Interacting with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Part 6 of 6)

Chapter 7—The Good News is Better Than That
Full disclosure: this chapter gave me the most grief for a number of reasons.

Your initial story about the woman who gives you the piece of paper with the number on it, reflecting the number of days that have passed since she harmed herself, made me want to rage against you as a pastor. But that’s not my place. You use this story to cast doubt on whether this woman would understand anything about a God who loves her without her having to earn that love. But couldn’t you introduce her to that concept? Isn’t it your job to re-build her broken categories of what love is about? Couldn’t you show her that Jesus loves her since he experienced awful physical abuse at the hands of people he loved?

Then, you expound the parable of the gracious father from Lk. 15. You introduce this parable in order to show that each character—the father, the older son, and the younger son—is telling a story about the reality of their life together as a family. Each person’s story differs and each of the sons must choose which story they will live in light of. You also make much of the picture that we’re given of this party that the father throws upon the younger son’s return, after squandering his inheritance and shaming his father. The elder brother is jealous and angry and refuses to go into the party. You determine that the party could be representative of heaven, and the elder son’s refusal to participate as hell. You summarize, “Jesus puts the older brother right there at the party, but refusing to trust the father’s version of his story. Refusing to join in the celebration. Hell is being at the party. That’s what makes it so hellish” (169). You seem to be making this point in this way to contrast with typical notions of heaven and hell being “two different places, far apart from each other.” Isn’t it significant that the older brother actually remains outside? The party is going on inside the home; the older brother remains outside. Thus, Jesus portrays separation.

You go on to state, “Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story” (170). This falls in line with your earlier delineation of hell as a particularly intense experience resulting from our rejection of “the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us” (93). Does Jesus make this point in the parable? Does Jesus even indicate that this parable is at all about “heaven and hell”?

You escalate your rhetoric a bit after this. After acknowledging that people tend to hear the good news of John 3:16, you add, “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” (173). Is it fair to define “in the right way” as “the way the person telling them the gospel does,” because surely the people you’re referring to would retort that the “right way” is the way Jesus demanded? Moreover, shouldn’t God punish people who reject him, who refuse to trust him, who refuse to believe his telling of their story? What about John 3:18? What about John 3:36? You go on: “God would, in essence, become a fundamentally 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 tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony” (173-4). Really? Is this really how you understand what traditional evangelicals teach about the punishment for unbelief? I think you have badly misunderstood your brothers and sisters who think this way. No one believes that God becomes a fundamentally different person. Rather, God responds to people’s rebellion, their refusal to believe, in a certain way; they have set themselves as God’s enemies forever, and he responds accordingly. You then call God into question, if he were to act this way, by comparing him with an earthly father. Is this really appropriate? This goes back to my earlier question: why do you believe that all people are God’s children in the same way? Why does the Bible speak of Christians being adopted, as though we weren’t God’s children before our adoption? You add, “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” (174). Can God be loving and angry at the same time? And how do you decide what is good? These polarities muddy the issues because they do not reflect the complexity of God’s emotions as they are described and illustrated in the Bible.

At the foundations of your writing is your view of God, and you are touching on this issue in this chapter. You write, “Because if something is wrong with your God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality” (175). Wow. Untenable? Unacceptable? Really? So, if this view of God has grown up as a legitimate view of God within “the historic, orthodox Christian faith,” throughout Christian history, held by many great theologians, how can you call it “unacceptable”? Why should we accept Origen’s view, for example, instead of this view as articulated by Luther, Calvin, Augustine, or many other important and not-so-important theologians within the “wide stream” that is “the historic, orthodox Christian faith”? With all due respect, Rob Bell, this doesn’t sound like a “generous orthodoxy” to me. But I digress.

I agree with you when you write, “We can trust God’s retelling of our story. And to trust God’s telling, we have to trust God” (176). But, I’m not sure I can trust your retelling of God’s retelling of my story.

You summarize again: “To reject God’s grace, to turn from God’s love, to resist God’s telling, will lead to misery. It is a form of punishment, all on its own” (176). Indeed; but is God the one who punishes?

