Maybe you haven’t noticed yet, but there is a storm of controversy and debate about Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins (buy it Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com or Kalahari.net). It’s about heaven, hell and the Gospel. I’ve read it and will write more about it in a few weeks when I have some spare time. It deserves a good response and review – I think he makes some superb points. But more of that later.
Bell’s book has garnered huge response from evangelicals who feel that Bell is subverting the Gospel. One of their common criticisms is that he is preaching an easy Gospel. Most go on to add that this is “obviously” because he wants to draw a crowd (they normally then reference his large and growing congregation) and become famous. Whatever else might be said about what Bell is doing, I think this criticism does not wash. The Gospel that many emerging church Christians are pursuing is not an “easy” Gospel, designed to make life less difficult. In fact, Bell’s view of Scripture makes Christian living even harder.
Basically he says (and this is a VERY simple summary): Everyone who gets in heaven gets there because God credits to them what Jesus accomplished on the Cross (no problems there, I think). Everyone will be given a fair chance by God to fully understand what Jesus did and accept the gift of salvation (some problems start there, but generally most are still fine with this). Our opportunities to understand and accept Jesus’ salvation plan do not end at death – those who did not accept Jesus while alive will have opportunity to do so when they meet Him (maybe you see the problem some people have). Meeting God and Jesus face to face will be so overwhelming that “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord” – and even if they don’t do instantly and immediately, God has all eternity to convince them to do so (conservative evangelicals who might have been OK probably have a problem here). Hell, therefore, is not a separate place of eternal torment, but rather it is the state of living in denial of God’s sovereignty and salvation – in other words, not living as God intended us to live. By the way, heaven is not a place in the clouds, it exists here on this earth when God ends time and comes down to “make the kingdoms of this earth the Kingdom of His Christ” (most thinking evangelicals should actually be fine with this point, if their heads haven’t exploded yet).
That’s where most summaries of the book end. But that’s not where Bell stops. He then explains that the goal of life on earth now is to “make it on earth as it is in heaven”. We have eternal life (“life of the ages” to be strict about the translation of the Johanine phrase) right now, and are to live in such a way that we show evidence of God’s work among us. “The Kingdom is at hand, it is among us” – you should be able to reach out and touch it. Hell starts now if we don’t do so. Our lives become hell when we live them in opposition to the Designer’s plan.
There are many criticisms that could be levelled at Bell, his book, his approach and his theology. Probably the most reasoned criticism has come from Kevin deYoung of the Gospel Coalition. Just do a Google search if you want the hysterical responses – of which there are many.
But it is wrong to say that this is an easy Gospel.
The new understanding of the Gospel message that is coming from those labelled as “the emerging church” is not orthodox. But it is not easy. It is not watered down. It is not a Gospel of convenience. Let’s stop accusing people like Brian McLaren, Steve Chalke, Tom Wright and Rob Bell of making the Christian message “easy”. They are, in fact, making it harder!
I have written about the main problem of the traditional evangelical version of the Gospel before (read here and here, for example). The Gospel that Bell’s critics are fighting to defend is a Gospel of Evacuation. All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. But God has chosen a few (they did nothing to merit this choice, it is purely God’s favour). One day He will come to rescue those few from the evil world and take them to be with Him forever. All they need to do is accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour, and then all will be well. Everyone who does not do this (and remember that all those who were not chosen are incapable of doing it) will be sent to eternal, conscious torment. The importance of hell in this telling is to scare people into believing and praying the sinner’s prayer. The task of the Christian while they wait for God to come and evacuate them is to keep themselves pure and spotless (and therefore as separate from the world as possible). This may be a caricature, but it’s not an unfair one, nor is it far from the truth.
The Gospel that emerging church Christians are seeing in the Bible is a Gospel of Transformation. God so loved the world that he sent His Son to save it and redeem it. God wants everyone to be saved. And by ‘saved’ we don’t mean ‘rescued from this evil world’, we mean ‘redeemed and transformed’ to live the lives God intended us to live – empowered now by His Spirit. By doing so, we bring salt and light to a broken world, and join God in the process of healing and redeeming it. This takes sacrifice, involvement and commitment. It is turning the other cheek, being meek and humble. It’s about sharing our wealth with the poor and standing up for the downtrodden. It’s about love. It’s about being conformed to God’s holy design. We live these lives not to earn favour from God, or because we fear being punished if we don’t. We live these types of lives because these are lives God designed and created us to live – not individually, but collectively as His people. They are lives that make us more godly – more holy – more fulfilled and more useful for eternal things.
This is not a new Gospel. It is a Gospel that has been hidden from us by centuries of incomplete understanding. (This is not the first time in church history that an obvious truth has had to be “discovered” – sometimes discovered again). Let’s look quickly at how this could happen.
There are two books that evangelicals go to when they need a summary of the Gospel: Romans and Galatians. Rightly so – these are great letters from Paul that outline his Gospel thinking. This past week at my church we started a new series in the book of Galatians. This is our senior pastor’s favourite Biblical book, precisely because it provides a wonderful summary of the message of the Gospel. I couldn’t agree with him more on that point. It is a wonderful book – as powerful as Romans, but shorter and easier to understand.
