Before reading on, may I invite you to watch this video teaser for Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins?
Now tell me how that proves Bell is a universalist? He may be, or he may not. This is far too ambiguous. This video raises the questions. It doesn’t give Bell’s answers. To be precise:
Unambiguously stating that Gandhi is in Hell does raise concerns. If you are an exclusivist (only those who have personal faith in Christ will be saved) you might well say that. But if you believe the biblical evidence leads in another direction, you will be bothered by this. That doesn’t simply apply to universalism (all will be saved, regardless of faith in Christ); it also applies to inclusivism (God will deal justly and mercifully with those who never get the chance to respond to Christ). And there is plenty of evidence for inclusivism in the Bible: take Melchizedek the priest of Salem in Genesis, for example. Take Job, possibly. And besides, Bell at very least may only be raising the questions our culture asks and which need answering.
Likewise, Bell’s portrayal of the Gospel as preached by some that a loving Jesus rescues us from an angry God. What kind of Trinity is that, where Christ is love but the Father isn’t? That certainly should be up for debate.
And as for the slogan ‘Love Wins’? Well, if Christians don’t believe that in some form or another, we’re in big trouble. There is something deeply troubling about a brand of Christianity that is more certain about who is going to Hell than who is going to Heaven – after all, Calvinism has always had a problem with knowing how you are one of the elect.
Oh, and by the way, the publisher’s blurb is correct: eternal life does start now. Read John’s Gospel, especially chapter 17 verse 3: ‘eternal life is knowing you’ (emphasis mine).
As I say, it is possible that Bell might be a universalist. But there is nothing in these two minutes and fifty eight seconds to establish that with any certainty. Therefore it is pretty unworthy for the new Calvinist militants to go after him like this. I say this as one who takes doctrine very seriously – this shouldn’t be the way a Christian theme ends up in the top ten trending topics on Twitter, as this did on Saturday.
I guess someone who commented on Christianity Today’s blog about the controversy got it about right:
Kudos to HarperOne’s marketing team. Job well done. I’d imagine this kind of buzz before the book’s release can only improve sales.
I wonder whether you recognise this person? Those of you who remember news stories from the 1960s may do so. This is Archbishop Makarios III, a key figure in the Cypriot campaign for independence from Britain. He was well-known in my native north London, which had heavy pockets of Greek Cypriot communities. We had consecutive Greek Cypriot next-door neighbours. One family set up a thriving dry-cleaning business near Tottenham Hotspur’s football ground. They promised that if you brought your suit in before the match, it would be ready by the time you came out.
Makarios. I wonder whether you know what his name means? Blessèd. I don’t think the British authorities considered him blessèd or a blessing.
But ‘makarios’ is the word Matthew uses in the Beatitudes for the blessedness Jesus pronounces on God’s behalf here. ‘Makarios’ are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart and so on. What do we understand Jesus to mean when Jesus says that these disciples whose characteristics are so far from what many say are the priorities of life are ‘blessèd’?
Infamously, the Good News Bible translates ‘makarios’, ‘blessèd’, as ‘happy’. So the poor in spirit, the pure in heart and the persecuted are all happy. Hmm. Maybe sometimes, but it’s not guaranteed. Take those who are persecuted for their faith. On occasion they will feel it is an honour to suffer for Christ, but at other times they will cry out for relief from that suffering. Does ‘happy’ cover it? I’m not convinced.
I think the point may not be that the disciples are happy, but that God is happy – he is happy with what they are doing. The Beatitudes describe attitudes, actions and priorities in our lives that bring joy to the heart of God. The Christian rock band Delirious had a song called ‘God is smiling’, and I think the ‘Blessèd’ of the Beatitudes may indicate that God is smiling when this is how we choose to live for him.
So the Beatitudes becomes a text for learning how we please God. There is a text in Ephesians where Paul urges his readers to ‘find out what pleases the Lord’. Well, the Beatitudes would be a good place to stop by and discover what pleases the Lord.
But before we plunge into them, there is one thing to remember about pleasing God in the Beatitudes, and it’s this. Jesus’ statement that God blesses certain things is followed by a reward. For example, ‘Blessèd are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ What are we to make of this reward? How are we to understand the idea that God rewards us when we do what pleases him?
