FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS….. ‘LOVE WINS: CHAPTER SEVEN

[Note: This continues the chapter-by-chapter review of Rob Bell's Love Wins.  To catch up on the series so far, read Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five, and Part Six]

I like Rob Bell’s pastoral spirit.  And I love the story he tells at the beginning of the Seventh Chapter of this book.  Rob knows how to deal with abused persons and broken persons in compassionate ways, in the spirit of  Christ’s own dealings with such persons.

There’s no doubt that Rob is a creative interpreter of Scripture, and nowhere is that more evident than in Rob’s dealing with the famous parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 (pp. 164-70).  Rob thinks this story tells us something about heaven and hell, and God’s or Jesus’ approach to those places.  I must admit that on first blush, this sort of approach to the parable comes out of left field.  Surely, this dog won’t hunt, as we say in the South.  This line of interpretation, while creative, won’t fly.   Surely this parable is about Jesus’ ministry with ne’er do wells like the prodigal son and the negative reaction to that ministry by the faithful pious Jew who is steamed that Jesus is accepting prodigals as followers.    Surely this parable is about the all too human chess match going on and critique going on about Jesus’  ministry—an in-house discussion by early Jews who find Jesus’ ministry shocking, especially in its claim that the least, last, and lost have just as much claim to their Jewish inheritance as the faithful pious ones, or at least, have just as much a chance of being received and changed by a gracious God as anyone does  (indeed their might be a hint of a critique that the piety of the older brother could actually get in the way of his making it to the messianic banquet).

But let’s go with the Bell flow for a moment and see where this argument leads.   One of the better insights in Rob’s interpretation of this parable has to do with the self-talk and story-telling of each brother, and the way the Father reconfigures their self-talk in a more gracious way.  Rob points out that we have a choice about whether we believe the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, or the story the Father tells us about ourselves— a much more gracious version of our story.   This insight, how God reconfigures our self-image, self-talk, our very story and the way we view it,  is worth the price of going with the Bell flow in this line of approach to the parable.   Rob wants to say that Hell in the present tense is refusing to believe God’s version of our story, and instead believing our own or the world’s version of our story.   I think there is some real truth in this.

The question then Rob wants to ponder in this chapter is does God suddenly become a different person the moment you die.  That is,  if God is like the Father in this parable loving unconditionally both the prodigal and the faithful,  why would death itself make God change his approach to, say the prodigal, if he had not yet returned to the Father, and died before he did so?     It is any interesting question, and we will say more about it in a moment, but perhaps you will notice that Rob is not sticking to the story when he asks this question after interpreting Luke 15, because this story is about a prodigal who does repent and return to the Father and is received graciously by the Father. It is not a story about the man who never repented or believed, and died before he could change his mind.

Let me be clear that I think in one sense Rob is right—- God is not quixotic.  He is not gracious and loving one moment,  and cruel the moment after you die.  I think that is true— indeed I believe wholeheartedly in what Hebrews says— that Jesus himself is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  The character of God does not change.   The problem here with Rob’s equation is that the character of God is that he is always both holy and loving, always both just and gracious, always both fair and merciful.  The problem is— Rob is forcing us to choose between the moral attributes of God, and suggesting that one of them,  God’s love, erases or trumps the other ones.   And this frankly is not the Biblical view of God.

The great mystery of God, which makes God’s grace and love all the more astounding, is that God doesn’t take a pass on his holiness or justice for a while in order to be loving and kind.   And nowhere is that clearer than on the cross— God loves the sinner but hates the sin that separates us from God, and rightly so.  And the reason he is so hard on sin is precisely because he has such a deep desire to have an everlasting loving relationship with us, and is inalterably opposed to anything that gets in the way of that.

