Archives For Universalism

A few weeks ago, I posted about my experience reading through the New Testament, seeking out every passage that touches on judgment, heaven, hell, who goes where, and for how long. This little experiment was inspired by reading Rob Bell’s Love Wins earlier this year.

It’s taken three weeks to get around to posting the next installment because it turns out condensing 75 pages of notes is easier said than done.

But here we are at last. I’m starting with Luke and Acts — two volumes from the same writer. Volume one tells the story of Jesus; volume two unpacks the movement he ignited.

More than any other gospel, Luke highlights the radically inclusive nature of Jesus. Time and again, Jesus subverts the “natural order of things.” Those who think they’re entitled to God’s favor end up on the wrong side of things. Those typically excluded — women, foreigners, the diseased, etc. — end up pleasantly surprised.

The gospel of Luke mentions hell (a.k.a. Gehenna) only once, in Luke 12:5. Three times if you also count references to Hades (Luke 10:15; 16:23).

In Acts… not one mention of hell.

As for judgment, there’s plenty to be found in Luke. But it’s not always what you’d expect.

John the Baptist warns of an unquenchable fire in Luke 3. But he also connects fire with baptism. One fire, different results — depending on what kind of person you are.

Twice (Luke 9:25-26; 12:8-10) Jesus says he’ll disown anyone who’s ashamed of him. The second time, Jesus also warns that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

And just what is blasphemy against the Spirit? This statement is set against the backdrop of Jesus’ clash with those who cynically credit his work to the devil and insist he prove his identity by performing signs at their command (Luke 11:14-16).

Two things worth mentioning…

First, you have to know someone in order to be ashamed of them. These texts say nothing about those who’ve never heard of Jesus.

Second, Jesus aims his rebuke at those who knowingly, persistently reject him. Those who see God at work and call it the devil.

Elsewhere, Jesus prophesies that three Galilean villages — Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum — will suffer a fate worse than Sodom because of their unbelief (Luke 10:1-15).

In Love Wins, Rob Bell reflects on a similar passage in Matthew, suggesting that maybe there’s hope for Sodom (p. 83-84). But that doesn’t seem to be the point of Luke’s text or the parallel account in Matthew.

Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum are sometimes known as the “evangelical triangle.” This was Jesus’ home turf. Several of the disciples came from these villages. The evangelical triangle was home to some of the most devout, God-fearing people in ancient Palestine.

According to Luke, the fate of these otherwise good people who rejected the Messiah will be worse than that of the notoriously wicked who never met Christ (e.g. Sodom).

That’s because judgment is directly related to knowledge. Elsewhere, Luke quotes Jesus: “The one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows,” while those who know better “will be beaten with many blows” (Luke 12:47-48).

And in his next installment, Luke writes about a God who has overlooked human ignorance.

Does ignorance get someone off the hook for bad behavior? Not entirely. But the full force of judgment is reserved for those who ought to know better.

And then there’s the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). In this story, Jesus describes Hades as a place of “torment.” There’s a “great chasm” separating Hades from paradise — though the rich man’s refusal to accept Lazarus as his equal, even after their fortunes have been thoroughly reversed, is as much a chasm as anything else in this story.

Most scholars will tell you not to read too much theology into parables. But this story does reveal another dimension of judgment: it is in part about evening the score, providing justice for those who didn’t get any in this life (see also Luke 6:20-26).

In fact, if there’s one group of people for whom it’s almost impossible to enter the kingdom of God, it’s the rich (Luke 18:18-29). Which is small comfort for those of us who find ourselves among the wealthiest 1% of people on the planet.

Last, we have the religious leaders — Jesus’ nemeses in all four gospels.

Near the end of his life, Jesus singles out the religious establishment in a parable about a vineyard owner who executes his wicked tenants (Luke 20:9-19). No one misses the point (which is remarkable for one of Jesus’ parables): the “teachers of the law and the chief priests” are the wicked tenants.

A few paragraphs later, Jesus warns that the religious leaders “will be punished most severely” for making a mockery of religion and exploiting the vulnerable (Luke 20:45-47).

So yeah… there’s plenty of judgment in Luke. We’re talking more than just a slap on the wrist, too:

“Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell.”

“Will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.”

“These men will be punished most severely.”

But Luke also seems to believe that not all sins are created equal. In God’s cosmic justice, the punishment always fits the crime.

