Tuesday, June 12, 2012

5 Thoughts on "Love Wins"

I've decided to read some books with a family member that deal with, depending on your perspective, radical theology or potential heresy. This family member is attracted to Open Theism, particularly Clark Pinnock, and to the theological redefinitions of Rob Bell. Since it's fresh in my mind after having just read it, I'll share a number of thoughts on Love Wins, Bell's contribution to the universalist strand within Christianity. Maybe someday I'll get around to writing up my thoughts on the former, once I read the books and hash things out with this loved one.

1. So as not to be totally negative, I must say that Rob Bell, at points, paints a really clear and compelling picture of the love of God and the sacrifice of Christ in providing salvation to man in his broken, disastrous state. (Bell prefers the term "reconciliation" over "salvation," which is fine except that in standard theological parlance salvation is a broad term that encompasses many elements, e.g., redemption, adoption, union, forgiveness, and reconciliation is just one of those many terms.) He vividly describes the depth of human wickedness and then is able to talk about the power of God to rescue us out of that wickedness. Even though I read the book critically, I was moved to utter several "amens" and "hallelujahs" at different points. Bell is able to communicate well in writing and I assume he communicates equally well when he speaks. He wouldn't have the following he does if he didn't and I'm glad he uses his gifts to communicate some deep truth.

2. On the level of preference, I would do away with the one-item-per-line lists and single sentence paragraphs if I were writing the book (or editing the book, if these decisions were made by the editors). I understand that Bell needs to be hip for the young kids but, to me, it looks like he is simply trying to stretch the book length from 150 to 200 pages. Here's a one-item-per-line example from a passage where he is talking about the pervasiveness of the Kingdom of God.

So there's left and right, and up and down, and front and back.
Got that.
But there's also
in ...?
and out ...?
or around ...?
and through ...?
or between ...?
or beside ...?
or beyond ...? (p. 60)

And here are a few single-sentence paragraphs that just seem superfluous.

"Welcome to our church." (p. 96)

"Think of what you've had to eat today." (p. 130)

"We believe all sorts of things about ourselves." (p. 171)

A book, most of the time, is not a visual art project. An author uses his literary capabilities to convey information as compellingly as possible for his intended audience in relation to the subject matter. The reason why I stated in the first point that Bell is a good communicator was so that there would be some weight behind the statement that Bell should let his solid ability to communicate in print stand on its own. Trying to modernize the text with odd spacing draws attention away from the power of what is communicated rather than heightening the reader's awareness of it. Again, this is a cosmetic criticism and is the least of my worries. I simply would be thinking less negatively of the book had he not tried to visually convey his tone to me.

3. Much more disturbing is how Bell conveys the scorecard between the the traditional understanding of hell as unending, conscious torment and the ultimate salvation of all humans. 3 of his ideas are equally problematic.

First, Bell writes as though those who believe in the traditional understanding consider it the most important Christian doctrine and that it's the main thing they preach. I know that there are Churches that overemphasize the doctrine of hell and believers who hang hell over the heads of the unbelievers they know in disturbing fashion. It's not a matter of fact but a matter of degree. But Bell doesn't leave much room for someone to believe in a traditional hell and not be out-of-balance about it. Surely, if the traditional doctrine is true, it ought to be a big deal, even if not the only deal. And surely, there are many "traditionalists" who don't go overboard with it. Not so, according to Bell.

Second, Bell would have us think that universalism is a sort of silent majority in the history of the Church. The traditionalists of today are far outweighed by, "an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years," (p. 108) ... who stand "at the center of the Christian tradition ... who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins." (p. 109) One problem is that Bell doesn't give us enough reason to trust his telling of history. Clearly, mentioning 6 people and a few contested interpretations of Scripture is not sufficient to make the case for universalism. It's much too broad an issue for that. Another problem is his reference to "the center of the Christian tradition." Does the universalist's proximity to or distance from the so-called "center" either give his position more weight or hurt the traditionalist argument? Basing a theological position on who has and hasn't held it is one of the weakest ways to make a case when the topic is as complex as this one. And, even if it was a legitimate approach, Bell's calculation seems a bit inflated.

Third, Bell simply does not do justice to the Biblical case for hell as unending, conscious torment. True, his work is not a biblical studies monograph on the issue, and I don't fault him for exegetically dissecting each passage. But to put a spin on a cross-section of relevant passages and call it a day is insufficient and irresponsible. Unless I'm mistaken, he doesn't even deal with the lake of fire references in Revelation 20. That's unacceptable if you are going to say that the traditional understanding of hell should be abandoned.

4. Along similar lines, I think that there is good reason to criticize Bell's handling of other passages of Scripture, as well. 2 instances reveal a questionable hermeneutic.

First, Bell puts together a string of Old Testament prophecies (pages 85-88) that talk about the restoration of Israel after a time of judgment. With no rationale provided, he then states that these passages lay the groundwork for understanding that the purpose of all judgment is restoration and that we can expect everyone to be restored. Clearly, God has a unique relationship with Israel. Clearly, most of the promises that Bell cites about both judgment and restoration relate to Israel. It just won't do to take those specific references and expand them to be inclusive of all peoples with little more than mere turns of phrase, "failure ... isn't final, judgement has a point, and consequences are for correction." (p. 88)

Second, Bell violates just about every rule in the book when he bases his redefinition of both Heaven and hell on the parable of the prodigal son. Jesus told parables to communicate certain concrete truths or to invite radical life change and there are plenty of books out these days to help us figure out just what Jesus was getting at (see this one and this one and this one). It's now pretty decided that parables aren't so flexible that we can make them fit whatever topics we happen to be interested in. Jesus wants us to know that those who have wandered away from the Father are not beyond the reach of forgiveness; He wants us to know that the love of the Father is deeper than we can imagine; and He wants us to know that there is a severe danger in religious formalism/elitism. Those are the 3 main points of that particular parable. Bell posits that to live in the new reality that the prodigal son lives in is truly Heaven and that to live in the reality of the older brother is truly hell. What Jesus was really trying to do, according to Bell, was to get us to stop thinking about Heaven and hell as we've traditionally thought of them and to instead think of them as realities that we choose today based on whether we consider ourselves like the father considers the younger son (Heaven) or like the older son considers himself (hell). Parables need to be treated with more literary respect than this.