Take for an analogy the doctor dedicated to saving lives at all costs.   That doctor has a passionate dislike for cancer, indeed he is doing everything he possibly can to eradicate it.   But there is a problem.   Believe it or not, some people would rather keep their cancer and die an early death,  than have to go through the painful arduous changes required of them in order to become a new person who is cancer free.   You may be thinking, I’ve never met a person like that.   Well, let me tell you, I have as a pastor, and it is heart-breaking.  The point of this analogy is some people, no matter what prefer, the cancer of their sin,  to a relationship with their God.  They really do.   And so God allows them the consequences of their choices.  This is not because God is wooing them in this life, but mean and cruel thereafter.   It is not God who is mean and cruel—- it is this very person who is destroying himself.

And precisely because God is all about ‘freely given and freely received’ which is the very nature of love,  God let’s them go.   With great sorrow, he allows them to have the consequences of their choices— and the devastating part is those consequences are permanent.   This life matters ultimately— it really does have everlasting consequences for all of us.    This is what the vast majority of Christendom has always believed about the Grand Story, and rightly so.   It is a morality play as much as it is a love story, frankly, because we have a deeply ethical God who structured reality in a moral manner.   Indeed, I would say that  real love, love that is holy, and redemptive, and sanctifying and life changing in a positive way, could not exist if God were not both holy and loving, and had not set up reality in that fashion.

On the other hand,  Rob is perfectly right that the Good News is better than just being a ticket to heaven, or a get out of jail free card.  Yes it is,  it is much more than that, indeed it is about a loving and joyful relationship with God forever,  but at the same time the Good News is not less than that.  It does include that. Does Jesus then rescue us from the scary judgmental Father?  No, in fact.  He rescues us from ourselves.   Because we are our own worst enemies.  God is just being God who is holy love always, all day, all the time.   We on the other hand are quixotic, changeable, unreliable,  and self-destructive.  That’s the truth about us.  Without a radical rescue, all would perish, and none would be saved— and it would be all our own fault.

Of course it is true that many people project their loathsome and toxic image of themselves on God, but frankly, that is just projection and then perception.   It is not reality.  Here is where I say we do not get to re-create God in our own image.  That actually is idolatry.   A no fault religion actually is not Christianity.     A no condemnation for those who are in Christ religion (Rom. 8), is another matter.   It’s no good blaming the man with the mop on aisle three who is doing the clean-up for the mess that was made there by someone else, in this case, us.  We need to look ourselves in the mirror and accept that we have created our own hell, and Hell is the logical and proper consequences for doing so, unless of course we accept that radical rescue plan from the Stranger who comes in the night like a thief.

At the end of this chapter,  Rob quite rightly points out that both the prodigal and the faithful son were wrong about themselves.   The prodigal was wrong that he had so badly blown it that his Father could only possibly accept him back as a slave.  And the elder brother was wrong that his Father’s approval and love and his own inheritance was conditional on his good behavior.  Wrong, and wrong.   The Father says to the older brother,  ‘you are always with me and all I have is already yours’.    Just so.   But the focus of the story is on the prodigal’s home run and the Father’s acceptance.  To those of us who have grown up in the church, never drastically strayed, and get a little envious of all the attention returning prodigals get from God and others when they give their testimonies, we need to hear the words, ‘you are always with me’  or better  ‘I am always with you, and all I have is already yours’.    The only way to make sense of a God who accepts both the returning lost and the found is to recognize we have a God of holy love.  Not love without holiness, and not holiness without love.

[Again, to catch up on the series so far, read Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five, and Part Six.  Also see the Patheos Book Feature for updated links to commentary on the book at Patheos and elsewhere on the internet.]

  • http://hamiltonmj1983.wordpress.com Matthew Hamilton

    You said:

    “It is any interesting question, and we will say more about it in a moment, but perhaps you will notice that Rob is not sticking to the story when he asks this question after interpreting Luke 15, because this story is about a prodigal who does repent and return to the Father and is received graciously by the Father. It is not a story about the man who never repented or believed, and died before he could change his mind.”

    I say:

    Rob Bell is pushing the idea that God is accepting of people who do repent and return to the father, just after death. He is not arguing for a no fault religion, because he accepts the fact that people have free will during life as well as post-mortem, and can deny God in both places, and therefore go to / stay in hell. He is just acknowledging the possibility that after death, one might have the opportunity to repent and believe.

    Also, have you read Dr. Wall’s review of the book?

