There are questions, and then there are questions.
In Love Wins, there are lots of questions—eighty-six in the first chapter alone. The book you are currently reading will address a number of them, because they are good questions. But before that, the first thing we need to do is think about the very nature of questions. Because there are questions, and then there are questions.
There are questions like the one Mary, the mother of Jesus, asked the angel when he told her some astounding news. Mary was a young woman engaged to marry Joseph when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. "Greetings, favored woman!" he bursts out. "The Lord is with you!"
Suddenly finding herself in the presence of a messenger of God, Mary is naturally "confused and disturbed."
"Don't be afraid, Mary," Gabriel reassures her, "for you have found favor with God!"
And then he drops the bombshell: "You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus." This Jesus, he says, will be very great, will be called the Son of the Most High, will be given the throne of his ancestor David, and will reign over Israel forever in a Kingdom that will never end.
That's a lot to take in. Most mothers just want to know they'll have a baby with all ten fingers and ten toes. But what exactly all this means—Son of the Most High? ruler like King David? reign forever?—seems not as perplexing to Mary as one other detail. "But how can this happen?" she asks. "I am a virgin."
That's her question, and it's a good one. A virgin getting pregnant without the help of a man—well, this sort of thing doesn't happen every day. It's an honest question, prompted by natural curiosity and driven, not by fear and doubt, but by wonder: how is God going to pull this off?
Mary asks one type of question; the other type was posed by Zechariah a few months earlier. He was a priest married to Mary's cousin Elizabeth, an old man at the other end of life and the reproduction cycle, when the angel Gabriel appeared to him.
It happened in the Temple, as Zechariah burned incense in the sanctuary. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared before him. "Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear," Luke's Gospel says.
"Don't be afraid, Zechariah!" Gabriel reassures. "God has heard your prayer."
What prayer? For a son? For Elijah to come to herald the Messiah? For the Messiah to come? We're not told what Zechariah's prayer had been, only that it has been heard. This is what Gabriel told him: Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a son whom they were to name John, and this John would be an extraordinary man.
Again, Gabriel piles on the attributes. John will be great in the eyes of the Lord, will be filled with the Holy Spirit—even before his birth—will turn many Israelites to the Lord, will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah, will prepare people for the coming of the Lord, will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and will cause the rebellious to accept godly wisdom.
Again, that's a lot to take in. And the thing that bothers Zechariah is the thing that bothers Mary: biology. "How can I be sure this will happen?" he asks the angel. "I am an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years."
His question seems like a logical one. But it is not a good question. Gabriel chastises Zechariah, telling him in no uncertain terms that he, Gabriel, stands in the very presence of God. Of course he can deliver on this promise of good news!
"Since you didn't believe what I said," Gabriel continues, "you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born." The consequence for asking a bad question: Zechariah is made mute. No more questions. Only silence.
So what's the difference here? The questions are so similar. Why is Mary's treated with respect while Zechariah's is an occasion for spiritual discipline? Why does the angel seem indifferent to Mary's natural curiosity and angry about Zechariah's?
The difference appears in one little additional clause Zechariah adds to his question. Mary simply asks, "How can this happen?" Zechariah asks, "How can I be sure this will happen?"
Mary's question is about God. Zechariah's question is about himself.
Mary's question assumes God will do something good and great, and seeks to know how it will unfold. Zechariah is not at all sure that God is good and great, and seeks proof.
Mary wants to learn more about the goodness of God. Zechariah mostly wants to be self-assured.
As I said, there are questions, and then there are questions.
As these two stories show, questions driven by faith and questions driven by self-justification can sound very similar. Sometimes they can be identical in their wording, but they are not identical in their motives. A question can be grounded in trust in God's goodness—or it can be a demand for a sign. God is pleased with the former, but not so pleased with the latter.
As Jesus put it, "Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign" (Matthew 16:4). The demand for signs is a demand for proof. It's a clue that the heart is not right. It's putting God on trial. We don the judge's robes and climb into the judicial bench, looking down at the accused.
The problem with requests for signs is that they mask unbelief—and ultimately they become an attempt to justify a lack of faith. Such is the case with the theologian described in Luke 10, whose questions prompt Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan. Asked how one gains eternal life, Jesus answers clearly, but the theologian only asks another question because, as Luke notes, "the man wanted to justify his actions" (verse 29).
Questions driven by a demand for signs never cease—and they never satisfy. The unfortunate conclusion in the Gospel of John is, "Despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him" (John 12:37).
