I have just read through Love Wins by Rob Bell (RB). For the uninitiated, this book has created a storm of controversy in the US over its universalistic gospel. Rather than giving a complete breakdown of the book with its strengths and weaknesses, here a few responses.
First, good for RB for asking the question about the universality of salvation. There are a range of questions in it like: If God is love, will his love not melt the heart of even the worst of all sinners ultimately? Is death the end of all chances – is there further hope for the lost after death? There is nothing wrong with asking the question and stimulating debate. These are good questions that we must continue to ponder.
Secondly, Rob can really write. The book is compelling and seductive. I enjoyed it and felt myself drawn in by the compelling picture of God, love, life, hope and eternity. Rob has a poetic edge; he is easy to read – pleasing to today's reader who, in the main, does not want complexity.
Thirdly, there is much I can affirm. I agree that love is fundamental to God's character. I agree with RB that eternity is not the end of the world, but the beginning of a new restored world. I agree with him that some presentations of the gospel give a picture of a harsh judging God and that the idea of an eternal hell of pain is tough to take in some ways. I agree with his theology of 'freedom' (don't like the word) in salvation i.e. we choose our eternal destiny, by responding to God's initiative in Christ. I also affirm that the world is to be drawn to God by preaching a gospel based on the love of God, and not on fear and guilt – although that is an unavoidable part of the story.
Fourthly, having said all this, I have to part from Rob at a number of points. Before I begin, let me state that this is not a condemnation of Rob Bell and his ministry; it is not my place to do so. I am discussing the ideas in the book. Here are some of the things I take issue at:
- While God is love, he is more than love, or better his love is more than what we today think it is; he is also good and just. God's utter goodness and vision for a creation free from evil and corruption means he will act decisively at a certain point of his choice, when his purposes are complete – the end of the age. He will remove anti-good, acting in justice, out of love. To me, this will occur when the gospel has penetrated his world so that it is known through every nation (Mark 13:10; Matt 14:14). At that point, Jesus will return, he will judge all humanity, and eternal destinies decided. Our eternal state is decided on the basis of relational faith in God i.e. where those who have said 'yes' to God, have bowed the knee willingly, there will be eternal life. RB then, to me, misunderstands and overstates love. God is love, true. But he is equally 'good' and as such, evil and corruption violates his very being and must be dealt with. Because of love he is withholding acting to destroy evil. He could have done so at the first, extinguishing evil at the moment of Adam and Eve's sin. Rather, he allowed humanity out of grace to live on. But the day of reckoning is coming. Love demands justice. We know this, because our hearts yearn for God to act to end suffering and injustice. When we see a crime, our hearts cry for justice. God is gathering a people in history, and out of love for those people, he will ultimately act. His grace is seen in that he has not done so yet, but the day is coming.
- While it is a nice thought, there is no indication in the Scriptures in a second chance after death. That is why the Protestant Church, in the main, has never gone there. Rather, we are given the gift of one life, we die and face judgment. This is most clearly put in Heb 9:27: 'and just as it
is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.' It is also implied in many other references to judgment such as the Sheep and Goats (e.g. Matt 12:36-37; 25:31-46; Rom 2:5-16; 14:11-12; 2 Cor 5:10) etc. The notion of eternal judgment is considered by the writer of Hebrews as an 'elementary teaching' (Heb 6:2), a judgment which is harsh (Heb 10:27). RB following others in the 'Christian universalism' or 'evangelical universalism' stream, in essence brings back purgatory, whereby we can get out of eternal destruction if we turn from our resistance. This is not quite the Roman Catholic purgatory where prayers to Jesus, Mary and the Saints can assist a person's release, but it is a variation on the theme. We can get out when we yield to God willingly, presumably having heard the message again in some way??? Aside from reading several texts like 1 Cor 15:29 and 2 Macc 12:43-47 for support, the thrust of the NT story is that we live, we die, we face judgment, and we receive our due from God.
