Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Love vs. Justice - Brian Mclaren weighs in

Brian Mclaren has recently written a rebuttal to Al Mohler's critique of Rob Bell, which really shouldn't surprise anyone. I would like to address a piece of Mclaren's article that relates to my own critique of Bell's book. Here is what he wrote:
First, many of us are concerned about the traditional doctrine of hell for reasons of justice and holiness, not mere sentimentality. Even putting God's loving nature aside for a moment, it's very hard to square the idea of eternal conscious torment with a just or holy God, especially when Jesus repeatedly encourages us to trust God as a just and holy father (in contrast to human fathers who, Jesus points out, can be downright evil). If a human father decided to throw his child in a fireplace for just ten seconds as punishment for disobedience, we wouldn't fault the father simply for being unsentimental: we would say such behavior was unholy, an act of torture in violation of our most fundamental sense of justice. Any definition of justice and holiness that involves being unsatisfied unless the imperfect are suffering eternal agony seems to many of us as unworthy of a human being and if so, how much more unworthy of God whose justice must be better than our own.
That doesn't solve the problem, and it doesn't address all the biblical texts that those who defend the traditional view can quote from memory. (Which is a legitimate topic for civil discourse - discourse that I hope will come in the next innings of play.) But it does demand that the question be opened so the traditional interpretations of those texts can be reconsidered - alongside the other often-marginalized texts that argue for a wideness in God's mercy and a compassion in God's justice. Having grappled with those texts myself, like Rob I found it more reasonable and faithful to the full witness of Scripture to conclude that love wins through God's restorative (not merely punitive) justice. And no, that's not traditional universalism because it works within a very different framing narrative than traditional universalism, exclusivism, and inclusivism all assume.
In answering Mclaren, Dr. Mohler has addressed each of his four critiques, but there is something here that I would like to address specifically that is related to my previous post. In that article, I argued against Bell's position, suggesting that he is wrong in regards to the relationship between Love and Justice. That article is focused on the nature of divine love, and in this article I would like to look at Mclaren's defense of Bell in relation to divine justice.

Categories are Important:
Of course, whenever we discuss these sorts of things, it is important to know that we are talking about the same things, so with that in mind, I would like to examine a few key ideas that under-gird the above quote. In the process, I will contend that Bell and Mclaren have shifted the terms and categories of the discussion in making a case for their position.

Child / Enemy?
In the example that Mclaren uses, that of a father throwing his child into the fire, there are several assumptions that require some scrutiny. In the first place, the traditional position has God's enemies as the objects of His wrath, rather than God's own family. By telling the story in this way, the discussion is prejudiced against hell, but the story doesn't match the Biblical narrative. A better, more biblical, story would be something like this:

A father wakes up to gunshots only to discover a murderer and thief in his house, who has shot and killed his son. After warning him and calling on him to lay down the weapon and surrender, the criminal responds by shooting at the father and empties his gun. The father then moves in and throws the man into the fireplace. But now imagine that the criminal in the above story actually lays down his weapon and asks the father's forgiveness. Then, in response, the father forgives the criminal, accepts him into his house and treats him like family.

That version of the story is far better aligned with the Biblical narrative than Mclaren's, and the emotional impact, rhetorically, is quite different. The fact is that we must be reconciled to God before we are considered anything more than an enemy, but when we have been reconciled, we are adopted into His family. The truth of reconciliation, in Mclaren's narrative, does not adequately consider the state of man as confirmed enemies who have participated in the murder of His son. It also does not adequately consider the significance of those enemies who repent being adopted into God's family.

Imperfect / Rebel?
This problem shows up again when Mclaren says,
"Any definition of justice and holiness that involves being unsatisfied unless the imperfect are suffering eternal agony seems to many of us as unworthy of a human being and if so, how much more unworthy of God whose justice must be better than our own." 
Again, you can see that he is shifting the verbiage to minimize the significance of sin as active rebellion rather than the result of a flaw. Using the language of mere "flaws" implies that the problem of the human condition is introduced through no fault of their own, or at least that it makes sin understandable or even excusable. A flawed person needs our pity and our help, where an evil person must be destroyed.

This can be easily seen in respect to Satan. First consider that the original rebel took up arms to overthrow God and then deceived our first parents, which introduced untold human suffering and ruined the perfect God-glorifying creation. Then consider that hell is a place that was prepared for him and all those who follow him. Those who remain in Satan's family, following him in his rebellion and participating in the defacing of God's glory, earn their place with him in the day of vengeance.

The bottom line is that the human race is not simply passively flawed, every one of us are confirmed and active rebels to God's rule. This places us in the category of children of wrath, and unless that changes, God is perfectly just to punish us with the vengeance that our father, the devil, has earned.

