Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill church in Grand Rapids, Michigan has ignited a veritable firestorm in the evangelical world with the recent publication of his new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

In the book Bell holds firmly to the biblical revelation that the God of Jewish and Christian tradition is a God of love.

Bell argues that love is incompatible with condemning anyone to an eternity of conscious suffering in hell simply on the basis of the person’s failure in the short span of their life to make the proper decision in relationship to Jesus. Therefore, Bell suggests that ultimately, whether before death or posthumously, God’s love will win out and all people will finally freely choose to embrace the light and truth of love that is God.

What seems to be emerging in the debate about Bell’s book is a battle between two approaches to Christian faith.

For the sake of clarity, I will call the first approach, “Propositional Christianity” and the second, “Presence Christianity.” There is of course overlap, but each carries a distinctive emphasis.

Propositional Christianity holds that:

1. Christianity is made up of clearly prescribed propositions about the nature of God and Jesus and the relationship between God and humanity:

a. These propositions are true, have always been true, and will always be true, and will be accepted as true by any thoughtful person who sincerely desires to know God.

b. We know these propositions are true because they can be proven by citing specific biblical texts an understanding of which is supported by the particular strand of Christian tradition to which we pledge allegiance.

c. Anyone who disagrees with our understanding of these texts has dismissed the authority of the Bible and has willfully removed themselves from the community of faith that is constituted around fidelity to these propositional truths.

d. The function of the church is to protect and preserve a faithful witness to these propositions, exposing error wherever it is detected and announcing the truth of these propositions to the world.

e. The job of Christians is to learn these truths and be able to explain how the Bible supports their truth so we may be able to convince non-Christians that these propositions are true.

2. To be a Christian means:

a. agreeing with the propositions about faith that have, since the closing of the canon of Scripture, constituted the once and for all revealed truth of God known in Jesus Christ.

b. trusting that Jesus is the full and only embodiment of God incarnate on earth, that he died for the sins of all humanity and was raised to new life in order to demonstrate the ultimate truth and authority of his teaching and to win a place in heaven for those who accept the truth of this teaching.

c. opening your heart to Jesus and welcoming him into your life so that you may live in obedience to his word revealed in the Bible and may enjoy the assurance that you will spend an eternity in heaven with God through the gracious sacrifice of Christ by which the righteous wrath of God has been appeased.

Presence Christianity in distinction from Propositional Christianity holds that:

1. All human beings who have ever existed have been created in the image of God and, therefore live in the presence of God whether acknowledged or not.

a. This means that every human being bears some similarity to and connection with God.

b. The purpose of Christian life is to recognize that all human beings have at times lost their awareness of that original image of God in which we were all created and the journey of faith is to recover our awareness of that reality that is our truest and deepest nature.

c. Jesus was historically the perfect embodiment of that deep image of God, bearing the full presence of God in human history.

d. In his death and resurrection, Jesus led the way to the restoration of all creation through surrender to the reality of God at the heart of all existence, opening the cosmos to a renewed awareness of the presence of the Divine at the heart of all of life.

2. To be a Christian means:

a. to live in the present moment with absolute surrender to God.

b. to live in daily awareness of the presence of God that permeates all existence.

c. to recognize that Christian life is a practice of living in the fullness of life given to us in Christ.

d. to experience the Bible as the living, active word of God through which our hearts are opened to an awareness of God’s presence and action in our lives.

e. to enter into a life of prayer as the practice of deep surrender in which our self-centered will is allowed to die and God’s Spirit is reborn in our consciousness.

f. to bear the presence of God, as Jesus did, into all the world, living with deepening love and compassion in relationship to all people.

As I have read Rob Bell’s book and some of the criticisms from the evangelical world, it seems that the problem is that Bell has moved from a predominantly Propositional Christianity towards a deeper sense of Presence Christianity, but he is still trying to make things work in the propositional world. He still wants to use propositional tools to prove his point.

He wants to demonstrate that his beliefs can be proved in the Scriptures.

Reading Bell’s book it does not appear to me that anything he believes is in conflict with the Spirit of the Bible. But it is at times difficult for Bell to cite precisely the chapter and verse in which his convictions can be clearly proven. Consequently the exegetical police of Propositional Christianity appear to pulverize Bell when he tries to operate exclusively in their world.

Theology for Bell is closer to poetry and art than to mathematics and science. Bell wants the story of the Gospel to be compelling for its beauty not just for its relentless airtight rationalism. He seeks to portray the Gospel in terms that may cause hearts to soften and open to the presence of that Love which is the reality of God at work in the human heart.

There comes a point in theology when we simply have to trust the open, loving warmth of a good heart to guide us to the correct understanding. Reason, proof-texting, and tradition are not adequate to develop a rich and faithful understanding of the Gospel.

We need to factor in the presence of God at work in our heart and in the lives of other people who may see the world differently. We need to consider our life-experience, and the life-experience of those who may understand the Bible and tradition in ways that are different than our understanding.

Bell’s compassionate desire to portray God in appealing terms for disillusioned Christians and for non-Christians, bears beautiful testimony to the gentle work of God’s Spirit in Bell’s life and ministry. The truth of Bell’s book rests in the heart, more than in his appeal to another book.

I am sure God is able to deal with the intellectual or exegetical challenges that may arise from a theology that emerges from a surrendered heart and leads to an increase in deep love and compassion. But we may just have to wait a while to see how that all works out in the end.