- RB's interpretation of the Greek aiōnos is problematic and perhaps the major problem with the book for me. He seems to think 'eternal destruction' does not necessarily imply 'forever' or 'everlasting' but speaks qualitatively, and where attached to punishment or destruction is merely literary, rhetorical warning device, and the possibility of getting out remains. The problem is that a search of the meaning of aiōnos in the Greek OT LXX and the NT shows that, while on occasion it does have the sense of the ages or a long time, it does mean 'forever' a lot of the time. The covenant is a forever covenant (e.g. Gen 9:12; 17:7), God is a forever God (e.g. Gen 21:23; Exod 3:15), eternal life is a forever life (Dan 12:2-3; Matt 19:23; John 3:16; Rom 6:23 etc). These do not merely state that it is a covenant for the ages (it continues in Christ), that God is a great God for ages, that eternal life is great and for a limited time. They are 'forever' concepts. Dan 12:2-3 is a critical text in later apocalyptic and NT texts on eternal life and destruction, it picked up through the narrative to speak of the two fates of humanity. These references to 'eternal' all then speak of 'forever' covenant (Mosaic – Davidic – Christ), a 'forever God' etc i.e. for all of time (whether this age, or the age to come). Is it legitimate then to isolate the 'eternal punishment' verses and give eternal a different meaning, especially when we find eternal life and punishment/destruction in the same text (e.g. Sheep and Goats). Indeed, if we live on a restored earth in continuity with this one as RB says in chapter 2, then this history I presume continues this one and is then necessarily temporal, and so involves 'everlasting' and 'forever.' His own theology betrays him at this point. If then 'eternal life' is 'forever life' (as well as glorious life), then why not destruction/punishment? I wonder whether you can have it both ways – eternal life is forever life without the possibility again of hell and suffering; yet, eternal destruction is not forever, and we can get out of jail anytime we like, by saying yes. Does it mean we can get out of eternal life in the same way or are we transformed so that the possibility and desire is completely gone? I note that there is no tree of knowledge of good and evil referenced in the NT picture of eternity, there are only trees of life.
- RB takes the idea of warnings in the Gospel and sees as merely rhetorical devices to make a point. He also at times appears to limit them to the Fall of Jerusalem. Both ideas are flawed. Careful reading of the Olivet Discourse in all three Gospels (Mark 13; Matt 24; Luke 21) indicates that more than the fall of Jerusalem are in mind –despite the likes of Wright. This is particularly clear in Matthew, where Matthew takes Mark's account and reshapes it to make it clear that the 'end of the age' is in mind. Matthew then adds four passages which refer to being ready for the eschaton including the Sheep and the Goats. These are not about being ready for the fall of Jerusalem. To argue that Jesus' teaching is merely rhetorical and literary and to be taken seriously requires careful thought. As noted elsewhere in this post, Jesus' teaching on hell, eternal destruction and punishment and failure to enter life fall amidst a whole range of teaching and parabolic material. It is a flawed and assumptive hermeneutic to take out these bits as rhetorical and not other teaching on things like love, forgiveness etc. While we do have to take care with parables and theology, the parables are theological and do contribute to theology.
- RB seems to see the idea of some experiencing eternal destruction in the traditional sense as a problem for God; that God does not win in that 'story', that for him to win, all must be saved. I can't agree with this. God will win no matter how many are saved. Indeed, he has won in history, he won on the cross, with his Son taking all that evil could throw at him and rising as Christus Victor – evil is now collateral damage in his wake. Despite evil continuing to exist (because of God's grace to give freedom illumination, to refine his people, to allow time for all humanity receive salvation), his reign cannot be threatened, for his power is absolute. It never could be actually, God is always the winner because God is God. Further, there is no a priori need for all to be saved for God to win. God seeks to win human hearts through love, goodness and justice. He woos us. He invites us. He has done it all for us in Christ. He wants us. He has won in that he has been true to his love, goodness, and justice and so love wins. Yet, he has also gifted us in our image bearing and the Spirit the capacity to say 'yes' or 'no' to his invitation to live forever in and with him. Where we say 'yes,' we are won to Christ and are gifted eternal life. Where we don't, a time of reckoning is coming where all evil is extinguished and God 'wins' (he has won whatever happens) by removing from his universe all corruption. For God to win does not require all to be saved. What our winning God is doing is placing all enemies under his feet either through voluntary submission, or if need be, through God's action.
