Is he or isn’t he? Yet another review of Love Wins (part 2)

[Note: for part 1 of this series, click here.]

Ever had a conversation with a 3-year-old whose curiosity switch is stuck in the ON position?

Where does water come from? The rain.

Where does the rain come from? The clouds.

Where do clouds come from? Water vapor.

Where does water vapor come from? Uh…

In some ways, that’s how it feels reading the opening chapter of Love Wins. Except instead of an irrepressibly curious 3-year-old, we’re reading the musings of a 40-something preacher.

Which is just as well, because I wouldn’t know what to do with a 3-year-old asking questions like, “Is someone else’s eternity in your hands?” (I’m pretty sure Kids Say the Darnedest Things is off the air. Besides, Jell-O pudding pops can’t be the answer to everything in life.)

Don’t worry…it’ll come to you.

Now roll your eyes and move on.

So what we get at the start of Love Wins is a barrage of questions about salvation and what it takes for someone to secure their place in paradise. Unlike the precocious 3-year-old, though, Rob Bell isn’t asking questions out of sheer curiosity. He’s leading you somewhere. There’s a point to it all.

Rob’s critics might say he’s stacking the deck.

Maybe he is. But it’s his book. Besides, asking questions is part of our spiritual heritage. Abraham asked questions. Moses asked questions. Job asked questions — including some that might’ve been labeled blasphemous if he asked them today.

Jesus asked questions — lots of them. In the stellar and vastly under-read book Jesus Asked, Conrad Gempf counts 50 questions in Mark alone. Difficult, probing questions, too. In fact, Jesus often answered other people’s questions with some of his own. (It’s kind of surprising he got invited to so many dinner parties.)

The opening volley of questions in Love Wins has a purpose: to sensitize us to the idea that salvation, as described in the New Testament, is a lot more complex and multifaceted than we’ve been told.

To those who say, “You just have to ask Jesus into your heart,” or “You become a Christian by praying the sinner’s prayer” (both of which are fairly recent efforts to synthesize all the Bible has to say on salvation), Rob offers one “What about this?” after another.

To those who say, “Let’s just go back to the Bible and find the right formula,” Rob asks, “Which one?”

These are valid questions. If you’re looking for one consistent, concise explanation of salvation from the Gospels, you will be sorely disappointed. For example…

  • We find some who receive salvation in answer to prayer — the penitent sinner who pleads, “God have mercy on me,” or the thief who begs to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom.
  • Elsewhere, Jesus links salvation to our willingness to forgive others (Matthew 6); our faithfulness in doing God’s will (Matthew 7); our perseverance in the face of hardship (Matthew 10); our commitment to serve hungry, sick, and imprisoned believers (Matthew 25)…

And the list goes on.

There’s even one story, Rob points out, where Jesus appears to forgive a paralyzed man on the basis of his friends’ faith (Mark 2, Luke 5).

Now, we can try to make these passages conform to our preconceived notions of how salvation works…or we can let the Bible speak for itself, without trying to rid every trace of complexity or mystery from its pages.

On the other hand…that doesn’t mean there aren’t some common threads running through the biblical narrative.

For example, notice how many times repentance figures into the Bible’s picture of salvation. More than a dozen times in Luke’s gospel alone, according to a simple word count.

So, one (mostly) common thread is this idea of turning away from one set of values and behaviors in order to embrace a new reality.

Hence the ancient ritual of baptism as practiced by the early church, where those about to be baptized turned to the West (which symbolized the realm of darkness) and renounced Satan before turning around to be initiated into the community of faith.

Rob doesn’t unpack the concept of repentance in this chapter — and I wish he had, because it plays a big part in the New Testament’s picture of salvation, whatever other dimensions there may be.

So that’s my take on chapter 1. The point to all the questions seems to be this: We cannot paint a monochrome picture of salvation. In fact, we may need more than one painting to capture the many biblical dimensions to salvation.

While repentance was (unfortunately) absent from the conversation in this chapter, I don’t think that means it’s unimportant to Rob. (It’s not like he’s never, ever talked about it anywhere else.)

Nor does it take away from the idea that salvation is big, multifaceted, mysterious. Just when you think you’ve figured it out, Jesus throws a curveball or adds another dimension — sometimes tailor-made for a specific person or situation. (See the story of the rich young man in Matthew 19, which Rob unpacks in his next chapter of Love Wins.)

All of which means… this complicated, sometimes unpredictable thing we call salvation may have ramifications for those we might otherwise be tempted to exclude. Just a thought.

Next up, chapter 2: “Here is the new there.”

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