How Ed Dobson changed the course of my life


I had just graduated college, and I didn’t know what to do next. I’d spent four years earning a degree in political science, thinking I would go off to Washington, D.C. and join the front lines of the culture wars.

But one year during college, I got a taste of the action, working for a conservative religious lobby a few blocks from the White House. After that, I wasn’t sure I wanted another taste—for many reasons, one of which I wrote about here.

It was a pastor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who showed me another way—or at least, helped me to imagine another way.

After graduation, I had a job offer from the lobbying group I had worked at two summers before. That’s when I read a book called Blinded by Might by Ed Dobson (co-written with Cal Thomas). Ed was the pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids and a former assistant to Jerry Falwell, chief architect of the Religious Right.

Ed argued that he and his fellow Christians were wrong to get sucked into the culture wars. We were wrong, he suggested, to automatically assume God was on our side.

Ed was bold enough to say what most of us didn’t want to admit: our activism was less about building the common good and more about accumulating power for ourselves. He urged the church to relinquish its addiction to power so it could become the church again.

I still have Ed’s book, along with a letter James Dobson (no relation to Ed) wrote, attacking him for challenging the infallibility of the Religious Right. (It should be noted that Ed’s personal views at the time were not much different from the other Dobson’s. Instead, the two differed on something bigger: the mission and identity of the church.)

Ed Dobson’s book and James Dobson’s response

Ed’s book convinced me to give up what would have been a self-serving career in politics. I opted for seminary instead, partly so I could buy more time to figure out what to do with my life. I spent the next three years studying theology at a school across the street from Ed’s church.

I only met Ed once, when I thanked him for writing his book. But his influence helped reset the trajectory of my life.

Ed died last week after a 15-year battle with ALS.

Having spent the better part of those 15 years in Grand Rapids, I’ve followed Ed’s journey from a relatively short distance. His journey did not end when he walked away from the Religious Right. It did not end when he was diagnosed with ALS. It did not end when illness forced him to retire as pastor of Calvary Church.

Ed kept going. He kept exploring. He kept pursuing Jesus. He once spent a year trying to live exactly as Jesus did.

Ed did things most evangelical pastors would not. He joined hands with the LGBTQ community to fight AIDS—at a time when most pastors offered them nothing but hate and condemnation. He worked to bridge the racial divide in the church and beyond.

When evangelicals leapt on Rob Bell for his controversial book Love Wins, Ed refused to take pot shots at the pastor he had once mentored. Instead, he responded simply by quoting Jesus’ words in Luke 9: “Do not stop him, for whoever is not against you is for you.”

When Ed’s son came out, telling his parents, “I’m gay, I still love Jesus, and nothing else changes,” Ed responded, “We still love you, and nothing else changes.”

As his ALS progressed, Ed’s “parish” shrank in some ways—in ways that might seem important to some. But it grew in other, more significant ways. Ed ministered to people on a more intimate scale. His shared his story to encourage those who were walking through their own darkest valleys.

All things considered, the book Ed wrote in 1999 is probably one of the smaller parts of his legacy. But I would not be where I am today if not for that book. I would not have been given such a powerful example of how to live like Jesus, if not for Ed’s story.

As one of Ed’s sons shared on Facebook recently, “There’s seven billion people on this planet, and [Ed] loved every last one of them.”

Rest in peace, Ed. Great is your reward.

Photo credit: Ed’s Story

Rob Bell’s new video, reclaiming the word “evangelical,” and the choice between power and presence

“I’m an evangelical, and I believe in good news for everybody.”

Rob Bell was written off by many evangelical leaders years ago, so on the one hand, it’s kind of surprising he’d want anything to do with the term “evangelical” now. Yet he’s back on old form in his newest video, unpacking something he taught more than once in his Mars Hill days.

In short:

The term evangelical comes from the Greek word for “good news.” It was the term Rome used to announce each military triumph over their adversaries, as they proclaimed their version of peace on earth. Whether or not it was truly peace, Rob points out, depended on “which end of the sword you were on.”

The early Christian sect reappropriated the Greek word to refer to another kind of victory—Jesus’ triumph over death—and what it meant for the world. For them, “good news” was something that spread “not through coercive military violence, not through crushing your enemies, but through love.”

How a term once used by those who fed the hungry and welcomed outsiders in the name of Christ came to be associated with a mostly white American voting bloc advancing a narrow, exclusionary political agenda is indeed mystifying.

Some of us have wondered if it’s time we gave up on the word “evangelical.”

Others, like Brandan Robertson, have fought to hang onto the term. It’s not been an easy fight, as I’m sure he could tell you.

Some of us have settled into faith traditions that aren’t widely seen as “evangelical.” I’ve been a confirmed Episcopalian for more than four years now. But you almost never leave your past behind entirely. The baggage—good and bad—travels with you. I still value many things about my evangelical heritage. As Rachel Held Evans writes in Searching for Sunday, evangelicalism taught many of us to read the Bible. Granted, it didn’t always teach us to read the Bible well. But I might not have had the same understanding of and appreciation for the Scriptures if I hadn’t grown up evangelical.

