On March 22, 2011

The Age To Come

So I’d like to go on record. I had a Love Wins bumper sticker on my car, long before it became so politically charged.I found myself last month thrust into the middle of a debate that apparently I had already decided on. At least that’s what the rear of my car says.

Also, I had pre-ordered Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” a month before it ever became so controversial. When I saw Rob’s promotional video, and subsequent Twitter mania and blogging madness, I was overwhelmed with sadness. It seems like the divide among evangelicals is just getting deeper and deeper. And now, at the center of the controversy is Hell.

Ot at least that’s what people are saying.

But I think, it’s something else, something deeper.

In his book, Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell first awoke the ire of some of his more persistent critics with this paragraph:

“What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove  that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births?…What if that were seriously questioned? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian? Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or does the whole thing fall apart?”

Now Bell goes on to vigorously affirm the virgin birth. His point isn’t to deconstruct this. His point is what people call Foundationalism. Which is just a big word for certainty. What he is trying to say (and does it quite well) is that this whole thing is faith. And if we approach it like it’s something that is scientific fact, or an unquestionable reality it’s not going to be sustainable. Just try telling your kids never to ask questions about their faith…it might work, until college.

And this, in my opinion, is Rob Bell’s gift to the Christian world again with this book. Sure, it’s got it’s weak points, and things I disagree with (I’ve never read a book I agreed 100% with). but over all the best thing Bell did was shine a light on somethings that a lot of Christians have thought of as impervious to questions. To be honest, most Western Christianity perceptions of hell is probably much more influenced by Dante’s Inferno than by the Scriptures.

Because Scriptures don’t talk about it that much.

Now I believe and affirm God’s judgment (so did Bell, by the way). I think that the Day of the LORD is a day that we should anticipate with joy. It’s going to be a great thing, and not for everyone. But I think that we’ve gotten pretty good at drawing some pretty large assumptions about who is in and who is out. And Rob Bell did a great job challenging those assumptions. But before you think he’s stepping out on a huge limb…think about some of the company he keeps.

C.S. Lewis wrote a great parable in the Great Divorce about the afterlife. Buses drive everyday from Hell to Heaven, but no one would get on them. Their pride or unforgiving attitude wouldn’t let them go. But the buses kept running. They wouldn’t leave Hell because Hell was in them (a point Bell made thoroughly).

And to press the matter, I don’t think Bell was doing much beyond what Jesus did. Because when Jesus did talk about judgment most of the time, it was about the surprise about who was going to be in and who was going to be out. There was one parable, in particular, that I’d like to point out. It’s this one. The parable of the Wheat and the Tares. It’s Jesus warning his disciples not to assume that they’ve got God’s preferred future all figured out. It’s a warning against the certainty of judging others futures. The whole point was for God’s people to be careful about rigidly defining just who “God’s people” are. Because in the words of Rob Bell, “Heaven will be full of surprises.”

Now Rob Bell doesn’t just ask questions. He presents a view, and it is somewhat of a controversial one. To get the whole view, read the book (seriously it’s just a bit longer than this blog). But know, Bell never denies that Hell exists. He emphasizes that Hell is a present and future reality. What he does have is a generous view of salvation, who God is and how God will  judge. But Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Seminary (one of the most respected seminaries in the world) helped me out a bit with this. He asked a great question about the backlash to Bell’s book,”Why is the Christian world so much harder on people with salvific generosity than people with salvific stinginess?”

That is, why do we tend allow people who have a very rigid view of who’s in/who’s out, someone with a negative view of the nature of God, to have a voice at the table, but when someone who believes on the other spectrum comes along…it’s heresy.

I think it’s because Bell is asking these questions, that are good questions, ones we would do well to pay attention to…even if we don’t land where he does.Because they shake the certainty that we’ve built around answers to questions that honestly Scripture just doesn’t talk about as much as we think it does.*

I’d like to remind us that certainty can be a good friend to arrogance.

Did you know that in the ancient Hebrew, they didn’t say everlasting, or eternal, or forever? That’s more of a Greco-Roman idea. Instead they would talk about the age to come. They trusted that God would judge the world setting it right, and every person would face the raw goodness of this God. But they never tied this age to come with words like forever. And what’s interesting is why…to talk with certainty about what God was going to do or not do in the afterlife was treading on dangerous ground. It was seen as arrogant. They trusted that God had a future for them, and that God was good. But they would never say eternal. Just the Age to come.

