm of grace” leads to a lived practice of
thinking that God cares more about some stuff than other stuff—it is more
religious to read the Bible than take out the garbage, or more spiritual
to pray than to vote; it is not (oh how I wish it was) a cliche to say that some folks are (still) taught that it is better to be a missionary than a banker, say, better to go to a church Bible study than a professional seminar for your work.  This warped worldview is complicated, but very, very wrong and no
serious Christian theologian believes it, although many don’t seriously
protest it.  (I have one friend who likes to say he is, admittedly, a
“soft dualist.”)  Having reviewed a couple Nooma DVDs I sure don’t think
Bell would want to concede that!

I suggested that important books like Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton’s mid-80s classic The Transforming Vision
(IVP) gave a rough and ready historical overview of how the Christian
faith accommodated itself to Greco-Roman ways of thinking, opening the
door (in Francis Schaeffer’s important description) for  “nature to eat
up grace” allowing for a privitized and compartmentalized faith where the public
idols of the age given free range.  We see an increasing credence given to the power of human Reason and the inevitability of progress,  certainly from the from the
Enlightenment on.  Some prophets on the right and the left have seen that as an affront to a holy God and a detriment to human culture, but few get worked up about it much, so we live out the dualism, passionate about Christ, fussy about theology, but yielding large parts of our lives to a sort of modern Babylonian captivity.

Which is to say, Sunday-only Christians who
disregarded the real world of culture led to (bore the fruit of) serious secularization
which allowed for idols of Babel-like technical power and unrestrained
science, politics and Empire and all the rest.  Although a bit more
careful and restrained, the under-appreciated little book by life-long
missionary to India, Leslie Newbigin, called Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture
(Eerdmans) gets at this same concern. 

I think this rejection of
dualism’s legacy is one of the great contributions that Bell brings in
his books, his short form-Nooma videos and the longer-former lecture
DVDs, like Everything is Spiritual. He’s a preacher who has given serious thought about communication and staging and media, but he is not called mostly to be a scholar or sociologist, so he doesn’t name all this stuff which I have said he implies. But he explodes the dualisms with his vibrant call to believe that God’s hope leads us to live differently.  In a very real sense,
he says that “love wins” because God’s ways are like that, and they are
true to the way the world works.  We don’t see it fully, though,
because, well, we just don’t inhabit the world as Christians.  We go to
church and do our spiritual practices or read our doctrinal blogs but we
don’t live in the world as Christians.  Rob is trying to help us see

Unless one sees that Greco-Roman dualism, and the synthesis of the
medieval church with the spirits of the age–how how times don’t
change!—has severely deformed the Christian faith, one will not
appreciate Bell’s gutsy and notably creational vision. He affirms life in this world as we should if we are Biblically faithful and we don’t get enough of this from the critics (even the Reformed ones who ought to know better.)  He’s about art
and science and creation care and sexuality and death and life and the
mundane things that give glory to God as we serve Christ in the quotidian.  From good and Godly common grace to the saving
forgiveness of God in Christ, it is this world–not pie in the sky or a
spacey heaven for ethereal souls—that Bell thinks God wants us to most
care about.  This should not be read (at least in theory, I don’t know about Bell’s daily life, of course) as being disinterested in the awesome greatness of God or the hope to glorify Christ or advance His reputation.  Such things happen just as we live our lives, not by a lot of sanctimonious religiosity.  Christ rules “every square inch” of this world, as His
Kingdom comes and heaven joins with earth, making all of life something akin to sacramental.  This new creation, paradise
lost-but-being-regained eschatological vision where the future breaking into the
here and now is the counter-narrative to dualism
that posits dirt vs spirituality, earth vs heaven,  bodies vs souls, time vs eternity.

Bell rejects Plato’s influence and seems to suggest that it is
unhelpful to debate if disembodied souls live on in another dimension
called heaven.  Rather, resurrected bodies glorify God forever by doing
what God always wanted humans to do: with Christ, rule the Earth. 
Forever.  Interestingly, Love Waits makes an observation
that in the important final chapters of the final book of the Bible (and
Bell notes that it may be a bit speculative because it is admittedly a
small detail in this epic apocalyptic book) the doors of the New
Jerusalem “do not shut.”  Can there be second chances for folks to get
in?  To live in the perfect new world God is bringing?  Some have mocked
him for even asking, but I’ve seen odder things drawn from small

But my point is that this can hardly even be entertained as a question without the broader background that Bell is pushing us towards: all of life redeemed, heaven is coming into human history, love wins because God is reconciling everything.  Just like Colossians 1 says. 

So it is this framework, a new way of thinking about the end of the
Bible story, that so shapes Bell’s hunches about hell.  He does note in the book and in his interviews that we have to admit that all of this is speculation—we don’t have many post-mortem witnesses to what is on the other side of death’s door, let alone what will happen in the future.  So he is candid about that, in a way his critics ought to be too.  Some of the exceptional confidence of these critics just smells like hubris, or as one reasonable friend thinks, just silly.  Who knows for sure?  Not Rob Bell or Justin Taylor.

This background stuff is
the real contribution he makes, and one of the values I see in all of his work. 
Bell insists that heaven is coming to Earth—creation regained is one
way of saying it, or new creation, or Kingdom come.  God is bringing
renewal and life to the planet Christ died for, so our faith is oriented
towards being agents of God’s transformation rather than declaring that
we agree with a certain dogma that assures us of salvation. 

We follow a
Jewish Messiah, not merely agree with the proposition that he died for our sins, because He inaugurates heaven on Earth. It is no accident, many have
observed, that Jesus’ very first sermon identifies
Himself as the Messiah and insists that He is bringing to reality the Year of
Jubilee, with its stunning multi-faceted call to shalom and human
flourishing.  Forgiveness of sins and forgiveness of debt, release for
the poor and for the prisoner, healing for the land and for their
systems of economy.  This is good news, indeed, and it is Jesus’ first
sermon!  Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder was correct to link Leviticus 25 and Isaiah 62 and Luke 4 and call it “the politics of Jesus” (although I heard this first from some Orthodox Presbyterians, I think, showing us how to read the Bible in the “historical redemptive” style.  It got some of them, as conservative Calvinists, to protest oil pipelines messing up the Canadian environment in the mid 1970s, and it got pretty controversial, this Jubilee vision for creation care.  But I digress.) 

Of course the rest of the story is part of the Jubilee inauguration, too.  Jesus goes on to teach at the end of Luke 4 that
non-Jews—outsiders and enemies—may be getting in on this, too, and
when the good church-going folks who were so happy to hear his words
of hope (for them) realized what he was saying, they turned on him.  They wanted to kill him!  I guess I’d
say, Watch out Rob Bell—this generous vision of an inclusive Jubilee
year of freedom for all creation which might include God’s enemies could get you in bigger trouble than
some bloggers calling you cranky names.

A  detail emerges from Bell’s rejection of Platonism and embrace
of a new creation ministry: the very notion of an eternal soul
disembodied from humans made in the image of God is itself a troublesome
construct, owing more to the body/soul dichotomy of Plato than any
seriously Biblical vision.  He doesn’t say any of this directly, mind
you, and I am doing a bit of midrash mash-up, I guess.  

You know the word in the Bible for “soul” is the same word as “guts” or
“bowels” or even “corpse” so while we certainly can talk about the deep
center of a multi-faceted person made in God’s own image, it is best
translated  “heart” and we should not see ourselves as “having” a soul,
as if there is some ghosty thing bouncing around inside somewhere
between your ribcage and your kidneys (let alone in your frontal lobe, as some are saying.)  The Bible simply does not teach

So God is not in the business of saving souls, but of forgiving
and healing people who are invited into union with God in Christ–his righteousness imputed and God’s
image restored to us.  God does the saving work to rescue his planet, and us, and
we are those who proclaim it, even to “all creation” as it says in Mark
16:15—ahh, St. Francis had it right, somehow, in talking to the
animals, eh?  What would his critics think if Bell did a Nooma video on that

Perhaps the most serious and most significant book about the meaning of the imago dei, that allusive phrase about being made in the image of God, by the way, is by Richard Middleton (yes, the co-author of Transforming Vision and of Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be), The Liberating Image: The Image of God in Genesis 1 (Brazos.) 
It is exceptionally scholarly but one of the richest works of Biblical
studies I’ve ever waded through. And very germane to this topic, if in a
somewhat behind-the-scenes way.  Wanna bet that Rob Bell has read it?  I am positive, if you are serious, you will understand this whole conversation better if you were to read it, even though it isn’t simple to connect the dots between this properly Hebrew view of the person and Bell’s speculations about heaven and hell.

Bell’s claim that all people get to get in on this great, gracious accomplishment
of God’s redemptive acts can best be understood in the context of
this broad vision inspired by the claim that Christ is reconciling all
things to Himself.  His revulsion of the notion of a vengeful God
torturing people while happy souls float in heaven is not only a sense
of God being more loving than that, but it is rooted in his
understanding of the gospel news of God’s work being bigger than that. 

