There was a point early in elementary school when one of my teachers denounced interracial marriages during Bible class. I remember it sticking out very strongly to me at the time, though it wasn’t until very recently that I realized why. The teacher had said it offhandedly as we were reading about Moses marrying an Ethiopian woman. There was real concern on her face for us. She wanted to make sure we didn’t worry, that we understood that there was nothing wrong here. Races were different during that time. So if we were worried that Moses had married a black woman, we shouldn’t be, since she might not have been black. We returned to the text after her remark, but rather than console, her comment had actively discomforted me. Because I hadn’t been worrying about that until she’d said it, but apparently I should have been. White people marrying black people is wrong. I hadn’t known that before.
Kids at my age weren’t capable of separating this is a fact the teacher is telling me from this is an opinion of the teacher that she thinks is a fact. So that statement – remembered but unaddressed – stayed with me until I entered college, and became friends with a black guy named Jon who was marrying a white girl named Melissa. This struck me as wrong. I had no idea why.
As much as I had no intellectual or societal reason to believe that their marriage was wrong, it didn’t match with something I’d learned and absorbed as a child. It was then that I recalled the incident in Bible class.
It was lucky for me that I remembered it, I think. If I hadn’t been able to trace the roots of my ignorance, I don’t know if I would have been able to truly address it. I had to find the source of my prejudice to destroy it.
If you haven’t been following the Rob Bell controversy, I’ll catch you up. A few weeks ago, a blogger named Justin Taylor was given a pre-release excerpt of Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. He posted a brief review of the material with the title “Rob Bell: Universalist?”, which John Piper tweeted a link to with the comment "Farewell Rob Bell." Then the internet exploded and here we are.
We don’t have the privilege of reading those chapters yet (though the publisher has smartly moved the release date up to next week, so we’ll get our chance soon enough), but we do have a promotional video from Bell explaining the concepts explored in the book, which I think is fairly enlightening.
I don’t know what your thoughts were while viewing, but I found the first part especially interesting. Bell walks towards the camera, disconcerting music droning in the background, as he asks some of the deepest questions of our faith. Who is to be condemned to Hell? Is Hell what we think it is? Is God? The intimation is that our previously held conceits might be negative views imposed on us from a well-meaning but misunderstanding church, so it’s easy to see why Reformed preachers like Piper find the video so disturbing. It must feel like bad theology advancing right at them.
There has been extensive blogging done on both sides of the theological aisle in the last few weeks, a good bit of it done by smart, well-trained Christian writers and thinkers, and I have no real interest in throwing my hat into the ring on that front.
For one thing, most of the writing done about this subject has been supercilious at best and mean-spirited at worst, and I don’t want any mud on my clothes or blood on my hands (as Gary David Stratton noted this week, the title Love Wins is becoming ironic). For another, the pre-destination debate has never held any real interest because I don’t think it ever goes beyond debate. We can’t really know for certain if God had a hand-picked few of us chosen from the dawn of time, or if he intentionally holds himself back in order to give us free will. We can study the Scriptures and make up our own mind, and if you read the Bible from the right angle, you can find support for both viewpoints. Frankly, you can find support for almost anything in the Bible, if you squint at it just right.
The issue is that neither side is willing to admit that the other side’s viewpoint has any credence, as if either one of us sees through the glass anything but darkly. Piper’s argument is understandable (though his tone indefensible) because he was a man who once said “Bad theology dishonors God and hurts people. Churches that sever the root of truth may flourish for a season, but they will wither eventually or turn into something besides a Christian church.” Piper doesn’t see any of this as an intellectual debate, he sees it as an advancing enemy, an agent of destruction in the church, and he wants it gone.
Christian blogs have burned hot with self-righteous fire the past few weeks, as if Universalists (fine, Christian Universalists) and Calvinists (fine, neo-Calvinists) have been waiting for their own Franz Ferdinand. I have little patience with the debate, as much of it seems to boil down to a deep, abiding fear that the other side is espousing a theology dangerous to the Gospel.
But I understand the struggle. Bad theology corrupts. Anything that distorts the Gospel should be expunged from churches, as quickly as possible, and violently if necessary. A bad idea, left in our minds too long, leaves an indelible mark.
The moment with my teacher was an unfortunate one, but at least it stuck out to me. How many misconceptions are ingrained in us without question?
To me, that’s what bad theology looks like: an opinion shaped like a fact. A possibility shaped like a certainty. A nice thought shaped like the words of Jesus.
What it doesn’t look like is hard questions with uncertain answers. That’s why Bell’s video fails to put a chill into my heart. Hearing Bell try to put a few small cracks in our preconceptions fails to make me see the Kingdom crumpling around us. Is there anything he’s saying that, in the dark of the night, you haven’t asked yourself? Don’t you worry for those who never know Christ? For those who never hear about him? And don’t you seem created to care about such things?
My brother emailed me about the subject this week, and his email started with the sentence: “Any description of hell by humans is necessarily limited by human understanding.” How much can we really hope to understand about much of this while on earth? Can we perfect our theology? Is there a point of rightness whereby we become Christians, or are we just hoping for bonus points from God when we get to Heaven (“Hey, Steve-o, you were totally right. There’s no purgatory, I picked you, not the other way around, and Hell is very dark and you suffer for eternity. High five up top!”).
Why then, when these questions come up, do we feel the need to hit the panic button so hard? The people making these arguments seem so concerned with sending up a signal flare that they’re not bothered if they set the whole forest on fire.
My problem with the debate is not with Universalism’s differences from Calvinism, but from its sameness. Universalism’s problem is that it says no need to worry – God’ll figure all this out later. Calvinism’s problem is that it says no need to worry – God sorted this out a long time ago. Neither seems to give any real credence to the philosophy that Jesus most forcefully expounded on: that we are to go and make disciples of all nations.
Someday, when I get to Heaven, I’m assuming that God’s not going to say, “well done, good and faithful servant. You patrolled those internet message boards like an ravenous tiger. Your smirking, hostile posts won me many disciples. Enter in and receive your reward.”
But then again, I can’t really say for sure yet. I guess none of us can.