There has been a lot of buzz on the internet and elsewhere over the new book by Rob Bell, "Love Wins." A bunch of my friends got into it over a post I put up on my FaceBook page a few days ago. I promised a couple of them that I would blog about it. Here it is. I should also state that this post is the first of two on this subject.
Here's the second one: http://trippingstumblingwhilefollowingjesus.blogspot.com/2011/03/bells-hells-part-2.html
Before I begin, I want to set down a little context for all of this. So here goes...
I just finished working for two months as a Long-Call substitute teacher for a friend who was recovering from surgery. I wont name the school, but suffice it to say that it's students are rather difficult. As one person who works there put it, "This is the dumping ground for the Minneapolis Public Schools system."
That might be a bit unfair, because there were plenty of good kids there who will ultimately do well. Unfortunately, many, many of those kids will most likely have a hard life...and that's putting it mildly. Sad to say, but for many of them, I could see the writing on the wall. I've worked with "At-Risk" and "Special Needs" kids for 10 years now. I've done this long enough to see where some chosen paths lead you too...and it's not a happy ending.
So why do I begin with that information? Well, Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, is all about the subject of Heaven & Hell. About a month ago, a publicist put out two paragraphs from the book. Bell himself, put out a very brief video on the book. Within a day, you would have thought that Twitter had exploded. No one had read the book yet, but everyone seemed to have an opinion that was based on absolute fact.
I'm still waiting for my copy of the book to come into the bookstore, so I haven't read it yet either. I prefer to make up my own mind, rather making assumptions based on solid "Hear-say" and gossip. (Especially when most of those spreading the gossip have their own agendas.)
For The Record:
This particular post will be mostly a defense of Rob Bell. (I'm not going to defend the new book. Like I said, I haven't read it) I want to state what it is that first attracted me to Bell and much of what he talks about. The next post will be on areas where Bell...and a few others truly frustrate me.
But let us first start with the very video I put on FaceBook that got this ball rolling with my friends. Please pay careful attention to the last minute & a half of it.
What initially drew me to Bell was his emphasis on "Orthopraxy" and personal piety. We in the West, and America in particular, are pretty good at emphasizing "Orthodoxy" above all else... and it is important, don't get me wrong. However, the American church is pretty horrible at orthopraxy. (We pretty much limit it to voting for "Pro-Birth" candidates.) Our piety is pretty much used as a way to call a distinction between "Us" (The Righteous) and "Them" (those vile, unwashed sinners). If you don't believe me, please look into the book "Un-Christian" from the Barna Research Group. http://www.unchristian.com/
What I liked about Bell was his insistence that those who follow Jesus should not be looking for an escape hatch from this world. Instead, we should be working for the kingdom right here & right now. He speaks about how "Christians" should actually live out the gospel everyday in the way we interact with society, our neighbors, the world. He talks over & over about how Jesus emphasized that God's kingdom was already crashing into THIS world. (My Seminary professors would phrase it as the "Here now, but yet not fully" kingdom.) Bell preaches about a robust faith with an active people who serve God in this world, and not just the one to come...and not just by telling people that they need to be saved.
Now, go back to that interview & video. Bell speaks about how we can choose heaven and hell every single day. I've read enough of his other books to know that Bell does not believe that heaven & hell are merely places that you go to after you die. They are also present & current realities.
This makes perfect sense if you take Jesus at his word when he speaks of the kingdom of heaven being among us. It also makes sense if you believe Paul when he wrote to the Ephesians that "our struggle is NOT against flesh & blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world." (Eph 6:12)
Maybe because of our logical, rational, scientific mindset, the role of spiritual warfare isn't taken seriously enough in America. (At least not in my opinion.) Some treat it as a spiritual circus, and make fools out of themselves..."Seeing demons on doorknobs," as one of my professor put it. Others relegate it to some intellectual construct that can be defeated if we simply vote a certain way, or sign the proper confession of theology.
Heaven/the Kingdom of God and Hell ARE indeed current realities. 1 out of 6 people on this planet do not have access to clean drinking water every day. 800,000,000 people go to bed hungry every night. 1 out of every 10 Americans doesn't even have access to health care. Right now, most of the Middle East is in upheaval because of corrupt & brutal governments. I could go on, but you get the idea. Yes, I absolutely believe in a heaven & hell in the next life, but let us not ignore the painful fact that HELL IS HERE RIGHT NOW, too! It is very much a current reality for many, many people. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has GOT to be more than simply "Pie in the sky when you die."
Satan is having a field day watching people all over the world, both Christian & non-christian suffer. (Satan HATES & DESPISES humans, because The Father cares so much & so deeply about them/us) What Bell emphasizes is that Believers can & should serve God by making a difference, in HIS name, right here & right now. NOT a "Social Gospel" to earn brownie points with God to work our way into heaven. Simply a response of gratitude and love for what Jesus did for us on that murder-post known as the cross. That is a message that I need to hear every day.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus spoke of Believers being salt & light in this world. It's not supposed to be an option, and there is more to it than handing out tracts. Jesus said "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 5:16) So, Believers have a roll in attempting to alleviate some of the misery in this world in the name of Jesus. The result is that God gets the glory. Bell is BIG on this point...and I like it.
Go back to the beginning of this post. Remember that I told about my most recent school experience? Well guess what I got to see a glimpse of every single day? Hell. Hell on earth. Hell in the lives of kids only 12 & 13. Broken, dysfunctional families. Poverty. Abuse. Homelessness. I got to see some kids who will most likely spend the best parts of their lives in prison because of the stupid, idiotic and evil choices that they make as a result of growing up in the midst of all of that.
We cover up the reality of evil, of sin, of demonic forces actively working in our society. We put pretty tinsel and lights on it. We put up glossy photos of beautiful people selling us products at the mall. But the evil is still there. It just looks respectable now. But I got a chance to spend 2 months watching it in all of it's brutal & ugly glory. I do believe in a Hell in the next life. But I got close enough to the one in this life over these past two months that I really don't want to see anymore.
Bell is right. We often choose hell. But we could do better. We could choose to follow Jesus. We could choose the kingdom...we could choose heaven. So I ask you; what are you doing about that? Are you handing out tracts? Are you holding up signs on street corners telling people that they are damned? Are you telling people that they are vile, filthy, evil, disgusting, filthy sinners?
OR, are you telling them that there is a better way? A way that was prepared for them? Are you telling them about a God who cries and weeps WITH them? Maybe a God who actually cares enough NOT to WANT to send them to Hell. A God who humbled himself and became a human for the very purpose of being mocked, spit on, humiliated and brutally murdered, so that this very God's justice could be satisfied and so that this same God could provide a way for YOU and every single person on this planet to spend eternity with him enjoying the new heaven & earth...and that this eternity can begin right now? Are you feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the prisoners in Jesus name while you tell them about his love? Is THAT your message? Because I've read enough of Rob Bell's books and seen enough of his videos and listened to enough of his podcasts to know FOR A FACT that that is EXACTLY what he is preaching to people.
I might not agree with everything he says, or how he explains it, but he IS my "Christian Brother." That's good enough for me.
And how he says I should treat people who are made in the image of God, I need to hear that too, because I tried to remind myself of it everyday when I worked at that school. Seeing what I saw, that thought was the only thing that kept me sane.