This is controversial, but scholars and solid leaders like Eugene
Peterson and Richard Mouw, as I’ve noted, but not sure I’ve agreed with,
assure us that in their estimation, even if they disagree with some of
his more flamboyant ideas, they think he is within the bounds of
historic, Christian orthodoxy.  Still, it is pretty clear that even if
Bell gives us a broader, more Biblically-driven reason for God’s
inclusive purposes (yes, he trots out the legitimately perplexing verse
where Jesus says he has “sheep in other folds”) Bell’s hope that love
wins over everybody is not based on any one proof text but dozens of
verses that say “all things” “all creation” “all nations” “all people”
all, all, all. This is no meager “oh God just has to be nice to people” or
“come on, sin isn’t that bad” but a full-on admission that there is hell
on earth, evil, brokenness and great, great pain.  We are sinners and sinned
against, things are foul and we hurt and creation groans and God weeps with us.  And intends to rescue
us, all.

The point here is that it is this sweeping
understanding of the full comprehensive impact of Christ’s cosmic
redemptive work that leads him to reject notions of
irreversible, eternal damnation for most of humankind.

So.  I’ve insisted that knowing this background–rejecting dualism and
embracing an Earthly Kingdom come–is the key to appreciate
his newly framed discussion about heaven and hell.

Read this lovely interview with Bell by
his friend, writer Cathleen Falsini and see if my thesis rings true to
his own description of the book and how it came about. Is my midrash getting at something?  He doesn’t say
it the way I do, but I hear shades of my description between the lines. 

Brian McLaren has been under the same sorts of attacks as Bell by those
who find his views to be heretical and he has been called every name
under the sun.  This is not the place for a full survey of Brian’s
theology, but he has been working on a theme that is quite germane to
this conversation, and really unpacked it in his last book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Tranforming the Faith (HarperOne.) I have read all of his books and count him as a friend and I think it would be fruitful to compare his journey with that of Bell’s.  McLaren has worked on the same important conviction that Bell speaks of in the very beginning of Love Wins,
where he says that some who tell a bad or unfaithful version of the
Christian story have “hijacked” it, taught it and confused many about
essential things.  (Ahh, the ironies are thick here, since that is
exactly what their critics say about them.)  Hang in there with me as I do a little more midrash, discerning some connections between the two authors/storytellers that might be helpful to consider.

I do not know if McLaren and Bell are friends, and Bell
has not identified himself with the emergent village, the ooze, or other
emergent conversations that Brian has been a midwife to.  They are not at the
same theological place these days, but their concerns are similar and
their analysis of Western culture and the church’s accommodation

They both use the language of story, and telling a better sort of story about the gospel.   Bell and McLaren believe that the reduction of Christianity
to a “fire insurance” policy to “evacuate us to someplace else” (even if
that is called heaven and is given a happy or weighty reputation because God is
there) is simply not what the Bible is about.  In different ways and with different nuances, all sorts of moderate
evangelical scholars would agree;  this isn’t that
outlandish—consider N.T. Wright,  Leslie Newbigin,  Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness, John Stott, Ronald Sider, Nicholas Wolterstorff,  Dallas
Willard, Alister McGrath, Eugene Peterson, Tim Keller, James Houston, Scot McKnight, Tom and Christine Sine, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Chuck Colson, Andy Crouch, Phil Yancey, and nearly all the missional leaders writing these days.   Or recall the great thinkers from our past, from Augustine to Ignatius to
Luther to Calvin to Wesley to Kuyper to Edwards to Bonhoeffer to Martin Luther King to Billy Graham or Rick Warren.  (Catholic and Orthodox thinkers have yet
another nuanced take on this but are certainly close to this “new
creation” Kingdom-on-Earth” eschatology that I’ve described and their influence on Bell is evident, too, I think.)  So the move to reclaim broader notions of discipleship and cultural engagement or “waiting around until the rapture” is reputable and good

Fire-insurance assurance so you can avoid hell when you die is not what
Jesus’ gospel was  and, again, all serious Bible scholars observe that
whenever Jesus said “the gospel” in the synoptics, it was linked to that phrase, the Kingdom of God, which was at hand.  McLaren
explicates all this nicely (with some provocative suggestions) in The Secret Jesus Message of Secret: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything
(Nelson.)  So far, I think they are on to something huge—Dutch
heavy-weight scholar Hermann Ridderbos wrote a massive, tedious volume
that influenced me years ago called The Coming of the Kingdom (P&R) and Wesleyan scholar and missionary Howard Snyder works with it very nicely in The Community of the King, a book that we still vigorously recommend.  Do you know Kingdom Come: How Jesus Wants to Change the World
by Alan Wakabayashi (IVP)? Alan was a para-church
evangelist for years when it dawned on him that Jesus was always talking
about the Kingdom, it was near, within, close at hand, and his parables
were often illustrations of what the Kingdom was like.  He realized he
never told anybody about God’s reign breaking into history and set out
to do a study of the theme of the Kingdom and how it might influence his
ordinary life and ministry and evangelism. 

I do not mean to say that
McLaren and these authors are similar, or that Bell has been influenced by them directly; not
at all.  I am making a collage, showing recent work being done on this vital theme that can be arranged together. 
And that is a very big piece of the background in order to understand–really
understand–Bell’s popularity amongst younger evangelicals who are also
learning about missional, Kingdom visions and Kingdom approaches to
cultural reform and actually inviting people to accept Christ’s cross
and enter the Kingdom.

Many evangelicals are increasingly talking about the overarching and inter-connected
Biblical themes, the chapters in the Story, as
creation-fall-redemption-consumation/restoration.  That is, the gospel
is not only about knowing God, making much of God, as if that will be what happens in
eternity in a creation-less context, like in some beatific vision (as John Piper’s The Gospel is God: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself (Crossway) seems
to suggest.  Still, though, it is a very inspiring book, asking things like
“would you want to be in heaven if Jesus were not there?” It’s just out in a paperback edition and I intend to re-read it this Lent.)  Well–I’ll
say this to see if your following: thankfully, that isn’t a question we
have to worry about since we and Jesus will not be “in heaven.”  Jesus
is returning to Earth and God will dwell with us once again.  (Yes, it’s
that restored creation of the new city in Revelation 21 and 22, again.)  It is fair to say, I’d say, that I hope I’m “left behind” since the end of the Bible teaches that Jesus is on his way back, to establish His throne on a (renewed) Earth.

Further, this four-chapter version of the full gospel is not mostly about being forgiven of our
sins, although we must be forgiven and justified through the death of
Christ on the cross in order to enter the Kingdom and be able to know God.  The shape and
flow of the story in the Bible–the narrative that God has given to us
in the shape of the canon and the chronology of the history of
redemption—includes more than the middle two chapters–fall and
redemption, guilt and grace.  That is, the Bible is not just about sinners who need justified
or guilt that needs removed.

As Bryan Chapell puts it in the new Gospel Coalition booklet What Is the Gospel (Crossway)

The Bible uses the term to refer to the message that God has fulfilled his promise to send a Savior to rescue broken people, restore creation’s glory, and rule over all with compassion and justice….God’s rescue, restoration, and rule apply to our spiritual condition but are not limited to spiritual realities.  Through Jesus Christ, our God delivers his people from the eternal consequences of human sin that have touched everything.  Our salvation includes us, but it’s also bigger than we are.  

 The gospel is about a good world that has gone way wrong and how God’s redemptive
purpose is to call a people to Himself and send them forth to be agents
of the news that He is going to redeem the planet at His own great
initiative and cost.  It is not incidental that many people’s favorite
verse (John 3:16) speaks of cosmic salvation: for God so loves the
, the whole created order, and yet most people see it as a verse
about their own personal relationship with God.  Ahh, the old Platonic
dualism—that God isn’t really interested in the stuff of Earth and our
faith is mostly private and personal and the cross is mostly about
sinners getting saved—plagues us still.  It is exactly why I scolded Max Lucado
(use the search feature at the blog if you want) for his study 3:16 which misses this entirely!  And it is why I am so pleased to be [soon] stocking the forthcoming art book Art That Tells a Story
edited by Chris Brewer (Gospel Through Lived Experience) that uses
contemporary artists and wise commentary by Michael Witmer to explore
this four-chapter overview of the Bible.  What a wonderful coffee table gift book this is going to be!

 We are passionate about helping people understand the scope of the gospel, and it is clear to me that we must frame it the way the Bible does, starting with the creation, exploring the vast consequences of sin and dysfunction, celebrating the vast and costly work of redemption in Jesus killed and rise, and hoping with all our might—hungering and thirsting for–the full restoration of the planet with the gospel’s promises are finally consummated.   Do you know any evangelistic tracts that say that?  Churches that preach that?  No wonder Bell is so controversial; most Christians simply don’t even know what the gospel really is! 

