Rob Bell 8

Bell’s next chapter is entitled ‘Does God get what God wants?’ The title begs the question, of course: what does God want? As I said before, I take it that the real subject of the book is theology proper. Who is God? What does God want? We begin with statements of faith from church websites, and the apparent disjunction between the claims about who God is – almighty, loving, and full of grace and mercy – with the assertions about the eschatological fate of the lost. Says Bell: I point out these parallel claims: that God is might, powerful, and ‘in control’ and that billions of people will spend forever apart from this God who is their creator, even though it is written in the Bible that ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2). So does God get what God wants? (97) Bell rehearses many universalist texts from the Bible. Not all of them can be taken as teaching universal salvation, certainly, but that is not his point, I think: all point to a basic purpose on the part of God to extend his welcome wide, a divine desire to see salvation reach as far out as possible. Bell asserts a repeated Biblical teaching that God desires universal salvation, coupled with a confidence on the part of the Biblical writers that – in this very purpose – God will not fail. Every knee will bow. The ends of the earth will confess. God is not impotent. The parables of Lk 15 suggest that ‘[t]he God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever.’ (101) What about, then, confessions of faith that assert that many, many people will be lost? In stirring prose, Bell pushes his question to a point of urgency: does God’s salvific will succeed, or fail? Does God get what He wants? He explores four answers on pp. 103-9. First, an Arminian exclusivism: God gives us the freedom to say no to His love. God’s purposes are frustrated by His gift of freedom to His creatures. Second, the same perspective, but with annihilation as the ultimate end of those who choose to reject. Third, a post-mortem offer of salvation, one final chance for those who never heard, or who heard the wrong gospel that was no gospel at all, or… Fourth, an endless series of post-mortem offers of salvation, with God not giving up until everything that was lost is found – a species of universalism, based on the offer to find forgiveness in a conscious embracing of Jesus Christ remaining endlessly open post-mortem. Bell points to the history of Christian universalism and, whilst his patristic knowledge is occasionally hazy, it is there to be pointed to. Bell spends a long time exploring and defending the possibility of universalism (pp. 106-9); one gets the sense that he feels that it will be hard to convince his readers that this is a live option. I wonder who his intended readers, who find this so difficult to believe in, are? He does not, at this point, embrace universalism, however. He leaves it as one of four options, all of which he proposes to reflect on with ‘two observations and then a picture from the end of the Bible.’ (109) The first observation is simply that there is a variety of possible answers to the eschatological question in the Christian tradition. If, Bell comments, ‘you’ don’t find Arminian exclusivism convincing [guess what? I don’t], then ‘you don’t have to believe it to be a Christian.’ (110). The second observation is that some stories are ‘better’ than others. In context, the criteria for ‘better’ are parsed as ‘bigger, more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring’ (111) – not, notice (and Bell is upfront about this), ‘more accurate’ or ‘truer’. We are in the aesthetic realm of the fairytale ending – Sachin Tendulkar scoring a century on his home ground in his last match to win the World Cup; Paula Radcliffe finally getting marathon gold in London in 2012; Ryan Giggs ending his career with a treble-winning hat-trick (OK, that one’s a nightmare, not a fairytale). We are in ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful if…’ territory – and that’s an OK place to be, so long as we know that it is where we are. Bell’s fairytale ending reads like this: ‘everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right’ (111). Bell acknowledges it as a wish, a...

