Monday, May 02, 2011

Love Wins 6

Rob Bell’s fourth chapter in his new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived asks a great question: “Does God Get What God Wants?” This is the sixth installment of a series of posts on the book. In this series, I intend to expose the main lines of argument in each chapter and critically reflect on them. Admittedly, this is not always done systematically as today’s post will reveal.

I think this is probably the best chapter of the book because the argument is tight and the question is significant.

So what do you think?
Does God get what God wants? Is this answer obvious? But perhaps a more important question is: What exactly does God want? Is it presumptuous on our part to state is so simply? Could it be there a number of different answers to the question depending on the point of view or subject?
Rob asks: “Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?” (102). Great Question. And this really is the central issue of the chapter.

Rob surveys biblical evidence of an inclusive salvation of every person who has ever lived. On reading the list, the conclusion seems obvious: God wants to save everyone. Yet, when one drills down, it becomes a much more complicated picture. Of these complications Rob seems completely unaware. When the Bible speaks of the pilgrimage of the nations to God in the OT, does this mean every person on the earth at the time, let alone every person who's ever lived? There is a difference in the way writers can use the word “all”. “All” can mean: (1) all without exclusion of any one [this is the way Rob takes it] or (2) all without distinction between parties. While not taking the time now to show this exegetically, it is clear from the OT contexts that the second of the two is most often meant. In other words, the prophets are not predicting that every person who ever lived will come to God, but that when God visits in the last days, all the “nations” will come to him. Revelation 5:9 captures this idea in the NT: “for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation”. Notice that text doesn’t say every person from every tribe, language, people and nation, but representatives, a remnant, of every tribe, language, etc. This is “all with out distinction”. Besides in the very concrete perspective of the OT, there’s no conception of an afterlife salvation. This picture is in purely earthly terms. When God acts in history in bringing salvation, this act will be inclusive of a remnant of people of every nation not only the remnant of Israel.

Now for the sake of argument, it may be true that God will save everyone, but that is not the point of these passages. It seems to me that if one wishes to conclude that God will save all without exception, this is a deductive conclusion because no biblical passage teaches this explicitly. One needs to theologize to this conclusion. This is not a criticism, we do this on plenty of important issues (e.g. Trinity), but it is not specifically stated in Scripture. Thus, an argument like Rob’s doesn’t hold up to scrutiny because his evidence doesn’t actually support the claim. This by the way, goes for the NT evidence as well. Did Jesus and Peter and Paul and James and John believe that every person that ever lived would be saved in the end? Does Jesus’ statement in Matt 19:28 and Peter’s in Acts 3 and Paul’s in Col 1 mean that every person who ever lived will be saved? Again this theological claim may be right, but not based on the evidence given.

God doesn’t get what he wants in salvation from a biblical perspective, only if you define what he wants wrongly. God’s aims are universal, yes cosmic. God’s intentions are inclusive; yes they will reach every nation. And yes, God attains his universal aims and his inclusive intentions.

In order to answer the apparent issue of between God’s universal salvation purposes and the traditional doctrine of hell, Rob lists five options for understanding how to reconcile this contradiction. The options range from the traditional evangelical view, to extreme universalism. Rob maintains that all five of these are comfortably within “orthodoxy”: “Serious, orthodox followers of Jesus have answered these questions in a number of different ways”? (109) This conclusion is of course questionable as I've stated elsewhere since it includes the word "orthodox", although it is true that "serious followers of Jesus" have believed these things and one's view on this question does not make or break one's Christian identity.

Any reader will be able to discern that it’s the fifth option (universalism) that Rob likes best and is most convinced by, although others seem to at least be amicable to him. You even think that the fifth option is what he opts for. But before you can feel that you have got him pegged, he pulls back from that fifth choice in the subsequent paragraphs (pgs 113-17). Rob does not appear to be a universalist because for him human freedom trumps even God’s unrelenting love. But as it turns out, this circumstance is not contrary to what God wants because God wants to love. God’s love has consequences. Love wins, but it doesn’t mean that hell will ultimately be evacuated. Rob may hope for this and surely does, but he’s apparently a realist. Rob says, “Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want" (113).