Part of me would like to see the word “evangelical” reappropriated. It’s been done before—by the very first Christians, who stole it from Rome. Why can’t it happen again?

What would it take?

To start, those who wear the label “evangelical” (in particular, white American evangelicals) must learn the difference between power and presence—and decide which they really want. Because it can’t be both.

Evangelicalism lost its way when it embraced the pursuit of power—namely, political power—a pursuit, incidentally, that is nowhere encouraged in the New Testament.

Evangelicalism lost its way when it prioritized its own advancement over the good of others, when it stopped valuing others above itself.

Evangelicalism can find its way again—but it has to relinquish the pursuit of power. Relinquishing power doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world, essentially repeating the fundamentalists’ mistake of the early 20th century. Christians are called to love, to serve—in other words, to be fully present.

Scripture puts no qualifiers or limits on who we’re called to love and serve—in other words, who we’re called to be fully present with. The pursuit of power is by nature an exclusionary path. Invariably, it’s about rival groups trying to defeat and displace one another. It’s about othering those you don’t like. It’s a zero sum game.

Choosing presence over power may or may not require rethinking some of your convictions. But whether you identify as conservative or progressive or somewhere in between, choosing presence over power certainly means rethinking what you do with your convictions. Do you use them to keep people out? Or do your convictions lead you to be fully present wherever you are, loving and serving all without qualification?

This, as Rob says, is what it means to be “evangelical” in the truest sense of the word. This is what it looks like to proclaim good news for everyone.

If, instead, you seek to coerce society into becoming more “Christian” through political enforcement, you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

If you view your enemy, whoever you may think that is, as someone to be crushed or defeated or displaced—instead of someone to be loved and served without hesitation—you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

If you’re more interested in keeping the “wrong” kind of people out than offering the greatest possible welcome to all, you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

If you think Jesus’ resurrection changes your eternal destiny only and not everything here on earth, you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

Such a gospel is not “good news.”

There are some who would limit the term “evangelical” along narrow ideological lines. Their “good news” has more in common with Rome than Jesus.

I don’t know whether the term “evangelical” is worth salvaging or not. But I do believe that, as Rob says, “If it isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.”

Will reading the Bible turn you into a liberal?

Greg Carey, a professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, believes reading the Bible is the best cure for fundamentalism. As he writes in this piece for the Huffington Post from 2012 (which has been making the rounds again this week):

The best way for conservative churches to produce “liberal” biblical scholars is to keep encouraging young people to read the Bible.

I think he’s being a bit tongue-in-cheek with his use of the word “liberal.” This is not really a “liberal” vs. “conservative” issue—at least not if the insinuation is that all liberals are angry, ivory tower types set on undermining Scripture. More on that later.

While we should be careful to avoid overgeneralizing about either side (conservatives can and do read the Bible without significantly altering their core beliefs), I resonated with Carey’s story on a personal level. Like him, reading Scripture has led me to question many assumptions which I previously took for granted. Absorbing whole books—not just settling for a daily verse ripped from its original context—has made me wary of any statement that begins with, “The Bible clearly says…” Like Carey, I’ve come to realize the Bible is vastly more intricate—and a good deal more human—than I once thought.

For Carey, it started with the realization that the gospels are not (with the possible exception of John) eyewitness accounts of Jesus.

For me, it started with hell.

The year was 2011. That was when Rob Bell published his book Love Wins. “Farewell” became a thing neo-reformed leaders say to those they deem heretical. Friends were lining up on either side of the “is there a hell or not?” divide.

I had decided to read the New Testament for Lent that year. It’s sad to say—especially for a kid who grew up going to churches with the word “Bible” in their names—but it was the first time I’d read the whole thing from start to finish.

Given all the fuss about Love Wins, I decided to keep an eye out for hell as I made my way through the New Testament. I wanted to see if a clear picture emerged, if things really were as straightforward as Rob’s most vocal critics said they were.

Sightings of hell were few and far between—and not all that consistent. Hell is mentioned just 23 times in the entire New Testament. And even that’s misleading, because the New Testament uses three different terms, which translators have unhelpfully collapsed into the all-homogenizing English word “hell.”

The Bible has plenty to say about judgment—it’s hard to escape that as you read—but most of what it says bears little resemblance to the dominant evangelical portrait of hell as a place of never-ending, fiery torment. Judgment is more commonly depicted as the end of something—“everlasting destruction,” “second death,” etc. The “eternal conscious torment” view is supported by maybe two passages in the whole New Testament.

In short, painting a “biblical” picture of hell is no easy task. The Bible doesn’t lay out a uniform theology of judgment. It’s not as though God gathered all the human authors of Scripture for a preproduction meeting and said, “Let’s get on the same page here. Make sure each of you include the following three key points about hell…”

That’s because the Bible is a human book—or rather, a collection of human books. I happen to think it’s also inspired. But we have a tendency to talk about divine inspiration at the expense of the Bible’s humanity. And it’s time we restored the balance.

