on Love Wins, and the Fear of Heresy

I read Love Wins by Rob Bell, and I want to start by saying that at no point does Rob Bell suggest that Hell doesn’t exist, or that it’s anything less than the greatest horrors we can imagine.  He doesn’t say that nobody will go to Hell, either.  He doesn’t say that Hell is just a state of mind that exists in the here and now; he affirms that Hell can be such a thing, but that it is also an eternal state.  He affirms the existence of Hell in every way it can exist.  He doesn’t say that all religions lead to heaven, or that all religions are the same.  He doesn’t say that holiness doesn’t matter, or that evangelism doesn’t matter.  Rob Bell, believe it or not, is quite orthodox.

So, if you’re coming to nit-pick his evangelistic pop-theology with a fine-toothed hermeneutical comb, leave it out.  Now that the disclaimer’s out there, we can begin.

This post has been a long time coming, but I’m hesitant even to write it.  Even my announcement to facebook that I had read it brought a lot of controversy.  If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I don’t usually shy away from controversy; but this is old controversy, and it brings up an unending conflict between fresh ideas and dogmatism.  So I’ve decided to write about something else.

I think I know why people get upset about this book, and the ideas it shares.  I think it’s because it raises so many questions.

On one hand, it’s funny that Christians get upset at asking questions, considering Jesus asked more questions than anyone.  Questions were his primary mode of communication.  On the other hand, it’s easy to see why Christians get upset about asking too many questions: questions can be dangerous.  Questions can shatter worldviews, and with them, worlds.  No wonder Jesus asked so many questions.

One of the responses to my recommendation of Love Wins touched on an important subject: an old friend mentioned that this book could lead people astray (not his words, but that’s the gist).  He suggested that people who know the Bible really well could read this book and not be confused by it, but that people with less biblical literacy could get the wrong idea.  That’s an understandable concern; after all, Jesus said it’s better to wear cement shoes swimming than to lead someone astray.  Actually, he said that about causing someone to sin, but the point I want to make here is that I think many of us don’t differentiate between the two: we see wrong beliefs as being just as bad as wrong actions.

Does being wrong make me a sinner?  If it does, I’m in good company.

I’m not sure that there are two people in the history of the universe who have had exactly the same thoughts about God.  We all have a somewhat unique perspective, so even when we’re saying the same words we might not mean the same thing.  And there’s so much to theology, that surely we all differ somewhere.  If our salvation was at all dependent on believing the right things, then, there must be a somewhat loose definition of what things are right.  After all, even Paul and James differ so much in emphasis that some people see them as polar opposites.  (I think they differ much less than, say, Luther thought they did, but that’s just one example.)

We differentiate between heresy and error for this very reason: error is to do with things about which you’re allowed to disagree (somewhat), but if you disagree about the important stuff, the central elements of the faith, then that’s heresy.  Early Christians wrote creeds about the central things, so that they could clearly define what disagreements constitute heresy.  Heresy has been punishable by death at various times throughout Christian history, and it’s always been assumed that heretics go to Hell.  Oddly enough, even the creeds don’t talk much about Hell, and where they do they merely assume its existence; so though the nature of Hell has never been an issue of heresy or orthodoxy, strangely we still find that people see it as a deeply important issue upon which the fate of believers may hang.

But does my eternal fate rest on what I believe at all?  Certainly, those who are unable to understand their salvation are believed to be saved, aren’t they?  We don’t ever think of the mentally challenged burning in Hell because they didn’t say the sinner’s prayer.  Is there a different standard for those who can understand, then?  But even the most brilliant human beings differ in perspective, even when they understand something – and it’s not as though scripture is unambiguous, not as though it’s a brilliantly simple statement with no possibility of misinterpretation…

…or is it?  Evangelicals say that it’s easily understandable by all.  I’ve been taught that, and I’ve been saying that, most of my life.  The message of salvation is simple: you must understand your need for salvation (because you’re a sinner, like everyone else); you must ask God for forgiveness (the gospel of repentance that Jesus preached); and you must trust that it is Jesus who provides your salvation, and that it is by grace rather than by works.  So, basically, the message of salvation is the sinner’s prayer; except that scripture isn’t anywhere near that clear, and nobody said the sinner’s prayer until about seventy-five years ago (or less).

