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Love Loses: Some Thoughts About The Tone Of Christian Conversation

March 31, 2011

For those who missed it, I wrote a piece for the Rabbit Room about the tone of Christian conversation in the dust up over the Rob Bell controversy.  Rather than say much more about it here, I’ll give you the link where you can read it: http://www.rabbitroom.com/?p=11926 – hope you find something in it worth consideration, thanks for reading!

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Lynch permalink
    April 4, 2011 6:56 am

    I kind of felt like you were saying we have to be weak when refuting false doctrine. I for one am tired of weak Christians (and this weariness probably comes mostly from my own weakness). Most of the reviews of the book were fair, focusing on the doctrine, but I feel that Bell has been exposed for what he is–a false teacher. His gospel is “another gospel” (have you even seen the promotional video?!!!). Piper may not have read or reviewed Bell’s book–he simply showed confidence in THE Book. Would that all believers have this confidence.

  2. Thomas Kenyon permalink
    April 17, 2011 8:17 pm

    I have only very recently been introduced to you through your wonderful song ‘I am new’ and a few You Tube videos that I sunsequently viewed. While I love your heart, I fear that when it comes to the subject of the teaching of Rob Bell as he purports to lead others into ‘Christianity’, your grace offering is misplaced. Christ was quite pointed in His strong challenges to those who would lead others astray. I believe that Christ would classify Rob Bell amongst the ‘brood of vipers’.

    • April 18, 2011 11:55 am

      Thomas, thanks for dropping by, and thanks for your kind words about my song “I Am New” – so grateful you found it :- )

      It’s clear you have a tender heart and a passion for the Lord – it comes through even in the little that you wrote here. But for the sake of discussion I would offer one thought, here. Well, two actually. I just want to reiterate that I’m not defending Bell and my post had more to do with wondering what a Christian response should look like and that some of the initial response seemed reactive, fear based, and ungenerous to me. I’ve also seen many responses from people who disagree with Bell but did so in a thoughtful and compassionate manner that seemed to me to be consistent with our shared faith. So it was not my intention to call into question Bell’s detractors, but more so to wonder out loud about the most Christ honoring way for Bell’s detractors to voice their concerns. If that wasn’t clear, I’m sorry.

      The other thing I would offer is that I don’t think Bell would be counted amongst the ‘brood of vipers” in this context. Again I’m not defending him (I haven’t even read the book), but the brood of vipers comment was aimed at the religious authorities of the day and their insistence that they could save themselves, and that we can too. I just heard a great teaching about this by Tim Keller in his podcast called “How To Find The Way” – I encourage you to check it out on itunes. Sooo good. Keller is widely regarded as a very orthodox, reformed, biblical pastor/author, and reliable voice in evangelical Christianity – the kind of guy who would take issue with some of Bell’s conclusions, but who I imagine would do so in a very Christ honoring manner. But i digress…

      The pharisees were called a ‘brood of vipers’ because of their insistence on placing their hope in the heavy yoke of attaining righteousness through Mosaic law, their belief in the significance of their own efforts toward holiness. This is, in essence, satanic (I don’t mean to be heavy handed in dropping the ‘s’ word there) in that it insists on relying on ourselves, our effort, our discipline to save us. It means that we put our hope in our selves, that we presume to be our own savior and god, the temptation in the garden of Eden that got us all in this mess in the first place. It remains the great sickness, the great lie that still thrives in the church today. I would dare say that this kind of self-righteousness is taught weekly in most of our churches. I confess that this lie shows up in my own work. Songs like “I Am New” are my attempt to speak the truth that puts all of our efforts of self-righteous in subordination to the knowledge of Christ.

      What qualified the Pharisees to be called a brood of vipers was their passion for legalism. Rob Bell, even if he’s wrong and even heretical, is not guilty of legalism. If we assume that his ideas in “Love Wins” are heretical, than we see that he arrived at these ideas by believing too much in the grace of God and the sovereignty of God to make ALL things new and redeem ALL of creation. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, it’s hard to make a case that he qualifies to be labeled among the brood of vipers who were called as much because of their legalism.