And in that age to come, I’m convinced Love Wins.

I’m keeping the bumper sticker.

*Read the book…particularly about Bell’s treatment of everytime the word Hell is mentioned in the Bible. It takes him 2 pages, and it’s exhaustive. Seriously.

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  • Ben Wilkins

    Nicely said, Jonathon. I haven’t read the book (yet), but I’ve read some of his other stuff and watched some of his videos. I’ve always respected the way he presented the Gospel, and I plan to read this book.

  • Ben Wilkins

    Nicely said, Jonathon. I haven’t read the book (yet), but I’ve read some of his other stuff and watched some of his videos. I’ve always respected the way he presented the Gospel, and I plan to read this book.

  • http://westcoastwitness.com/ Wes Woodell

    Dr. Mouw is always defending the alums. :)

    Lots of people I respect who have read this book say they believe Bell crossed a line. Truth will always stand up to the hardest questions if it’s the truth, so there’s nothing inherently wrong with asking them, but Bell is doing more than simply asking questions.

  • Will

    You can get the book through the Amazon store for Kindle. Cheaper than hardback too.

  • Danny Gill

    This is one I’ll read. If nothing else, Bell’s publicist is a genius. The tempest that has preceded this book is guaranteeing it will be widely purchased.

    I like Bell, but I’m not a huge fan. Then again, I’m not a huge Max Lucado fan, and you know how popular he is. Still, I’m willing to read what Bell writes before deciding whether I think he’s right or not.

    By the way, you say, “That is, why do we tend allow people who have a very rigid view of who’s in/who’s out, someone with a negative view of the nature of God, to have a voice at the table, but when someone who believes on the other spectrum comes along…it’s heresy.” That’s a complex question without one overriding answer. For one, you kind of give your own view away by saying it’s “a negative view of the nature of God.” It’s only a negative view if it’s wrong. If God IS rigid about who’s in and who’s out, then it’s not a negative view. I’m more inclined to your view, but that’s beside the point.

    As for why those with a less rigid view of who’s in are considered heretics, well, that’s largely a reaction to the way most of the world thinks. And most of the world thinks this way because it’s comfortable, not because it’s in the scriptures. But I see the point. Legalism is a heresy, too.

    I love your point about the wheat and the tares. That is the big point – it’s not up to us to decide who is wheat and who is tare. God can settle it, and we have only to wait for it. Certainly, we need to study, pray, listen to the Spirit, and use our minds to see as much truth as we can. But in the end it’s God who gets to decide.

  • Lyle

    Yes, Yes, and a resounding YES!!

  • Jake

    I say all this in brotherly love:

    This seems to be a pretty surface-level analysis. I’d encourage you to read some of Justin Taylor’s comments on the matter (or watch Martin Bashir’s interview with him, or listen to Bashir talk about it: http://www.godandculture.com/blog/msnbcs-martin-bashir-on-the-paul-edwards-program) and to at least look at the other side of this Rob Bell-issue.

    From all the comments you’ve posted on your blog and Twitter about this issue – you seem to be judging the other have of the aisle without ever giving them a fair shake. It’s so ironic because that is exactly what you’re accusing that side of initially doing. Don’t just assume.

  • AmyDHiggins

    Bravo Jonathan! I’ve been saying for a long time that our view of hell is more Dante than Bible!

  • http://blog.floydius.com/ Lloyd

    I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m going to get on it soon. Whatever Hell is, I’ve been convinced (as convinced as I can be without having a conversation with God about it) that the traditional view of it is not in line with the Bible. That’s not really the big issue here for me, though.

    The big issue is, as you said, certainty. Maybe we could speak in terms of implications. Stated another way, if A is true, what does that mean, and if A is not true, what does that mean? (Does either of them mean anything significant?)

    I look at someone like Paul and I’m sure that there is room for potentially faith-shattering questions inside of a healthy faith. My favorite passage when I’m talking to someone with serious doubts is 1 Cor. 15:12-19. Particularly, the conclusion: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” He makes it clear that his entire faith rests on the assumption that Christ’s resurrection happened, and that *if* that is not true, there are dire implications. Nonetheless, he does not remove the “if”, no matter how large it may be.

