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The Shack: A Story of Freedom or Force?

 

As a Christian it may be less controversial at the moment to offer an opinion about current politics, than it is to express one’s thoughts of the film, The Shack, based upon WM. Paul Young’s book of the same title.  Honestly, I, myself, have tried very hard to avoid sharing my two cents about the book or film, but after reviewing the author’s newest book, Lies We Believe About God, I figured it was time I added my voice to the theological stratosphere.

But before I do, allow me to add a few disclaimers.

I think that it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that believers often behave like the disciples in Mark 9:38. You remember the story. It’s where John informs Jesus that they saw someone else “driving out demons in your name” so they told him to stop.  Jesus rebukes them and uses the moment to reveal that the kingdom is bigger than their egos.  I think this is a lesson that the church needs to collectively relearn today.  It’s no secret that as believers, we have a tendency to shoot our own.  Every theological difference it seems provides opportunity for tearing one another down or spiritually posturing ourselves in hopes that all will see that we are really God’s favorite.

I should perhaps also mention that I know that millions of people have been impacted by The Shack, whether through the book or box office, and in sharing my perspective about the message of the film, I’m in no way desiring to negate the experience they’ve had.  I believe God speaks through a plethora of mediums, film included, and I’ve been a champion for finding God in some of the most unique places.  (I still hold that Avatar transformed how I think about eternity, and I’m also of the viewpoint that AMC’s post-apocalyptic sensation, The Walking Dead, has better theology about God than most Christian churches.)  I point these examples out to express that I’m not a religious prude and that God is able to give revelation even beyond that which may be intended by the writer or director – and The Shack is no different.

But although inspiration can be found in the most unique places, we should still remember that inspiration doesn’t always equal truth.  As Christians, all revelation must always pass through the lens of scripture to ensure that we don’t drift into theological half-truths that can damage our faith.  Film, books, and television can inspire, but only the Bible can offer doctrine.

With the renewed interest in the book, my concern is not that people will ascertain their beliefs about God from the film, but rather that the film will introduce people to additional teachings and materials from the writer.

The challenge for me in Young’s writings, as both a storyteller and theologian, is that they only partially uphold Biblical ideas about God’s nature, such as his goodness, grace, and mercy.  For this reason, it’s easy for the new believer to miss the subtleties of Young’s extra-biblical message, and, perhaps even for the more veteran believer, to mistakenly label Young as a modern Christian reformist who is merely kicking over sacred cows of Christian tradition.

But true reformation is always rooted in absolute truth – specifically that of scripture.  Young’s deconstructionist tendencies, mostly absent of scriptural support, prove that his intention is not only to kick over sacred cows, but also to vacate the farm all together.

Although it’s been speculated in the past that Young held to a form of Christian universalist theology (that all are saved or will be saved apart from faith), Young seems to have clarified his stance in his new book, Lies We Believe About God, which also contains a foreword from known universalist Baxter Kruger.  In the book, Young states, “Are you suggesting that everyone is saved? That you believe in universal salvation? That is exactly what I am saying!”  As you can see, Young leaves little question as to where he stands on the topic of universal salvation and even goes on to describe Hell by saying, “I propose the possibility that hell is not separation from Jesus but that it is the pain of resisting our salvation in Jesus while not being able to escape Him who is True Love.”

The Shack’s blurred gospel message, along with his association with Kruger, are perhaps enough to theologically villainize Young, but this isn’t the point – nor should it be.  Despite his post-Christian leanings, Young isn’t the villain.  The bigger issue is that Young’s stance reveals and represents the binary choice that religion all-too-often presents to its adherents – either God is angry and fault-finding or he’s all-inclusive and universally accepting. The first option is easy to debunk as it is rooted in judgment and legalism, but the second choice, universalism, is challenging to refute without one sounding unloving in doing so.

As I’ve pointed out before, although the universalist ideology appears to offer a loving solution to legalistic Christianity, in reality, its message is one of force.  Much like Rob Bell’s distorted gospel message in Love Wins, Young’s God rejects the biblical concept of freewill and “loves” you so much he’ll force you into the kingdom.  Personally, I believe God is better than this.

This in no way means that one cannot enjoy The Shack as a film, but it should not be used to shape our understanding of God any more than Dante’s Inferno should shape our view of Hell.  With that being said, I do agree with Young that the common religious understanding of God is quite flawed, but instead of departing from the truth of the Word and the foundations of Christian faith, as I believe he does at least in part, I have proposed a reformation of thinking that is based upon scripture and a renewed understanding of God shaped by gazing into the person of Christ.