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Rob Bell, Love Wins 7: hell

Chapter 3 of Bell’s book turns to hell. I have read this chapter several times, and I confess that I am struggling to see how it fits together. I think Bell is aiming at two, widely separated, targets, and so is in danger of missing both. On the one hand, he wants to take on (what he regards as) a traditional doctrine of hell by suggesting that it is not there in the Scriptures; on the other hand he wants to construct an apologetic aimed at those who have already dismissed any account of hell as unpleasantly medieval. The problem is, those who are wedded to their traditionalism might have gone with him on the Biblical exploration, but will find his apologetic to be far too tentative and allusive, whereas those who are in need of hearing the apologetic are unlikely to be excited by wading through an extended Bible study on images of hell in the Scriptures before they get to anything they regard as interesting or relevant. (It may be that the logic runs something like this: ‘you’ve rejected an account of hell that is all about fiery caves inhabited by men in red tights shoving pitchforks into our behinds; that’s OK – I can show you that that was never there in the Bible anyway. Now, let’s think about our experience and see if we can come up with a doctrine of hell that makes some sort of sense…’ If so, there needed to be more signposting of this logic, for this reader at least.) Bell starts with Biblical references to hell. Nothing in the OT except Sheol, the shadowy realm of the dead. OK, we knew that. In the NT we have ‘Gehenna,’ identified with the Valley of Hinnom, which Bell identifies with the Jerusalem garbage dump. That’s true, but rather incomplete, as I assume Bell knows. Intertestamental Jewish apocalyptic, picking up the hint from Jer. 7:32 & 19:6, began to use Gehenna as a name for the final fiery judgement that would come. 1 Enoch (Ethiopian Enoch) is full of it; it’s there in 2 Esdras, the Syrian Apocalypse of Baruch – and even in the Christian interpolations to the Sibylline oracles (see 1:127-9). The rabbis of Jesus’ day probably saw Gehenna (and Hades, which was taken to be a synonym) as a place of fiery purgation where evil souls resided until the final judgement (this idea was certainly common by the second century AD. (There may be a hint of this in Rev. 20, where ‘Hades’ is thrown into the lake of fire.) So to read ‘Gehenna’ in the NT as nothing more than a reference to the town rubbish dump is either to be remarkably ill-informed, or to be rather disingenuous. Bell moves on to ‘Hades,’ which he equates with Sheol, a shadowy post-mortem existence. This was certainly the classical Greek usage, and in the LXX αδης is used to translate ‘Sheol’. Again, however, to read the NT usage in the light of only this evidence is to ignore the extensive testimony to the development of ideas in the intertestamental period, where Hades became first the place – the shared place – of reward and punishment after death (so 1 Enoch and 2 Maccabees; Josephus claims that this is the position of the Pharisees of Jesus’ day – Ant. 18:14), and then the place of punishment alone, with reward delivered in heaven (this position is obvious in the Psalms of Solomon, for instance). This development probably makes less difference to understanding the NT usage of ‘Hades,’ but it probably deserves a mention… Having surveyed Gehenna and Hades, Bell claims ‘And that’s it. Anything you have ever heard people say about the actual word “hell” in the Bible they got from those verses you just read.’ (69). Well, maybe. There’s a lake of fire kicking around the back end of the book of Revelation which might have some relevance, and some other bits and pieces. Pictures of hell in popular Christian imagination do tend to be rather mythological, and even comical, owing far more to literally interpreted half-memories of Dante’s brilliant symbolism than anything Biblical, and if Bell is attempting a deconstruction of such pictures, I’m with him in intention. For personal preference, I’d rather do it without selectively ignoring the evidence, however; honest arguments just work better in my experience. The next section of the chapter is another quite brilliant piece of apologetic. How do you sell the idea of hell to (post)modern Western liberals? You tell them about seeing the after-effects of genocide in Rwanda (pp. 70-1); you talk about other stories of ‘what happens when...

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Rob Bell: Loves Wins 6: Heaven

