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.
It might seem patently absurd to criticize a Christian book for failing to mention a single verse in the Bible. There are over 31,000 of them, and Bell mentions plenty of others, after a fashion. But Bell omits this verse, because it reflects a central claim of the New Testament about the cross that doesn’t fit with a central claim of his book.
And the cross is more central to Christianity than heaven or hell.
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Bell’s book is causing a stir in Christian circles not by saying anything new, but rather by saying something old. His conclusions regarding heaven and hell may be radical, but his theology is not. It conjures visions of the American religion described by H. Richard Niebuhr in 1937, in which “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
Bell places himself smack dab in the middle of the “wide stream of orthodoxy,” but his new, more tolerant Christianity has its own limits. The “traditional” God who stands behind the received teaching of hell as a place of divine judgment. Such a God is described as “cruel,” “terrifying,” “traumatizing,” “relentless,” and “an awful reality.” He is “a slave driver,” “loving one moment, vicious the next,” and “can’t be trusted.”
It seems the wide stream just got a bit narrower. Bell’s claims implicitly exclude all those too naïve to agree with him.
What of the Gospel? The “Good News” in the New Testament is the announcement of Christ’s death on the cross, and the glorious new life he has purchased for us by it. Having set aside this vision of the cross, what is Rob Bell’s good news?
The Gospel for Bell does not consist in anything God has done, it is who God is. God’s love is not revealed to us in action, “It just is. It’s a party, a celebration, an occasion without beginning and without end.”
This sounds like great news, better news, a “better story.” God doesn’t do anything for anyone in particular; he just is, for everyone, everywhere. “Everybody is already at the party. Heaven and hell, here, now, around us, upon us, within us.”
You feeling it? “The only thing left to do is trust.” Because that’s all there is left to do.
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Dr. Lee will be leading a discussion about Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday night April 5th, at Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. (www.ChristReformedDC.org).
Dr. Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. He formerly worked as a Communications Director both on Capitol Hill and at the National Endowment for the Humanities.