This is a far cry from the brand of Calvinism which says that every sin — from breaking the speed limit to genocide — is equally repugnant in the eyes of a holy God.

But there’s more.

In Luke, Jesus is radically inclusive and divisive all at once.

When Jesus’ disciples try to stop someone driving out demons in his name, Jesus tells them to leave the guy alone, saying, “Whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:49-51).

But in the very next section of Luke, he says, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23). (This was in response to those attributing his powers to the devil, for what it’s worth.)

Jesus insists he came not to bring peace but division (Luke 12:51), and he butts heads with the religious leaders… a LOT.

Yet Luke also says the religious leaders “rejected God’s purpose for themselves,” once more highlighting the radically inclusive nature of Jesus’ message. Even the establishment — as corrupt as it was — was meant to be part of what God was doing.

It turns out God wants everybody, even misfits. Even outcasts. And even the ones oppressing the outcasts. That’s the whole point of Luke’s gospel.

One last thing to take from Luke: judgment isn’t our business. It’s God’s.

In Luke 9, as Jesus makes his way toward Jerusalem — toward his death — he and his disciples pass through a Samaritan village. The people refuse to welcome him. (Let’s just say there was a bit of ethnic hostility between Jews and Samaritans back then.)

The disciples ask if they should call down fire from heaven to destroy the village… which was just a bit presumptuous on their part, don’t you think?

Jesus will have none of it. Luke simply says that he “turned and rebuked them.”

There’s a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo laments that his uncle Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance. To which Gandalf replies: “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.”

The same warning applies to all of us to debate heaven, hell, and who goes where. It’s God’s business, not ours.

Even those who have a relatively narrow view of salvation should hope and pray they’re wrong — that God will withhold whatever judgment he’s got in store and spare whoever they seem to think will be on the receiving end.

After all, if you figure the odds based on the New Testament, those of us who qualify as “religious insiders” have a better chance of being on the wrong side of things… precisely because we’re so sure we’re right.

But the good news is that God wants everybody. Outcasts, insiders, everyone.

Next up, Acts…

Mike Wittmer (my former thesis adviser at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) recently published Christ Alone, the first book-length response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins.

It’s a sign of the times that Christians can publish their reactions to things they don’t like so quickly. (Creating lightening-fast responses to the Da Vinci Code became a cottage industry after Dan Brown released his abomination against all good writing. Christian publishing has never been the same since.)

The quality of thought often suffers for the sake of speed to market. But I hope that’s not the case with Mike’s book.

I’m sure Mike will find plenty to criticize in Love Wins. (Though, given that he’s also the author of this book, he should find at least one or two things to like about Rob’s description of heaven, if he’s fair.)

Mike is committed to Reformed theology. But in my experience, he tends to present his views without John Piper’s rancor, Mark Driscoll’s adolescent tantrums, or Kevin DeYoung’s egregious misrepresentations of other people’s views.

I hope that turns out to be true of his critique of Love Wins.

In Surprised by Hope, Anglican theologian N.T. Wright rejects fundamentalism’s almost gleeful obsession with eternal torment, as well as he perceives to be the naïve overconfidence of universalism.

Wright briefly considers “conditional mortality,” reminding us that immortality is not a natural part of human existence — despite what many church doctrinal statements profess with hardly a second thought.

Wright points to 1 Timothy, where Paul teaches that only God is immortal. He could just as easily have mentioned John, who writes that only the person who does the will of God “lives forever” and that “whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Or Revelation, where the “lake of fire” is a metaphor for “second death.”

God can share immortality with anyone he wants. But as far as we’re concerned, it’s a gift and nothing more. Immortality is not something we possess by right or by nature.

In the end, however, Wright’s view of hell falls somewhere in between eternal conscious torment and conditional mortality. Which means that for him, hell is something other than a land of limitless second chances.

Wright argues:

When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around.

For example, those who love money not only worship it; they begin to see others merely as a potential source of revenue or expense. And so they dehumanize themselves and others.

Wright continues:

After death, [such people] become at least, by their own effective choice, beings that were once human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body… they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity…

These creatures still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some even feel for the hardened criminal.

Now…if you read the last Harry Potter book, this might sound familiar. After being “killed’ by Voldemort, Harry wakes in an ethereal King’s Cross. (Note that he’s “more than disembodied thought.” N.T. Wright would be pleased.)

