Saturday, March 19, 2011

Destruction began with a question

In our LCN discussion group in Hudson we are planning on discussing Rob Bell's recent book, "Love Wins." To suggest that the book has engendered controversy would be an understatement, and there is little doubt that the discussion is likely to continue for a while.

On the surface it seems to some that Bell is denying that there is a hell and it seems that he believes that everyone is ultimately saved in the end. I say on the surface because  those who would defend Bell's position are quick to point out that he has flatly stated that he believes in hell and that he is not a universalist. Of course, this assumes that we agree on what is meant by both hell and universalism, but before we go there, we should perhaps wonder if it isn't too much to attack a guy just for simply asking questions.

And Bell does ask a lot of open-ended and provoking questions, but what is the harm in asking those questions? Any belief that is worthy of trust should be solid enough to stand up to scrutiny, but lest we think that questions are harmless, remember that the devastation of the human race began with a simple question regarding what God actually said. "Hath God said, 'You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?'"

No, questions are not harmless, and they can be powerfully deceptive, if only because they can be used to lay the groundwork for persuasive rhetoric that can be used as a lever to move the audience. This is exactly what Satan did. He followed up his simple question with a statement that was a half truth, but notice that even his statement carried implicit questions regarding the nature of God, undermining their confidence in His goodness, His faithfulness, and His justice.

His questions were disarming, powerful, and deadly.

Ultimately this is exactly what Bell's book does. He asks questions to challenge a view of God that He believes is "toxic." Then he tells his "better" story in terms that directly confront what many churches teach regarding the nature of God. Of course, if he is correct in his understanding, then the false views he confronts should be undermined, but if he is wrong, he is actually perpetuating Satan's argument in the garden and participating in yet another attack on a true and right view of God.

Either way, the argument is not really about heaven or hell.

The argument is about the nature of God,

and for Bell,

it is all about God's love.

"Love Wins" is the big idea, a rubric that frames Bell's understanding (or at least his journey). As such, Bell's understanding of the love of God is both central and critical to the discussion. He ends the book,
"Love is what God is, love is why Jesus came, and love is why he continues to come, year after year to person after person. Love is why I've written this book, and love is what I want to leave you with. May you experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along. May you discover that this love is as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart no one else knows about. And may you know, deep in your bones, that loves wins."
So if the book rises and falls on Bell's presentation of the love of God, what exactly does he say about the love of God? Throughout the book, the theme of God's love is placed as opposite judgment and divine retribution. For Bell, the former is God's nature and the latter is found, at least primarily, in separation from God. Any notion that God actively punishes forever is subjected to ridicule and caricature,
"[The inferior view is] God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy - unless there isn't confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever."
Implicit in this caricature is the idea that God's love, kindness, grace, and mercy are incompatible with divine justice and retribution. For Bell, this is a key assumption, that God cannot be loving at the same time He is meting out justice. As a result, getting what you deserve has been morphed, by the end of the book, into simply getting what you want. And while there is an element of truth to the idea that it is an act of judgement for God to deliver wicked people to their own imagination and attending consequences, Bell's view presents God's role in judgment as almost exclusively passive.

For example, in describing what Jesus was teaching, Bell says,
"[Jesus] was trying to bring Israel back to its roots, to its divine calling to be a light to the world, showing the nations just what the redeeming love of God looks like. And he was confident that this love doesn't wield a sword. To respond to violence with more violence, according to Jesus, is not the way of God." (emphasis mine)
There is another aspect of Bell's view of God's love that is crucial to his entire argument. It is that God's love demands the recipient's response be completely unencumbered and optional, and this is asserted as if it is an unassailable fact, without any supporting Scripture or argument. This lack of defense seems odd to me, since this statement is also critical to his argument leading toward his passive view of divine justice,
"Love, by its very nature, is freedom. For there to be love, there has to be the option, both now and then, to not love. To turn the other way. To reject the love extended. To say no. Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to chose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself. If at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is." (53)
To make sense of this paragraph, we need to clarify by restating it as generously as possible: "God's act of love, by its nature, requires that the one loved be able to either reciprocate that love or reject it." So, as respecting man's freedom, Bell's position forces us to conclude that God's ability to love depends upon the preservation of human nature in a neutral state. If, at any time, man's nature is inevitably predisposed in any direction, God would cease to be able to love. This means a person can never be brought to a permanent state, either in reprobation or in glorification. This also means that God cannot guarantee a progressive future that culminates in a complete reconciliation of all things, and this would mean Bell cannot rightfully conclude that love wins.