Restorative / Punitive (or both)?
This leads us to a question; is justice ever restorative? Well, yes - when God chastens his children, he is moving them toward Himself and correcting them in a way that will produce more Christ-likeness in them. Is justice ever punitive? It would be hard to argue that it wasn't, particularly when God's justice is meted out upon Pharaoh, for example. Didn't his rebellion earn him the plagues? Who would argue that he didn't deserve what he got?

But Mclaren inserts the word, "merely" in a way that suggests three main thoughts. First is that punitive justice is inferior to restorative justice, and second is that even punitive justice, if it is present at all, is expected to be restorative. Finally, there is the intimation that God's divine justice could never be "merely" punitive, since his justice is expected to be better than ours and restorative justice is better. Regardless of whether allowance is made for limited punitive justice, the effect is to assert that God's justice is always restorative.

At least one path we may take to test this idea is related to Satan. If Mclaren is correct, the door must be open for God's restorative justice to reconcile with Satan himself. Yet Jesus taught, regarding the nature of hell, that it is a place that was prepared for him and the angels who followed him. This means that Bell and Mclaren must leave the door open that this place can be emptied, even of those for whom it was prepared, otherwise God's justice can, indeed, be purely punitive.

We can also examine this matter in the light of the cross for a clear understanding of the key issues, for if Bell and Mclaren are correct, the idea that the Father's wrath was poured out upon the Son must be discarded for some alternate view. The alternative would suggest that the transaction on the cross is not Christ taking the penalty for our sin but is really a demonstration of restorative forgiveness in the face of human violence. We can examine this notion without too much difficulty.

Upon scrutiny, the alternative offered is inadequate, at best. In the first place, Jesus Himself did not think of Himself as a victim of violent men on the cross. In John 10:18 Jesus said no one takes His life, but He has the power to lay it down and take it up again. That is exactly what He did. We cannot perceive the cross in a different light than our Lord, who viewed it as an act of obedience to the Father to lay down His life - on our behalf.

That phrase, on our behalf, is not insignificant. We see this concept in Galatians 3:13, Titus 2:14, 1 Peter 2:24, and 1 Peter 3:18. In each of these verses there is something inherent in the crucification that belonged to us, which was our sins, lawlessness. Jesus, who kept the law perfectly, was crucified for those who broke it continually, but where is the justice in that? How can God punish the Innocent? Did Christ deserve the cross? To this question we must answer, yes. Wait! The answer is no... isn't it?

This is important; when Jesus took sin upon Himself, he owned them as His own sins and took the guilt upon Himself as well. It isn't simply that he took the punishment; He claimed your sins, and the wrath of God, and the condemnation that was upon you as a result! In a very real way, He became a sinner so that you could become righteous in the sight of God. This was the exchange made on the cross, and lest we misunderstand, the physical suffering was not the worst of it. God the Father turned His back on the Son.

So sin brings death, separation from God as well as physical death, and Christ owned your sin unto death. That sounds like punishment of the just for the unjust, and indeed, that is exactly what happened on the cross. Bell and Mclaren both undermine this transaction and mute the glory of the cross. They redefine love and justice then switch the categories of the discussion so that they can tell their better story, but what they give us in return is a social gospel that neuters the Scriptural teaching.

What makes a story "better"?
That brings us to this important question. Bell proposes what he thinks is a better story, but what actually makes it better? The heart of this question is an interpretive distinction that is at the core. For Bell, love (as he conceives of it) defines God and constrains justice, but if we are to take revelation seriously, God defines both love and justice infinitely and completely in Himself. God does not do justice and love because they are right; He is not constrained by some outside rule of these notions. He defines them, and his actions in the world, in the entirety of Scripture, define what is loving and just.

Bell defines God by his notions of love and justice and fashions the story to fit. Then he passes that story off as a better, more believable, story. This becomes an interpretive framework that must ignore large swaths of Scripture. However, a better story is the one that most rightly understands the revelation of God in Scripture and in the person and work of Christ. We are not free to fashion a better story to suit ourselves or our audience, and we are not free to redefine the attributes of God. We must believe that He is (as He has revealed Himself to be), and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

In the final analysis, Bell's story is not actually better, but at least to the carnal mind, it is more palatable. Unbelievers will come to the God of Rob Bell's story, but they will not find the cross or the God who died on their behalf. They will only find a metaphor that serves as an affirmation for their own prejudice. For those who would know God on God's own terms, Bell's story is corrosive to truth and ultimately makes a God in man's image.

No comments: