To my way of thinking, the most unsettling feature of Rob Bell’s recent book Love Wins has been the response to it in the Christian community.
Theological problems certainly can be the result of poor thinking or because even good intentions, like evangelism or protectionism, have succumbed to an evasive dishonesty that wants to make things more palatable or clear than they are. At the same time, some theological difficulties arise from a healthy sense of Christian humility which can tolerate well a certain degree of ambiguity. Those concerned with guarding against the first certainly share the mind of Christ; Jesus made everything known to his disciples, even when it was hard. Those concerned with preserving the second, however, share the heart of Christ. Jesus was honest with his disciples, for example, when telling them that no one knew the day or hour of the end, except the Father alone. Faithful communication of the Gospel requires both the mind and the heart of Christ: clarity about and fidelity to what we do know; humility and honesty about things yet mysterious.
I think the heart of Christ is conveyed best by a humble tone and openness to free dialogue, even when discussing what we do know. But this is all the more true in a post-modern world where confession of the edges of mystery is more intelligible and honest than the hammered out propositional and prepackaged truths of the modern (and not necessarily scriptural) world. Indeed the reasoned systematic arrangement of propositions is not a scriptural principle. It’s worth saying then that all the ordered ‘right facts’ with the wrong tone is a clanging gong and risks giving as erroneous a picture of the heart and truth of God as the right tone with poor thinking or exegesis gives of His mind. If Bell’s book is the latter, his critics often seem the former. Some critics are aware of this risk, but then justify a tone that could be misconstrued as mean spirited, nasty, or even cruel by making notions of “strong language” a kind of synonym for “forceful arguments”. I’m unconvinced, and suspect rather an excuse for plain bad behaviour among some evangelicals for which folks like Bell are trying to compensate. Piper’s tweet “Farewell Rob Bell” reveals a very serious problem among evangelicals today when it comes to understanding the heart of Christ, and even if Bell’s suggestions about what happens after death fail exegetical tests, (and I think they do), at least the heart is right. That’s a better place to start the discussion that Bell does indeed want to have. Bell intentionally names his speculations about a quasi-universalistic almost purgatorial Hell, as a “question that gives us much to discuss”, but then goes on to say that they are nevertheless subsidiary matters to the better and less speculative question that matters more, and about which there is no real controversy. Bell is willing to take the ideas he’s clearly most passionately interested in exploring, and that he feels will help in his ministry, and call them secondary to what we all as evangelicals hold as true.
I do think there is a better exegetical and theological path than Rob Bell’s. One that is more faithful to the mind of Christ and the scriptural truth we’ve received, and yet that can also reflect the heart of Christ so necessary in our post-Christian context.
I’d begin by saying that Hell and final justice are simply not contrary to God’s love. There’s no shortage, for example, of wounded people in this world who’ve rightly been crying out for justice. And so the expressions of God’s definitive, permanent and final justice are actually expressions of His love to the victims and wounded of this world. Victims matter to God. Their feelings and sufferings matter. Their loss and grief matter. And so God’s wrath against the injustice, oppression and sin of this world is not that of a temperamental parent upset that the kids got in after 10pm. His wrath is that of the one who sees everything perfectly, and who is filled with a love that forgives, is merciful, and that protects and sets right.
If we should be worried about who goes where ‘in the end,’ I’d paraphrase Augustine with “There are some God has, whom we [in the church] do not have; and there are some we have, whom God does not have.” I often offer that passage with the reassurance that when God’s judgments are made, no one is going to stand back and slap their foreheads thinking God blew it. We can trust Him. No one is going where they don’t belong. We can leave the matter there as a healthy and humbly expressed mystery where the scriptural truths of justice and mercy can meet, and be affirmed together.