You then discuss the significance of understanding that God is love and how some people have gotten confused by thinking that judgment, wrath, and punishment are part of God’s essence. That’s surely a helpful distinction to make, but how carefully shall we define love? The title of your book, Love Wins, doesn’t really help us if we don’t understand what kind of love we’re talking about, and I’m not sure you ever got around to actually articulating a biblical understanding of love. Moreover, noticeably absent here (and I think it’s almost completely absent throughout the book) is God’s holiness. Should we really take John’s statement in 1 John 4 that God is love to be fundamentally definitional? Is the statement really designed to carry the freight that we often load onto it? The Bible (especially Leviticus) repeatedly affirms that God is holy, and God’s holiness is given as the reason why his people must also be holy. Indeed, Jesus reflects this in the Sermon on the Mount when he commands his disciples to be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48). So how does God’s holiness fit with God’s love in your understanding of love? Is holiness part of God’s essence? Furthermore, since judgment, wrath, and punishment may not be said to be part of God’s essence, does that mean that we can disregard them or sweep them away in light of God’s overwhelming love? Doesn’t the Bible hold all of these aspects together in healthy tension?

After this, you write an excellent paragraph that I think most evangelicals would agree with wholeheartedly (I know I do): “Life has never been about just ‘getting in.’ It’s about thriving in God’s good world. It’s stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it’s about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy in the same good world” (179). However, I think many would want to add to this statement. Have you swung the pendulum too far back in your attempt to prevent folks from being “so heavenly minded they’re of no earthly good”?

I also appreciated your warning, particularly directed toward pastors and leaders, to avoid the older brother’s mentality, to avoid thinking of God as a slave-driver, and to avoid thinking of our ministry as so much slaving that ultimately has little significance and is never good enough.

Then, you ask the big question: “What is God like?” (182) Your answer to this question saddened me beyond all I can express in words. It saddened me because, as a pastor, I think you’ve lost an aspect of the gospel—and I do mean the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus—which your people desperately need (and you also desperately need). You write, “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” (182). To be saved is indeed to be rescued. And God is indeed the rescuer. But those who would affirm the way you’ve framed the gospel in this statement would say that God rescues us from God; God rescues us from himself. Does this not make sense to you? What do you do with Romans 5:9, which says, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him”?? Paul says that we will be saved—rescued—from the wrath of God. God’s wrath. The wrath that God expresses. The wrath that God directs toward sin. Paul seems to think we need to be rescued from God, and he assures us that God has rescued us from himself. This is very near the heart of Paul’s point in the first part of Romans. The big conundrum of Romans—and indeed the Bible—is how a just God can forgive sinners. Your book seems to presuppose that the grand difficulty of reality is how a loving God could ever punish sinners whom he loves. Romans shows us how this holy, just God has provided the sacrifice that makes it possible for him to forgive sinners. Indeed, God rescues us from God. And you’ve framed it in a way that is not acceptable: that Jesus must rescue us from God, as though Jesus is fighting against God, or as though God has us in his prison and Jesus comes on his own to sneak us out while God’s not looking. Rather, God recognizes that all of his children have rebelled against him; they’ve all committed the worst treason. All of them have committed crimes deserving of death. God desires to provide a just way that they might escape their deserved doom, and he sends his Son, who comes voluntarily to pay the penalty we’ve all earned for ourselves. God accepts the self-sacrifice of his Son on behalf of any and all who will trust that his sacrifice counted for their sins and who turn to follow him out of rebellion against God. When people in your congregation do things that they know are sinful, displeasing to God, how can you comfort them that God is not angered by their sins, that God’s wrath is not coming to them? Do you tell them, because God’s a loving Father, he overlooks their sins, that their sins really aren’t that big of a deal to God? Without understanding what Paul teaches in Rom. 5:9 and other places about Jesus’ dealing with God’s wrath on the cross, how can you honestly comfort anyone who sins? Herein lies the fundamental beauty of the gospel that I think you have missed: the coming wrath is no longer coming for me; it came, Jesus endured it, bearing the condemnation of God that I deserve, and I no longer live in fear of death/judgment/condemnation/wrath/hell. You go on to write, “Jesus was very clear that this destructive, violent understanding of God can easily be institutionalized—in churches, systems, and ideas” (183). How so? Where does Jesus speak of this? You continue: “That God is angry, demanding, a slave driver, and so that God’s religion becomes a system of sin management, constantly working and angling to avoid what surely must be the coming wrath that lurks behind every corner, thought, and sin.” How does the understanding that God is angry connect with the idea that God is demanding or a slave driver? How are those related? And is it wrong to say that God is demanding? Of course, you can make “demanding” out to have a terrible connotation, but if we understand God to have genuine expectations of his people (“Be holy, for I am holy”), what’s wrong with that? You go on to write that “the violent God,” which I understand you to refer to a God who feels wrath and would pour it out on sinners, “creates profound worry in people” (184). I’m truly sorry for you if that’s your experience and the experience of some folks, but that is genuinely not my experience…at least for people who recognize that, yes, God is wrathful toward sin—and this is a very good thing—but God has graciously provided the way for sinful people not to experience his wrath. You continue: “Jesus frees us from that, because his kind of love simply does away with fear.” Oh sir, the means by which Jesus does away with fear was the cross; this is hardly simple!

