Thoughts on Love Wins (2): Is Consistency a Virtue?

Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, got a lot of attention before it ever hit the shelves. Now that it is available to the masses, the reviews are going up. This post is the second in a series of reflections on the book, which I hope will make some small contribution to an important conversation. In my last post, I commended Bell’s expansive vision of God’s ultimate plan for new creation. I hope this commendation established an ethos that I was not merely lobbing grenades as Bell but attempting to set my criticisms within a context that includes helpful points. Despite the positive focus on new creation, I was deeply concerned by his surprising lack of serious biblical exegesis, which was not the only problem.
One other issue is Bell’s apparent lack of consistency in what he thinks will ultimately happen with regard to human salvation. He wants to say that God ultimately gets what he wants, namely the salvation of everyone who ever lived or will live: “Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God’s unrelenting, infinite, expansive love? Thousands through the years have answered that question with the resounding response, ‘God’s love, of course,'” (109). Okay, so it looks like God’s love will ultimately overcome all resistance and win everyone over. But then he goes and says: “Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want” (113). So, God’s love is unrelenting and irresistible, except, of course, when people resist it. And love wins, except when it doesn’t. Come on, Rob. Which one is it? Sounds a bit like he wants to be a Calvinist when talking about universal salvation and an Arminian when talking about real love relationships. Can you have it both ways? Not if consistency is something you value.
I tend to think Bell really goes with the second option affirming that love does not ultimately compel and that those who are perpetually resistant to God’s grace go on to an experience of a perpetual Hell. But I think that is inconsistent with what he said about God’s love overcoming the hardness of every human heart. And if Bell does actually think that God’s love is resistible, then love doesn’t always win, does it? If I’m missing something, then help me out!
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Thoughts on Love WinsPart 1
Thoughts on Love WinsPart 3

Thoughts on Love Wins

Let me say up front that this is not my typical book review. Reviews of Love Wins are available aplenty, and if I were to try to deal comprehensively with Rob Bell’s new book, it would require more time than I presently desire to devote. So, that said, here are a few reflections on the book, a few thoughts on what I like and what causes me concern. My goal is not simply to repeat all over again what has already been said,  though I will certainly echo other reviewers, but to offer a few points that I hope will contribute to the larger post-publication analysis of a volume that has drawn a lot of attention.
Let me begin with what I like about Love Wins. I really appreciate Bell’s call to embrace a much larger biblical vision of redemption than is often communicated in the truncated better-hope-you-escape-this-world-and-go-to-heaven-when-you-die message. I absolutely affirm that when a believer dies they are “with Christ which is far better” (Phil 1:23), and I’m happy to call that Heaven, but I am deeply concerned when that is portrayed as the goal of the Christian life and the aim of God’s purposes in creation. Scripture speaks of a day when all creation will be liberated from bondage to decay (Rom 8:21), when the Savior from Heaven returns to subject all things to himself (Phil 3:21-22), when the dead will be raised never to die again (1 Cor 15:20-26), and when God himself will make his home among his people in a newly recreated heaven on earth (Rev 21:3). Bell has a vision of this new creation, and I appreciate his rejection of the absolutely unbiblical idea that creation is a sinking ship just waiting to be abandoned. Salvation is cosmic. That’s what the Bible says, and Bell gets that right.
Despite this significant positive for the Bell book, there are also problems, and perhaps the most important is his exegetical method or, I should say, the absence of any serious exegetical method. Two examples will make the point.
First, in dealing with the phrase “aion of koladzo” (as Bell phrases it, 91), which is usually translated something like: “eternal punishment,” Bell concludes that it should be translated as: “a period of pruning”, “a time of trimming”, or “an intense experience of correction.” He authoritatively asserts these translations providing no detailed interaction with the biblical text, no consideration of the context, which ought to include an analysis of structural relationships within the text that help us get at the meaning of terms, and no citations of ancient sources that support his proposed translations. He doesn’t even cite a lexicon (which still isn’t exegesis but would have, at least, been something) to justify his preferred revisionist translation. For all the reader knows, he is just making it up as he goes along, and that’s kind of the way it looks. The point I want to make is that Bell attempts to overthrow a generally and widely accepted translation and provides absolutely no exegetical evidence as to why his view is to be preferred. Every first year seminary student knows that context is everything. Evidently Bell forgot that lesson when he sat down to write Love Wins.
Second, Bell takes the well-known quote from Jesus in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” and goes on to conclude that “What he (Jesus) doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him” (154). Again, the problem is that there is no argument from the larger book-of-John-as-a-whole context that legitimately allows this conclusion. Bell doesn’t make an argument from John; he simply doesn’t provide a reading of John. If he were to read John, he might very well find evidence that contradicts his assertion. I was a grading assistant in grad school, and if one of my students had turned in something like this, I would have recommended a failing grade. This sort of stuff would be a laughingstock in the real world of serious biblical interpretation, a laughingstock.
The thing that bothers me the most about this glaring methodological deficiency is that Bell should know better. And if he does know better, then he should do better; if he doesn’t know better, he shouldn’t be publishing books. The reality is that most of the people who will read this book will not have had the technical training to know what is being done to them. They will simply know that this guy is pastor, and that he should, therefore, know what he’s doing when he discusses the Bible. When people who know the rules don’t play by the rules when they write for people who don’t know the rules, they are taking advantage of their influence, abusing their power, and, I would say, abusing their readers. Some will say that these are harsh words, but I believe they are adequate, accurate, and spoken out of love for those who are the object of this shenanigan posing as biblical interpretation. Indeed, what Bell has done is unfair, unjust, and deceitful, and, when you treat people like that, love certainly has not won.

