The Problem with “Certitude”

Yes, I know all I’ve written about so far is “Love Wins;” it’s just that I’m pissed off by the unbelievably childish backlash and attention the book has seen since it first hit bookshelves and digital download last month. That said, the vitriol had been flowing for a long time before—ironically so since no one had even been able to read the book.

Naturally, as I said in my previous post, the backlash reveals something about evangelical Christians: they aren’t a very tolerant lot. Nor, as it would appear, are they terribly open-minded. But, ultimately, I think the uproar points to something which is more than mere reactionism.

Time’s cover story this week is about Rob Bell. Take a look at what the author writes in the piece:

“Bell insists he is only raising the possibility that theological rigidity — and thus a faith of exclusion — is a dangerous thing. He believes in Jesus’ atonement; he says he is just unclear on whether the redemption promised in Christian tradition is limited to those who meet the tests of the church. It is a case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.

From “Is Hell Dead?,” Jon Meacham. My emphasis added.

I think the last line is rather poignant. I have long thought that the accepted mainline Evangelical understanding of eschatology was insufficient; not wrong, mind you, but insufficient.

Why?

Because certitude excludes the truth that salvation is part of the divine mystery, something which human beings, no matter how advanced or educated, will never be able to fully grasp.

More specifically, I can’t accept the teaching that only those who pray to “ask Jesus into their heart” will be redeemed without following the logic of that assertion to its conclusion. I can’t accept that only those who pass a church’s litmus test for salvation will be saved, not the least because the Church can’t even agree on what such a litmus test should be.

I also can’t accept the idea that people who might have a warped understanding of who Christ is will experience continuous, conscious suffering eternally (in the English meaning of the word) after death because they didn’t say “The Prayer.”

Argue with me all you want, but I just cannot—and will not—accept those arguments as valid.

I’m going to avoid rehashing all the arguments for and against this line of thinking as they’re as old as the Church itself and such a post would run far longer than what most would care to read. The problem that exists will all of the points of view, however, is that the people who hold them take passages of Scripture and attempt to use them to say that their view—and only their view—is the correct one all while ignoring those passages that say otherwise.

On “Love Wins,” there are some people who’ve written interesting pieces about the book—pointing out its flaws while lauding its strengths—that I highly recommend. In an article for Christianity Today, Mark Galli presents the problems with the Christus Victor position, which is apparently what Bell’s teaching is. As well, Ryan Hamm’s review of the book for Relevant recognizes the truths Bell writes while also acknowledging the holes in his claims.

Both of these people succeed in making substantive arguments while avoiding the childish character assassination you might find being written about Rob Bell on the Christian blogosphere, such as labeling him a “universalist”—a label equivalent to “racist” in the Christian subculture.

On that note, it might be worth hearing what Rob Bell has to say in his own words:

At the end of the day, I don’t know how God’s plan of salvation works in every circumstance. I don’t know what will happen to a Bushman who’s never heard the name of Jesus, but loved his God with all his heart, mind and spirit and loved his neighbor as himself.

I don’t know what will happen to the woman who refuses to believe in Jesus because her pastor father molested her as a child. Thankfully, neither do those who claim they do. And, to be quite honest, I don’t have to know.

That, I think, is a problem with modern Christianity: we’ve stopped being comfortable not knowing. Like it or not, there are some things we can’t know and the danger lies in requiring an inadequate and imperfect understanding of transcendent truth to be “true” in every circumstance. Life, as it turns out, is anything but black and white and Christian doctrine has to reflect that. At best, we are flawed creatures using flawed reason and language to discuss things elusive to full human comprehension.

“Certitude,” as Meacham points out, leaves no room for the mystery that is God.

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