McLaren, by the way, in his novel The Story We Find Ourselves In,
offers maybe 8 “chapters” to the story, each starting with the letter
C, as I recall.  Sean Gladding in his very, very creatively written Bible overview with lots of first-person, fictionalized conversations, The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible
(IVP) also offers chapters that all start with C.  Creation, Chaos,
Covenant…you know, Christ, Community… The connection between “this
world and the next” as we sometimes say, is Biblically described as the
relationship between creation, covenant, Christ and consummation. 

Rob Bell and McLaren expose as Biblically unfaithful this other narrative of
evacuation, of souls getting saved, and the planet being burned as we fly to heaven. They are right to do so.  This
does not underestimate the role of the cross, but heightens it.  Jesus
is not a personal buddy of your little Platonic soul but the King of all
creation, the Lord of Lords, the Risen Victor and Reigning King.  We
must reject the “evacuation” version of salvation—“This world is not
my home, I’m just a-passin’ through” as the old spiritual puts it or
“I’m only visiting this planet” as Larry Norman and DC Talk sung it or
“the things of Earth will go strangely dim” as the old hymn
re-popularized by the Passion worship leaders strangely puts it.  I am astonished when I ask “which parts of the Earth do you think Jesus wants you to see more dimly–the mountains, the poor, your marriage, your work?  What should we care less about once we ponder God’s glory?” and people are shocked that I dare criticize the nonsense in that bad line. 

Bell seems to remind us to read the Bible on its own terms and not super-impose Platonic,
Western or evangelical biases onto the narratives. As I understand it,
this is a good part of the question about what some call “the new
perspective on Paul” that attempts to read Romans, for instance, as a
narrative, communal and written to Jews and Gentiles fuming in Rome, and
not isolated texts about personal salvation, no matter how useful the
“Romans Road” verses have been in personal evangelism. I do not know
enough to affirm all of that, but the concern it raises is a good
one. (In his new book Brian McLaren explains that he was shocked to realize he may have misunderstood this central book of the New Testament and re-read it, using it in his daily devotions, with a paper and pad, reconsidering it in light of Wright’s important Romans commentary. He notes that it seems Romans is less a proclamation of the gospel as an answer to a problem caused by the gospel–how can Jews and Gentiles get along in the re-united Romans church after the Jews, who had been exiled from the city, came back a few decades later and wondered why the Gentile Christians had changed everything. Other commentaries miss that, reading it in light of certain medieval and reformation era legal understandings and ignoring the social context.  Fascinating!)

McLaren’s recent New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions
(HarperCollins) makes a larger case about the Bible being hijacked and I do not know if it has
influenced Bell or not.  Brian, in a long footnote, cautions himself
that he ought not to overstate or oversimplify this exciting new
discovery, so he is aware that he may be making a bit too much of it. 
But his larger case is not just that Greek dualism of a neo-Platonic
source (where the body is bad and the soul lives on without it) has
perverted a proper reading of the Bible, but also that Roman imperial views of conquest, violence, vengeance and
retribution deformed our thinking.  Views of what is static, what
creation was–perfect in the sense of Greek philosophy?–what the “fall” was, what is meant by redemption, the
nature of eternity and and so forth are grounded in presuppositions that
need themselves to be re-constructed, interpreting them in light of the
Bible, not the other way around.

I need not explain his full case, but he shows how a Greco-Roman
fascination about eternal perfection and violence (Mars was the god of that) really did allow many earliest believers to weirdly
misconstrue much of the trajectory of the gospel story.  Jesus, as you
know, was frustrated by his disciples latent violence (he calls them
demonic for wishing fire on their enemies and rebukes Peter for that
damnable sword wielding in Gethsemane.)  McLaren documents that this
admixture of Greek dualism and Roman rationalism and imperial power
shaped the theological imagination in late antiquity.  Although McLaren
doesn’t go into it much, Constantine’s 4th century role in this is
legendary (although contested; see the brilliant Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom
by Peter Liethart (IVP) which helpfully explores the implications of
the edict of Milan in 313.  It would take a less critical view than
McLaren and Bell would, and offers a serious corrective to the currently
favored critique.)

Anyway, McLaren does show how philosophies, hardened into what we now
call ideologies, left their mark on the Fathers and the rise of the
church, through the reformation and into today.   And part of that mark
was their view of hell and judgment and the church’s expansion in terribly brutal ways.  It is easier, we all must agree, to brutalize others when we suppose they are brutes, and it is easier to treat people meanly if we think God opposes them.  It can be carried too far, and their are gorgeous examples of self-sacrificing missionaries who died bringing hope to the lost, but we must admit that our views of hell have sometimes been used to justify great terror.

Actually, Brian was struggling with this earlier in the last decade when
he wrote that trilogy of novels (each more interesting than the one
before) about a pastor grappling with the intellectual shift to
postmodernity.  The second, which introduced those “c” words, The Story We Find Ourselves In
(Jossey Bass) was really how a narrative-based progressive revelation
model of the unfolding story of the Bible makes sense of its
difficulties, inconsistencies and hard issues. The third novel, called The Last Word (And the Word After That) was on this large question, the one Bell takes up in Love Wins:
if God is indeed making all things (re)newed and has promised to mend
the cosmos, and the Bible is the great news of how the love of Christ is
at the center of this reclamation project, then what in the world do we
do with the notion of hell?  Is everything made new except most
people?  Does God heal the whole universe, except that dark spot where
the unrepentant live in torment forever?  Is that consistent with the
story (either the facts of the teaching about hell and the trajectory of
the narrative arch?)

In this creative novel format the college age students of the newly postmodern pastor raise


this question among their evangelical fellowship group. (This is not
recommended, by the way, as it does not go well.) The facts about the
history of the ideas of hell are explored and explained. It is a clever
device, really, where the father and his young adult children have to
figure out, or at least try to, why this seemingly inconsistent aspect
of eternal anguish for millions seems so non-negotiable for so many;
like in the response Brian got from the book, and like Bell is getting
now, to even ask the question creates a lot of anxiety and controversy. 
In the novel the characters set out to study the topic, reading studies
from Mesopotamia, ideas about the afterlife from Persia, theories about
how the early church got hoodwinked into accepting Zoroastrians’ view
of eternal fire (a case that is fairly informed and compelling, by the
way.)  The novel, and the stuff the protagonists learn, is well
footnoted and makes for intriguing reading.  That was in 2004.  Now, in
his newest study, McLaren has added to this assessment that the early
church learned some assumptions about spiteful violence for the
conquered not from the suffering servant, the Lamb who was slain, but
from Mars and his Roman disciples.

Let me say, again, that I am not sure if Bell has bought any of this, or
if he has even read McLaren, the novel about hell or the new one that
addresses it.  Bell certainly does not say it just the way McLaren
does.  But they are following some parallel tracks.

Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat wrote an extraordinarily important study called Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire
(IVP) about, among other things, how Greco-Roman presuppositions and
ideological values are deconstructed by the Christ-centered,
anti-imperial insights of the subversive Kingdom-of-God vision in the
God-written, Pauline letter to the Colossians.  You may know that I
endorsed it (alongside some serious scholars) and found it truly a
ground-breaking work of Biblical study.  Colossians Remixed may
not grapple with the questions of hell, but it exposes, though creative
exegesis and solid insight about Old and New Testaments, how in this
one example (contemporary Colossians commentaries and, by extension,
much of the whole enterprise of evangelical Bible study) the radical
anti-Imperial power of the text has been muted, how we’ve studied it
using methods more modernist than Biblical, and how Christ’s regime and
God’s Word through the text has been marginalized.

Consequently, in the academic literature on the texts (although it is
slowly changing) as well as in our typical preaching, study, worship and
devotional life, the Christian community has too often been co-opted by
the powers of consumerism.  (Have you seen the fascinating and
remarkable book on how we’ve even turned God into a consumer good, The Divine Commodity: Christian Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity
by Skye Jethanie (Zondervan)? Rob Bell endorses very few books (for
being such a popular author himself.)  He gives a nice blurb on this,
and it makes perfect sense.  Bell is sociologically savvy, he gets this
critique of consumerism as an ideology and worries about marketing. 
(They are a mega-church after all but, despite what I said the other
day, they do not have a light show.)

This stuff has been argued well by Walter Brueggemann in one of the top
handful of books I’ve ever read, one I’ve tackled three times, The Prophetic Imagination
(Fortress.)  Being in exile as a faithful counter-narrative to the
dominant ways of life around us is common fare for Brueggy, and grounds
it beautifully in his immense knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The
large portion of Bible teaching by Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton
in Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, influenced by themes from Brueggemann, predated and in some ways predicted Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire—and
modeled radical ways to read Biblical texts in their socio-political
context and allow them to tranform us into agents of God’s work in the
world, even against idols and injustice.