  • hypertolerant

    Dr. Witherington,

    Reading your critique of Bell’s book is a learning experience and a pleasure. Like you, I enjoy Rob Bell and see him as an valuable model of compassion and empathy- traits I desperately need to develop.

    The feeling I got after I finished the book was that this was Rob’s reaction against the “bull horners” version of evangelism. Perhaps Rob mistakenly equates God’s righteous judgement with the compassionless expression of Christianity that he despises so much?

    I’m probably wrong, but the book seemed more like a emotional response not simply his perspective. Whatever the case, Bell has rekindled (or ignited) a much needed discussion that I think will is beneficial.

  • Marc Axelrod

    Bell is squirming under the authority of Scripture. What he sees in Scripture about hell runs counter to his own concept of what a loving God ought to do, so rather than chuck Scripture, he is trying to reinterpret it. That’s the way it looks from here.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Hi Matthew:

    I have not read my friend Jerry Wall’s post, but I am well familiar with his views on purgatory, a completely unBiblical idea based in part on a bad exegesis of 1 Peter 3 and Jude and 2 Peter, which refers to lost angels in Tartarus, not lost humans in purgatory.

    I am not surprised if Jerry likes some things in Bell’s book. The mistake Jerry is laboring under is not just that there is a purgatory, it is that God somehow owes people a fair chance to receive Jesus. And this is not true. God doesn’t owe a fallen world anything– its not a justice or fairness issue, its a grace issue when it comes to salvation.

    Blessings

    Ben W.

  • Craig

    Hi Matthew,
    You said: “He [Bell] is just acknowledging the possibility that after death, one might have the opportunity to repent and believe.”

    That seems like a very risky hope – an afterlife version of Russian roulette. My concern is that if Bell is wrong about this possibility, then “oops” to anyone who delayed in this life because they thought they could be saved in the afterlife.

  • DRT

    Ben,
    This series has been my first experience with your writing and it seems that you are missing the point of Rob’s work. You are acknowledging where his perspective overlaps your existing perspective, but, it seems to me, that you do not make an attempt to go with his perspective. So your posts smack of protectionism and all the bad things that Rob writes about in his book. Let me give you an example.

    For example, you say “The great mystery of God, which makes God’s grace and love all the more astounding, is that God doesn’t take a pass on his holiness or justice for a while in order to be loving and kind.” But that is precisely the point of Rob’s book. He is defining what holiness and justice means but all you want to do is stick to an abusive definition of those things. Perhaps you would consider revising your definition of holiness and justice in the context of perfect love, that is what Rob is trying to do and I think it is meritorious.

    You also say “God is just being God who is holy love always, all day, all the time.” but the only way this sentence works in the context of your post is for you to have a definition of holy love that somehow means it is appropriate to punish people forever. You are the poster child for exactly what Rob is talking about in his book. In his book he is making the allegation that people who do not know Christianity hear about what you call a “holy love” and think, wow, that’s great. Then one day after going through a more detailed conversation get someone like you who defines that term as being consistent with torturing people forever and there is an inherent disconnect with that. Can’t you see that? Use some other language than “holy love” to mean what you are saying because the plain meaning of those words are not how you are using them. Perhaps, justifiable torture would be closer to your meaning than holy love.

    Also, it seems that you miss the point about flipping the switch after death and becoming a hurtful being (God that is). Your argument seems to be that since god outlined the rules ahead of time, he is actually being faithful to people and loving by torturing them forever after they die. That is horrible. What if you did not understand the rules? What if they were taught to someone by a person who uses words like “holy love” to mean eternal torture. What if it is Rachel’s father who taught her about Jesus? The point is that there are so many situationally specific things that get in the way that the just thing to do is to take the situation into account. That is the point Rob is getting at.

    I will try to be clear here. You are using “holiness” to mean something that is not the meaning that people would normally use for it and that is a bait and switch and is exactly the point of Rob’s book. You should not do that.

