Before I became a born-again Christian at 16 years old, my problem at that time was that I didn’t have enough “self-esteem” and “self-confidence.” I didn’t believe in myself enough, and I didn’t try hard enough to believe in myself (which to be honest, I didn’t because I was an angsty, grungy teenager who thought it was cool to revel in my depression and suicidal bent).
Enter in born-again fundamentalist Christianity.
Fundamentalist Christianity says that one must not believe in self and only in Jesus Christ. Fundamentalist Christianity has no room for self-esteem, requiring a believer to place his or her trust solely in Jesus Christ.
Then I entered Protestantism and encountered a softer version of the same thing: Solo Christo! (This really refers to a theological belief of salvation, but this is the prescription of many orthodox Christians when it comes to problems with self-esteem.)
For a long time then, I believed self-esteem and self-confidence were wrong. I eschewed these things because my sole worth should be found in God and not in myself. I engaged in “worm” theology: Oh, I’m such an awful, terrible sinner. There is no righteousness in me. All righteousness is found in God, and I’m poor, pathetic, pitiful soul. I suck at life and I’m so lucky God saved me because I’m totally worthless otherwise.
Beginning last week, I started reading Jillian Michaels’s book, Unlimited: How to Live an Exceptional Life, and started seriously thinking, Maybe it’s time for me to walk away from Christianity because I like what Jillian’s saying about reclaiming and recapturing my life. I want to have self-esteem. I want to have self-confidence. I want to stop obsessing and feeling like a poor, pathetic little shit all the time.
But as I got further and further into Jillian’s book, I realized that a lot (not all) of what she says actually lines up with scripture. (Her chapter on Forgiveness and Accepting Responsibility was so solid, it blew me away.) And I realized that self-esteem and self-confidence do NOT need to contradict Christianity and God’s word. How?
In Mark 12, a scribe comes up to Jesus to test him. The scribe asks, “What is the greatest commandment?”
Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” —Mark 12:29-31
So Jesus lays it down: we are to love God with everything we have first. Then we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The assumption is we already love and esteem ourselves. If we do not, how are we able to love and esteem others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3)? So one must tackle the challenge of learning to love and esteem oneself first before being able to truly love and esteem others better. Consistently treating others better than you treat yourself leads to an erosion of self-love and a path to possible codependency and people-pleasing (needing the approval of others).
An example: think of the mom who sacrifices herself on the altar of her children. This mother is constantly shuttling her kids to soccer practice, gymnastics, ballet class, and Boy Scouts but never takes any time for herself, investing her life in her children at great detriment to her health. She will likely be one stressed out and unhappy mommy. She may have high blood pressure, feel dizzy, and tired all the time. Yet think of the other mom who shuttles her three kids to the exact same activities (still investing immensely in her kids) but once a month, goes to a spa to relax and get pampered. Three times a week, she jogs outdoors for 20 minutes simply to clear her head. Maybe she’ll even join a bi-monthly knitting group so she can engage in her own hobbies so she is invested in herself enough so that she can take care of her children. The latter mom is likely to be in an overall healthier position (mentally and physically) than the former.
A person who invests in herself first is better able to love and serve those around her. I do a better job helping people on 7 hours of sleep than I do 4 hours.
All this talk of self-love is probably making some Christians twitchy. It sounds odd and new age-y. But remember, Jesus assumed that we would already love ourselves and from that, commands us to love our neighbor. As Christians, if we don’t love ourselves, we are sinning. Read more…
[This is the FINAL part of a multi-part series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.]
Indeed, the end is here! And I know you and I are probably both glad for it.
Bell gives his testimony of how he came to know God’s love and invites his readers to trust God and that “the love we fear is too good to be true is actually good enough to be true.” Bell reminds his readers that the decisions they make today will impact the future, the hereafter.
This invitation to trust asks for nothing more than this moment, and yet it is infinitely urgent. Jesus told a number of stories about this urgency in which things did not turn out well for the people involved. One man buries the treasure he’s been entrusted with instead of doing something with it and as a result he’s “thrown outside into the darkness.” Five foolish wedding attendants are unprepared for the late arrival of the groom and then end up turned away from the wedding with the chilling words “Truly, I tell you, I don’t know you.” Goats are sent “away” to a different place than the sheep, tenants of a vineyard have it taken from them, and weeds that grew alongside wheat are eventually harvested and “tied in bundles to be burned.”
This paragraph begs for an explanation, begs for elaboration because of all the images and stories presented here. But Bell only offers this:
These are strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities.
Bell glosses over the striking imagery presented in each of the parables he quickly presents, completely ignoring the deeper meaning and symbolism that lies in each because the explanation wouldn’t support his purpose in writing the book. It’s a shame because that large paragraph (not typical for Bell; I’ve done my best to adhere to his short line breaks) prompts more questions than Bell will ever be inclined to answer.