As a father, I’m delighted when my children do something particular in order to please me. But it’s not as though I wasn’t pleased with them before they did it. I can just go into their bedrooms at night and look at them sleeping to feel my heart leap with joy at the sight of them. When they deliberately set out to please me, it’s from an existing relationship of mutual love. It doesn’t earn my love, it simply brings my existing love for them to the surface.
It’s similar when thinking of our relationship with God. If we set out to make God smile by following the Beatitudes, it won’t earn us his love. We have his love already. He has offered it to us in Christ, and we have responded in repentance, faith and a commitment to following Jesus. If we embrace the Beatitudes, let’s do so because God already looks upon us in love, and we simply want to draw that to the surface with a heavenly smile.
Overall, then, the movement is something like this: God calls us – we respond – God rewards us.
Right – enough with the preliminaries. Let’s ask two questions about each Beatitude, then: firstly, what makes God smile? Then, secondly, how does he reward?
God smiles on ‘the poor in spirit’ (verse 3). When we so lack things that – rather than simply desire what the rest of the world lusts after – we throw ourselves upon him in dependence and faith, then God smiles. His heart aches when he sees people in poverty, but he rejoices when those who lack what is needed trust him to provide what they need. When we are in desperate straits but we trust him, God smiles.
And it is that complete dependence upon God that means the kingdom of heaven is our reward. Faith in God through Christ is what brings us into God’s kingdom. We are in that kingdom now, because when we trust ourselves to Christ we place ourselves under his reign. That kingdom has not yet come fully, because people, institutions and other forces still oppose God’s rule. But one day God will put every enemy under his feet. In the meantime, all those whose hopeless condition causes them to put their trust in God find themselves already in the kingdom. That is the reward as God smiles on their faith, even in terrible circumstances.
The second Beatitude we often quote at funerals, usually when the minister is walking in with the coffin. Those who mourn are blessèd, because they will be comforted (verse 4) – presumably by God. I wouldn’t want to deny that our God blesses those who grieve, but I would want to expand how we traditionally understand this particular Beatitude.
How? There is a clear link in the language with Isaiah 61, the passage Jesus read out in his home synagogue at Nazareth to describe his mission. In that chapter, God promises ‘to comfort all who mourn’ (Isaiah 61:2). Why are people mourning? Because the world is not the way God wants it to be. They are mourning not merely for themselves, but for a society where things are not as God would have them be. To those who grieve that the world is not as God wants it to be, Jesus promises comfort. ‘One day,’ he says, ‘it will not be like this. Your grief and anguish in prayer will be rewarded when the Father makes all things new in heaven and upon earth.’ So do not be afraid to keep weeping and praying for the world – God is pleased that you do, and your reward will be to see the coming of his kingdom.
Then we move to the London Underground, to the famous graffiti: ‘The meek will inherit the earth – so long as the rest of you don’t mind.’ The meek ‘are not persons who are submissive, mild and unassertive’, but those who have been humbled. Psalm 37 promised that such people would ‘inherit the land’, and the inheritance of the land was of course a powerful thought for Jewish people. (It still is, with arguments over territories and one state or two with the Palestinians.) But Jesus doesn’t limit this to the land of Israel: the whole land, the earth itself, is for those who have been humbled. God does not grant his new creation to the powerful, the wealthy or the violent, but to those of no account, those disregarded and trampled upon in the world. And many of the early disciples were just that. Beaten down, because they confessed Christ as Lord. To such people, and not to the emperors and armies, Jesus ‘promised the earth’. God would be pleased with their courageous, sacrificial witness, and he would reward their humble bravery at the end.
When we come to God’s delight in ‘those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’, we are into the area of multiple meanings. You will know the old saying, ‘The Greeks had a word for it,’ meaning that the Greek language had many words to encompass different shades of meaning – for example, the several different words for the various kinds of love. However, it’s also true that individual words also carried a range of meanings, just as we look up a word in a dictionary and see several varying definitions.
That is true of the word ‘righteousness’ here. When we hear ‘righteousness’ in English, we tend to think of personal, individual qualities of right living. But the Greek word Matthew uses is one that has not only an individual meaning, it also has a social meaning – that is, ‘justice’. Jesus says that God delights in those who care so much for justice that they are hungry and thirsty (literally). They may be hungry and thirsty for justice, because they themselves have been denied it. But they will not keep quiet, they will not be denied, even at the cost of diet, nutrition and hydration.