      This might seem like I’m nit-picking here but I think the difference is important. Legalism is the greater heresy and the great enemy of the gospel. But it runs rampant and unchecked, hardly anyone bats an eye. I would offer that if we’re rating sin by degrees (which of course the bible tells us is irrelevant), legalism seems like the greater sin, more damaging than the question of whether God’s salvation can reach even into hell.

      I suppose the real question is whether a heart can repent in hell, and if so, if God will respond to that repentance. Or is hell hellish because it is there that we lose the capacity for repentance? I think all of these things are valid questions that can help lead us into deeper trust and worship. That Bell is asking them, in my mind at least, doesn’t make him the false prophet that people try to make him out to be. He might be mistaken, even terribly mistaken, but if we trust that God is the author and finisher of our faith we don’t have to be afraid of his little ‘ol book. That’s where I land on all of it – and I admit that I might be wrong.

      It seems ungenerous to demonize him just yet, though. Or at least if we’re going to do that, we need to do the same with every other pastor who teaches or implies that we can please God with our self-righteousness. This is the great heresy that most if not all of us participate in.

      But we’re all on the journey, aren’t we? Discovering the goodness and faithfulness and righteousness of God. He seems to give us space to work these things out. It would be nice if we could do the same and give each other some space. Of course there are times to speak correction, but I think we can still do that – as some have with Bell – while honoring the fact that we’re all journeying, we’re all in process, we’re all seeing through the glass darkly, working out our salvation with fear and trembling.

  3. Thomas Kenyon permalink
    April 18, 2011 7:23 pm

    I appreciate your thoughts Jason. I may be way off, but I’m guessing that you, like my wife, have experienced very legalistic Christianity and have seen the destruction that this causes.

    I grew up in a home that was New Age before new age was new and did not accept Christ as my Lord and Savior until I was 44.

    I have found one of the more interesting aspects of any discussion like this to be that we can so often focus solely on the ‘ditch of destruction’ which has most affected us and those we love. But, there is an equally deep and soul-crushing ditch on the other side of ‘the narrow path’ that I find is far too easy to minimize.

    My mother committed suicide believing much of the lies that Rob Bell espouses and most of my birth family continues to base their spiritual lives upon such. I believe that those who hold the hands of others whilst leading them straight to hell are equally as evil as those within the church who preach self-righteousness and an earned salvation.

    I apologize if I come across too harshly, but in my mind, promising ‘second chances in hell’ when the Bible never does so is in no way a loving act; in fact, just the opposite.

  4. April 19, 2011 12:34 am

    False is false, I agree with you…

    I just… I can’t imagine anybody reading Bell’s book, concluding that there will be a second chance to get into heaven after you’ve gone to hell, and then living their lives hellishly because they know they have an out, that they’ve found a loophole. Anybody who thinks that way is already so far along the road to the kind of life that you and I and Rob Bell would all agree is hell on earth.

    Maybe that’s not what you’re saying, but as I think about this book and the people who are most distressed by it, this is the kind of thing that I wonder is at work. I had a minister friend ask me this weekend whether the good news for some people isn’t good enough without the bad news of eternal damnation. A decent question, in my mind.

    All I mean is that I think that fear of eternal punishment doesn’t save people. I didn’t come to Christ to escape hell as a place of eternal damnation. I came to Christ because I was drawn by his love that convicted me of the sin of living for myself and for myself alone. I came to him to be saved from the hell of my own selfishness.

    If perfect love casts out all fear as the bible says, then coming to God and growing in Him in the face of the fear of eternal damnation, of eternal rejection by God doesn’t seem consistent. I’m overly simplifying this, I know, but it all starts to lead me to wonder if my traditional view of hell is legitimate. Most of what I think about hell is the stuff I heard when I was a new believer, and then I didn’t think much more about it until the last several years.