Love is why I’ve written this book, and
love is what I want to leave you with.
I walked away from this book with more frustration and unanswered questions rather than love and peace the fills the soul.
[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.
[This is part XII of a multi-part series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Note: Chapter 6 is two parts; read Chapter 6, part I here.]
After rambling on some random rabbit trail about “mystics” and the “Force,” Bell asserts that “Jesus is bigger than any one religion.”
Ah, durr. But then we get to Jesus’ claim in John 14 of being “the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Remember that acquaintance of mine I quoted from Goodreads who said that she encountered people more hung up on this statement than on hell? I said I agreed with her.
What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.
John 3, John 16.
He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will ever know that they are coming exclusively through him.
John 14:6-7; John 17.
He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”
I agree with the overall idea of the statement but I’m not sure it’s as “simplistic” as Bell makes it sound. Jesus has consistently proven to be accessible to the multitudes in a simple manner with a highly complex undertone in his parables and teaching—so complex that even the disciples who were with him rarely “got” what he was speaking of without Jesus having to explain himself first. So let’s watch Bell tackle Jesus’ bold statement of being the only way to God using mental gymnastics (because really that’s what it feels like to me).
And so the passage is exclusive, deeply so, insisting on Jesus alone as the way to God. But it is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity.
After explaining that exclusivity defines the traditional view of hell (“in or out”) and inclusivity is universalism (all roads lead to the same God), Bell says:
And there is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.
As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth.
Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.
What Jesus does is declare that he,
and he alone,
is saving everybody.
And then he leave the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.
He is as exclusive as himself and as inclusive as containing every single particle of creation.
Bell is careful to write “Jesus is the way” omitting the oft-used word “only” or forgoing the italicization of “the.” (Just an observation. Jesus does not use the word “only” here although one could argue that it’s implied.) The problem here, which Bell raises by bringing in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc., is that Bell affirms Jesus is present in all of these different religions that claim to be salvation or divine attainment in some form. It’s like reverse religious universalism, in a way. Instead of all paths leading to the same God, Bell appears to be saying that Jesus is present in all of these paths.
So Jesus is the prophet Mohammad to Islam.
Jesus is nirvana—the place of Enlightenment.
Jesus is Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, Shakti, or any of the number of Hindu gods.
For some reason, this idea seems really offensive to me. As if Jesus isn’t accessible in his own form, in his own way, he must materialize in different forms like a shape-shifter of the universe. I think I’d be just as offended if a Muslim told me that Mohammed was a shape-shifter who appears as Judeo-Christian Messiah to bring salvation to Jews and Western Gentiles. My mind can’t fully grasp the idea Bell is throwing out here.
Again, we’re back to religious universalism: yes, all paths do lead to the same God because as Bell seems to say since Jesus is present in all these religions, everyone in these religions reaches the same God.
It’s the most astounding mental gymnastics I’ve ever encountered.
Jehovah God, the Old Testament God was clear that many of the gods and idols that non-Israelites set up were not Him and that He was not present or blessing any of those rituals. (“Baal” is a notable god that Jehovah had a special holy hatred for.) Jehovah was pretty exclusive about that.
But the inclusivity on the side of exclusivity is that He was willing to draft Gentiles who were willing to believe in him (Rahab, Ruth, and Job being prominent examples).
There’s your mental gymnastics from me, but I think Bell wins the gold medal in this competition.
So how does any of this explanation of who Jesus is and what he’s doing connect with heaven, hell, and the fate of every single person who has ever lived?
Bell’s essential answer is that since Jesus is everywhere and in everything, believers in Christ need not worry about the eternal destination of others because “God’s got this.” (Not a Bell quote.)
We are not threatened by this,
surprised by this,
or offended by this.
Sometimes people use his name;
other times they don’t.
I agree that Jesus can be encountered in different ways by different people and perhaps he may not even be known to some people as Jesus or Yeshua. But we must also consider that Jesus warned his disciples about false prophets in Matthew 7 and Matthew 24 (speaking of exclusivity, one of those verses has Jesus mentioning “the elect” whoever and whatever that means).
So while “none of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will,” I don’t believe Jesus was as vague or confusing with his statements as Bell makes him out to be. I do, however, wholeheartedly agree with the following quote from Bell:
It is our responsibility to be extremely careful about making negative, decisive, lasting judgments about people’s eternal destines.
So is Gandhi in hell? Do we know this for certain? No, I don’t think we do. But we can all hazard guesses for now.
Bell goes on to say that Jesus says “he ‘did not come to judge the world, but to save the world’ (John 12)” but if you continue to read on in that same passage, Jesus speaks of an ultimate judge (the assumption from other Biblical texts is God the Father) who issues judgment or (as the NIV puts it) condemnation. Another way Bell is able to raise questions and ably dodge them because his readers are unable to ask all of the questions he raises by completely ignoring their existence.