This, I think, is the real issue. This is why reading the Bible—really reading it—for the first time messes with your head. It’s not so much a “liberal” vs. “conservative” thing. It’s a “turning the Bible into something it’s not” thing.

I grew up thinking of the Bible as more or less something that fell from the sky—neatly packaged, never contradicting itself, containing all the answers. And it just isn’t that kind of book.

Instead, it’s exactly what you’d expect a collection of books compiled over several centuries to be. It’s messy. It’s diverse. Sometimes it’s poetry. Sometimes it’s narrative. Sometimes it’s a literary genre for which we don’t have a modern-day comparison. It’s dialogical. It’s not a monologue from God. It’s a two-way (and in some cases multidirectional) conversation.

Sometimes, that makes coming up with clear-cut answers, well… difficult.

We try to make the Bible give us a straightforward picture of hell, and instead it gives us three different terms—each with a distinct meaning.

We try to draw a clear-cut sexual ethic from Scripture—and we get David, the man who took at least seven wives and plenty more concubines and STILL managed to be called a man after God’s own heart.

We try to create a neatly harmonized account of Jesus, but the Gospels stubbornly resist our efforts to collapse four stories into one.

None of which is to dismiss or diminish the Bible. None of which is to reduce this discussion to the same tired old “liberal” vs. “conservative” polarization. I left fundamentalism a long time ago, but like Greg Carey, I still love Jesus and the church. I’ve devoted a good chunk of my career to sharing with others what he calls “the love and wonder we experience with the Bible.” I believe the Bible is a complicated book, but for me it’s a sacredly complicated book.

Reading the Bible holistically won’t necessarily turn you into a liberal. And that’s OK. But liberal or conservative, you might grow to appreciate that it’s not always a simple matter of “doing what the Bible says.” Like Carey concludes in his post, reading the Bible requires responsible interpretation.

And maybe a good dose of humility.

Related post: 6 observations on salvation, judgment, & hell after reading the New Testament

Shock-jock pastor meets the full (but not so manly) might of the British Empire

Mark Driscoll is mad. (Yes, again.)

This time, it’s about his recent interview with UK radio host and “timid Brit” Justin Brierley. A few extracts were released ahead of a profile piece in Christianity magazine. They include one where Driscoll challenges Brierley on everything from the number of manly men in his church (which is pastored by his wife) to whether Brierley believes in penal substitution. And here I thought the interviewer generally asked the questions.

Other highlights include Driscoll saying that British churches are run by “a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling truth,” and claiming the entire country doesn’t “have one young guy that anybody’s listening to who can preach the Bible.”

In other words, the problem with the British church is that it needs more strident celebrity pastors?

Then there was the bit where Driscoll — famous calling his theological opponents a bunch of “chicks and chickified dudes with limp wrists” — described the UK church scene as “guys in dresses preaching to grandmas.”

When it came out that the presenter’s wife is a pastor, Driscoll launched into a “whose church is bigger?” competition, which he concluded with this statement:

You look at your results, look at my results, and look at the variable that’s most obvious [i.e. male leadership].”

Afterward on his blog, Driscoll characterized the experience as “the most disrespectful, adversarial, and subjective” interview he’s had since releasing his latest book, Real Marriage, which he co-authored with his wife Grace.

He said he felt set up — namely, that the interview “had nearly nothing to do with the book or its subject matter” as expected. He complained of being “selectively edited and presented in a way that is not entirely accurate.”

So Brierley posted the entire interview online.

And yeah… he asks some tough questions, much as he did when he interviewed Rob Bell about his controversial book Love Wins. That’s what journalists do.

At least 20 minutes of the interview touched on Driscoll’s book directly or indirectly. Before starting, Brierley asked if it was OK to venture into other subjects as well. And his pointed questions were balanced by his oft-repeated admiration for Driscoll’s willingness to tackle the difficult issues head on.  

Another complaint was that Brierley ignored Driscoll’s wife, who was on the phone with him and was meant to be part of the interview. This one seems like a fair complaint. Grace Driscoll was asked just one question during the entire interview. Brierley quickly apologized for this at the end. More to the point, instead of complaining about it after the fact, why didn’t Mark Driscoll — as his wife’s defender, protector, etc. — speak up for her during the interview? Why did he never say, “Hey, my wife has some great insights to share about the book; let’s make sure we cover that, too”?

While we’re (kind of) on the subject, if you believe it’s wrong for a woman to “teach or have authority” over men, why would you co-write a book about marriage with your wife? What if a man reads your book — namely, the sections written by your wife — and learns something from it? What if he actually “submits” to some of her advice? Precisely how is that not “teaching or having authority” over men?

