Tough Questions at Chico Grace Brethren

Our nation seems more divided than ever on moral and spiritual issues. The different tribes watch comfortable cable channels, subscribe to congenial blogs, or lob incendiary posts at other tribes on social media. Each group is trying to control the script—evangelicals included.

There are fewer places where the tribes even live side by side. A New Yorker might read What’s the Matter with Kansas? while flying over the actual state at 30,000 feet. Here in northern California, it easier for an evangelical to see a video of a scientist on YouTube than to talk with one face-to-face.

But Chico and the ridge have all the tribes. We are not isolated from people who think differently. They’re next door. So, at Chico Grace Brethren, we decided to start a dialogue.

Over the summer we said to friends and neighbors, “If you could ask a pastor to speak on any question, what would it be?” We found that the conversations lowered barriers. We also thought the questions we received were terrific. I choose six of them to address in a short series that starts this Sunday.

The series is called, “Tough Questions,” and the title fits.

Some of the questions are confrontational. “Why would I want organized religion?” Or, “How can Jesus be the only way?” Others come from profound pain. “Why does God allow evil against children?” Two questions are simple requests for information: “What happened when Jesus was young?” “Where is heaven?”

This is a way we can throw away the script and have a real exchange of ideas. I also take written questions about the sermon and answer them during the service. We’ve found that this kind of dialogue keeps the atmosphere respectful and the temperature low. We won’t necessarily be able to agree, but we will find some new ways to talk about timeless issues. We hope you will join us, either at 10:15 a.m. on Sundays, or on the web at chicogracebrethren.com.

Rob Bell On Justice

by Matthew Raley Rob Bell starts to make an excellent case for the justice of hell in Love Wins. But he doesn't finish it. Bell's inadequate concept of justice is the next feature of this book I think evangelicals should watch. (First two features here and here.)

Hell is hard to defend if the people who populate it are the ignorant, needy, and wounded who weren't able to check the right theological boxes. But the charge depends on sympathy. Switch perspectives on the population, and hell starts to look like the only appropriate punishment.

That's what Bell does in the middle of his chapter on hell (pp 70-73). There are kids all over Kigali, Rwanda with missing limbs, he says. "Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren't metaphorical missing arms and legs." A rape victim, a 5-year-old boy whose father committed suicide, the surviving relatives of a man whose cruelty extended beyond the grave: all of these show the ongoing cost of sin.

Bell is aggressive in making this case.

So when people say they don't believe in hell and they don't like the word "sin," my first response is to ask, "Have you ever sat and talked with a family who just found out that their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?" (p 72)

I found myself cheering him on as I read this passage. I am a pastor, like Bell. Few have the daily, ongoing experience of evil quite like those on life's clean-up crew -- law enforcement, social workers, doctors and nurses, and pastors. The cost of sin is born day after day in family after family. And the cost mounts. True love demands payment for the sake of those who bear that cost.

But, having adjusted our perspective in this way, having raised the issue of sin's cost, and having asserted our need for this horrible word hell, Bell switches back to the perspective of the ignorant, needy, and wounded who failed to check the right boxes. Isn't it monstrous to punish them eternally? Bell asks (p 102), "Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?"

Suffering infinitely for finite sins, committed in the few years of life. Our sins, Bell assumes repeatedly in this book, are limited in scope.

Really? Our sins are finite? They are? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?

I am nowhere near granting that assumption, and I have three reasons.

1. The Bible reiterates that our sins are primarily against God, secondarily against one another (e.g. Genesis 39.7-10; Romans 1.18-32). How does Bell propose to limit the cost of sins committed against an infinite being?

2. Human beings live in community. At what point does the impact of a single sin come to rest? A slanderous tweet, let's say? It's true that I can lose sight of a sin's impact, but that doesn't mean I really know where the impact stops.

3. Human beings are linked generationally. A sin committed at one time can live on. That's a key part of the problem of racism in the United States. How can we say that Thomas Jefferson's attitude toward his slaves had a finite impact because it was committed in the few years of his own life?

Bell doesn't follow his own correct reasoning about the cost of sin to its conclusion: The cost goes on to such an extent that no human being knows the full impact of his own actions. And the real problem of justice, as the Bible lays it out, is that all have sinned.

Bell's Redeeming Deity

by Matthew Raley I am surveying features of Rob Bell's book Love Wins that evangelicals should watch over the coming years. A second feature is Bell's description of the nature of God.

According to Bell, the evangelical God is impossible for people to trust. This God has put a time-limit on repentance: death is the end of people's opportunity to have a relationship with him, and hell awaits people who do not believe. Bell says that this sort of God is "violent" and "destructive." If this account of God were true, he says,

A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with [people] would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. (pp 173-174)

He goes on, calling this God "devastating," "psychologically crushing," "terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable."