[This is part XI of a multi-part series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Note: Chapter 6 is two parts.]
I really want to push through chapter 6 for fear I’ll dwell here for days on end like I did with chapters 3 and 4 (which were major chapters really), but I do have a few things I want to point out and we’ll see where things take us.
Bell is pretty straightforward in this chapter, and as the title says, Bell indeed talks about rocks. He details the story in Exodus 17 in which the Israelities are thirsty and can’t find water. God tells Moses to strike the rock and the rock produces water. Bell and his readers jump to I Corinthians 10 in which Paul explains to his audience that “those who traveled out of Egypt ‘drank from the spiritual rock that accompanies them, and that rock was Christ.'”
Paul, however, reads another story in the story, insisting that Christ was present in that moment, that Christ was providing the water they needed to survive—that Jesus was giving, quenching, sustaining.
Jesus was, he says, the rock.
According to Paul,
Jesus was there.
Without anybody using his name.
Without anybody saying that it was him.
Without anybody acknowledging just what—or, more precisely, who—it was.
… Paul finds Jesus there,
in that rock,
because Paul finds Jesus everywhere.
From this brief passage, one gets the sense that Bell is making two points here:
- The Israelites were saved in the wilderness by Christ who is the “living water” (John 4:10-15), which Bell really could’ve and, in order to strengthen his argument, should’ve mentioned here. Before the Israelites even knew who was saving them from physical death, the Messiah was already present providing them with the water of life.
- Christ can be present in nearly anything, anywhere; the implication being that the saving work of Christ can be present in almost any form. This starts to get loaded.
Here’s the deleted portion of the previous passage:
Paul’s interpretation that Christ was present in the Exodus raises the question:
Where else has Christ been present?
With who else?
This opens up a can of worms, in a way. In Velvet Elvis, Bell is careful to show that Paul finds secular truth in Greek philosophy and poetry and doesn’t hesitate to incorporate it into one of his sermons.
[Paul] is speaking at a place called Mars Hill (which would be a great name for a church) and trying to explain to a group of people who believe in hundreds of thousands of gods that there is really only one God who made everything and everybody. At one point he’s talking about how God made us all, and he says to them, “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offering.'” (ENDNOTE!: Acts 17:28) He quotes their own poets. And their poets don’t even believe in the God he’s talking about. They were talking about some other god and how we are all the offspring of that god, and Paul takes their statement and makes it about his God. Amazing.
Paul doesn’t just affirm the truth here; he claims it for himself. He doesn’t care who said it or who they were even saying it about. What they said was true, and so he claims it as his own.” (Velvet Elvis, p. 079)
And I’m with Bell with the ability to affirm truth wherever it is because God exhibits truth and truth is an extension of God.
But I tread carefully on the ability to find Jesus’ saving work in anything because God can do anything and use anything He pleases for salvation. But the Bible is clear that God isn’t present in everything so Bell’s questions make me a bit iffy on the ways Christ has been present, can be present, and in what ways he can be present. I won’t make any definitive assertions except to say that while I don’t believe God is present in sin or evil, He can (and often does!) use the outcome for good that can lead to salvation.
[This is part X of a multi-part series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.]
Chapter 5 is a heckuva lot easier to summarize:
Jesus died and rose again. As a result of that action, he has forever reconciled us to God the Father.
This is not controversial stuff.
As a result, there’s not much that I need to ponder over or challenge because in this chapter, Bell lays out Jesus’ sacrifice and he does it in a way that is typically Bell-esque: with original analogies and beautiful images. (When Bell says something clearly, it’s like bursting into a magnificent, clear blue sky after having endured dark shadows and lingering gray storm clouds.)
Bell makes an interesting point that I’ve never heard of before (but find interesting): he speaks of John (the Gospel writer) numbering signs all throughout his gospel. In John 11, Lazarus’s resurrection from the dead is the seventh sign of Jesus outlined in the gospel.
Now ask: Is the number seven significant in the Bible?
Does it occur in any other prominent place?
Well, yes, it does. In the poem that begins the Bible. The poem speaks of seven days of creation.
But there’s one more sign in John’s Gospel. In chapter 20 Jesus rises from the dead. Now that’s a sign. The eighth sign in the book of John. Jesus rises from the dead in a garden. Which, of course, takes us back to Genesis, to the first creation in a . . . garden.
I’d never thought of things that way. Reading that blew my mind. Either John was a very clever fiction writer or God is the most amazing storyteller I’ve ever read.
What is John telling us?
It’s the eighth sign, the first day of the new week, the first day of the new creation. The resurrection of Jesus inaugurates a new creation, one free from death, and it is bursting forth in Jesus himself right here in the midst of the first creation.