Chapter 2 of the book discusses heaven. As various people have pointed out, the approach is very reminiscent of that of my colleague Tom Wright. I think Tom is just right on most of these questions (I’d say that even if I wasn’t with him and Maggie for dinner this evening…), but let’s hear Bell out. He begins by criticising wrong understandings of heaven. Heaven is not ‘somewhere else’ (23-5); we deal with the subject badly if our core question is ‘who gets to go?’ (25-6). ‘Eternal life,’ Bell wants to insist, is not about endless duration, but about a new ‘era,’ a new age to come. He explores this by reference to the prophets, ending with the comment ‘if this sounds like heaven on earth, that’s because it is. Literally.’ (33) The age to come is universalistic (in the OT sense of being for all nations…) and physical and earthy. And it excludes all injustice. This leads Bell to a brilliant apologetic move: ‘people say they can’t believe in a “God of judgement.” Yes they can.’ (37). And Bell points to the endless inchoate demand that this ought to be different, that someone ought to do something about that. ‘We crave judgment, we long for it, we thirst for it … as the prophet Amos says, “Let justice roll on like a river”.’ (38). He makes the same move with divine anger. Yes, that’s right. Rob Bell defends the notion of divine wrath. Clearly, carefully, and convincingly. It is true that he focuses here on injustice, sexual exploitation, and environmental destruction rather than on, say, idolatry, but that is because the point is apologetic: how do you convince someone that divine justice and wrath might be realities? You point them the places where they get angry and demand justice, and say ‘and God feels the same’. Then, having established the possibility, you can perhaps move on to a broader Biblical picture and hope to be heard. Bell’s next move however is not to broaden his apologetic concerning sin, but to focus it. He points to our personal failure, in the terms used, ‘our role in corrupting the world,’ (39), and to the prophetic promise of mercy and grace. The reality of the world to come, on Bell’s telling? ‘Justice and mercy hold hands, they kiss, they belong together in … an age that is complex, earthy, participatory, and free from all death, destruction, and despair.’ (39). From all of this Bell comes up with an ethic: ‘taking heaven seriously, then, means taking suffering seriously, now … because we have great confidence that God has not abandoned human history and is … taking it somewhere.’ (45) Says Bell: It often appears that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die talk least about bringing heaven to earth right now, as Jesus taught us to pray … At the same time, it often appears that those who talk the most about relieving suffering now talk the least about heaven when we die. Jesus teaches us to pursue the life of heaven now and also then, anticipating the day when earth and heaven are one. (45-6). Then Bell turns again to judgement. ‘…heaven also confronts. Heaven, we learn, has teeth, flames, edges, and sharp points.’ (49). Judgement, for Bell, points to the need for transformation. We need to become people now who are able to cope with heaven; if we do not, heaven itself will burn us up. ‘Paul makes it very clear that we will have our true selves revealed and that once the sins and habits and bigotry and pride and petty jealousies are prohibited and removed, for some there simply won’t be much left,’ (50) Finally, Bell suggests that there is a regular Biblical theme concerning the surprise of heaven. The sheep in Mt 25 are astonished to discover they have served Jesus; the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector is about reversal; the parable of the great banquet about a remarkable guest list. From this, Bell deduces, we might be astonished when we discover who is in heaven. He offers speculation about the sort of people who look right to him; I suppose that he will be as surprised as the rest of us… Finally, heaven as present reality, ‘a realm beyond the one we currently inhabit and yet near and connected with it. [Paul] writes of getting glimpses of it, being a citizen of it, and being there the moment he dies.’ (55-6). The summary of the chapter is this: There’s heaven now, somewhere else. There’s heaven here, sometime else. And then there’s Jesus’s invitation...

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Rob Bell, Love Wins 5

One more post on chapter 1, looking again at complaints about Bell’s ‘orthodoxy.’ The chapter begins with a story that Bell told in the promotional video, and which has therefore become famous. An art exhibition at church included an exhibit with a quotation from Gandhi; someone attached a post-it note reading ‘Reality check: he’s in hell.’ Bell writes: Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without any doubt? And his pre-publication detractors once again took him to task. And again, they were badly wrong – in my view, and in the view of (here) virtually the entire Christian tradition. Remember Johann Heidegger from a couple of posts back? He was the Reformed writer who held that the number of the saved would indeed be small. Shedd and Warfield condemn him for being far too conservative in his theology. Heidegger wrote about precisely this question, and said this: No one except those who sin unto death ought to or can determine anything certain before the end of life, concerning the eternal reprobation of himself or of others. Of others indeed we must have good hopes by the judgement of love, 1. Cor.13:7 (beareth, believeth, hopeth, endureth all things)…  (q. ET from Heppe, p. 188, with error silently corrected). Let’s do a kind of scale of theological conservatism here, shall we? Shedd and Warfield are conservative – I believe that will be generally granted. They reprove Heidegger for being far too conservative. That makes him, what? Ultra-conservative? Heidegger then rejects as far too conservative the position that we can know for certain that any other human being is damned. We’re somewhere off the scale now, in the company of those who think the Taliban are dangerously liberal. I have thought hard about anyone in the Christian tradition who held to this position, that we can know for certain that a particular person is in hell. There were, to be fair, some Landmarkian Baptists. And Dante, I suppose, although he might claim his allegory was not meant to be taken like that. Certainly, there are not many. And yet when Bell doesn’t even say that this is wrong, but merely questions whether it is right, we are told that he has committed an error so grave that he must be publicly castigated. I can’t quite decide whether this is simply brilliant debating work from Bell, enticing his opponents to defend a position so extreme that no one in their right mind would touch it, or whether his opponents really, genuinely, don’t realise just how far behind they have left anything resembling historic orthodoxy. This is not mere theological hair-splitting.  This point is pastorally vital. Bell’s other example concerns an atheist teenager, killed in a car crash. ‘There’s no hope, then,’ comes the comment, reflecting this ridiculously extreme position. All of us who are Christian pastors have performed funeral services for those with no visible faith, and have been offered care and counsel to those, actively Christian or not, who have lost an apparently-unbelieving family member or friend. The first rule of such pastoral engagement has always been not to speculate about the fate of the dead person. One speaks with confidence the promises of Jesus, proclaims the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead, announces with utter conviction the defeat of death and sin and hell in the cross, and invites, implicitly or explicitly, the hearers to place their own faith and trust in these realities. The one who has died is in God’s hands, and it is not for us to judge. The gospel of Jesus is never, ever, ‘there’s no hope, then.’ This point is utterly vital, and Bell is simply...