- RB has an interesting and inconsistent way of interpreting the parables. Where a parable has descriptions of references to hell and destruction he sees it as a literary device not to be taken too seriously but to make the point, we need to live better (e.g. The Rich Man and Lazarus, The Sheep and Goats). But where there is the theme of love, we take it literally as a guide to life. Is this consistent? Can we say that references to love are also figurative, not to be taken literally? I think RB is effectively laying his own interpretative grid on Scripture with a preconceived notion of the story, and accommodating the texts he finds difficult to the metanarrative. This is a common problem, and something we all struggle with (see http://drmarkk.blogspot.com/2007/10/macro-narrative-and-text-hermeneutics.html). The problem for RB, is that his metastory obscures what is a common thread through the NT, those who do not accept Christ will be separated from him eternally – it is found in Jesus, Luke, Paul, Hebrews, Peter, Jude, and Revelation. When something is so etched into the story, can we simply submerge it? This is one of the dangers of contemporary biblical interpretation. We are moving out of an error where people were overly focussed on individual texts, micro-detail, at the expense of the big story, the narrative, the trajectories of the whole story. We are now focussing on the metanarrative, seeing the trends and threads and trajectories of Scripture. That is good. But pushed too far, what RB has done is an example of what happens. We end up distorting the metastory with a metanarrative that does not align with the text! This is the problem in many theological constructs such as hyper-Calvinism, Arminianism, Open Theism, even what is considered blatant heresy such as Jehovah Witness readings, etc. While it is good to study trajectories and the metastory, we must not get to the point where close analysis of the detail of the story reveal that the attempt to summarise has in fact left us with another account. We need to hold the meta-reading of Scripture in tension with deep detailed reading of the text and allow a hermeneutical spiral which works between the two to continually form our constructs. Our constructs must be loose and adaptive as we discover new elements in detail and/or the metastory. RB has now settled, and like many great thinkers, he has settled in a flawed space.
- RB makes a critical error when he does not look at Paul's use of 'destruction' language (esp. apōleia, apollumi). Paul uses this language frequently of 'destruction', often in parallel with 'being saved' (e.g. Phil 1:28; 1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15). These texts speak of those who are sinners and reject Christ ('in Adam'), perishing eternally. In contrast, believers are 'being saved.' Paul is unequivocal on this. The clearest statement is 2 Thess 1:5-10 where Paul speaks unambiguously of Jesus' return with his angels, where those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of Christ 'will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.' This text and others speak not of a post-mortem hope, but of God executing his justice at his appointed time. The time is Christ's return. At that point, the dead will rise and there will be a judgment. RB's failure to deal with Paul is critical. It enables him to paint the picture more positively than the Scriptures really allow. For Paul, humanity outside of Christ is 'in Adam', in and under sin, and destined for eternal destruction unless saved. God acted in Christ to provide the hilastērion (propitiation, mercy seat, expiation, atoning sacrifice) for sin (Rom 3:25) whereby sin, death and wrath are dealt with in Christ. The path to salvation is faith which is reckoned as righteousness. Where the gospel is preached, it is response to Jesus that takes a person out of that state to be 'in Christ.' Where the gospel has not been preached, Abraham is our hope, his faith in God reckoned to him as righteousness. When we die, we are 'lost' in sin – there is no sense of another hope. This inability to deal with Paul is a major flaw in RB's book.
