Preface - "Millions of us"
Bell's main assumption in the preface is that the Gospel of Jesus must, by definition, be a message of hope in every circumstance and situation or else it is not really worthy of being associated with Jesus, who brought a message of love and joy and hope. He argues that people are right to say things like "I would never be part of that."
Of course, sometimes they are. Sometimes people are right to bristle at the Christianity we present, because it is not the Christianity of Jesus but often some moralistic form of legalism with mild grace undertones and a fragrance of self-righteousness.
But Scripture says that it is normal for people to reject the real Gospel. It is normal for people to bristle at it, even when it is dead spot-on to the message of the cross of Jesus Christ. To the Jew, the Gospel is a "stumbling block." To the Gentile, it is "foolishness." But to us who are being saved, it is vastly different, isn't it? It actually speaks to us as "good news." Where on earth did Rob Bell get the idea that the Gospel must be something that makes everybody happy? From his little brain, that's where. 2 Cor 2:16 comes to mind, as well. It says that Christians are an "aroma" -to others who are being saved, a good smell, and to those who are perishing, a very bad smell -the smell of death. Hmm... even when Christians are actually living in the Gospel, aside from all their self-righteous leanings, they will still be the "smell of death" to some. How is that "hopeful?" Poor Paul was so confused, right? Riiiiiiight.
Of course, why even go through the trouble of distinguishing between the "saved" and the "perishing?" Oh yeah, because Rob Bell and Scripture don't teach the same thing. By all means... let the discussion of these issues, the discussion of the Gospel itself, "free" us -from the bondage to our self-salvation projects, our legalism, our surface-level, moralistic, cookie-cutter Christianity. But let is also free us from following the swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction, embracing something that is simply untrue but sounds so good because it is so opposite the cranky, stuffed-shirt fundamentalism we see around us.
Chapter 1 - What About the Flat Tire?
Bell starts the chapter asking the big questions, the common objections. Essentially he inquires, "How could a loving God create millions of people that He knows will wind up in hell?" Good question. I really don't know, but since when does me not knowing the answer mean that I must default and deny the overwhelming testimony of Scripture? I need to get over that. There are lots of things I can't answer, shouldn't I be used to that? The Bible says people "perish." It's a fact. Sorry. I don't like it either. But it is not unjust, and if we want to pass judgment on the Judge for that, we will always come up wrong. That's why we're the creature and He's the Creator. Or did we forget that? Oh yeah, didn't Satan promise us that we could be "like god?" I think we still like to believe we can or should be.
Bell then talks about youngsters and the problematic idea of the "age of accountability." He writes:
"But then when they reach a certain age, they become accountable for their beliefs, and if they die, they go to be with God only if they have said or done or believed the 'right' things."
I'm not sure where to begin here. I don't know if Bell is deliberately constructing a straw-man, a false representation of Gospel-based Christianity, or if he really believes this is what it is. The latter wouldn't surprise me, because lots of evangelicals believe this is what Christianity is, too. You "get saved" when you believe the right things and walk an aisle. Faith, believing, becomes essentially a good work to secure our place in heaven -a much easier good work to perform than those blasted 10 Commandments. Jesus gets us 99% up the ladder, and our "decision" to believe gets us up to the top. Right?
Wrong. That is what lots of people think Christianity is, but it isn't. Christianity is when you see that the Son of God had to die for you because you are under a curse, a God-created being with gifts and capacities for love and greatness who is likewise incredulous toward the real God, like the whole rest of humanity, and all your delusions of grandeur and moral superiority come up to a pile of dung, and then you see that this Jesus who died and rose for you was glad to do it for you. The message of the cross, of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, claims you. It is the "power of God." You don't decide it. And if you did, it was because it already had claimed you.
Christianity is not about your beliefs and your deeds. It is about a God who saves His lost creatures miraculously, humbly, incarnationalliy, and supernaturally. Are all saved? No. Not all believe. Many who hear this message reject it, and many don't even hear it. Why is it this way? I don't know, but I guarantee you that if we got our wish to be God and could do it our way, things would not turn out the best. We are just delusional enough to think it would.
But Bell does raise a good point when he questions how many see the Gospel as being about getting people "somewhere else." He writes, "If that's the gospel, the good news -if what Jesus does is get people somewhere else- then the central message of the Christian faith has very little to do with this life other than getting you what you need for the next one." I agree that it is a mistake to view the Gospel as something designed to merely get us out of this world. It is what many refer to as the "sinking ship" view of the Christian faith. I couldn't agree more that this is a caricature and distortion of the Gospel, which should bring us down to earth, as Jesus came down to this earth, as we live in anticipation of the next.
I think what Bell does it pick out the most retarded distortions of the Gospel and Jesus in evangelical and pseudo-evangelical Christianity, along with pointing out the large variety of perspectives, as a way to stir up a notion of uncertainty. He intentionally seeks to disorient people (even with misrepesentation or simply showing his ignorance) and invite us into his own drummed-up confusion and disillusionment with the "other point of view(s)" which he seems to lump all together into a gigantic incoherent cloud of meaninglessness. What I would like to see Bell do is try to find what appears to be the purest form of Gospel-centered Christianity and address that. But he won't, because he believes there is no objective way to identify such a form even if it does exist. That is part of his shtick... the whole "there are so many differing views, we can't really know -we can just shake our head at how ridiculous it is... oh, but I know these things, though, which is why I'm writing this book."
Finally, he gets to the main point of the chapter. The main question is this: if a person is "saved" because of the message they year, which they then respond to, what if the missionary or preacher or whoever gets the message wrong? What if Jesus is misrepresented? What if they teach a false Jesus or screw the message up somewhere? "Is your future in someone else's hands?" he asks, firing immediately after with another question, "Is someone else's eternity resting in your hands?"
Some say, he rightly argues, that the details don't need to be so exacting and the message is so simple, but what really matters is a "personal relationship." This phrase, he rightly argues, is not in the Bible. I agree. But I tell what is in the Bible... imperfect people sharing the message of Jesus, and other imperfect people being claimed by that message and believing and being united to Jesus. He can try to poke holes and uncertainty into it all he wants, but that is what is in Scripture. He can take his problems up with the Author -I didn't write it.
The rest of the chapter is filled with more of an onslaught of obfuscation to further confound the traditional Gospel and how people are "saved." He pulls out random Scriptures to try to show how confusing things get, how more statements only invite more questions (with a hint of resolution coming through his point of view). Confusion, confusion, confusion. Throw a handful of sand in the air, kick up a dust cloud, so that he can make way for his bombshell of a solution to all the problems (or as he would allege, problems that only exist for people who don't take his view).
He is certainly entitled to his beliefs, but this guy is dangerous. We'll see where things go from here.