Still many hours from home. Watching the dry California hills south of Salinas sliding past the windows of our Amtrak compartment…yes, you heard that right—Amtrak. As in train. We took a train to Oregon to visit relatives because our oldest son is phobic over planes and not much better with long car rides. Limits the options. Will be well over 60 hours on the train by time we roll up to the station at San Juan [very] late tonight. I thought I’d be able to stay in contact with the world we left behind, but no matter what they tell you, there is no wifi on Amtrak, and apparently not in Oregon either. At least not where we were staying.
So my vision of a week away with time to catch up on reading and blogging and other luxuries didn’t exactly scan, but time with the boys and my wife are now vivid memories, and I did manage to finish a book that I’d been working on for months: Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I had followed the digital fisticuffs pounded out on blogs and online articles when the book first came out, just as I had several years ago when Brian McLaren’s book came out on a similar subject —leading Evangelicals taking turns refuting and savaging—but I was particularly saddened this time to read one church leader saying that this book was essentially Bell’s third strike; that he had long been humored and warily rationalized as an eccentric Evangelical with a media genius and talent for reaching those on the edge of things. But no more.
Now he had gone beyond the pale, around the bend, touched the third rail, made the final cut that once and for all separated him from the Evangelical community, and that the next time he wrote a book, there would be no outcry, no attempt to refute or reconcile his thoughts to theirs any more than they would the tenets of Islam or Scientology, Tony Robbins or Lady Gaga. It just wouldn’t matter. He was no longer part of the herd, no longer a threat to a faith he had clearly left
In two words, they were giving up. On him. On trying to hold on to him as one of their own.
Bell’s unforgiveable sin? An all-powerful forgiveness, it seems. A belief that in the end, love wins—love and forgiveness, salvation, redemption, and all the other nouns that love implies. That an all-powerful God who, as scripture states, wants us all to be in unity with him and is drawing us to himself would never fail at that attempt. Not that there is no hell, but that hell is a state of mind apart from God’s state of mind, not exactly a conscious choice, but a belief in a different story about ourselves and God and our relationship with each other that departs from the story Jesus is trying to tell. That the flames of hell burn more for purification than punishment and length of stay was and always has been time served—as long as we imagine necessary….a liberal paraphrase, but close enough, I think.
When the McLaren book came out I wrote some similar thoughts about hell and the nature of our morbid fascination with it that keeps us forever tethered and living in its suburbs, and here I am again, not so much to defend Bell’s thoughts as to step back and look at the mindset behind the hell we imagine.
I don’t know for sure that love wins in the Bell sense above, but I am convinced that love never gives up. The God that Jesus describes and lives out in the pages of the Gospels never gives up on anyone and never withholds anything needed by anyone in his path. Ever. This God never ceases drawing us into unity, yet at the same time never compromises the freedom, the choice that such unity, love, forgiveness, salvation, redemption, and all those other nouns require to exist as themselves.
In a different sense, I suppose love won at the very moment such freedom was granted to us, making the choice between heaven and hell a reality for us in the first place. I’ve told my children to think of the worst thing they could imagine doing…that I’d love them just the same, that I’d visit them in prison if I had to. Love wins like that. When it never gives up. When it focuses on opportunity and not outcome, process and not event. When it keeps thinking of you and visiting you even in the worst of your self-made consequences.
The supreme irony here is that Rob Bell’s detractors gave up on him because they believe he committed the unforgiveable sin, blaspheming the spirit of his faith. But in so doing, they themselves committed the only unforgiveable sin there is: to give up on another is as unforgiveable as it is determined to remain securely out of the range of forgiveness itself. In our inability to imagine a God who never gives up, we readily give up on each other, finding ourselves defending a God who gives up on us in the red light of hell against anyone bearing News so Good as to challenge the notion of the hell we imagine.
Truth is, we’re as forgiven as we want to be.
As saved as we want to be.
As loved and redeemed as we can stand.
There is nothing withheld from us, ever, except in the imaginings of our own minds. And there in our minds is all the room we need to largely live the hell we imagine until we finally realize our time is served.