Yet they will not be empty always, ‘they will be filled’ – that will be God’s reward. God is pleased when people do not sit down, lie back and accept injustice. He is thrilled by people who make his justice their mission in life, even at great cost.
But the ‘righteousness’ element isn’t lost in the concentration on justice. It is those who are righteous in God’s sight – vindicated by him through Christ – who will enjoy the justice of God’s kingdom rule. The person who pleases God and calls forth his reward is the one who wants to be right with him in Christ and who also then is restless for justice, to the point of personal sacrifice.
The fifth Beatitude is where we learn of God’s pleasure in the merciful, who themselves will be shown mercy. In a world which all too routinely says that certain things are ‘unforgivable’, and which calls for ‘no mercy’ to be shown to undesirables, Jesus extols mercy. Mercy isn’t the province of do-gooders, of bleeding-heart liberals who excuse the inexcusable. Mercy knows that sin is always unjustified, but it forgivers.
The other day, a friend of mine from Essex put these slogans about mercy from the American pastor Rob Bell on his Facebook wall:
Revenge doesn’t work
Bitterness is Unfulfilled Revenge
To forgive is to set someone free and then find out it’s you.
To not forgive is to let someone rent free space in your head.
Why let the wrong they did determine your joy?
When we show mercy, we not only set the sinner free, we set ourselves free – free from the chains of bitterness. The God of mercy looks with delight on those who have learned mercy from him. To understand the forgiveness of God is so to receive it that when we consider how much we have been forgiven, we have to extend that to others. God blesses that.
What, next, of the way God smiles on ‘the pure in heart’ who ‘will see God’ as their reward? I once had a conversation with a Muslim imam about this. He said that the inner person, the heart and the motives, didn’t matter. All that mattered was outward action. I don’t know how representative his view would be of Islamic teaching, but I beg to differ. Jesus knew that our inner life affected our outward action, hence his stress on the pure in heart. It was something the psalmists had proclaimed, too. According to Psalm 24, only those with clean hands and pure hearts (outward and inward life) would see God.
Of course, who can be completely sure of their motives and their integrity? But it is critical that we pay attention to them. I once read the testimony of a minister who had become enslaved to pornography. He tried various strategies to get free of his addiction. Eventually, it was this verse that set him free. The knowledge that he wanted to see God one day led him to purify his heart. When his heart was pure, he lost his desire for porn. The reward drove him to seek God’s pleasure.
The peacemakers bring pleasure to the Father, and will be called sons of God. Now that’s polemical in Jesus’ day. Who called themselves the sons of God in those times? The Zealots, the political terrorists who wanted to bring God’s kingdom by violence. But the kingdom comes not by causing violence but by suffering to bring peace – supremely in the Cross of Christ. It is the way of the Cross that God blesses – not only so that we may be forgiven, it is also the shape of our discipleship. Later, Jesus would say that his followers needed to take up their cross.
We’re near the end now. The last two beatitudes have similar themes. Both express God’s pleasure at those who bear persecution, the first group ‘because of righteousness’ (verse 10), the second ‘because of [Jesus]’ (verse 11). Is God sadistic in wanting to see people suffer? No: he is heartened by those who are brave to stand for what is right and for his Son, even when it costs them. He will not let their persecutors have the final say. So the kingdom of heaven is theirs (verse 10), and their reward will be great in heaven (verse 12).
Why? These are people who will not fight on the world’s terms, but in kingdom ways, and so they are rewarded according to God’s kingdom. Their attitude could be encapsulated in some words of Martin Luther King that an American friend of mine posted on Facebook in response to yesterday’s assassination attempt on an Arizona politician:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
How, then, might we conclude these reflections on the Beatitudes? They show God’s pleasure when the disciples of Christ follow him radically, even at the risk of sacrifice, because they go against the grain of the world. This brings such joy to his heart that it overflows in reward – not always in the here and now; sometimes it is a promise for the future.
But this joy of God – the smile on his face that says ‘Blessèd’ – comes from the fact that he already loves us unconditionally as his children. We take these brave actions of discipleship not in order to win his love but because we are loved.
So let God’s love for us draw out courageous discipleship from us in response. And may that lead to his blessing and reward – which leads us to further joyful service. May our life of love with Christ, therefore, be not a vicious circle but a virtuous circle.