What’s unfortunate is that Driscoll had a number of reasonable things to say during the interview, most of which were overshadowed by his reaction to it. When asked about the provocatively titled chapter “Can We _____?” in Real Marriage, Driscoll gave a perfectly sensible rationale for his advice to young couples.

But why did he feel the need to chide the presenter as “scandalous” and “immature” for asking about this chapter in the first place? You mean to tell me it’s OK to write a chapter on all the things a married couple should and shouldn’t do during their more intimate moments, give it a provocative title designed to grab people’s attention, and then get irritated when a reporter wants to ask you about it?

There were plenty of other illuminating moments during the interview, both bad and good. Like when Driscoll demonstrated that he doesn’t fully understand the difference between single and double predestination. On the plus side, he offered that predestination and gender roles are second-tier issues, not litmus tests of orthodoxy. (Whew.)

But Driscoll’s dressing-down of the presenter near the end was just, well, sad. You can read a partial transcript over at Cognitive Discopants (= best blog name ever).

Driscoll asks Brierley how many young men have come to Christ at the church his wife pastors. Driscoll’s point — implied here, but stated clearly a moment later — is that he’s won more converts; therefore he’s right about women in ministry. When Brierley points out that a few young men have, in fact, come to Christ since his wife took the reins of their small church, Driscoll responds:

This is where the excuses come, not the verses. This is where the excuses come, not the verses.

Setting aside the fact that throwing around Bible verses like weapons is a poor way to win an argument, Driscoll’s logic is, in essence: “I’m popular. I’ve got lots of people coming to my church. Which proves I’m right and you’re wrong.”

It’s an odd argument to make, especially for someone who has openly (and, in my opinion, rightly) criticized the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen. If numbers are a sign of God’s personal endorsement, then Osteen is even more right than Mark is.

Next, Driscoll asks what kind of men are to be found in Brierley’s church. “Strong men?” Then he asks whether Brierley’s wife does any “sexual counseling” with men. To which the answer is, not surprisingly, no. Like any sensible church, they have male leaders available to counsel other men about their sexual problems.

Then Driscoll changes subjects entirely, asking Brierley if he believes in the “conscious, literal, eternal torment of hell.” And so the litmus test comes out.

Brierley rightly asks what this has to do with the subject at hand, women in ministry. To which Driscoll replies:

It depends on your view of God. Is God like a mom who just embraces everyone, or is he like a father who also protects and defends and disciplines?

I’m not sure who Driscoll’s trying harder to insult: egalitarians (who worship an effeminate teddy bear, apparently) or every mom on the planet (all of whom are apparently incapable of protecting, defending, and disciplining their children).

Over on his blog, Driscoll pleads with British churches not to compromise on “essential doctrinal issues,” which for him includes “the reality of a literal conscious eternal torment in hell.” Translation: if you don’t believe in eternal conscious torment, you’re not a Christian.

OK, but one of Driscoll’s theological heroes, John Stott (“whom I love,” Driscoll said during the interview) didn’t believe in eternal conscious torment. He was an annihilationist. Worse, he was British!

As the interview-in-reverse draws to a close, Driscoll tries one last time to prove that Brierley isn’t a real Christian — because it’s all about who’s in and who’s out — this time by asking whether he believes in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.

From the perspective of historic Christian orthodoxy, Brierley’s answer is quite sensible: substitutionary atonement is one of the ways (but not the only way) we understand what happened on the cross. I should say “try to understand,” because precisely how Christ defeated sin and death is wrapped up in mystery beyond our ability to fathom.

But for Driscoll, that’s not good enough. Penal substitution is the “central, governing” idea of the cross. To which I respond with the same question I’ve asked of Calvinism in general. If that’s so, then why isn’t penal substitution clearly stated in the universal creeds of the church, much less Paul’s summation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 (which, as Scot McKnight has demonstrated, provided the framework for the earliest creeds)?

Finally, a word of advice. (Not that you’re reading, Mark. But I’ll pretend anyway.) Every time you get torn apart for saying something careless, you complain that you were selectively quoted and taken out of context.

You’re a smart guy. You’re culturally savvy. The answer is staring you in the face.

If you’re tired of people throwing all the careless things you’ve said back at you, stop saying them.

It’s time to man up, Mark.


Update: Christianity magazine (the publication behind the Mark Driscoll interview) tweeted a link to my post earlier today. So I’ve posted a follow-up on why I think it’s important to speak up about Driscoll.

The day the tulip died, part 9

Rob Bell said two things that ended my journey with Calvinism. The first can be found here. The second (again, I’m paraphrasing from memory) was this:

You want to believe in predestination? That’s fine. Just remember that in the Bible, God doesn’t predestine people primarily for their own benefit. People are predestined so they can be a blessing to others.

Calvinists and non-Calvinists have a tendency to talk past each other when debating predestination. The Calvinist asks, “Why don’t you believe in predestination when it’s so clearly taught in the Bible?” And to be fair, some of our answers come across as evasive.

