Love Wins - rethinking the gospel

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I'm reading through Rob Bell's new book Love Wins and am loving it so far. He begins the book in the preface by saying its good to ask hard questions, that God wants us to ask them, and then proceeds in the first chapter to ask a bunch of hard questions about the "good news" of the gospel that can sound like bad news:
God loves us.
God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part.
Unless you do not respond in the right way. Then God will torture you forever.
In Hell.
Is God really going to torture people you love forever in hell because they didn't accept his love? Is that how love acts? is that what grace looks like? Is that what justice looks like? Is that what holiness looks like?

Hell no.

Isn't God the one who teaches us to forgive and love our enemies? So if that's true, then why would God act the opposite? I'm sure you've heard people say it is because he takes sin so seriously, but really doesn't that in fact trivialize sin? Doesn't it make God look petty and unjust? That is one of the biggest reasons people leave the faith, that and all the suffering and injustice in the world. In short, the major reason people leave Christianity is because of moral outrage, because sin--real sin, the kind that deeply wounds people, the kind that destroys lives--is not being taken seriously enough.

What about rape? What about abuse? What about all the violence and oppression in our world? That's the kind of thing that I think God cares about, and he cares because these things are killing us, and he loves us. God is not concerned with his "glory" because God is not egotistical. God is love, and that means that what God really wants, what it truly means to love him, is to love each other. That's a point you will find being made over and over in the NT.

The heart of the gospel is that God does not come to judge us (even though he hates these horrible things we do to each other), he comes to save, he has come to pull us out of that world of hurting and being hurt. That's what real justice is about, making things right, and that is what Jesus was all about.

That way of making things right--the gospel--begins with God entering into our hearts and lives and showing us what it means to be loved. I'm taking here about being born again, about having a personal relationship with God where you come to know God's loving grace first hand, where God just pours his love out on you until it completely changes who you are.

One place I disagree with Rob is when he says that the phrase "relationship with God" is not in the Bible. Of course it is not there verbatim, but then a lot of things are not which are still truly biblical. Like the Trinity for example. The question is whether the concept is there, and I think it clearly is (both the Trinity and relationship with God). Loving God, Jesus says, is the "greatest commandment." But as I said, it can't stop there. If we really love God, if we really know grace, know what it means to be loved unconditionally, then this can't help but spill out into all of our life. We will feel compelled to live out that grace with others, to love like Jesus did.

That is the urgency that Jesus preaches: stop hurting each other, stop with your stupid wars and killing in God's name, stop with all the condemnation and hatred! Learn the way of the cross, the way of overcoming evil with good, the way of enemy love. That is a way that is not just some trivial religious concern which seems so tangential to life, it is about real stuff, life and death stuff, quite literally.

Living in that is the gospel. The gospel is absolutely inseparable from love of enemies. In other words, the gospel is about radically loving everyone. That means that we have to care about poverty and starvation (Jesus certainly did!), we have to care about human trafficking and war and corporate abuse and a host of other social causes because belonging to Jesus means we care about people.

That's the gospel: being loved by God so that we can know love and walk in the way of love--knowing grace firsthand so we can show that grace in a world that desperately needs it.

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At 7:24 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Sounds good. Now, since you posted this theological piece, the news has given you an opportunity to try some practical application to a particular situation. Care to give it a shot (pun intended)?

At 7:48 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

What are your thoughts on that Josh?

At 10:15 PM, Blogger Josh said...

I asked you first.

At 12:00 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Well, what recent news event are referring to? The one where they tried to kill Gaddafi, failed, and instead killed his infant grand children, or the similar story a couple days later where they likewise killed everyone in a house, and successfully killed Bin Laden in the process?

In both cases, they targeted a house, not really knowing who exactly was inside, killing the inhabitants. In one they killed three babies, and in the other they had better luck.

At 9:40 AM, Blogger Josh said...

The fact that war always has unintended consequences--which often include the killing of noncombatants--is one of the reasons I do not find the just war tradition compelling.

I was thinking of the latter rather than the former news (although I do have questions and reservations about the conflict in Libya). Your post raises interesting questions, including: Will OBL ultimately be saved? Is the inability to imagine such an evil person being saved the main reason many people reject universalism? If the story of Jesus rules out a violent response to a violent person, then how should Christians respond to such a person? How should Christians respond to OBL's death? Should they rejoice (as many Americans are)? Should they mourn? Something in between?

At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this. Some people will say that people deserve to rot in hell forever because God is infinite and to offend an infinite God deserves infinite punishment. But I'm glad we know that just simply isn't true. Others say he'd be unjust to let liars and murderers and rapists walk away free but really what could be more loving? Others say it is vitally important over how someone responds to Jesus Christ in this lifetime, but we know that it is complete rubbish. There are those who have never heard of the Gospel. God won't give up on them. Some people say God is angry with sinners. We know that God loves sinners and will melt their hearts like wax. That's how much God loves sinners. Others just don't believe God loves us that much.

