Below is my portion of a recent panel discussion at Baylor University’s Religion Department on the book Love Wins by Rob Bell.
As someone in Rob Bell’s target audience I should embrace Love Wins. After all, I am a 30-something, jaded evangelical with independent political leanings, an eye for environmental concerns and social justice, and a fear about the future of Christian music. As such, resonate with much of what Pastor Bell says in Love Wins:
• We should not be surprised when the unexpected become Christians
• None of us have Jesus completely figured out
• We should not judge people’s eternal destinies while they are still alive
• Some theological frameworks are better than others
• The gospel is not only about an eternal destination
• Christianity is about a relationship with God
Additionally, I care so much about the Gospel that it pains me to think that some people do not experience the abundant life in Jesus Christ – to the point that I wish that universalism was true.
Theologically speaking, I find common ground with Pastor Bell on a number of hermeneutical and confessional particulars in this book:
• He relies on grammatical-historical exegesis to make his theological points
• He assumes that the historical Jesus is accurately reflected in the gospels
• He presupposes continuity between the Old and New Testaments
• He affirms that heaven is a real place
• He believes that Paul, John, Isaiah, and Peter authored their books of the Bible
• He affirms that Jesus is “the divine in flesh and blood” is the incarnate God
• And was resurrected in bodily form
• And Pastor. Bell denies justification by works alone.
To each of these I say a hearty “Amen.”
So then, with so much generational and theological agreement between us, why am I ultimately dissatisfied with “Love Wins?” I am an evangelical skeptic. I am influenced by the skeptical thinking of my father and the type of Christianity demonstrated by Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry, Roger Olson, and John Piper. I long for popular evangelicalism to move away from folk theology towards reasoned faith. And accordingly, I do not find Pastor Bell’s proposal for a paradigm shift to be compelling.
- A paradigm shift requires a clear objective and internally consistent logic. Love Wins fails to establish a domain of discourse, advances competing objectives and withdraws with as much ease, build’s logical themes using word/concept fallacies, suspect logic, and the proof texting of historical and biblical sources. This proposal is unclear and logically inconsistent.
- A paradigm shift also requires an articulate pronouncement of the problem. Love Wins offers a unfair and alarmist portrayal of conservative Christianity and seems content to privilege the new paradigm for the sake of novelty. I can clearly point to some problems with conservative Christianity in America, but Love Wins fails to capture such a sense of the problem and I remain unsatisfied.
- A paradigm shift dealing with theology requires a Biblical vision of God. Love Wins offers theological reductionism, making God’s attribute of love superior to His other attributes, chiefly God’s holiness. The result is a God who feels more like a Genie in a bottle than the God who is the ground of our being, who is other, who is Great and Good. Bell’s god is Good, but not Great. This god of love, as first articulated by Protestant Liberalism and later by New Age philosophy never swayed me in my atheist days. I am not swayed by Bell’s vision.
- A paradigm shift dealing with salvation requires a Biblical account of humanity. Pastor. Bell consistently diminishes the ontological impact of man’s sin on the relationship between God and His creation. Although he admits that sinfulness can fall prey to the theory of momentum, Pastor Bell dismisses “sins” as finite things. I wonder how Pastor. Bell handles the account of Akin in Joshua. Or how he explains the need for Jesus to die on the cross, if sins are so “finite.” Again, I am not persuaded to cross over.
Finally, as a pastor who deals with decisions and consequences on a daily basis, I wonder about the ethical implications of Pastor Bell’s proposal. Am I to now tell my congregation that what matters in life does not echo in eternity? If that is the case, I suppose I should recommend that we all go out and live as hedonists. For when we die, then we can have that final opportunity to respond to Jesus. This proposal would maximize our pleasure on earth and in eternity with no consequences. It is the consequence free reality that concerns me most about Bell’s suggestion and for that I remain unchanged.