Friday, November 25, 2011

REVIEW: Love Wins, pt 3

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

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.

And again.

And again.

And 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.

Truth poorly defended loses not its truthfulness;
likewise Falsehood aptly defended loses not it's falsity.


  1. Love the line about God being extremely comfortable about paradoxes! Now I have two books to read, this and yours!

  2. I want to start out by saying that this post is in NO WAY an attempt to discredit you or your beliefs. I have read many of your posts and have nothing but the upmost respect for you and your patience and obvious love for so many of the people who would respond so aggressively toward such an apparently kind and caring soul.

    As it is apparent that God has taken you through experiences that have truly shaped your beliefs and given you wisdom in areas that many "Christians" never dare to venture because of unfaced fears of their own unspoken doubts, and as you have been an encouragement to me just through the few posts of yours that I've read, I feel the need to tell you that I too have been through some of the same types of experiences, however with circumstances that have encouraged different areas of growth than yours. But both I believe to be just as important and it is my prayer that we may be able to learn something from each other.

    You made a statement:
    "Would you do this to your child?"

    I have to point out that scripture and the words of Jesus himself make it very clear that not everyone is a child of God.

  3. "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God's child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister..." 1 John 3:10

    “Our father is Abraham!” they declared. “No,” Jesus replied, “for if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example. Instead, you are trying to kill me because I told you the truth, which I heard from God. Abraham never did such a thing. No, you are imitating your real father.” They replied, “We aren’t illegitimate children! God himself is our true Father.”
    Jesus told them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but he sent me. Why can’t you understand what I am saying? It’s because you can’t even hear me! For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies." John 8:39-44

    It is pretty clear here that not every human being is God's son. Which makes sense. A relationship takes two or more separate individual parties coming together in agreement. If one party rejects the friendship, or marriage, there is none. God has extended his hand to everyone who will accept it and yes, it is based on LOVE not WORKS and that is clearly seen, as you know, from his confrontation with these pharisees, the very people who uphold the "law" and condemn the "sinners." But those who reject his love and those who will not accept his forgiveness and adoption invitation, are NOT his sons and Jesus is making that very clear. Although, *his* true love for them is very evident through his impassioned reasonings with these men who refuse to hear him.

  4. My point is not that Jesus does not love them and that is why he is rejecting them, it is that he obviously does, but they reject him. And he is clear about the fact that NOT all men are son's of God, and it's because they refuse to hear him; they refuse to accept him. This theme can be seen throughout scripture.

    If not all men are son's of God but some are, rather, "son's of the devil," then it shows that much of your argument is not only irrelevant, it suggests that much of your reasoning on the subject as wellas your view of how God would act if he were truly "loving" are misguided and that you may not be seeing the full picture.

    (In response to your statement that God is comfortable with paradoxes, I'd also like to point out that paradox is a term that we came up to deal with truths that we can't understand. A paradox is defined as "something (such as a situation) that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible." The word paradox is a term for the limits of human understanding, which makes sense why God would be OK with a paradox; for him there is no such thing. I'm sure if you think about it long enough you'll be able to think back to a time when you realized two truths in scripture that seemed to contradict each other only to realize they complimented each other perfectly. I believe that things are black and white to God, even if we can't understand how right now because we see dimly as in a mirror)

    With all this being said, I want to suggest to you as respectfully as possible, to rethink the idea that doctrine is not as important as you seem to think it is. I think that so much of what you have said is so profound, especially when you described the idolatry of "doctrine" and I have seen firsthand and been the victim of someone who was so doctrinally and/or factually correct, and yet at the same time so wrong.

    But I have also seen the detriment to the lives of people so close to me when people begin to believe doctrine that is not sound. Or begin to believe that reality is not as black and white as it in fact is. People's perceptions of reality, our own included, are not black and white, and that is why we need faith in an absolute: Jesus Christ.

  5. It seems to me that much of your description of hell and your description of the popular idea of what God is going to do to the people who do not believe in him is coming from a place of misunderstanding and maybe even hurt and offense at certain parts of the bible.

    (I would also like to point out that the word "believe" does not just mean to know he exists, it means to accept him and that is what he says we need in order to be his sons. Otherwise the bible expressly states in several places we are sons of the devil)

    But I know, and I pray that you don't respond with an objection about my certainty, but I have to tell you that I know the dangers of the statement "Yes, believing in Jesus is immensely, eternally important, but things aren’t so black and white." I also know that for people who reject him it will not end well, and you're right I don't yet know exactly what that will look like, but the bible tells me it's true.

