I had the privilege of studying at Bachelors degree level in a liberal arts college, taking one class each over four semesters which were either about the Bible or about Church doctrine. Moreover, this institution allowed me to study, as part of my psychology degree, the works of Freud, B.F. Skinner or the more modern cognitive psychologists and as part of my minor, I read folk such as Plato, Nietzsche, and Foucault. Such is that college’s emphasis on the need to take scrutiny of all things, over which Christ cries out: “it is mine!”, that it was our mandate to study and learn, even or perhaps mostly, from the radically heathen. But understanding the Bible and the church’s teaching over the millennia was also an important part of that education. It is an institution founded on the shoulder of mixing two traditions of theology, namely Dutch and Scottish Calvinism, and it these traditions I want to open up to you in a later blog post.
But what does all that have to do with Rob Bell’s new book on Love? Well, Bell mixes categories which I think are much more distinct in the minds of his critics. His book is largely about soteriology (the question of how we are saved) but uses language of eschatology (the study of the end times, heaven, hell and the nature of those times), to describe the nature of God’s character and his plan for our lives.
His gripe with the traditional evangelical articulation of salvation goes something like this:
Here’s how the traditional story goes… God offers us everlasting life by grace, Freely, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In Hell.
It’s a caricature and quite oversimplified, perhaps most oversimplified because it doesn’t mention the nature of that Grace (God creating us in the first place, then becoming a man, dying, going to hell, being raised from death and going to the father, to prepare all things anew), and how it is “imputed” to us, to use penal substitutionary atonement language. This language is part of his problem.
It is clear that Bell misses, deliberately and I think for an emphasis on God’s love, the lion nature of God’s character of which we are to be in awe. Lion nature is C.S Lewis’s reverse deo-morphism, to describe our relationship to an all powerful and loving God. It’s like being near a lion you don’t know is safe but you know the lion is a good and caring lion, but a lion nevertheless. Awe: a fear stemming from the grandeur and quality of the object one is in awe of. Nevertheless, it is clear that Bell is in awe of God’s plan.
What, according to Bell did happen on the cross? I will quote extensively on this because it is important.
When people say Jesus came to die on the cross so that we can have a relationship with God, yes, that is true. But what explanation as the first explanation puts us at the centre. For the first Christians, the story was, first and foremost, bigger, grander. More Massive. When Jesus is presented only as the answer that saves individuals from their sin and death, we run the risk of shrinking the Gospel down to something just for humans, when God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus’s resurrection to renew, restore and reconcile everything “on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1), just as God originally intended it. The power of death and destruction have been defeated on the most epic scale imaginable. Individuals are then invited to see their story in the context of a far larger story, one that includes all of creation.”
According to Bell, people leave churches because the gospel that is preached there is too small. Individual salvation is an important part of God’s work through Jesus, but Bell maintains that story, that good news, is far too small:
A gospel that leave out its cosmic scope will always feel small.
A gospel that has as its chief message avoiding hell or not sinning will never be the full story.
A gospel that repeatedly, narrowly affirms and bolsters the “in-ness” of one group at the expense of he “out-ness” of another group will not be true to the story that includes “all things and people in heaven and on earth.”
So you see, he mixes soteriology and eschatology, in his articulation of the Gospel, which is that God is making new all things. His critique of the narrowness of the small-gospel is intermingled with the portrayal of something which has been underemphasised in the evangelical tradition for a very long time, but which I think is now remerging once again, as people start to discover the all encompassing nature of the Christ act.
Bell appeals to me in this way because he takes that size of the message seriously. He calls the personalisation of the gospel “an entrance understanding” and points out that such a view “rarely creates good art.” We emphasis the how?, but not the what-for? and ironically by doing that we minimize the why-should-I? But, as readers will find out, these ideas are not new, and are fundamentally part of the Calvinist Reformed tradition (so I feel very safe saying I agree with Bell on this).
But where does he go “far out?”
Bell’s central message is that hell is what we do to ourselves when we reject God, and he asserts that hell is a reality for people now as much as it will be a reality for people who reject and keep on rejecting God after death and more controversially, people can be saved from hell after death. Obviously this has implications for the nature of hell and the nature of punishment and justice, the discussion of which has been written about elsewhere. However, I introduce this point because it relates to the mixing of soteriology and eschatology in time and space, as the third chapter makes clear: “Here is the new there.”
Taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now. Not because we’ve bought into the myth that we can create a utopia given enough time, technology, and good voting choices, but because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is actively at work within it, taking it somewhere.
Around a billion people in the world today do not have access to clean water. People will have access to clean water in the age to come, and so working for clean-water access for all is participating now in the life of the age to come.
That’s what happens when the future is dragged into the present.
Do you know? I think Calvin would agree. So what of this Dutch and Scottish Calvinism that I mentioned? Well, that is for when I will introduce you to another book I recently read called: Letters to a Young Calvinist, by James K.A. Smith.
But I will leave you with this thought for now. If it is true that our tradition over-emphasises the soteriology of the individual, and if it is true that our emphasis as evangelicals is to evangelise people and spread the good news of Christ’s salvific work on the cross, what are we inviting people to?
The gospel and our time spent promoting it is not a zero sum game. We are told often that it is our duty to evangelize, but if the gospel is about more than individual salvation, doesn’t that also mean that participating in the Kingdom of God now creates more not less opportunities to evangelise?