Note: I will not be sharing answers. I do not know how to answer many of them....and evidently Rob Bell doesn't either, at least not in this book.
Warning: If you cannot handle hard questions about God and Faith, do NOT read this. Please read that last sentence again.
So, here we go:
Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, only a select number will make it to "a better place" and every single other person will suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who will spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate? How does a person end up being one of the few? Chance? Luck? Random Selection? Being born in the "right" place, family or country? Having a Youth Pastor who "relates better to kids"? What kind of faith is that? More importantly, what kind of God is that?
Many people believe that there is an age at which people are smart enough and old enough to "believe" the "right" things about God. People often refer to this as the "age of accountability". Most think this is around 12 years old. This brings up several questions, one being the risk that every new life then faces. If every new baby born could grow up to NOT believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child's life anytime from conception to 12 years old would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child ends up in heaven, and not hell, forever. Why run the risk?
So, when a 15 year old atheist dies in a car accident, and missed his chance by 3 years, what happens? Was God limited to that 3 year window and if the message did not get to that young man in time, well, that is just unfortunate? And what exactly would have had to happen in that three-year window to change his future? Would he have had to perform a specific rite or ritual? Or take a class? Or be baptized? Or join a church? Or have something happen somewhere in his heart?
Some believe he would have had to say a specific prayer. Christians don't agree on exactly what this prayer is, but for many the essential idea is that the only way to get into heaven is to pray at some point in your life, asking God to forgive you and telling God that you accept Jesus, you believe Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for your sins, and you want to go to heaven when you die. Some call this "accepting Christ," others call it the "sinner's prayer," and still others call it "getting saved," being "born again," or being "converted."
That, of course, raises more questions. What about people who have said some form of "the prayer" at some point in their life, but it means nothing to them today? What about those who said it in a highly emotionally charged environment like a youth camp or church service because it was the thing to do, but were unaware of the significance of what they were doing? What about people who have never said the prayer and don't claim to be Christians, but live a more Christlike life than some Christians?
This raises even more disconcerting questions about what the message even is. Some Christians believe and often repeat that all that matters is whether or not a person is going to heaven. Is that the message? Is that what life is about? Going somewhere else? If that's the gospel, the good news-if what Jesus does is get people somewhere else-then the central message of the Christian faith has very little to do with this life other than getting you what you need for the next one.
Which of course raises the question: Is that the best God can do?
Which leads to a far more disturbing question. So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn't ultimately matter, as long as you've said or prayed or believed the right things? If you truly believed that, and you were surrounded by Christians who believed that, then you wouldn't have much motivation to do anything about the present suffering of the world, because you would believe you were going to leave someday and go somewhere else to be with Jesus. If this understanding of the good news of Jesus prevailed among Christians, the belief that Jesus's message is about how to get somewhere else, you could possibly end up with a world in which millions of people were starving, thirsty, and poor; the earth was being exploited and polluted; disease and despair were everywhere; and Christians weren't known for doing much about it. If it got bad enough, you might even have people rejecting Jesus because of how his followers lived. That would be tragic....
....There are lots of different forms of "Jesus" that people portray. Many would respond to the question, "Which Jesus?" by saying that we have to trust that God will bring those who authentically represent the real Jesus into people's lives to show them the transforming truths of Jesus's life and message. A passage from Romans 10 is often quoted to explain this trust: "How can they hear without someone preaching to them?" And I wholeheartedly agree, but that raises another question. If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us-what happens if they don't do their part?
What if the missionary gets a flat tire?
This raises another, far more disturbing question: Is your future in someone else's hands?
Which raises another question: Is someone else's eternity resting in your hands?
So is it not only that a person has to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do-but also that someone else has to act, teach, travel, organize, fundraise, and build so that the person can know what to respond, pray, accept, believe, trust, confess, and do?
At this point some would step in and remind us in the midst of all of these questions that it's not that complicated, and we have to remember that God has lots of ways of communicating apart from people speaking to each other face-to-face; the real issue, the one that can't be avoided, is whether a person has a "personal relationship" with God through Jesus. However that happens, whoever told whomever, however it was done, that's the bottom line: a personal relationship. If you don't have that, you will die apart from God and spend eternity in torment in hell.
The problem, however, is that the phrase "personal relationship" is found nowhere in the Bible. nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures, nowhere in the New Testament. Jesus never used the phrase. Paul didn't use it. Nor did John, Peter, James, or the woman who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. So if that's it, if that's the point of it all, if that's the ticket, the center, the one unavoidable reality, the heart of the Christian faith, why is it that no one used the phrase until the last hundred years or so?
And that question raises another question. If the message of Jesus is that God is offering the free gift of eternal life through him-a gift we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds-and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren't those verbs? And aren't verbs actions? Accepting, confessing, believing-those are things we do. Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do? How is any of that grace? How is that a gift? How is that good news? Isn't that what Christians have always claimed set their religion apart-that it wasn't, in the end, a religion at all-that you don't have to do anything, because God has already done it through Jesus?
(After this, Bell goes on to point about 18 different passage in the NT that offer about 18 different ways to "be saved" or "be in the kingdom" according to stories Jesus told and encounters Jesus had. Leaving the reader seeing the breadth of Jesus's heart for the salvation of people. By the way, not one of the 18 examples required a sinners prayer.)
Note: I DO NOT AGREE WITH EVERYTHING THAT IS IN THIS BOOK! Soon, I will post a review with some things that I like and some things that I don't. But for now, I wanted to share some of these deep questions because I think they put a finger on several of our unchallenged theological understandings that are rooted more in our church culture than in the Bible. At least not the one that I own.