So here it is:

I believe in predestination. I believe God has predestined specific individuals. For example, he predestined Abraham, Moses, David, Mary, Paul, etc.

Exactly when God predestined them and whether they could have resisted, I don’t know. (Moses certainly tried.) I’m not seeking to build a comprehensive theological system, because comprehensive theological systems tend to collapse under their own weight.

But take another look at the individuals mentioned above. They all have at least two things in common. First, each played a remarkable role in the redemptive drama.

In linguistics, there’s a fallacy known as illegitimate totality transfer. It’s when you take one possible meaning of a word and read it into every occurrence without regard for context. (For example, “green” can be an idiom for money. But that doesn’t mean “green” always means money.)

We run a similar risk when we read the accounts of people like Abraham and Moses. We see they were chosen by God in some way, so we assume everyone who comes to know God was predestined in exactly the same way. But on what basis?

Second, each was predestined for a specific purpose. And that purpose always has to do with someone else. Usually, lots of someone elses.

Abraham was predestined to be the father of a great nation, through whom God would bless “all peoples on earth” (Genesis 12).

Moses was predestined to deliver an entire nation from slavery and lead them into a covenant with Yahweh (Exodus 3).

David was predestined to be first in an unbroken line of Jewish kings — culminating in Jesus the Messiah, king of the world (1 Samuel 16; 2 Samuel 7).

Mary was predestined to be the mother of God incarnate (Luke 1).

Paul was predestined to bring the good news to Gentiles all over the Roman Empire (Acts 9; 1 Corinthians 1).

Every one of them was predestined for the benefit of others. When we come across individual predestination in the Bible, it’s never an end unto itself; it’s a means to a much bigger end. God’s saving plan might start with the predestination of one person, but it never stops there.

For Calvinism, predestination consists of membership in an exclusive club: the “elect.” Which, assuming I see myself as a member of that club, puts the emphasis on me and how I benefit from being one of the lucky few.

In this respect, the Calvinist view of predestination veers dangerously close to that of the Jewish religious authorities who opposed Jesus and John the Baptist.

The Pharisees saw themselves as the elect, part of an exclusive “bless-me” club. Both John and Jesus called them on it.

John warned them not to hide behind their genetic link to Abraham, because God could find children for himself elsewhere, if he pleased (Luke 3). Jesus rebuked them for shutting the door of God’s kingdom in other people’s faces (Matthew 23).

The Pharisees had forgotten their true purpose as a chosen people: to be a light to the Gentiles — to the supposedly non-chosen ones.

By viewing predestination as both the means and the end, Calvinism risks making the same mistake. But there is another way. It starts by taking seriously statements like God “wants all people to be saved.” It accepts that God is very much involved in the redemptive drama unfolding all around us — sometimes even orchestrating events to very specific ends. But his chief goal is to be reconciled to as many people as possible, not a select few for whom he’s rigged the outcome in advance.

This is what I realized when I heard Rob Bell speak in passing about predestination. And that was the day the tulip died.

The day the tulip died, part 8

So there were two things Rob Bell said that made me walk away from Calvinism. The first (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) was:

There are lots of things God can do [followed by a rapid-fire, Rob Bell-esque list], but the one thing he can’t do is make you love him.

OK, to be fair, this sounds a bit . . . problematic. Isn’t God all-powerful? How can you say there’s something he CAN’T do? Didn’t God once ask whether anything was “too hard for the Lord” — the obvious answer being NO — and then proceed to make parents out of a couple of infertile nonagenarians?

But there IS something — or more precisely, a category of things — which God cannot do.

God cannot do that which is incompatible with his character. According to the writer of Hebrews, God cannot break an oath. According to James (the brother of Jesus), God cannot tempt or be tempted by evil.

The apostle John wrote that “God is love.” That is, God is the very embodiment of love. It’s essential to his character.

Sure, God is lots of things. God is holy (Psalm 99:9). God is light (1 John 1:5). God is spirit — i.e. breath, the source of life (John 4:24).

And to the extent that God is any of these things, he cannot be their antithesis. He cannot be unholy. He cannot be darkness. He cannot be death (which explains why Genesis and Revelation connect death to separation from God).

Last, God cannot be whatever is antithetical to love. So what exactly is love’s antithesis? Is it hate? Strictly speaking, no. Sometimes love compels us to hate certain things. Love demands that we hate injustice, oppression, and discrimination, to name a few.

The antithesis of love is coercion. Love, as portrayed in the scriptures, requires a decision not to use what power you have to manipulate others. It means setting aside your priorities to focus on the interests of others (Philippians 2). God himself provides the model for this kind of love, which we are called to emulate.

Other gods coerce. The God of the Bible loves.

In response, the neo-Reformed argue that love and coercion are not necessarily incompatible. Some, including Mark Driscoll, have offered the following hypothetical scenario (or in Driscoll’s case, not so hypothetical) to make their point: “If your child ran into oncoming traffic, would you just stand there and watch because you don’t believe in coercive love?”

