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Farewell Rob Bell (or, John Piper's Inferno)

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"Farewell Rob Bell."

With this three word Tweet, John Piper -- senior pastor at Bethlehem Baptist church in Minneapolis, Minn., and elder statesman of the neo-reform stream of American Christianity -- triggered an online firestorm over the weekend. Within 24 hours "Rob Bell" became a trending topic on Twitter, fueled by a steady point/counterpoint barrage of new Tweets and blog posts that amounted to a whole lot of heat, but not much fire.

The fact that this controversy became the most dissected piece of news in the evangelical world at the same time the regime of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi was escalating violent attacks on its own people this weekend offers a sobering commentary on the priorities (and irrelevance) of too-many evangelical leaders.

But I digress; that's another blog post entirely.

The controversy is over the content of Rob Bell's next book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Or more specifically, the controversy is over what people like John Piper think the content will address, since the book hasn't even been published yet.

Before diving any further into this controversy, I would suggest you first watch Rob Bell's video (below), where he frames the questions raised by Love Wins in his own terms. It's well worth three minutes of your time:

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

At stake are huge theological questions about what Rob Bell -- an influential evangelical megachurch pastor in Grand Rapids, Mich., with a huge national following -- believes about the afterlife. Does he believe God condemns people to hell? What does Bell think about heaven? More importantly, who's in, who's out, and where does the line fall between the two? For example: Is Gandhi in heaven (even though he wasn't a Christian)?

We won't know for sure how Rob Bell answers these questions until the book comes out. Nevertheless, this controversy offers an important opportunity for Christians to reflect on a few principles that should inform this debate as it moves forward:

1. Christians should hope that all people can be (and will be) saved.
Hell: Population 0

Those who believe God modeled the ultimate example of true love in the person of Jesus -- and who, therefore, aspire to love their fellow humans as they love themselves -- should also believe that, in the end, God's love will win the day. So is it really that radical to suggest that this belief should accompany the earnest hope that it is actually within the scope of God's sovereign power and unrelenting grace to reconcile all things to himself?

For biblical passages alluding to this idea, read: Colossians 1:19-20; 1 Corinthians 15:22,28; Romans 5:18, 11:33-36; and Philippians 2:10-11. This is just a limited digest.

I haven't read Bell's book, but I suspect that this is one of the ideas he explores. This would put him in good company. Far from being unorthodox, this idea has captured the imaginations of theologians since the early days of Christianity. In 2001, Richard John Neuhaus -- founder of First Things, a religion and policy journal, and (though a Lutheran convert to Catholicism) featured on Time Magazine's list of The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America -- reflected on this idea and its long Christian history in an articled titled, "Will All Be Saved?"

The question of universalism--whether all will, in the end, be saved--is perennially agitated in the Christian tradition. A notable proponent of that view was the great Origen, who, in the third century, set forth a theologically and philosophically complex doctrine of "Apocatastasis" according to which all creatures, including the devil, will be saved. "Origenism"--which is not necessarily the same thing as Origen taught--has been condemned from time to time, with the Emperor Justinian trying, unsuccessfully, to get a total condemnation at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553

After touching on the history, Neuhaus unpacks the idea further:

The hope that all will be saved is precisely that, a hope. It is not a doctrine, never mind a dogma. But some respond that we cannot even hold the hope, since it clearly contradicts the revealed truth that many, if not most, will be eternally damned. A different and much more troubling objection is that it makes no sense to be a Christian if, in fact, one can be saved without being a Christian. In this view, the damnation of others, maybe of most others, is essentially related to the reason for being a Christian. The joy of our salvation is contingent upon the misery of their damnation. If it is possible that all will be saved, it is asked, why not eat, drink, and be merry?

Neuhaus concludes:

...Such a perverse view is also more than a little like that of the laborers in the vineyard who complained that those who came at the last hour received the same reward as those who had worked all day. The master replies, "Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? So the last will be first, and the first last" (Matthew 20). Some of the critics of the hope for universal salvation do indeed seem to begrudge the generosity of God entailed in that outcome. Theirs is a position of resentment dressed up as a claim of justice. "What was the point of my working so hard and so long if God is going to let in the riffraff on equal terms? It's unfair!" The eschatological upsetting of such attitudes (the last will be first and first last) is a constant in the teaching of Jesus.

In other words, regardless of what Christians think about Hell, and more specifically, the question of who's in and who's out, Christians should not only hope and pray that no one meets this fate, but believe that God has the final say in these matters -- even if this means confounding our best theological assumptions.