  • JoeyS

    Ben, if I remember from my undergrad class on the apocrypha the idea of Purgatory comes from one of the Maccabees books, right? I didn’t find the passage to be very compelling but I’m sure my OT prof, pointed to Maccabees as the source – which in RC is cannonical.

    Also, I think there is a nuance here that you’re missing. Bell isn’t pegging holiness and judgment against love and grace. I think he just understands judgement differently. Romans 3, for instance, gives us a pretty neat picture of God’s perfect act of judgment – the cross. The perfect judgment was an act of mercy, THE act of mercy. He isn’t reacting against the actual nature of God, just the way God has been painted by many in the church.

    I think he is leaning into the parable in Matt 20 where the landowner pays the same wage to those who worked all day and those who hardly worked at all. Of course, those who “hardly worked at all” still worked, but the landowner’s comment is important: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

    The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

  • Ben Witherington

    Joey of course God has the right to be gracious whenever he wants, but that is not the point. The point is that Jesus says there will be eternal negative consequences in the afterlife for the goats.

    Blessings

    BW3

  • fidgetwidget

    I wish there was a like button on the comments, because JoeyS#7 would have got a like from me.

    “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

    Those words are the ones I wrestle with every day… because I am becoming more and more aware that the things I get angry at are the good things others get, more than the bad things others suffer… and for this I must repent. Ben, I hope you can see this truth too.

  • Luke Allison

    DRT,

    You wrote: “Use some other language than “holy love” to mean what you are saying because the plain meaning of those words are not how you are using them. Perhaps, justifiable torture would be closer to your meaning than holy love.”

    I have to ask you: Where does your idea of holy love actually come from? I’m a little confused. If you’re saying that Dr. Witherington is completely wrong in his definition, which is coming from a very detailed exegesis of the Scriptures, then you at least should acknowledge where you’re getting your own definition. How do you know what holy love looks like as opposed to all us toxic and dangerous fundamentalists?

    Also, if God’s love is so wide and so accepting that He ultimately pulls every living person into His embrace, then why are you so angry at Dr. Witherington’s evil and toxic definition of Him? What’s really at stake? If you’re right, then does it really matter what us Bible-thumpers say?

    I suspect that your definition of sin is similar to Rob’s: killing, rape, oppression and other really obvious things that everyone knows are wrong. Oprah knows that. Lady GaGa knows that. Our pseudo-spiritual pluralist culture knows that. I suspect you also believe that people who aren’t actively engaged in those sorts of things are just fine. And that God thinks so too.

    Therefore I can see why your understanding of forgiveness and God’s love are so vastly different than mine. For people like you and Rob, forgiveness isn’t that big of a deal. You believe deep down that people OUGHT to be forgiven. God must forgive…it is his job, after all. And He is evil if He allows people to suffer eternally for something that really isn’t that big of a deal to begin with.

    So you begin the equation with your own western cultural definition of “love”, and then force God into its narrow confines. Then you say: “Well sin means very little to me, so it must mean little to God, too”, and force Him into that space as well. Suddenly we have a God who looks remarkably like a duly educated 2011 post-to-late-modern 30-something intellectual. And you have a world that’s really not so bad after all, where the truly bad people are the ones who interpret Scripture with authority and insist on exclusivity.

    I suspect that much of this has something to do with your style of hermeneutic. I suspect that your notion of Biblical integrity and mine are vastly different. I could hazard a guess that when I say “The Word of God” I mean something completely antithetical to what you mean by the same term. That’s fine.

    But let’s stop pretending like we’re all in the same boat. Rob Bell’s Christianity is as different from Dr. Witherington’s as Hinduism is different from Islam (which apparently aren’t that different since “good” people in both religions are really just serving Jesus after all!). So why are we trying to act like we all share something that we don’t?

    The fact of the matter, however, is that brothers and sisters the world over who truly believe that God is a holy holy holy God of power and might are being persecuted and imprisoned for this faith as we speak. Maybe someone should tell them that they ought to just chill out? Relax? We’re all serving Jesus anyway, so what, me worry? Maybe someone should tell the tortured and imprisoned to start building heaven on earth and quit worrying about the afterlife.

