Thursday, April 28, 2011

Rob Bell and Love Wins: Does it really preserve freedom?

I am indebted to Aaron Ironside of Radio Rhema who inspired this idea about RB's book this morning, after we had conversed on the show about the book. Aaron spoke of how it would work, if people stood before Christ at his return, and then were sent to destruction, and then had the choice of getting out. Aaron made the excellent point that they would of course want to get out, having met Jesus and wanting out of the horror of the hell (whatever it looks like). I thought it was a very interesting point.

I thought about it a bit more and want to push the idea further. As RB affirms in his book, and I agree in my book What's God Up To (Chapters 1-3), the gospel involves the idea of volition (I prefer this word as there is no such thing as freedom in a sense). That is, God gives 'freedom' to humanity to respond to his desire for relationship. This is an essential component of genuine love, as encapsulated in the old saying, if you love something, Set it free... If it comes back, it's yours, If it doesn't, it never was yours...'

Now one of the key elements of this is that God in a sense veils himself in his works. Creation for example, cries out for a designer, but this is veiled i.e. is it a God or some other thing? Is it the Christian God? What is the power behind the design? That is why we can't reason to the Christian God through creation alone. We can argue God is reasonable, and perhaps the best option, but cannot conclusively prove him. God also sent Jesus, who functioned in a manner avoiding over-riding human volition. Indeed, many of the Jews expected a Messiah who would do just that, enforce his reign over all the earth with power supernatural, political, and military.

Rather, Jesus did miracles based on compassion, love and need, yet refused to do the ones demanded by those who were checking out whether he was really the one they looked for. Jesus refused to take control by coercive force, but invited people to follow him through works of love and mercy, and of a vision of a new world under his reign and marked by love and not human expectations of power. He taught in parables, pithy simple double-barrelled stories which invite people in to consider what he was saying, they resulted in his rejection. Jesus preferred to be crucified to save the world through sacrifice and love, rather than impose himself to force people to bow to him. He rose from the dead, vindicated by God for his flawless service. He was not seen by the powers of the world, he avoided Rome before and after the resurrection. Aside from theological debates with Jewish religious leaders, he generally clashes with political powers. He did not appear to the power holders of the world after he rose. Jesus came in a veiled way.

Now he works in the world through his people. He has placed his Spirit in them, commissioned them to work on his behalf, and sent them out to share that there is a God, a creator, that he is controlling history to a climax, that Jesus Christ is saviour and Lord, and that his reign is being established. They invite people into this reign with the promise of eternal life for those who say yes. This is God's dream, that they will. However, God will not impose by force. That is why humans hear the message and some are convinced, others are not. They are free to receive it, or reject it, yet there are consequences for both. The whole gospel story is carefully framed by God to preserve that volition, so that people come to God willingly and without coercion i.e. drawn by love.

Sadly, followers of Jesus distort this, often resorting to preaching fear of judgment as a means of coercing people into 'belief.' Or they ally with political force, and Christianity is not given freely, it comes with political power. Sometimes parents impose it on their children rather than present it to them, and allow them to find their own faith as they hear the message and its appeal for volitional response.

The principle of volition demands that God does not impose himself and override ambiguity in a sense. He comes and presents himself through his works, through Jesus in his life and ministry and his death and resurrection, through his people and the gospel. His people are ambiguous too, and admixture of good works for which the world is grateful, along with horrendous errors and sin. We are a part of this veiling.

He invites us to join him and the path is through faith in Jesus who died for us to save us. He does not coerce us.

Now RB's construct of the consummation in my view, violates this. I presume he agrees that Jesus will return to his world, and there will be a time of reckoning i.e. judgment day. (Or will people just find themselves there one day????) At this point, all will be judged on their lives. Those with a yes-trust-relationship with God, based on their volitional response, will receive eternal life. Those who have rejected this free offer of relationship are granted what they desire, separation from him. They end up in 'hell'. (By the way RB never defines this, wonder what it looks like for him).

Now at this point the ambiguity and veiling of God in our world and in Christ will be removed. God will be unambiguous. Jesus Christ will be Lord, the whole world will have seen him, seeing his return, and facing his judgment. Further, the person who is separated from God will be in a place of eternal separation. It can't be annihilation, as RB presupposes a second chance. I ponder whether this will be separation from everything that is 'God' i.e. no relationships, no glorious created order, no God i.e. solitary confinement. Who knows? The point is, that this person will now no longer have any doubt about God, the gospel, Jesus and eternal destruction. They will know without a shadow of doubt the truth. There will be no veiling. Their freedom will remain in the sense that they can opt out, but is this genuine freedom? Won't they feel coerced with a no-brainer option; stay in this eternal isolation without the joys that God has formed for humanity, or leave freely. This is not a choice.

Unless they are the ultimate sado masochist, they will be terrified of remaining their forever. They will of course opt out.

I ask then, is this, as RB says, God's love melting the human heart? I don't think so. Or is this a full awareness and fear. Is this not effectively coercion? It is now different from Christians preaching hell, now they know there is one! They are in it. They are effectively not being melted by love, but driven by fear. Is this freedom?

The other views of hell held by contemporary Christians whether literal burning, figurative burning i.e. eternal separation, and annihilation all preserve freedom because after the point of 'knowing' and not 'believing' volition ends, the choice is made.

The question is then; does RB's theology really preserve the 'freedom' he espouses?   


Tony Jee said...

Hi Mark, I listened to a RB mp3 some years ago regarding hell and humanities choice in going there. He preached on the pride of the lost soul, one who chooses eternal separation through pride. He painted a wonderful picture of a twisted self absorbed person who continually draws himself away from not only God but all humanity because only he knows what is right and just. He spoke from the pride of the Pharaoh against Moses and the rich man and Lazarus. He noted that the rich man never got what was going on and could not accept his place, demanding that Lazarus still serve him. At the end of the sermon the lost man was completely alone wrapped up in his own twisted being eternally separated from everyone and everything, a man made pure hell.

Mark Keown said...

Hey TJ, I think that aligns nicely with the book except he pushes further to those in hell being able to get out by turning after judgment and being 'sent' to hell, of their own volition. I question whether this is genuinely the 'freedom' the biblical story tells us of.

I am not sure what hell is to RB. He speaks of a hell of one's own making and realises it in the present. Fair enough, I know that, I was once in a hell of my own making. But, what then is hell after death? It is unclear.

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