More Christlike than Christians?

December 22, 2011 — 2 Comments

In the past, I told you at least once, why I wasn’t going to read Love Wins. Initially, I thought the hype for the book was overblown (thanks to a great marketing strategy), people mis-reacted to the video trailer (I think it should have gone something like this) and in the end, Bell became the zeitgeist’s new prophet. Not too long ago, Bell announced he was leaving his church and moving to L.A. to embark on a wider ministry/TV series, somewhat vindicating John Piper’s infamous “Farewell, Rob Bell” tweet.

In a way then, a lot of the hype has died down. Even looking back at my reasons for not planning to read the book, most of them faded by late summer and so I picked up a copy from our local used bookstore (which is awesome). Partly because I thought I’d just read it for myself and partly because I’m interested in Bell’s rhetorical style, I cracked it open several days ago and started reading.

This isn’t my first Bell book, and won’t be my last (since I still need to read Sex God and Jesus Wants to Save Christians). At this point, there is little surprising about what Bell has to say in Love Wins. I don’t plan on offering a review since that reason still sticks (see first link), but I will probably interact here and there with tangential things that catch my attention.

This post is one such example.

In the first chapter, Bell does a good job of creating a “need,” or you could say creating an “itch” that the reader will now want to be scratched. He raises questions (94 total!) in a thought provoking way and for people with little theological education, Bell easily creates cognitive dissonance that begs for resolution.

Of those 94 questions, I want to answer/interact with just one, but I’ll give you a little context so you can see the point he’s trying to make. Referring to the “sinner’s prayer”:

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?

Now, I can see where Bell has a valid point. In reality saying the prayer doesn’t save a person, God saves a person by uniting them to Christ through the Spirit. The person evidences this work of God by believing and the prayer is just the verbal expression of the changed reality. In that case, the prayer can be uttered ignorantly (question #1 above), or under coercion (question #2 above) and not mean that that person is now a Christian.

What I’m interested in is the last question posed. Who are these people who don’t claim Christianity, but supposedly “live a more Christlike life than some Christians?”

Really?

These people are more Christlike?

They are?

We have confirmation of this?

Somebody knows this?

Without a doubt?

And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know in his book?

On the one hand, I can see what Bell is asking, and it is a semi legitimate question. On the other hand, I think he’s being a little reckless with the term “Christlike.” Consider this rephrasing:

What about people who have never said the prayer and don’t claim to be Christians, but live a more moral life than some Christians?

In this case, Bell is simply asking what we are to think of the “virtuous pagan.” Or as we talked about in our small group the other night, how do we respond to “good atheists”? When people who deny God but follow Judeo-Christian ethics pretty close it may appear to create a problem for Christians. If this is all Bell is highlighting, then that is a question worth considering.

But, if we take him at his word, that’s not what Bell is asking. He heightened the non-believer’s life to embodying “Christlikeness,” which unless you’re using a pretty shallow definition isn’t synonymous with “moral” or “virtuous.”

I think a moments reflection would lead you to realize that being “Christlike” is something more than “living a good life” or being “moral” or “virtuous.” Christ lived his earthly life in dependence on the Spirit and sought to bring glory and honor to the Father. Shouldn’t we consider those aspects pretty high on our list of what counts as “Christlike”?

In that light, anyone who isn’t seeking to live their live to the glory of God isn’t really Christlike are they?

Or how about people who don’t consistently display the fruit (singular) of the Spirit (the Spirit who is the Spirit of Christ)? It would seem that you can cultivate some virtues in your life, apart from Christ, but you can’t organically grow authentic fruit if you haven’t had Christ planted in you as the hope of glory.

So, back to Bell’s question:

“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?”

Answer:

There aren’t any. There may be non-Christians who live moral lives, but there aren’t any non-Christians who are “Christlike” much less more so than genuine Christians.

Unless of course we define “Christlike” in a non-Christian, unbiblical sort of way. But if we’re gonna do that, well, that just raises all sorts of other questions…

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 responses to More Christlike than Christians?

  1. Well said. Bell’s question reveals a similar misunderstanding of true virtue as Hitchens’ retort does: “Name one good thing a Christian can do that an atheist can’t” (paraphrase). Virtue and righteousness are not simply matters of right action. They are also states of being that only Christ can truly create. Anyway, thanks for the post I look forward to future thoughts on this book.

    • Derek,

      Thanks for the shoutout, hopefully my future posts won’t disappoint (and won’t be few and far between). Hope you all are doing well!

      Nate

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