The point is that questions are not just questions. There is no such thing as a neutral inquiry when it comes to questions about God.
Love Wins is a book running over with questions. In chapter 1, we are presented with questions like
Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?
Is there really no hope for someone who dies an atheist?
Is the salvation of others dependent on what we do—that is, our ability to send missionaries to them?
And that's just the beginning. No question asked in Love Wins is actually new. Many questions raised in the book were asked in the Bible. But we certainly feel the force of the questions in a new way today.
But no matter the questions, here's the point: for some, these questions arise out of a trusting faith. For others, they arise out of a desire to have God prove himself on human terms.
We can't tell which is which simply by listening to the question. What drives the question resides in the human heart. We cannot judge anyone else because we cannot see into their hearts. But when we start asking questions of God, we can look into our own hearts. And we can ask ourselves a couple of hard questions. First, why am I asking these questions? Second, are they grounded in God's goodness or a desire to justify myself?
Sometimes the answer to these self-directed questions is obvious. Sometimes it is not. Most of the time it's a mix. But given human nature—the heart is desperately wicked, according to Jeremiah 17:9—we can safely assume that the questions are largely driven by a desire to justify ourselves, to put God in the dock, and to don those judicial robes.
This does not mean we don't have any legitimate questions. It does not mean that we are forbidden from asking God anything. God is not threatened by our questions. But when we start asking questions, we are called to begin with a prayer grounded in repentance and humility.
As in, "Lord, help me overcome my unbelief."
Or, even more crucial, "O God, be merciful to me … a sinner."
As James says, "You don't have what you want because you don't ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don't get it because your motives are all wrong" (4:2-3).
So before we ask our questions, we are wise to pray for both help and mercy that we will learn to ask with the right spirit.
You Call That an Answer?
People have been asking hard questions since biblical days. But some of those questions have also been answered. Let's note two of them, and how God answered. It will help us see what we're up against when we start asking tough questions of the Creator of heaven and earth.
One example comes from the little-read book of Habakkuk. It was written during the brutal conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. This spawned a plethora of violence and injustice, leading to various forms of human misery. When Habakkuk had seen enough, he started to interrogate God:
How long, O Lord, must I call for help?
But you do not listen!
"Violence is everywhere!" I cry,
but you do not come to save.
Must I forever see these evil deeds?
Why must I watch all this misery?
Wherever I look,
I see destruction and violence.
I am surrounded by people
who love to argue and fight.
The law has become paralyzed,
and there is no justice in the courts.
The wicked far outnumber the righteous,
so that justice has become perverted.
After God tells him that, because of the sins of his people, things may actually get worse, Habakkuk questions whether the punishment fits the crime:
O Lord my God, my Holy One, you who are eternal—
surely you do not plan to wipe us out?
O Lord, our Rock, you have sent these Babylonians to correct us,
to punish us for our many sins.
But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil.
Will you wink at their treachery?
Should you be silent while the wicked
swallow up people more righteous than they?
Or to put it as we might today, in light of all the suffering around us, how can God be just? God's answer to Habakkuk is this:
Write my answer plainly on tablets,
so that a runner can carry the correct message to others.
This vision is for a future time.
It describes the end, and it will be fulfilled.
If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently,
for it will surely take place.
In other words, "I'll take care of the Babylonians in my time. It will all work out in the end. Be patient."
The answer to Habakkuk's cry is to be patient? Is that the type of thing a compassionate God tells his anguished people? Apparently. And it's an answer that Habakkuk accepts at face value: "I have heard all about you, Lord," he says, "I am filled with awe by your amazing works. … I will wait quietly for the coming day when disaster will strike the people who invade us" (Habakkuk 3:2, 16).
None of Job's Business
As another example, take the champion questioner of God in the Old Testament, Job. He certainly seems to have the right to complain. He has lost his home, his children, his livestock, and his health—everything that was a blessing is gone, and now his life is nothing but a curse. And why? Job can't spot a single thing he did to deserve his fate. So he cries out to God:
Why wasn't I born dead?
Why didn't I die as I came from the womb? …
Why wasn't I buried like a stillborn child,
like a baby who never lives to see the light?
(Job 3:11, 16)
Oh, why give light to those in misery,
and life to those who are bitter?
They long for death, and it won't come.
They search for death more eagerly than for hidden treasure.
They're filled with joy when they finally die,
and rejoice when they find the grave.
