Deciding to blog on ‘Love Wins’ was easy. Deciding what to say about it was a lot harder. My process for blogging is this. I generally choose a book I’ve already read. I then read it again quite carefully and place little coloured stickies at the points I think are interesting and quotable. At this stage I usually have about 8 or 9 bits of coloured paper sticking out the side of the book. But, as you can see, I kept on marking the book and in the end sort of gave up. Every page seemed to have something important and interesting to say.
Having said that, I need to mention what is not in the book. It caused a bit of a stir. Rob Bell was accused of being a heretic and a false teacher. In the end he had to leave the church he had founded and move to California. He was also accused of being ‘politically liberal’ and a ‘universalist’. This side of the Atlantic being politically liberal could be seen as a compliment (certainly in our family) but being a ‘universalist’ will need to be explained.
In my post on ‘A New Kind of Christianity’ I looked at the orthodox Christian view of where people end up after they die. To recap: If you believe in Jesus then you will be saved by him and go to Heaven. Otherwise you go to Hell. It is not altogether clear what Hell is but it is very unpleasant and goes on forever. Rob Bell tackles this head on with the example of a 15 year old boy who died an atheist. In the orthodox Christian message he goes to Hell. That’s it. Some people believe there is an ‘age of accountability’ that is around the time a child is twelve years old. Bell says:
This belief raises a number of issues, one of them being the risk each new life faces. If every baby being born could grow up to not believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child’s life would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child ends up in Heaven, and not in hell, forever. Why run the risk?
And that risk raises another question about this high-school student’s death. What happens when a fifteen-year-old atheist dies? Was there a three-year window when he could have made a decision to change his eternal destiny? Did he miss his chance? What if he had lived to sixteen, and it was in that sixteenth year that he came to believe what he was supposed to believe? Was God limited to that three-year window, and if the message didn’t get to the young man in that time, well that’s just unfortunate?
When I read this book again, I can see why it made people angry. It starts with a blistering list of questions, tearing apart the traditional idea of who will get to heaven and who won’t. If that was at the base of my faith, I would be angry too.
But one of the main reasons for our understanding of Hell may simply be a misunderstanding of the original Greek text. Right at the end Matthew Chapter 25: 42-46 Jesus says this:
For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.
They will also answer, ‘Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (New International Version)
Now how I, and I would guess you too, read the phrase ‘eternal punishment’ is some terrible painful punishment going on and on forever without even death to end it, because you are already dead. OK. Except it seems that is not what Matthew meant at all. Bell says:
…the story Jesus tells in Matthew 25 about sheep and goats being judged and separated. The sheep are sent to one place, while the goats go to another place because of their failure to see Jesus in the hungry and thirsty and naked.
The goats are sent, in the Greek language, to an aion of kolazo. Aion, we know, has several meanings. One is “age” or “period of time”; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish.
An aion of kolazo. Depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then, the phrase can mean “a period of pruning” or a “time of trimming”, or an intense experience of correction.
Which makes perfect sense. Because people who are unkind, selfish or even cruel will never be able to flourish in the Kingdom of God. They will first need to change. It also makes sense because this is what God is like. Not a soft pushover, but always giving people a second chance. Another thing strikes me about this story: The ‘sheep’ who ‘receive their inheritance’ are not defined as ‘those who believe in Jesus’ but those who are kind and generous. It is clear from the story that they may not even realise they are doing these things for Jesus at all.
At the start of this post I promised I would explain what Universalism is. It is this: that everyone, of every faith; however sinful they are, can eventually be reconciled to God. I honestly think that it will always be harder for those who don’t accept the grace and forgiveness that Jesus offers, but the gate is open. There will always be second chances.
But what Jesus did was a whole lot more than that. Bell says:
Jesus, for these first Christians, was the ultimate exposing of what God has been up to all along.
To all things.
God is putting the world back together,
and God is doing this through
Jesus. … He holds the entire universe in his embrace.
He is within and without time.
He is the flesh-and-blood exposure of an eternal reality.
He is the sacred power present in every dimension of creation.
Which is mind blowing but also a bit hard to grasp. So, I created a couple of pictures using my Three Worlds framework to try and explain this.
The leaves in this picture represent the physical world we live in. The people walking represent us and also the social world of friends, family and even enemies. The stained glass window represents God and His Kingdom. Before Jesus came this was the picture. There were ways of reaching God: through sacrifices, priests and a few prophets. But you had to be the right person at the right time in the right place. God was in charge, but, for most people, most of the time he was a long way off.
We start our year counting at Jesus’ birth, but this is wrong. The first day is the Sunday when the two Marys find the empty tomb. From then on nothing is the same. God’s world and our world are knitted together. Everyone who believes in Jesus can live in both at the same time, can be a child of the world and a child of God. On that first morning everything had changed.