The North American secularized consumerist way of life, coupled with
ecological disregard and support for nationalism and militarism has
consistently polluted a faithful understanding and discipleship and Colossians Remixed
powerfully illustrates how the Bible, properly unleashed to shape our
loyalties and lifestyles, can, as the subtitle says, subvert the
empire.  I know that McLaren and Bell have been influenced by this and
other similar new Biblical scholars (Chad Meyers who wrote a truly
outstanding and game-changing Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Orbis)
comes to mind.)  Many of them were influenced by older mentors like
Walter Brueggemann and Jorgen Multmann and N.T. Wright.

I name Colossians Remixed not at all because it deals with
the topic of hell and not because Walsh or Keesmaat agree with Bell (I
don’t know about that.)  I do know they have been guests at Mars Hill and–as with
McLaren’s novel about new ways to read the Bible, even–have helped
many of us approach the Scriptures in powerful and fruitful ways.  Not
unlike what the Beavers say about Aslan in Narnia—he is good but not
safe—it might be interesting to seek ways to help unlock the Bible’s
transforming power in our midst.  Brian’s chapters in the new book, New
Kind of Christianity were he makes the case that Greco-Roman readings
see the Bible as a “legal constitution” but his approach invites us to
consider it more as a “community library” is laden with problems but
surely an legitimate insight.

Again, my point in all this is to help you understand Bell’s view of the
Bible (and perhaps refute the goofballs on the internet who say he
doesn’t believe the Bible, blah, blah blah.)  I think reading the couple
of chapters of McLaren’s recent one, or enjoying his older novel, would
give some illumination to the matter.   I do not know if Bell has
worked out a coherent and faithful view of the Bible or what his
practices really are as a preacher of the Word, week by week.  But he is
on a journey.  These other authors are, too and they point us to stand
under the narrative and hear its implications.  Even if they are
provocative, subversive and, like Mrs. Beaver said, “not safe.” 

In 2008 both Brian and Rob released important new books, both which were
more politically engaged (and perhaps more rooted in Bible study, too)
than anything they’ve done previously.  They were McLaren’s Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises and a Revolution of Hope (Nelson) and Bell’s Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile
(Zondervan.)  The McLaren book, interestingly, was given a brighter
cover and a different subtitle when they released it in paperback (sales
were disappointing.)  It now carries the subtitle When The World’s Greatest Problems and Jesus’ Good News Collide

Both books move from this Kingdom-coming, creation-restoring,
generously orthodox view of living out discipleship in artful, upbeat
“heaven on Earth” ways to this fairly serious socio-cultural criticism,
breaking with the idols of the age, and reading serious social critics,
from Jacques Ellul to Bob Goudzewaard to Wendell Berry. They rejected
privatized faith and otherworldly piety (Greek-influenced) along with
their rejection of simplistic doctrinal systematic thinking
(Enlightenment-based) towards a more postmodern and evocative and
narrative approach, a way of living into faith that is less driven by
certitude than trust, more drawn to the person of Jesus than
propositions about Him. And they linked that to God’s liberating work in the world, especially in light of climate change, health crisis, war and global poverty.

Interestingly, McLaren wrote that he was less
interested in being seen as emergent or postmodern and seemed now to be
post-colonial. Brian says that about himself in an important essay in
the rousing Emergent Manifesto of Hope edited by Doug Pagitt & Tony Jones (Zondervan.)

There is no doubt that Don Golden of World Relief has been an influence on Bell; in the
jesus-wants-to-save-christians.jpg acknowledgments in Love Wins
he tells people to call him up and talk about stuff like
micro-financing and measurable development goals in the third world. 
You can see a bit about his excellent work at World Relief,  here.  Golden co-wrote Jesus Wants to Save Christians
which is, I think, the most Bible-centered of Bell’s work. Even there,
though, there are shades of a new kind of universalism. In contrast to
what he suggests are the ways of the old covenant he says that in Christ
we now have this new experience of God’s love.  “No more fear.  No more
terror. No more thunder.”   

Both McLaren and Bell both began to talk a lot more about social
justice, preaching from the prophets and reading global theologians, and
paying attention to issues like the debt crisis and AIDS/HIV and the
marginalization of the GLBT community. That they both spent time in
Africa and had their good hearts rent by the sorrows there at the start
of the century surely must have shaped their theological and pastoral
work.  This is understandable and good; theology must be contextualized
and if they are hearing the cries of the world, the earth, the poor, the
disaffected, and doing Biblical interpretation in ways that makes sense
in these situations, they are to be applauded. 

In the first part of my review in the last post I cited Jesus’ line “by
their fruits you shall know them” and it bears saying again at this
point; Mars Hill has become known as a place that is involved in justice
advocacy on many fronts. Bell is passionate about the issues in Africa,
the campaign to stop the inhumanity of sexual trafficking, the effort
to get clean water to those who need it.  In more than one place he
talks about his trip to Rwanda and seeing the horrors there.  Brian,
too, has increasingly been writing for Sojo blog and is seeking to make a
contribution to the common good in the public square.  (And he
continues to volunteer caring for turtles, a favorite pastime of his.)

Are they going off the rails a bit, unmooring their ways of describing
their work in the Kingdom in a manner that is no longer essentially
related to the historic, orthodox faith?  Have they stayed theologically
impeccable in these things—like, say, Ron Sider or Gary Haugen or Lynne Hybells—or
have their awareness of the troubles of traditionally understood faith
lead them to renounce too much of solid standard theology?  I don’t know
but many thoughtful critics fear they have gone too far, generally. 
And certainly in both of their newest books we have reasons to think that.

I believe that it is good that these leaders have pushed us to reject
simplistic evangelical answers that may not be able to be sustained in
the face of the anguishes of our times. Bell and McLaren, despite
theologically concerns that I have with both of them, have deepened the
ways they understood the reign of God over all things, and increasingly
promoted ancient spiritual practices (indeed, Brian has written two
books about spirituality, Finding Our Way Again, the first in that lovely and diverse “Ancient Practices” series (published by Nelson) and the brand new Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words (HarperOne.)

It seems that McLaren is more articulate and interested in ancient
spiritual practices while Rob seems to be less so—he’s all about
connecting with the energy of God 24/7, not unlike the spiritual
classic, Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. The 019 Nooma DVD, Open, is exactly about this, realizing prayer is more than just asking God for things.  (Indeed, an early Nooma, 005 Noise, is about silence, which was followed up by Nooma
006, Kickball, which was a excellent teaching on unanswered pray, clear and solid as can be.) 

This recent interest in the mystical path combined with the task of
social engagement is not at all a contradiction: bringing together
prayer and politics, so to speak, is wise and helpful and essential for
long-term social engagement, as our best faith-based activists have
learned.  That Bell has been in a rock band, loves music and artistic
culture, and has drawn many cultural creatives and bohemians to Mars
Hill is not incidental, either; he properly realizes that the arts can
play a large role in people’s spiritual lives.  In fact, even in his
first book (Velvet Elvis, a call to return to the origins
of an authentic and dangerous Jesus) he has a whole chapter rejecting
the [Platonic] dichotomy between the so-called sacred and secular.  

relationship between the “journey inward and the journey outward” and
an attentiveness to the ways God can be experienced in ordinary life has
been described many ways and some of the interesting and nourishing writers–Thomas
Merton, say, or Richard Rohr, Howard Thurman, Tilden Edwards, Parker Palmer— are not particularly evangelical or theologically clear-headed. 
Some of the best contemplatives writing today, though, are clearly
rooted in the evangelical tradition. Richard Foster comes to mind as a shining example here, of course, as done Ruth Haley Barton, Richard Benner, Gary Thomas, Lynn Baab, Eugene Peterson, John Ortberg and Dallas
Willard.  I name these authors not necessarily because they show up at
Mars Hill or are notable influences upon Rob Bell (in fact, Bell in Love Wins recommends only the recent mystical books of popular Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr (Everything Belongs and The Naked Now which
I enjoyed but found perplexingly non-Christological, especially the
second.) This whole field, though, illustrates a robust tradition of
lived spirituality that Bell seems to tracking with.  

Some of his recent remarks sound a bit like the lovely An Altar in The World: The Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne.)  The chapter in Love Wins
where he talks about Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 saying that Jesus was the
rock from which water flowed in Exodus (you recall, when Moses whacked
it with a staff) is a creative exploration of how, if Christ shows up in
rocks, he can show up anywhere. The chapter is called “There Are Rocks
Everywhere” and I loved most of it.  The exegesis is fine and the logic

However.  I fear he verges on pantheism when he overstates things near
the end of that otherwise fascinating chapter.  I will cut him some
slack here since he is using words to describe the ineffable and because
the Bible itself sometimes takes some weird liberties (like the one he
mentions, calling Jesus the rock from that desert in Exodus 17) such as
the extraordinary statement that trees clap their hands or that God’s
character can be known through nature (Romans 1) or the appropriation of
pagan poetry (“in him we move and have our being”) to say something
true about Yahweh even though it was written about a false deity. 

