Thursday, May 26, 2011

What the Hell! Love Wins?

Ok, I bought the book to read for myself what the commotion is all about. Glad I did.

My main criticism is that someone inflated a 40 or 50 page manuscript into a 200 page, triple spaced, 3/4 sized hard cover book with enough blank space for a second bonus book tucked inside.

Its not a book of poems. No need to take Rob Bell's words and sprinkle them so sparingly on each page. It almost appears as if the book is laid out to be read aloud, perhaps for a podcast series.

But back to the content. I suppose his notion that Heaven and Hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven and bumping up against each other, is enough to gall any evangelical fundamentalist. (Remember its not what you believe but how you believe what you believe that makes one a fundamentalist.)

He goes on to define Hell as "our refusal to trust God's retelling of our story." The backdrop for this interpretation is Luke 15 and the story Jesus told of two wayward sons and a loving father.

The youngest son believes he is cut off, estranged, no longer deserving to be his father's son because of all the horrible things he has done. His sees his badness as the problem.

The older brother believes that he deserves to be a favored son because of all the good he's done. He obeyed all the rules and 'slaved' for his father all his life.

Yes the younger brothers wrongs have led him into misery and separation, but the older brothers rigid goodness has also served to distance him from his father. Bell's point is that our badness can and does separate us from God's love and so can our goodness.

The father throws a celebratory feast for the youngest son welcoming him back into the family with a robe, ring and sandals. The older son refuses to join in the lavish reunion party. He becomes bitter, thinks he has been wronged and is furious with both his father and younger brother.

The father responds with a different story, "My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours." He redefines fairness. Grace and generosity aren't fair and the father sees the younger brothers return as another occasion to practice unfairness.

Obviously he doesn't deserve a party. That's the point. That's the profound unfairness of the father. People are given what they don't deserve. The father retells the older brothers story just as he did with the younger brother. After all, "You are always with me, and everything I have is yours."

Whose story will the sons believe? Their own or their fathers. As Bell points out, the difference between the stories is, after all, the difference between heaven....and hell.

Jesus puts the older brother at the party, but refusing to accept the father's version. Being at the party is hell for him and that's what makes it so hellish. It's not a picture of separation, but one of dis-integration.

Hell is our refusal to trust God's retelling of our story. We all have our own version of events and believe all sorts of things about ourselves.

The gospel confronts our story with God's version of our story. Beginning with the certain truth that we are loved in spite of our sins, rebellions and hard hearts. No matter what's been done to us, we are invited to live a whole new life without shame, blame or anxiety.

Hell is refusing to trust, often stemming from a distorted view of God. "We shape our God and then our God shapes us. A distorted understanding of God, clung to with white knuckles and fierce determination, leaves people in hell at the party."

"The father's love cannot be earned and it can't be taken away. It just is." It goes on no matter what, and all our darkness, sin and goodness and rightness are irrelevant when it comes to the counterintuitive ecstatic announcement of the gospel.

There is nothing left for the son's to do but trust the father's love. God's love simply is. "Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." Jesus forgives everyone without their asking for it. It is a unilateral love and God isn't waiting for us to get our act together.

"The only thing left to do is trust." We are already at the party. Heaven and hell, here and now. Our story? Maybe its time to listen to a new story, because the good news is better than that.

Love wins!