Well, I had originally intended to go on and discuss some other aspects of Love Wins, including whether or not some of the conclusions are consistent and the understanding of God that is developed in its pages. But this post has already become far too long. So, keep an eye out later this week for some thoughts on those topics. At this point, the problems are more severe than the benefits are redeeming; we will see if things get better.
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Thoughts on Love WinsPart 2
Thoughts on Love Wins Part 3

UM Pastor Loses Pulpit for Views on Hell

The Associated Press is reporting that United Methodist pastor and Duke Divinity School student Chad Holtz was removed from his appointment to Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson, NC, for statements which include support for Rob Bell’s controversial new book Love Wins. Holtz went on record saying: “I think justice comes and judgment will happen, but I don’t think that means an eternity of torment. But I can understand why people in my church aren’t ready to leave that behind. It’s something I’m still grappling with myself.”
The article says that Gray Southern, Holtz’s District Superintendent, declined to comment in detail on the matter but suggested there was more at issue that Holtz’s views on Hell. Holtz indicated that his support of Bell’s book was probably the last straw in a series of controversial statements.
Honestly, I’m a bit surprised that a UM pastor was actually removed from appointment for apparently not believing in an eternal Hell. Methodists are not known for leveling heavy consequences on doctrinal issues.
What I do want to raise is the serious issue of protecting the prophetic voice and role of the pastor. Pastors have a challenging role to teach and preach what they believe to be faithful to scripture even when others disagree. How do we ensure that pastors are protected to speak faithfully and in accord with their conscience?
As a student pastor, it is unclear to me whether Holtz had the same protections that an ordained elder would have, which include the requirement of official charges, due process, and ultimately a church trial. Perhaps someone could help me out on that. How does the Book of Discipline address complaints and disciplinary procedures for local pastors? Are the procedures different from that of elders?
The United Methodist Confession of Faith does affirm belief in “the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation” (2008 Book of Discipline, par. 103, Article XII). Is it clear that Holtz’s position is inconsistent with that? Is it fair for him to be removed without some sort of extended investigation by the District Committee on Ministry? Maybe there was. The article doesn’t say.
I’m raising questions at this point, and I’m curious to get some feedback from my fellow UM clergy. How does this strike you? Is it being handled properly? Do we need to hold off on too much comment because we don’t have all the information? Are you unsettled by this story? Or did you have some other reaction? I’m interested in hearing some different perspectives.
I feel saddened for Holtz. This guy was a student pastor. This is a role that should provide some experience and opportunity for learning. I would hate for his ministry to be ruined because the issue might have been mishandled. Maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know with certainty. What do you think?
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Image Source: Associated Press

A Christ-Centered Doctrine of Hell?

In the church and seminary world, terms like Christ-centered and Christocentric get tossed around like stones in one of those little tumbler machines: Christ-centered preaching; a Christocentric hermeneutic; those of you who live in these worlds will know what I’m talking about. Don’t take this as a criticism. I’m in favor of a Christocentric approach to, well, everything. I’m simply making the point that when I hear “Christ-centered” used adjectivally, I’m not usually taken aback due to the term’s common usage. But I was recently introduced to a new application of this term in a way I not heard it applied before: Hell! A Christocentric understanding of Hell? Who’d of thought?

