Christ and Pop Culture writer, Ben Bartlett and guest-writer, Kiel Hauck, two friends who spend their Friday nights playing video and board games in between heated theological, social, and political discussions, come together to hammer out their thoughts about a book that seems to have most other evangelicals shutting down lines of communication, intentionally or not.
Each week, they’ll read one chapter, and trade a few emails discussing the chapter. This week, they discuss Chapter 6:
Kiel Hauck: “I’ve always wondered, if people (including his own disciples) were so constantly shocked and surprised by Jesus’ words, actions, and choices while he walked the earth, what makes us think that he would be any different now?”
In this chapter, Bell shares the story of Exodus 17 where water from a mysterious rock saves the Israelites from dying of thirst. He then shows that in 1 Cor. 10, Paul says that rock was Christ. After several pages of talking about the mystery of Christ that has been ever-present but only revealed when God came in the form of a man, he makes some very bold statements:
“Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity.'”
Statements like this undoubtedly cause many people to bristle. He goes on in the rest of the chapter to explain the difference between exclusivity, inclusivity, and exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity. When he does this, things start to get a little blurry. He’s not saying that all religions lead to the same end, but that Christ is the only way, yet he still redeems through avenues that we least expect and in ways that are mysterious and beyond our comprehension. I would have to say that I agree for the most part, but I also think he needs to be very careful.
Upon reading this chapter, you might almost get the impression that Christ is present in other religions (and perhaps, in some ways, he is) and that in the satisfaction that is drawn from other religions, people are perhaps finding satisfaction in Christ. I’m not putting words in his mouth here, I’m just pointing out where one could let their mind wander if they were so inclined. I had a friend who had visited India a few years back and was talking about walking past this big tent filled with hundreds and hundreds of idols sitting on tables encircling the inside of the tent. People were on their knees going from idol to idol praying. At the end, by itself, was another idol. My friend asked his guide what that idol was since it was obviously different and set apart from the others. The guide said that was an idol that represents any unknown god or any god that might have been missed, just to make sure all the bases were covered. You wouldn’t want to miss a god when it came to asking for forgiveness.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
I guess the point I’m making here is that this dilemma has always been present. In the case of the New Testament story, Paul tells the people that this unknown god is the one true God – they’d known of him all along, but didn’t really know who he was. It seems this is still the case today. In this way, I believe Bell’s assessment that there are rocks everywhere. Just like the Israelites found salvation through water from an unknown rock, I’m sure that millions of people throughout the world are finding Christ in an unknown and unexpected place in a way that we don’t understand. Wouldn’t it be just like Jesus to do this? I’ve always wondered, if people (including his own disciples) were so constantly shocked and surprised by Jesus’ words, actions, and choices while he walked the earth, what makes us think that he would be any different now?
I guess in summary, I believe that salvation is found only in Christ. It’s apparent that the tables full of idols are not providing satisfaction – only fear that perhaps the one god who matters has been missed and he won’t be very forgiving of that. However, I do believe that Christ has and will continue to reveal himself in the most unlikely of places and in the most unlikely of ways. Who are we to tell him not to or to say that he won’t? The scriptures seem to be full of the most unlikely people finding him and knowing him in the most unlikely ways and we shouldn’t expect anything less than something this amazing in our present day.
Ben Bartlett: “I want to make it a priority in my life to be clear with the world that pursuits apart from Christ simply aren’t good enough. And that’s from Christ’s mouth, not mine.”
As always, you state your case clearly and well. And I do sympathize with the idea that God can reveal himself in surprising ways to people who might not otherwise come to know Christ. But let’s say I agree with you and that there are certain people to whom God reveals himself in an unusual fashion. That doesn’t really account for atheists, Satanists, or those who actively challenge God, does it? I guess I didn’t really see how this chapter helps Rob’s larger argument.
