If you've ever seen old video footage from a bomber squadron just after the the payload has dropped and the bombardier doors are closing, you get a gimps of a unique feeling in the brief moment before the bombs explode. The planes are now turning back and the bombs are out of their control. The crew is probably hoping the bombs find their target; but in reality, they are more likely hoping to get safely home and put another bombing run behind them. Still, in that moment, the bombs haven't yet unleashed their intended destruction. Chapter 5 of Rob Bell's book Love Wins feels like that moment.
Bell has made his theological bombing run for over half the book now. The target--his understanding of Christianity and the Church's understanding of heaven and hell. The Church is looking skyward as Bell's bombs are coming right for them. The payload doors are closing now. Bell is arcing his plane around and heading back to the safety of home. Another bombing run is almost complete. This is Chapter 5. I can imagine that if Bell and I were discussing this over a cup of coffee, he might argue that he wasn't dropping bombs, only asking questions. However, the way his questions come across, he's really only painting flowers and "Love Wins" on the nosecones of his deadly payload. The truth however, is that there is no amount of paint that can change the purpose of his explosives.
Chapter 5, titled "Dying to Live," is fairly flat after the previous three chapters. It seems as if Bell is letting his readers take a few minutes to rest. He knows he has been unloading his theology and now needs to turn a corner and head for safety.
The focus of this chapter is the gospel of Jesus and the reconciliation God with his creation. He asks, "When Jesus died on the cross, was it the end of the sacrificial system or was it the reconciling of all things?" (126). While this is not an either or proposition, Bell takes his argument in the direction of reconciliation (which is fine). He points out that reconciliation required Jesus' death AND the resurrection. And this is the model Bell uses to demonstrate that new life comes through death. God is "rescuing all of creation" (134). Very few Christians would read this chapter and feel like bombs were falling. In fact, it's a fairly safe chapter. It's not likely one to be discussed in reviews or on the promotion circuit. There are far fewer questions (although still enough to keep the question mark well employed).
Bell seems to shift away from his early arguments and starts to come back to sharing the gospel as most preachers would. For example, he writes,
Jesus talks about death and rebirth constantly, his and ours. He calls us to let go, turn away, renounce, confess, repent, and leave behind the old ways. He talks of the life that will come from his own death, and he promises that life will flow to use in thousands of small ways as we die to our egos, our pride, our need to be right, our self-sufficiency, our rebellion, and our stubborn insistence that we deserve to get our way. When we cling with white knuckles to our sins and our hostility, we're like a tree that won't let it's leaves go. There can't be a spring if we're still stuck in the fall" (136).What Christian would disagree with this statement? This is the gospel. Chapter 5 is fairly easy to read and enjoyable. But wait a minute. . . . Between this chapter and the last there are falling bombs. Unanswered questions are still suspended in the air. Is this chapter Bell's way of moving away from those questions? Is this his way of saying he's not going to answer any of the questions he has presented? Is he now headed home, not looking to see which bombs hit the mark?
I'm looking for some answers. Can we let go of our metaphorical leaves at some point after we've been found fruitless, hacked down, and cast into the fire? (Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9, 13:6-9; John 15:2-6.) Can spring come somewhere in the eternal punishment of hell? If at some post-life point, we decide to turn to God, from hell, can we go to the great new city and be with our creator as his child? At some point will God force those clinging dead leaves to drop them so they can finally see spring? Will everybody eventually let go of leaves, all people, because that's what God wants? These are only a few unanswered question bombs from previous chapters. Are we moving on? Is this presentation of the gospel, although very important, actually being employed to move away from the explosives? Is Bell using the gospel as a smoke screen? (See, a question can be a bomb.)
Not long ago I attended a clinical presentation about family dynamics. A question and answer time was reserved for the end. The first question was a practical, real, applicable question about a specific aspect of dealing with extreme verbal child abuse. The speaker, an expert in the field, seemed to squirm and then froze as the question was being presented. He looked stumped and slightly afraid, but after an a moment it was obvious that his mind was going into overdrive as he was formulating an answer. After an awkward amount of time he spoke. We were all on the edge of our seats waiting to hear what this expert would say. His answer: "What to you think?"
The crowd quickly turned on the expert. One man raised his hand and asked, "So, is this really just a question and question time?" We were there to find some answers, from an expert, not just witness him asking more questions. And if this man's position was to say that we can't know or that there are no answers (like Bell's defense), why offer the presentation in the first place? Why waste everybody's time? Or was it a ploy for the ability to stand as a star in front of a crowd or maybe make a few bucks? (See, more bombs hidden as questions.)
On Ash Wednesday I watched a man ask a question of a conflicted Catholic Priest (who is employed as a Catholic Chaplain/Priest but lives counter to his employment and doesn't seem to want to offer Catholic rites to Catholics). The inquiring man, clearly not a Catholic, asked, "What does the ash on the forehead represent; what's it for?" A fair question. The priest looked confused or unwilling to answer. The man, really wanting to learn something about Catholicism and Ash Wednesday dug some more: "What does it mean?" Then the priest answered, "What does it mean to you?"
There may have been a recent time in Christianity when it was vogue or hip to ask questions without actually seeking answers; but it's time for answers. People are looking for answers; and if they're not, they are just asking endless questions in an attempt to be cool. Even worse, they keep asking questions because they are unwilling to accept the Truth.
When I think about about both of these examples, I can't help but think that Bell is doing the same thing. The dust jacket of Love Wins presents Bell as an expert. Publishing a book about a specific topic generally shouts, "I'm an expert on this topic. I know something and want to tell you about it. I have some answers." But I keep finding myself wondering if Bell is going to provide any tangible information or continue to hide behind the question mark, followed by an easy, agreeable chapter? Is he going to get back to the payload this book came to deliver or is he flying away without looking back?
Up next, "Love Wins by Rob Bell (Chapter 6)."
* I have no material connection to Rob Bell or his book, Love Wins.
**Photo of dead leaves taken by Flickr.com user Antaean (Ricky) and is registered under a Creative Commons License.