Bell counters that God is love, and that God's invitation into his love never ends. Hell is not God tormenting people, but people choosing to reject God's love and creating their own torment. Even when they reject God, he always brings them back because redemption is part of his very nature.

Yet Bell's story about how God redemptive nature displays the same divine volatility Bell finds in the doctrine of eternal hell.

For example, Bell uses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to make the argument that hell is temporary. He calls them "the poster cities for deviant sinfulness run amok," recounting how God rained sulfur on the cities, destroying everything. "But this isn't the last we read of Sodom and Gomorrah."

Bell cites Ezekiel 16, where God says he will return the cities to what they were before, then asks rhetorically, "What appeared to be a final, forever, smoldering, smoking verdict regarding their destiny ... wasn't? What appeared to be over, isn't. Ezekiel says that where there was destruction there will be restoration." (p 83, emphasis original)

So God sometimes destroys people to make a point. Then he restores. Bell calls this a "movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life." (p 85)

Using Bell's standard of a loving God, his account of what he calls God's redeeming nature shows the same violence he condemns when discussing eternal torment in hell. The God who destroyed Sodom is the child abuser about whom Bell would call the authorities. The people of Sodom did not choose sulfurous rain; God inflicted it upon them.

The only difference Bell shows between the God who destroyed Sodom and the God who punishes souls eternally is the amount of time involved.

So let's imagine Rob Bell preaching love and hope to Sodom: "This fire isn't forever. Your father loves you! He's inviting you to participate in his love! Just wait: you'll have another opportunity to love God!"

Or we could ask this question: Would it matter to the people destroyed in the fire of Sodom that their punishment was only temporary? Would they trust God any more, or hate God any less because they have another opportunity later?

Or we could make up a scenario about pain. Suppose I promised you that the Soviet guard in the gulag would only beat you every day for 10 years. Would the temporary nature of the torment make it tolerable? What if he only beats you daily for a week? Okay, okay: your beating will only last 5 minutes.

Bell's proposal that hell is temporary in no way makes his account of God's nature coherent.

Celebrity status will not exempt Bell's arguments from the precision of, say, Richard Dawkins. Evangelicals should watch what happens when Bell's distinctions without differences fail to make God any more loveable.

Love Wins accepts generalized standards of love and justice -- standards that are, to be sure, accepted by most people without examination. But the received wisdom of generalizations about "a loving God" or "a just God" fall apart once we delve into specific cases. "Loving" toward whom? "Just" in whose cause?

I think Bell will have to discard every biblical account of God's punishing a sinner in order to preserve his view of redemption. That is where I think his "better story" about God will lead. Bell has failed to put human pain in the context of any serious look at the requirements of justice.

Interacting With "Love Wins"

by Matthew Raley The publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins marks the acceptance of emergent Christianity by the American mainstream. Bell has been featured in a Time cover story, and is now a reference point for all sorts of popular spiritual writing. The pantheon of the American empire now includes Bell's Jesus.

Over several posts, I'll discuss some features of this book that I think will be most important for evangelicals in the coming years.

The first feature: Bell denies that biblical doctrine has significance in human salvation. The Bible contains teachings, sure. But knowing them is problematic, both interpretively, in finding what they mean, and morally, in maintaining humility.

Bell's denial that doctrinal belief is essential to salvation is explicit, coming in his discussion of Jesus' claim in John 14.6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Bell does not deny the exclusivity inherent in that statement. But Bell argues,

What [Jesus] doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him. (p 154)

Love wins, Bells argues (pp 144-157), because Jesus is the sustaining power of all creation, and he saves people no matter what they do or believe, wooing them through recurring opportunities to embrace him.

The denial of doctrine's significance is also implicit, a denial through method. Bell is a deconstructionist.

Bell's claim that Jesus never specifies how people are saved illustrates neatly. It is exegetically preposterous on its face. In the very document Bell discusses, Jesus repeatedly links salvation with belief, as in John 12.44-50, where Jesus makes "the word I have spoken" a person's judge on the last day, and where he declares that the Father has given him "a commandment -- what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life."

(Indeed, Bell quotes a fragment of that paragraph [p 159], in which Jesus says he came to save the world, not to judge. But Jesus said that in order to set up his word as judge, and belief in his word as the "mechanism" that saves.)

Such bits of trivia don't matter to Bell. The Bible for him is not a revelation of God's truth. Rather, it is full of the raw materials for God's story: poems, riddles, metaphors, hints, dribs and drabs of ancient cultural perspectives. We are supposed to find God's story in those materials. Bell complains that historic Christianity has told a story that's bad, having hardened all the raw material into absolutes. There's "a better story" (pp 110-111).

This view of the Bible creates a new role for exegesis.

