an open letter to rob bell's critics
Dear Sir and/or Madam:
Reading the New York Times last Friday, we came across an article covering the blogospheric firestorm stirred up by the upcoming publication of Love Wins, the new book by Rob Bell, a well-known Midwestern pastor at least loosely associated with so-called “evangelical” Christianity.
And so we read some of your criticism, your accusations that Bell appears to lean toward the doctrine of universal salvation (the idea that in the end, God will save everybody, not just a few Christians who believe the right things or do the right deeds). And we read your laments - some sarcastic, some heartfelt - that Bell has thereby lost touch with “biblical Christianity.”
But what does the Bible actually say about the scope of salvation? It's true that there are plenty of verses that seem to support the idea that God only saves a few. We’ve read Matthew 7, for example, where Jesus paints a picture of two gates: “the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt 7:14).
But on the other hand, we’ve also read plenty of verses that suggest the opposite. In John 12, Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Or again, Paul compares Adam’s fall to Christ’s rescue: “as one trespass led to condemnation for all people, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all people” (Romans 5:18).
Now, you know as well as we do that some people read this scriptural diversity as nothing but inconsistency, plain and simple, evidence that “you can get scripture to say anything you want” – and we’re sure you disagree with that conclusion. So do we.
Others read this diversity as a case of scripture interpreting scripture: that is, a case where one set of texts throws light on how the other set of texts should be read. The apparently universalist texts, for example, may be taken as the “key” that unlocks the meaning of the apparently non-universalist passages, or vice versa. We may not agree, of course, about which set of texts properly unlocks the other - but can we agree that both approaches qualify as "biblical" Christian thinking?
And yet there’s at least one other possibility here. Some consider scripture’s diversity on the question of salvation's scope to be not so much a complexity to be resolved as a tension to be preserved. According to this view, each set of texts perpetually unsettles the other, and so leaves the question permanently open – since after all, come to think of it, salvation is God’s business, not ours. In the meantime, if we get lackadaisical, the first set of texts can act as a goad to wake us up, reminding us that life and death are at stake in the choices we make. And if we get anxious or begin to despair, the second set of texts can be a solace, a reassuring comfort that in the end, “love wins.”
But since each set of texts perpetually unsettles the other, the upshot for us is that we aren't in a position to make grand, certain statements about the great mystery of salvation. That’s not our job. Our job is to hope and pray for universal salvation – starting with our own. Our job is to live and lean into God’s unbridled love – and if we can’t imagine divine love going down to defeat, or the Good Shepherd losing a single solitary sheep, so be it. For all we know, God won’t leave anyone behind, not even one.
And in any case, our job is to tend to our own knitting, as one of our grandmothers used to say. Our job is to eschew crass speculation about the destinies of others. Our job is to get on with living out lives that flow from the faith that you, dear critics, so fervently defend. In fact, even if your close analysis of scripture’s diversity here convinces you once and for all that it is utterly “impossible” for person X or Y or Z to be saved, at the end of the day you can only come back to Jesus, the one you and we seek to follow, the rabbi who puts it this way:
“'Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.' His disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another, 'Who then can be saved?' Jesus looked at them and said, 'For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible'” (Mark 10:24-27).
The SALT Project
Thanks to Merry Faith for this cooler than cool shot!