Well, you return to the story of the two brothers at the party, and then you turn to Jesus’ crucifixion and comment on his statement, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” noting, “Jesus forgives them all, without their asking for it” (188). Does Jesus forgive them all? Doesn’t he ask the Father to forgive them? And should we assume that the Father automatically forgave all of them? What gives us the right to assume that? You then list several texts that speak of forgiveness and salvation. What do you do with the many texts in John’s Gospel and the Book of Acts, for example, that speak of forgiveness coming in connection with faith and repentance? Can we just ignore those texts?

Chapter 8—The End is Here
You begin the final chapter with a story about your own defining experience/encounter with God as a young lad. You tell us this story because you “believe that the indestructible love of God is an unfolding, dynamic reality and that every single one of us is endlessly being invited to trust, accept, believe, embrace, and experience it” (194). Does the invitation continue going out forever? Really? On what basis can you say that the invitation is endless?  You go on to comment on some of Jesus’ parables in which people ignore or reject the invitation, and you write, “These are strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities” (197). But is there actually judgment and separation? You add, “Jesus reminds us in a number of ways that it is vitally important we take our choices here and now as seriously as we possibly can because they matter more than we can begin to imagine.” How so? It’s difficult not to conclude from everything you’ve written in this book that ultimately love will melt everyone’s hearts and everyone will be able to experience closeness with God at some point along the way.

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Interacting with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Part 5 of 6)

Chapter 5—Dying to Live
Your opening jab directed at the practice of sacrifice reveals a pretty narrow scope. Your comments about our lack of ability to grapple with the biblical pictures of sacrifice being due to our lack of familiarity with animal sacrifices must be limited to Americans (or perhaps Westerners more generally). However, you should be aware that other religions still practice animal sacrifice all over the world, and I expect that Westerners will become increasingly familiar with animal sacrifice (again) as our culture becomes more subsumed into the global realities in which we live. Your explanation of how sacrifice works, however, leaves much to be desired as well. You portray the sacrifices of all religions as though they were attempting to accomplish the same thing. Do you not realize the uniqueness of the sacrificial system of Israel laid out in the Bible? Do you not know how special it was that Israel actually had a God who explained to them what he would accept as payment for sins, and, yes to appease his wrath? You write, “Whole cultures centered around keeping the gods pleased. This was obviously a very costly, time-consuming ordeal, not to mention an anxiety-producing one. You never knew if you’d fully pleased the gods and paid the debt properly. And now the writer is announcing that those days are over because of Jesus dying on the cross. Done away with. Gone. Irrelevant” (124-5). This is how you frame the author of Hebrews’ argument about Jesus’ death being the fulfillment and the completion of the OT sacrificial system and, indeed, all sacrificial systems. You go on to write, “The psychological impact alone would have been extraordinary—no more anxiety, no more worry, no more stress, no more wondering if the gods were pleased with you or ready to strike you down. There was no more need for any of that sacrifice, because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice that thoroughly pleased the only God who ever mattered” (125). From reading the Bible, (and I know you preached your very first sermon series at Mars Hill through Leviticus), wouldn’t you say that the Israelites did not experience this anxiety, wondering whether God would accept their sacrifices? The promise repeated in Leviticus over and over again is that the one who offers the sacrifices “shall be forgiven” (at least 10 times in Leviticus).

Next, you return to your method of piling up questions by looking at apparently disparate biblical texts, and you are right to acknowledge that the NT writers were grasping for ways of communicating the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross, so that they utilized a number of metaphors. You’ve delineated them nicely: “What happened on the cross is like…a defendant going free, a relationship being reconciled, something lost being redeemed, a battle being won, a final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again, an enemy being loved” (128). I might quibble with the wording of a couple of these, but you’ve included most of the basic metaphors used by the NT authors. And I certainly wouldn’t want to deny the validity of any of these metaphors, but I would want to ask two questions: 1) Do the NT authors prioritize these metaphors in any way? Is one of these metaphors primary, while each of the others comes in to supplement the primary one? If so, which one, and how can we tell? 2) Are these “mere metaphors”? What realities do they point to?