God shows up in all sorts of ways in the
Bible—including a story in Numbers about a talking ass owned by guy
named Balaam, which I take to be true and the Earth is said to be charged with the glory of God—but the charge of pantheism still does worry me.  Get
a grip on this, Rob. It has been hinted at in each of your books and we
don’t want you dropping off that edge—there has decidedly not been
a conversation in the wide stream of orthodoxy about that.  Get God
that wrong–confused with the creation–and everything will head south.  Besides, vapid, new age advocates are big right now (like that guy Oprah loves)
and I think it would be wiser to be clearer.

In all of this, their understanding of the Bible, their subversive
politics, their social justice agenda, their prayerfully sacramental
view of spirituality in God’s creation, I think Bell & McLaren have been sometimes
misunderstood and the typical evangelical reaction has been to resist
these insights, sometimes in a mighty reactionary way.  Circle those wagons!  Denounce the heretics!   Now I think that each of these topics and the new ideas these two authors promote are laden with some perplexities and neither author has
been as theologically traditional in their approach as I might wish. 
But despite slippery slopes and a penchant (in Rob’s case, especially,
for equivocation and poetic license) I still think they are well worth
reading and helpful to the whole people of God.  I get the concern.  I don’t get the resistance. 

They’ve not been studied carefully enough on their own terms and few
have understood the stuff about the importance of creation and the way
Augustine and Aquinas (for instance) allowed Plato and Aristotle to
shape their views and writings, and how the Bible is not merely a set of
propositional truths but is, as one great intro to the Bible puts it,
the true story of the whole world.  Why haven’t those consider with gospel purity complimented them on this?  Are those most aligned with conservative theology also aligned with conservative culture and the latter blinds them to the questions?  Are some of those fighting about exegetical details so out of touch with the hurts of the aching world that they can’t realize the voices of pain that guys like Bell and McLaren represent, the disillusion and wounded and frustrated?  I wonder sometimes, although we may not make rash accusations either way…

McLaren calls for new paradigms (a pretty needed thing, in my book)
although some careful readers have suggested that his “new” answers are a
lot like the older liberal theologians of the 19th century.  That
didn’t work out so well, as we all know… still, it is my strong
conviction that reading McLaren or Bell as if it is the same old liberal
vs conservative, traditionalist vs progressive, evangelical vs mainline
debates is not as helpful, insightful, or honest as the conversation
should be.  I’ve explained why Bell ought to be considered within this
larger context of his (proper) shift to a “all of life redeemed” kind of
wholistic spirituality, a position that is Biblically-wise and generally a more truthful approach than the dualism and scholasticism of the critics.  Which is to say, they are rejecting stuff that
needs to be rejected, offering new dreams in place of some that,
frankly, were not authentically Biblical enough in the first place.  They are not simply 19th century social gospel liberals and it is a mischaracterization, I believe, to say that.  And, maybe, some of the insight of the 19th century social gospel liberals should be considered as part of what could be learned… (do I hear an Amen from my mainline liberal friends?  If  you’re still with me?)

Still, yet once again, the call to pay attention to them generously and to appreciate their efforts does not mean that they are correct, either in their assessments or their new directions.  Being
dissatisfied with the past or seeing some legitimate weaknesses in the
faith does not give you warrant to conjure up crazy new ideas, or recycle
bankrupt old ones.  Here is one very useful conversation partner with
Brian, one who has been very critical of his last book, who fears he is doing just that. It is from Scot
McKnight.  See his serious critique here.)

On one hand, I wish they Rob and Brian were a bit more eager to name their journey
as essentially one of evangelical fidelity; that is my wish, but they
may feel less confident about the usefulness of that word or the
tradition it represents. Bell does call himself an evangelical, although he may stretch the definition a bit,  and
certainly insists his views represent a legitimate position within the
wide stream of Christian.

Either way, as a brief interview with Eugene Peterson (who says the book
doesn’t compromise an inch on orthodoxy) puts it, “Rob Bell and anyone
else who is baptized is my brother or my sister.  We have different ways
of looking at things, but we are all a part of the kingdom of God.”  He
continued, “I don’t agree with everything Rob Bell says.  But I think
they are worth saying.  I think he puts a voice into the whole
evangelical world which, if people will listen to it, will put you on
your guard against judging people to quickly, making rapid dogmatic
judgments on people.”  And, he reminds us—the point, I suppose, of my
long excursions—that we need to reexamine our doctrines of hell and
damnation.  Peterson says, “Yes, I guess I do think they ought to
reexamine.  They ought to be a good bit more Biblical, not taking things
out of context.”  

Or, Bell and McLaren might say, misinterpret the texts
because we have Greco-Roman bifocals on that have badly colored our
understanding in ways that are more from Plato or Caesar, Zeus or Mars
than from our first century Jewish rabbi who claimed to be the long-awaited
Jewish Messiah.

Much of this is is my own nearly four-decade learning curve since I saw the very first issues of The Post American (the edgier and more provocative underground paper that became Sojourners) that showed me that I was not alone in my Jesus-Freak anti-war efforts.  In the mid-70s I read Francis Schaeffer and later, a bit of Herman Dooyeweerd, the
Dutch philosopher who exposed intellectual synthesis with the Greeks as
the Achilles Heel of the roots of Western culture and the lynchpin of reformational renewal.  (That is, if we don’t get at
the alleged autonomy of Western thought and invite folks to a robust
understanding of the Lordship of Christ–even in our thinking—then we
will fail and God will not be honored and our culture will spiral
downward.)   My own journey as a reader has been diverse, and I really enjoy and learn from all kinds of authors, as I am sure you do.

My old hero Philip Berrigan wrote one of the most moving prison memoirs I have seen, although his poetic brother Daniel gave me a new view of the book of Revelation.  Beth had been reading Jacques Ellul and we both were inspired by the old anti-racist Baptist preacher, Clarance Jordon.  So I was naturally drawn to scholar, sociologist and anti-war political candidate, Tony Campolo as he combined the intellectual tools of Francis Schaeffer and the social justice rhetoric of Jim Wallis.  Ron Sider, a solid evangelical if ever there was one, has had a huge influence.  (Did you see his recent open letters to young evangelicals on the need to do evangelism alongside their passion for justice, and the need to hold to traditional sexual ethics?)  And these are just a few of my favorite, varied authors… 

I loved the Christian art world, too, Hans Rookmaaker and Luci Shaw and Madeline L’Engle, the ways with words of Frederick Buechner, books on worldview and writing like How To Read Slowly by James Sire. And life stories, memoirs and fiction, too.

 We have had an environmental science section in our bookstore since we first opened and happily there are now evangelical publishers doing some green stuff.  We love the “nature writers” like Annie Dillard or Terry Tempest Williams or Brenda Peterson.  And Wendell Berry, since the day we opened.

 You see, this rejection of dualism and this wide-as-life view of redemption–we can build an “altar in the world” as Barbara Brown Taylor’s book says—really has set us up to both care about good theology but to realize that theological formulation is only one (small?) aspect of God’s world and Christian discipleship.  That is, I think we can develop our doctrine from reading Piper and Bell, but it also comes from Makoto Fujimura’s paintings, and his writings about his paintings, or from Flannery O’Connor’s novels or from Martin Luther King’s first memoir, Stride Toward Freedom.  Scholars who want to parse the theological texts are right to do so, but let us realize that in this whole-life discipleship kind of vision, our worldviews and walk of faith are not essentially doctrinal.  We walk by faith, not by dogma.  We live into the reign of God in all we do, and that includes, but is not characterized by, theological precision.

 This worldview shapes some of what is behind our book
selection and tendencies here at the bookstore; it is no accident that
we are known for books on the arts, science, business, politics and
media studies, race relations and sports and technology studies; we care
about the vocation of the laity in the world because we’ve come to
reject this Greco-Roman worldview that leads to compartmentalized faith
and a merely churchy faith. We are not serious philosophers here, but do
want to promote this radical social critique based on a wholistic view
of Biblical discipleship, aware of the deforming influences of faith
that has been accommodated with the Greco-Roman and Enlightenment
presuppositions.  I am not saying that this is exactly what Rob or Brian
are about, far from it.  But I see in my own deepest convictions and
callings a similar set of concerns, and I see their insights as valuable
and a blessing to the world in may ways. 

This is not uncommon, really, to realize that there has been
inappropriate worldly influences upon church history and it is important
to try to think this through and ride ourselves of these notions that
are foreign to the Biblical setting itself.  Interestingly, this is a
large part of the fantastic book by Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. (IVP)  I implored college students at a large conference last month to buy Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World By Being Different by Tullian Tchividjian (Multnomah) because it warns us not to take commonly accepted contemporary cultural assumptions to heart: the gospel calls us to be “non-conformed to the ways of this world.”  Whether we hear McLaren critique our acquiescence to the gods of Mars or Bell critique our sacred-secular dualisms or hear remind us that relevance and being cool is not where it’s at, we are prodded to think hard about the textures of fidelity.