Before long, Harry notices something on the ground:

Something furtive, shameful… curled on the ground, its skin raw and rough, flayed looking, and it lay shuddering under a seat where it had been left, unwanted, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath.

When Harry asks Dumbledore (who meets him in the other-worldly King’s Cross) what the thing is, Dumbledore replies, “Something that is beyond our help.”

The strong implication being that the writhing creature is what’s left of Voldemort’s soul after being spliced so many times, thereby reduced to something less than fully human.

That, according to N.T. Wright, is the fate of those who persistently, knowingly reject God. They lose the image of God — the divine imprint. They cease to be human, but they do not cease to exist.

And THAT is a fate worse than death.

To his credit, Wright acknowledges that he has “wandered into territory that no one can claim to have mapped.”

But two things are worth noting. First, this sort of hell has little to do with those who act (or fail to act) out of ignorance. I suspect that N.T. Wright takes at face value Jesus’ statement in John 15: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin.” For Jesus, responsibility and knowledge go hand in hand.

Second, Wright leaves the door open to the possibility that all sorts of people we instinctively exclude from God’s favor might find themselves on the right side of the pearly gates in the end:

The description of the New Jerusalem in [Revelation] 21 and 22 is quite clear that some categories of people are ‘outside’… But then, just when we have in our minds a picture of two nice, tidy categories, the insiders and the outsiders, we find that the river of the water of life flows out of the city; that growing on either bank is the tree of life, not a single tree but a great many; and that ‘the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ There is a great mystery here, and all our speaking about God’s eventual future must make room for it… God is always the God of surprises.

My guess is that while Wright himself is not a universalist, he hopes for something very close to universal salvation.

And that’s where I find myself. Whether you think books like Love Wins are inspired genius or heretical drivel (or something in between), we should all hope the universalists are right in the end.

Or at the very least, we should hope that God’s mercy extends way beyond our capacity to imagine.

In Surprised by Hope (did you buy it yet?) N.T. Wright recalls his time at Oxford in the 60s and 70s, when it became popular for liberal theologians to suggest that “though hell may exist, it will at the last be untenanted.”

And this is where Rob Bell and N.T. Wright, for all their apparent similarities, seem to part company. Wright is far less hopeful about the duration and population of hell (or more realistic, depending on your perspective) for two reasons:

1. Universalism doesn’t deal seriously enough with evil. 

Mind you, we’re not talking about the breaking-the-speed-limit kind of evil. We’re talking about “genocide, nuclear bombs, child prostitution, the arrogance of empire, the commodification of souls, the idolization of race.” To this kind of evil, Wright insists, judgment is the only answer:

Judgment—the sovereign declaration that this is good and to be upheld and vindicated and that is evil and to be condemned—is the only alternative to chaos.

He describes universalism as a kind of fast-food theology which has become “depressingly flabby, unable to climb even the lower slopes of social and cultural judgment let alone the steeper reaches.”

And in one of the most rhetorically powerful passages in Surprised by Hope, Wright suggests (I’m trying hard to avoid typing “Wright writes”):

One cannot forever whistle ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ in the darkness of Hiroshima, or Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own…

The massive denial of reality by the cheap and cheerful universalism of Western liberalism has a lot to answer for.

2. Universalism doesn’t take into consideration the whole biblical picture of judgment.

Wright accepts that there are “those scriptural passages that appear to speak unambiguously of a continuing state for those who reject the worship of the true God.”

He specifically rejects the idea put forth in Love Wins that God will continue to offer salvation after death until the last person in hell accepts.  Citing Desmond Tutu’s work on the South African Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, Wright insists that you can’t have one (reconciliation) without the other (truth):

Where those who have acted wickedly refuse to see the point, there can be no reconciliation, no embrace.

Next up: So just how are we to understand hell?

N.T. Wright on hell

14 April 2011 — 9 Comments

It’s no big secret that one of Rob Bell’s theological heroes is the former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright.

It’s not hard to see why, given how much they have in common. They share similar perspectives on the kingdom of God.

They share a common nemesis in John Piper (though Wright got a whole book out of it; all Rob got was one lousy tweet).

And both Rob Bell and N.T. Wright have written several books themselves (though apparently one believes in paragraphs and the other doesn’t).