Then, you discuss the resurrection of Jesus. You illustrate a pattern that can be seen in all of life consisting of “dying to live.” You write, “So when the writers of the Bible talk about Jesus’s resurrection bringing new life to the world, they aren’t talking about any new concept. They’re talking about something that has always been true. It’s how the world works” (131). Really?? Aren’t you seriously downplaying the uniqueness of this event and its significance? No one expected Jesus to rise from the dead. When Jesus predicted that he would, his own disciples did not understand what he meant, and they didn’t seem to think he was talking about some principle that is generally true of lots of things. If they understood this to be related to “how the world works,” don’t you think they would have concluded he was teaching them something about that, perhaps in parables? But they didn’t get it at all.

In light of the resurrection, you comment on the cosmic significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and you rightly warn us of the danger of shrinking the gospel so that it loses its grand scope. Of course, you include individuals in this scope, and you quote a few NT passages that speak of salvation being for all, missing the same careful nuance that you lacked earlier in the book. Nevertheless, your point stands: there is a universal scope to the significance of the gospel events that we dare not minimize. After this, you point out how the cross and resurrection are personal: “This cosmic event has everything to do with how every single one of us lives every single day. It is a pattern, a rhythm, a practice, a reality rooted in the elemental realities of creation, extending to the very vitality of our soul” (135). Is it really just a pattern? Doesn’t Paul teach that there is a transformative power to the gospel message? Isn’t it our union with Jesus in his death and resurrection, along with the work of the Spirit in our lives, that enables us to live Christlike lives?

Chapter 6—There are Rocks Everywhere
In this chapter, you hone in on the story of Moses encountering a rock that provided water for the people of Israel in the wilderness, noting how Paul indicates that this rock was Christ. Just because Paul identified this particular rock as Christ, does that really lead to the conclusion that we ought to be able to find Christ working in a particular way in everything? You then tie this in with the reality that Christ is involved in the act of creation and in the act of sustaining the universe. But, just because all things hold together in him does not mean that we are able to recognize him in all things nor that we should look for him in all things. At least not in a way analogous to what Paul saw in the event narrated in the OT. Then, you shift to identifying God’s purpose to unify all things in him, mainly reflecting on Ephesians, and in this you’ve included a pretty good summary of the idea of the mystery made known in Christ.

Then, you make an interesting shift by stating what you see as obvious (though, I must confess, I did not see this coming): “Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity’” (150). How does this follow from God’s purpose of uniting all things in Christ? To say that Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion is an acceptable generality, if we define “religion” in a certain way, and I’m not sure exactly how you would define the term. Did Jesus intend to draw a group of people who would orient their lives around himself as the one and only true God? I would say that counts as a religion. Also, why do you choose to jab at Christianity by accusing “the historic, orthodox Christian faith” of creating cages and labels for Jesus? What’s the point of that? Aren’t you a part of Christianity? Also, couldn’t we argue that “Christianity” has taken their “labels” for Jesus from the Scriptures that God has given us to interpret who Jesus is and what he did while he was on earth and what he continues to do now?

You then tack on a few more verses that speak of Jesus’ relation to all people or the world, and you add, “Jesus is supracultural. He is present within all cultures, and yet outside of all cultures” (151). Really? Jesus is present within all cultures already? If that’s the case, why did Paul and other “missionaries” throughout the history of the church go into other cultures in order to introduce Jesus? Even within the book of Acts don’t we see Paul introducing pagans to Jesus, as someone new to the culture? Indeed, Paul is able to draw on some ideas from the culture to help them grasp Jesus’ significance, but the fact remains that Paul must explain certain aspects of Jesus’ person and work in order for them to grasp it. Also, to say that he is outside of all cultures, do you mean to say that his own culture—first century Judaism, of the Galilean sort—has no relevance for his own identity? Mustn’t we come to terms with Jesus as a Jewish Messiah? Next, you say that “we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he’s anyone else’s” (152). I’m not sure I follow what you mean here. Are you contrasting Christianity with other cultures who have a claim on Jesus also? So, let’s take any given Islamic culture, or a culture that is permeated with Islam rather than Christianity. Muslims believe certain things about Jesus; we could probably say they have a claim on Jesus as well. Is their claim on Jesus just as legitimate as our claim, even though they deny he was the unique Son of God? Even though they deny that he rose from the dead? Even though they deny he is one with the Father? By what criteria do we say a culture’s claim of or claims about Jesus are legitimate?