- RB rightly asks questions about the common Christian construct of eternal destruction. He asks about babies and others who die without hearing the gospel, he asks about the nature of eternal destruction. Where he falls short to me is that he seeks to resolve these with universalism. There are other places an evangelical can go to have possible answers. There are the stories of Melchizedek and Abraham whose faith is reckoned as righteousness but never heard of Jesus. This opens up a range of possibilities. There is the grace of God who can be trusted to deal with the problem of the child with grace. There is the possibility of conditional mortality whereby those who are in a trust-relationship with are raised to life, but those who reject God simply do not rise or are annihilated. These constructs can work in the Scriptures. I don't quite see why RB and other evangelical universalists feel a need to go to universalism when the New Testament clearly supports that some will be separated from God eternally. Why not work with what is written rather than create a construct which violates what is written? It reveals a detachment from Scripture as first priority in theological decision making toward philosophical speculation and the imposition of reason on the text.
- RB seems to me to play down the problem of evil and suffering – he does what many westerners today are doing with the text, deapocalyptising it i.e. playing down the nasty and supernatural bits. There is little in RB's picture of the call to take up the cross and suffer for Christ. Christianity is about enjoyment. That is critical, but it is joy in the midst of suffering, especially in the theology of Paul (e.g. Philippians with 16 references to joy as he waxes lyrical about the suffering of Christ, Epaphroditus, himself, and the Philippians). The world in the Biblical story is a glorious place, but it is terribly flawed as are its people. It is thus a dangerous world. There are spiritual forces seeking to destroy. There are people who want to assume control and do all they can to gain it. Our God acts in this world, and we live in it. The story RB paints lacks the apocalyptic nuance of the real world, although it might reflect the nice cushy world of the west. As such, the picture of the consummation painted is soft, as if love will conquer all. Yes it will, but not voluntarily in many cases. There are forces at work which refuse to yield, and must be 'put under his feet' (Ps 110:1). I complete this on ANZAC day remembering Gallipoli and other conflicts where lunatics have sought to take the world, and huge wars with massive death tolls have occurred. The world is full of such conflict. The book reads like a westerner writing in a nice soft western context without the ruthless suffering and evil of much of the history of God's world. It is a sweet picture. Above all, the cross is placed in the middle of this. We see it all there, evil doing its worst, human depravity in deceit, violence, hubris, hate and power, human incomprehension of what God is really about. Since the cross it goes on. Look at the Middle East today, etc. We are in a dangerous world full of pain, suffering and hate. The picture painted in the book is soft and almost sentimental. Life, God and faith are more robust than this.
- RB gets a little confused on salvation. He doesn't like the language of 'entry' into salvation. The problem for him is that Jesus did, and spoke of it frequently (e.g. Matt 5:20; 7:13, 21; 18:8, 9; 19:7, 23-24; 23:12). Humanity needs to enter God's reign, it is not automatic. We are outside God's reign unless we yield, the other NT writers agree. RB rightly notes the diverse answers Jesus gives to questions of entry into salvation. What he does not then do is go through the rest of the NT and show that there is a consistency in the post-resurrection preaching and writing of the church on this question of how to enter. As we do we find two key words, repent and believe. Repent is not always mentioned and 'believe' implies a turning from false beliefs. But the picture is consistent, one turns from sin and false allegiances, and believe in Jesus to be saved. Faith is relational, it is assent (saying yes), submission (coming under his lordship), and trust. The picture is clear in the NT. Jesus in his pre-crucifixion ministry was drawing people away from Torah, boundary markers, covenant presumption, works and self-reliance to himself! This is why his answers are fluid; they are not so to confuse us in terms of salvation. Once Jesus died and rose from the dead, the answer became clear – Jesus is the pathway to salvation. He has done it all, he has fulfilled the law, he is the sinless one, he refused to yield, he completed the work, he has taken the judgment of God on himself on our behalf, he has conquered death, he is the first fruits of the new creation and humanity – he has completed all that needed to be done. All that is required is faith – indeed RB uses this term himself often, trust. We assent to what Jesus, and come under his lordship and live for him i.e. we 'enter.' It is not axiomatic and many will not. Similarly, RB seems to struggle with the idea that most will not receive salvation, but only a few will. Jesus didn't have a problem with this, stating it in the great Sermon on the Mount in Matt 7, 'few will find it' (cf. Luke 13). I am sure that RB would take most of the Sermon on the Mount seriously, especially 'love your enemies' etc? Why not this text as well? We cannot simply choose to treat some of Jesus' teaching as rhetorical or literary devices, and leave the rest, this is a flawed inconsistent hermeneutic. Yes, we do have to read carefully in terms of genre and draw theology judiciously and with good interpretative skills, but we cannot simply write off bits of it which suit our metanarrative, and emphasise others that please it. Most false teaching is not a result of extreme views, but imbalances, distortions, and over-emphases.