We expound the Bible not so much to learn what is true, as to deconstruct our own preconceptions. So, Bell offers long passages studying such words as hades, gehenna, aeon, et al., not to build up our understanding of what these words mean, but to tear it down. By the time Bell is done with text after text, we no longer know what the words mean. And with traditional concepts safely deconstructed, Bell is free to pick from those materials and tell his better story.

Many conservative theologians are saying that Bell is a theological liberal. To be sure, many of his conclusions are indistinguishable from the old liberalism. But I want to register one qualification that puts Bell and many emergents in a different category.

Modernist liberals 150 years ago believed that the Bible's teachings were knowable, and that our reasoning about texts added to our knowledge. It is not clear to me at all that Bell believes this. Bell seems to believe that knowledge itself is a kind of arrogance, and that doctrinal knowledge, in terms of the fate of every person who ever lived, is of no significance.

Evangelicals should watch this feature of Love Wins to see whether Bell is merely being fashionable, or whether he is flirting with nihilism.

Tough Questions 2008: Can We Live Like the Devil and Go To Heaven?

Sermon audio: Can We Live Like the Devil and Go To Heaven? I left the wording of this question exactly the way it came to me. I like the flamboyance. But I do wonder how anyone came to ask it at all. I think one factor is the evangelical reliance on the sinner's prayer.

Here's the gist: "Jesus, please forgive my sins because of your death on the cross. I ask to you live in my heart, and to give me eternal life." People are exhorted to pray this way to become Christians, and many have been encouraged to see their prayer as the guarantee of their new life in Christ. After praying this, we've been told, you cannot lose your salvation.

Our questioner is asking how strong that guarantee is.

My own relationship with the sinner's prayer has been troubled.

In a sense, my Christian life did begin by "praying the prayer." One evening when I was five, my dad was giving me a piano lesson. At one point, he stopped talking about music and asked if I'd ever invited Jesus into my heart. I said no. So we prayed together and that same night my parents took me to both sets of grandparents to tell what I had done. Which was better than finishing my scales.

Dad told me recently that he saw a marked change in me after that prayer.

In another sense, however, the prayer was not the beginning of my Christian life. It only summed up what the Lord had already been doing in my heart-and-mind, and gave expression to a faith I already had. Crucial aspects of walking with the Lord came later in my experience, and these were more deliberate moments of commitment.

In my teenage years, I wondered what the sinner's prayer really accomplishes.

Some of the things I saw growing up in church had made me skeptical. One Sunday morning a man gave his testimony, telling a great story of how he came to pray the prayer. A couple weeks later, I overheard a conversation that my mom had on the phone, in which she learned that this man had left his wife for another woman.

I saw kids in youth group go forward during the altar calls at big conferences. We would throw a party over the sinner's repentance, only to see him continue his immoral lifestyle. In fact, few of the converts from youth group remained Christians past college.

The more questions I asked about salvation, the more I heard answers that didn't work.

One idea was that those who abandoned the Christian life after praying the prayer were still eternally saved. I thought it was simply unbelievable, flying in the face of both direct experience and scriptural teaching. Another idea was that lapsed converts didn't believe "enough," which wasn't any clearer to me. By and by, I learned that there was a theological category for "carnal Christians," who live like the devil but make it to heaven anyway. Another flop, as we'll study on Sunday morning.

I concluded that the Christian life was founded on something larger than one prayer. (More thoughts here.)

But after years of wrestling, I'm returning to the sinner's prayer because it does accomplish a few basic things.

It gives a person words.

Someone who senses the reality of Christ needs a way to express his faith, even if he has a church background and biblical knowledge. When a person recognizes his sense of Christ in the words of the sinner's prayer, and adopts those words as his own, his understanding grows.

The prayer also articulates a beginning.

Repentance has to start somewhere, and the prayer offers an excellent place. Viewed as the start of an earthly life of hope in Jesus Christ -- as opposed to the final purchase of a ticket to heaven -- the prayer can frame a person's future decisions about right and wrong, personal crises, and relationships.

The sinner's prayer can even set that hope into a pattern.

If someone confesses sin specifically, seeks forgiveness explicitly, and asks for the work of the Spirit, then she has a model for a spiritual discipline she can use every day. When salvation is taught as the work of God rather than the result of a prayer formula, there is less danger of her thinking that she's "lost her salvation" when she sins, and more encouragement to return to her salvation's source.

The biggest virtue of the sinner's prayer is that it can put the individual face-to-face with Christ. The person summons the courage to address God -- no small thing. He asks for something according to God's promise. And he starts acting on the belief that Jesus is not dead but alive.

In other words, the work of God in a person's soul is what guarantees salvation, not a prayer -- however significant that prayer may be. The Christian life is founded on God himself.