You go on to refer to Col. 1:23, where Paul indicates that the gospel “has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.” If Paul’s not using hyperbole here, or does not have some other meaning besides the face-value meaning of the words, the literal meaning if you will, why does he seem so eager to proclaim the gospel in regions where Jesus has not been named (Rom. 15:20)? Why is there an urgency to proclaim the gospel to those who’ve never heard about Jesus, if he already belongs to every culture in the world?

Next, you comment on John 14:6, writing, “This is as wide and expansive a claim as a person can make….And so the passage is exclusive, deeply so, insisting on Jesus alone as the way to God. But it is an exclusivity on the other side on [sic] inclusivity” (154). I found your attempt to combine inclusivity and exclusivity in this way unhelpful and unconvincing. But, you also comment: “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.” Sure, he doesn’t say any of these things in verse 6. But what about the surrounding verses, part of the same conversation Jesus is having with his disciples? The conversation begins with a command for his disciples to trust him. This command is repeated in verse 11. He speaks again of the one who believes in him in verse 12. So, isn’t it likely that Jesus intended them to understand that the “mechanism” that gets people to God through him is trusting him?

Following this, you take some jabs at typical exclusivist Christian teaching, noting that “everybody who doesn’t believe in him and follow him in the precise way that is defined by the group doing the defining isn’t saved, redeemed, going to heaven, and so on….You’re either in, or you’re going to hell. Two groups” (154). Wouldn’t those you’re critiquing here say that it is not they who define the way, but that it is Jesus himself, or the Bible more broadly, who defines the precise way of believing and following? Moreover, don’t the NT writers often consider the reality of humanity in this world in terms of two groups, the “in-group” and the “out-group”? What about 1 John, for example; especially 1 John 3:4-10, which envisions humanity categorized as either children of God or children of the devil, reflecting Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospel of John?

You also critique typical inclusivism as well, highlighting the idea that there are many roads to reach the same goal. It seems that you’re wanting to distance yourself from both of these positions, coming out with something else altogether. You then attempt to foresee an objection: “As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that then Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth” (155). You strongly deny that this is the case, writing: “Not true. Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.” Why not? I must admit that my first reaction to this “exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity” idea was just that. What difference, then, does Jesus make? What about the cross for these folks? You add, “He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe,” a statement which I honestly don’t understand at all.

You raise an important question after this: “When people use the word ‘Jesus,’ then, it’s important for us to ask who they’re talking about” (156). The questions that follow that are supposed to be options for ways one could elaborate on who Jesus is don’t seem to cover a broad spectrum. In fact, aren’t the options you’ve listed in the form of questions mostly irrelevant to who Jesus is? Is that your point? But what about the final option that you’ve separated off into its own paragraph? Is this your answer or the answer you expect that anyone from any religion could give? “Or are they referring to the very life source of the universe who has walked among us and continues to sustain everything with his love and power and grace and energy?” If that’s the acceptable characterization of Jesus, then I still don’t see how Muslims or Hindus could see that reality, since you’ve deftly included the incarnation in your statement. Would Hindus, for example, have any concept of the source of the universe or the power holding the universe together actually walking among us on the earth?

Then, you bring in the ordinances of Christianity: baptism and communion. You state, “These rituals are true for us, because they’re true for everybody. They unite us, because they unite everybody” (157). Really? How is this at all true? These rituals unite Christians because they reflect the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How can these rituals unite people who do not affirm or have never heard of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? How do baptism and communion relate to anything else? How do they point to the reality of Jesus’ universality?

