Rob Bell, Salvation, and Fidelity with Uncertainty
It was a cold December day at a United Methodist campground when the question came:
“Is there salvation outside the Church?”
There. There it was.
When one sits before the Board of Ordained Ministry for ordination in the United Methodist Church, there are certain questions you know you are going to get.
Especially when a clergy candidate goes to a non-Southern seminary, those “what type of lie-beral are you?” doctrinal questions come out. They want to know if you are a wishy-washy closet Universalist or Secret Muslim or hippie “God is love, man!” yahoo. And even if a candidate isn’t completely in the cookie-cutter mold, are they consistent and well-progressed in their Christian development under a Wesleyan hermeneutic?
I knew exactly how I felt in my heart about who Christ is and what salvation means to me.
And I passed the interview.
This past week, this question was at the forefront as I read Rob Bell’s Love Wins (kindle version here for instant access). Seemingly everyone was having their own personal ordained ministry interview with Rob Bell, trying to peg him as a Universalist or see if he was consistent, asking “Where does Rob Bell reside on the Primer on Soteriology scale?”
Indeed, how one felt about Rob Bell became a litmus test for clergy bloggers. With rough results.
A few weeks back, fellow Methodist blogger Chad Holtz was let go from his church that he was pastoring. Why? Mostly, because of how he wrote about the Rob Bell book (his post “What I lost losing Hell” is powerful in its raw honesty). Nevermind that the UMC doesn’t have an official doctrine on Universal Reconciliation, and even John Wesley’s writings on the matter are mixed…but that doesn’t matter to some people, apparently!
In the words of a facebook friend:
“Suddenly, confessing Jesus is not enough to be saved. One must confess Jesus AND Hell.”
Wow. Is it 1692 again?
Suddenly you are a wayward clergyperson if you start liking black horn-rimmed glasses and lady jeans? Or, more specifically, saying that Love does win? What does that even mean? Love and hell and Jesus are mutually incompatible? If you affirm God’s love, you also affirm Universalism and denigrate Doctrine? Really?
I wonder if there’s a chilling effect where clergy are now intimidated into discrediting Bell, as if his words are poison and must be excised from the Body of Christ rather than taken in, struggled with, torn up…but ultimately the Body heals and emerges stronger than before.
Because I doubt Bell’s intent is to destroy the Body.
I finished the book Love Wins yesterday.
I think it ended too early.
And by that, I mean the title.
I think the full title of the book should be “Love Wins Over Certainty.”
I think that the general message of Rob Bell’s book is not just about salvation or “who goes where?” but an examination of the human tendency to idolize certainty.
Let’s unpack that.
Bell asks questions a lot:
A commenter knows for sure that Gandhi is in hell?
Unsaved children go to heaven before 12 but to hell after 12? Are you sure?
Is a person saved by what they say (Luke 7) or what they do (Luke 19) or where they are born (Romans 11) or in childbirth (1 Timothy 2)?
Is Christ’s work on the cross a ransom, a substitution, a battle won, or sinful humanity redeemed (all biblical and Church Fatherly claims)?
Bell makes these claims into strawmen at times…but in reality, Christian people condemn each other for not following one of these mutually-conflicting claims in the bible itself. They condemn out of certainty even while wielding a bible that is…anything but certainly clear.
Now, all these questions are obviously typical ways to break down another’s argument so yours can be built up. But what argument is there that Bell embraces? That one of these conflicting claims is the true one? That none of them are true? No to both. Instead, Bell points to the reason behind the conflicting claims is that God, through Jesus Christ, loves us. And the Bible points to that love in all these ways meant to convey the truth but not reduce it down to narrow claims.
But that is exactly what we have done with it.
It’s almost a Pavlovian response.
Any concept that challenges certainty must be responded to with more certainty.
With more certainty that affirming “Love Wins” leads to Universalism and denigrates doctrine.
With more digging-in-the-heels against fidelity with uncertainty (faithfulness without needing certainty in all areas of the faith).
Bell calls us to see beyond the trees we are comfortable with to the forest.
To move from certainty that particular trees are the Truth when there’s a whole dissonant forest out there.
Through the trees that you need one theological stance or another to be saved.
Through the trees that you need to do some action to be saved.
Through the trees that the people who die without even the opportunity to know Christ are damned.
These are all effective ways to spread the Gospel and turn people from sin, for sure. However, I don’t think that pre-scientific behavioral motivators masked as theology passes the test of time. But the love of God through Jesus Christ does endure, in many forms…some we haven’t even thought of yet.
Do we need doctrine? Beliefs? Certainty in the essentials of the Faith? Of course. Otherwise, we’re country club Methodists or Eddie Izzards’ rendition of the Anglican church. We need those for ourselves and for our groups. It’s our human story to create groups against other groups. It’s part of our human condition and I don’t think it is entirely wrong.
But when it comes to other people, whom we love to throw the book at? Let certainty go.
Maybe their fate isn’t as certain as you think it is.
Maybe their story isn’t as easy to read as you think it is.
Maybe God is working through them and to trust in the slow work of God is more faithful than rushing through reciting the Sinner’s Prayer.
Perhaps Love wins over certainty.
Love wins over narrow theology that ignores the biblical record.
Love wins over…certainty of who goes where when here is there.
Love wins when we embrace the one certainty that we can hang our hat on:
That God loves us through Jesus Christ.
How we define that love,
claim it and quality/quantify it,
live it out in our own lives,
tell the story of God’s love…
those are what our denominations and doctrines are for,
human particularity reflecting divine universality.
Nothing wrong with that.
Until they become a weapon against others, a tool to break relationships and elevate ourselves.
To make an idol out of certainty.
Because Love wins.
This is what I took from Rob Bell. Not Universalism, that it doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll go to heaven. Not anti-Doctrine screed, that beliefs are bad. Not an embrace of Emergent Church in all its newness. Not anti-Neo-Calvinist boilerplate…although it does kneecap them a bit! Not lady jeans.
Rather, I took it as an affirmation of fidelity with uncertainty, that in the areas of my life outside of the promise of Jesus Christ (the basis of faith) where my certainty affects how I view people and things…those areas bear reflection, introspection, and consecration. For Bell, it might be hell. For an evangelical, it might be how unhelpful an unjust atonement theory might be. For a progressive, it might be the “so what?” why to follow Christ seemingly without consequences. Even passionate advocates for social issues might have to reflect on how they convey their certain passion. These stories bear examination because there might be something new.
Because God may be trying to tell me a new story that hadn’t coalesced for me before.
A story where Love wins.
Oh, back to the interview. What did I say?
It was something like this:
“I believe there is salvation in the church.
I believe the promise of Jesus Christ of eternal life is true.
It’s promised that being a disciple of Jesus Christ leads to heaven.
That’s the promise of God through Jesus Christ.
I believe in that promise, and I want to share that promise with every person I meet.
So there is salvation within the church.
Outside the church, I honestly don’t know.
God is sovereign.
God can save who God wants to save.
And I don’t feel like arguing with God about it.”
A few deep breaths around the table.
Next question came up quickly.
Did Love win?
I don’t know.
But at the test of Fidelity with Uncertainty, it passed.
Note: Yes, the style of this post is based on Rob Bell’s annoying one-sentence or one-word paragraphs. You are welcome.
(Photo Credit: |spoon| on Flickr)