Also, Wright is British. Deep down, I think Rob secretly wishes he was British. (I remember once introducing a friend of mine from the UK… Rob was beside himself with delight the minute he heard my friend’s accent.)

I’m making my way through N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (stop reading and buy it NOW) and just came to a section called “Beyond Hope, Beyond Pity,” in which he explores the biblical notion of hell.

There are a couple of noteworthy points of comparison with Rob Bell’s Love Wins — and one or two points of departure.

First, the points of comparison…

Both writers reject what Wright refers to as “childish depictions of hell” — i.e. hell as a literal “lake of fire” (which is a rhetorically powerful oxymoron if there ever was one) or as a medieval torture chamber in heaven’s basement. However, by pointing out that such caricatures are what drive some Christians to universalism, Wright hints early on that he’s not about to embrace universalism himself.

Both writers agree that much of what the New Testament says about hell, particularly in the Gospels, has to be interpreted in light of its immediate context. In other words, “hell” in the Gospels is not so much about what happens after you die as what happens in the here and now. Or as Rob says in Love Wins, “Here is the new there.”

Also, Wright lends scholarly credibility to Rob’s understanding of Gehenna, the most common New Testament term for “hell,” as a trash heap and/or ancient pagan site outside Jerusalem. Here’s how Wright interprets Gehenna:

When Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna, he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else.

His message to his contemporaries was… unless they tuned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy, and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries… Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap.

When Jesus said, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish,” this is the primary meaning he had in mind…

Jesus didn’t say very much about the future life; he was, after all, primarily concerned to announce that God’s kingdom was coming “on earth as in heaven.”

Both writers also seem to agree that hell is not a central theme in the Bible. Rob quickly surveys every mention of hell in the New Testament (or, more precisely, every occurrence of one of three terms commonly translated as “hell”). Wright notes that hell “is not a major topic in [Paul’s] letters” and “is not mentioned at all in Acts.”

Which leads me to ask some questions I’ve raised before: What was it that first drew people to the Christian faith? Was it the threat of judgment? Or something else? In the book of Acts, how many times did the apostles use hell in their proclamation to outsiders? Well, N.T. Wright has answered the last one, and it was zero.

Next up, some points of departure between N.T. Wright and Rob Bell…

 

It’s been at least ten years since I last read The Great Divorce. So I picked it up again last week.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis entertained possibilities that most evangelicals would deem heretical — if anyone other than Lewis had suggested them, that is.

He imagines hell as something other than a place of fiery torment. He imagines the damned are offered periodic excursions to heaven, complete with opportunities to repent and be rescued from hell.

To be fair, Lewis seems to have set his fantasy — and he calls it a “fantasy” in the preface — at some point prior to the final judgment of Revelation 20. And he hints (possibly) that when THAT particular curtain drops, the outcome will be sealed for good.

For example, early in the book, one of the passengers on the bus ride to heaven reveals that the present dimness in hell is to soon be replaced by something far more sinister:

“It will be dark presently,” he mouthed.

“You mean the evening is really going to turn into a night in the end?”

He nodded.

Some might argue that Lewis wasn’t actually suggesting a possibility of reprieve for those in hell. They might point to the disclaimer in his preface to The Great Divorce:

The transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.

But Lewis seems to be referring to his depictions of heaven and hell. There’s no reason to believe he was anything less than serious in exploring the possibility of a second chance after death.

So what did Lewis propose?

For starters, he embraced the possibility of escape from hell — at least up to a point:

If [the damned] leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory…but to those who remain there [it] will have been Hell even from the beginning.

Second, Lewis took at face value the controversial passage in 1 Peter which says that Christ “made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.” Lewis includes the following exchange between the narrator and his heavenly guide (who happens to be George MacDonald…more on that later):

MacDonald: “Only the greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell… Only One has descended into Hell.

Narrator: “And will He ever do so again?”

MacDonald: “It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left the Earth. All the moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.

Narrator: “And some hear him?”

MacDonald: “Aye.”

Third, Lewis turns to the question of universalism near the very end of The Great Divorce… and refuses to give a categorical answer:

Ye can know nothing of the end of all things… It may be, as the Lord said to [Julian of Norwich], that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well…

If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.

But…if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be…then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears.

