“There Are Rocks Everywhere” is the most controversial and important chapter in Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. This chp is going to take some special grace if we want a good conversation. I am asking that you pause quietly and slow down enough to pray this prayer as the way to approach this entire series:
O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing:
Send your Holy Spirit and pour into my heart your greatest gift,
which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue,
without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.
Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.†
I want to sketch the substance of this chapter because it provides a sketch of how it is that God’s saving presence is made known to all people who have ever lived. Some people have profound religious experiences, seemingly out of nowhere, and some of them come to Christ as a result of those experiences. [Again, if you like this post or conversation, please Tweet this or FB share it. Thanks.]
This chapter is about the omnipresence of Christ, and by presence he means really present in an engaging and “God wants to save you” way.
What is your take on this chp? What are the implications of Christ’s omnipresence for world religions? For God’s mission to all people? Or backing up a paragraph: How does this kind of experience happen when it is not part of a church, or the gospel, or a preacher, or anything?
Bell finds a similar idea in the Rock that Moses tapped in Exodus 17 — and Paul tells us that the Rock was Christ. This is typology, not ontology. From this Bell asks how else Christ is present, and observes that early Christians believed Christ was present everywhere. Within proper limits, I agree: Christ is present everywhere. Christ is creator, Christ is life, where there is life Christ — the Life and Life giver — is present. This should not be denied by Christians with a robust view of Christ. John 1, Colossians 1, Hebrews 1 — Christ is Creator. All life is from God.
This fundamental conviction leads Rob to ask where Christ is also present. If Jesus is the Life and Life giver, Jesus is also “the ultimate exposing of what God has been up to all along” (148). A robust view of God’s mission in Christ will agree with this statement but it will want to ask, too, how distinctive the work in Christ is. What God did, is doing and will do is all summed up in Christ.
What Christ is doing, Rob says, is bringing unity to all things. Here he draws again on his universal reconciliation themes in the Bible — Colossians 1. Christ is the Life of all things and of everyone. John 12 where Jesus says he will draw “all people to myself.” And the “other sheep” of John 10.
Then Rob makes two major logical inferences: “As obvious as it is, then, Jesus is bigger than any one religion.” [He takes a cheap shot at our faith when he says "especially the one called 'Christianity'" (150). Especially? How about "including"? Why take a dig at the Christian faith and not others?] Next move: “Jesus is supracultural. He is present within all cultures, and yet outside all cultures” (151). So, “we cannot claim him to be ours any more than anyone else’s” (152). There is so much possibly being said in this, and so little that is explicit, that I’m not sure what to say. But it sure sounds like a de-privileging of Israelite and Christian culture to me. It sounds like minimizing of the truth of Christian orthodoxy. When he says “we” who is that? If that is the Christian cultures of this world, then I disagree with him significantly. We don’t own Christ and he speaks against our culture, but to say that our culture has no more claim than an explicitly anti- or non-Christian culture makes no sense to me.
He’s too harsh on the Christian claims (or Jewish claims in Romans 2) but he’s seeking to expand our sense of the omnipresence of Christ. Anyone who believes in omnipresence has got to admit an important point here. The issue is whether or not that presence is a loving presence, and more particulare, an “I’m here to save you” presence. The issue is whether this Rock is present in a saving way — revealing salvation in an exclusive sense.
Sometimes people who have never heard about Christ and then who hear about Christ say “That’s who we’ve been looking for. Or that’s who we’ve been worshiping. You gave us his name.” Missionaries know about these stories. I believe the missionaries are right and I believe those people were and are experiencing the true Christ. How common is this? It’s rare.
Next logical move: He is the Way, Truth and Life. “What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and and restore the world is happening through him” (154).
He clarifies now in ordinary, if very simplistic, academic terms: Bell says he’s not a traditional exlcusivist, he’s not an inclusivist (here he’s talking more about pluralism), but an exclusivist on the other side of inclusivism. God saves only through Jesus, and God is saving all through Jesus … but this means who is “Jesus”? And he pushes against the narrow views to this expansive, omnipresent Jesus, and in this expansion one has to wonder if the content of the gospel is falling out. He’s got an expansive Christ, an omnipresent Christ, an anonymous Christ, and he’s got that Christ saving in all of history and across the whole world.
He brings up three (pastoral) points:
1. We are not to be surprised when people stumble on this mystery. [This omnipresent Rock.] “Sometimes they use his name; other times they don’t” (159). OK, but… I’ve got questions I’d like to raise, a lot of them in fact.
2. None of us have cornered the market on Jesus. Of course, we haven’t. But, I ask, do some have the truth of Christ more than others? Did Jesus? Did the apostles? Do the NT writings? Does the Church? More than Islam? Buddhism? Atheism?
3. It is our responsibility to be careful about making negative lasting judgments. “We can name Jesus, orient our lives around him… and at the same time respect the vast, expansive, generous mystery that he is” (160). What’s he affirming and what’s he really denying?
I question whether he has (speaking in terms of missiology) sufficiently affirmed the distinctiveness of Jesus in the apostolic gospel, or a little more broadly, in the Bible. I question whether he has affirmed the privilege of the biblical and Christian tradition. I question whether, pastorally, he has so maximized the presence of Christ that gospel preaching, evangelism and missionary work are no longer necessary. This is getting too close to some kind of religious pluralism or religious instrumentalism, or perhaps better, less than a robust affirmation of the necessity of faith in Christ. In the Rock chapter not only the atonement metaphors no longer are in play but neither is his dying-to-live idea.
I do think Bell has discovered some of the theological categories at work in what to think of the salvation of those who have not heard: once you admit the deity of Christ, once you admit that Jesus is the Creator and the life that sustains all of life, once you admit the omnipresence of Christ, and once you tie to these the universal dimensions of God’s mission and reconciling work and once you believe that God loves all and wants all to be saved … you’ve got the possibility that Christ really is at work everywhere and to everyone. There might be some that believe this omnipresent life/Christ is general revelation and not the saving manifestation of Christ, and that general revelation does not save. This deserves more attention in Bell’s discussion. But I have major questions about whether or not Bell is dispensing with the cross in favor of a gentle omnipresent Christ. The content of the Rock simply isn’t clear to me.
And the universal scope of God’s mission in Christ, when tied into the omnipresence of Christ, does not mean all are saved. What it means is that everyone hears or knows or somehow encounters the one true God who saves in Christ. What seems possible in an omnipresent Christ is some kind of “accessibilism” and a clear affirmation of everyone’s ultimate, final accountability before God. Or what is at work perhaps is some kind of “a wideness in God’s mercy” or “God holds people accountable for the light they have received,” with the belief that the “light” is Christ at work. But anything that minimizes the content and cross of the apostolic gospel of Christ is not sufficient.
This chp is inadequate for me to deal with the questions its raises.