    And may I be so bold as to say yes, things are black and white. Believing and loving Jesus is the ONLY thing that is important. It's the beauty of it. In a world where nothing is black and white, we can clling to this God, the only unchanging.

    "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?"

    ... Please hear me out because I really believe I have much the same love for you that you do the people who you take so much of your time to debate. You do it out of a love and concern for every person, especially the ones with the courage to be so honest about their doubts. You don't take offense at them, you try to steer them in the direction, toward the only thing in the universe that you know will help them in everything they are looking for and I pray that comes across in my response to you.

    Believing and works are NOT the same thing, and I do not say this on my own authority, it's all over scripture. When my biological father tells me that he loves me I don't have to strive or work to believe him. I just know. In fact most of the time, he doesn't have to say anything, I believe in my heart that my dad loves me. If I've done something to upset him and he forgives me, I don't have to work to accept his forgiveness. Love and believing and a relationship being made right are deeper and they're more than a feeling.

  6. On a much grander scale this is what God is asking from us. It has nothing to do with works, it is all in our hearts. If we do not accept the greatest and most undeserved sacrifice in the history of the universe, there is, however, nothing he can do about it because we are a free people, he cannot force our hearts to be reconciled to him. Nobody can be forced to accept forgiveness! He already paid the price for our law breaking, it was Jesus, and if we don't accept Him that is up to us.

    Suggesting that perhaps there may be room for enjoyment of any of the gifts God has in the next life (regardless of what the next life looks like) for the people who deny Jesus in this life, is to completely nullify the work of God and to say that Jesus' anguish on the cross was for naught.

    I know that your ideas are highly respected by many and I pray that you will reexamine your ideas and the scriptures and pray for God to give you any new insights or truths He may have to share with you.

    The Truth is what sets us free! :) Thank you for your part in sharing the Truth.
    Also, please remember that our universe is not *just* an amazingly beautiful work of art, but it is finely tuned and mathematical, and I think there is beauty to be found in that. Perhaps the "right" answers and black and white truths are just as important as the most beautifully written story and the colorful painting that somehow perfectly captures the breath-taking essence of a sunset, though it's but a random series of messy brush strokes. Perhaps God is the God of Art AND of Math, and maybe there is a balance to be found in love and judgment; maybe they two sides of the same coin and two parts of the single most sorrowful and beautiful story in history.

    Thanks for your time!
    With love and prayers
    Your sister in Christ, Christina

    1. Hi Christina,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I truly appreciate the time you took to write all that down, as I'm sure it was no small amount! I really, really like the last paragraph you wrote about God being the God of Art AND Math, or Beauty and Precision Engineering. In our age of "science versus faith" we don't often think of God as *smart*, but the fact is that He is the one who invented chemical engineering, particle physics, quantum mechanics, and all the other incredibly complicated systems we haven't even discovered yet!

      In spite of writing in a way that appears I would disagree with your points, you may be interested to know that I actually agree greatly with what you've written. When I write, I generally have two audiences in mind: a) skeptical nonbelievers and b) complacent, self-righteous, or pharisaical Christians. The goal of all my writing here is to convince the first group that Christianity is true and present evidence that blasts away the old, tired stereotype that Christians are unthinking sheeple with soft brains; and to jump-start the minds of the second group, jar loose a few cobwebs of the mind and help expand their understanding of just how much bigger our God truly is than this box of "religion" that He sometimes can get confined to.

      To those ends, sometimes my statements may seem like repudiations of the importance of correct doctrine, etc. My aim, however, is not to do that but to get people, believer and non-believer alike, to get beyond our settled ways of thinking and go deeper, perhaps becoming more open to experiencing God in unfamiliar (but still true!) ways.

      However, I take to heart your concerns about appearing too flip or uncaring when it comes to "knowing the right things". In the issue of correct doctrine, I take the view of Chesterton and especially Lewis in seeing it as a map of the spiritual landscape. I especially love Lewis's description in Mere Christianity:

      "Now, theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and exciting than the sort of thing that my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But the map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God—experiences with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map.

      You see, what comes of that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion—all about feeling God in nature and so on—is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work: like watching the waves from the beach.

      But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map."

      Thanks again for contributing Christina, and blessings to you!