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Rob Bell, Love Wins 2

The ‘Preface,’ entitled ‘Millions of Us’ contains one of the passages that has already become notorious – entirely wrongly, in my view. I’ll get to that. Bell begins with the comment ‘I believe that Jesus’s story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.’ (p. vii) I struggle to have a problem with that. He rapidly moves on to the claim that ‘…Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories…’ (p. vii) and states that the book is written ‘for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, “I would never be a part of that.”‘ (p. viii). OK again – most of us have heard presentations of the gospel that were so distorted as to be offensive. The blue touch paper gets lit in the next assertion, offering an example of one of these distorted gospels. In Bell’s own, already endlessly-quoted, words: A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better … This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message (p. viii) This is a full-frontal attack on historic orthodoxy, isn’t it? Bell must be opposed, denounced, corrected, and bid farewell, because he has ceased to believe the gospel found in Scripture and taught by the church down the ages, and this paragraph is sufficient proof of that, surely? This proves that Bell is a heretic, right? Wrong. This is going to be a long discussion, because some historical detail is necessary. So let me state a conclusion as briefly and bluntly as I can: in saying this, Bell is saying nothing that has not been held by the vast majority of Christian theologians down the ages, taught explicitly by many of them, and repeatedly defended as Biblical by the most conservative scholars. What is Bell actually saying, first? If we read the passage carefully, the core claim is about proportion: the offence is in the ‘select few’ who are saved – not the nature of heaven, nor the nature of hell, but in their relative populations. The message of God’s love demands that we hold that God saves many, or most, or all – that the gift of grace is not given parsimoniously. And this is not about the nature of hell, but about who God is – the claim of the book is that love wins. The question of the relative populations of heaven and hell come the eschaton was asked quite frequently in the Reformed tradition. B.B. Warfield published an essay under the title ‘Are they few that be Saved?’ His argument was exegetical; his answer a resounding negative. In closing, he paused to point to others who held that the number of the saved would far outnumber the lost: R.L. Dabney; Charles Hodge; W.G.T. Shedd. I could add A.A. Hodge and Jonathan Edwards. This is not a catalogue of woolly-minded liberals. This was the united witness of Old Princeton, a position taken by at least two of the writers of The Fundamentals. These names are the very definition of Calvinist orthodoxy. These are the people whose respect for Scripture was such that they developed and defined the doctrine of inerrancy. These are the people with whom Bell is agreeing. And when you burrow in to what they actually said, the point becomes more striking still. Charles Hodge calls the number of the lost ‘very inconsiderable’ on the last page of his Systematic Theology. Shedd actually suggests that the error of believing that only a few are saved is equal and opposite to the error of universalism. That’s Shedd, the Calvinist’s Calvinist, asserting that the point Bell writes to oppose is a grave heresy – albeit one that seems presently to be being vigorously defended by all manner of men (they do all seem to be men…) whose zeal, unfortunately, apparently far outweighs their knowledge. (Warfield does point to one Reformed writer who holds that the number of the saved will be few, Johann Heidegger. Remember that name; I’ll come back to him in the next post. He also mentions a couple of Lutherans, including Quenstedt, so the doctrine was held by at least one theologian whose fame and intellect are both of the first order. I have done a quick search through those Reformed sources I have...

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