I encountered this idea in this lecture by Sinclair Ferguson: “Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment: The Justice and Mercy of God.” I was taken aback and unsettled. Typically when we think of Hell, we are thinking of separation from Christ. The idea that Christ is at the center of the doctrine of Hell is not something you hear everyday neither is it all that comforting. Ferguson commented briefly on the idea from Matthew 25:41. He basically suggested that we need to get our minds around the reality that the one who consigns people to everlasting torment is not some vague deity; in scripture, it is none other than Jesus, the man from Nazareth and the Lord of the cosmos. I was amazed. Such clarity. Such concreteness. Such biblical fidelity. Wow! I couldn’t help but reflect a bit more on this passage. Those reflections will make up the remainder of this post.

Matthew 25:41 comes as part of the well-known passage of scripture in which Jesus describes his own coming judgment of the nations during which he will separate people like sheep from goats – the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Those on his right are blessed by the Father and brought into God’s kingdom. Those on the left are said to be accursed and sent away into the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41). After Jesus provides evidence to substantiate his judgment, he concludes by saying, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (25:46).

There are various exegetical question that can and should be raised with regard to this passage. But in a post that may already be too long, I only want to focus on one. Perhaps we can attend to others at another time. A key issue has to do with the Greek word aiōnios that appears three times in vv. 41 and 46 and is translated is typically translated into English as eternal or everlasting. A standard New Testament Greek lexicon (by Bauer, Danker, et al.) indicates that aiōnios can refer to (1) a long period of time, (2) a period of time without beginning or end, or (3) a period of unending duration. I’ve recently heard it suggested that the term can refer to intensity of experience, but I’ve seen no textual evidence to substantiate this claim nor have I actually found this as an option in any standard lexicon. Those who reject the eternality of Hell have to claim that aiōnios does not here mean eternal and usually opt for a definite and limited period of time or an intense experience of punishment or pruning. Outside of the New Testament, aiōnios often describes the perpetual nature of the Emperor’s power. More important for our interpretive method is the actual context of the word in the text in question. As they say: context is everything!

In the passage in question, aiōnios describes fire and punishment which are set in contrast to aiōnios as a description of the life that is the reward of the righteous. Thus, if we take the reward of the righteous to be of unending duration or eternal life in the age to come, then the only legitimate move is to take the fire and punishment to be of an eternal nature as well, since they are set in direct contrast. To do otherwise would be to destroy the logic and thought flow of the passage as a whole and v. 46 in particular.

Further, in Matthew’s gospel aiōnios is used twice in another passage to refer to the nature of the life that is the reward of the righteous (19:16, 29). I don’t think there is evidence that this reward should be taken as limited in duration. Thus, neither should the punishment. At the end of the day, the context demands that the punishment of the unrighteous be taken as an eternal reality in contrast to the eternal reward of the righteous. Anything less involves a suspect interpretive approach.

The big thing to see, though, is that the one who says he will consign the unrighteous to eternal torment is not some vague deity or amorphous god; it is none other than the babe of Bethlehem who has become the resurrected Lord. It is the concrete, particular, and historical person of Jesus of Nazareth who says “depart from me into the eternal fire.”

Popular presentations of the gospels often depict Jesus as the original flower child spouting of poems and nice pseudo-religious maxims. But the gospels present a very different portrait. In Matthew 25, it is Jesus who sends people to everlasting fire. Until we get our minds around that, we have not yet begun to grapple with the Jesus we meet in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Until we understand that the doctrine of Hell is a Christological doctrine, we have not yet understood Hell or the Christ who says he will consign the unrighteous to eternal fire. These are weighty things and deeply uncomfortable. But they are quite biblical and thus necessarily objects of our study and reflection. The Christ who is the only true object of our faith is the very same Christ who will determine the population of Hell.

Have you thought about Hell from a Christ-centered perspective before? Do you think this is a helpful way to come at this issue? Do you find this idea unsettling? Satisfying? Both?

Is Universalism a Heresy?

Continuing our reflection on heresy and Universalism, we come to the question as to whether Universalism is itself a heretical teaching. In the previous post, I defined heresy as a teaching that knowingly contradicts an established doctrine of the Church. And I said that universally recognized doctrines are typically established through the creeds or by one of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. So, in asking whether Universalism is a heresy, I’m basically asking whether Universalism has ever been addressed and condemned by an ecumenical council.

