‘Listen to your heart’ sang Roxette but according to Isaac Watts that’s not altogether the best advice – even if your heart is on fire for God!
I’m just finished reading Isaac Watt’s Discourses of the love of God and it’s influence on all the passions.
The big idea is this; Christians cannot afford to neglect God-given ‘passions’ or ‘affections’ when it comes to our worship of him. In fact God has made us in such a way that the Christian life is only really possible when we seek to love him with both heart and heart.
Watts notes that love is the most powerful passion or affection that we possess as human beings and a love for God ‘will influence all the other affections of the heart.’ A true and right worship of God must not only have at its centre a profound conviction of the truthfulness of the gospel but a deep love for God.
It is a knowledge and belief of the truth of the gospel, joined with love to Christ my redeemer, that makes me zealous to fulfil every duty.
But midway through the work Watts turns to address the abuse of the passions. And it is here that I stumbled across a new thought to me. Our affections, even our godly affections, can lead us away from truth about God. Watt’s comments;
Even the best affections, and those that seem to have a strong tendency towards piety, are not always safe guides in this respect; yet they are too often indulged to sway the mind in its search after truth or duty
And the first example he gives of this could have been written yesterday
Suppose a person should be exceedingly affected with the unlimited goodness and abounding grace of God; if, by this pious affection towards God and his goodness, he is persuaded to think that God has no such severe vengeance for sinful and rebel-creatures, and that he will not destroy multitudes of mankind in hell as the scripture asserts, or that their punishment shall not be so long and so terrible as God has expressly declared; here the passion of love and esteem for the divine goodness acts in an irregular manner, for it takes off the eyes of the soul from his awful holiness and his strict justice, and the unknown evil that is in sin. It prevents the mind from giving due attention to God’s express word, and to those perfections of the divine nature, and his wise and righteous government, which may demand such dreadful and eternal punishment, for the rebellion of a creature against the infinite dignity of it’s creator and governor.
A sense of the profound love of God can, Watt’s argues, cloud our judgement and skew our view of God. It prevents the mind from giving due attention to God’s express word he writes.
When our judgements are built on our passions we are in danger of getting God wrong.
The passions were made to be servants to reason, to be governed by the judgment, and to be influenced by truth; but they were never given us to decide controversies, and to determine what is truth, and what is error.
Fury, wrath, fire, torment, judgment, eternal agony, endless anguish.
Is that how we should think of Hell? A place of conscious eternal torment. Is that really the response of a God of love to those who do not worship him in this life? Is that what Jesus taught? Bell is not so sure.
I have a hard time believing in hell not least because most of my family and friends don’t follow Jesus. There is a part of me that so much wants Bell to be right on Hell.
What does the Bible mean by hell?
Bell argues, perhaps rightly, that the Old Testament picture of what happens after death isn’t very clear. ‘Sheol, death, and the grave in the consciousness of the Hebrew writers are all a but vague and ‘unworldly’.
In the New Testament the word ‘hell’ is used almost exclusively by Jesus. He takes the word Gehenna which was literally the city dump outside of Jerusalem. The place where rubbish was thrown and a fire continuously burned. The other word used occasionally in the New Testament being ‘Hades’ the greek equivalent of ‘Sheol’ which we find for example in Revelation 1,6, and 20. But actually there isn’t much in the Bible.
‘And that’s it’ says Bell.
So is the concept of hell outdated?
Bell says a resounding ‘No’. At least in that sense Bell is clearly not a universalist.
‘Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course.’
There is too much evil in the world. Think Rwanda. Think rape and murder.
‘I’ve seen what happens when people abandon all that is good and right and kind and humane.’
So Jesus teaches ‘hell’ and Rob Bell believes in ‘hell’. What then are the big theological ideas in Bell’s understanding of Hell.
The two big ideas in Bell’s Hell.
1. Hell is what we do to ourselves
Hell is less the place that God in his judgement consigns those who reject him and more a place that we send ourselves. It is a self-imposed exile from God and all that is good.
‘God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.’
Hell in Bell’s language is ‘a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity.’
So far is Bell ready to take this idea that in the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16 that when Abraham says ‘between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, not can anyone cross over from there to you’ Bell argues ‘the chasm is the rich man’s heart!’
So hell is what I do to myself. It is a subjective experience rather than an objective place of punishment. It is where I experience the torment of my own sin and that means it looks different for all sorts of people.
‘There are all kinds of hells’ says Bell.
‘There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.’