    I remember the most significant moment for me was when I wondered about parenthood. I know the metaphor isn’t perfect, but I also know that God has given us things like marriage, parenthood, and friendship as revealers of His nature. He calls us His bride, and I have a deeper understanding of my relationship to Him because I have a bride who I love, and whose love costs me and requires me to lay down my life, to die daily to myself. He calls us His children, and I catch glimpses of His father heart when I love my own boys. I remember once thinking about punishment and how I punish my children because I love them and want the best for them. I punish them to lead them to correction. And this raises the question in my mind of the popular view of hell as eternal punishment – what would be the purpose of punishment that doesn’t lead to correction? Is God purposeful in every area of creation but this one?

    I confess that I don’t know the answer, but I humbly asked it because the question rose up in me, and that is more often than not the work of the Spirit in my life. He stirs the waters, draws things to the surface, and engages me in conversation about it. And so I ask the question, without an agenda except to honor God with my curiosity, and to ask Him to lead me into truth, to help me look at his word again and see if there is maybe a filter I’m holding on to that keeps the truth obscured from me.

    I do have a history with a very legalistic community and I nearly lost my faith over it (at least I felt like I nearly lost it, but now I see it more as a turbulent time of much needed growth), and I remember that I needed to set down my bible for a season while I detoxed from that experience because every time I opened it, I could only hear the scriptures bark at me with the austere voice of legalism. I had a filter and wasn’t able to hear anything other than what that filter fed to me. I remember when that season was over how vibrant and new the Word of God seemed to me, coming alive with a new voice I hadn’t been able to hear before. I saw things in scripture that I had never seen.

    So all that to say, I respect the bible as an authority that I submit myself to, but I’ve come to be suspicious of my own understanding of it. What I mean is, I hold my conclusions loosely, inviting the Holy Spirit to reshape them as He sees fit, when He thinks I have the capacity to receive it. That’s where I’m at with the question of the afterlife. I’m asking questions for clarity, not to challenge orthodoxy or to find a loophole or to make God in my own image. I’m not doing away with Hell because I don’t like it. I’m just wondering if there’s a truer way of understanding the scriptures about hell that seems consistent with everything else that the bible reveals about God’s nature.

    I do know fear is one of hell’s greatest weapons, as well as shame and despair. So in all of this that I write about it, I guess I’m mostly pushing back on what I interpret as some people’s idea that without the doctrine of hell, we lose a major piece used for compelling people to salvation. I just don’t know if that’s relevant. The traditional view of hell I grew up with may turn out to be accurate, but I don’t think fear of it is a necessary means to salvation. But that’s about as far into the wondering as I’ve gotten.

    I know some people say that to diminish the idea of eternal punishment in hell is to diminish Christ’s work on the cross. I’m still thinking/praying through that one. This doesn’t seem necessarily true of my own experience. There is enough of the hell of pride, selfishness, and lust in my heart that Christ saves me from everyday that I know what it must have cost him on the cross to give me a way out…

    And I do believe in hell. I may even believe in it as a place of eternal punishment. But the pieces seem to fall more into place for me when I understand it, as C.S. Lewis describes, as a place where the door is locked from the inside, that hell’s inhabitants prefer it over heaven. That squares better with my understanding of God. For now at least.

    Most people I know who have already chosen the virtues of hell (like Charlie Sheen as an obvious example) seem to have little awareness of it. What is hellish to me is desirable for them. Is Hell the place they finally get all that they’ve wanted? Once they have it, are they even able to repent? Are their souls strong enough to turn 180 degrees? Perhaps not. But that’s very different from the hell I was raised to believe in where God couldn’t wait to send sinners and unleash his wrath on them eternally without mercy. Without mercy. Doesn’t that seem inconsistent enough with what we know of God to at least ask a question or two about it?

    Check out Tim Keller’s podcast about Hell if you’re interested. In the story of the rich man who died and went to hell and called out to Lazarus Keller shows how even in hell he was arrogant, demanding, and unrepentant. Does the soul of the person who continually embraces the virtues of hell in this life finally become so small and so weak that they are no longer able to repent? This is pretty close to my understanding of hell currently. But again, I hold it loosely 🙂

    So I guess I empathize with the questions Bell is asking, though I don’t necessarily land where he does. But I’m not in the least bit scandalized by his ideas. He’s a man. I expect him to be fallible. Just like me.

    Well there you did it, you got me to come on out and talk openly about where I’m at in my own journey with all of this – the very thing I had been avoiding in order to keep it on topic in regards to the tone of Christian conversation. You got it out of me 🙂

    I hope that gives some clarity. I admit that I’m in process and that my current position is at best half-baked. But I don’t believe that I’m over-reacting to legalism to avoid that ditch of destruction. I guess from where I’m at I’ve yet to encounter anyone whose life was destroyed by the idea that God’s mercy may even reach into hell, while just about everybody I’ve met has been damaged by legalism and fear. So Bell’s book doesn’t seem all that controversial to me. But I’m growing too, maybe one day I’ll see it differently.

    One parting thought… it occurs to me now to see legalism as it’s own kind of hell. It is life without Christ, isn’t it? Daily trying to measure up, measuring myself against others, trying to be good enough, continually striving to be righteous enough to earn God’s love that seems always just beyond my reach, dangled in front of me like a promise that never comes true… this is as good a definition of a living hell as most I’ve heard.

  5. Elizabeth Holmes permalink
    April 19, 2011 2:27 am

    I just want to say thank you Jason for posting this last reply. Its nice to see that Im not then only one having these questions in my head. Also I just found your music tonight and my husband and I were blown away by it. God has truly gifted you. Have a blessed day.

  6. April 19, 2011 10:50 am

    Thanks Elizabeth 🙂

    Thomas, just to assure you I haven’t completely abandoned traditional orthodoxy 🙂 here’s something else I read today by my friend Max Lucado: http://www.maxlucado.com/articles/excerpts/hells_supreme_surprise

    His words here are pretty much in direct opposition to most of what Bell has to say. I think this is good, but still leaves a lot of questions open. It’s easy to concede that men like Hitler will perish eternally, not so easy when you think of the little girl abducted into the sex trade in the Philippines who dies young and in captivity without having heard or responded to the gospel. Surely God in his justice and mercy has a way to account for all this.

    Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce”? I would recommend it as a thoughtful and compelling exploration of the afterlife. Good stuff. Thanks for engaging me here! Grateful that you challenge me.

  7. April 19, 2011 10:51 am

    By the way Thomas, I think that our conversation here qualifies as the right kind of tone for Christian conversation 🙂

  8. Thomas Kenyon permalink
    April 19, 2011 8:13 pm

    Hey Jason,

    I would hope that we could have a loving and encouraging conversation as neither of us has sought to deceive nor to lead anyone astray from the narrow path. It is one thing to have a conversation such as ours in which we express our thoughts and convictions as our personal present positions and quite another to lead an entire congregation as their shepard into a valley of false promises.

    Thank you for sharing Max Lucado’s piece on hell. Very thought provoking while in no way discounting the reality or dreadfulness of this final repository for the self-damned.

    If I may I’d like to share with you a few words from a message that Alistair Begg shared on his April 18th radio broadcast. While the main body of work was based upon 1st Corinthinians 15 (and well worth the listen – http://www.truthforlife.org/broadcasts/2011/04/18/if-there-is-no-resurrection-part-b/ ), he referenced Galations 6 and the verse, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked.” He then went on to describe the kind of namby-pamby ‘Christianity-lite’ that is both so pervasive and destructive (my words) when he shared this about what so many desire:

    – a spirituality with no rules
    – peace with no sacrfice
    – eternity with no self-denial

    While I know that there remain pockets of horrific legalism within the church, I find that for the masses that any encouragement that the above ‘precepts’ will lead to anywhere except hell is devilish to the extreme.

    It brings me no joy at all that books and theories such as Rob Bell’s will put a smile on the faces of my sister and her children as they march into the abyss.

    Once again I feel the need to apologize because I know of no pleasant way in which to share these thoughts. I am so far more richly blessed than I deserve that it is rediculous and it began with a most gracious man that God put in my life to lead me to Him. The grace of God is so compelling and self-righteous legalism so off-putting that for me it has likely been far to easy to rest in the former and to see the utter stupidity of the latter.

