For any of you who may not know who Rob Bell is, let me begin by saying that he is perhaps one of the more creative, out of the box, and relevant deep thinkers in the Christian faith that I have seen in the last few years. He seems to package charisma, oratory skill and decent content all in one package that truly makes a person want to re-evaluate their life and to come to know God in a fresh way. Bell is also the writer of the NOOMA videos, short videos about topics in the Christian faith that are structured in such a way to make you think for yourself. I first encountered these videos as a seminary student and have used them multiple times in youth ministry to spark discussions.

Bell is an author too. He has written numerous books including Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and others. His most recent book, Love Wins, was just released on March 15th, 2011, and has sparked an amount of controversy in Christian circles. The controversy is twofold: (1) the claims that the book makes appear at times to step outside of what would be considered Christian orthodoxy, and (2) Bell’s reputation (especially with the emerging generation) coupled with his charisma is such that I suspect he could convince a drowning man to buy a case of aquafina…or dasani…or both

Rob Bell’s influence on our culture is what it is; it cannot be changed and we cannot fault the man for being who he is. Some of the content of this new book however makes me squirm. I say that I am almost defending Rob Bell because I don’t think the book is as bad as some are making it out to be; however, it certainly does push the boundaries in several areas.

Lets start with the good stuff. There are some really great things in this book. First, Bell encourages us to rethink our talk about heaven and hell. The full motivation and mission for our Christian life here and now ought not be to escape hell and get to heaven as fast as possible (contrary to some of those great old hymns of the church…and this comes from someone who still does enjoy hymns!). The hope of the New Testament Christians was not to escape earth and go to heaven but rather they looked forward to participating in a new kingdom on earth that was governed and lead by Jesus Christ. When Jesus was crucified, resurrected, and went back to heaven, their desire was for the approaching day of his return where they would participate in a new kingdom on a perfected earth that was governed and lead by Jesus Christ. Bell wants us to recast our thinking about hope so that it not so much about ‘there and then’ but participating in something ‘here and now’.

Jesus said it best himself: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV). Jesus Christ’s presence on earth changed things; it brought the kingdom of heaven closer than ever before. From this point on we see an increase in spiritual things on earth: healing, resurrection, gifts of the Spirit. There is a dynamic feature of the kingdom of God that is presently breaking into our world on a regular basis and participation in that kingdom ought to be our greatest motivation and mission…not just getting out of here as quickly as possible.

The journey is as important as the destination.

Now, lets dig a little deeper. Bell is accused of being a universalist in his theology (i.e. all will end up in heaven at some point, love will win). He denies this and I (think) I believe him. He does spend time in his book talking about human existence apart from God and what that looks like…I can only assume he imagines that some will continue to choose this existence?

There are two things however that he indisputability argues for that I am not quite so sure about: Bell speculates about the possibility of repentance even after death and speculates about the fact that many people from other faith groups (Islam, Buddhism) will be given equal position in the kingdom of God when Christ returns. Bell actually does more than speculate: he attempts to convince his readers to consider the idea that life could be this way. He calls it a ‘better story’…

Neither of these thoughts is new in Christendom and space does not permit a full examination of either of these here. The first is complete speculation and does not seem to have biblical merit. The second is more murky; most Christians would suggest that though we are all born into sin Christ will accept unto himself those souls who die before having the ability to choose or not to choose God. We talk of an ‘age of accountability’ although attempting to place a firm number on this is difficult and likely not useful. What I believe that Bell is appealing to here is the notion that some people in some parts of the world and in some faith groups may recognize that there is a higher power than themselves but not know exactly what the nature of this higher power is; they have never heard of Jesus. Bell speculates that if a person has not had an opportunity to hear of Jesus, despite their age, God will look favorably upon their spiritual pursuits. I think however in our world of information and social networking that this case very much a minority. Most Muslims follow Islam not because they have not yet heard of Jesus but because they choose Allah over Jesus. This is a fatal flaw in Bell’s argumentation.

Bell’s unique writing style, almost poetic, and confident way or writing (without any citations or references except a list of ‘you should read this’ books at the end) gives somewhat of a false authority to what he has to say; the fear is that Bell’s compelling style and the voice that he has in the young adult generation of the present day is going to lead to spiritual confusion en mass. I must say that I am concerned about the same thing.

This book is not for the faint of heart or the easily influenced…but if you can read critically and are ready to exercise your faith (and perhaps clarify some aspects that you were a little rusty on) I would encourage you to analyze what Bell has to say here.

Shane Bertou is facilitating a discussion of this book chapter by chapter on his blog at http://www.shanebertou.wordpress.com. They are currently on chapter 1 and will be moving to chapter 2 this week. I am going to try and follow this conversation and perhaps add to it. I invite you to do the same.

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