Rob Bell is one of my favorite authors. I have always enjoyed his fresh, unique look at various spiritual concepts. Further, I will admit that I freely steal from his teaching in my own preaching and teaching. I own most of his books, have been listening to him preach via podcast for years and have even met him. The man is a bit of a Rock Star to me. I may need to get a life. His recent book,Love Wins, has been a disappointment to me, to say the least. Reading Love Winshas been like discovering that Miles Davis recorded some country albums at the prime of his career. For me, this is a telling moment. I want to buy the idea that he is right and that the 2 millennia of scholars who stand on the other side of the issue are wrong. I want to believe that Miles Davis recording Achey Breaky Heart isn’t a crime against nature. The reality is that the Bible has to have ultimate say in matters of true and not true. The coolness of the messenger isn’t a reasonable argument in favor of the validity of theological truth.

I am only a few chapters into Love Wins and had not intended to do any writing before I finished. However, I am stuck with the constraints of my life and limited memory. I really have to write as I go because I have no idea when I will finish the book due to a busy seminary schedule, new fatherhood, youth ministry, my full time chaplaincy and fitting in 6 hours of TV a day. Plus, if I write everything into one essay… it’ll be 35 pages long, and unlike with a conversation where I am right there, you could just stop reading this when I begin to drone.

So I am going to address this book in bits. Plus, I will write a couple of blogs on the interesting phenomena I am noticing around the whole Miles Davis country album fiasco…. Er…. Rob Bell, Love Wins thing. I will begin with my general observations about the aim of the book as it is set out in the introduction chapter. According to the introduction, Bell is struggling with matters that, as a pastor, I can sympathize with. I have had the “hell conversation” and the “sexual abuse conversation” and the “I hate God” conversation with lots of people. It’s just not easy. Every pastor in the world bears the weight of the tensions inherent in the meetings of real life and spiritual ideals when dealing with real people. Bell’s response is to look for an “out” for God because dealing with the “some people are sent to hell by God” issue seems unfair and inappropriate to him.

The problem is that dealing with the tension is part of the calling. You cannot be the smartest, coolest guy in the room all the time. Sometimes the answer has to be: “I don’t know” or “the Bible’s answer may be one you don’t like.” You cannot come at the Bible trying to find a specific escape from these conundrums. In doing so, you end up betraying your calling. Pastors are not called to give all the answers or provide the escape for every difficult situation or even apologize for God. We don’t get to do those things. We are called to be God’s representatives and to shepherd his people. Prophets say what they are told to say. I see a lot of that in the portions of the book I have read thus far. I see, “I don’t like this doctrine. God must meet my ethical standards. I’ll find a way out for Him.” In providing God escapes, we rob God of his dangerous side. We change Aslan from a mighty lion into a fierce tabby. The God that isn’t dangerous isn’t to be feared. We cannot simply dismiss the theology of hell because we don’t like that God isn’t fair or because we don’t like his punishments.
I would argue that the desire to remove the punishment from the hand of God and make him nice is a symptom of removing the horribleness of sin. Bell speaks of sin, but it isn’t a matter of rebelling against God. It’s a matter of spreading brokenness in the world. Bell poses the question: Is ignoring God enough to merit eternal punishment? I would be forced to respond: Who are we to demand God answer our questions on these matters? Does the pot have the right to question the potter demanding: “why have you formed me this way?” Working with drug addicts and criminals, I have never heard one of them admit that the jail time they have coming was justified and wonderful. We are the criminals before God. We deserve hell. I deserve hell. The more I grapple with my sin the more clear it is that I have some bad stuff coming my way. Bad stuff I deserve. Any man that takes stock of his sin before a truly Holy God cannot deny the justice of the punishment. Certainly we would never wish it on others. But we cannot live in their heads and see their sinfulness. When I approach a Holy God, my own sin rises to accuse me. Surely I would never say another deserves eternal punishment, but I know I do. My sin is great and my God’s holiness is greater. This is the problem with the opening set of questions in Bell’s book. It frames questions in terms of how God ought to be based on the idea that our sins really aren’t that bad or that he ought to meet our standards of justice. It isn’t stated outright, but it is in the background. Bell’s questions betray a lack of appreciation for the magnitude of sin. How could a loving God send anyone to hell? How could God punish you forever because you don’t believe right? Perhaps a better question would be: How could God ignore my evil and not destroy me now? How could God send his Son to be tortured and crucified for a filthy animal like me? How come I am not going to hell, sent there by a clean, holy and entirely justified God?

The gospel message is offensive. God is not safe. He is not tame, but He is good. Making God safe is not the answer to difficult questions. The difficult questions are part of how God is dangerous. Bell misses that by taking the edges off to keep people from stumbling over the hard parts or sticking themselves in the eye with anything pointy. I suspect Jesus would rather we poke our eyes out on the point parts than fall into the hands of God without Jesus to save us.

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