Now, if we find that the Scriptures teach us the nature of fallen humanity is so corrupted that they cannot even respond rightly to God without a divine operation that changes the nature of that person, then Bell's position would be either falsified or it would require mankind be left, without hope, in that state of condemnation, since changing the nature of a person means they will inevitably act according to that nature.

If we turn the question of love requiring freedom around, from man toward God, we can get a clearer sense of the problem. Assuming that Bell's position is correct, in order for man to love God, God must be free to accept or reject that Love, but is God free to act contrary to His nature? He is love, and He created man to find His deepest joy and satisfaction in Him. If God were to act contrary to His nature, then He would cease to be God. Thus it is impossible for God to act contrary to His nature, so it is impossible for God to reject genuine love, offered from His creatures. Bell's view of human freedom as necessary for love to exist cannot be sustained.

Bell also has a problem as to how he seems to understand the inter-relatedness of God's attributes. Particularly regarding God's love and God's justice. As we mentioned earlier, his perspective regarding God's love requires that divine justice be passive. The idea that God stands ready to exact divine retribution on those who rebel is intolerable to Bell.
"This leads us to another distinction, one that takes us back to the recurring question, What is God like? Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.
Let's be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer."(90)
This seems hard to reconcile with the message of Psalm 2, where the Father says to the Messiah, "They all belong to you, and you will break them with a rod of iron." Then the Psalmist urges the rebels to reconcile with the Son before his wrath is kindled. Then you have Psalm 110, where the Messiah ultimately executes the heads of many nations. Passages like this can be multiplied, but Bell persists in presenting death, sin, and destruction as things we choose for ourselves, and God simply gives us what we want.

The reason is that Bell's view of love cannot allow divine justice to coexist with it. Notice how active justice is portrayed and juxtaposed in opposition to love in the following:
"But there's more. Millions have been taught that if they don't believe, if they don't accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.
If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.

If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good.

Loving one moment, vicious the next. Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye.

Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die? That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can't bear it. No one can.
And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don't love God. They can't, because the God they've been presented with and taught about can't be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable." (85-86)
In His view either God is loving, or God is acting with justice. This misunderstands the nature of God and requires God to be less than He is at one point or another. But God cannot change; He is never more or less. He is perfectly and simply complete. With every action and in every moment, God is fully just and fully loving - all at the same time. However, for Bell, judgement is simply missed moments and never final.
"Jesus told a number of stories about this urgency in which things did not turn out well for the people involved. One man buries the treasure he's been entrusted with instead of doing something with it and as a result he's 'thrown outside into the darkness.' Five foolish wedding attendants are unprepared for the late arrival of the groom and they end up turned away from the wedding with the chilling words "Truly I tell you, I don't know you." Goats are sent 'away' to a different place than the sheep, tenants of a vineyard have it taken from them, and weeds that grew alongside wheat are eventually harvested and 'tied in bundles to be burned.'

These are strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities."
Bell uses these stories to press urgency on the reader, but the bottom line is that his handling of divine justice fails to encompass the full scope of what God means when he says, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." His view of God's love ultimately confounds what Scripture teaches regarding the nature of God and sets attributes of God's holiness at odds with one another.

I haven't even touched the reduction of the cross of Christ to little more than an enduring symbol and metaphor, rather than a real event that reveals God's active justice against sin, upon the Son He loves. If Bell's rhetorical flourishes were aimed at the cross, what kind of God would be intimated? If we saw a father punish his son for wrongs that other kids at school had perpetrated, what would we think of that father's sense of justice?

Then there is another major problem, both interpretively and practically, regarding the person of Christ being abstracted in such a way that the gospel becomes potentially pliable and even unrecognizable. On top of this, there are more interpretive problems, logical fallacies, and historical inaccuracies in the book, but the core problem of the book is how Bell handles the nature of God, undermining who He has revealed Himself to be. In the final analysis, "Love Wins" bears more similarity to the deception of Satan than the teachings of Scripture.


Art Dunham said...

Thanks, Brother

Paul said...

Just to be accurate, I think it should be "meting out" instead of "meeting out"

Thomas Pryde said...

you are welcome, Art, and Paul...duly noted and changed

Taylor said...

Well done! I've heard this book talked about and am glad I didn't have to waste my time reading it. I appreciate your work.


Ron Costello said...

The temptation is the same as in the garden, you can be like God. Satan, I mean Rob Bell like Satan, turns it around and says surely you won't go to hell.
He's still walking around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.