Love Wins Analysis: Chapter 7: The Good News Is Better Than That
[This is part XIII of a multi-part series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.]
Heading into Chapter 7, the reader gets the sense that Bell is wrapping things up. He details the parable of the Prodigal Son very much in Tim Keller-like style, giving equal attention to the elder and young brothers. But then he also focuses on the attributes of the father in how he dealt with his sounds:
The father redefines fairness. … Grace and generosity aren’t fair; that’s their very essence. The father sees the young brother’s return as one more occasion to practice unfairness. The younger son doesn’t deserve a party—that’s the point of the party. That’s how things work in the father’s world. Profound unfairness.
The odd thing as I read that is that well, yes, I agree. God is unfair. And somehow I see this as evidence that bolsters a Reformed theologian’s argument rather than Bell’s idea of religious universalism.
People get what they don’t deserve.
Bell and I still agree.
Parties are thrown for younger brothers who squander their inheritance.
I put on brakes here not because I disagree with the statement as it’s written, but I worry that the implication is that it’s okay to “squander” an inheritance because a party gets thrown anyway. (Romans 6 warns against this.)
As Bell continues to develop his idea of this widely known parable (shifting away from Keller), Bell seems to redefine “hell” as a person living in the enslavement of his or her own selfish attitudes and vices in the presence of a loving and generous God.
Jesus puts the older brother right there at the party, but refusing to trust the father’s version of the story. Refusing to join in the celebration.
Hell is being at the party.
That’s what makes it so hellish.
… In this story, heaven and hell are within each other,
intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other.
If the older brother were off, alone in a distant field,
sulking and whining about how he’s been a slave all these years and never even had a goat to party with his friend with, he would be alone in his hell.
But in the story Jesus tells, he’s at the party, with the music in the background and the celebration going on right there in front of him.
Later on, Bell says:
We create hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of the story.
The odd thing is, I see Bell’s connection. But I fear that his conclusion is simply just a leap. This idea is not easily pulled from the text, and when you frame the parable of the prodigal son in the context of a book on heaven, hell, and fate, sure, it somewhat makes sense. But out of the context of Love Wins (and in context of the rest of the Bible), I don’t know that Bell’s interpretation of the story holds up. And therefore, ultimately, I think it falls apart as a whole.
Bell later on admits that people who reject God do suffer punishment:
We’re at the party,
but we don’t have to join in.
Heaven or hell.
Both at the party.
… To reject God’s grace,
to turn from God’s love,
to resist God’s telling [of our story],
will lead to misery.
It is a form of punishment, all on its own.
This is an important distinction, because in talking about what God is like, we cannot avoid the realities of God’s very essence, which is love. It can be resisted and rejected and denied and avoided, and that will bring another reality. Now, and then.
We are that free.
This is the part where I imagine Reformed Christians chafing at the collar at that last statement. But Bell continues on to unequivocally state that yes, hell exists and people can create it. But I fear Bell is too equivocal in what that hell is (negative attitudes and vices).
When people say they’re tired of hearing about “sin” and “judgment” and “condemnation,” it’s often because those have been confused for them with the nature of God. God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone.
God extends an invitation to us,
and we are free to do with it is [sic] as we please.
Saying yes will take us in one direction;
saying no will take us in another.
… We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell.
I’ll end this chapter analysis with a quote I liked (in light of the parable of the two sons):
Our badness can separate us from God’s love,
But our goodness can separate us from God’s love as well.
Neither son understands that the father’s love was never about any of that. The father’s love cannot be earned, and it cannot be taken away.
It just is.