In the final analysis according to Rob the question of the chapter “Does God get what he wants?” while a good, interesting and important one, is fraught with speculation about the future. It is no doubt true that God gets what he wants; the precise manner of it is concealed. However, there is a question that he thinks is much easier to answer and no less important. The question: “Do we get what we want?” To that question the answer is absolutely yes. Yes we get what we want, because “God is that loving” (117). So as C.S. Lewis said, there are two kinds of people in the world, those who say ‘Thy will be done’ and those who say, ‘My will be done’.

There is a vague sense of justice in the chapter’s conception of restoration, but it is the weakest part of the chapter and Rob’s whole proposal in my view. Rob writes
This is important, because in speaking of the expansive, extraordinary, infinite love of God there is always the danger of neglecting the very real consequences of God’s love, namely God’s desire and intention to see things become everything they were always intended to be. For this to unfold, God must say about a number of acts and to those who would continue to do them, “Not here you won’t” (113).
Still this chapter surfaces what I think to be the most significant and thorny question with which traditional evangelicals must deal: the question of the justness of infinite punishment for finite sin. And this is not simply an issue Rob Bell has raised. The idea that the sin we commit in our finite bodies deserves an infinite amount of punishment seems absurd on any definition to a growing number of people. We can pretend that it makes “perfect sense”, as someone has recently remarked [Tim Keller: “I seems perfectly reasonable for an infinite God to punish infinitely” – round table discussion at Gospel Coalition].

But simply saying it’s “perfectly logical” does not actually deal with the question. To growing number of people it's just not. While it in fact may be reasonable, the biblical argument needs to be made today in a way that is freshly compelling and grounded in Scripture. I don’t completely know where I am on this and I haven’t thought enough about it to offer anything of a thoughtful cohesive view. I think there are fundamental parameters, however, within which one must work. In spite of arguments to the contrary, biblically the afterlife of the unrighteous is:

(1) eternal—final and unalterable,
(2) conscious—there is a person, mind and body, and
(3) retributive—there’s no reformation

The actual working out of these is where things are fuzzy for me. In addition, the extent of the actual punishment in this eternal, conscious and retributive state is also something I continue to mull over.

Recently, Scot McKnight in his book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Followhas given us a proposal to consider. First Scot rejects the idea of infinite punishment for finite sin, although he maintains, I think, the three fundamentals above. This leads him to the second part of the proposal. I’ll let him speak for himself:
So where are we? I have thought long and hard about hell and have come to a view that modifies the second above: hell is a person’s awareness of being utterly absent, which is what “death after death” means, but yet in the presence of God, like C. S. Lewis’ wraiths yearning to be observed and present but deeply aware that they have declined both options. I am unconvinced that annihilation fully answers all that Jesus says, but I also believe that the second view doesn’t contain enough mercy and grace (165).
I can’t say I’m convinced by his view. What’s more, I have not rejected the idea, as Scot seems to have, of infinite punishment on the basis of it being unjust. Yet, Scot exhibits the kind of fresh thinking on the question that I think is beneficial. I think we need to go back to the Bible and present its view of ultimate punishment of the wicked in a convincing well-argued manner. Simply appealing to the old argument of an infinite God who, because of his infiniteness, punishes infinitely is not adequate.

For earlier posts for Love Wins see: Post When your wife . . ., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

If you find this post helpful, please share it with others.


Randy said...


Thank you so much for this post! I too am really struggling with the justness of an infinite punishment for finite sin and am tired of the trivial old answers pointing back to Anselm and his conception of justice. I feel as if amongst some of the great stuff Anselm says, his conception of justice being accorded depending on the status of the offended isn't one of them.

