Rob Bell (insert stupidly large number here)

Posted on April 5, 2011


In chapter 5, ‘Dying to live,’ Bell turns to give an account of the atonement. He begins with a reflection on the ubiquity of the symbol of the cross, and the slogan, ‘Jesus died on the cross for your sins.’ (122) But what does that mean?

Bell explores a ‘multiple metaphors’ view of the atonement, where different stories are told, which each hint at a part of the truth. It’s no secret that I think this is just the right way to approach atonement theology (see any of several publications on the theme); having tried to write a popular-level book on this theme it is humbling and irritating in equal parts to see someone who can really communicate have a go:

Which perspective is the right one? Which metaphor is correct? Which explanation is true?

The answer, of course, is yes.

So why all the different explanations?

For these first Christians, something massive and universe-changing had happened through the cross, and they set out to communicate the significance and power of it to their audiences in language their audiences would understand. And so they looked at the world around them, identifying examples, pictures, experiences, and metaphors that their listeners and readers would have already been familiar with, and then they essentially said:

What happened on the cross is like…

a defendant going free,
a relationship being reconciled,
something lost being redeemed,
a battle being won,
a final sacrifice being offered,
so that no one ever has to offer another one again,
an enemy being loved. (127-8)

Yeah, what he said…

(And notice that penal substitution stands first in Bell’s list. He really is an old fashioned evangelical if you just scratch a little below the surface!)

There are problems. When Bell turns to sacrifice, his account repeats where he was in The Gods Aren’t Angry DVD (you’ve not seen The Gods Aren’t Angry? Go and buy it. Now. Watch it, repeatedly. Not for the theology, which is old-fashioned Religionsgeschichte stuff, long discredited, but because this is an utterly stunning lesson in public speaking. Seriously, if Steve Jobs could communicate like this, we’d have been spared Windows completely. If Obama could communicate like this, we’d never have heard of Sarah Palin). Sacrifice, on this account, is something natural to humanity, a way of appeasing divine forces; Jesus offers the final, perfect, sacrifice, and so brings an end to every human attempt to appease an angry deity. I confess I don’t like attempts to force the endlessly diverse religious traditions of humanity into an interpretative scheme; it smacks too much of a totalising ‘I know what your religion is really about’ approach, which should have died with colonialism. Unfortunately, it seems strangely resilient in most traditions of liberal theology. Evangelicalism has generally been less arrogant, and with due respect to Bell, I would rather we continued in that.

There are problems. Bell repeats Aulen’s old canard about Christus Victor being the ‘central, dominant understanding of the cross’ for ‘the first thousand years or so of church history’ (128). Sorry, but it just wasn’t. Aulen was wrong, and eighty years on, we ought to have got hold of that. In the (theologically sophisticated) East, sacrifice, eucharist-as-medicine, and Platonic physicalism were roughly equally dominant on my reading, with sacrifice receding and physicalism advancing as we move from the third century to the seventh. I struggle to find any dominant metaphor in the West – they just aren’t asking that question.

The narrative moves from cross to resurrection. Bell opens with the line ‘it’s important to remember that resurrection after death was not a new idea’ (130). This is true, but not in the way Bell means it. The resurrection of the dead was a burning expectation in (some strands of) the Judaism of Jesus’ day, built on profound reflection on the justice of God in the face of endless experiences of persecution, and the gospel accounts need to read in the light of those discussions. Bell, however, offers a strange nature-mysticism instead. ‘[T]he leaves drop from the trees and the plants die … And then spring comes, and they burst into life again.’ (130) ‘The cells in our bodies are dying at the rate of millions a second, only to be replaced…’ (131) Sorry, but this isn’t the right context to talk about resurrection in the Biblical view. Easter is not an example of a general pattern of death-and-rebirth, it is a shocking and decisive intervention into the created order which changes everything.

Bell gets the universality of the change, and is good on it (‘A gospel that leaves out its cosmic scope will always feel small’ (135)), but he gets there by postulating a fundamental continuity, rather than a radical, and cosmos-changing, discontinuity. The resurrection is not about bunnies being born in the spring, writ large; it is about God’s dramatic eschatological intervention in the created order to change its possibilities utterly.

Chapter 6 is called ‘There are Rocks Everywhere’. The title is a reference to the reference in 1 Cor. 10 to Ex. 17, where Moses strikes the rock to bring water. On Paul’s telling, the rock is Jesus Christ. In the story, Jesus is present without being known. Bell wants to make this a general pattern. He offers what reads like a popularising of the Logos-theology of the early apologists. ‘There is an energy in the world, a spark, an electricity that everything is plugged into.’ (144) Bell identifies this energy with the word spoken to bring creation into being in Gen. 1, and so with Jesus, the Word/Logos.

The discussion suddenly turns apologetic again: ‘If you find yourself checking out at this point, finding it hard to swallow the Jesus-as-divine part, remember that these are ultimately issues that ask what kind of universe we believe we’re living in. Is is closed or open?’ (147) Again, who is Bell writing for? Believers? Unbelievers? It seems to me – maybe I’m missing something obvious – that the implied reader keeps changing.

After this, Bell segues into a discussion of the opening of the covenant to Gentiles in Jesus, which becomes a pattern for the claim ‘Jesus is bigger than any one religion’ (150). Of course, whether true or not, this is not good exegesis: the NT does not present the transcendence of Jewish particularism as a paradigm for a transcendence of Christian particularism. Bell does better when he turns to specific texts; the other sheep of Jn 10 are probably the Gentiles, but the text has often been read as teaching an inclusive salvation; Paul’s claim (in Col. 1):23 that the gospel has been preached to ‘every creature under heaven’ is interesting, and deserves reflection.

Bell’s version of inclusivism is Christocentric. He immediately cites as a control text ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’ (154), but comments – rightly – that this does not imply that we know we are coming to the Father through Jesus (Westminster Confession X.3, anybody?). Bell addresses claims like ‘Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe…’ (155) His response? ‘Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably, not true.’ Jesus is saving everybody who is being saved – but Jesus (remember the Logos theology from earlier?) is the universal principle of life in the world, so many people meet Jesus without knowing His name.

I find this chapter fascinating. I want to affirm the starting points, and the conclusions, but get from the one to the other by a totally different route. Yes, Jesus is the only way. No, that does not mean that we can proclaim with confidence that outside of our institutions no-one has met Jesus – extra ecclesiam nulla salus was, with due respect to Cyprian and a barrowload of popes, always just false. But this is not because Jesus is somehow the internal rationality of every spirituality, that which all people will find if only they gaze hard enough at their navels. It is because Jesus is breaking into to this present darkness in a million ways.

Christ dances in ten thousand places, but the dance is still alien and jarring in every one of them.

(PS. Neil Brighton, who is more insightful than I am, commented above about the functional unitarianism of Bell’s book. I had not thought about this, but reflecting on it I suspect that my characterisation would be binitarian. For Bell, Jesus is at once the decisive inbreaking of a new order (which, roughly, is the appropriate economic role of the Son) and the immanent principle of order in the world (which, roughly, I take to be the appropriate economic role of the Spirit). A fully Trinitarian reading can preserve divine immanence and divine interruption; Bell seems to think that we can only have one or the other, because he is focused on Jesus almost to the exclusion of the Spirit, and so decides (probably rightly if that were the choice) for immanence.)

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