The answer is, of course, no. But the analogy doesn’t really work. According to the Bible, God is the father of all who live. So how could an all-powerful God run into the street after some of his children but not others? What kind of God is that?

Besides, God has already gone to the greatest lengths possible to save all who will have him — incarnating himself, managing to contain uncontainable deity in a human form, and then dying at the hands of those he could’ve easily crushed.

The bottom line: if you believe, as I now do, that love and coercion are fundamentally incompatible, then it becomes impossible to maintain a Calvinist view of predestination.

And not because free will is so important. The truth is, we’re not nearly as free as we like to think. All sorts of external factors — where we were born, what kind of environment we grew up in, etc. — limit our freedom in a thousand different ways.

Then again, this isn’t really about free will.

It’s about God. It’s about what kind of God we believe in.

If we agree with the apostle John that “God is love,” and if we believe the same rules of love apply to him (because God made them in the first place), then it’s impossible to conceive of God determining that a select few would be saved — willing or not — while the rest are predestined to eternal damnation.

God cannot make you love him, as Rob Bell once said, because love by its very nature doesn’t force itself on the unwilling.

Part 9 (the final part) of this series can be found here.

The day the tulip died, part 7

My journey toward Calvinism was gradual, and so was my departure.

My wife and I quietly left our neo-Reformed church, not entirely sure what we were looking for. A friend from our old church predicted we’d be back before long.

Instead, we ended up at Mars Hill (the Michigan one, not the Seattle one). To my neo-Reformed friends, it’s OK to roll your eyes and say, “Well, that explains a lot.” I used to look at Rob Bell and Mars Hill the same way many of you do.

In fact, I thought about telling this story without mentioning Rob or Mars Hill by name. My guess is that some on the Reformed side will be tempted to dismiss what follows, purely because of the association with Rob Bell. Anyone who’s been part of the Mars Hill community knows what I’m talking about; Rob even alluded to it in his final sermon (top of page 7).

But Mars Hill is too important to this story to leave unmentioned.

Anyway, during my Calvinist days, I dismissed Rob as just another trendy pastor with a knack for saying what people wanted to ear.

Then Rob spoke in one of my seminary classes. (This was long before he had become one of Time’s 100 most influential people.) I was struck by how poorly he fit the populist megachurch pastor stereotype. He seemed to draw large numbers in spite of his best efforts, not because of them. Refusing to put a sign outside the church (there isn’t one to this day), spending the first year teaching through Leviticus, etc. He wasn’t taking his cues from the church growth consultant’s playbook, that’s for sure.

So we came to spend three-and-a-half very formative years at Mars Hill. During this time, Rob said two things that ended my journey with Calvinism.

(How’s that for leaving you hanging till the next post?)

Part 8 of this series can be found here.

Salvation, judgment, and hell in the New Testament: Luke-Acts

A few weeks ago, I posted some broad-brushstroke thoughts about my experience reading through the New Testament, seeking out every passage that touches on judgment, heaven, hell, who goes where, and for how long. This little experiment was inspired by reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins earlier this year. I thought I’d dive a little deeper into one book in particular, Luke.

Luke is one of two volumes from the same writer. Luke tells the story of Jesus, while volume two (Acts) unpacks the movement he ignited.

More than any other gospel, Luke highlights the radically inclusive nature of Jesus. Time and again, Jesus subverts the “natural order of things.” Those who think they’re entitled to God’s favor end up on the wrong side of things. Those typically excluded — women, foreigners, the diseased, etc. — end up pleasantly surprised.

The gospel of Luke mentions hell (a.k.a. Gehenna) only once, in Luke 12:5. Three times if you also count references to Hades (Luke 10:15; 16:23).

In Acts… not one mention of hell.

As for judgment, there’s plenty to be found in Luke. But it’s not always what you’d expect.

John the Baptist warns of an unquenchable fire in Luke 3. But he also connects fire with baptism. One fire, different results — depending on what kind of person you are.

Twice (Luke 9:25-26; 12:8-10) Jesus says he’ll disown anyone who’s ashamed of him. The second time, Jesus also warns that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

And just what is blasphemy against the Spirit? This statement is set against the backdrop of Jesus’ clash with those who cynically credit his work to the devil and insist he prove his identity by performing signs at their command (Luke 11:14-16).

Two things worth mentioning…

First, you have to know someone in order to be ashamed of them. These texts say nothing about those who’ve never heard of Jesus.

Second, Jesus aims his rebuke at those who knowingly, persistently reject him. Those who see God at work and call it the devil.

Elsewhere, Jesus prophesies that three Galilean villages — Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum — will suffer a fate worse than Sodom because of their unbelief (Luke 10:1-15).

In Love Wins, Rob Bell reflects on a similar passage in Matthew, suggesting that maybe there’s hope for Sodom (p. 83-84). But that doesn’t seem to be the point of Luke’s text or the parallel account in Matthew.

Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum are sometimes known as the “evangelical triangle.” This was Jesus’ home turf. Several of the disciples came from these villages. The evangelical triangle was home to some of the most devout, God-fearing people in ancient Palestine.

According to Luke, the fate of these otherwise good people who rejected the Messiah will be worse than that of the notoriously wicked who never met Christ (e.g. Sodom).

That’s because judgment is directly related to knowledge. Elsewhere, Luke quotes Jesus: “The one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows,” while those who know better “will be beaten with many blows” (Luke 12:47-48).

And in his next installment, Luke writes about a God who has overlooked human ignorance.

Does ignorance get someone off the hook for bad behavior? Not entirely. But the full force of judgment is reserved for those who ought to know better.

And then there’s the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). In this story, Jesus describes Hades as a place of “torment.” There’s a “great chasm” separating Hades from paradise — though the rich man’s refusal to accept Lazarus as his equal, even after their fortunes have been thoroughly reversed, is as much a chasm as anything else in this story.

Most scholars will tell you not to read too much theology into parables. But this story does reveal another dimension of judgment: it is in part about evening the score, providing justice for those who didn’t get any in this life (see also Luke 6:20-26).

In fact, if there’s one group of people for whom it’s almost impossible to enter the kingdom of God, it’s the rich (Luke 18:18-29). Which is small comfort for those of us who find ourselves among the wealthiest 1% of people on the planet.

Last, we have the religious leaders — Jesus’ nemeses in all four gospels.

Near the end of his life, Jesus singles out the religious establishment in a parable about a vineyard owner who executes his wicked tenants (Luke 20:9-19). No one misses the point (which is remarkable for one of Jesus’ parables): the “teachers of the law and the chief priests” are the wicked tenants.

A few paragraphs later, Jesus warns that the religious leaders “will be punished most severely” for making a mockery of religion and exploiting the vulnerable (Luke 20:45-47).

So yeah… there’s plenty of judgment in Luke. We’re talking more than just a slap on the wrist, too:

“Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell.”

“Will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.”

“These men will be punished most severely.”

But Luke also seems to believe that not all sins are created equal. In God’s cosmic justice, the punishment always fits the crime.

This is a far cry from the brand of Calvinism which says that every sin — from breaking the speed limit to genocide — is equally repugnant in the eyes of a holy God.

But there’s more.

In Luke, Jesus is radically inclusive and divisive all at once.

When Jesus’ disciples try to stop someone driving out demons in his name, Jesus tells them to leave the guy alone, saying, “Whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-51).

But in the very next section of Luke, he says, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23). (This was in response to those attributing his powers to the devil, for what it’s worth.)

Jesus insists he came not to bring peace but division (Luke 12:51), and he butts heads with the religious leaders… a LOT.

Yet Luke also says the religious leaders “rejected God’s purpose for themselves,” once more highlighting the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ message. Even the establishment — as corrupt as it was — was meant to be part of what God was doing.

It turns out God wants everybody, even misfits. Even outcasts. And even the ones oppressing the outcasts. That’s the whole point of Luke’s gospel.

One last thing to take from Luke: judgment isn’t our business. It’s God’s.

In Luke 9, as Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem — toward his death — he and his disciples pass through a Samaritan village. The people refuse to welcome him. (Let’s just say there was a bit of ethnic hostility between Jews and Samaritans back then.)

The disciples ask if they should call down fire from heaven to destroy the village… which was just a bit presumptuous on their part, don’t you think?

Jesus will have none of it. Luke simply says that he “turned and rebuked them.”

There’s a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo laments that his uncle Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance. To which Gandalf replies: “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”

The same warning applies to all of us to debate heaven, hell, and who goes where. It’s God’s business, not ours.

Even those who have a relatively narrow view of salvation should hope and pray they’re wrong — that God will withhold whatever judgment he’s got in store and spare whoever they seem to think will be on the receiving end.

After all, if you figure the odds based on the New Testament, those of us who qualify as “religious insiders” have a better chance of being on the wrong side of things… precisely because we’re so sure we’re right.

But the good news is that God wants everybody. Outcasts, insiders, everyone.


6 observations on salvation, judgment, and hell after reading the New Testament


Shortly before Love Wins came out, I started reading the New Testament for Lent. Since Rob Bell had recently blown up the Interwebs with his provocative promo video, I decided to make note of every passage mentioning judgment, either directly or indirectly.

I finished just before Good Friday. I wound up with 75 some-odd pages of notes. For me, the experience affirmed much of what Rob says in Love Wins. But it clarified some areas where I have a different understanding of hell and judgment, too.

In general, I’m more convinced than ever that Rob has started an important conversation. We need to wrestle with the questions he raises Love Wins, not dismiss or distort them. Above all, we need to explore these questions without the vitriol that’s characterized much of the discussion to date. (This is, after all, the week of the Rally to Restore Unity.)

Here are some general observations…

1. Judgment is part of the New Testament story… a BIG part.

Like I said, 75 pages of notes.