    Or maybe we can just say that you’re wrong and tell people the truth. Repent and believe the Gospel. Submit to Jesus Christ and take His yoke upon you. Lose your life for His sake. Take up your Cross and follow Him. If you reject the point of life your life will have no point eternally.

    That’s what I’ll stick with.

  • DRT

    Luke, I don’t really want to debate all that you said. But the first two paragraphs really strike my interest. The point I was making is that if you walked up to anyone on the street who is a normal person and said that god has “holy love” they would not think that means someone who would torture them for eternity. It is misleading, to say the least. Are you contending that me definition of “holy love”=”justifiable torture” is appropriate?

    Ben? Do you think that?

  • Luke Allison

    “Luke, I don’t really want to debate all that you said.”

    That’s probably for the best. Not quite sure what I was doing writing that much. I need to stop drinking, probably. :)

    “The point I was making is that if you walked up to anyone on the street who is a normal person and said that god has “holy love” they would not think that means someone who would torture them for eternity.”

    But is it possible that they would be wrong in that assumption? Is it possible that the average person on the street’s idea of “love” is based more on cultural assumptions and rom coms?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you’re saying that the average person on the street’s idea of love is right by default. Therefore, any definition of love which contradicts the common cultural view of love is wrong?

    Wouldn’t we expect our views to be somewhat different than God’s about some things? Or does that only extend to taking care of the poor and not killing people?

    I tend to lean toward a conservative inclusivism, and I don’t think Rob is a universalist, for the record. I’m not even primarily concerned about Hell or heaven. As Rob has said, when people die, we are firmly in the realm of speculation.

    But we’re not in the realm of speculation when it comes to talking about God, at least not totally. That’s where Rob and I (and perhaps you as well) will part ways.

    I apologize for writing a freakin’ novel.

  • http://hamiltonmj1983.wordpress.com Matthew Hamilton

    Dr. Witherington,

    Dr. Wall’s post is worth a read; he posted it to his facebook under “notes.” The most interesting part is how he talks about C.S. Lewis, and basically the idea that it is surprising to hear evangelicals rail against Bell, but go home and read Lewis with awe and wonder.

    What do you think of C.S. Lewis’ take on hell, and how it compares to Bell’s (not to get into the evangelical love affair with Lewis, but just observing the commonalities)?

  • Craig

    In case you missed Ben’s link, Timothy Dalrymple has some interesting comments on Rob Bell and C.S. Lewis here:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/philosophicalfragments/2011/03/30/what-launched-the-bell-battle-part-1-rob-bell-is-no-c-s-lewis/

  • http://saintsorsceptics.blogspot.com graham veale

    Dr Witherington

    As much as I appreciate your insights, I wonder if you may not have read too much into “Love Wins”. Don Miller has a different persepctive, that I really think you need to consider

    Respectfully
    Graham

    http://donmilleris.com/2011/04/01/my-review-of-love-wins/

  • http://fraserfamilyblog.blogspot.com/ JR Fraser

    Hi Ben,

    I’ve always enjoyed your books – just as I enjoyed your classes at Asbury (and Houghton). But with all due respect, I don’t think you’re being fair to Jerry Walls (another of my favorite Asbury profs) when you say, “The mistake Jerry is laboring under is not just that there is a purgatory, it is that God somehow owes people a fair chance to receive Jesus.”

    I may be wrong, but I haven’t seen Jerry say that. I’ve read his book on hell and I’m in the process of reading his outstanding book on heaven. It seems to me that one can infer that a gracious God would give everyone a fair chance to receive Jesus not because he owes it to them, but because his grace is so great and universal.

    When you write, “God doesn’t owe a fallen world anything– its not a justice or fairness issue, its a grace issue when it comes to salvation,” I kind of have to cringe. It sounds very Calvinistic to me. It’s true that God doesn’t owe his rebellious creatures anything, but he still sent his Son anyways. Did he really do that just for the benefit of those who would actually hear the story, or do the benefits of Christ extend further than that?

