In Rob Bell’s book Love Wins he writes this about God:
Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.
This is classic Bell: lovely, poetic, and sprinkled with question begging claims and straw men that put you in a corner if you disagree with him.
I don’t want to engage with all of that, but I do want to give my best understanding of a Wesleyan comment on the general issues that Bell is raising here.
Here is where I start. Jesus Christ came to save us because we need to be saved. We are like people in an elevator falling toward a great pit. We imagine nothing is wrong. We imagine we are in control of the path of the elevator. But it falls down, ever down.
Christ has come and pried open the doors. His outstretched arms on the cross have pushed them back. And on the threshold he calls to us. Flee the trap you are in. Step out with me. Grasp the wings of the Holy Spirit and fly from this fate. Enter the kingdom of God.
What will you do? Muttering a few words after getting whipped into an emotional state will not settle things. You see, it is not words, a matter of breath and vapor, that Jesus Christ desires. It is a matter of the heart. It is exchanging our heart of stone that pulls us down with a heart of love that lifts us up. This is what we need. We cannot give ourselves this heart. We cannot will it. We can only receive it. We cannot demand it. We can onlyask for it. And we can wait in humility.
But what of the girl in Rob Bell’s story? What of the car crash? Is she doomed to the lake of eternal fire?
I want to do a very Rob Bell thing and answer a question with a question. I want to ask why this question is so important. Why do we insist on devising tests for God to pass? Will we be able to have faith in God only after our tests have been passed? Do we think faith is what is left over after all our intellectual puzzles have been solved? Do we imagine we will ever reach a point when we cannot come up with any more questions?
Perhaps we need to stop demanding God answer our questions and start listening to what God is trying to say to us.
If we believe God is just and loving and merciful and holy, then we have no need to ask such questions. God will deal with the girl in the crash in accordance with his perfect will. Why do we find that hard to hear? What does it say about our faith that we rebel against that answer?
Let me ask a final set of questions: Has our heart been melted by the love of Christ? Do we know ourselves to be forgiven? Do we praise God with our life?
I don’t know what the millions of people who Rob Bell refers to in his book have been told. I have no doubt that both well-meaning and unscrupulous people get the gospel wrong. I have no doubt that I get it wrong. But I do not see how testing God leads to trusting God.
The good news is this: Jesus Christ came to save us. He is standing there at the threshold calling us into the kingdom. Do we know we need to be saved? Will we listen? Will we trust?