Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Love wins?

I have yet to read "Love Wins," the controversial book by Rob Bell, founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. and who stars in Nooma videos. Bell, of course, has been accused of "universalism," with other, more "orthodox" teachers suggesting that Bell doesn't believe in an eternal hell and that he believes that all persons will be saved regardless of their position in Christ. As such, I'm not prepared to analyze his theology.

One thing I will say, however -- having read some interviews with him, one thing Bell gets right is that Jesus can, and does, save from what some may call a "living hell." And it could be that focusing on an eternal hell may completely miss that point.

Here's why. Jesus came to give not an improvement on your current life but a replacement for it -- which should be obvious, considering that the earthly life without Christ is by necessity full of bad stuff. Whether you're using drugs, addicted to work, having marriage problems or feeling that you've just plain "messed up," there's is nothing about your life that He can improve; He has to destroy it and then give you a whole new one. No "orthodox" teacher will tell you anything different. Thing is, the Bible doesn't focus all that much on eternal punishment.

I know that from personal experience. I first heard the Gospel when I was around 10 or 11 (although it didn't began to sink in until my freshman year in high school). What made the difference for me, however, was the difference in the lives of the Christians I knew back then compared with my family, which was focused on ... well, it wasn't focused on anything except maintaining a middle-class existence. Whatever it was, it just wasn't working.

And then I noticed that my parents' marriage was failing.

The day before the school district picnic toward the end of my senior year, my father called my brother and me over and informed us that my mother had threatened to leave him. I knew why -- he was insanely jealous and so obsessed with her that he was in one sense strangling her, which was connected to his refusal to allow God to run his life. So at that picnic the next day and seeing no alternative, I bowed to the inevitable and threw in my lot with Jesus. (Note: It had nothing to do with my trying to avoid hell; I consider doing so a "fringe benefit.")

Anyway, merely trying to escape eternal punishment doesn't suffice for two reasons: Legalism and licentiousness, both of which ignore the primary gift of God through Christ: His grace.

The first is dangerous because you may feel you need to "perform" -- keep certain rules -- to maintain God's favor. My church belongs to a denomination with a fairly legalistic past; for instance, contemporaries who grew up in it weren't permitted to attend high-school proms. Going the other way, some people believe that once you get saved there's no more that needs to be done -- you can live anyway you want and God will welcome you. Either way, the focus is on the "afterlife," not loving and following Jesus in the here and now. (That's what He meant when He told Nicodemus that "you must be born again" -- that was the only way he would recognize God's work in this world.)

Based on what I know about Bell, he gets that part right.

A close friend of mine is suffering right now, watching her 20-something nephew engaged in full-blown rebellion against his Christian upbringing. I can't help but recall, however, her telling me that her brother and sister-in-law sent their children to a Christian school so that they could "avoid hell." While I don't intend to criticize their choice, the reality is that Jesus mentioned hell mostly to the Pharisees -- the religious elite of that day -- because they were focused upon religion without relationship. But Jesus mentioned the two great commandments, which would even supersede the Ten: "You will love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

Perhaps that explains the title of Bell's book.

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