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Friday, June 24, 2011

Love Wins - can we back the truck up just a minute?

There are a number of things in the writings of C. S. Lewis that should positively baffle most Christians. Take the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia, titled The Last Battle. In chapter 13, the heroes of the story metaphorically "go to Heaven" by being forced through the door of a stable (which is obviously a reference to the stable in which Jesus was born). Some of the "villains" of the story go through the door too, a bunch of dwarves who have consciously decided to reject the Lordship of the Christ-figure of the books, Aslan. They all, heroes and dwarves alike, wind up in a beautiful place with blue sky, refreshing summer breezes, delicious fruit growing on the trees, and reunions with loved ones. The heroes of the story love it, but the dwarves hate it; they are so determined that they know the nature of the inside of the stable that they refuse to see the reality inside. They imagine a place of discomfort and punishment, when actually they are in a place comfort and plenty. The implication would seem to be that even if someone rejects Christ, he still goes to Heaven... he just doesn't know he did. A chapter or two later, a Calormene (a member of a country that is the sworn enemy of Narnia) who spent his life serving Tash (the Satan figure in The Last Battle) gets into Heaven because Aslan has accepted his service to Tash, thinking Tash was the good true God, as service to Aslan. If you told most Christians that you thought that people who had rejected their former religion would go to Heaven anyway but not know that they were in Heaven, or that a Muslim who served Allah with all of his heart would go to the Christian Heaven because Jesus would accept his heart toward Allah as a heart toward God, they would say you were nuts, but that's what Lewis is implying in the book.

In a different story C. S. Lewis wrote called "The Great Divorce," the characters, who we eventually learn are deceased, begin as residents of Hell, but they take a ride on a bus to Heaven where they are given a chance to become full-fledged citizens. Most of them decline the invitation, and go back to Hell. Hell in this story is not a traditional flames-and-pitchforks place, but a dreary, boring, rainy kind of place. What? No fire in Hell? People leaving Hell and given a chance to repent and go to Heaven after they've died? This from the author who wrote Mere Christianity, one of the clearest articulations of the Christian faith ever written? Scandalous!

I don't think, based on what I've learned over the years about the life of C. S. Lewis, that it registered to the readers of his time what he was saying in his stories. Either that, or those kinds of views were much more mainstream in Christianity then than they are now. So C. S. Lewis probably never reaped the benefits of the sensationalized marketing that seems to surround each new Rob Bell book. I wonder if all those people who wrote all those scathing debunkings of his new book, Love Wins, before it even came out realize that all they were doing was raising interest in the book? I know several people (myself included) who might never have read it except for the controversy surrounding it. I'm glad I did pick it up, though. It gave me a lot to think about.

The Bible is a book about God and His pursuit of man, based on His love for mankind. For that reason, some things are left very ambiguous. Take the origins of the universe and mankind, for example. The Bible, not being a science book, does not explicitly confirm or debunk the Big Bang, evolution, the age of planet Earth, or many other things that scores of extremely smart human beings have spent their lives trying to figure out. God (or Moses, who scholars believe wrote Genesis, if you want to get picky) apparently wasn't that concerned with those details; the point is that God caused the world to exist and God caused people to exist, but people tried to do things their own way and they wound up in a pickle because of it. The ultimate fate of mankind is another thing that the Bible doesn't have as much to say about as we would like. Despite what some may think, the Bible doesn't say that the human race will sit on clouds in Heaven and play harps forever.

In fact, the Bible doesn't say that human beings will live forever in Heaven at all. Check the end of the book of Revelation: the human race doesn't wind up in Heaven. The human race winds up on Earth. It indicates that there will be an end to this world, God's people will be saved from destruction personally by Jesus Himself, there will be a thousand years of peace, and then... it doesn't say much about the time after that, other than that we will be on Earth (obviously a "new" Earth, one with some qualities that set it apart from the current Earth, but Earth nonetheless) and that God will be in charge through Jesus. The idea that Christians will spend forever someplace in the sky is the kind of misconception that Rob Bell takes on in the book.

But let's back the truck up here. Let's talk about the things that people have said that Bell says in the book, but which he does not actually say.

Rob Bell does not say in this book that Hell does not exist. He pretty clearly says that Hell does exist. In fact, he extends the concept of Hell from the time after death into this lifetime. Ever hear someone call something "Hell on Earth?" Ever hear about something happening with qualities that are so horrible that it qualifies for the description "hellish?" He extends the concept of Hell to those before-death situations, but he also affirms the existence of a Hell after death, flames and all.

Bell does not say that everyone will go to Heaven. In fact, he affirms that some will go to Hell, and that it will be because of their own choices that they do.

What Bell does do is challenge the cut-and-dried concepts of Heaven as a place in the sky where people play harps forever, and Hell as a place under the ground somewhere where people burn in anguish forever. Bell seems to characterize "Hell" more as the torment that a human being feels when he has chosen to reject God than as a specific place, although he does discuss Jesus' story of "the rich man and Lazarus," which indicates that the two of them are physically in two different places, at some length. Essentially, Bell seems to indicate that the "punishment" of the flames of Hell is not there to callously torment people forever, but to "punish" them in the sense of purifying them and teaching them that there is something wrong about them that needs to be corrected. He also contends that the word "eternal" (as in "eternal punishment"), based on the meanings present in the source Greek word, most likely refers to the intensity of the experience rather than the time span in which it occurs. So when an uncomfortable experience for you seems to take "an eternity," that's the sense he postulates. So perhaps the "eternal punishment" of Hell is not burning forever with no end at all to the punishment, but an experience which, no matter how long it actually lasts, is a very intense lesson in "right" and "wrong." The fire which the Bible says in several places will try the works of believers is in mind here, the "wood hay and stubble" fire. Maybe the same fire that burns away those things and leaves the gold of works done by believers by the Spirit of God - maybe that same fire will be applied to unbelievers, and likewise purify them.

Bell doesn't even contend that people will get out of Hell immediately... actually, he doesn't say that they will definitely get out at all. He seems to be saying that the purifying process will last as long as it takes for them to let go of anything they are holding onto which is anti-God. After they have been purified, presumably they will be able to join in the afterlife God had wanted for them all along. Presumably they'll get to take C. S. Lewis' "bus ride to Heaven" at that point. Whether or not anyone will be stubborn enough to stay in the flames forever or not is a question Bell does not address.

There are a number of things Bell doesn't address directly in the book, although you can infer some of the answers. One thing he does not directly state is whether or not he thinks that everyone will eventually come to Salvation. In fact, if you notice my use of phrases like "perhaps" and "seems to" and "most likely" throughout this post, you'll realize that Bell, as often as not, leaves room for doubt about what he actually believes. Whether this is to allow the reader to reach his own conclusions, or whether it is there to provide Bell some "plausible deniability" of the "I never said everyone would go to Heaven!" type, or maybe a little of both, I guess is something only Bell himself knows. I know that the sort of "presenting a huge list of unanswered questions" format of the first chapter, which is presumably intended to be compelling, I found frustrating. I already have questions - everyone does. I didn't read the book to get more questions. After that chapter, the book is less riddled with question marks, but it is also a lot less filled with "this is how it is" kinds of direct answers than most books about religion tend to be.

And in a sense, that's a good thing. Sometimes people have to be forced to think for themselves, to examine their own beliefs about things, and to reach conclusions based on their own perspective of the facts. Love Wins presents itself as this kind of book, but because it doesn't truly present every side of the story, in the end you wind up supporting Bell's apparent views without him ever saying that his views are correct. So you are convinced of something that the book never came out and said, this is what the Bible says. It's clever writing, but I'm not sure it's 100% honest about its intentions.

For many years I've said that I truly believe that we will be surprised at the people we run into in Heaven. In the end Bell brings this to an extreme: we may be surprised to find that anyone might be there one day, even people who consciously rejected God in this life. Even people who consciously reject God for a while in that life. I don't want you to get me wrong; I enjoyed this book very much. I like Bell's writing style, and his ideas gave me a perspective that will be with me for a long time as I go through the Scriptures. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in the afterlife. His ideas are different from what most Christians believe, but not in the way the pre-publication critics thought. Bell agrees that Heaven and Hell exist. He just thinks they exist in a different way than we always thought. Give the book a chance. Find out what it says. Then take it or leave it, but you owe it to yourself to at least know what it is that you're taking or leaving.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great response to the book, Michael. The comparison to Lewis was something that I never even thought of. Obscure but awesome insight. If Lewis was around today, I'd love to get is take on Love Wins. I think that the point you made about Bell allowing readers to think for themselves is key. By doing so, I believe he's showing a great amount of trust and respect. Something that many Christian leaders fail to do. Bell's critics?