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?”

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