Pondering Rob Bell, Ishmael, and the Non-Elect

Rob Bell has been the most recent Christian to stir up the challenging task of relating the Christian message in a pluralistic world.  Just sniffing around at this issue is enough to draw ire from many Christians.  Bell has certainly lit a firestorm amidst the blogosophere.  What I’ve been encouraged about, and what really is one of the merits of our times, is that his book has opened the discussion (or really just advanced it).  Most people have used his book to open the topic – one desperately needed for our times.

Ever since reading Leslie Newbiggin in seminary, this issue has really resonated with me.  Newbiggin’s work has really opened the can for the current discussion.  If you haven’t read Foolishness to the Greeks, or his best known book The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, you’ve missed a really important voice in this area.  John Hick’s inclusivism (Christian universalism) has always been appealing to me, but I’ve just never been able to get there theologically.  Catholic theologian Karl Rahner and his idea of the “anonymous Christian” has helped ease my mind somewhat, but, in large part, I remain confused and unsure.

Which brings me to Ishmael.  I understand the great impulse of the Great Commission to go into all the world, I get that, I respect that, and I want to honor that.  For me, that is one end of the theological balance.  Certainly, Paul, Peter, etc. had a passionate desire for Christ to be preached.  However, the story of Ishmael causes me a bit of a theological crisis here.

We’re studying Genesis on Sunday mornings, and any time I come to the story of Ishmael, I become conflicted.  More than anything, I feel for Hagar.  The poor and marginalized woman brought into this mess by the underdeveloped faith of Abraham.  And yet, it is so strange what happens to her and her son.  God blesses them.  And this is no old-grandmother-blessing-you-at-the-table kind of blessing.  This is the real deal!  Have you read it lately?

“Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”  The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.”  (Genesis 16: 9 – 10 and then later when they are sent away, “Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”  (Genesis 21: 20)

What?  Ishmael will be blessed beyond measure?  A great nation?  These are the same promises that were given to Abraham . . . father of the Jews . . . father of Christians.  I admit to not having studied this at great deal, so I am speaking out of ignorance here (even more than usual!), and I know there is a great connection with Ishmael and Muslims.  So . . . what are we to do here?  I am not interested in the Muslim connection, but rather the theological foundation at play here.  I think Walter Brueggemann is dead on here, which has partly led to my theological crisis: “God’s concern is not confined to the elect line.  There is passion and concern for the troubled ones who stand outside that line.”  (p. 153 from his Interpretation Series Commentary on Genesis).

“God’s concern is not confined to the elect line.”  I wonder how many non-Christians would believe those words would come from the lips of a Christian.  NT Wright has a really interesting video over at the Altar Video Magazine site that I find interesting and relevant: see here.

Like I said, I’m not sure where I’m at with all this stuff.  You can throw your accusations out and I’ll just avoid them, not just to avoid them, but because I’m just not sure.  I have really appreciated the dialogue recently.  Above were some of my more structured ideas, but below are some more scattered questions and thoughts that have been bouncing around lately:

– The more determined we become to isolate salvation to a moment, the more challenging it becomes.  I’ve been thinking about this at nursing homes.  Most Christians I know understand the mentally handi-capped and severely mentally ill to be under the auspices of grace.  But how does that work for all those nursing home patients who have slowly deteriorated?  “They had their chance and now it’s gone?”  I’m just not sure how to deal with this intersection of life and death/body and spirit.  It seems like we paint a picture of God who is cruel when we imagine a God who sits around waiting for these mentally-incapacitated patients to die off so they can go to hell.  Maybe that’s too harsh a way of putting it, maybe he’s grieving them all along, but then why is there nothing to be done for their soul at this point?

– A Bible passage that has really convicted me lately is Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heven give good gifts to those who asks him?  So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. . .”  It’s an interesting line of logic.  We have these impulses towards good, imagine God’s!  I’ve never heard this applied to the topic at hand, but it seems relevant.  If I can imagine a world that is good and where a man is forgiven for his crimes rather than punished to death, why couldn’t God?  After all, as Matthew teaches, I am evil.  Imagine how great his illustration of grace would be!  While I haven’t read it yet, I get the idea that this is the gist of Rob Bell’s book.

– Also, there’s all those people who were living all around the world at the time that Jesus walked the earth.  What about the ancient Eastern cultures?  Do they simply represent a long line of hell-bound people who were never within the influence of Israel, and who, until the apostles reached them were condemned to hell?  With the above point in context, it just seems hard to swallow.

– But, I should end that there’s the other end of the theological balance to wrestle with as well.  So many of those early disciples gave their life for the faith.  Even today around the world, martyrs abound.  What are we to say of them?  The Bible itself shows them in a special light.  I think sometimes we are mistaken to believe that we can all just gather around the campfire at night and sing Kumbayah and “Imagine” with John and Yoko.  This is where realism slides into idealism.  There are missionaries all the time risking their lives.  There are Christians dying for their faith.  And then theirs Ishmael . . .