The Fifth Ecumenical Council, which is known as Constantinople II and met in 553, took up the issue of Origen’s teaching on apakatastasis, which is the belief that all humanity (and some would include all demons) will one day be reconciled to God and enjoy salvation. The council condemned this teaching as heresy and pronounced anathema, a curse, on all who teach it. So, according to our technical definition above, the answer to our question is yes. Universalism has been condemned by an ecumenical council as heretical teaching. Strong words, I know. But I submit that they are fair words from an historical perspective.

Let me remind you that this is not a pejorative use of the term heresy. It is, rather, a descriptive use intended to indicate when someone steps outside the boundaries of historic Christianity. Let me also say that ecumenical councils are not always neat and tidy things. The authority of the Seventh Ecumenical Council is sometimes disputed. Also, I am told that there is some debate over the text of Constantinople II with regard to the statements on Origen. But it does seem to be the case that an historical argument can be made that Universalism is indeed heretical.

Now let me be clear. I am not here saying that Rob Bell is a heretic! I have not read his book, and I’ve been careful not to cast aspersion on him without looking more carefully at what he claims. As I’ve already said, the language of heresy is strong language, and it should not be used lightly. What I am saying is that a defensible argument can be made that Universalism has been condemned as heresy by a church council. Thus, the recent claims that Universalism is heretical are neither overblown nor excessive, though leveling the charge of heresy pejoratively against someone without a careful consideration of their view certainly is.

Let me finish by saying that I am not a scholar on the ecumenical councils, and I welcome anyone who knows them better than I to correct any error that I may have made in this post. This issue is both sensitive and important. Let’s treat it that way.

What do you think? Should we look to the ecumenical councils for guidance on this issue? How should Protestants approach the statements by the ecumenical councils? Do you think Universalism is heresy? Why or why not? Is there a better term to use in this discussion?

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Image Source: Idea Go via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

More Thoughts on Hell

I know; it’s kind of a depressing title for a blog post. But the reality is that with the ongoing back-and-forth over Rob Bell’s forthcoming book, like many other Evangelical Christian types, I’ve been thinking a good bit about Hell for the last couple of days. So, here goes.
I have, from time to time, found myself sitting around with friends having theological discussions in which the topic turns to the destiny of the unevangelized. At times I have decided to bite the bullet, lay my cards on the table, and admit that I actually do believe that a person has to hear the Christian gospel about Jesus of Nazareth and respond in faith in order to gain the Heaven that is eternal life in God’s new creation. My declaration sometimes receives a mixed response and has been met with some surprise that I believe a loving God would actually condemn untold multitudes of people to Hell simply for having never heard the gospel. Let me say that I appreciate it when friends and colleagues press me to think carefully and biblically about issues like this, and that I typically find such conversations to be stimulating and refining.
But the question remains: Why would I believe that God would consign people to everlasting Hell? In short, my answer is: As best as I can tell, that is what Paul thought. And if the apostle to the Gentiles thinks it, then I’m basically committed to it. But what exactly does Paul say?
One of the key texts that shapes my view on this is Romans 10:9-17, in which Paul basically says that justification and ultimate salvation come through confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in the heart that God raised him bodily from the dead. He goes on to substantiate his and all Christian mission through a series of rhetorical questions which are intended to make the point that the default position of all people is unsaved; therefore we need to send out preachers so that they can hear the good news, believe in the Lord, and call upon him for salvation, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (10:13). Paul is substantiating Christian mission with his belief that those who never hear the good news will never be able to call on the Lord and experience his salvation, which means they remain unsaved, which, for Paul, is a bad thing and is the same as condemnation.
I know someone (probably lots of someones) will disagree with this interpretation, but it really seems to me to be the plain reading of this text. Paul takes it as a given that the default human position is unsaved, by which he means condemned. He took the better part of the first three chapters of the letter to make the point that the common human condition, for Jew and Greek, is condemnation; falling short of the glory of God, and falling short of the glory of God is the Hell from which we need to be saved.
Here’s the key point I want to make, and it is a response to the common suggestion that a loving God would not send billions of people to Hell just for never hearing the gospel. For Paul, people are not condemned because they never hear the gospel; they are condemned because they are unrighteous and have committed idolatry by worshipping created things rather than the creator who has made himself known in what has been made (see Rom 1:18ff.) People are not born in some sort of neutral default mode only later to become saved or condemned based on their response to the gospel. The default mode is condemnation; the possibility of salvation for even a few (or only one) is grace upon grace and mercy in abundance. And if we cannot see that, we would do well to spend some time reflecting biblically on the purity and holiness of God and his absolute hatred for sin, which is not inconsistent with his love.
One more thing, and I’m not the first to say this, if people will ultimately be saved having never heard the gospel, then, by all means, stop evangelizing! If hearing the gospel establishes responsibility where before there was none, then stop doing missions! If people are by default on their way to Heaven and telling them about Jesus opens the possibility of Hell, then never speak his name again! If people actually have to hear the gospel and reject it before they are condemned, then just keep quiet! You see; the very notions of evangelism and mission are inconsistent with an inclusivistic theology. People are better off never hearing.
So, let me sum up by saying that I don’t believe that God will send anyone to hell just because they never heard the gospel. Rather, I believe that those who are ultimately lost will be lost because they have fallen short of the glory of God in their refusal to give glory to God instead giving the glory that, as Creator, he alone deserves to created things. There will be no scenario where an unevangelized person stands before God and hears him say, “You never heard the gospel; you’re going to Hell.” Scripture seems to clearly indicate something more along the lines of: “You exchanged my glory for a lie, and the consequence is that you may have no share in my glory.”

