I’m picking my way slowly through the beguiling, breezy woodland of Rob Bell’s Love Wins. But to be honest, so far I have been more interested in the trees than the wood. If you look at some of them close up, with the slightly obsessive eye of a botanist rather than the casual glance of a happy-go-lucky rambler, they don’t quite make sense. Push them, and they seem not to be securely rooted. Push hard enough and they sometimes fall over. To give an example….
The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3 that “the Day” the prophets spoke of, the one that inaugurates life in the age to come, will “bring everything to light” and “reveal it with fire,” the kind of fire that will “test the quality of each person’s work.” Some in this process will find that they spent their energies and efforts on things that won’t be in heaven-on-earth. “If it is burned up,” Paul writes, “the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved, even though only as one escaping through the flames.”
Bell goes on to suggest that if a racist were to sit down at a feast in this heaven-on-earth next to a person of a despised ethnicity, the racist attitude would be burnt away by these flames of heaven.
A nice thought, but is it really what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15—that at some final judgment all the ugly dross of our lives will be burnt up?
No. It is not individuals but communities that will be tested by fire. This is underlined by the plural pronouns of 1 Corinthians 3:16, but it is obvious anyway. And a fire does not refine or purify a building constructed from flammable materials on a flimsy foundation. It destroys it.
This is an image of the destruction of an apostle’s workmanship by fire. What does it have to do with a final judgment? Nothing.
What Paul is concerned about is the character of the communities that he and others are constructing across the pagan world. Why? Because a day of fire is coming. According to Paul’s scriptures a day of fire was a day of God’s judgment or wrath—a day of suffering and calamity that would engulf either Israel or the enemies of Israel (cf. Jer. 17:27; Ezek. 38:19; Amos 1:14; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8; Zech. 12:6; Mal. 3:2).
Later in the Letter he writes about the turmoil and “distress” that the community would soon have to endure as “the form of this world” passed away (1 Cor. 7:26, 31). He speaks elsewhere of an impending “evil day” of persecution for which the churches had to be prepared—just as an army prepares in trepidation for a day of battle (cf. Rom. 13:12-14; Eph. 6:10-18). Most of his teaching is directed quite specifically at churches that would have to learn the hard way how to stay standing when the storms of persecution hit them.
What would it take for the churches to survive this coming day of fire or testing or “judgment”? First, they would have to be built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, precisely because he had faced intense, destructive opposition and had overcome it—he stood for resolute faithfulness through suffering. Secondly, they would have to be built of materials that would survive the testing of persecution. A church riven by dissension, self-interest, vanity, immorality, and charismatic excess was unlikely to survive.
And if the church did not survive, the apostle would only narrowly be saved. As though through fire.
In many ways this reading is a far cry from Bell’s vision of heaven-on-earth. But my problem here is not so much that he does not share my rigorous narrative-historical hermeutic. It is that Bell makes seems to make so little effort to understand Paul.
That is perhaps an unfair complaint given the genre, given the target readership. But the fact remains that this is an intentionally controversial book. It will incite some to outrage and trouble many others. Yet very little attempt is made to get to grips with what and why Paul wrote.
I make a fuss about this because I love Bell’s imaginative woodland. It’s just not solid enough.