by Alan Wolfe
from Signs of the Times  No. 57 - Apr 2015

Rob Bell is a pastor living in Los Angeles, who has written several best-sellers and is apparently often heard and seen on radio and TV.

When I started reading his latest book, What we talk about when we talk about God: Finding a new faith for the 21st Century (Collins 2013) I thought it was rather too light-weight for thoughtful and experienced Christians: it is written in conversational rather than literary language with lots of anecdotes and jokes, and the lengthy second chapter describes the latest developments in modern science in a way anyone can understand.

But this turned out to be deceptive: the real subject of the book is some of the deepest problems of theology - who, what and where is God, what has he got to do with us, how should we relate to him? The clever point is that while the book raises the issues and the directions to which they point, it does not give any definite answers. We have to do that for ourselves, and once we have read the book we cannot duck the hard issues as we tend to in real life, nor can we accept unchallenged the conclusions of past eras which have been demonstrated as false by science's recent discoveries about God's creation.

The author accepts that we will not all come out with the same answers, and that in any case no answer can be completely 'right' in a world of uncertainty. But if we have genuinely thought about these issues in depth, and perhaps studied and discussed them, we should expect to receive at least a little insight from the Holy Spirit, and then be able gradually to improve our relationship with the God we worship.

The earlier book, Love wins: At the heart of life's big questions (Collins 2011) using the same chatty and jokey style, takes a similar approach to some almost equally fundamental questions: the meaning of Heaven, Hell and Salvation. Namely what does the Bible - especially the New Testament - say on the subject, what would this have meant to its original readers and what does it mean to us today?

However, unlike the later book it does seem to try to guide the reader's view. For example, it defines the one-and-only God as God of love, justice and mercy, who cares for everyone and everything He has created. Therefore we cannot possibly believe that He punishes by torture for eternity sins which, however serious, lasted for less than a century, which is only a dot on the history of humankind. This (it seems to me) puts paid to the traditional mediaeval concept of hell made famous in Dante's Inferno.

Further, could such a God run His creation as an enormous 'postcode lottery' whereby the majority of those born in Europe and North America will eventually become Christians and go to heaven; while the vast majority of those born in Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist countries, however dutifully they follow the precepts of their religion, will be destined for hell?

So the sting in the tail of the second book for us to brood over is that given an all-creating, all-knowing and all-loving God:

  • can we be 'saved' only by acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus of Nazareth who lived in Palestine 2,000 years ago?
  • are we given only one chance to obtain salvation, namely when we come to Earth for such a short time and are provided with such varied internal talents and external opportunities?

Certainly we Christians should constantly try to keep Jesus' two Commandments, but should we not leave the judgement of others to God Himself?