It is for exactly this reason I wrote the book, Good God:  The One We Want To Believe In But Are Afraid To Embrace.  Upon releasing Good God, there were those who in fact immediately labeled me a heretic, but the difference between my stance and that of Young’s, is that my presentation of God was not just based upon whimsical thinking or fantasy, rather on specific verses of scripture and teachings of Jesus.  While Good God indeed kicked over many sacred cows of traditional theology, it remained loyal to the inerrancy of the Word, the love of the Church, and Jesus’ teaching on the final judgement.

Although I hope Young recognizes how far he’s slid in his post-Christian thinking, I’m more concerned now with the masses who have been influenced (or will be) by his teaching and universalist agenda.  My hope is that people recognize that viewing the Father from each of these extreme spectrums has the tendency to expose one to error.  The only way one can truly construct a proper theology of heaven, hell, love, and judgment is by beginning with the solid and trustworthy revelation of Jesus Christ.

For those looking for an alternative to the narrowed-minded view of God offered by legalism and tradition, but who still value the foundation of scripture, the message of Christ, and the truth of the gospel, I would invite you to consider the almost too-good-to-be-true God that I present in my book, Good God.

 

 

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The Bell Keeps Ringing

The Love Wins debate continues to make headlines in mainstream media. Here is a new article from ABC News. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/evangelists-trevor-wax-rob-bell-argue-hell/story?id=13417436

For more on my thoughts, click here http://lucasmiles.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/542/  .

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A Clanging Bell: A Response to the Book, Love Wins, by Rob Bell

                I don’t like controversy.  I know that because of the radical grace message I teach, sometimes I do find myself in the middle of it, but honestly I really don’t like it.  You can imagine then how I felt when several people asked me if I would be willing to read Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins, and share my thoughts with them about it.  At first, I didn’t even want to touch it.  But after hearing the constant clanging of Bell by his critics and witnessing the tremendous impact and reach that this book has already achieved among his fans, I decided to take the plunge and grab a copy myself.  What follows is my response to the book, Love Wins. 

                To start with, let me dismiss from the beginning any claims that Bell is a Universalist.  This label has been thrown at him considerably by critics of the book, but I would have to assume that these are the same critics who still haven’t read it.  If Bell believes what he wrote, he is clearly not a Universalist.  A Universalist believes that all religions are essentially the same and that all paths lead to God.  This concept is not something that Bell promotes in the book at all.  In his defense, he clearly establishes that Jesus Christ is the only way to God.  Now, one may disagree with his liberal definitions of accepting Christ, but regardless, to brand Bell as a Universalist seems a bit harsh to me. 

                With that being said, the next question is whether Bell believes in Ultimate Reconciliation.  Let me begin that discussion by stating that essentially everyone who preaches grace will at some point be accused of teaching Ultimate Reconciliation.  Ultimate Reconciliation states that because of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, all men are saved.  Period.  Proponents of this belief fail to acknowledge any difference between Christ being the propitiation for the sins of the world and the idea of justification by grace through faith.  Simply put, the teaching of Ultimate Reconciliation believes in salvation by grace alone and would consider faith a work.  This leads Ultimate Reconcilists to falsely conclude that all men are saved and will inherit eternal life – apart from faith.  Extreme adherents to this teaching even go as far as to proclaim that Satan himself will be saved and reconciled back to God. 

               

So does Bell believe in Ultimate Reconciliation?  Many have assumed based upon the title of the book that he does, but I think it’s more complicated than that.  In Love Wins, Bell almost introduces a new argument, which is neither Universalism nor Ultimate Reconciliation.  In the book, Bell introduces an idea, which I will call, an “open heaven” theology where Bell paints a picture of a heaven, much like Motel 6, that proclaims, “We’ll leave the light on for you.”  His heaven is always open, always ready to receive those that might find their way home.  Clearly stated, one might wander around hell for awhile, and then decide to choose Christ after years of torment, and like the prodigal, return home.  With that being said, his perspective also implies an open hell, where one can come and go as he pleases – it’s his choice.

