Rob Bell is one of the hottest Christian preachers in the nation today, but does he say anything that’s uniquely Christian? In his new book, “Love Wins,” Bell paints a picture of a God who loves, but doesn’t ground it in God’s defining act of love towards men: the atoning death of Jesus Christ. Instead, what he says could easily be embraced by Mormons, Muslims, and Jews alike. As such, Bell robs the Christian message of its power to save.
Bell’s book is causing such a stir because it strikes at a fundamental debate: Is Christianity a revealed religion, one that rises or falls on its objective truth? Or is it merely an expression of timeless spiritual truths, perhaps one among many religions that capture the inner longing of mankind?
Bell’s side in this debate is illustrated by a curious omission. In a book about the love of God, Bell fails to mention one of the most profound and mysterious claims the Bible makes about the subject:
“By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us.” (1 John 3.7)
This verse at once offends and amazes. It offends, because as revealed religion it claims that we don’t even know what love is, apart from God revealing it to us. It amazes by suggesting that this revelation of God’s love took place on a cross, an international symbol of suffering, criminality, and folly. Weird, strange stuff. Exactly what you get in revealed religion.
And it’s not a throw-away line. “God is love,” the Apostle John tells us a few lines later, in one of the most famous, most quoted lines about God’s love. But he continues: “And in this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be a sacrifice for our sins.” “God is love” only makes sense in the light of the cross.
Explain how the death of a Jewish man on a cross illustrated God’s love, and you explain Christianity. Bell’s book not only fails to do so, it barely makes an attempt.
Bell dodges the challenge of the cross by dismissing it as metaphor. Speaking of the cross, Bell says that sacrifice was a powerful metaphor for those primitive cultures in which the Christian message was first proclaimed. “What the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand. It’s like this… It’s like that…” This use of images and metaphor was “the brilliant, creative work” of the New Testament authors. What Bell describes here is not divine revelation; it is human expression and reflection.
The real point the New Testament was trying to make, Bell says, is that Jesus is “where the life is.”
How does the death of Jesus on the cross show that he’s “where the life is?” Why did he have to die? And in what sense did he die for us?
Bell turns the Christian story of the cross into “a truth that’s as old as the universe — that life comes from death.” “Jesus talks about death and resurrection constantly, his and ours” — as if there’s no difference. “Because that’s how the universe works. That’s what Jesus does. Death and resurrection…. You die, and you’re reborn. It’s like that.” The cross is, for Bell, “an icon that allows us to tap into our deepest longings to be a part of the new creation.”
That is not the same thing as a divine act that shows us what real love is. This is not the same thing as revelation, but a timeless spiritual truth, discovered within.