2. Jesus draws dividing lines, but his lines are different than our own.

Christians throughout history have disagreed about who's a real follower of God and who's not -- who's in and who's out -- and who will enter paradise at the culmination of history. These debates have not always been civil; they've even led to violence between Christians, and also between Christianity and other religions.

When these conflicts break out, they are almost always over questions of "right doctrine" rather than because a particular group did too good of a job of acting like Jesus. Don't get me wrong. I believe good theology -- what we believe about God, people and the world -- matters; for this reason, I take the gospel accounts about Jesus seriously.

And anyone reading the gospels will see that Jesus not only responds to the "lines" drawn by the religious leaders of his day; he draws lines of his own. But Jesus' lines are almost always different than the lines drawn by the religious leaders, and even more startlingly, his lines are different than the lines Christians draw today.

Compare and contrast the stories of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31-46), Jesus' words to the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-23), and finally, his famous late night conversation with Nicodemus the Pharisee (John 3:1-21). Each of these passages are about dividing lines, but that's where their commonalities end; in each passage Jesus seems to be redrawing the boundaries.

What's most remarkable about these four passages is that Jesus changes his message depending on what each group of listeners needs to hear to bring them to a place of repentance and transformation. To use the crass language of today's marketing world, Jesus offers a "customized value proposition" -- a message that's tailored differently for each unique market segment.

My point here isn't to say that rich people will be in hell, and that poor people will be in heaven. My point is that it doesn't make any more sense to take a passage like John 3:16 (you must be born again) and universalize it as the basis for drawing lines separating who's in and who's out than it does to do this with a passage like Matthew 25.

But isn't this what many Christians, including John Piper, do today? We pick our favorite biblical passage, where Jesus' vision for "who's in" includes people like us, and excludes people who aren't, meanwhile, we ignore other passages that redraw the boundaries that would force us to change in order to be included in Jesus' "in-group."

We should at least consider the idea that Jesus' purpose for drawing lines was not for the sake of making his prospective followers feel more comfortable about their place in his kingdom, but to challenge them, shake them out of their complacency, and call them to repentance for the things in their lives keeping them from participating in God's best hopes and dreams for this world. This message still resonates 2,000 years later.

3. Millennials are leaving Christianity because Christians fight stupid battles.

I almost Tweeted, "Looks like @JohnPiper has doubled down on being a belligerent jerk since his sabbatical." Except I would have used a different word than "jerk" (I'll leave that word to your imagination).

To be clear, I don't think John Piper is a jerk because of his theology.

I think he's a jerk because of who he picks fights with and how he picks them. Rob Bell now stands alongside a growing pantheon of brothers in Christ -- Greg Boyd, Brian McLaren and N.T. Wright among them -- who Piper has thrown under the bus (and even called "heretics") simply because their theology doesn't neatly jibe with his own.

For a generation harboring increasingly negative perceptions about (and distancing itself from) Christianity, there's no question that controversies like these have played a big role in making these trends worse. When asked to describe present-day Christianity, the second most reported description of young people (ages 16 to 29) was that it is "too-judgmental," with 87 percent of young non-churchgoers and 52 percent of churchgoers holding this view.

(Here's a great example of this Millennial Generation sentiment, expressed as a prayer: "Young Evangelical's Prayer for John Piper and Rob Bell" via Recovering Evangelical.)

I have no doubt that people like John Piper earnestly believe they are doing their own cause a favor -- imagining that God's Kingdom is well served by the mere act of standing up for truth, no matter the means, method or tone. But even if John Piper is right about everything, shouldn't he be all the more careful about how he broadcasts the truth?

I'm not saying there's no place for robust conversation within the body of Christ about important theological matters. However, we also need to realize that people in the real world who are struggling to negotiate their relationship with God in light of the brokenness of the world (and too-often, the brokenness within Christianity) are put-off by these debates. That's not necessarily a reason not to debate, but we can't ignore basic virtues like love, charity and empathy in the process -- at least not while following the biblical call to be salt-and-light and Ministers of Reconciliation.

Which is why I finally chose not to send the Tweet. My first instinct was to be angry with John Piper and fight back with a self-indulgent broadcast. It might have felt good in the moment, but it would have done nothing to break the rhetorical cycle of violence that has engulfed Piper, Bell and their respective tribes over the weekend. It would have only made things worse.

In fact, if I could take John Piper out for a cup of coffee, I would confess my anger, ask for his forgiveness and then earnestly seek to better understand how he thinks about this particular issue. My prayer is that in the weeks ahead, John Piper extends the same charity toward our brother Rob Bell, even if none of us ever hear about it.

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