Sunday, February 2, 2014

"Love Wins" - A Book Review

Let me start by saying that this book by Rob Bell came to me with so much baggage that I literally started reading and within the first page I was arguing with him.  By the time I got to the second page I realized I wasn’t reading the book fairly, I was reading with some very negative glasses.

I stopped reading after two pages and set the book down and prayed that God would allow me to dispense with all the “stuff” I had heard about this book, about this author, and read it for what it is.  It is one man’s opinion on a rather personal subject (except this “personal subject” affects every single person who has or ever will live on this planet) and his attempt to share that opinion with me, his reader.

I had to convince myself to read this book with my eyes and mind open; not to be convinced of what it says, but to not be swayed by the opinions of others who had read this book.  Before ever ordering the book, I had heard much about it.  A lot of what I heard was VERY negative, the kind of negative that generally would cause me to just not bother reading it.  One of my friends made the comment that it was “One I read as a minister because I felt like I had to.”  That is why I chose to read it.  God has called me to ministry.  I can’t take that calling seriously if I shield myself from all things controversial.  There will always be controversial opinions out there and I should be at least intelligently aware of them, especially when many people I know are aware of them, so I can speak to questions surrounding them personally, and not based on the interpretation or opinion of someone else.

And here is what I learned… Rob Bell is a good author.  His writing is captivating.  It draws the reader in and keeps the reader, well, reading.  While this isn’t a story, I found myself reading it like it was, anticipating what was coming next, being surprised by some conclusions, offended by some, and surprisingly, agreeing with many.

This book masterfully conveys one aspect of Yahweh’s character, His Love.  But exploring only one aspect of anything can be very deceiving.  The tale of the four blind men coming upon an Elephant and each of them determining what this thing was by only grasping or touching one part of the creature leading them to all come away with a completely wrong impression of an elephant is a great way to sum up in a few words my impression of this book.  Talking about God’s Love without talking about any of God’s other attributes, like Judge, is misleading at best.

I think the single most disturbing 3 paragraphs in the entire book are these:
Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about “hell and torment and all that.” Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will “go to heaven” when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it. One place or the other, no looking back, no chance for a change of heart, make your bed now and lie in it . . . forever.
Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast a range of perspectives.
Second, it’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.” (Bell, 110)

While the first paragraph might be true (and I believe it is) the fact that people don’t like the story, that they don’t like what it  says, doesn’t make it acceptable for them to just ignore the parts that they don’t like.  And it definitely doesn’t make it acceptable to change the story so that we like it.  We can’t say, I believe in God’s Love, but I’m going to cover my ears, close my eyes and chant “Nanananananananana” when I get to parts I don’t like.

As a Father, I LOVE my children.  Period.  There is NOTHING they can do to make me stop loving them, but they are not perfect.  They are held accountable for their own actions.  When they break a family rule or a school rule, they are punished in some way.  This is not an unloving act, it is the exact opposite.  It is because of Love that there are guidelines.

So, allow me to try to sum up this book in one paragraph. 

Bell focuses on God’s Love, and God’s desire for ALL to come to know Him and to be with Him.  God is all powerful and nothing is beyond His ability, and if God wants every person to be with Him for eternity, He could do that.  He can because after all He is all powerful and if God wants it, He can insure He gets it.  Therefore, if God wants everyone to be with Him for eternity, He can make that happen.

How does one argue with that statement?  Simply put, one can’t.  That is, IF these are the only truths we know about God.  If the only thing we know about God is His Love for humanity, we can’t argue with this position.  But we know a lot more about God.  Most importantly, we know that God is a Relational God.  Unlike every other god there is, our God, Yahweh, is a relational God.  We see it over and over again throughout the bible.  From the first book to the last, God desires a relationship with us.  Having a relationship requires BOTH parties to participate.  Relationships require both parties to voluntarily love the other.

God’s desire IS that EVERY SINGLE PERSON who has lived, is living or will live in the future come to know and love Him.  Every parent I know desires to have a relationship with their children, but I know several parents whose kids have left home and have decided that they don’t want a relationship with their parent.  Every one of those parents would do almost anything to have a relationship with their prodigal child, but if the prodigal child wants nothing to do with the parent, all the desire in the world won’t change that child’s mind.  Could God force us to want a relationship with Him?  Yes, He could.  Will He?  I don’t think so.  It wouldn’t be much of a relationship if one party was only participating because the other held power over them and forced their participation.