Why is life given to those with no future,
those God has surrounded with difficulties?
Job pummels God with question after question after question—until God shows up and queries his accuser:
Who is this that questions my wisdom
with such ignorant words?
Brace yourself like a man,
because I have some questions for you,
and you must answer them.
That's the beginning of an onslaught of divine questions for Job:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you know so much.
Who kept the sea inside its boundaries
as it burst from the womb,
and as I clothed it with clouds
and wrapped it in thick darkness?
Have you given the horse its strength
or clothed its neck with a flowing mane?
Did you give it the ability to leap like a locust?
Its majestic snorting is terrifying!
And then the clincher question, which leaves Job dumbfounded:
Will you discredit my justice
and condemn me just to prove you are right?
This is not a very empathetic response. Looks as though God could take a few lessons in grief counseling. But this is the God whom Job is finally able to trust:
You asked, "Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?"
It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about,
things far too wonderful for me. …
I take back everything I said,
and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.
(Job 42:3, 6)
What we see in these two incidents is that God seems relatively unconcerned with giving specific answers to the anguished questions of Habakkuk and Job. He answers them, but not point for point. That suggests that all our questions about God's wisdom and justice and love may not be all that important to God in the end—or at least not as important as other things.
This doesn't mean we can't ask them. In Christ, we have the freedom to speak what's on our hearts and minds. God isn't going to cast us from his presence because we ask him some tough questions. It just means that we shouldn't take our questions too seriously because apparently God doesn't take them too seriously.
It may shock us to hear it put that way. We think pretty highly of ourselves and our questions. We think it's our right to ask such questions and to demand such answers, even from God. But God does not seem to share this view. In the Bible, whenever God is asked a question that throws into doubt his kindness or justice, he more or less refuses to answer. In some instances he says, "You have no idea what you are talking about." Or he says, "You'll get an answer in my good time."
Jesus' Big Question
Indeed, there is a deep mystery when it comes to our questions—and yet a deep mercy.
All our uncertainties about God's justice and love are summed up in a single question, the one Jesus asks on our behalf as he hangs from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" In this question, all our anguished questions about God's goodness come together.
Does God forsake us? Is he indifferent to our suffering? Can he be trusted?
Jesus, representing us on the cross, as true man, is asking all that and more on our behalf. And God's response?
When God hears this question, a question that examines his very goodness, he does not strike back or walk away in disgust. He simply absorbs the question in loving silence—the silence of forgiveness. The same forgiveness that's available to cover every question we've ever asked or will ever ask, especially those questions that are nothing but a demand for a sign or an attempt to justify ourselves.
While Jesus as true man is asking the question behind all our questions—Can God be trusted to be good and just?—Jesus as true God is answering that question with another: "Can you trust and love the God who will die for you?"
As the Cross demonstrates, God takes us seriously. He takes our sin seriously. But he continues to show relative indifference to our questions. He does not answer them to our intellectual satisfaction; he refuses to submit himself to our interrogations.
That's because the really important question in the Bible is not any question we ask of God but the question he asks of us. And though it is appropriate to ponder any number of questions—for this is part of what it means to love God with all our minds—our questions must always take a backseat.
They take a backseat to the prayer for faith and mercy, not to mention the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
And they take a backseat to the only question that really matters: "Who do you say I am?" (Matthew 16:15). The answer to that question is revealed on the cross. And until we embrace this answer, none of our questions even make sense, none of the questions raised in Love Wins can be properly addressed, and none of the answers the Bible supplies will satisfy. Until we comprehend who God is, all our questions are like chasing after the wind.
So let's see how the Bible talks about this God.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today.
Excerpt used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Rob Bell is Not a Litmus Test | What one thinks about Love Wins is no test of faith. (May 5, 2011)
Rob Bell's Bridge Too Far | The controversial pastor raises crucial questions, but offers answers that may sabotage his goals. (March 14, 2011)
Heaven, Hell, and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context | He's not the first to try to resolve old biblical tensions in new ways. (March 2, 2011)
The Emergent Mystique | The 'emerging church' movement has generated a lot of excitement but only a handful of congregations. Is it the wave of the future or a passing fancy? (November 1, 2004)
Other articles on spiritual questioning include:
Asking the Right Question | Why neither worm theology nor worth theology will do. (April 1, 2010)
A Questioning Faith | Derek Webb calls us to conversation, not conversion. (June 11, 2007)