At this point, if I'm honest, I think the notions of hell as eternal, conscious, and retributive for me are hard to grasp, if God is to be just and not punish anyone with unjust punishment (as Mike said in his recent post). It feels odd to even be saying that I'm questioning those traditional conceptions as an evangelical, but the deeper I dig into this issue the harder it is becoming to simply stand with tradition on Hell.

What is hardest for me to fathom in relation to an eternal conscious torment version (ECT) of Hell is how God's justice is held in tension with God's love. We see both characteristics evidently in Scripture and in the book of 1 John, we see God's very essence being described as love. If God's essence is love, what is loving about Hell? What aspect of Hell is loving towards those who are suffering it as ECT? If, we follow the doctrine of God's simplicity, then every loving action must be just and every just action must be loving, but with the doctrine of Hell we come to a conundrum in brining these two together.

And this is on either an Arminian or Reformed reading of the issue. God is allowing people to damn themselves to Hell on the former by giving them free choice over their eternal this ultimately loving? Is it not more love to impinge on human freedom to prevent them from suffering ECT?

On the Reformed view, God's sovereignty is primary, meaning that only those who are regenerated will achieve salvation. It is easy to understand how it would be difficult to view a traditional double predestination version of Calvinism as holding love and justice together in a cogent manner. That's why other views of election in Reformed theology must move to a more primary place.

The only way around salvation being based only on God's choice alone (in a still Reformed framework) is to follow Thomas Torrance and David Fergusson in believing that grace is mysteriously resistible (as was Adam's choice to sin in the first place) and along with an unlimited atonement, this places the impetus on humanity again. This is a hairs breadth from crossing over into Arminianism, but because it is not based on synergism at all it isn't. God is effective when salvation is achieved and when it isn't, the mystery of a human resisting God's salvific plan is posited as the inhibitor. Still, I find this difficult in holding together God's love and justice, because ultimately God is still allow his salvific purposes to be thwarted, meaning some WILL be in Hell, and we are back to the original problem of trying to understand how Hell is a loving action of God!

I find this last framework to be the most compelling as of now and I am attempting to rest in the mystery of how a loving God can continue to be loving to those who have rejected him and are in Hell. It is hard to rest in mystery as prideful humanity, but at the same time I'm glad there are mysteries left for us to rest in. Otherwise God wouldn't be God and we would!

John Thomson said...

How is rebellion against a being of infinite majesty a finite sin?

Also, is not infinite rebellion (for the rebel who dies remains a rebel... let he that is filthy...) infinite sin?

In our country (UK) some sins against others are considered so atrocious no freedom from prison is deemed possible for the perpetrator. We still seem to believe there are sins that cannot be humanly forgiven and which no punishment exhausts.

I think our greater philosophical problem is conceiving eternity and what it means.

Chris Krycho said...

Another possibly helpful thought (critique away, by all means): it struck me in pondering the Bell discussion, and having a linked conversation with an atheist friend, that it is not as though one stops being sinful—stops meriting punishment—simply because one is in hell. One's sinfulness, and indeed presumably one's rebellion against and hatred of God would not necessarily diminish in Hell (although unbelief must!). In other words, those who are condemned to hell continually condemn themselves further (a variation on Lewis' fanciful take in The Great Divorce: it is not so much that they have shut themselves in as that they continue to do the things that merit their being shut in).

[I believe I may have recently seen this point elsewhere in the blogosphere recently, but cannot remember where or when. In any case it's nice to know I'm not alone.]

Peter Gurry said...

Randy, why does "God is love" require that God loves those in hell? Has he really committed himself in Scripture to loving everyone post-final judgment or is this a theological conclusion?

Bill B. said...

If part of being made in the image of God entails our self going on forever, then our rebellion if not changed in this life would also continue in the next life. I don't see that rebellion being dealt with after this life because faith could not be exercised for we would see clearly God's rule.

If annihilation is true after death then our being made in God's image can't entail an eternalness to it. Then how are we any different than birds, the fish, and the animals because they to are born and die and are no more.

As far as God limiting our freedom so as not to rebel, I suppose that could have been a possibility. I'm not so sure I understand the freedom aspect to our being.

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