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 One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part 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.]