Wednesday, April 25, 2012

"To Be Fair"... About Rob Bell and Universalism

Inside my copy of Love Wins is a page I ripped out and kept from the January 2012 Christianity Today. It recounts the "Top 10 News Stories of 2011." At the very top--in other words, at #1--I see a picture of Rob Bell (that very picture is now to your right). The description begins, "Rob Bell tries to legitimize universalism...."

As I've gone deeper with Rob Bell's Love Wins, I realize that it's easier to be misunderstood... or frankly mislabeled. I've now read at least Love Wins three or four times, and despite the assertion of CT, I cannot conclude that Bell is a universalist. In fact, he even denies being a universalist. (See In the Love Wins Companion, which Bell co-edited, it confirms that he "teaches that hell is real, both in this life and in the life after death" (47).

In fact, in Love Wins, he writes this,

If we want hell,

if we want heaven,
they are ours.
That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced.
It always leaves room for the other to decide.
God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins.
To be honest, I'm not getting this assertion that Bell is a universalist.

I'm not denying that Bell is a bit slippery in his language, and even seems to enjoy being a provocateur. Nonetheless, I have difficulty with his critics, who don't seem to constrain their ire by anything like rules of fair play. Consider this quote from Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle: "Bell suggests that every single person will embrace Jesus--in not in this life, then certainly in the next" (24). The authors then cite Bell describing universalism as if it's his position. A straight-forward reading, they assert, is that Bell is a universalist. And yet, Chan and Sprinkle add a surprisingly significant concession in an endnote. It states, 
To be fair, he is not explicitly arguing for this position but listing it as a valid view that would help explain a lot of the tension that we feel when thinking about the hard realities of hell. (Erasing Hell, 40, n. 5; italics mine).
They then assert that Bell "implies" that the universalist position is better. For that reason, they can conclude it's his position. 

My jaw drops just a bit here. Those words "To be fair" disturb me, especially when they come from Christians. What is fair about quoting someone with you you disagree in a way that's, in the vernacular, "damning"? Why stick the actual fact in an endnote (which people tend to read even less than footnotes)? I'm confused about the fairness of this whole affair.

The sad thing is in many ways, I have some respect Chan. We've used his Crazy Love in our college group. I've shown YouTube videos. He's a powerful communicator with challenging insights. Erasing Hell makes some great points. But now, at least a modicum of doubt has slipped in when I read him. Put simply, what he wrote doesn't make me doubt Bell as much as it makes me doubt Chan.

To repeat: Though Bell's a bit slippery, I cannot find the texts that make him a universalist. If one wants to disagree with universalism, that's fine. In fact I do. But misquoting is something that hardly seems "fair." 


John said...

Rob Bell's style turns me off, but what he's trying to do resonates with me.

I'm actually going to bash theology in general for a moment, because I believe that the mechanics of salvation transcend the capabilities of human language to describe them.

grace abounds. and it is more likely to surprise us in its breadth and depth, rather than in it's specificity.

Anonymous said...

I said before, Bell is more poetic than profound...gifted with inspired gestures of direction rather than defined doctrine...and he should not be take definitively, but rather provocatively.

However, it is one thing to question the eternal nature and purpose of hell, but it is another to build a case against God in order to support our position. Sometimes Bell sympathizes with those who have found hell a stumbling block more than with the Sovereignty of God. While we may find hell unsavory and not congruent with love, that is a faculty of our humanness...not a judgement against God.

When Bell join in ridiculing a God of Love who sends people to an eternal hell, he presumes too much. He crosses the line of questioning hell, to questioning the character of God. Hell may or may not be torment or eternal. But either conclusion says NOTHING about God's love or justice or mercy.

Yes, "we must get heaven right first," rather than on hell as a stumbling block. I wrote before, "our conclusions about hell must be mirrored in our ideas about heaven....Existential or eschatological, the real question must always turn us to experiencing of the transforming power of Jesus. Talk of hell is to be just a sign-post, not a doctrinal rest-stop. "

Bill Jackson, Oroville

Joseph said...

Bill: I do not agree with your assessment Bell “is building a case against God.” If anything, he is making a case against common misconceptions about Him. And whose God will be used as the Golden Standard all others are to be measured against? I noticed you capitalized “Sovereignty” as if it were completely understood. By definition then, God is supremely ‘free’ to do as He pleases, no? He extends beyond the doctrinal/theological definitions that actually do presume He cannot do this & He can only do that. Seems to me such a God has been painted into a corner of human reason that trumps the divine prerogative of being ‘extravagant’ in everything He does. Our human idea of fairness is not to be confused with God’s divine expression of justice, mercy & accountability. Romans 12:19 does state, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” But what if God decides to repay with mercy if He so chooses? I do not view the divine qualities of justice & wrath as being equal to those of mercy & love. These concepts are not held in some sort of divine tension where God has to continually balance them throughout all eternity as if He had no choice in the matter. If John in his gospel states that, “God is love,” then he is highlighting the one divine characteristic that trumps all others. That does not mean the other qualities are nullified, they are simply subservient to God’s underlying motivation. I think Paul was attempting to define this divine quality of love (agape) in 1Cor 13:1-8. And it is verse 8 that Bell is rightly championing in his book: “Love never fails...”