‘There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously’
2. Hell might not be forever
Secondly Bell wants to show that there is still hope for people in hell.
Failure we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.
So he takes us through a most unlikely interpretation of Jesus teaching on Sodom and Gomorrah along with some selected words from the prophets of Israel that promise an end to the judgemtn on hte nation and concludes
‘I list them to simply show how dominant a theme restoration is in the Hebrew Sciptures’.
So what should we conclude about Bell’s hell?
One of the things that make this book a difficult one to weigh up is that Bell is very selective in his use of the Bible. To assess Bell’s book we need to spend as much time considering what he leaves out as we do what he puts it. The sin of omission is as important as the sin of commission.
When a doctrine of hell is formulated without any mention of crucial bible texts that speak directly on the subject we have to be concerned and that is what we find here.
God has given us the whole Bible for a reason, that we might know his mind. We need all of scripture to know God’s will.
A number of years ago Jim Packer said in words that seem so apt to describe our concerns about Bell’s book ‘part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.’
And that is what we find with Bell on hell.
So where in Bell’s chapter do we find , for example, the book of Romans?
Where in his book is there mention of Romans 2:5-11?
5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.
Where in the book does he mention 2 Thess 1:8-9?
8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.
Where does he deal with the most sobering text on hell in the New Testament, Revelation 14:9-12
9 A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” 12 This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.
These texts are conspicuous by their absence and yet they change everything.
Hell is a place of punishment. It is the final expression of the holy and righteous anger of God against all godlessness and wickedness (Romans 1:18).
Hell is forever. Not because I like that fact but because the texts that Bell omits teach that fact.
Hell is the place of conscious eternal torment. There is no rest day or night. (Rev. 14:10-11).
In this chapter Bell sets the tone for the remained of the book and builds the platform on which his hopeful-universalism will be built.
Bell wants us to think of hell as where I put myself rather than where God sends me. He wants me to think that if I change (repent) in hell then because it is a self-imposed exile there may be a way back. If the chasm that separates heaven and hell is not the one fixed by God (objective) for all eternity but exists in my heart (subjective) then hell can reform me and maybe all will be free.
The problem for us all is that Bell’s view of hell falls so far short of what the Bible teaches.
‘Jesus didn’t come to tell us how to get to heaven’ or ‘what happens when you switch off before the end of the story Jesus is telling.’
We don’t spend enough time thinking about heaven so any book that devotes 40 pages to the subject is a good thing, or at least should be. Rob Bell’s book Love Wins is a book that wants to take a fresh look at the Church’s understanding of heaven and hell. The promotional video that kicked off a huge debate did so by raising a variety of questions that Bell sets out to answer in the book.
Bell’s claim is that the church has got heaven and hell wrong and that it is time to set straight the story Jesus came to tell and to reclaim it.
There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.
I’ve decided to start my review with the chapter on Heaven. Why? Well it’s the longest in the book, easily the best chapter in the book.and also the least controversial. There are still serious problems with even this chapter 3 of which are highlighted below.
How should we think about heaven?
Bell starts by questioning the evangelical understanding that he inherited as heaven as somewhere else; as somewhere other-worldly, disconnected and unrelated to our present lives. In the chapter he challenges two big assumptions evangelicals carry around with them.
Heaven as somewhere else.
Heaven as something else. Something unreal. ‘harps and clouds and streets of gold, everybody dressed in white robes.’ Heaven as a never-ending church service!
Bell turns to Jesus and his encounter with a rich young man in Matthew 19 . The man asks Jesus a great question ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’
Bell is curious as to why Jesus doesn’t simply tell this man the ‘gospel’. Why doesn’t he call on him to repent and believe in Jesus but rather say ‘if you want to enter life, obey the commandments’
He suggests that maybe Jesus bottled it and ‘blew a perfectly good ‘evangelistic’ opportunity? (p.29)
But here is Bell’s surprising conclusion:
When the man asks about getting ‘eternal life,’ he isn’t’ asking about how to get to heaven when he dies. This wasn’t a concern for the man or Jesus. This is why Jesus doesn’t tell people how to ‘go to heaven.’ It wasn’t what Jesus came to do. (p,30)
Jesus, Bell suggests, is not interested in heaven as much as he is concerned to teach about ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come’ Continue reading »
1. Heaven and hell really do matter. It’s important that we talk about it.
2. Heaven and hell matter because God’s reputation is at stake.
3. When you write a controversial book be sure to get your history right. Especially if you want to claim someone is on your side. If you misrepresent someone’s view chances are it will be spotted.