Which sounds an awful lot like something Rob Bell says in Love Wins. In fact, the only biggest thing separating the two writers’ viewpoints here is their degree of optimism. Rob strikes a relatively hopeful note, suggesting a real possibility that “all will be well” for everyone in the end. Lewis sounds less hopeful by comparison, quoting John Milton at one point:

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” There is always something [the damned] insist on keeping even at the price of misery…

But for me, the most interesting thing is Lewis’ choice of George MacDonald as the heavenly guide in The Great Divorce. MacDonald had a profound influence on Lewis, not to mention J.R.R. Tolkein, Madeleine L’Engle, and a host of other writers.

MacDonald was also a hopeful universalist — one who accepted that some might reject God to the last but was far more hopeful that God would eventually melt every heart. He rejected the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and others in the Neo-Reformed camp have made into a nonnegotiable tenant of orthodoxy.

In other words, the theology of C.S. Lewis’ heavenly guide bears a striking resemblance to that of a certain book called Love Wins.

So…who wants to label George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis heretics? Any takers?

 

It’s been at least ten years since I last read The Great Divorce. So I picked it up again last week.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis entertained possibilities most evangelicals would deem heretical — if anyone other than Lewis had suggested them.

He imagines hell as something other than a place of fiery torment. He imagines the damned are offered periodic excursions to heaven, complete with opportunities to repent and be rescued from hell.

To be fair, Lewis seems to have set his fantasy — and he calls it a “fantasy” in the preface — at some point prior to the final judgment of Revelation 20. And he hints that when this particular curtain drops, the outcome will be sealed for good.

For example, early in the book, one of the passengers on the bus ride to heaven reveals that the present dimness in hell is to soon be replaced by something more sinister:

“It will be dark presently,” he mouthed.

“You mean the evening is really going to turn into a night in the end?”

He nodded.

Some might argue that Lewis wasn’t actually suggesting a possibility of reprieve for those in hell. They might point to the disclaimer in his preface to The Great Divorce:

The transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.

But Lewis seems to be referring to his descriptions of hell and heaven — one as a rather sprawling, derelict town (think Milton Keynes or some of the older housing projects of Chicago) and the other as a wild, rugged country where everything is even more real and more solid than on earth. There’s no reason to believe that Lewis was less than serious in his exploration of a second chance after death.

So what did Lewis propose?

For starters, he embraced the possibility of escape from hell—at least up to a point:

If [the damned] leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory…but to those who remain there they will have been Hell even from the beginning.

Second, Lewis took at face value the controversial passage in 1 Peter, which says that Christ “make proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.” Lewis includes this exchange between the narrator and his heavenly guide (who just so happens to be George MacDonald…more on that later):

MacDonald: “Only the greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell… Only One has descended into Hell.

Narrator: “And will He ever do so again?”

MacDonald: “It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left the Earth. All the moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.”

Narrator: “And some hear him?”

MacDonald: “Aye.”

Third, Lewis turns to the question of universalism near the very end of The Great Divorce… and refuses to give a categorical answer:

Ye can know nothing of the end of all things… It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well…

If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.

But…if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be…then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal years.

Which sounds an awful lot like what Rob Bell suggests in Love Wins. The only thing that seems to separate the two is the degree of optimism. Rob sounds a relatively optimistic tone, expressing the hope that “all will be well” for everyone in the end. Lewis seems less hopeful, quoting John Milton:

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” There is always something [the damned] insist on keeping even at the price of misery… Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends.

But for me, the most interesting thing is Lewis’ choice of George MacDonald as the narrator’s heavenly guide in The Great Divorce. MacDonald had a profound influence on Lewis, not to mention J.R.R. Tolkein, Madeleine L’Engle and a host of other writers.

MacDonald was also a hopeful universalist — one who accepted the possibility that some might reject God to the end but was far more hopeful that God would melt every heard in the end. He rejected the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and others in the Neo-Reformed camp have made into a nonnegotiable tenant of orthodoxy.

In other words, the theology of C.S. Lewis’ guide to heaven bears a striking resemblance to the theology of a certain book called Love Wins.

So…who wants to label George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis heretics? Any takers?

 

And so it ends with a few parting thoughts, continued from the previous post

5. Let’s be willing to ask the hard questions.

Rob raised a lot of them in Love Wins. But for me the biggest are still:

  • What about those who never had a chance to accept or reject the gospel?
  • What about those who seemingly reject Christ but in reality are rejecting a misrepresentation of him, as opposed to the real thing? Who will God hold accountable? Those who reject the distortion or those who created it?