Can a Wesleyan Be a Universalist?

One thing is certain: Rob Bell has gotten Evangelicals talking about Hell and the question of universal salvation. As I watch the exchange of blows over his new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived, I’ve had opportunity to reflect once again on why, as much as I’d like to, I cannot commit to Universalism.
I originally wrote a post called: “What Rob Bell and John Piper Might Have in Common.” But after reading some quotes from Bell’s already-controversial-even-though-it-hasn’t-been-published-yet book which indicate that he may not be so universalist as everyone might have thought, I couldn’t in good conscience write a post on what Piper and Bell might have in common were Bell to wind up a universalist. But I bet I’ve got you wondering, though. So, now the question is: What does John Piper have in common with a Universalist? And the answer to that question will make clear why my Wesleyan theology precludes a commitment to Universalism.
Everyone familiar with Calvinism understands that in that system grace is understood to be irresistible. That is, grace overcomes human resistance and saves us. Those chosen by God to be saved will be saved because his grace will overwhelm them and bring them necessarily to salvation. Here’s the thing: all that is true of Universalism as well. Universalists believe that God will ultimately save everyone. That means that the possibility cannot exist that someone might hold out indefinitely in resistance against God’s saving grace. God must eventually overcome the resistance of all people bringing them irresistibly and necessarily to salvation. Universalism commits one to a Calvinistic understanding of grace. As much as I would hope for God to save all people, this is a major reason why I don’t subscribe to universalism. As a Wesleyan-Arminian, I believe scripture teaches that grace is resistible, which means that someone could potentially hold out and resist God’s grace forever, which means that I can’t really believe in universal salvation. Thus, Universalism is inconsistent with a Wesleyan-Arminian theology of grace.
The difference between a historic Calvinist, like Piper, and a Universalistic Calvinist, like George MacDonald, is over the scope of salvation not the character of salvation. The Universalist believes that irresistible grace is applied to all with equity; the historic Calvinist believes that grace is applied particularly to some. For the Universalist, everyone is elect; for the historic Calvinist, only some are. Either way, a Wesleyan-Arminian concept of freedom, and thus the potential for an authentic relationship between God and a human being, has gone straight out the window. 
Wesleyan-Arminians believe that, for an authentic relationship to exist, both parties must be able to say “no.” I don’t know whether Bell would label himself  Wesleyan or Arminian, but this quote from the book suggests that he has a similar view of an authentic relationship:
“… In speaking of the expansive, extraordinary, infinite love of God there is always the danger of neglecting the very real consequences of God’s love. Namely God’s desire and intention to see things become everything they were intended to be. For this to unfold, God must say about a number of acts and to those who would continue to do them ‘Not here you won’t.’
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.”
If you believe that grace is resistible and that love demands freedom, then you can’t really be a Universalist. I think this is probably why Bell says what he says here (but I’ll have to read the book for the whole story), because someone who believes that an authentic relationship of love requires the freedom to say “no” cannot affirm that God will absolutely save everyone. This would necessarily require coercion, an overriding of the freedom to say “no”, and that wouldn’t be an authentic relationship, and love certainly would not win.
So, can a Universalist be a Calvinist? Necessarily! Can a Wesleyan be a Universalist? Not if he values consistency.