    I greatly enjoy these discussions (these are a first for me), but I want to close with a note on Minnesota. I am going to take a wild guess and assume you are somewhere in the Twin Cities and so I want to share with you that some of my fondest childhood memories were when I got to visit my grandparents home on Minnehaha Parkway and to play in the cold creek waters.

    Shalom

  9. April 24, 2011 10:23 pm

    I’ve not read the book yet, either, though I am very thankful for your article. You said what I have wanted to say and haven’t had the time to write myself. I couldn’t help but ask myself are we really trying to be so anti-Rob Bell that we would, in fact, attempt to demonstrate that we’re not entirely sure how to love at all within our own Church? I see all of these scripture references about what “God thinks of Rob Bell,” and yet, in the context of Galatians, as mentioned by Thomas, Paul didn’t actually tell the church to go denounce those preachers of a false gospel. As you mentioned, the Church seems to have reacted out of fear, when a simple study of Traditional biblical views of death will show that Bell isn’t saying anything new.

    The thing that seems to have been overshadowed, often by belligerence and an inability to hear things other than what we have determined our ears WILL hear, is that Bell isn’t questioning the necessity of a saving relationship with Christ. He tries to get it out in that interview before the ignorant interviewer forces him to answer with one of two answers that aren’t the only two possible answers. Our concept of “What happens next” is based up speculation and, honestly, more recent traditions.

    The Church actually hasn’t determined exactly what Scripture says happens when we breathe our last. Nor has it determined exactly what Christ did for 3 days. And, technically, hell isn’t open to the general public yet. Rev. discusses hell opening at the end of days. The Jewish view, I believe, is that there is a place of suffering (for cleansing souls), a place of eternal damnation, and a place of paradise. Which, is really, how we tend to look it. But we’ve labeled these Heaven and Hell. Which isn’t really accurate. NT symbolism can make it even more confusing.

    I don’t want to preach anymore on this, but I think the main point is that, mostly, Bell’s point has been overshadowed by reactionary fear. He raises a valid question. One that in no way threatens the gospel of Christ. Simply our white-knuckled grip on our dogmatic, and mostly tradition-based, beliefs.

    Though I don’t personally know where I fall in this particular topic, so I won’t be writing a follow-up to Love Wins anytime soon, I believe there would be a great deal of comfort in a revelation that our view of “what ensues post-mortem” was wrong. And, either way, neither the love nor the justice of God changes. Simply the time-frame in which we are able to be saved by the grace of Christ.

    And, I guess, one last mini-sermon. Why have we become so zealously hopeful that “those dirty sinners who don’t listen” won’t get one more chance to repent? Is it because we’re secretly jealous? If we truly believe in Christ, and are obedient to His word, then why have we seen so very little of either the fruit of the spirit or 1 Cor. 13 in the chaos that Bell has created? Seems that those are things God valued.

  10. Darrell permalink
    May 3, 2011 10:52 am

    Let me say that I firmly believe that God appreciates honest questions and He is not aiming a lightning bolt at anyone who is genuinely seeking His truth in a matter.

    Regarding Bell’s book and his assertions, discussions here and elsewhere reveal people attempting to ascertain God’s truth about hell and punishment. I would offer that we know God’s heart on the matter because of the words of Christ. Christ is God in the flesh…His revealed word…so Christ’s teachings on the subject should be adequate. We can read that Jesus spoke of a place of eternal torment and who would go there. Jesus told a parable that said that those who enter the afterlife cannot move from one destination to another. So if Jesus (the God-man) taught these things, to question their validity is to, in my opinion, question God Himself and His plan. The serpent in the garden did such things.

    I’m a firm believer in searching the scriptures as a whole and properly interpreting it’s teachings. We should also discuss the scriptures and learn from each other, all the while in a loving manner. When someone moves from questioning the words of Christ to teaching the opposite, that should be addressed firmly, according to scripture.

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