At 8:26 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I would say that it is important to keep the goal of love of enemies in mind. Many people think of it as a prohibition, and thus want to find what the exceptions to the rule is: "what about Hitler?" "What about self-defense?" and so on. This is ultimately unproductive because we spend our energy thinking of ways to get out of keeping the command, rather than imagining how we can think and live in this new paradigm. This is also the problem with Just War theory which focuses on when we have a license to justify war and killing, and ends up being “justify war” theory which is not justice at all. Justice means making things right. It does not mean hurting back (despite what President Obama may think).

So rather than thinking of it legally, as a prohibition, I want to focus on the intent, the goal of enemy love. That intent is to lead to reconciliation, and to reduce the amount of human suffering and death. With these goals in mind we can address your questions:

"Will OBL ultimately be saved?"

Here I would stress that being "saved" means that there is a real transformation. It does not mean that God (or anyone else) will simply pretend that everything is fine when it is not, that we will ignore evil and hurt. I am not okay, and you are not okay. We need real transformation, because the hurt we do and experience is real. Forgiveness does not mean looking the other way, it means healing that hurt. Not just healing our hurt, but healing our hurtfulness, healing our identity. So the real question is: is God's love strong enough to overcome the evil and hatred of OBL, or any other human? I have faith that God can, that God's love is stronger than our stupidity and brokenness and selfishness. God is sovereign. Love will over power death.

“Is the inability to imagine such an evil person being saved the main reason many people reject universalism?”

I think it is more that they think forgiveness means ignoring the problem, overlooking evil. It would be wrong to simply acquit someone who has perpetrated horrific hurt and evil. But acquittal is not salvation. Salvation means sanctification, healing, transformation, new creation. It entails real change, so that the bad are made good, made righteous, made loving. That is the gospel Paul proclaims.

“If the story of Jesus rules out a violent response to a violent person, then how should Christians respond to such a person?”

Here I stress that our focus should not not on prohibiting violence, but rather on working to reduce violence, with the ultimate goal of working towards reconciliation and restoration. So we could ask questions like: how could we stop people from hurting others? How could we protect people from them, but at the same time limit our contributing to violence and hurt (like accidentally killing babies)? Further, what can we do to amend these hostilities? What can we do to rehabilitate criminals so they can break out of the cycle of violence and hurt themselves? What can we do to change the societal structures that lead to such hostility and alienation? That gives us some solid practical goals that are active (not passive) at address the problem of evil, violence, and hurt with the goal of ending it.

“How should Christians respond to OBL's death? Should they rejoice (as many Americans are)? Should they mourn?”

Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. (Ezekiel 33:11)

At 9:05 PM, Blogger Josh said...

So, in your responses to my first two questions I hear the suggestion of a post-mortem transformation of OBL and other wicked persons. Yes? I would add that the last two days have shown evidence that many people thirst for vengeance; they don't want someone like OBL to experience salvation in any sense--they would prefer that he burn in hell.

I've seen the Ezekiel quote posted elsewhere in response to the rejoicing of the last two days. It would seem that rejoicing over anyone's death is ungodly. OBL's death calls for neither rejoicing nor weeping.

At 10:58 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself with the idea of post-mortem transformation (which is covered in a later chapter of Rob Bell's book), but yes. I'll cover that in a later post.

Perhaps "thirst for vengeance" is a bit strong. I understand people's celebration. I don't want to condemn that reaction, just I would not condemn a person for being angry at God when someone they love dies. These are very natural responses. I certainly will not be shedding any tears over OBL.

The thing we need to remember is that these gut responses are emotional rather than rational, and the danger is that they can in this raw unreflected form easily be co-opted by people to serve their agendas. A clear example of this is how politicians used 9/11 to justify any number of things that had next to nothing to do with 9/11. Emotions are good. Being manipulated by an emotional appeal is not.

So just because we have natural (read: fleshly) emotional reactions to things, does not mean it is a good thing to structure our society around fulfilling them. In fact the very idea of society and social is to not to that. Becoming a social being (i.e. growing up) means learning how to constructively manage these raw emotions and lusts.

At 8:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've heard a lot about Rob Bell's book. I'd like to read it myself. I've heard that it's a bit lacking on an exegetical front, though. I've been reading [i]Hope Beyond Hell[/i]--which is a book on the same subject that the author makes fully available for free on his website--and it has quite the biblical backing. I have to say, I'm convinced. It's great that people are asking these critical questions. Perhaps now we can refocus the Gospel to the broken and hurting here on Earth instead of isolating it to a spiritual dimension.

At 10:28 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes, Bell's book does have some exegetical problems. I plan on addressing some of them in my next installment. Thanks for the tip on Hope Beyond Hell, I'll have to check that out. You might want to check out the Evangelical Universalist website too.


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