I had the opportunity to read in a recent issue of the Baptist Bible Tribune a review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Now I imagine I’m in a bit of a minority when it comes to my demographic of readers; I bet there are not too many other progressive Christians who regularly peruse the Tribune, but being a graduate of a Baptist Bible Fellowship International (BBFI) school I like to see what’s going on.
This is a review of a review by Dr. Greg Christopher, professor and Vice President of Academic Affairs at Baptist Bible College, the flagship school of the BBFI. I want to first give Dr. Christopher his due respect, he’s far smarter and far more intelligent than me; he was actually a professor to me and I enjoyed his classes. My point is simply to give a different perspective.
My first thought is simply in regards to an overarching theme within Dr. Christopher’s review, the suggestion that the idea of more people going to heaven is a bad thing; is that really such a horrible thing? Really? Sure, this concept may not jive with certain people’s theological positions, but would it actually be a tragedy if less people were tortured in hell!? Roughly one third of the world is “Christian.” That includes Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Mormons… most of which a good fundamentalist would say are not “saved,” but, hell, fundamentalists don’t even think everyone in their own churches are “saved.” So what are we talking here, 90% of the world going to hell!? Would it be so horrendous if less people went to hell?
My second thought has to do with Christopher’s criticism of “story” from the book. What’s really at work here is that Christopher is arguing from a modernist perspective, while Bell from a postmodern. Modernism, a child of the enlightenment and the scientific and industrial revolutions leaves no room for differing stories; there is only room for one absolute story or Metanarrative. In postmodernism different stories are valued and appreciated, there isn’t such an emphasis on which one is “right” (in fact that question itself is modernistic), rather each and every story is valued for what it has to offer. If we criticize Bell for arguing from a postmodern perspective, we must also criticize Christopher for arguing from a modern perspective. Bell’s thoughts are a product of postmodernism just as much as Christopher’s (and fundamentalism in general) is of modernism. The modern perspective gives two options, believe or don’t believe; while the postmodern invites one to ask, which story do you think is best? Should the story or narrative be altered or changed? After all, these are stories we all have to accept and believe for ourselves. It’s fine that some can accept a story in which a huge percentage of the world is tormented in hell, but for others that’s simply not believable, so they must imagine or formulate a story which is actually believable. And this is what Bell has done.
If I were to criticize Bell in any way it would be for his own usage of the Metanarrative. He values a “story” that is believable, yet ultimately this story must fit within a Metanarrative (although slightly different from a fundamentalist version) of Jesus and “salvation.” He’s trying to “have his cake and eat it too;” he utilizes postmodern perspectives but is ultimately still reliant on modernist ideas. Perhaps that is the biggest reason for the misunderstanding and confusion for readers from the modernist perspective.
A second “criticism” of Bell would be that he labels himself as an “exclusive inclusivist.” He can call it whatever he wants to, but he’s clearly an inclusivist who is trying to enlarge or make room for others in his Metanarrative. Many brilliant theologians have already attempted this, and have more convincing arguments; folks like Origen, Rahner, and Tillich. If Bell should be criticized in anyway, I would be for just not being that good of an inclusivist theologian.
Here’s the link to the first review.