Some Jesuses Should be Rejected (Reflections on Love Wins)

Yeah I read it. Finished it about a week ago, but needed some time to chew (not that anyone has been expecting a real blog post, since its been a couple years). Quite a lot of people (many of whom I respect) have been fairly critical and/or dismissive of it. I’ve “overheard” conversations (mostly online) that range from “Did you hear that Rob Bell isn’t a Christian anymore?” to “I’ve known he had fallen into heresy a long time ago.”

It probably didn’t help that Bell seemed evasive when people have tried to “nail him down” on this or that propositional biblical truth during his media blitz. I get it, Rob. Your answer to the “Do you believe in Hell?” question is that you see hell all over the place. And your answer to charges of departure from orthodoxy is that “orthodoxy is a wide diverse stream” with room for differences on things like, say, eternal destinations. Pretty sure today’s “keepers of orthodoxy” aren’t buying that one. Even I cringed in frustration at moments. The FAQ’s on his church’s website were much more direct. 

I’ve personally spent more time in the twitter-blogosphere reading what everyone else thinks about Love Wins than I actually spent reading the book. The conversation has been interesting. But my time actually reading the book was much better spent. I’d much rather read Bell going a bit overboard in the “love of God” department than a lot of the reactionary orthodoxy out there.

So, here goes. My initial reaction: This is the best work that Rob Bell has put out. Brilliant. Love Wins presents the “good news” in a way that could be heard as “good news” by people I care about.  Not because he “compromises truth so as to make Jesus palatable to people on the fringe” (a common thread I hear). More like he paints a picture of God that is beautiful. Attractive. He introduces the reader to a Jesus worth following. With a vision for living that embraces the fullness of God’s purpose and that pushes back against the hellish realities of our world.

That said: Rob Bell would probably make a pretty bad systematic theologian (and I do like systematic theology; call me a nerd). Which makes me glad that he really doesn’t try to be one.  He’s really good at painting word pictures. And telling stories.  Love Wins is filled with both. But in the theology department, Bell majors in deconstructing, not systematizing.

Some of the theology he deconstructs is bad, and needs to be seen for what it is. As he puts poignantly in Love Wins, “Some Jesuses should be rejected.” (p. 9) Not just heretical pictures of Jesus. Also the “Jesuses” of authoritarian religion or abuse or church-sanctioned war and persecution. Mean Jesuses and casual “Jesus-is-my-homeboy” Jesuses. 

On the flip side, some of the theology Bell deconstructs is more or less good, but could use some analyzing, second guessing or re-articulating. This isn’t all bad.  Sometimes even “orthodox” theology paints a pretty poor picture of God. Take the suggestion that “Jesus saves us from God,” which Bell reacts against in the “trailer” for the book. Not an uncommon sentiment, given how the Gospel is often preached. You know, the “bad news, good news” approach, which goes something like this: “You are a sinner and God is holy, therefore respond to Jesus’ sacrifice with faith or else: hell for eternity.”

Wait. Isn’t that the simple Gospel? Isn’t that what substitutionary atonement is all about?  To which Bell might say something like, “Well, sort of. Problem is, when you have to always say it this way, you are telling a pretty poor story about God. Let me tell you a better one.”

Traditional articulations sometimes come off as being about a “God the Father” (the hard-liner) who was really peeved off at our rebellion and sin until Jesus (the “love” part of God) came to save the day. When this happens, not only are we looking at a “poor story,” we’re faced with an inconsistent (and unbiblical) type of God-talk.

Which brings me to (what I perceive to be) the center of any truly Christian theology. And why, with this as my focus, I’m not particularly bothered by Love Wins.  Jesus said “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). Want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Jesus. The center. Our entire understanding of God, framed around what we know of Jesus and his mission. Biblical texts interpreted through Jesus-colored glasses. Life. Human history. Centered on Jesus.

So, any picture of God which tells a story that is incompatible with the love of God poured out through Jesus can use to be reevaluated. No need to get prickly because this reevaluation steps on my toes or doesn’t jive with the story as I’ve heard or told it.

I’m not going to get into where I agree or disagree with Bell point by point (maybe later).  Or the dicey question of whether Bell is a “universalist” (Greg Boyd did a solid job on that question on his blog).  I do share some of the more moderate concerns out there (most recently, this one). Could Rob’s picture of Jesus (and heaven, hell, etc) use evaluating? Certainly. But is he preaching one of those “Jesuses” that should be rejected? I don’t think so. 

I think it more likely that people will encounter the real Jesus —  the Biblical Jesus, the risen Jesus, the welcoming Jesus, the turns-your-world-on-its-head-Jesus — though this book, than will be led in to deception by any of its shortcomings.  

That’s all I got for now. Rob Bell can still be in my club.