The Taser's Edge


Love Wins (HarperOne, 2011) by Rob Bell – Part II of III

As I wrote in Part I, Love Wins does not say anything more controversial about heaven and hell than beloved-by-evangelicals C.S. Lewis, particularly in Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which is unsurprisingly listed as further reading in the back of Bell’s book. (Yet another book with a similar view of God’s love might be Isaiah.)

Still I do have some issues with Bell in Love Wins.

I don’t think that he understands metaphors. Sorry that that sounds like the lamest, most nitpicky thing you’ve ever heard, but it’s true, and it matters, because his talk of metaphors is his talk of the atonement. In the quote that follows, I’ve preserved Bell’s formatting and my added ellipses are only found in brackets, because he uses so many of his own (from pp. 128-129):

 What happened on the cross is like…

a defendant going free,
a relationship being reconciled,
a battle being won,
a final sacrifice being offered,
so that no one ever has to offer another one again,
an enemy being loved.

[…]What the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand.

“It’s like this…”
“It’s like that…”

The point, then, isn’t to narrow it to one particular image, explanation or mechanism. To elevate one over the others, to insist that there’s a “correct” or “right” one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors. They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners could grasp.

The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine in flesh and blood. He’s where the life is.

Bell is exactly right for a long time in that quote. Scripture does talk about what the cross is and does in a lot of different metaphorical ways, and the Scriptural authors indeed did this in order to try to communicate an “epic event” in terms their readers could understand. “The point,” yes, “is Jesus.”

What’s interesting is that by the end of the second-to-last paragraph quoted above, Bell is actually talking about himself and the Biblical authors: “They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners could grasp.” That is exactly what Bell’s life project seems to be, in and long before Love Wins, and it’s a beautiful thing in that it comes from his imagining along with Biblical authors, which is exactly what pastors and Christians in general are supposed to do.

BUT…Bell also strongly limits the impact of what Scripture has to say by the addition of that little word at the beginning of that big quotation above: ‘like.’ There’s a reason that Jesus says, “This is my body,” when he holds the bread at the Last Supper, but then some Protestant pastors who genuinely love the Scriptures and Jesus misquote him in their Communion celebration – “This is like my body.”

The reason is this: metaphor is so powerful because the metaphor is the reality. The Eucharist will turn your eyebrows to ashes if you really realize what it’s about, and the bread’s not just ‘like’ His body.

Likewise, in Love Wins, Bell, because he doesn’t understand the power of metaphor to talk about (and even bring about) reality better than any other language, doesn’t realize that

What happened on the cross IS

a defendant going free,
a relationship being reconciled,
a battle being won,
a final sacrifice being offered,
so that no one ever has to offer another one again,
an enemy being loved.

The problem here is not that Rob Bell is not evangelical enough (as some have claimed). The problem is that he is too evangelical. His explanation of image and metaphor falls short because his sacramental theology is malnourished (which will be post three, if that’s gibberish to you). He gives this away by his last words in the quote above.

(To head off one reading of what follows I’ll say this: I’m not questioning whether Bell’s Incarnation Christology is orthodox, because I have no reason to believe it isn’t. Rather, I’m saying that his language evidences that he is not able to advance further in to the mystery of the Incarnation because his sacramental theology is puny.)

Bell writes,

The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine in flesh and blood. He’s where the life is.

But Bell is wrong. Rather, The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine IS flesh and blood. He’s where the life is.

 

Part III begins now.



Atonement vs. Reconciliation

 

In these particular American pop Christian, neo-Calvinistic times, a whole lot of emphasis is put on which theory of atonement you believe in.  Which is ridiculous, not because the atonement is ridiculous, but because there is no single ‘orthodox’ theory of atonement found in the history of the church. 

And yet, there are guidelines, and certain theories of atonement are heresy.  For instance, these lyrics Pat Sczebel’s 2003 “Jesus, Thank You” (which our church sang this morning): 

The mystery of the cross I cannot comprehend
The agonies of Calvary
You the perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son
Who drank the bitter cup reserved for me

Your blood has washed away my sin
Jesus, thank You
The Father’s wrath completely satisfied
Jesus, thank You
Once Your enemy, now seated at Your table
Jesus, thank You

By Your perfect sacrifice I’ve been brought near
Your enemy You’ve made Your friend
Pouring out the riches of Your glorious grace
Your mercy and Your kindness know no end

Lover of my soul
I want to live for You

“You, the perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son” at the end of this first verse, and then “The Father’s wrath completely satisfied” in the chorus.  I can only assume Sczebel was trying to channel St. Anselm, whose theory of atonement likened God to a feudal Lord whom we have dishonored by sinning against and who demands satisfaction.  The metaphor was an unfortunate one, as it didn’t really account for the many differences (an understatement) between medieval feudalism and the household of God. 

But Sczebel’s lyric is far more than unfortunate.  It portrays a raging, bloodthirsty God whose lust for human blood can only be sated by the blood of his own son-made-flesh, Jesus.  And just killing Jesus isn’t enough; God has to really get his wrath worked out.  If the cross is God’s killing of Jesus as Sczebel’s song portrays, then surely the torture Jesus suffers before the cross is also God’s torture.

This totally misses the grammar of ‘satisfaction’, which in the phrase, ‘satisfaction theory of atonement’ does not refer to the sating of God’s appetite for blood (leaving God ready to take a nice nap after the meal of his one and only son, who took on flesh just so that he would taste better). 

Sczebel hasn’t channeled Anselm; he’s channeled Molech, the god worshipped in the Ancient Near East through child sacrifice.  I can’t decide which is worse, to turn the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob into Molech, or to waste a really terrific melody doing it. 

Sounds much better than "God Finally Satisfied After Devouring His Own Son; Christian Worshippers Overjoyed and Sing About It"

 

Any theory of atonement is going to have real problems when it fails to recognize that ‘Atonement’ is a synonym for ‘Reconciliation,’ and that reconciliation means restoring relationship and bringing unity to damaged (or destroyed) relationship.Any theory of atonement which throws away the whole purpose of reconciliation/atonement–drawing us into union (or “at-one-ment”, which is atonement’s literal meaning not just a catchy mnemonic device) with God–in favor of abstract and/or culture-bound ideas of justice accomplished by God’s violent revenge against us, is not the atonement for which the Word became flesh, lived, died, and rose among us and for us. 

Finally, even if we remain committed to the idea of satisfaction, as I think we should (because, yes, we have badly breached our relationship with God, and something huge and beyond human power needs to be done to make things right), it can’t be the same satisfaction which gentlemen want when their feelings are hurt.  And it can’t be resolved in the same way as those pouty and honor-bound folks resolve their disputes, no matter how catchy the tune: