Sunday, January 22, 2012

Does Love Win? Or are we Erasing Hell?

After seeing how everyone denounced Rob Bell's Love Wins, I had to read it. I had already read Bell's Velvet Elvis, Sex God, and Jesus Came to Save Christians. I like Bell's writing style. I was especially drawn to what he wrote in Velvet Elvis. After spending a lifetime coming from a religious tradition that says, "we are the final word in how to follow Jesus" the idea that as our understanding of God and the Bible grows, changes, and matures, so does our faith - as does how we come to God.

Back to Love Wins. The first time I read it, I loved it. It's an easy read and I finished it in a couple days. This is the exact quote of my Goodreads review:

Regardless of where you fall in your conclusions of what the Bible says about Heaven and Hell, the questions raised by Bell in this book are questions thinking Christians should be asking…
You see, the thing I love about Rob Bell's writing is that he never says, "this is what I believe, and I want you to agree with me." And that's a habit our ears have a hard time breaking, because that's the spiritual writing we're so used to. But Bell's writing says, "Maybe you need to challenge what you've been taught about this; maybe we should be asking questions about what we've always thought; maybe we should be discussing these things." Bell is all about "wrestling with the text."

So I wondered, even after I read it, why everyone was all up in arms about Love Wins. Bell never says he doesn't believe in Hell, or that there's not a Hell, or that everyone is going to Heaven. He questions all our traditional teaching about Hell, asking if this is what the Bible really says. Asking if the way we preach Hell is truly Biblical, especially when we often use it to attack, and it's driving people away. And what if "being saved" isn't just about looking forward to a life after this one, but it's also about how we live the life we currently have?

According to, Love Wins came out March 15, 2011. And Francis Chan's answer to Love Wins, Erasing Hell, came out less than four months later. I can't help but wonder how much of it he had written before Bell's book came out. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After reading Love Wins a second time, and hearing people saying how good Erasing Hell is as an answer to Love Wins, I had to pick up the latter book.

I know that the back of Erasing Hell says,

Like you sometimes [Chan and second author Preston Sprinkle] don't want to believe in hell. But, as they write, "We cannot afford to be wrong on the issue"...This is not a book about who is saying what. It's a book about what God says...It's not a book about arguments, doctrine, or being right.
  But this is obviously a direct answer (attack?) to Love Wins.

Everything about the book seems to scream, "Rob Bell is wrong, and I'm going to show you how I'm right."

The title of the book is even:  

erasing hell: what God said about eternity, and the things we made up

And the arrogance pervading this book starts on the first page of the introduction where Chan suggests that reading this book is "necessary".  

The funny thing is, as much as this book claims to only be true to what the Bible says, there sure seem to be a lot of inconsistencies, logical problems, and things that just don't make sense.

The book labels Rob Bell as a Universalist on the 4th page of the 1st chapter - using a quote taken out of context. To be fair, the book later admits the quote is taken out of context - but that's in the footnotes. A cheap shot. But then this same passage is taken context a second time in the same chapter.

And while reading it, I seemed to come across a lot of arguments along the lines of "Rob Bell doesn't come out and say this, but this is what he means" and "Rob Bell says this, but he doesn't really mean it".

When I got to chapter 2, I was already bothered by a lot of what I read. Chapter 2 spends a lot of time describing what many 1st Century Jews believed, rather than discussing what the Bible says. Then it says "Bell suggests that when Jesus used the word 'hell' (gehenna) He referred to a garbage dump outside Jerusalem...", giving the reader the idea that this is Bell's idea. Only later do we learn that this idea has been around for 1,000 years. Then it says "Much of what Bell says about hell relies upon a legend from the Middle Ages." I was confused at the phrase "Much of what Bell says about hell" because Bell only talks about Gehenna for a little over one page! 

Then in Chapter 3, Erasing Hell suggests that Matthew 25 is talking about "believers" vs. "unbelievers". (This is where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats.) Wow. Way to put words in the mouth of Jesus. Jesus separates those who helped and cared for other people from those who did not. And this really gets to the crux of "Love Wins". The point of the book isn't to say "There is no hell" (even though Chan says that's what it says) or that "No one goes to hell", but to revisit the way we preach hell at people. As I mentioned above, to try to question and discuss whether or not we've actually held a Biblical view of hell. To consider the importance of alleviating suffering and bringing heaven to this earth. To be careful how we use the idea of hell to exclude people. Which is exactly what Chan does here by completely changing what Jesus says. 

And by the time I got to chapter 3, I got tired of writing my thoughts down, so I just kept reading.

Over and over, Chan talks about how he desperately wants to believe there is no hell, but just can't because God says there is. This gets extremely patronizing, because the words he's putting in Bell's mouth: that Bell takes what he wants from the scriptures and ignores the rest. And in a final challenge in chapter 6, Chan lifts up the straw man "Rob Bell doesn't like or believe what God says about hell" and strikes it down rather summarily. 