There are several comments made that bothered me.  And I will study several of them further, but the one I looked into first was this:

“Next, then, the New Testament. The actual word “hell” is used roughly twelve times in the New Testament, almost exclusively by Jesus himself. The Greek word that gets translated as “hell” in English is the word “Gehenna.” Ge means “valley,” and henna means “Hinnom.” Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was an actual valley on the south and west side of the city of Jerusalem.

Gehenna, in Jesus’s day, was the city dump.

People tossed their garbage and waste into this valley. There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash. Wild animals fought over scraps of food along the edges of the heap. When they fought, their teeth would make a gnashing sound. Gehenna was the place with the gnashing of teeth, where the fire never went out. Gehenna was an actual place that Jesus’s listeners would have been familiar with. So the next time someone asks you if you believe in an actual hell, you can always say, “Yes, I do believe that my garbage goes somewhere . . .” (Bell, 67-68)

Is this what Hell looks like?
I will pretend that I don’t read this with an “in your face”, almost mocking tone, and I will address only the intellectual argument.  I am no Greek scholar, so I rely on commentaries written by men who are when it comes to understanding the Greek behind the scripture I read.  I usually don’t have to look very far.

Every reference I found to this word, mentions and ties it to a place where Children were sacrificed in ancient times.  This place is where dead bodies were often burned and yes, trash was burned there too, but every mention I read also stated that the term was known to be a reference to Hell, and not a statement of a geographical location.  WAS it a reference to a geographical location?  Yes, it was, but to those people, it was much more than that.  To present only a piece of the truth isn't to present the truth.

In Ohio, especially in Columbus, Ohio, if I reference "That State Up North", EVERYONE will know that I am talking about Michigan, and everyone will know that in those four words I am referencing much more than the state that geographically sits to our North.  Those four words convey a football rivalry that is so intense we don't mention the name of the state from where they come.  (Please forgive me if I just compared That State Up North to Hell... I do it for a good cause...)

It is this kind of argument that can be extremely misleading.  Unfortunately, while I think Bell is on to something, his aggressive application of his theory to include every person who ever lived has caused him to have to discredit hell as an actual place or state of being.  I do think Bell might be right on a few points he makes, but in trying to define and defend those points he is grasping for straws and has done more damage to his message than good.

Bell makes one argument that I have wrestled with many times.  “What about the guy who never hears about Jesus?”  “What about the 15 year old kid who has in his heart decided that he wants to learn more about Jesus but dies before he is able to ‘say a prayer’?”  “What about the person who has never had an example of love here on earth, like the young girl sold into the sexual trade market who becomes trapped and embittered by evil of no fault or choice of her own?”  “What about the people groups who live in the jungles of the world far away from the reach of any missionary bringing the good news?” “What about the people who lived before Jesus?”

What kind of God would condemn these people to hell for not uttering a prayer with their lips while here on earth?  How could a God, who claims to be the God of Love, be so cold and calculating to condemn these people on a ‘technicality’?  It seems to me that this is the real question that Bell is wrestling with as he writes this book.  And it’s a very good question.

If indeed this is the question Bell was seeking to answer, I agree with him.  I believe that God is just, and I am not able to determine or decide based on the words in the bible what that justice is for every person who has ever lived.  I can accept that I don’t know the answer to that question.  I have no trouble at all believing that God is Just and He will not eternally separate someone from Himself without just cause for doing so.  But I am not one who can define that.  The only thing I can define for certain is what I know from the Bible.  I have been presented the Gospel, I am without excuse.  And so, most likely, are you.

Don’t think based on Bell’s writing that you can shake your fist at Yahweh and say “Screw you” until the day you die and still expect to spend eternity with Him.  That’s what Bell implies in this book, and that goes against the very character of God.  You see, God is MORE than just Love, He is also Just.

I believe based on God’s word that He IS Love. 

And in the end,

“Love Wins”

On that.  We agree.

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