Thanks be to God that Bell and McLaren have helped us search for a more
pure faith, disentangled from Western philosophy, militarism, and civil
religious ideologies.  And praise the Triune God for the way pastors
like Bell remind us that “everything is spiritual” and that we can find
God any and everywhere.  The Earth is, indeed, the Lord’s and the
fullness there of!   It is that way as created and made by Jesus (Bell
is absolutely unequivocally clear that Jesus is God, the Word, as stated
in John 1, for instance) and because Jesus is bringing heaven to Earth
through His Spirit and people.  As Bell himself puts it,

Jesus teaches us to pursue the life of heaven now and also then, anticipating the day when earth and heaven are one.

Honest business,
redemptive art,
honorable law,
sustainable living,
making a home,
tending a garden–
they’re all sacred tasks to be done in partnership with
God now, because they will go on in the age to come.
In heaven,
on earth.

This is, then, essential background for understanding Bell’s interest in the big picture of God’s healing work for the planet.  Love Wins
is as much about heaven, and heaven on Earth, and how the cross leads
to victory over injustice, and the ways Christ shows up in unexpected
ways and places as it explores the questions of hell.  Pondering how
Bell may have gotten to this broader picture—from Brueggemann and
Moltmann, and Wright and Walsh and maybe Brian McLaren—and then to
this specific question, could help us understand the context of Love Wins.  

I do not know if Bell has been involved in what is called the search for
a nonviolent atonement theory, but that is another movement of those
who are attempting to see the cross in ways that are consistent with the
nonviolent ethic taught by Jesus.  Mostly Anabaptist and pacifist, they
are often linked to the theories of theological psychologist Rene

Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught About God’s Wrath and Judgement by
Sharon Baker (WJK) is a recently released book which Brian McLaren
endorses, alongside some other rave reviews (Crystal Downing calls her
insight “brilliant” and Debbie Blue of House of Mercy says it is
“lively, immensely readable, reasonable yet revolutionary” for those
troubled by traditional view of hell.)  I found it really fascinating
and instructive, if at times glib and quite troubling with a few pretty
shallow arguments. As with everyone else in this movement, it seems,
there is scant attention given to the holiness of God, the notion that
God’s utterly holy character forbids any complicity with rebellion.  Now
is not the place to take that up, but certainly a book length treatment
should have.

This book comes down as clearly as one can suggesting that there are other plausible interpretations of wrath and hell; in a sense, this
is the book against traditional views of hell that people think Bell
wrote.  He has a broader agenda, uses his poetic style, and is,
honestly, a bit contradictory at times, apparently happy to live with
paradox and tension and unresolved questions.  Dr. Baker offers a much more comprehensive and
bold rethinking. If people were mad at Bell, they are going to go
ballistic about this, and yet, she covers the issues painstakingly, bit
by bit.  She is a theology teacher and her fairly traditional
evangelical students are intrigued by this notion and she uses their
questions and struggles as a way into the work.  It makes for a very
realistic read (even if sometimes I think the students pitched her some
pretty soft-ball questions, allowing her to convince them of new
interpretations pretty easily, without grappling with the major
objections to each argument as she would have if she were going
toe-to-toe with serious scholars.) 

Importantly, she links the project of dismissing typical views of
eternal wrath to the effort to refine typical ways of viewing the cross
and ways of articulating the atonement.   Like Bell, she sees as a
possibility that God is acting viciously, in painfully burning people
alive forever,  in ways that are not consistent with other things we are
told about God’s pure character.

She explains that this alternative understanding of the efficacy of the
death of Christ is related to her belief that the idea of hell, as
typically understood, is inconsistent with a redemptive, loving God and
the way some seem to describe substitutionary atonement sounds as if it
could imply the Father’s unholy spite.  It is not picky of critics to
ask of her (and Bell) how views of wrath, views of eternal punishment, views of hell and
views of the work of the cross may be related–does Christ pay a
penalty, avert wrath, serve as a substitute, shed his blood to pay for our sin?  And, again, how does the
holiness of God figure in; there is hardly any mention of this major
aspect of God’s self-revelation in Love Wins (which is a
remarkable weakness.)  I suppose I am not saying anything surprising to
note that one’s views of judgment and wrath and hell are intertwined
with one’s understanding of the work of Christ on the cross and the
meaning and means of justification. 

Baker, McLaren, and it seems Rob Bell do share an antipathy for notions
of hell and also de-emphasize penal and substitutionary understandings
of justification, leaning, perhaps, towards what is called the “nonviolent
atonement” or at least Christus Victor view.  There is not much of this in Love Wins, but it could be surmised.

In Kevin DeYoung’s analysis of Love Wins at the Gospel Coalition,
which I cited in the last post as essential reading, DeYoung
expresses his concern that Bell is avoiding the notions of penal
substitution, and recoils at how Bell characterizes how some might see
the cross as vicious, an angry father killing a son because somebody has
to pay.  Some think that voicing this kind of concern nears blasphemy.

I do not think so; it is a question most sensitive souls ask, and that
many who are newly studying atonement theory are troubled by.  It
surprises me a bit that DeYoung and others in his strict Calvinist
movement seem tone-deaf to the moral quandary this is for many.  It is
not horrible to wonder about the character of a God who would permit
conscious torture of unrepentant sinners, who expects us to inhabit a
new creation knowing (if it is so) that others are in severe anguish,
forever.  There are lines from some otherwise wise leaders in church history, and at least one sad phrase from hymn-writer Isaac Watts, who suggest we will enjoy the everlasting cries of the torment as part of the blessings of heaven.

So, to avoid such dilemmas, some think that we must not only alter our views of hell but we must rethink our views of the cross.  This is not the place to examine the different positions, but it is another part of what is in the air as folks talk about Bell’s book.   

To ask about how best to explain all this admits and realizes that Jesus
and Paul themselves used different ways to tell the story and our
redemption. For instance, the Prodigal Son story has no cross, no
payment for sins, only a runaway who comes to his senses with remorse,
and a religious brother who did not. This does not mean we must
eliminate traditional views of the cross, but it is not wrong to ask. 
Bell is right when he routinely says that God can take our questions. He
is a provocateur and relishes asking the hard questions, but it is my
sense that these are questions he knows others are asking.  He should
not be faulted for wanting to examine whether such a heavy thing—the
notion that Jesus’ death saves us from God—is a true truth and a
faithful way of understanding and describing the Paschal mystery.

One very important scholarly collection to explore these notions is Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ
edited by Brad Jersek and Michael Hardin (Eerdmans.)  It is a premier
anthology with provocative and important essays by all sorts of mainline
theologians, from Mennonites to Orthodox thinkers.  Well known names
are included—from Rowan Williams to Miroslov Volf to N.T Wright. 
Sharon Baker is here and so is the leaders of the nonviolent atonement
school, J. Denny Weaver.  There is an excellent peice by Robert Eckblad
on Isaiah 53  And don’t miss the excellent overview piece editor
Michael Hardin, a Jesus scholar and peacemaker who specializes in these

For one very serious study of the nonviolent atonement theory by one of its key advocates, see J. Denny Weaver’s major work, The Non-Violent Atonement,
now out in an updated second edition (Eerdmans.) It is pretty academic,
but important; I suspect it will include some stuff you haven’t
considered before. 

For an engaged but critical discussion of it see the very helpful and gracious study Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition
by Hans Boersma (BakerAcademic.) I have recommended that in these pages, before.  Peter Schmiechen, a UCC scholar from
central Pennsylvania, former President of Lancaster Theological
Seminary, put together a rather progressive take on all of this, a rich
work called Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church (Eerdmans.)  Saved From Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross
by S. Mark Heim (Eerdmans) is not exactly using the “nonviolent
atonement” approach but is, as you can tell from the title, a major, and
serious, reformulation. Given that Bell uses Hebrews to show that Jesus
has done away with the sacrificial necessity, there might be some

The Nature of Atonement: Four Views edited by James Bielby
and Paul Eddy (IVP Academic) is a fine resource to explore more of the
various approaches in a helpful “panel discussion” format. Here, four reliable, readable, and very Biblical
theologians reply to one another in a point-counterpoint collection.
This is the kind of life-long learning we should be doing if we are
eager to reflect on the deepest things our faith must grapple with.  If
Bell’s quick book pushes us towards these questions, I suspect it will
be well worth it.

Please, though, understand this.  I want to be clear. When Rob Bell, in Love Wins,
names a variety of different theologies of the cross—penal
substitution, relational reconciliation, debt forgiveness, familial
adoption, victory over the forces of evil, the end of sacrifices—he
asks, in punchy, almost sarcastic fashion (is he expressing frustration
to those who would judge him? Expressing the frustration he hears from
sharp, young readers encountering the vast array of ways the Bible talks
about this?) Which is it?  This verse says it is a sacrifice. 
This verse says it is to pay a debt. That verse says it gets us
reconciled and brought near.  This one says it is for those who call on
Christ but that verse says it is for “all.”  Some texts tell us died for
some, some texts clearly say he died for all.  Which one is the right
one?  And what was going on at the cross–sacrifice, reconciliation, a
legal transaction, an economic transaction, an act of war against sin or
an act of love for sinners?  Come on, he wants to know, which version is the right one?