It’s hard to read the New Testament and NOT get the impression that a day will come when God separates good from evil, darkness from light — banishing one from his presence. Maybe forever.

There’s hardly a book in the New Testament that doesn’t address judgment head-on. (Possible exceptions include Philemon, 2 John, and 3 John — all of which share one thing in common: they’re tiny.)

Speaking of tiny…

2. Hell is a tiny part of what the Bible has to say about judgment.

If you’re trying to craft a New Testament theology of judgment, you won’t get far by doing a word search on “hell.” In most translations, “hell” occurs just 23 times. And it may not even be the best translation, since “hell” is used for three different terms — each of which had a distinct meaning and origin.

I’ve said it before; and after reading the New Testament, I’ll say it again: our picture of hell owes more to a medieval caricature than it does the Bible. The fiery torture chamber that many of us imagine has little to do with the biblical picture of judgment.

3. Not all judgment is restorative.

This is one of the really big questions that Rob raises in Love Wins: do people get a second chance after death?

C.S. Lewis explored the idea of postmortem salvation in vivid detail. Martin Luther accepted the possibility, but cautioned it’s purely speculative. It can’t be proven from Scripture, he argued.

And that’s pretty much the sense that I get.

In the New Testament, there’s a strong hint of finality to judgment — or at least one aspect of judgment. Maybe those in hell can repent (as Lewis suggested) between now and some future, final judgment (i.e. the judgment depicted near the end of Revelation). But there’s a strong indication that at some point the curtain will drop. And whichever side you’re on, that’s it.

Yes, there is restorative judgment — i.e. discipline. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves,” and all that. But the Bible also talks about “everlasting destruction, “the second death,” and the like.

It’s one thing to suggest that “everlasting” doesn’t exactly mean what we think it does, as Rob argues in Love Wins. But even if that’s so, there’s still the matter of words like “destruction” and “death,” which have an unmistakable ring of finality.

4. Annihilationism and conditional immortality are at least as plausible as eternal conscious torment — if not more so.

The fact that the Bible talks about “everlasting destruction” and “second death” is a big part of why I believe in an irreversible judgment.

It’s also why I think we should take annihilationism and conditional immortality more seriously. (They’re two related but different theories of what happens to those who reject God.)

In my journey through the New Testament, I found two passages that I think could be read to support the notion of eternal conscious torment. There were a heck of lot more that talk about destruction, death, etc. Not exactly happy stuff. But as John Stott and others have noted, it’s hard to reconcile these images with the evangelical notion of eternal conscious torment.

5. Judgment is focused on those who knowingly, persistently reject God and work at cross-purposes with him.

The Bible has a lot to say about judgment. The question is: judgment for whom?

Judgment, as depicted in the New Testament, seems focused on a rather narrow set of people.

In the gospels, Jesus mostly directs his judgment diatribes at religious insiders — i.e. those who should’ve known better and rejected him anyway. In his letters, Paul refers to the judgment awaiting those who knowingly, consciously reject God. Revelation depicts judgment as vindication for the persecuted faithful.

I didn’t find a single passage where judgment is directed at those who’ve never heard about Christ or those who heard a toxic distortion of the gospel. These are questions the New Testament doesn’t address directly, but there is reason to believe that people aren’t judged for their ignorance.

6.  Simplistic, dismissive answers will not do.

When you ask about the fate of those who never heard the gospel, there’s a tendency in some circles to quote Acts 4:12.

As if that somehow settles the matter.

As if this passage is somehow talking about those who never heard.(It’s actually a warning to the Jewish religious leaders that if they reject the Messiah sent by God, no one else is going to come and save them.)

It’s one thing to say Christ is the only way to God. It’s another matter to presume to say how God can and can’t use Christ to bring people to himself.

Quoting a single line of Scripture — out of context, no less — doesn’t do justice to the immensity or complexity of the questions at hand.

We have to do better than that.

Related post: Six(teen) views on hell

Photo by Joseph Novak on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

First book-length response to Love Wins (not counting certain book-length blog posts…)

Mike Wittmer (my former thesis adviser at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) recently published Christ Alone, the first book-length response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins.

It’s a sign of the times that Christians can publish their reactions to things they don’t like so quickly. (Creating lightening-fast responses to the Da Vinci Code became a cottage industry after Dan Brown released his abomination against all good writing. Christian publishing has never been the same since.)

The quality of thought often suffers for the sake of speed to market. But I hope that’s not the case with Mike’s book.

I’m sure Mike will find plenty to criticize in Love Wins. (Though, given that he’s also the author of this book, he should find at least one or two things to like about Rob’s description of heaven, if he’s fair.)

Mike is committed to Reformed theology. But in my experience, he tends to present his views without John Piper’s rancor, Mark Driscoll’s adolescent tantrums, or Kevin DeYoung’s egregious misrepresentations of other people’s views.

I hope that turns out to be true of his critique of Love Wins.