A good example of a Scripture that raises big questions for Rob Bell’s perspective is Matthew 7. Here, Christ teaches with great authority on a variety of topics. One of them fits right in with what Rob is saying: we are told not to judge and not to act as hypocrites. That’s good.
But Christ goes on to say some really challenging things:
Verse 13-14: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” —What destruction? What is the gate? How can only a few find life if life eventually comes to all like Rob says?
Verse 15-16: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” —Why is a prophet dangerous if his calls to morality or goodness ultimately lead to Christ? What are the fruits we should beware of?
Verse 21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demonsin your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” —What does it mean that Christ will turn some away? What does it mean that good actions, even good actions in his name, are not recognized by Christ? What does it mean not to enter the kingdom of heaven?
Verse 26-27: “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” —What does it mean that the house of those too foolish to listen to Christ will fall?
You see my dilemma here. I just don’t see how we can read things things and assume a God who is non-exclusive, who turns nobody away, and who knows no hell but the one we create for ourselves. I don’t see how Christ transcends his own claims of exclusivity. And I don’t see how I can have more than the faintest hope for those who have turned their backs on Christ.
I think the arguments you make are fantastic reasons for extreme humility about salvation. You are right to say that Christ can do surprising things in surprising ways, that we have to be very careful about saying who is and isn’t saved, etc. This is one of the very good things about the Emergent Church movement; they ask great questions about areas we shouldn’t be overly certain of.
But in the story of Paul and the altar to the Unknown God, Paul calls people to place their faith and trust in Christ. He calls them to change. He makes clear that their worship of idols isn’t good enough. I’ll concede that God can do surprising things. But with Paul, I want to make it a priority in my life to be clear with the world that pursuits apart from Christ simply aren’t good enough. And that’s from Christ’s mouth, not mine.
Kiel Hauck: “If we say that any way he could wouldn’t be enough or appropriate as we see it, then we have to hope that general revelation might be enough to turn someone towards Christ, since not every living person is currently being spoken the good news.”
Your response kind of gets back to the hell debate – Does it exist? Who goes there? Is it for eternity? I feel like we already touched on a lot of those questions previously, so all I can say at this point is that you are right about those verses being clear about no one entering the Kingdom of God aside from Jesus Christ. I think both we and Rob Bell are all in agreement on that point. I saw nothing in this chapter that deviated from that idea.
What I was trying to convey was Rob Bell’s idea that Christ can make himself known in ways other than the traditional North American proclamation way. That is, someone who isn’t a Christian hears about Christ’s message from a friend, a stranger, a church, or just has an experience in which the knowledge they had already heard about Christ becomes real to them and they choose to follow Him. But what if God works differently from culture to culture, people group to people group? Religion to religion?
Is it possible that Christ could make himself known in such a way that would make sense and be enough for people of another religion? I’m not talking about heaven and hell stuff here, I’m talking about how God reveals himself to individuals and groups of people. Christ was present for the Israelites in that rock in the desert; what other ways does he make himself known? If we say that any way he could wouldn’t be enough or appropriate as we see it, then we have to hope that general revelation might be enough to turn someone towards Christ, since not every living person is currently being spoken the good news.
Rather than run my own mouth for another few paragraphs, I thought I might share this startling and thought provoking quote from C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia book, The Last Battle. Emeth, a character who has just passed, is about to have his encounter with Aslan:
“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, ‘Son, thou art welcome.’ But I said, ‘Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.’ He answered, ‘Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’ Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, ‘Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?’ The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, ‘It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites — I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?’ I said, ‘Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.’ But I said also (for truth constrained me), ‘Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.’ ‘Beloved,’ said the Glorious One, ‘unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.'”
I realize that this is just a work of fiction, but I’ve had many a long conversation about what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote that and what kind of implications, if any, should be taken from such a passage. If nothing else, it’s something to think about, and I think coincides quite well with the current chapter. Hopefully we can at least agree that Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, is passionate about making himself known to his people and His ways of doing so are more mysterious than we might want to think.