What might a God who is “rich in mercy” have in store for those who never had a chance to embrace the real thing? If God has “overlooked such ignorance” before, what’s to keep him from doing so again?

Furthermore, if you believe (as I do) that infants who die go to be with God — in spite of the Bible’s silence on this question — why is it so unthinkable that God might save those who never heard or those who were presented a toxic caricature of the real thing?

These are not easy questions. And my goal here isn’t to answer them. But as Scot McKnight recently suggested, to play the agnostic — to answer “I don’t know” or “It’s in the Lord’s hands” without seriously considering the issues at stake — is a copout.

These questions have to be wrestled with. And simplistic, patronizing answers will not do.

Loads of people were asking these questions long before Rob Bell wrote Love Wins. He may have given a fresh voice to their inquiries, but they’ve been asking for a long time. We might as well create a safe space for questions like these to be explored.

6. For those who disagree with Rob, stop putting words in his mouth.

To say that Rob soft-pedals sin, denies the bodily resurrection, or rejects some other tenant of orthodoxy (all of which has been postulated in response to Love Wins) is not only reading between the lines; it’s reading the worst possible meaning into his book.

Granted, if you’re one for doctrinal checklists, you may never be satisfied with what Rob has to say. But consider the evidence from Love Wins:

  • Rob acknowledges every human being is affected by sin (p. 42).
  • Rob acknowledges that heaven and hell are real (p. 42, 55, 71, 79).
  • Rob acknowledges the incarnation — the fully divine, fully human Christ (p. 146-149).
  • Rob acknowledges the resurrection (p. 133).

It is possible to disagree with Rob without being inquisitorial. (Scot McKnight provides a good example of the right way to disagree with someone.) Unfortunately, far too many have taken it upon themselves to denounce Rob as a heretic. What kind of hubris does it take for some random blogger/pastor/armchair theologian to decide for the rest of us who’s a heretic and who isn’t?

7. Also for those who disagree with Rob, practice what you preach.

Rob could’ve been more careful citing Scripture and other sources to make his case. No argument there. But you might want to stop misquoting Love Wins before you take him to task for such alleged carelessness.

Exhibit A: Martin Bashir. After his confrontational interview with Rob, Bashir went on the Paul Edwards Program to explain what got him so worked up. Bashir was irritated at how Rob (allegedly) misquoted key sources — namely, Martin Luther. Actually, Rob didn’t misrepresent Luther, but I digress.

Bashir explained he cannot tolerate anything less than the highest standards of journalistic accuracy when quoting a source.

Then he proceeded to misquote Rob:

He says in his book, God’s love melts everything in the end. And that at the end of the day, you can be antagonistic to Christianity, but after you die, God’s love will melt your opposition and you will walk into heaven.

Except Rob never said this. He says many believe that God’s love will melt even the hardest heart in the end (p. 108) but that we can’t know for certain whether this will, in fact, be the case (p. 115).

Let’s all deal with the planks in our own eyes before worrying about the speck in someone else’s, shall we?

8. Finally, we can (and should) do a better job telling the good news.

Near the end of Love Wins, Rob Bell makes perhaps the most important statement of his book: “The good news begins with the sure and certain truth that we are loved” (p. 172).

Is that really the story we tell? The one where “God so loved the world”? Really?

When the fledgling Jesus movement was getting off the ground, what drew people in by the thousands? Was it the threat of judgment? Was it Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?

Or was it the promise of victory over death? Was it the radical, equalizing love the believers had for one another?

Read the book of Acts and count how many times the apostles use the threat of hell in their proclamation to outsiders.

Read the gospels (particularly Matthew, which scores highest on the “hellfire and brimstone” meter) and ask: who was Jesus speaking to when he warned of judgment?

You may find the answer a bit unsettling if, like me, you’re a religious insider.

Love Wins is not a perfect book. Nor is it the heretical train wreck some have made it out to be.

There were things I resonated with and things I disagreed with. But in Love Wins, Rob does what he does best: he forces difficult questions to the surface.

And that’s a good thing. Because people were asking them long before Rob wrote Love Wins. So let’s dispense with simplistic answers and self-righteous denunciations and actually wrestle with the questions in this book.

