I’ve been promising a wrap-up to my review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins
for some time now, so let’s get ‘er done. This will dovetail nicely with the last post I made for our church blog, How Can A God Of Love Send People To Hell?
Let’s talk about the image of hell that most of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, are brought up to believe the Bible teaches.
First of all, are any of you parents? And if so, do you love your children? If not parents, do you have a pet that feels almost like a child to you? Do you have brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, close friends who you love more than anyone else in the world?
Allow me to tell you a true story.
I have a 3-year old son. He is the greatest joy of my life, and the highest fulfillment of the dreams I had for when I grew up. I love him so much that it’s hard to even imagine having a second child and feeling that same amount of love and “fatherliness”.
And yet one day I heard myself say something to him in anger that I swore I would never say to my children. My own father said it to me once, and I remember what a cruel thing it was, how it unfairly wielded a father’s authority as a weapon. And so I told myself that day I would never be the kind of person who would say that to his own son.
Well, I’m sure that every single parent reading this knows what’s coming. Fast forward 30 years or so. My son was misbehaving and being willfully rebellious. I had placed him in the corner where he continued his angry rebellion, physically striking out at my face and without thinking I said in a loud voice, “Do you want to stay in the corner forever?”
Exactly what my dad had said to me that day.
I realize that in the grand scheme of things, in this world where some fathers brutally terrorize their families and perform horrible evils to their own flesh and blood, this really doesn’t even rate a blip on the radar screen. Every parent gets angry and loses their patience with their kids from time to time. But all the same, it hurt me when it was said to me as a child. I remember it to this day. And I had made a promise that I wouldn’t say it.
In a way, isn’t this how we are trained to look at God and His salvation? Isn’t this how many of us grow up thinking Hell is all about? That unless you sinners stop misbehaving, unless you start to believe the right “doctrinally-pure” articles of faith, God is going to put you in the Corner for all eternity?
And not just any old timeout corner. In this Corner that we think God supposedly puts us in, we will be tortured forever. Either physically, like being burned alive every day for trillions upon trillions of years without end, or spiritually, where we are actively tormented and assaulted psychologically for the rest of eternity.
Is that the God we serve?
Would you do this to your child?
“Son, you’ve got until you’re 18 years old to clean up your act. On the day of your 18th birthday, if you haven’t graduated high school and gotten a job, and if you haven’t started to obey me, I am going to take you to the dirtiest, foulest, most toxic sewer on the planet. You think you’ve seen disgusting filth before? You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen this place. It’s worse than your worst nightmare.
This sewer is run by a man who used to be my right-hand man until I had him sent to jail for being a merciless, savage, violent felon. He was sent to work there as punishment and pretty much just took over the place. I am going to take you there, and I am going to throw your body right into that raw sewage and tell that man to light it on fire until it burns out.
And then I’m going to tell him to do it again.
I will never listen to your cries of pain, your entreaties, your sobs of repentance. I gave you enough time. And I told you ahead of time what the consequences would be. It’s only fair.”
“By the way, did I ever tell you how much I love you?”
If you think that’s horrific, that is nothing compared to what some (well-meaning) people say God will do to you unless you shape up and accept His Son before you die.
Is that the kind of Heavenly Father you believe in? Someone who, if he were an earthly father, would be arrested within minutes and very likely executed for crimes against humanity? He would be the worst, most vile scum of a human being ever to walk the earth, someone who could do that to his own child.
Does this sound ANYTHING like the Father that Jesus taught about? The God that he called “Papa”? If so, then he was one incredibly twisted person with a heavily damaged psyche, and I would call on everyone to stop following him immediately, even if what he said was true. Better to be crushed in a rebellion against that kind of God than to fall in line behind Him.
“But what’s the point of ‘being saved’ then? Are you saying it doesn’t matter if you believe in Jesus or not?”
I think this kind of question is completely understandable given the anemic spiritual education we get in most churches on this topic. However, it misses the point of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection entirely.
Yes, believing in Jesus is immensely, eternally important, but things aren’t so black and white. For if we say that we are saved by believing, and damned for not believing…isn’t that salvation by works? If you believe the right thing you will be saved? If you don’t believe the right thing, you won’t be saved?
I thought we were saved by grace, through faith, and this not of ourselves. Grace, by its very definition, is not in your control. If you are going to heaven because you believed the right thing, then this is something you did yourself. And if you are to be condemned for not believing the right thing, this is something you failed to do yourself.
I don’t have all the answers. Nobody does. My point is that the reality of salvation is so much more than what we have made it.
So much more complex.
So much more simple.
Isn’t that just like God, though? God’s grace, His character, and His message to humanity is so simple that a small child can understand it, yet so complex that the wisest of men can spend their entire lives plumbing its depths and barely even scratch the surface. I mean really, where in the universe do you find reality being black-and-white? The physical universe is made up of matter, but also energy. Light is a wave, but also a particle. Your body is solid, but the atoms that make up your body don’t actually touch each other.
This is the world that the Lord has made. He is apparently extremely comfortable with paradox.
And isn’t this just like Jesus? Where in the gospels did he ever give a straight-up answer to a question?
“Good teacher, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Whoa, stop the presses and hold the phones! In fundamental American Christianity, this is the only question in the universe that matters. This is the entire reason Jesus came to earth, packed right here in these twelve words. So here’s his chance to let us know. Here is Jesus’ chance to be unambiguous. Here’s his chance to give a direct, clear answer to the most important question any of us can ask. If the whole reason Jesus came to Earth was to make sure we knew how to get our spiritual fire-insurance card, then you can be confident that He’d make sure to answer this question as bluntly and directly as possible. Something like:
“My son, to inherit eternal life you don’t have to do anything. You’re saved by grace, through faith in me. Believe I’m the Son of God, that’s it!”
But he didn’t say that.
Instead, he answers this man’s very direct question by asking: “Why do you call me good?”
If God’s mission was to send Jesus in order to give us all the Three Easy Steps To Getting Out Of Hell And Getting Into Heaven, then he blew it big-time. And if he wouldn’t just answer the dang question with the obvious, easy answer…well maybe there’s more going on than we’ve been taught to believe. That is the underlying message of Love Wins. That when it comes to the Infinite and Eternal, the only black-and-white answer we should have the temerity to give is that God loves us infinitely and eternally.