And this is where I think the massive outcry against people like Rob Bell comes from.  We Evangelicals preach a simple gospel that has our understanding of that simple gospel as a pre-requisite to salvation.  If someone starts asking uncomfortable questions, people’s understanding of their salvation might waver; if their understanding of it wavers, does the salvation itself waver?  We’d sure hate to find out!  So Rob Bell should stop asking questions that could get people who are less educated in their salvation off the simple message, because if they waver off that track they’re lost forever, right?

I sure hope not, and I really don’t think so.

When you read the New Testament, you frequently come across the word “mystery”.  The writers of the New Testament used all sorts of metaphors for what Jesus did to save us, and those metaphors don’t all exactly line up, but only because none of them quite captures what Jesus has done for us.  The writers used metaphors and images because they can’t explain it themselves, and sometimes they simply call it a “mystery.”  They were okay with ambiguity about what Jesus had done, because they knew that they didn’t need to understand it completely to know that it was accomplished, to know that it was good news.

So if you have a beef with Rob Bell’s theology, that’s fine.  If you want to debate, there’s plenty of room for that.  But please, please don’t make people afraid of asking questions, even about central matters.  Jesus certainly never did, and I’m sure He’s not going to damn us all to Hell if we get something wrong.

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6 thoughts on “on Love Wins, and the Fear of Heresy

  1. I really appreciate the post Jeff. Good stuff. Would you say there are certain beliefs that are central to the work (and process) of salvation? I think there are a number of Christian (and by that I mean historically “Christian”) issues that can be rejected and one still be in the process of salvation. However, are there core beliefs that might be essential? Is it different for different folks? As in, does knowledge and rejection of it mean something different than ignorance?

    • Very good questions, Rick.

      No, there are no beliefs that are required for the work of salvation – I’m not sure anyone would argue that. As for the process: the old argument is that Christ has fully provided salvation, but we must accept it in order to receive it, and acceptance cannot happen without awareness of the gift. Practically speaking, I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work; it leaves too many people out, unless – as you point out – ignorance and rejection are judged differently.

      As for that, I still wrestle with it. It seems that the texts that proclaim salvation either proclaim it for all, or else they have exceptions (e.g. the foolish wedding attendants, the people who don’t come to the feast, etc.); but the ones with exceptions are almost always (if not always) basing salvation on works anyways (sheep and goats parable, for example).

      Even if the ignorant are treated differently than those who know and reject, it still seems to put too much emphasis on what we know. We’ve replaced a works-based salvation with a knowledge-based salvation, and both of them miss the point.

  2. Thanks for this, Jeff. For what it’s worth, I think Scot McKnight — though in many ways a critic of the book — had the most insightful things to say about Love Wins. His article is available here: http://bit.ly/nIXP4t

    I especially agree with McKnight’s third, sixth, and eighth points. For me, the sociological angle on the whole controversy was even more fascinating than the theological debate (though that’s important too).

    If only John Piper had Tweeted, “Fare well, Rob Bell.”

  3. Hey Jeff,
    I was just reading Barth’s “God Here and Now” and discovered a passage related to our discussion. He writes (pp.34-35) that grace if it is truly God’s free grace means that we are not free to either declare the redemption of all from hell…nor the exclusion of God’s grace from ultimately redeeming those in hell. It must always remains God’s freedom to speak and act as God choose according to the goodness of God’s being.

    As an aside…I’m finding this volume loaded with gems and powerful in declaring the glory of our God (but what should I expect…its Barth after all 😉 ).

    • Love it!

      That highlights an important distinction about theology in general: it is supposed to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. If we dare, we can formulate theories about what God might do based on what He’s done in the past, but at no point can we say what God MUST do or WILL do – that’s up to Him.

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