4. ‘Asking questions’ is NOT asking questions if you ask them in such a way that suggest there is only ONE reasonable answer.
5. Ambiguity only leads to confusion. Write to be understood. If in doubt say it again.
6. Releasing a provocative video with provocative questions that you intend to wait four weeks to answer will only damage the church. It might also suggest you’ve written the book to make a name for yourself rather than bless the church.
7. Asking questions is good but setting forth Jesus’ answers is better. Jesus didn’t intend to confuse us about heaven and hell. Ask self ‘have I said everything Jesus says about hell in my book?’
8. Be careful who you let interview you – especially if they are theologically sharp and don’t intend to let you get away with not answering the question. In fact it may be best to avoid interviews altogether.
9. Pray that you might be more passionate to save people from hell than you are to prevent people teaching wrong doctrine about hell.
10. Don’t enjoy falling out with other Christians and don’t even give the impression that you do.
11. Mourn over division in the church whos unity brings glory to Christ.
12. There is no love where there is no truth.
Famous for his interview of Princess Diana, Bashir is not so gentle with Rob Bell in this one!
No-one should set out to be controversial for the sake of it and its certainly a worrying sign when someone revels in the reputation of a controversialist. Nevertheless, in a world in which the gospel will always be under attack (often by those inside the church) at times it is necessary to be controversial. If the leader is to protect the flock then he must expose error in order to guard the gospel. Defending the truth must mean contending for truth.
The ideas contained in Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins are ideas that need to be opposed and opposed in the strongest terms. It matters. It matters because the gospel is at stake in what he writes. Is salvation by grace through faith in Christ Jesus or not? Bell has concluded that it is not, or at least not in faith in the way in which the Bible presents it. Ahead of publication a promotional video was released in which Bell raised a number of provocative questions that only buying the book would answer. Some Christians have been critical of those who they believe have condemned a man for just asking questions.
Now that advanced copies sent by the publisher are being read we can see that the initial concerns of many are proving well founded.
Tim Challies in his review,based on reading an advanced copy of the book, quotes a couple of quite extraordinary statements. As Bell looks at the subject of heaven and hell he states:
A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better…. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.
And in case we are in any doubt as to Bell’s conclusion. He comments:
People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways.
Sometimes people use his name;
other times they don’t.
I’m not sure whether Bell is a full-blown universalist (all we finally be saved) but what I am sure of is that his message of a Jesus who saves people who don’t even know that he has saved them is poison to the church. As a result the book is one that for the sake of the name and honour and reputation of Jesus must be opposed.
But how do we have a good and godly argument?
He happened to live and minister at a time of great controversy in the Anglican church when truth was under attack from Enlightenment Rationalism and the Romish Ritualism that flowed out of the Oxford Movement.
As a result Dimock gave himself to writing extensively for over 30 years to countering error in the church. We can learn much not only about the need to refute error, as a sacred duty, but also the manner in which we ought to conduct ourselves.
Dimock wirtes in 1876 at the end of a work on the Eucharist.
It belongs to Christian controversy to set forth the truth, and the whole truth, but to set it forth in love. This conducted, controversy itself, though often a painful duty, is really a very sacred thing. And while earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, we may surely ask for God’s blessing on consecrated controvery. And asking, we surely expect that in His own good way God will graciously employ feeble efforts made in a sacred cause.
His manner was well recognised by those who knew him. After his death, Handley Moule (then Bishop of Durham) wrote in the foreward to the memorial edition of Dimock’s collected works:
In him the grace of God combined in perfect harmony a noble force and range of mental power, an unshakeable fidelity to conscience and Revelation, and a spirit beautiful with humility, peace, and love.
Even those who opposed him theologically could not help but comment on his gracious method. A critical review of one of his books still recognises;
The courtesy and calmness and Christian spirit which Mr. Dimock shows in this pamphlet certainly entitle all he has to say to consideration, and demand grateful recognition from those who cannot agree with his conclusions
The conclusion of the matter is this: How we disagree with someone as well as how we contend for the truth are both gospel issues.
The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy about how a godly minister will conduct himself:
Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.
As many of us will no doubt enter into debate with Rob Bell (or at least with those who support his views) Dimock asks us a question to which we all know the answer;
Does anyone really suppose that the cause of Him, who would have us love one another, can be forwarded by nourishing in our hearts the bitterness, wrath, and anger of our grievous odium Theologicum, or that the truth of the Gospel will be advanced by addressing unseemly language?
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