I do think you are on the right track with your statement, “…our conclusions about hell must be mirrored in our ideas about heaven.” I would expand such reasoning to include this: our concepts of heaven, hell & the afterlife can only be rightly considered in light of the gospel. Focus the gospel through the lens of soteriology only & the result will be a gross misconception of both heaven & hell. Bell neither disparages God’s character (BTW: God is Big enough to take it), nor has he crossed any line that God has drawn when questioning hell’s predominance in current Evangelical Christian thought. Bell is simply encouraging any thinking Christian sensing incongruity in the doctrines of God’s nature to be unafraid to say so. And it seems this approach has definitely struck a chord with many saints of all faith expressions today...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Joseph.
I agree.I did not mean to suggest Bell was "building a case against God." He obviously isn't. I was speaking of the kind of sympathy sometimes showed with those who had. When he speaks with a kind of sarcasm, painting with "Christianese" traditional concepts of hell, he perpetuates the notion that such is incongruent with God's love & mercy. Such is not the case. I agree with you, "Our human idea of fairness is not to be confused with God’s divine expression of justice, mercy & accountability."

Most of the people I know who share Universalist ideas reject the label for many different reasons...Just as most Christians reject the "religious" label. Bell denies, but still appeals to similar arguments as Universalists. He opens the gates of heaven and hell in the "after-life," and declares "Love Wins" in a way suggesting that God's ultimately gets His way...ultimate reconciliation.

Is Bell a Universalist? E-prime reminds us "be verbs" can be dangerous...they equate things that are NOT equal. Yes, labels can unfairly applied in a semantical synagogue..An easy way to say who's "in" and who's "out." Yet, Bell's denials of Universalism leaves me wondering if he holds to ANY kind of finality...If both gates never have closure...He leaves us with no sure footing in either realm...existing like eternal baking powder submarines. We might as easily sink into hell from "heaven" (as Satan did) spending an aion in hell long enough to float back to the top...again and again...or perhaps his emphasis on "earth" could lead us to the doctrine of reincarnation. Yet, the agrarian metaphors of Jesus and Paul suggest that there is an ultimate "harvest," and after the harvest there is no more growth. We reap the consequences of our maturity.
-Bill Jackson, Oroville, CA

Joseph said...

Bill: wow…a genuine conversation on Greg’s blog! Thanx for your respnse. You’ve covered much ground so I will simply limit this comment to Universalism.

As I stated the first night we met in my small breakout group, I am a former (lapsed) Catholic that happens to appreciate the doctrine of Purgatory even though I am not fully convinced. There are aspects of its purifying process that does appeal to me. And I am more inclined to appreciate the Universalist consideration now at this stage of my faith journey simply because it has caused me to stretch my theological notions of the nature of God. The concept of the nature of God is not diminished, or watered down, or in any way disrespected by considering Universalism as a possibility. I think this is a major stumbling block to many when they hear of those holding such views. It’s as if God’s reputation is on the line if He isn’t able & willing to design, maintain & then implement conscious torture (punishment) for the unrighteous (however that is categorized) that seems to be way out of proportion to their earthly sins (crimes). Now it is also an amazing consideration to realize any rewards in the age-to-come equally underserved. It is an extravagant expression of God’s love, mercy, graciousness, creativity, etc. Is this then the source of accepting such teachings about hell? A sort of divine Yin & Yang that is the ultimate expression of both God’s love on one end of the scale & God’s wrath on the other?

RE: your “harvest” consideration. The brief glimpses we do get of the age-to-come seem to indicate a different kind of physical existence. Jesus did say there was no marriage after the resurrection; people will be like the angels in heaven. This does imply there will an “end” to human reproduction as we know it. Interesting, no? I imagine all the negative issues of our broken/limited existence to be abolished in the age-to-come, but human reproduction is not a negative issue related to the Fall, is it? I bring this up as an example of some good things being ‘final’ in a sense they have served their original purpose & are no longer part of the new earth+heavens. So, the analogy of separation; wheat from tares; sheep from goats; righteous from unrighteous; fruitful branches from unfruitful, seems to indicate a process that God will carry out at the end of this age as if it too were final. But Bell does highlight the cycle of life that does experience a period of rest after the harvest, with the expectation of a season of sowing once again in the Spring. The odd consideration though of being “locked into” an eternal condition, one that is either heavenly or hellish, sounds as if our human wills are suddenly removed from the equation. Are they also vestigial elements of our earthly existence like human reproduction? No longer needed & no longer part of how we ‘exist’ in the never ending setting decided upon in this life? Choices no longer options in the afterlife? I think Bell zeros in on this consideration & I believe it is necessary to wrestle with it in light of the sparse scriptural details provided. Thanx again for the exchange…

GCootsona said...

I want to also say "Wow"--an amazing conversation on my blog! This is exactly the kind of discussion Love Wins stimulates and that I want my class on Bell's book to engender. I would only add this: Bell simply claims we cannot know who is in and who is out (if anyone), but he leans toward God's redemption's being quite expansive. In this way, he comes fairly close to Karl Barth.