I read the whole book through a few times this week and marvelled again at the passion and insights of its author, Paul. But I also saw a different message than I have seen before. This book is not at all about what happens after we die. It is not at all about a Gospel that rescues us from our sins. That Gospel would be an easy Gospel – it requires one act, and preaches that only God can empower you to that act in the first place (the sinner’s prayer, prayed by faith). Sure, it says that you should “work” hard the rest of your life to prove that you were serious and that what happened at that “moment of salvation” actually happened (i.e. that you are really saved). But even if you don’t, you’ll still get into heaven, just because you’re part of the club.
It seems to me that this was precisely the type of message that Paul was preaching AGAINST in the book of Galatians. I fear that conservative evangelicals are deluding themselves, and that it is in fact them that have the easy Gospel.
Over the past few years, I have been on a journey that has taken me away from the restrictive and partial evangelical Gospel I grew up with. The Gospel I accepted for much of the first three decades of my life was mainly about what would happen when I died. I am a sinner and will be sent to hell when I die. There is nothing I can do about this. But Jesus came to earth to live the life I could not and swap his life for mine. If I accept his death for me, I will be saved, which means that when I die I will go to heaven.
But over the last decade or so, I have gradually come to understand that the Good News of Jesus is so much more than this. It has deep meaning and importance for what happens while we’re living on earth, and significantly more power and impact on what happens to us all after we die.
And it seems to me that this short letter to the Galatians makes this crystal clear. The heart of the message is in 2:16: “a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” verse 20 expands this: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Yet this is not Paul’s main point. Paul is just warming up to his point in chapter 2 – laying the foundation for what’s to come. What he really wants the Galatians to understand is that they live these lives – these Christ-in-us lives – by the power of the Holy Spirit. Read the opening verses of chapter 3. And then 3:14 “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, SO THAT by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” The rest of chapter seems fairly clear that “the faith” that we have is in fact the Holy Spirit. “The faith has come”. He is specific in 4:6 that it is only through the Spirit that we are able to have faith in God and call Him Father. The point of salvation is not “heaven after you die”, it is “the power of the Spirit while you’re alive”.
In Galatians 5 he gets to the application of his message. The “so what” is freedom. We have freedom in Christ. But what is this freedom? The evacuation Gospel is not a Gospel of freedom – not in the way Paul is referring to it here. It is clear that the freedom of which Paul speaks is a freedom now, in this life. The “freedom” of the traditional evangelical Gospel only comes after you are rescued from this evil world. But Paul is clear: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (5:6). The rest of chapter 5 is a wonderful summary of the Gospel of Transformation, and what life would look like if everyone lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, that seems to be the point for Paul – that we should be seeking the Holy Spirit’s enabling power in our lives. The Spirit has replaced the Law. And The Spirit of God will show us how to live as children of God. Now. Here. That’s his message.
“For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ … So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law…. the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
If this book of Galatians is a summary of the Gospel, and if the Gospel is about heaven, hell and evacuation, then where is that message in this book? In chapter 6, Paul turns even further to the things of here and now: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” (6:1). He even suggests that we fulfill all that Christ needs, not by what we believe or by saying the sinner’s prayer, but by demonstrating holy love for each other: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (6:2).
It couldn’t be clearer: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. People reap what they sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” As in all usages of “eternal life” in the New Testament, this is not about “life after death” but rather “life of the ages” (a better translation) – “a life that matters for eternity” if you will. The Bible is very clear that eternal life starts now. So Paul continues: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (6:9-10). The “proper time” is not after we die in heaven. That is never mentioned in the book. The “proper time” is clearly – in the context of all he says in the book – sometime while we’re living on earth. (For some people, the Bible makes clear elsewhere, that “proper time” may in fact be in the “life to come”, which will be on earth-restored to God’s original plan and design at the end of this age).
Right at the end of the book, Paul, writing with his own hand (instead of through a scribe), seems to give the traditional evangelical Gospel a boost when he says: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which[a] the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (6:14). This seems to indicate that the Gospel of evacuation is what he has in mind. “I am not of this world”. But is it? The very next verse goes on: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” These are all very physical (circumcision is VERY physical). They are here. Now.
Eternal life starts now, and the decisions we make now already begin the process of creating heaven and hell for us. We either become more like God intended us to be, or we move further away from Him and His plans.
It is not an “easy” Gospel. It is a Gospel of Transformation that begins now and works hard to “live up to what we have already attained” in Christ. It does not do good deeds because it fears hell if it doesn’t – it does good deeds because it is empowered by the Spirit (and has the Spirit’s fruit). It does not wait for evacuation, but dedicates itself to transformation and reconciliation with the world. It is not trying to make it easy for people to “come to Christ”, nor is it trying to “water down” the message of what God demands of His people. In fact, it is doing the opposite. It places more demands on us, makes it ‘harder’ to please God now, asks more from us and gives us a bigger vision of God, what He accomplished through Christ and His plans for us and eternity.
You might not like this new vision of the timeless Good News. You might have theological issues with it. (I’ll come back to those sometime soon.) You might be concerned about it’s implications. Fine.
But please, don’t call it ‘easy’!