- RB overstates how universalism has been viewed in the church over the centuries. Yes there have been voices who have proposed it, like Origen etc. Yes, today there are many theologians who flirt with it. However, with a few exceptions, the church has resolutely not accepted this as authentic. It has been condemned as a heresy. It is a very daring thing for a preacher to say that because others have held a view, it is ok to hold it, which RB does. For example, people in the church have denied the divinity of Christ, denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus, denied the Trinity, etc., does this legitimise this as an 'ok' view. Not for me. I believe RB overstates his authority when he claims this. It is not for him to decide this for others. The only true test is the Scriptures. We need to go back to them and test an idea. When we do, we find that there are a few texts that can suggest universal salvation e.g. Matt 19:28; Acts 3:21; Rom 3:24; Phil 2:9-11; Col 1:20; Eph 1:11; 2 Cor 5:19 etc). Yet, to read these universalistically we have to isolate them from their contexts and ignore references to destruction, wrath in the writings of the same author. For example, Matthew is replete with references to destruction and hell including parables of the net, weeds, the Sheep and the Goats, etc etc. Luke-Acts does not emphasise this element but it is there e.g. Luke 13:24-30; Acts 1:25; 13:48). Paul, as noted above, speaks unambiguously of destruction (e.g. Rom 2:5-16; 14:11-12; Phil 1:28; 3:18-19; Col 3:5; Eph 2:3; 5:6). We have a choice to subvert the texts that speak of destruction/salvation beneath these texts, or the converse. Most Christians noting that Jesus, Matthew, Luke, Mark, Peter, John, Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation all speak of destruction, prefer to read the gospel as being potentially universal in the sense that the goal of the gospel is the reconciliation of all, but that some will resist and will not experience that reconciliation. Part of the reconciliation is indeed the healing of the world by the removal of evil, including resistant humanity. That is, God will remove evil, and his purpose is not to see anyone separated from him, but respects human freedom and so collateral to his dealing with evil will be eternal separation of all humanity who refuse his offer from him. This is our story. At one point RB dares to quote Luther is if Luther supports universalism. This is subtly deceitful, there is no way Luther was a universalist.
- I love the way RB goes through the OT listing the Scriptures which demonstrate God is a restoring God. He is, I agree. But he does not go through the Scriptures and list where God acts decisively in justice to remove evil, the list would be a lot longer. There is selectivity in the book that is disturbing.
Now, having said all that, I want to be clear. I am not saying Rob Bell is not a Christian and standing in judgment over him. My own writings and theology are open to the same critique. None of us is a perfect teacher, leader and free from false ideas. To be fair to him too, he does not quite in the book emphatically state that he is a universalist, but poses a lot of questions. However, as he does so, he clearly sides with the idea arguing it is a better story. I disagree, the gospel as we have it in the narrative and text is the only story and we need to ensure we handle it carefully and accurately. I am contending with his ideas, I think he is reading the gospel wrongly. I would still encourage people to read the book, but do so with a Bible in hand, and don't just read the texts he refers to. If you do, you might find yourself agreeing too easily. Read the whole NT again and again, pen in hand, notebook at the ready, note what it says about life, death, hope and eternity. Consider the whole story and don't write off the bits you don't like. See if there are ways that you can make sense of the story, but hold all its elements in balance. I think as you do, you will find that you will hear a similar but different story to the one painted by RB, but don't worry, God wins.