    So there is an extent to which the authors of scripture claim they don’t know everything (for instance, speculation about how a Gentile’s conscience plays into judgment in Romans 2), but there are also places they draw a line. If the empty tomb was contrived, maybe it doesn’t diminish the social and physical benefits of the Way of Christ, but it does shatter any ability to claim that it is superior or that it has a claim to inherent truth.

    What that means for followers of Christ, I think, is that we need to evaluate what’s important to us regularly. What I do or don’t believe about God or the nature of the world does not change reality*, and is to that extent irrelevant. However, each of our beliefs carries implications. Some are not particularly far-reaching, while others touch on the very core of our faith. If my conclusions go so far as to cross that core line for you, it does not change your obligation to love me, but neither does it change the implications of my conclusions. It is fair for you to consider them and conclude that they place a chasm between us. (“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!”) What God does with that chasm (or the choice to make it a chasm) is up to Him.

    *Of course, some would challenge that statement.

  • Scotttedford

    People are saying Bell crossed the line this time. To that I say “Thank God!”

  • http://kingdomseeking.wordpress.com/ K. Rex Butts

    Good thoughtful post. I’m actually blogging about each chapter but not so much as a review but more as an ongoing conversation. Like everyone seems to have, I’ll have places where I disagree with Bell on this or that but I’m not really interested in having a heresy trial on my blog (unlike some blog post’s I’ve read).

  • http://twitter.com/pcunningham3 Philip Cunningham

    Appreciate the review. I don’t know whether I’m going to read the book or not. I’ve appreciated it when Rob has challenged me in the past, but he’s irked me some with his approach also.

    In talking with another minister about this dust up between Bell & the neo-Reformists, I liked his observation. He noted how from Grand Rapids to Minneapolis to Seattle and elsewhere, it’s kind of pitiful the kinds of topics that educated white theologians decide to battle over that most of the world doesn’t even care about.

  • Danny Gill

    By the way, Jonathan. Do you know that most of the “Love Wins” bumper stickers around this area are about Love Field vs. DFW Airport? It’s kind of funny to think of that.

  • Carlee Lane

    I think from a young age, instilled through bible class, we have a definition in our heads of how our teachers and preachers view heaven and hell. So we grow up either believing that, or challenging that. I think the older you get, the more stubborn you can be about the fact that YOUR ideas are right without ever considering another idea. I know what i believe, but i want to dig deeper and find out WHY i believe that. Is it from my parents? My preacher? My friends? My mentors? 
    I plan on reading Bell’s book and I look forward to not agreeing with him on some things because that’s perfectly okay. But Rob is my brother in Christ and I want to learn about what he has to say with an open mind. I think I’ll probably lean more toward his “side” on this matter, but truthfully, why are people even talking about “sides”? It’s heaven and hell– I think THOSE are the two sides you can choose between, not “do I agree with Rob Bell or not?” I can’t really say much else without reading the book (even though PLENTY other assumptions have been made without reading it) but I’ve learned my lesson to never judge a book by it’s cover.
     I’m excited to read it though, and put even more “oomph” behind the words “LOVE WINS”—-without even reading the book I can tell you those 2 words are true. Heck, you can read a Harry Potter book and quickly discover those 2 words are true :) thanks Jonathan! Great blog!

  • Lauren

    I cannot wait to form my own opinion of Love Wins. Now you’ve made me very expectant. I love the fact that “heaven is going to be full of surprises.” I also really love and respect the fact that Bell asks hard questions. Wrestling with hard questions allows our view of God to expand as they also authenticate our faith in a mysterious God

  • Lauren

    And, I have to say AMEN to Carlee’s comment!

  • Jeff

    I’m both fascinated and saddened by the controversy. Who knew so many people know the ultimate answers about heaven and hell. I can’t begin to understand the way God works (the fact that he wants to love me after all the things I’ve done gives me enough to ponder for a lifetime) but it sure seems many people do. While all the hullabaloo rages, Satan has to be dancing his victory dance. The best I can tell, Bell published something he felt like he wanted to say. It doesn’t make it 10 Commandments type writing. Thanks for giving voice to your thoughts. Oddly, I don’t visit your blog to get the final word on all things important but simply to get another thought I can mull around and use to make my determination for what I believe.

  • Robb

    I would encourage anyone that read Love Wins to read erasinghell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle.  It is a good explanation as to why people (like me) believe hell is a real place God sends people for eternal conscious punishment and torment.  It’s a kind of rebuttal to Rob Bell without being condescending to him.