I’ve blogged my way through most of Love Wins. I never got around to the last two chapters… but really, there’s nothing I could’ve said that a thousand others haven’t already.

So here are my parting thoughts in response to Love Wins. (True to form, I can’t manage to get this to a reasonable word count, so I’m dividing it into two posts.)

1. Let’s admit we’ve painted a one-dimensional picture of salvation.

The Bible stubbornly resists simple answers to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Rob zeroes in on this in his first chapter. It may make us uncomfortable, but it is what it is.

(In fact, after reading the New Testament, you’d be forgiven for thinking the PR consultant whose job it was to make sure everyone stuck to the approved “salvation” talking points severely neglected his duties. It’s almost as if the New Testament writers didn’t even HAVE a PR guy…)

Take just a few examples. In Romans, Paul characterizes salvation as a simple matter of saying “Jesus is Lord.” In the same vein, he insists in Ephesians that salvation is a matter of faith, not works.

But in the gospels, Jesus warns that not everyone who calls him “Lord” will enter his kingdom. At one point he quotes Psalm 62, telling his disciples that the Son of Man “will reward everyone according to what they have done.

And this is just one example of the tension we encounter. To be clear, tension is not the same as dissonance. But salvation is more than a one-note melody. There are many notes to this score, and they all must be heard.

(For more on the NT’s multifaceted picture of salvation, see Scot McKnight’s latest post on Love Wins.)

2. Let’s admit we’ve confused salvation for evacuation.

Love Wins reminds us that at the end of the story, heaven comes crashing to earth. We don’t get whisked away to some distant realm.

(And if you’re wondering about the passage that says we’ll “meet the Lord in the air and so…be with the Lord forever,” understand that Paul is describing Christ’s return in the very specific language of an emperor visiting one of his colonies. Upon his arrival, heralded by a trumpet blast, the emperor’s subjects would march out to meet him. Then they would escort him back to the city. That’s the picture Paul paints in 1 Thessalonians, not one of evacuation. For more, see N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.)

Others (including Wright) have made the point more comprehensively than Rob Bell does in Love Wins. But it still bears repeating:

If God’s kingdom is coming to earth — and, in fact, has already started coming — then we can either participate in this reality here and now… or not. There is another choice. The invasion will not be uncontested.

Love Wins helps us to see the many ways in which heaven and hell (and Rob affirms both as real places) collide with our world every day.

3. Let’s admit that much of what passes for a biblical notion of hell is anything but.

Close your eyes and picture hell. Chances are, the image in your mind owes more to Dante’s Inferno (or one of cartoonish depictions from The Simpsons) than Scripture.

The Bible says little about hell. It’s mentioned 23 times… only it isn’t. Not really.

Most of our modern Bibles conflate several different terms under the rubric of “hell,” obscuring the fact that each term had a distinct meaning:

  • Gehenna (12x) | a garbage dump outside Jerusalem, a valley south of Jerusalem where children were sacrificed to the god Molech during OT times, which Jesus uses as a metaphor for judgment (thanks to Scot McKnight’s recent post for the clarification)
  • Hades (10x) | the Greek counterpart to the Hebrew term sheol, referring simply (and ambiguously) to “the realm of the dead”
  • Tartarus (1x) | borrowed from Greek mythology, used only once in Scripture to describe a place where angels are judged

These terms are pictures of judgment, not necessarily the thing itself.

4. Let’s also admit there’s much more to the biblical picture of judgment than hell.

For me, this is the biggest weakness of Love Wins. It’s not enough to read every passage that mentions hell (or uses a term that’s been translated as such). Hell is such a miniscule part of what the Bible says about judgment.

Consider the prophets. Consider the judgment parables in Matthew 25, where those on the wrong end of things are characterized as being in a perpetual (or at least indefinite) state of exile. Consider Paul’s words for those persecuting the church in Thessalonica.

Judgment is part of the redemptive story. Without it, the good news isn’t really good news for those on the receiving end of exploitation in this life.

Yes, judgment is often restorative. But sometimes the Bible talks in terms of destruction. So how do you reconcile restoration with destruction? It’s a fair question.

Rob seems confident that judgment after death is restorative (p. 86), but what is the basis of this confidence? It’s also a fair question…especially when most of the passages he cites seem to focus on judgment in this life.

