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.