It seems to me the purpose of this chapter is to deconstruct as many things as possible and leave the reader pretty discombobulated. Maybe that is because that is where many people already are and he is trying to resonate with people who have some of these same serious questions but don’t know how to come to solid conclusions. Or maybe there is another reason (see the last few sentences of this post for my guess on that one). The gist of his questions in this chapter goes something like this:
- How is one “saved”?
- Why some people and not others?
- Can a loving God send billions of people to hell?
- Is my salvation dependent on someone other than myself (If I depend on someone to preach it to me, etc)?
- What happens to someone who dies the day after they turn whatever age God has defined as the “age of accountability”? Would it have been different if they had died the day before? (His question assumes this is a fixed point in time and not a process)
- What happens to non-Christians who act more like Christians than some Christians?
- Which Jesus are we supposed to believe in and…
- What if the Jesus someone gets presented does not accurately reflect the one we find in scripture? Is that their fault for not believing in Jesus if his followers don’t portray him properly?
- How is one saved…by faith or works or grace or a prayer or baptism?
- “What if the missionary gets a flat tire?”
There are many more but that pretty much hits the root of it all. What all this boils down to, in my opinion, is whether salvation is up to us or if it is up to God? Bell sure knows how to ask the questions that will lead you the direction he wants you to go. In some cases that is a good thing. Some places I appreciated his questions and it really got me examining things and trying to expand my own view of God’s grace. But in other places it was ill-conceived and showed a gross misunderstanding of what sin and salvation are all about as a whole.
Here are two examples that fit in the ill conceived category for me. I would balance this with a few of his better questions but I would rather just be critical and judgmental of the book. Just kidding! On page 3 he tells the story about a young woman who was killed in an accident. A Christian asks if she was a Christian. When they learn she was an atheist the Christian’s response is, “So there’s no hope.” From that statement Bell responds, “No hope? Is that the Christian message? No hope? Is that what Jesus offers the world? Is the sacred calling of Christians-to announce that there’s no hope?” (p.3-4). Bell’s point is that there should be hope for all. This young lady did have hope. She had Jesus dying for her sins. She had God pulling for her to put her faith in Him. She had all kinds of hope if she would just recognize it. There is no line between saying she died and has no hope and saying that she never had hope at all.
Bell is all about choosing his stories wisely and which stories from life and scripture to include or exclude. To be fair we all do this. I can’t help but wonder how comfortable Bell would be with inserting the story of the rich man and Lazarus right about here in his book and then see how he unpacks it. He is all about honest inquiry and tough questions. So what if we brought up another narrative? How would he deal with what Jesus taught in Luke 16 that everyone has hope while alive on earth. The Christian message is a message of hope. But if one dies in rebellion to God Jesus taught that there is no more hope. That is not my opinion. That is what Jesus taught. Bell is saying that to agree that there is such a thing as hell and judgment is to say that anyone who ends up there never had any hope. He is then making the connection that if that is the case then our mission as Christians would be to preach a hopeless message. I can’t help but wonder if he has totally disconnected himself from what the New Testament teaches about salvation at all. It it not either all have hope for all eternity or none have hope ever. There is a third option and that option is a biblical one. But he doesn’t touch that because, although it is scriptural and a point Jesus made, it doesn’t advance his thesis. That is upsetting but it is even more upsetting because he is the one who said we need to be open an open and honest discussion about these matters and be challenged in them but finds no room to take on these stories that challenge his main points. Maybe he does that later and I am not there yet but I haven’t seen it yet. And I don’t expect an author to tackle every opposing point of view along the way. That is not reasonable. But what I am trying to do here is take Bell’s point of choosing the right stories to tell and show that if you do that it can actually point away from what he is trying to communicate rather than forward his main points. I guess I am deconstructing his deconstruction.
Let me give you another example. Bell totally misses or at least drives right by the whole interplay in scripture between grace, faith and works. He writes, “If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him – a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works or good deeds – and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren’t those verbs? And aren’t verbs actions?…Does that mean, then that going to heaven is dependent on something I do? How is any of that grace? How is that a gift? How is that good news?” (p.11)
It all makes me wonder, and I ask this carefully because I am not far enough in the book to really address this fairly, but if God is going to win everyone over by love…won’t that mean that ultimately every single person who ever lived would accept God, confess God, and believe in the end? I ask that carefully because that is where I hear Bell is going with this but I haven’t read far enough to see it for my own eyes. In other words, it seems to me like his own explanation for the alternative he is pushing would result in all of these things he seems to be saying just don’t fit the gospel or what salvation is all about.
What he seems to be missing is that in no way does belief or confession or baptism or any of the rest of it warrant or earn Jesus on the cross or an empty tomb. God didn’t look down on us and say, “Well they are going to believe this is for real so that means they earned you going son, get to it.” Our confession didn’t twist God’s arm or force God’s hand into saving us. It is all a gift. These actions are reactions. They are re-sponses to what God has already done. Surely he knows that. He goes on to write,
“Isn’t that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart…that you don’t have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus Christ.” (p.11)
I don’t mean to sound harsh here but I just don’t know what version of the New Testament he is studying from. Has he read the Sermon on the Mount? I am trying really hard to not be defensive. I know how annoying that can be when you are reading a review and I don’t want you to hear me that way. There is a difference between doing acts of righteousness to earn our salvation and the things God calls us to do as followers of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is about following, doing, loving, etc…right? Didn’t God call us to lots of actions? What Jesus has already done is to defeat sin and Satan and death…we don’t do that on our own through belief or baptism. God does it. So I am thrown off by his remark that somehow Christians want to teach we don’t have to do anything but then teach a list of to do’s as earners of anything.
Then Bell writes something that nearly made me laugh out loud,
“At this point another voice enters the discussion – the reasoned, wise voice of the one who reminds us that it is, after all, a story. Just read the story, because a good story has a powerful way of rescuing us from abstract theological discussions that can tie us up in knots for years. Excellent point.” (p.12).
Who is this well reasoned, wise voice making an excellent point? Are we to assume this is Rob or God or Ghandi or who? Sorry if that sounds obnoxious. I am trying really, really hard not to do that. I just can’t believe he actually put that in the book. So let me deconstruct that a bit. Just read which story? Read the one about the rich man and Lazarus where the rich man is in eternal torment and cannot be reached and has no hope (Luke 16)? Read the story where Jesus teaches that if you struggle with lust you better pluck out your eye before you end up in hell due to your rebellion and sin (Mtt 5:29)? Or maybe he is referring to the story about Jesus sending out the twelve and he tells them it is possible for both your body and soul to be destroyed in hell (Mtt 10:28). Would he have us read the story about God’s judgment of the dead in Revelation 20:11-15? If anyone is an expert at abstract theological discussions that can tie us up for years I think we know at this point that Bell is a master at that.
Last, he turns to a dozen or so stories from the New Testament that show how different people responded and asks what God is really after in our lives. He comes to the point of saying maybe we are to just believe. But then believe what? Believe who Jesus is? Well, who did they think Jesus was? So he points to different conclusions people had about who Jesus was in order to say maybe even that was confusing when Jesus was right there for them to see and hear in the flesh. The problem is, people really did get Jesus. They got him loud and clear. Were the 3000 at Pentecost confused? Were the apostles confused? There was some confusion sometimes but not everyone was confused all the time. Jesus revealed who he was in a very clear and real way.
Rather than point to the clarity of the Gospel, over and over again Bell likes to move to the murky spots and the confusing spots. If you land on solid ground it is hard to say you are some place else. But if you can keep things murky, unclear and deconstructed, you can more easily point things another direction and have people agree with where you are headed.