And even if judgment after death is restorative, how can you be sure the hardest of hearts will take the bait? Another fair question.

Speaking of fairness, many Christian thinkers — yes, including Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis — have left open the possibility of a second chance after death. And it’s worth remembering that Rob is arguing only for the possibility of universal salvation, not the certainty of it. In the end, I’m not sure he made his case, because I’m not sure he dealt adequately with the full biblical picture of judgment. But still…

More tomorrow.

Back to the really big question of Love WinsDoes God get what God wants?

Rob Bell doesn’t just like to ask questions. He likes to ask “the question behind the question.” And in this case I can think of at least two underlying questions:

1. What does God want?

Does God want all people to be saved or not?

I suggested in a previous post that if you answer “no” (like many in the neo-Reformed camp), then you’ll have to contend with some rather direct statements in Scripture to the contrary — not to mention the whole trajectory of the Bible.

2. Does God have to get everything he wants in order for love to win?

 

Rob seems to think so.

C.S. Lewis agreed with Rob that any outcome other than universal salvation represents a partial defeat. But Lewis wasn’t nearly as bothered by this. In fact, he saw in this one of God’s most awe-inspiring attributes:

What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to… become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity.

Two thoughts…

First, redemption is a messy, ugly business. Whatever theory (or theories) of the atonement you subscribe to, at the heart of our story is this: God came to earth and died at the hands of his own creation. Not everyone was delighted by the incarnation. Not everyone is thrilled by the prospect of heaven cashing into earth.

In the gospels, Jesus laments over his rejection by some of the very people he longed to embrace. In Romans, Paul is so grieved by the unbelief of his countrymen that he contemplates giving up his own salvation.

There is tension in this story. Universalists try to resolve the tension by saying God wants everyone; therefore everyone must be saved in the end. The neo-Reformed resolve it by saying God doesn’t really want everyone to be saved, so it’s perfectly all right that only a handful make the cut.

Neither view does justice to the paradox of redemption: that an all-powerful God who wants everyone, who would rather forgive than condemn, might not be wanted by everyone in return…

That God might not use his infinite power to rig the outcome…

An all-powerful God who doesn’t get everything he wants… not because of impotence but because he gives us space to accept or reject him.

I’m with C.S. Lewis. This kind of God is far more awe-inspiring than either the god of universalism or the god of the neo-Reformed.

Second, we need to ask one more question-behind-the-question:

What does it mean for love to win?

 

Does it mean, as Rob (apparently) suggests, that everyone (hopefully) turns to God in the end? If so, where does judgment come into the picture?

Now it’s true that for too long, our notion of judgment has been hijacked by Dante’s Inferno, Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and fundamentalism’s hellfire-and-brimstone sermonizing. I think Rob’s book is, in part, a reaction to this.

But that doesn’t mean judgment has no place in our story. As N.T. Wright says in Surprised by Hope, God’s judgment is actually good news for many (if not most) people:

Throughout the Bible, not least in the Psalms, God’s coming judgment is a good thing, something to be celebrated, longed for, yearned over… In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance, and oppression, the thought that there might come a day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be.

Evil happens all around us. Every day. Just ask the people of Libya. Ask those who lost everything to Bernie Madoff’s ponzie scheme. And of course there are a thousand other less dramatic — but no less real — examples.

According to Scripture, love does win in the end. But justice — which the Bible defines (in part) as vindication for the victims of evil — is part of the equation.

This is why Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians. A rumor had reached Thessalonica that the “day of the Lord” had come and gone. But the faithful were still being oppressed. And their oppressors didn’t seem to be suffering any visible signs of God’s judgment.

For them — and all who suffer unjustly — the question is: What good is the “day of the Lord” if it doesn’t bring vindication?

Put another way, in a broken world like ours, love can’t win without justice.

I seriously doubt Rob Bell would argue with this. I imagine he’d agree that judgment is part of the equation, though he might suggest (as he does elsewhere in Love Wins) that even the harshest judgment seeks the eventual restoration of the one being punished.

Also, it’s important to note that the Bible makes a distinction between those who actively, knowingly resist God’s plan and those who act out of ignorance. When the Bible speaks of judgment, it’s usually talking about the first group.

So does God get everything he wants? Maybe not.

Maybe there’s more to “love wins” than that.