His answer is poetic and good.  He writes (on page 129),

Which perspective is the right one? Which metaphor is correct?  Which explanation is true? The answer, of course, is yes!

That is, yes to them all, as in “all the above.”  Bell leans into one
more than others, but didn’t Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul and
James each have their own favorite metaphors and ways to tell the story,
each with a bias or tendency?  And there are a variety of
explanations—he just cites a few, but names Hebrews 9, Colossians 1,
Romans 3,  2 Timothy 1, John 5, and Ephesians 1

Bell says yes to them all, so he isn’t nearly as guilty of confusion on this as his critics claim.  I think some of the critics have verged on dishonesty at this point because they seem unable to imagine that he agrees with all, or that he means what he says, as nuanced as it may be.  One prominent critic said something to the effect that “I can’t even imagine a God like that” or something similar, as if the fault was in Bell, not in the critics feeble imagination.

I think it is irresponsible, for instance, when a popular leader says Bell “demeans the cross.”


  Bell, in his brief list of books for further study (he only lists 7, one for each of 7 topics) recommends  Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement
a moving work edited by Mark Baker (Baker) which is a great collection
of pieces by a wide variety of thoughtful evangelicals, theologians,
spiritual writers, pastors and poets.  You will find here contributions
by Richard Hays, C.S. Lewis, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brian McLaren,
Luci Shaw, Rowan Williams, Curtis Chang and others.  As you should
realize, this is a pretty traditional gang (Mathewes-Green is a
wonderful writer, a conservative Orthodox thinker; Hays is at Duke, Luci
Shaw an outspoken poet and thoughtful writer within the evangelical
world. I think it is marvelous, diverse, moving, Biblically-based and
wise.  If Bell names one book on the cross and it is that one, this
speaks volumes about his desire to continue to honor and stand in a
creative, moderate, thoughtful, culturally-engaged, but clearly orthodox
view of an evangelical faith.

Shame on those who have misrepresented Bell’s view, which I quote, here:

The point, then, isn’t to narrow it to one particular
metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism.  To elevate one over the
others, to insist that there’s a “correct” or “right” one, is to miss
the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they
used images and metaphors.  They were reading their world, looking for
ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners can grasp.

I think it is a fair critique to rebut Bell here by saying that these
mechanisms of what the cross accomplished—for our transgressions he
was pierced—seem to being minimized by Bell when he says they are only
“readings” of their world,  by saying they were doing “creative work”
done to explain stuff. Of course there is some truth to that, but I
think the Russell Moore’s critique that I linked to yesterday (on the
way Bell thinks blood isn’t so necessary to talk abut these days) was
very insightful and a very good warning. (Read it here.) 

 So, we’ve drawn some broad strokes of some broad backgrounds because I
believe that narrowing the debate about how Bell views “the fate of
every person” we must first appreciate his broader work and ministry and
why he is seeking a different way to talk about faith than, well,
different than both the so-called liberals and conservatives, most of
the mainline and the typical evangelicals.  He wants to do this because
of his love for the Bible.  In order to be faithful to the Bible and
caught up in faithful expression of its trajectory, we have to reject
the view that heaven is only “later” and that salvation is merely
“entrance” to the “afterlife” that is really a disembodied existence
lived elsewhere.  No, Christian discipleship is based on receiving the
mercy of God whose energy is at the very heart of things, as the Triune
God of the Bible, creator-redeemer-sustainer, whose Word for creation
stands, upholding all things, and uniting all things. (See Colossians 1
and Ephesians 1:20 for helpful summaries of this Christological
worldview; Bell is very big on an exalted Christ, and insists that what
we think about him matters greatly.)

 Many church folks fail to see this relevant and counter-cultural kind
of amazingly grace-filled kind of discipleship leading to the
spirituality of the ordinary, the politics of Jesus, the vocation to be
peacemakers in the world, the redemption of ordinary life, largely
because we are not missional, we are not engaged, we are not fully
committed to living out of this enormous love. And that is because the
story has been hijacked–starting a long time ago when Plotinas read
Plato and influenced Augustine, we might say, and the faith got tangled
up with the philosophies of Greece and the gods of Rome.  And we fail,
in part, because we’ve seen and experienced faith as doctrinal,
propositional, otherworldly—and, oddly, in the meantime culturally
conservative, and altogether safe.  Bell wants to change that, to have
our lives transformed by a very alive Christ.

After report on the gospel of John, he notes that “John is telling a
huge story, one about God rescuing all of creation.”  And he continues,

When people say that Jesus came to die on the cross, so that
we can have a relationship with God, yes, that is true.  But that
explanation as the first explanation puts us at the center.  For the
first Christians, the story was first and foremost, bigger, grander. 
More massive.  When Jesus is presented only as the answer that saves
individuals form their sin and death, we run the risk of shrinking the
Gospel down to something just for humans, when God has inaugurated a
movement in Jesus’ resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile
everything “or earth on in heaven” (Colossians 1), just as God
originally intended it.  The powers of death and destruction have been
defeated on the most epic scale imaginable.   Individuals are then
invited to see their story in the context of the far larger story, one
that includes all of creation.

I think this is solid, orthodox, well-put and a fabulous reminder of the
nature of the Christian life. For critics to not see this is
unfortunate. Why haven’t guys at the Gospel Coalition, for instance,
noted that he affirms this stuff that they themselves surely must
believe? (Their recent booklet The Restoration of All Things
is edited by D.A. Carson & Timothy Keller and is written by Sam
Storms.  Is is calm and solid, but not that different, on this point at
least, than the man they declare to be a heretic.)  Why have the critics
been so one-sided?  Well, of course I know—they think his
deficiencies so outweigh his strengths and are on such crucial matters,
that it renders whatever good he says nearly useless.  I disagree.

I think to get Bell views of God’s redeeming everybody, which is the
most controversial part, one simply must grapple first with his
wholistic view of God caring about matter, and redeeming the stuff of
the cosmos, and how our story fits into this gospel work of Jesus to
reclaim His whole wide world. And that victory of God is not about anger
and blood as much as it is about victory and healing.  I think that is
how Rob would say it: Christ is central and the cross is key, but the
resurrection and ascension are of utmost importance as well.  It is all
part of the grand story, the news that is “better than that.” 


There is no better place to experience Bell’s teaching
on this than in last year’s stunning Easter talk, a visual and poetic
presentation that (I hope) will take your breath away.  Watch this as
soon as you can—it is magnificently done and a four minute example of
what I’d call “the full gospel.”  Bell gets it right here and you will
understand his deep faith in the goodness of God and the victory of the
resurrection and the relevance for daily life now.  Wow.

Once we get this—that Christ’s resurrection victory puts all evil on
notice and gives great hope for real life—then we can get to some
issues about Bell’s view of hell, the afterlife, and “the fate of every

I will write one more, somewhat more brief, portion of this essay about the Rob Bell Love Waits controversy.

For now, say a prayer, put on your seat belt, and hear this
21st century sermon announcing–proclaiming–that Christ is risen, proof
positive that “love wins.”   Do. You. Believe. This? 

Do let this fully load, if it has too, as you don’t want it to be jumpy or delayed.  Enjoy

Resurrection: Rob Bell from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

6 thoughts on “Love Wins Review: A Long Part 2

  1. Byron – you have done a great job of providing a “big picture” context that allows us to understand and embrace what Bell offers in the midst of the tension it creates. I love living the questions, trusting God is big enough to handle them. And, I appreciate the value you’ve added to the conversation by giving value to Rob and his work. Thanks for the thought and work you put into this and the other posts. They’ve been incredibly helpful to me.

  2. Totally awesome review,
    highlighting what’s alive in the background,
    offers grace to a variety of conversation partners, lots of Christ-centered wisdom here.
    Meanwhile, count me on the side where Agape revealed through Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh, wins. As I heard years ago at a Jubilee conference, “It’s Friday… but Sunday’s coming!”

  3. It’s funny how many books you have in this post that have been my favorite.
    If I stop by tonight (5:30) to pick up my copy of Love Wins, will you be there, Byron?
    Also, I know for a fact that Bell and McLaren are at least friends (if not publically). I have a vivid memory of Brian speaking at Bell’s church a handful of years ago (maybe ’06?).