In the final section of this chapter, you attempt to tie in the ideas of this chapter with the main themes of the book. You seek to remind us that “people come to Jesus in all sorts of ways” (158). You add, “Some people have so much baggage with regard to the name ‘Jesus’ that when they encounter the mystery present in all of creation—grace, peace, love, acceptance, healing, forgiveness—the last thing they are inclined to name it is ‘Jesus’” (159). So, “the mystery present in all of creation” is “grace, peace, love, acceptance, healing, forgiveness”? When people stumble onto these things, they’ve actually found Jesus, even if they don’t identify this name? Is that what you’re saying? Next, you expand on the idea that none of us have the market on Jesus by writing, “Whatever categories have been created, whatever biases are hanging like a mist in the air, whatever labels and assumptions have gone unchecked and untested, he continually defies, destroys, and disregards” (160). What if the categories we hold to are the categories that the Bible defines? Does Jesus defy, destroy, or disregard the categories with which the apostles explained who he is and what he did? Finally, you warn us to be careful about pronouncing on people’s eternal destinies. This is perhaps a needed warning, and I don’t want to cast it aside lightly. You’ve repeated that heaven is full of surprises, and I agree. However, we must be careful, I think, about giving people hope without a basis. Hope based on speculation is surely harmful to people. Also, do we not impinge on the memory of people who have died openly rejecting Jesus, when we tell their loved ones or other people that they were actually saved by Jesus anyway? I think I would rather tell people that we have no reason to believe that someone went to heaven when they died and to point them to Christ as the only satisfaction for their grief, than to tell them that I’m sure their loved one went to heaven based on no evidence whatsoever and maybe even against all the evidence to the contrary.

Interacting with Rob Bell’s book Love Wins (Part 4 of 6)

Chapter 4—Does God Get What God Wants?
In this chapter, you begin by portraying some statements from selected church websites, illustrating what you perceive to be a difficulty (contradiction?) as they speak of God as all-powerful, good, gracious, loving and also of those who don’t know God spending eternity apart from him, enduring conscious eternal torment. You make a few snide comments along the way to convey your opinion of these statements, but then you identify the crux of the matter and, really, the crux of your argument in this chapter (if not the whole book): 1 Tim. 2:4. Have you been fair to teachers and churches whose statements of faith you cited? Do you believe that they don’t know that this verse is in their Bible? Shouldn’t you have evaluated some of their explanations of this verse and why they don’t think it contradicts the idea that many people will, in fact, not be saved? You also have trumped up 1 Tim. 2:4 as though it were the sum total of God’s plan, a weight I don’t think this verse will bear. So, to ask the question that serves as the title of this chapter as though it only applied to this verse is a little misleading. There are texts in the Bible that speak of God wanting to punish sin (e.g., Rom. 9:22). Does God get what God wants here? Does he get to punish sin? If not, why not?

You state, “The writers of the scriptures consistently affirm that we’re all part of the same family” (99). I can think of two verses that make this explicit (Acts 17:28-29 and maybe Eph. 3:14-15), though the idea may be present elsewhere, but you cite no verses to support this assertion. Though this is true in one sense, isn’t there another, more significant sense in which all people are not God’s children? Thus, we have the need to be adopted. Moreover, in this same section, you assert that “what we have in common…outweighs our differences.” How so? And why is this significant? You then, immediately, write, “This is why God wants ‘all people to be saved.’ History is about the kind of love a parent has for a child, the kind of love that pursues, searches, creates, connects, and bonds.” What is the “this” at the beginning of this statement? The commonality we share as human beings? I don’t see how that is a good reason or a reason that God articulates in the Scriptures for why he wants all people to be saved. And, a question I raised in the Preface returns here: does God love everyone in the same way, as a Father loves all of his children? If so, why Israel? Why is the concept of election in the Scriptures at all? You spend the next few pages citing verses from the Bible that use universal language of God’s love for all. Is it not irresponsible to list these verses to make an argument that God gets what he wants and saves all without discussing the many passages that speak of God’s particular love for and salvation of a particular people? Moreover, those whom you’re critiquing within the wide stream of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith,” don’t just ignore these passages; they actually address them and have good contextual arguments for why “all” doesn’t mean “all without exception.” Yet, you have not responded to any of these arguments.

Over the next several pages, you portray three basic approaches to handling this dilemma. The first one is the traditional view that people must respond to God’s love in a certain way during this life in order to avoid eternal separation from God’s love. The second one involves an understanding of the image of God within us that maintains the possibility that we could become less and less human over time, so that in the age to come we actually cease being human at all. Finally, you state that there are those who hold to the possibility of a second chance after death for those who rejected God’s love during their lives. Without actually stating that Martin Luther believed this, you bring up a quote from Luther about this position, which your readers will surely understand to indicate that Luther held this option open. However, you must know that the very next sentence of this letter from which you quoted has Luther saying, “No one, however, can prove that he does do this” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 43, pg. 54). Now, this perspective seems to be your own, although you never actually come out and claim it. But, I must ask, after all of your criticisms about other folks’ speculations about the afterlife, are you not just speculating about the “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God” (107)? Also, does this impinge on your earlier argument that the Bible carries no understanding of “eternal” as in an endless amount of time?