Chan asks, "Are you sure you're on the right side?" Really? Is that the point of Jesus coming to redeem mankind - so that we could choose "the right side"? Are we supposed to spread the message of Jesus so we can try to get everyone else "on the right side"? Or are we supposed to spread the message of Jesus because it's a better way to live? Because God is sovereign and deserves our love and devotion? Because it's better to love than to hate? Because it's better to serve than to take? (Um...see Matthew 25 to see what Jesus says on the subject.)

Ultimately, it's not our job to tell everyone who doesn't go to church that they're going to hell. It's not our job to judge everyone who has died and determine where they went. It's our job to bring a message of love and hope to the world. Just because there's a hell, doesn't mean that's the first thing out of our mouths when we preach the "good news" of Jesus.

And this is (what I think is) the summary of Love Wins, taken from Chapter 6: 

First, we aren't surprised when people stumble upon this mystery [Jesus], whenever and however that happens. We aren't offended when they don't use the exact language we use, and we aren't surprised when their encounters profoundly affect them, even if they happen way outside the walls of our particular Jesus's gathering...We are not threatened by this, surprised by this, or offended by this... 

Second, none of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will. 

Third, it is our responsibility to be extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people's eternal destinies...

Chan says some great things in this book. I think it's a great essay on what the Bible says about hell. And Chapter 5 is a great thesis on the things we miss as Christians (Jesus condemns those who attack each other with words, he condemns racism, and not helping the poor.) But it's hard to overlook the rest of it.

Why do I always feel like an apologist for Rob Bell? Because I believe everything he writes? Everything he says? Because I want to be his disciple? No. Because I believe he's calling us to think, to challenge, to dialogue - and I think that these things have been squelched enough - and that squelching has turned people from God. I think Bell's message is important - that we need to examine ourselves and be sure that what we believe truly comes from God. We can't do that without wrestling with it - and that's all Bell is asking us to do.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Spiritual Disciplines: Simplicity (2 of 2)

I already talked about simplicity, so this is more of a practical application. Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, suggests 10 ways that we can live the outward expression of the discipline. I did a little digging on these for the Bible class I was teaching and attempted to come up with what the Bible said about many of these things.

1. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.

Foster talks about clothes and cars and condos. I think it's related to what Peter says:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. (1 Peter 3:3-4)
I like this verse because it's about focusing on what's inside of us, rather than what's outside of us. This is a tough one to swallow in our culture. I'll try to stop here before I get on my soapbox on how wearing your "Sunday best" is unscriptural.

2. Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.

I mentioned 1 Corinthians 6:12 when I talked about fasting, below. ("I will not be enslaved by anything.") I really what Paul says because it's about letting something else enslave us - regardless of what it is. It could be almost anything. Foster talks about a friend who was addicted to his newspaper. I recently had to delete half the apps from my phone for that very reason. (Yes! Including Angry Birds! Or especially Angry Birds!)

3. Develop a habit of giving things away.

We don't own anything; it all belongs to God.

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it... (Psalm 24:1)
Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power
and the glory and the majesty and the splendor,
for everything in heaven and earth is yours.
Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom;
you are exalted as head over all.
Wealth and honor come from you;
you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
to exalt and give strength to all.
(1 Chronicles 29:11-12)
This one is hard for me - but I've tried to learn it a little from my wife, Krista (who is very good at it). When I have something I like to feel ownership of it, and I like to keep it nice. I like to tell myself that this is the good quality of stewardship, but I'm beginning to feel like it's an excuse to own things. I don't like to lend things out if I feel like someone won't take care of it like I do. But I need to feel less of an ownership of things and be more giving. Krista loves to give things away, much to my chagrin.

4. Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.

I feel like this is related to #2 and our addiction to get the next new thing. Like all the people who have to get the newest version of their phone, calling themselves "early adopters". (When someone says that, all I hear is "this is my excuse to spend money on something I don't need.") But it really hit home to me as I taught this lesson from my iPad. I want to come to my own defense and say that my iPad is the only money I've spent on a computer in the last 5 years, and I use it all the time, but that's another excuse. Maybe I just need to be happy with what I have.

5. Learn to enjoy things without owning them.

This is related to #3 for me, and those verses apply here, too.

I don't like to borrow stuff. I do when I don't feel like I can go buy it or I just want to use it temporarily - but there's nothing worse in the world than borrowing something and having to return in worse condition than when I got it. And I love the feeling of ownership. If there's a book I like, I have to own it. If there's a movie I like, I have to own it. This is almost an addiction (for me) and is also related to #2. I think it was someone in our Bible class that said, "ownership improves the quality of our experience," and that seems to be so true.

6. Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
(Psalm 19:1)
We need to remember to look around and see the beauty of God in creation. Wouldn't that solve a lot of our problems? It seems like that always gives me a "big picture" view. It reminds me that life is much bigger than whatever little problem I'm having right now.

7. Look with a healthy skepticism at all "buy now, pay later" schemes.

The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender. (Proverbs 22:7)
I'm not a fan of Dave Ramsey, but honestly, I see the wisdom in this.

8. Obey Jesus' instructions about plain, honest speech.

Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matt 5:37)
What happened to simple honesty? And why do we have the same problems as people did 2,000 years ago?

9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others. Foster writes,

Do we sip our coffee and eat our bananas at the expense of exploiting Latin American peasants? In a world of limited resources, does our lust for wealth mean the poverty of others? Should we buy products that are made by forcing people into dull assembly-line jobs? Do we enjoy hierarchical relationships in the company or factory that keep others under us? Do we oppress our children or spouse because we feel certain tasks are beneath us?

Often our oppression is tinged with racism, sexism, and nationalism. The color of the skin still affects one's person in the company. The sex of a job applicant still affects the salary. The national origin of a person still affects the way he or she is perceived. May God give us prophets today who...will call us "from the desire of wealth" so that we may be able to "break the yoke of oppression."

I don't have a specific verse for this. Because this is what all of the teachings of Jesus were about. The fact we so often miss this just shows how we miss the point of the gospel.

10. Shun anything that distracts from seeking first the kingdom of God.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Mt 6:33)
'Nuff said.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Spiritual Disciplines: Simplicity (1 of 2)

I think this is the only discipline less popular than fasting. (And maybe when I make sweeping comments like that, I'm saying more about myself than about my culture.)

It's funny. It seems like every time I hear a sermon preached on a particular subject, the speaker says, "The Bible talks about this subject more than any other." I've definitely heard that said about money. Money seems to be a popular subject to talk about if you have a particular soapbox about it, or if you're a Dave Ramsey fan. Otherwise, not so much. It drives me crazy that every time story of the "Rich Young Ruler" is discussed (you know, in Mt. 19 where Jesus tells that guy who was keeping all the "rules" that he should sell everything he has and give to the poor), people are always quick to point out that the purpose of this story was for Jesus to say that nothing should come between us and God. That riches were only this particular man's hang up, and it really only applies to us in a generic way, but not a specific way. I'm not comfortable with this explanation - particularly in a society that is very stuck on the accumulation of "things".

Luke records Jesus saying, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Luke 12:15)

And in Luke 12:33-34, He says, "Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Jumping back to the blessings and woes, Jesus says, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God...woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort." (Luke 6:20 and 24)

Finally, in Luke 6:30, He says: "Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back."

Apparently, Jesus didn't want us overly focused on material things. This is not a subject that's easy to tackle.

In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster notes that "this Discipline directly challenges our vested interests in an affluent life-style".

But it's not simply about getting rid of everything and living an ascetic lifestyle. That may be missing the point.

I came across an interesting document at the website of a church in California (Indian Christian Assembly).

One of the things that the article suggested was that, "The discipline of simplicity is the conscious act of not being tied to the things of this world."

The article also listed a couple quotes about the discipline:

“Living simply means adopting a lifestyle that avoids unnecessary accumulation of material items. It helps us seek outward detachment from the things of this world in order to focus our lives on the leadings of the Spirit. Living simply entails clearing our lives and our houses of spiritual and material clutter so as to create more space for faithful living.” – Catherine Whitmire (Plain Living: A Quaker Path to Simplicity)
“Simplicity does not mean getting rid of all your possessions, but rather integrating them into your life’s purpose”- Mary Gregory (quoted in the same book)
I don't think it's just about the stuff you have, or how expensive it is. This runs much, much deeper than what we have, what we own, and what we buy. It's more about what we want. It's about embracing a culture where we are defined by what we drive, what we wear, what we buy, and what we do for a living. This is hard, because it's much deeper than the things we surround ourselves with. It's not just about the stuff - it's about a way of life and a way of thinking.

Foster brings this back to not worrying about things in this life, like Jesus talked about in Luke 12. He talks about how simplicity is freedom from anxiety:

"Freedom from anxiety is characterized by three inner attitudes. If what we have we receive as a gift, and if what we have is to be cared for by God, and if what we have is available to others, then we will possess freedom from anxiety. This is the inward reality of simplicity. However, if what we have we believe we have gotten, and if what we have we believe we must hold onto, and if what we have i not available to others, then we will live in anxiety. Such persons will never know simplicity regardless of the outward contortions they may put themselves through in order to live 'the simple life'."
It's called a discipline for a reason. It's not easy. But if this is something we truly practiced, I think we would be amazed at the blessings we would have.

Since this is so stinking long, I'll have to finish my discussion of simplicity later, where I'll talk about 10 things that Foster suggests we can do to simplify our lives.