5. In all of the caricatures of and rebuttals to the traditionalist version of hell that Bell gives, he never addresses the very best argument for it. It's an argument that has been around for a long time and that demands an answer. If a successful case can be made for universalism, it can't just state that God gets what God wants and then quote the verses that reveal God's desire for all to be saved. The universalist has to deal with God's infinite, unassailable holiness. A finite sin has infinite consequence when committed against an infinitely holy Being. God is the primary Being against Whom we sin and it is His infinite holiness that we violate. The consequence, logically, is infinite and eternal punishment. Rather than restate the standard line of how "unjust" it would be for God to punish people infinitely for finite sins and assume that the human discomfort caused by the notion points to it's falsity, Bell should have at least tried to advance universalism by dealing with the logical and theological dimensions of God's holiness and infinitude. God's love is ontologically equal to God's justice and His mercy flowing from the former is ontologically equal to His wrath flowing from the latter. Appeals to human emotions have won converts to universalism but rigorous and realistic intellectual work needs to be done if universalism is to win the day theologically and philosophically. Bell chose not to do this work.

I want to reiterate that I think Bell has done a good job making some compelling points about the love of God, the depravity of man and the power of Christ to restore the sinner to a right relationship with God. But my criticisms of Love Wins, the criticisms of others of the book and the broader criticisms of others of universalism, should give pause to a full embrace of Bell's redefinitions. For an in-depth study of hell as eternal, conscious torment that deals with many of the questions that Bell avoids, check out Hell Under Fire. Hell is real and its reality is terrifying. May we all understand it enough to know how to warn others of it and to invite them to the fear-free, hell-less life that can be found in union with the One Who has overcome hell, Jesus Christ.


Trader Joel said...

Well written and very fair minded-I haven't read the book, but you make me want to check it out. I also love your respectful tone-you are more interested in the truth then in advancing your belief. Thanks for taking the time to write about it...I may need to read the book now :)

eric O said...

Thanks for the comment, Joel. I'm glad the respectful tone came through. If you choose to read the book, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Be careful, though, you might read it and not notice. It is REALLY short.

Susan said...

Hi Eric,

I also want to commend your respectful tone, and hope to pose my thoughts with similar respect.

As I read your third point a reading from the Perspectives course came to mind, in which one of the authors argues says it is missiologically bad to talk about universalism. He does not refute it, but simply argues talking about it will de-motivate evangelism.

My experience (which of course is limited) is that universalists in Evangelical Christianity tend to come to that conclusion after much study and longtime spiritual devotion. Hannah Whitall Smith's narrative seems paradigmatic. I think many Evangelicals choose to keep quiet about it, rather than stirring up unnecessary controversy. Some seem to look at it from a developmental standpoint, as if the "traditional" concept of hell serves a good purpose, like crawling as an infant, that people grow out of as they mature. Thus, it's as counterproductive to talk most people out of the traditional idea of hell as it is to try to keep a baby from crawling and force him to walk first. (I'm not arguing this is so. I'm merely saying I've encountered a number of Christians who think this.)

I strongly suspect there are more silent universalists in the church than most non-universalist Christians would imagine.

On your fifth point, I think you'll find the Anselmian calculus of punishment is now often viewed as an artifact of Western European feudalism. I think you probably know much more about Eastern Christianity than I, but I'm aware that the views of Augustine and Anselm about punishment never got much traction in the Eastern side of Christianity. Therefore, when you talk about the "traditional" view of hell, you are talking about the traditions of one segment (although a large one) of Christianity, rather than tradition in the sense of what has been believed "always, everywhere and by all." Eastern Christianity has always, to the best of my understanding, included much more room for varieties of opinions about hell.

Please let me know if I'm off base. Sorry about the one-sentence paragraphs. ;)

To be fair, I should state the position I personally come from. I can't go so far as to call myself a universalist, since I believe God can and may punish some people by conscious eternal torment. However, I have long ago given up the idea that God must punish some by conscious eternal torment. The biblical story I find most persuasive of this is the narrative of Jonah. God sent Jonah to Nineveh to preach destruction. As we learn at the end of the story, Jonah didn't want to go because he knew God was sending him to deliver a message that God was not going to execute. Under the Law, that would make Jonah a false prophet.

So the idea that God may send some people to preach conscious eternal torment, with the objective that this would bring about repentance, and that God need not follow through on God's threats (even when stated in absolute, unconditional terms) seems to me a deeply biblical idea.

Of course, there are also occasions when God does follow through on threats of punishment. So far be it from me to say God cannot do so in the ultimate judgment. That's where I've left it, although given the two possibilities, I would prefer to work and pray for God to ultimately save and reconcile all of creation.

I haven't read the book, so I'm not sure whether Bell is arguing the certainty or the possibility of a universalist eschaton. The articles I’ve read leave that vague. I can certainly see why those who believe in a universalist possibility would choose to adopt that as their hope, and how, from a "traditionalist" perspective, this position might not look much different from strict universalism.

I'd be curious whether you had considered that possibility, and how it affects your view of Bell.

Susan said...

BTW, a link from Josie's blog happened to bring me to this post. I see now it's almost a year old. :o