    This kind of smacks of an attitude which says that, while God was gracious to me, he doesn’t owe any of you unevangelized heathen anything, so you have nothing to complain about. As the parable of the laborers that was referred to above indicates, the complaints are more likely to come from those who complain that God is too gracious. I realize this had application to Jews who would complain about sinners and Gentiles getting in while they themselves had done all the dirty work, but I really wonder if the same criticism could be made to the church.

    Anyhow, I appreciate your thorough review of Bell. I think you’ve been a bit too hard on him, and I really thought Jerry was right on target with his much briefer comments.

  • http://gnosiskaisophia.wordpress.com/ Michael

    DRT,

    It doesn’t matter what the “normal person” thinks about God. I think this is the biggest mistake of the post-modern crowd that Bell sometimes finds himself a part of. They are hesitant to say that we, as people, can be wrong about things, or at least really wrong. They want to say that we all are at least pretty close, even if just a little off. I think it plays into this whole idea of “not wanting to hurt people’s feelings because they might not like it” type of thing.

    On the other hand, maybe there is a truth that we have to compare things to and correct people when they are wrong, and tell them as much, even if it means hurting their feelings. Jesus wasn’t the most likeable person. I mean, He was disliked enough to find Himself on a cross for what He was saying and doing in one way or another. So clearly His message isn’t what “normal people” really want to hear, which is that they are fine being who they are and a little sprinkle of spirituality is enough. Maybe his message was radical and not liked by many but true nonetheless and life-changing.

    The big thing, no matter what side we land on, is what the Bible says about these things. Clearly we humans are quite wrong a lot of the time, but the Bible is God’s word, and isn’t going to be wrong on these issues. Its not about how we interpret the Scriptures though, because it seems at least possible, if not very likely, that humans can interpret it incorrectly. Rather, its about what the author intended to mean, what they were saying, and us trying to find that out. That means knowing the historical backdrop, the culture, the language, etc. And not just a cursory reading of our translations without any of this and then us thinking that we can derive what God wants us to take from it. Scripture isn’t subjective like that, but that seems to be where Rob Bell tends to lean, where its all about our stories and our lives and how we see things.

  • rDA

    Ben,

    You stated: “…The mistake Jerry is laboring under… is that God somehow owes people a fair chance to receive Jesus. And this is not true…”

    Wow. I can’t believe any Christian would actually profess that God would not at the very least give *every* human being a chance to be with God forever — especially if they believe in a never-ending, torturous Hell. Call me a heretic if you will, but that is absolutely not a God of Love and not the God Jesus spoke about and reflected in the Bible.

  • http://gnosiskaisophia.wordpress.com/ Michael

    I believe the idea here was that people do have such a chance, but that God does not owe us the opportunity to repent, which is the whole idea of grace, or “unmerited/undeserved favor.” He would be completely within His “rights” to say that we messed up and turned our backs on Him and that is all we get, one shot. This seems to be how the angels are/were dealt with.

  • rDA

    Michael (#19),
    After rereading Ben’s answer and what you wrote, that does seem more like what Ben was describing. And I agree — God doesn’t owe us anything, but he does choose to give us a fair opportunity to respond. I wasn’t sure if Ben was a Calvinist or not. Thanks for the clarification.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Michael#17, I am not saying that the impressions of the normal person about god is important, I am saying that the words we use to communicate the truth of god to normal people need to reflect the language of normal people. There is a big difference.

    We cannot be using a word that means one thing to most people but maintain some sort of secret, or gnostic, meaning about it that is outside of that definition.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I am quite curious here. What do you all say about the saints? Are the saints the same as the holiness of god?

    The word for saint is the same word as holy for god (I believe). As I understand it the Greek does not have a different word for holy people versus holy anything else, but English does have a different word for people being holy, a saint. Is a saint purely good, and devoted to god, or does a saint exhibit the other “holy” behaviors?

  • http://www.resaliens.com Lyn

    Holy has a primary meaning of being set apart (from a root word meaning cut off/separate). So a “holy” (person or thing) is set apart for God’s purposes.