  4. Byron, very humbly, asked me to leave a comment here based on an email I sent him. I have some pushback for this post, and so I want to make a couple of points about it that Byron and I have been discussing.
    First, I think the tone of this post has been too influenced by the polemical context, and I think this is very unfortunate. Often, in contexts like this, it is easy to take on the tone of those you are seeking to correct, and, sometimes, that is helpful. Here, I don’t think it is. In this post, Byron’s views suddenly become the obvious views that anyone who just reads the Bible seriously would come to. This is a very fundamentalist style of argument, again, I think, as a reaction to those who either judge Bell without reading him or read him as uncharitably as possible.
    Second, and building on that, I think Byron ends up over-reacting quite a bit in his historical sketches, such that it becomes easy to look back on our tradition and shake our heads at how naive they were. One could say that he is pushing back against an uncharitable read of Bell with an equally uncharitable read of the tradition. There are a couple of important points here. First, one of the most standard mistakes that happens in debate is that someone focuses so intently on the position that they are denying, that they just back away from it. Often, they back over a cliff. Byron’s positions seem to me to be formed by all that he disagrees with. For instance, there is nothing inherent to dualism that would make someone think that being a banker is less important than being a monk (or missionary, etc.). There are much more nuanced issues at state here. While I would broadly agree with a collapsing of the sacred and secular in terms of objects and vocation, we must, I would argue, maintain a sharp sacred and secular when it comes to how we reason about these things. We reason theologically (along the contours of the gospel), and that is a sacred form of reason. Secular reason is reasoning according to universally received knowledge, leaving aside the foolishness of the gospel. Sadly, I would argue that most Christian books these days, on a more popular level (but also many academic books as well), are secular discourses about Christian topics (but I disgress).
    Second, and building on my first initial point, Byron seems to be allowing a hyper-modernism into his theological positions. Bell’s style of reading (not his actual exegesis mind you) is treated as if it is theologically-neutral, and this neutrality is seen as good. Furthermore, the problem of the past was a naive appropriation of Plato (or whomever else). This builds on my first initial point because once this is one’s view, it is very easy for them to have a fundamentalist position on these things. Their view is the view that isn’t oriented by their philosophical context and their view is the view that is just clearly biblical. This is dangerous. In fact, as Byron hits on all of this key points throughout this post, it becomes clear that almost all of them are very “new” (in the grand scheme of things). These points are heavily influenced by modern philosophy. One must wonder if Augustine and Aquinas are shaking their heads a bit at the accusation that their views are too oriented by their philosophical context while his is not.
    There is no theologically neutral reading or opinion about Christian things. My point here is to say that the response to harsh critics is not to play their game, but to play a much different one. These are difficult questions which address the most fundamental theological presuppositions we have. Our discussion should be charitable and, in my opinion, deeply historical and theological. The tradition, to be sure, has problems, but they are not generally our problems. We need our brothers and sisters in the faith through the centuries to help us hear the Word of God well. Taking this route, I suggest, will force a greater humility.
    For what it is worth on the Rob Bell issue, let me boldly suggest that academic publishing is more virtuous than popular publishing. As an academic, I know that there is a system in place to process my views, criticize my work and use as a sounding board for my processing. No one seems to be questioning why Rob doesn’t follow suit. Why isn’t he reading papers at AAR? Why isn’t he publishing articles? Well, some will say, he is a pastor. First, who cares? Many pastors function in the academic realm. But second, is it better to float ideas that have not been engaged at the deepest level which he knows are incredibly provocative to the lowest common denominator? Doing so, it seems to me, is to undermine one’s task as a pastor. If these questions are so important, maybe it is best to trust that it is possible to learn from people who have devoted their lives to be faithful to these things. After that, you may still disagree and still publish it (the academy can always be wrong), but at least it would have been forged in fires that were created for this very thing. I think a lot of pushback that Rob has received has more to do with the fact that his approach (not him mind you) is just so arrogant. It is modernism at its finest. He disappears into a room and comes out with everything figured out! The way Rob seems to function is that no one except him has thought deeply about these things (I once heard Rob suggest that the reason no one uses Rabbinic sources like he does is because they’ve never read them! Rather, scholars are more careful and have to consider the dating of material before they read the Bible through it). I just find it troubling that someone as creative and unconventional as Rob would allow himself to function independently from a broader community seeking to be faithful to deep questions.

  5. Just wanted to note to anybody following along that Kyle Strobel, who wrote this excellent post, wrote a splendid book that we reviewed favorably a while back, Transformational Architecture. It’s easier to read than his heady stuff here, too, but carries the same commitment to thoughtfulness and fairness, important insights and a passion for living the truth. It is about construing our lives as story, somewhat about narrative, about evangelism, about spiritual formation. Hard to explain it, but I rave about it, and highly recommend it.
    And, convicted my his observations about my tone, I apologized for any attitude or comments that were demeaning or overly polemical. I apologized in the last post but if you didn’t see that, I am sorry if I came on too strong or implied that if you really hate Bell you haven’t thought about these background things. I didn’t mean that because I don’t believe it. I do like to preach, though, so my passion got the better of me and it turned some people off. I regret that.
    And, I think this is a really, really important bit of feedback. Not sure I understand it all, and I’m not sure I fully agree with all of Kyle’s critique, although it is surely worth considering carefully. So I thank him and hope you, like me, read it more than once and discuss it with somebody. He’s getting at important stuff.
    By the way, I admitted that the history of the legacy of neo-Platonist dualism and the subsequent impact on the church was rough and simple. But I think the general outline is true. And the fruits of that sacred-secular split are devastating and commonplace yet today. Bell is against that wrong formulation of faith and discipleship, too, so insofar as he calls us to a relevant faith in the real world, following Jesus in all of life, affirming common and saving grace, then he’s an ally we should appreciate, at least for that significant and needed contribution.
    Lastly, Kyle’s point that some old-time church heroes like the important and wise Augustine or Aquinas might be shaking their heads, thinking how unfair it is to reflect on how their philosophical context shaped them, “but (Bell’s) did not” is a bit unfair. I nowhere said Bell’s pomo context hasn’t effected him, and I’ve often cautioned selling out to the spirit of the age. (I cited that book Unfashionable for just that reason, in fact.) I do not think his readings are neutral or right, and noted that we have to consider the DeYoung piece that says that Bell is shoddy with his Bible. But my concern wasn’t how Bell is or isn’t complicit with the times, overly influenced by his own worldview—some are quick to judge that and I think it may be too early to tell. But the fruit of neo-Platonism and gnostics and all those who want us to pay less attention to the creation–its glories and its wounds–is well documented and painfully evident. And it must be resisted.
    In be explaining that there have been inappropriate, intentional theologies of synthesis is not to suggest that Bell is immune to the influences of his times. Kyle is correct, none of us are. But some resist it as we can, others, like the neo-Platonists and their advocates, worked that dualism out intentionally. They weren’t influenced by their philosophical setting, they accomodated the faith, in some ways, to it. Some really do believe that mission work is better than secular jobs and they impart that. Some really do say sex is dirty or that caring for creation is a distraction to serving God. We can’t not name that as unfaithful to what the Bible says, can we?
    I’m honored that are read BookNotes and you do us all a service for commenting such a good post here. Thanks.

  6. It’s of interest to me how difficult it is to find room for real dialogue about the kinds of issues Rob Bell raises. Honest questions are interpreted as heresy, blasphemy, proof of lack of faith. Your post, Byron, continues the discussion in incredibly helpful ways – providing a larger context and offering a wealth of challenging, helpful resources.
    Of course the questions Bell raises should be discussed by theologians, academics, etc. as Kyle Strobel suggests. But for the average person who has been bruised by the established church, or has turned away in defeat after being attacked for asking questions and wondering aloud, Bell’s journey is encouraging. I’ve had too many friends ask, with fear and trembling: is it okay to think about these things? It sometimes seems as if the evangelical emphasis on theological correctness has made real dialogue feel dangerous. Bell’s refusal to be intimidated gives breathing space to many others. The adventure of hearing the word is not only for teachers of the law, but for farmers, fisherman, stay-at-home moms..
    Byron – you say “ I do not know if Bell has worked out a coherent and faithful view of the Bible or what his practices really are as a preacher of the Word, week by week. But he is on a journey. These other authors are, too and they point us to stand under the narrative and hear its implications. Even if they are provocative, subversive and, like Mrs. Beaver said, ‘not safe.’ “ To me, that’s the grace in Bell’s work. It wanders, it wonders, and it reminds us – just when we think we have things sorted out, we are most in danger of becoming Pharisees.
    I’ve been been thinking about how quickly we call “foul” at the tone of those who offend us, and I’ve been re-reading the gospels to puzzle over Jesus’ tone at points of conflict with religious leaders. With outsiders, the poor, broken, marginalized, his tone was sometimes tender, sometimes probing. With insiders who claimed to speak for God, his tone was often less than charitable: brood of vipers, white-washed tombs, children of the devil. I wonder if there are times when a sharp tone is appropriate: speaking back to voices that claim to speak for God, while reframing his good news in ways that deny hope to those who need it most.
    In any case, thank you again for all you do to make continued dialogue possible.

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