Next, you desire to garner more support for the view that “God will ultimately restore everything and everybody” from church history. Is this because you fear that people may accuse you of being novel? Heretical on this point? You bring in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eusebius for support. It would have been nice if you had quoted some of these men (instead of misrepresenting Martin Luther!). Then, you add that Jerome, Basil, and Augustine indicated that many people of their respective times believed this. Again, actual quotations from these writers would have been helpful. You then assert summarily that “central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory” (108). Does this conclusion come from their writings? Or is this your own assessment? I would disagree with this assessment. Does it not add to a king’s glory when he punishes rebels?

You must admit that God doesn’t melt the hearts of all in this life. So, then, aren’t you merely speculating about whether or not he will melt the hearts of people after this life? You raise the question whether God would refuse to reconcile someone “desperate for reconciliation,” but the question really should be how God would respond to someone who does not want reconciliation. The portrayal of humanity in the Bible that I see is that we don’t want reconciliation; we don’t want God’s love on God’s terms. And those who end up being punished eternally are those who never want reconciliation with God. Never. Forever. It’s perhaps ironic that at this point you use the imagery of someone pounding on the door, wanting to come in, but God is on the other side not letting them in because it’s too late and if they had been there earlier wanting to come in, he would have granted them entry. The irony comes when you juxtapose this image with Jesus’ parable in Matt. 25:1-13.

Furthermore, your claim that this belief that “history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God” is “at the center of the Christian tradition since the first church” (109) needs to be clarified and qualified. How do you define “the center of the Christian tradition”? How do you determine what belongs there? What evidence could you show for this? All of this talk about how wide the stream is (mentioned again on 110) in Christian tradition makes me wonder how this imagery fits in with Jesus’ speaking of a narrow way.

Then, you talk about the quality of the story we are telling. “It’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story” (110). By what criteria do you determine a good story? Moreover, isn’t it more important that we ask, “Is this story true?” Furthermore, this isn’t the whole story! A story involving a good king who endures constant rebellion and rejection of his good ways rescuing a great many rebels by changing them into faithful subjects while finally, decisively putting down all other rebellion and punishing the rebels who refuse to cease their rebellion sounds like a good story to me.

After this evaluation of the competing stories, you assert about your own story, “Whatever objections a person might have to this story, and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it” (111). No, sir, if it is not the true story of the God of the Bible, then it is not a good story, nor is if “fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it.” You add, “To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.” You haven’t adduced a single example of anyone who held this view being shunned, censored, or ostracized. Indeed, you argued that it was generally accepted (though, historically, you will find that this is not the case). Did you add this statement because you fear you will be treated this way? Moreover, just because you’re able to claim that a few figures from church history have held to some form of this view (which I don’t contest) does not mean that all views are acceptable or able to fit within the wide stream of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith.” Indeed, that word “orthodox” points toward a standard of some kind, some boundaries along the way. Do we have legitimate criteria to determine whether what you are arguing fits within the boundaries?

When you finally come to the New Heaven and the New Earth at the end of the book of Revelation, you refer to several things listed that won’t be permitted inside. But you don’t comment on what the text says about those who perpetrate those characteristic sins. Their inheritance is in the Lake of Fire, not in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:8). If you envision the new world as a real place, what is the lake of fire?

Next, you state, “Love demands freedom….We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want” (113). What if we want it…forever? Then you ask what struck me as a strange question: “How could someone choose another way with a universe of love and joy and peace right in front of them?” Do you see this kind of universe right in front of you??

Back to the New Jerusalem, you comment on its gates. Could it be that this detail was included to indicate that all threats have been eliminated, rather than indicating that “people are free to come and go” (115)?

You conclude this chapter by indicating that not only does God get what God wants but we also can have what we want. Do we get what we want on our terms, or on God’s terms? If we want “heaven,” do we get it/there any way we choose? Or does God give us what we want by saying, “Here is the Way; walk ye in it?”