Rob Bell “Love Wins”: The Flat Tire

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.

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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.

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26 responses to “Rob Bell “Love Wins”: The Flat Tire

  1. Thanks for reading the book so I don’t have to! 😉

  2. Glad you are reading it, Rex. It may be that we look at the problem of sin and God’s remedy of it differently than God intended. Therefore, Gandhi is a problem. I am still chewing on some of his conclusions.

    • One of the problems with using a celebrity name is that we don’t know the person in a personal way. So when we think of someone like Gandhi, the emotive side of us finds it difficult to even consider Gandhi being judged by God. Yet if we take infamous men like Jeffery Dahmer or David Berkowitz, both of whom became Christians after being sent to prison for their notorious murders, there are many Christians who still have a difficult time even considering the fact that these two men known as serial-killers could ever be saved.

      This points us to the problem of defining soteriology based primarily on human emotions. However wide or narrow the final picture of God’s redemption is, as long as we seek to understand that picture from a purely emotive state then our understanding will be biased. That in turn will shape our ecclesiological practice too (which is why some Jewish Christians had a difficult time accepting Gentile Christians within the fold of fellowship).

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

      • That is why I am glad he roots his questions on God’s statements found in scripture. They spark emotion, but founded on scripture. I’m looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on the book.

      • Yes…and your comment reminds us of the danger of eliminating all room for emotion. When that is done we often (as has been done) make God into a purely rationalistic deity who cannot be moved in his heart. That is a view of God that cannot be sustained from scripture.

  3. Good job Rex. I really appreciate you doing this. Do you think he uses Gandhi has a straw man? I am asking because I haven’t read the book yet and want your take on that. It sounds like he is looking through history, finds the most likable non-Christian guy you can imagine and says “Is he in hell? Is he?” We want to answer “Of course not” but does that make it so? It sounds like his tactic is that once you make the exception then you open the door to whoever we feel like should also be in heaven, regardless of what scripture has to say on this as a whole.

    Sure WE want to make all kinds of exceptions. We want our non-Christian grandparents there or whoever we love but doesn’t believe in Jesus…but does it work out because we want it to or because it lines up with what God told us in scripture.

    Does he tackle Romans 2:12-16 and the law written on the heart? God clearly makes exception in scripture in various places which you are already familiar with. We have to teach what we find in scripture and if God wants to make exception He is welcome to do so…that is what grace is. We are all “exceptions” to the way things should be because we have been saved by grace. But we also know who God gives grace to because He told us in the New Testament. Rambling here…you get my point.

    • I think he uses the example of Gandhi for several reasons which make sense (after all, who can argue with the way Gandhi lived as being a godly life) but also create problems (the example of Gandhi is too emotive of an example). So I think Gandhi can be a bit of a straw man.

      I have not read far enough in the book to see how he deals with the problem of sin and what he does with Romans 2. However, my guess is that those who are looking for thorough exegesis and critical engagement with theology and church history will find this book disappointing. And I find that disappointing somewhat too. Just because a book is written for a popular audience (rather than academic), that does not mean one cannot engage in some level of exegesis and critical theological and historical engagement (Scot McKnight’s books are a good example of someone who is able to do this without getting to technical). But maybe my hunch will be wrong.

      Any ways, I like your statement “We are all ‘exceptions’ to the way things should be because we have been saved by grace. But we also know who God gives grace to because He told us in the New Testament.”

      Thanks for stopping by the blog and commenting.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

  4. Let me throw one more thing out there…it is not just that we want all kinds of folks in heaven. If we are godly then we want everyone to be in heaven. So Bell’s desire to “get everyone there” is a godly one. It is a godly one because tells us himself that he wants everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Here is the kicker…God wants everyone in heaven but he clearly sends some people to hell (Rev 21:8) for what scripture calls the “second death.” My point is that God wants everyone in heaven too but that doesn’t make it so. It doesn’t make it so because some people will never choose it. They choose, instead, death and they receive it. Does Christ come and resurrect them from the second death and give them another shot?

    Also, I sure hope he doesn’t go to 1 Peter 3:18-20 to say Christ was preaching the Gospel to the disobedient in order to give them a second chance. That is clearly not what that passage is teaching.

    • I actually added a book by Hieromonk Ilarion titled “Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective” to my Amazon wish list. This book, written by a theologian from the Eastern Orthodox Church, should explain more the understanding of Christ preaching to the dead from an Eastern perspective. It is a doctrine that has been largely ignored in Western Christianity. I don’t understand much about it but am curious.

      • Actually, I think you have hit upon the real issue here.

        Conventional (Western) thinking has no theology for post-death issues. Discussion isn’t even allowed so Bell’s book is a first attempt at navigating unfamiliar territory. It is unfamiliar and therefore strange.

        But even though some of his ideas seem iffy his main point – death isn’t final – was well substantiated. Once that is accepted we can then proceed to develop ideas about post-death scenarios.

        The book you mentioned sounds interesting. May I borrow it once you’ve finished? 🙂

    • @Matt, it may help to just read the book. I may wait on posting on further reviews here until Rex finishes the book. The speculation on other ‘reviews’ that has gone on has not represented the book well (like on Amazon). Some that said they read the book seem to Parrot the speculations before the release than the actual content of the book.

      Bell is a storyteller. I listen to his sermons frequently. You have to stay with him to see where he is going. That does not mean you don’t think as he teaches, but I have to make sure I am listening to what he is actually saying step by step instead of my “buts”. Otherwise, I will miss his points. And, I have done that several times.

      I hope you enjoy the rest of the book.

      James

  5. i agree with james about looking at the entire picture he paints. personally, i am trying to say very little about the book or comment on much until i have finished it. i just love how people have an opinion without doing the research themselves. REALLY?? Or others that avoid it like the plague because somehow reading bell’s book puts them in a certain ‘camp’ or whatever else the excuse may be. i view this as simply a refusal to deal with hard questions and wrestle with their faith. i applaud bell for at least engaging.

    kudos to you k. rex (how celebrity does *that* sound, lol) for reading, engaging, and blogging, oh my!

  6. Since I happen to know Matt Dabbs (attended seminary with him), I know that Matt is making his comments/questions in response to the ongoing conversation and is not trying to be dogmatically critical of Bell without having read the book. And I know that Matt is not afraid of honest exploration of faith like some of Bell’s critics seem to be.

    Any ways, I appreciate everyone’s ongoing dialogue on the blog. When it comes to such subjects which are controversial, this is what we need…more dialogue rather than vitriol tweets that hope to prejudice the conversation before it even takes place.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rex

    • Thanks Rex…because I haven’t yet read the book I have resorted to asking questions rather than presume I understand Bell’s stance. I do have a copy of the book the way and should have it next week. That should help.

    • :/ wasn’t trying to call anyone out specifically, but was making more of a generalized statement. many apologies. im already on the defense?? yuck.

  7. I really appreciate the generous comments from everyone. I’ll probably have a post on the next chapter on Monday.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rex

  8. Well; here is my take on this: The New Testament clearly tells us not to judge who will go up and who will go down. God’s word tells us that we are all responsible for our own salvation. What others do or say have nothing to do with our salvation, other than loving God and each other, and sharing our faith. I believe, like many, that we should speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent.
    The scripture clearly tells us that we are all sinners, and if anyone thinks otherwise is a fool, or deceived. God’s Word clearly shows us that the only way anyone can be saved is through Jesus Christ, through the sacrifise of God Himself in our behalf that we may be saved only through faith and by the grace of God himself. Obviously, God could not just wave a hand and save us, because God’s nature is that he is just; therefore man’s sins had to be so delt with; that is, paid for. God can not go against his own nature. God is truth. God is just. God knows not sin. God is love. (For instance; when we pray to God, we should not expect God to go against his own nature, or divine plan. We are told to pray for wisdom, which will help us in the Spirit and guide us in our prayers and all aspects of life.)
    So, what we are left with is what one actually believes about the Bible, God’s Word; everything we need to know for life and godliness. Therein is what the problem or study is really all about. Let the study begin… (Yes; the Bible truly is the word of God. Check it out.) 8<) –dc

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting Don. I think you are right in that much of the discussion may revolve around what one believes about the Bible…is it a truthful/faithful witness or is it not (and of course, you and I both believe it is). However, it also depends on *how* we read the Bible (hermeneutics). The more and more I learn about how readers of scripture can come to two or more different conclusions on any particular subject (i.e., the end times) the more I realize how much hermeneutics have to do with the conclusion reached. Which, come to think of it, makes me realize that I should pay attention to what sort of hermeneutic Bell might be employing.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

      • Rex, Yes; I agree with your reply to my input, and the mentioning of hermeneutics in studying scripture.
        It is just common sense to me, that we should all be searching in the light to see what God is telling us, and showing us, rather than trying to forward particular agendas of men.
        It is only common sense that we consider the to who, what, when, where, and why scripture is addressed.
        Studying the book of Revelation, for instance, is a clear example of how hermeneutics must first be worked out before proceeding. One needs to begin by first examining all the methods of interpretation used by men. Laying each one open on the table and seeing which method makes the most sense. For example; would God be fortelling the future and talking to a generation in which the things being said had no bearing on them? Of course not!
        So considering this simple fact; –would a method of interpretation that disregarded the generation, or people being addressed, be the most valid interpretation? Of course not (commom sense). So then, we go on to examine the other methods of interpretation, and so on… Which method makes the most sense?
        (Note, that I have pointed out just one example, in order to make a point, about the importance of hermeneutics).

        Let me say here, I have not read (or yet read) all, or any, of the other entries posted here, for lack of time. Maybe it is just as well? I don’t know; but it does make answering easier without distractions. Preaching to the choir, so to speak, is not my top priority. There are so many people out there we need to reach, so many seeking and asking good questions in need of good answers. –dc

    • Michael Hennings

      I am a recent college grad with no experience in seminary or formal theology training except a church background, but I have been reading this blog and really enjoying the dialogue. It’s nice to find an oasis of reasonable discourse among all the YouTube videos and what amounts to a mini civil war, so to speak.

      Though I have not read the book yet, (I will be picking up a copy in the next month) I am struck by the discussion in Bell’s pre-release video where he tells the story of the art show and the note saying “Reality check, Ghandi’s in hell.”

      My reaction to this was deep sadness, and it really struck me how much arrogance it reflects to make that statement, especially in light of the scripture you mentioned, Donald. First of all, only the Lord knows the heart. Secondly, are you kidding? Even if someone could look into hell and affirm that statement, what smugness! It is one thing to say that there is a place of punishment called hell–it is another to flaunt it, as if anyone was happy about it. This only adds to the perception of Evangelical Christians as smug, self-righteous Bible-thumpers.

      In response to that arrogance, it makes sense to me that Bell would write a book highlighting questions rather than answers–what don’t we know? I think our non-Christian friends and neighbors would also appreciate that. Surely we could acknowledge that it would be a shock and a disappointment to be told that your mom, dad, brother, sister, family member, or friend whom you loved was suffering. Doesn’t sound like good news to me.. Maybe by affirming this struggle, we can build bridges rather than flaunting our faith to push others away.

      Just some thoughts. Thanks for the dialogue!! I have been learning a great deal..

      Mike

      • Mike,

        Thanks for stopping by the blog and joining the dialogue. I hope you enjoy reading Bell’s book. There are points in Bell’s book on which I agree with him and points on which I disagree but in writing about every chapter, I have had no interest in running a heresy trial. So I’m glad that you find my blog to be ‘reasonable discourse.’

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