    A secondary meaning has to do with purity, but I think that’s more of a byproduct of being separated for use by God. That is, we are to be like God in that we are different than the world. It’s more of an internal part of our nature as opposed to simply a character trait we demonstrate.

    For example, God doesn’t merely posess the attribute of holiness, God is holy (just as God is love and God is Spirit). We are to _be_ holy as God is holy – set apart, sacred for his purposes. Hope that helps, DRT.

    I’m curious, in return. Why do you refer to God as god? Not a snarky question, I’m simply wondering why.

  • DRT

    Lyn, you share my definition of holy.

    I don’t capitalize on blogs and such because I don’t feel I am always talking about the god named God. Sometimes I am even being rhetorical and polemic. So, I generally don’t capitalize god in the middle of discussions.

    If I were writing a prayer, or something like that then I would. But I don’t do that in blog posts and such.

  • http://gnosiskaisophia.wordpress.com/ Michael

    We can clarify definitions, but given the English language and the multiple uses of words, love for instance, makes things difficult. English has one word for love. Greek has like 5, Hebrew has at least 3, and they all capture different aspects. I can “love” coffee, my wife, my father, my sister, a child, an enemy, etc. Clearly none of these are the same usage of the word love. Which is why sometimes we have to define what we mean by a term when it is not clear.

    So when we talk of God’s love, we are in even a bigger dilemma. Its a love so vast that we can’t fully comprehend it. We simply try to describe what it is like in part. Agape, unconditional love, its… strong and covers everyone to some degree… its “holy” and “Godly.” But the point is that God’s live is different than the Western ideas of love in a very profound way. Its not about give and take, its not selfish at all. We see this in 1 Corinthians 13, along with other things that love is or is not. Notice how different this depiction is compared to the common vernacular use of love.

    So there is going to be a gap when talking about Godly things and Christianity because it is so different than what many think today in so many respects. You have to try to narrow the gap, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t use the words in different ways than how they are commonly used. I mean, some of the NT writers seem to have “made up” words to fit better into their writings because there was no common term for what they wanted to say. Of course you are tight that we can’t keep things hidden from them in a “gnostic” way, which is why the other stuff comes up.

    If I want to learn Calculus, where do I start? i start with simply math, then some algebra, then trig, the pre-calc, then onto calculus. You can’t just start right in and just hope it makes sense. You learn little by little. The reason I bring this up is because there are confusing/”unknown”/ineffable aspects of God and His love, and its not fair to throw this out there right off the bat when in conversation with someone because that will confuse them royally and be counter-productive.

    Its like when I tell people that Jesus died for their sins, I don’t discuss different theories of atonement and the Incarnation and how Jesus was 100% human and 100% God and how the trinity works and the contrasts between Calvinism and Arminianism and what role free will plays and molinism and if that plays a part in how they are saved and the process by which Jesus may have rose from the dead and how the Shroud of Turin may be be a clue to some degree or if it is even knowable and what the women did after they found the tomb was empty and who the young boy/angel was and how many were there and where were the guards and what happened to them and how big the stone was and if it could have been rolled away by the women or disciples if they wanted to steal the body and… yeah…. thats a bit much, wouldn’t you agree? And that is only concerning salvation in general, and not who God is and what He is like exactly and if that can be known or not and how He relates to time and how this plays into the big bang….

    I know that was a lot, but it was to make a point. No one waits to become a Christian until they know everything about it and have everything in a nice little box and know what doctrines they believe and why, etc. No, they accept it and then work things out as they come up. And the idea that we shouldn’t “confuse” “normal” people because of the language we use and the religious context that it is in would cripple evangelism and the spread of the gospel. We answer questions as they arise, and don’t give someone more than they can handle.

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    Ben,
    While condemning Bell’s interpretation of the prodigal son, you show us where you are coming from: “To those of us who have grown up in the church, never drastically strayed, and get a little envious of all the attention returning prodigals get from God and others when they give their testimonies.” Bell would be the prodigal son to your faithful son position, and accounts for your rejection of Bell and his message. Because you emphasizes holiness, and Bell emphasizes love, does not make Bell disregard holiness, but appears to make you disregard love.

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