The first chapter in Bell’s new book is titled “What About the Flat Tire?” This chapter is very much a chapter of deconstruction. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense though. The chapter simply is raising difficult open-ended questions to challenge any simplistic notion of God and the way God is redeeming humanity. To that end, the chapter is (somewhat frustratingly) mostly questions.
Bell begins by raising the question about the fate of those who do not belong to the Christian faith but have none the less lived a godly life. His example: Gandhi. The example of Gandhi appears to serve two purposes.
First, Gandhi is a potent example of a non-Christian who lived a life that honors the creative intentions for life (cf. Gen 1.26-28). Like many Christians, though not all, I believe that despite the fall (cf. Gen 3)people are still created in the image of God, bear that image, and are therefore able to act in ways that reflect God’s image bringing God glory and honor. So the example of Gandhi seems to be used as the example of others throughout history who have never come to faith in Jesus presumably because they have never heard and been taught about Jesus. What is their eternal fate, life or death, heaven or hell, eternal life with God or eternal judgment? That is the issue Bell is raising.
The second reason the Gandhi example is interesting is the fact that Gandhi was a well-educated Hindu who did know of Jesus Christ but rejected the Christian faith. One of Gandhi’s famous quotes is “I like your Christ but I do not like you Christians. You Christians are so unlike your Christ.” This is another issue that Bell appears to be raising: what about those who reject Jesus because their only understanding of Jesus is the hypocrisy and (let’s face it) the sometimes downright evil done by Christians? Bell carefully observes that sometimes there “might be people rejecting Jesus because of how his followers lived” (p. 7). This is followed by a quote from writer Renee Altson whose image of Jesus was shaped by her pastor-father who raped her while reading scripture and singing hymns to her. This is a difficult issue and I’m sympathetic. Although Altson is a believer, I would find it difficult to blame her if she hated God after knowing what was done to her (and I’ve read her book).
The other issue Bell raise is the paradoxical ways in which people receive salvation and forgiveness according to scripture. To be saved one must hear the gospel from someone who comes to teach the gospel (cf. Rom 10.14-17). Bell responds, “And I wholeheartedly agree, but that raises another question. If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us–what happens if they don’t do their part?” (p. 9). Beyond this scripture affirms salvation is by grace and not by works (cf. Eph 2.7-8) but also affirms the need for things like belief, repentance, baptism, forgiving others, etc… Bell wants to ask which is it and what if someone misses out or misunderstands one of these commands. Similarly, Bell observes who salvation comes through faith…but whose faith? Ours or the faith of our friends (cf. Mk 2.5) or the faith of our spouses (cf. 1 Cor 7.14).
These are a sampling of the paradoxical issues that Bell raises. For the most part I am glad he’s raising these issues because they are issues being raised by many among the emerging generation, both in church and outside of church. We cannot ignore the questions but must hear them, understand them rather than foolishly dismiss them, and then try to answer them to the best our ability (which assumes we’ll have some limitations). What we must keep in mind is the occasional nature of scripture, specifically the New Testament. For example, Paul’s letter to the Romans was written in response to a specific situation addressing the questions germane to that occasion. That means that when we are asking scripture to address our questions rather than the questions it was originally written to address, we are in one sense asking scripture to do something it’s not meant to do. So we should not be surprised to find that some of our questions are rather difficult to answer.
Having said that, I am curious to discover not only how Bell answers these questions but also the method he uses. In this chapter he is raising very complex questions in a rather simplistic manner which seems inadequate in some ways, perhaps even unfair. In fact, to answer the issues he is raising really could require several books full of good research, exegesis, and engagement with theology and church history.
Another issue I am waiting to see how he will deal with is the issue of sin. I have a ton of admiration for Gandhi but I also know that just as people in all cultures do good they also do wrong (sin). So the example of Gandhi is sort of unhelpful because when we think of Gandhi we tend to (understandably) overlook the problem of sin.
Feel free to comment but keep the comments civil and respectful. I am not interested in conducting a heresy trial on any person. If you are reading Bell’s book, I’d love to hear your reactions to each chapter.