                I agree this picture is quite beautiful and enticing, but is it biblical?  Bell enthusiastically touts in the Book, that he will show us “every single verse in the Bible in which we find the actual word hell.”  Though a far cry from a concordance listing, Bell does do a fair job summarizing the references of the word “hell” in scripture.  He also goes a step further and discusses several biblical words/passages that describe punishment and judgment, presenting alternate understandings of these words/passages which further strengthen his argument.  What Bell seemed to shy away from though was the book of Revelation.  In my reading, I wasn’t able to find a single explanation in Love Wins for passages such as, Revelation 20:14-15, “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  The lake of fire is the second death.  If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”  This seems fairly straight forward to me.  Some fail to receive their inheritance in Christ.  For this we should all weep.  So how does Bell handle the finality of hell in such passages?  I don’t know, because he didn’t address it.  The closest he comes to it is on pages 91 and 92, where he shows differing uses for the Greek words “aion of kolazo” and the Hebrew word, “Olam”; both phrases which carry the implication of “forever” or “eternal punishment”.  From there, Bell closes the chapter by proposing that perhaps hell is only a period of time for some people.  That maybe forever according to Jesus, doesn’t really mean forever.

                So what do I think about all of this?  To start with, I think that the book is reactive theology.  Love Wins seems to be Bell’s response to countless personal experiences and frustrations with how salvation has been presented, how heaven has been talked about, and how hell has been thrown in people’s faces.   And I agree.  Religion has gotten it wrong.  The “turn or burn” theology of some has caused countless people to never want a thing to do with Jesus.  As Paul wrote, “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”  To continue, Bell also shows his frustration towards Christians who seem to get excited that people are going to hell and I would again concur with his frustration.  This is not the time to cheer the destruction of the wicked, but rather it is time to proclaim the love of our God -as Paul also stated that “God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.”  And in 1 Timothy 2:4, Paul also reveals to us that God “wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.”  This should be our mantra, not the ignorant shouts of “turn or burn”.  Bell is right on in addressing this. 

                Partially, I think the controversy of the book, is more about Bell’s presentation as a critic and a teacher than his theology as a pastor, though it might be correct to call both into question.  As a critic, Bell is a deconstructionist.  As a teacher, he is a whimsical romantic.  As a critic, he takes a wrecking ball to every belief with the assumption that what is true will be left standing.  As a teacher, he is a painter, filling our thoughts with his warm brush strokes and vibrant colors, allowing his audience to interpret what they see for themselves.  This style satisfies some and infuriates others, and it is quite possible that both groups misunderstood what Bell was saying. 

                From a theological standpoint, my biggest concern is what we are leading people to believe.  I’m personally not worried about Bell.  I think overall he is fairly grounded.  My concern is for those who read the book and come away with the conclusion that there is no hell.  This belief stems from the continued erosion of personal responsibility.  The thought is that God’s love is greater than my lack of faith or belief in him.  And in time, his love will win me over.  Again this sounds good and seems to jive with 2 Timothy 2:13, “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful”, but it fails to not only consider personal responsibility, that is that the gospel is “by grace through faith”, but also fails to understand the true nature of love.  “Through faith” means that I have a choice in the matter; that my belief or acceptance of God’s love is what determines whether or not I will receive my inheritance.  Salvation is for all, but not all are saved.  This is the reality of the gospel.

                Regarding love, I would like to point out that love, by nature gives freedom.  The love of the Ultimate Reconcilist is a love that gives no choice.  It’s forceful; domineering.  True love always gives a choice; always allows one to say no.  The doctrine of inclusion gives no choice – you’re coming to heaven whether you like it or not.  This love is little different than a man who drugs a woman in order to take her home with him.  It’s a distortion of love, not the real thing.  And if this is God’s kind of love, then why hasn’t love won over this world.  Why are we still fighting wars?  Why are babies still dying?  God’s love always generously gives us the freedom to choose, even if at times the choice we make is wrong. 

                In conclusion, let me say that I agree with Bell that “the good news is better than that”.  Isaiah 54:9-10 says, “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.  So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again.”  And in Hebrews 8:12 we are told that God “will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”  The New Covenant is the best news that most of the world has never heard.  There is peace with God.  There is forgiveness of sins.  There is life abundant.  There is eternal life.   There is no more condemnation.  There is love and it certainly does win.  And this love is so great and so good, that it respects us enough to give us a choice.  My prayer for you is that this love might win in your life. 

To listen to podcasts from Lucas Miles, visit www.oasnet.org

For more on The Error of Ultimate Reconciliation, make sure and check out this discussion between Dr Jim Richards and Allen Speegle at http://impact.rbm.tv/ .

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