Years ago, when I would discuss certain issues with my father, at some point he would accuse me of “not seeing the big picture.” Typically, what he meant by this was that in the process of arguing my side or seeking to understand the purpose of doing some specific thing or considering some concept in a specific way, I had lost sight of the inherent reason for, or reality of, the situation. “You’re focusing on only a tiny little corner of the painting, son. You’re not seeing the big picture.”
I hated it when he would say that, mainly because he was right. It was a true assessment. I had lost sight of the big picture in order to defend or explain one small detail. It was like trying to put together a puzzle one piece at a time, but with no thought to the picture on the box – the end result. The goal.
I was continually reminded of this while reading Rob Bell’s newest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Most folks are aware that before this book even hit shelves last spring, the Internet was ablaze with Christians – some well-known, many unknown – attacking what they believed to be an intriguingly disguised case for Christian Universalism, which, on a basic level, is the belief that all human beings will ultimately be reconciled to God and be saved from hell. Of course, the book has had its defenders, but what I found so unsettling was how quick some folks were ready to pass judgment on the book before they even read it! The spark that lit the fire was the video promo for the book, which many people believed was evidence enough that Bell had slid too far down the slope of heresy. Take a look for yourself…
There you have it. Rob Bell practically says it all right in the promo. No need to read the book – the guy leaves room in heaven for Gandhi! Can you believe it? Who’s next? Che Guevara? Hitler? bin Laden?
There are two problems with this assumption that Bell is a universalist and that Love Wins is merely a faulty manifesto of non-biblical ideas from the fringes of “emergent” psuedo-Christianity.
First, to assume that because Bell is not ready to count Mahatma Gandhi as one of the damned he must be a universalist is like assuming that because I sympathize with the plight of Palestinians in the West Bank I must therefore be an anti-Semite. The conclusion requires a jump that would shatter all Olympic records. Sure, if you take the two-minute sound-bite as the whole argument, it is easy to discredit Bell. However, as he points out at more length in his book, whether or not Gandhi is in hell is not the point. The real point is how quick Christians are willing to stand in place of God when it comes to matters of who gets in to heaven and who doesn’t. Time and again in the scriptures we are reminded that it is Jesus Christ who will be the final, ultimate judge of this world. Christians are not the judge, and despite the way in which some people speak and conduct themselves, neither do they sit on the jury.
The second problem, that which concerns the outright rejection of the book, is that what Bell has written in Love Wins is not an argument for the non-existence of hell at all; however, the only way to know this is to… wait for it… read the actual book! Those that do read despite the forewarnings of becoming corrupted by a contagion of heresy (I finished the book a few days ago and, so far, I’m feeling fine) may be surprised to discover that only one of the eight chapters is concerned with hell, and at no point does Bell reject the existence or concept of hell. Instead, they will find that Bell is not offering universal reconciliation as the “right” way to understand God’s will. Instead, all he seems to be encouraging is for Christians to consider why it is they believe what they believe, and what those particular beliefs reveal about their concept of who God is. In other words, Bell is not arguing one little corner of the picture, but trying to get his readers to step back and take in the whole thing. If anything, he wants us to remember that believing in God means starting with the big picture – that God does indeed love us. All of us. Even with all our confusion and misdeeds and mistakes and dark secrets, he loves us. Not despite our imperfection, but rather in light of it.
Make no mistake, Love Wins is concerned with theology. It is a challenging book, and it does offer a paradigm shift when it comes to how we think about God and our relationship with him. But if there is any reason to read the book, it is not so we can have answers for people wondering why God lets some people into heaven but sends others to hell. As Bell continually reminds his readers, God is so much bigger than these concerns, and his love is much, much greater than the way in which so many Christians have grown up thinking about it. What is most important, and the reason I believe people should read this book, is it forces us to consider the world – our friends, our enemies, our ancestors, our children, our children’s children – no longer from our limited, human perspective, but from God’s eternal perspective. It is a point of view that can be hard to fathom, but this is nothing new. God once spoke through Isaiah the prophet, saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways.”
For many years, I was guilty of considering salvation from a very limited, corner-of-the-painting perspective. My understanding of salvation in Christ was akin to a business deal. Sure, most of the work is done for me, but, at some point, I have to close the deal lest the relationship never be officially forged and the benefits rendered null and void. I think a lot of us have viewed “coming to Christ” or “getting saved” or being “born again” in this way, where some form of the Sinner’s Prayer constitutes our signature on the contract that is drawn up and offered freely by Jesus H. Christ, Esq. Heaven becomes that primo retirement plan waiting on us after we slogged our way through this labor-intensive life. As for hell, well, maybe if those folks had just worked a little harder. After all, it’s not as if they weren’t warned that they could be downsized at any moment, and, c’mon, who wouldn’t want a pension this valuable?
What a joyless, impotent way of thinking about my relationship with a holy God, the creator of all things. There were years when I walked church aisles time and again because, in essence, I was afraid my signature had been too illegible.
Whether you’re a Christian who thinks you’ve got a pretty good handle on who God is, or a person who has rejected belief in a God because the people who profess him seem so small-minded, I think we all need to step back and consider the bigger picture. God is so much bigger than the pundit preacher they’re interviewing on CNN or Fox News. He is so much greater than the moral absolute at the heart of a candidate’s political platform. He is so far beyond the scrawled opinions of the picket signs.
And we can know him. We can know this God. All it takes is a willingness to look past our own limited views of him. We’ll find him waiting there for us with open arms. We’ll find him here. We’ll find him now.