Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hell's Bells!

Several years ago I had the supreme misfortune of reading Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. I do the best I can to remain a critical, neutral reader of everything I read. I prefer to test everything and hold onto the good without being too sore about the chaff I rubbed off. This one was different. Maybe it has to do with the circumstances surrounding my first run-through of the book. Maybe it was because I watched that first Nooma video four times in one summer at youth service ("We're gonna make it, buddy! Daddy knows the way!" Ugh...) Maybe I was just a little puffed up after my freshman year of college.

Or maybe the way he writes like this.

All the time.

And how a guy who wants to appear environmentally-sensitive wastes huge swaths of the page to appear profound while dooming hundreds of innocent trees to the slaughter. That with every.



Ultimately it's probably Bell's trendy, artsy way of carrying himself and churning out videos that makes him more popular than I'll ever be. Or how he never seems particularly cranky, unlike me. In the end, I may be unable to stand him because I'll never be that cool.

Anyway you slice it, one thing I hated about Velvet Elvis was that I suspected that Bell was way more theologically liberal than he would have us believe. Yet the more I would raise these concerns, the more people around we would say that I was probably over-reacting. Some would hear what I said and reply, "I don't think that's what he meant." When I asked them why then Bell had said it that way, folks would reply, "He's just trying to be thought-provoking." I would then cite sermons he had preached and footnotes he'd left. I even attacked him for the teaching method he used, craving shock factor over solid Truth. Some around me still seemed eager to grant him the benefit of the doubt, maintaining that I must have misread him. Maybe they were right. I bet Rob Bell meant the total opposite of that stuff he wrote, had edited, finalized, then publicly defended against criticism.

I forgot about the issue for a while. Four years later, I logged onto facebook to find a friend had posted a link. I had not long before essentially figured that the Bell bandwagon had run out of steam. After all, by now most people I knew talked about the much-superior Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill over Rob Bell's. Seemingly out of the blue, here was Bell marketing his new book as a "questioning" of the doctrine of Hell. "Is Hell real? Will Ghandi really burn there forever? Does God intend for Jesus to save us from Himself?" he asks during the video. Before I could fully react, it looked as though the entire Reformed blogosphere had already been lit ablaze with criticism of a book which had yet to be released. I was briefly comforted to see that teachers I deeply respected could finally call this false teacher for who he was. Bell had slipped up and overplayed his trendy little hands. Now no one could deny what I had seen all along.

Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realized I may be far guiltier than Rob Bell ever will be. True, I haven't denied a fundamental teaching of the Christian church. (I am a Calvinist though, and to freewill folks that is almost the same.) No, I have affirmed all the right doctrines and could probably explain them better than most. I could probably be really entertaining about it too.

A rare opportunity to please both Yahweh AND Dionysus!

Rob Bell (might) deny Hell by the words in his forthcoming book. I'm afraid that I deny Hell by the way I live everyday. I have to ask if I live as though Hell is a conscious, eternal torment for the unrepentant. Do I evangelize share the gospel as though people will writhe in God's just fury forever? Do I serve as though those who see me might catch a glimpse of the Savior who can deliver them from Hell? I fear that the answer is no.

I wish John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor, and others had waited for Rob Bell's book to come out before crying heresy. That said, it honestly does look like Bell will crossover into heresy--probably in the unassuming, falsely-humble way he does everything else. Still, I ought to hold my tongue for I fear I have denied Hell in a far more significant way than Bell has. He might (or might not) be misleading people with his trendy videos and falsely-humble questioning. I might be misleading people with the life I live, tacitly watching their ignorant blustering into the flames.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Forgive Us Our Debts

Roughly one month ago, a reader known only as Anonymous posted on my Why I Am Reformed entry. Mr. Nymous posted, "quick question - Matt. 18:23-25". I immediately shifted into the mindset of the critical historian, puzzling over the scrawling like an archeologist over a piece of papyrus. I carefully noted the lack of capitalization on all but the Scripture. I cataloged the oddly-placed hyphen. But most obvious to the critical reader is this fact--this was not a question. Written questions in English usually begin with interrogative pronouns or helping verbs and end with a mark something like this: "?".

So because this wasn't actually a question, I will answer the question I think the commenter was asking, "What is your take on Matthew 18:23-25?" I read it. Since again no actual question was left, I must guess at what the controversial nature of the text was. I assume that it isn't that the Kingdom of Heaven is a monarchy as opposed to a democracy. I assume it isn't that the king lent money, though there was a time when usury was thought un-Christian. It could even be assumed that Mr. Nymous is objecting to the use of political similes for theological concepts. However, I think that the objection must be thus: the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a king who orders a debtor and his entire family sold into slavery.

(The reader may think I am being altogether dismissive of Mr. Nymous by introducing all the possible objections one may have to these three verses. Rather, I am trying to prove that any of these could be considered offensive to various observers. Slavery is uniquely offensive to a twenty-first century American; the fifteenth century Reformer or the fourth century Roman would not have regarded this.)

This might be a fair complaint had my charitable reader been as charitable to the Scripture as he has been to me. However, I think he has not been fair. In context, we see a much different story. Peter has asked Jesus how many times he must forgive those who transgress against him, offering the number seven. The Lord responds seventy times seven. Those fools who suppose themselves clever shall take this to mean the may keep a running ledger of offenses and cease to grant mercy at the 490th infraction. The humble reader will see Jesus' point for the hyperbole it is--forgiveness must be unlimited. After all, Peter thinks he is being generous because in ancient Hebrew culture three was the number of times a person was supposed to forgive. Jesus denies this, saying that forgiveness is as abundant as grace.

Then the Lord tells a story to emphasize His point. He tells of a king who has servant owing him a great sum. According to the ESV Study Bible, the sum in today's dollars would be somewhere around $6 billion (ten thousand talents was about twenty years' wages). The king prepares to sell the servant and his family into slavery. This was a common way to pay off debt in the ancient world. I can prove it without a textbook. Instead he forgives the servant his debt. The servant then goes to another servant who owes him about $12,000 in modern money (again according to the ESV Study Bible) and throws him into prison until he pays it. The king, upon hearing this, has that first servant also imprisoned for his wickedness.

We often read the Bible to find endorsements for our twenty-first century Western notions of equality and freedom and social justice. The truth is that the Bible stands outside of and above all cultures and human philosophy. This does not mean that the Bible contradicts everything about our society. It means that some of the things we find really offensive are not offensive unto the Lord. Much more humbling should be the fact that many things we don't find offensive--like being unmerciful to a debtor--inflame the wrath of the Lord. So how is the kingdom of Heaven like a king who threatens to sell a servant into slavery? Because we Christians have been forgiven of a far greater debt than $12,000 or even $6,000,000,000. We have been forgiven the penalty of Hell by the death of Jesus Christ--God Himself--on the Cross. Love keeps no record of wrongs, nor should the Christian.