… John is telling a huge story,
one about God rescuing all of creation.
I love it. John continually points his readers back to Genesis, constantly linking Jesus to God the Father, Creator of all things from the get-go (Jn 1:1) and here it is even in the final chapters of John and I totally missed it. It’s beautiful to see.
As I’m breathless and taken away by this beauty of discovering the symbolism in everything Jesus does, Bell kind of ruins it for me in “wait-a-minute-this-is-a-book-about-heaven-hell-and-the-fate-of-every-person-who-ever-lived-moment.”
How many people, if you were to ask them why they’ve left church, would give an answer something along the lines of, “It’s just so . . . small”?
No one I know really. They’d have tons of other reasons but it wouldn’t be that.
A gospel that leaves out its cosmic scope will always feel small.
A gospel that has as its chief message avoiding hell or not sinning will never be the full story.
A gospel that repeatedly, narrowly affirms and bolsters the “in-ness” of one group at the expense of the “out-ness” of another group will not be true to the story that includes “all things and people in heaven and on earth.”
And I think to myself, this is not the gospel. No one I know or have ever heard in Biblical Protestantism (ok, and Anabaptism) preaches a message like this. (I’m not sure whether to classify this as a false dichotomy.) The main message of the gospel, which can often be “ye must be born again,” is always Christ and Him crucified.
Why was Christ crucified? To reconcile us to God.
Why do we need to be reconciled to God? That’s a question, or more accurately, a tension we can be free to leave fully intact.
The other issue I have with Bell here about the talk of restoration, renewal, and if you will, “second chances,” is that gives people no real need to come to Jesus. If all things will be restored in the end anyway, what does it matter if I murder someone I don’t like? Even if I get fried in the electric chair, I still eventually go to heaven maybe after a brief punishment for my sins.
Although hell is an unlikable place to be or to think about (if you take it seriously), the purpose of it is for judgment. When a criminal is deemed guilty in a court of law and sentenced to life in prison, he is sent to jail until death. Hell is the jail that never ends.
But let’s take a step back. And we’ve got to follow Bell’s suppositions (maybe? he is careful to never outright say he believes these things) about what ultimately brings God glory in the end: restoration, reconciliation, and renewal.
Think of a terrible, gruesome time during the 20th century. I’ll give you a hint of where I’m going with this: think of a specific dictator who murdered tens of millions of people. There are at least three you can choose from.
1 . . .
2 . . .
This is kind of like an annoying email forward now, isn’t it?
I’ll choose Hitler since Stalin and Tse-Tung (Zedong) don’t seem to strike the same kind of terror into Westerners’ hearts.
Adolf Hitler is estimated to be responsible for at least 12 million murders during World War II. When Hitler shot himself in the head on April 30, 1945, his soul plunged into eternity.
Now, tell me: do you think it brings God more glory to simply excuse such heinous and irresponsible actions and allow Hitler into heaven on the basis of restoration and reconciliation or does it bring God more glory to judge Hitler and punish him for the atrocities he committed while he was on this earth? Because remember, he was never tormented in the way that he tormented so many others (not just the Jewish and the Polish but anyone who either opposed him or didn’t fit his ideal Aryan race).
Maybe I’m a cold, heartless bitch, but I want God to make Hitler pay for the things that he never had to pay for on earth. It’s a little disappointing to think that Hitler could toy with the lives of 12 million people and after death still be reconciled to God after maybe a “season” in hell.
God is God, and yes, He could totally restore Adolf Hitler to himself in the era of restoration to come, but I just don’t see humans (who would have exacted the harshest sentences possible on Hitler before executing him) being more lenient than God.
Then Bell says things that make me wonder, Does this jive with scripture?
“To be clear, again, an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts.”
Maybe. But again, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it remains that way forever. I think specifically of Pharaoh who had a rather hard heart against the people of Israel who wanted to be freed and even “repented” (!) of his temporarily “melted” heart (after a series of wearying plagues) and decided to go after them as they made their way out of Egypt. The Bible gives no indication that Pharaoh ever repented of his re-hardened heart.
“Could God say to someone truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation, ‘Sorry, too late’? Many have refused to accept the scenario in which somebody is pounding on the door, apologizing, repenting, and asking God to be let in, only to hear God say through the keyhole: ‘Door’s locked. Sorry. If you have been here earlier, I could have done something. But now, it’s too late.’
As it’s written in 2 Timothy 2, God ‘cannot disown himself.'”
These many who have refused need to reread the Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. Not that I like the idea of a door being shut permanently, but if we’re going off of scripture, we have to seriously consider what it says.
“At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God.”
And in Christianity, there are some people who choose not to directly align themselves with views they believe so that they may not be tied directly with these specific beliefs therefore they speak of themselves in generalities so that it is almost impossible to pin them down with what they believe.