Well, I finished Rob Bell’s Love Wins on an airplane this weekend. First reaction? It’s not bad. My suspicions that the storm this book has generated has a lot more to do with how it was marketed and the frantic and reactionary nature of the world of social media than with the content of the book itself were certainly justified. I may write more about Love Wins in the next little while. Or I may not. We’ll see. My sense is that the internet is getting tired of this whole thing.
At any rate, in lieu of a full-blown review, I thought I would throw up this question from Richard Mouw (via Ben Witherington):
Why don’t folks who criticize Rob Bell for wanting to let too many people in also go after people… who want to keep too many people out? Why are we rougher on salvific generosity than on salvific stinginess?
One of my favourite lines from the book is something to the effect that no matter what one’s conclusions are on the schematics of the afterlife, it is surely a very Christian thing to LONG for the love of God to be victorious in the end.
amen, I love that quote!
Gil, is it possible that though God’s love will be victorious in the end, you or I might not share in the victory? That seems to be the honest question Bell’s critics are answering.
Yes. And if Bell’s critics are asking that question after reading the book then they haven’t read carefully enough.
I have my own problems with the book so I’m not trying to defend Bell. But the charge of universalism won’t stick. Not based on this book.
I think I read the book carefully, (maybe not carefully enough 🙂 ) and at best I find Bell ambiguous with regard to universalism. I think he believes in Hell and I think he believes or at least thinks we should believe that Hell will ultimately be emptied and that God will reconcile all things unto himself. Love wins. De facto universalism.
As a Catholic I share in this prayer, but I think to advance this hope/belief without addressing the dire importance of repentance, is malignantly irresponsible.
I agree, he’s conspicuously ambiguous on some of these questions. I find this frustrating too. But I think he’s fairly clear in affirming the reality of hell and the fact that God will honour people’s choices even to the end. He’s really not saying anything that C.S. Lewis didn’t say more elegantly and clearly a few generations ago.
The full quote (unsurprisingly, highlighted in my copy too :)):
Off the top of my head, I suspect many of us have the position of the Teachers Paul rails against in Galatians: not wanting pagans (Gentiles) to get in without adopting the boundary markers of the church (the Jews) that we have spent our lives keeping faithfully. (right beliefs, right morals, going to church, etc.)
The shoe certainly seems to fit…
Re: Why don’t folks who criticize Rob Bell for wanting to let too many people in also go after people… who want to keep too many people out?
It strikes me as an unfair question. I don’t think the controversy has to do with this. It has instead to do with theological ideas about atonement and election that vary among evangelicals and other Christians and it has to do with a culture war within evangelicalism that mirrors the larger culture war between some conservatives and liberals in the west.
This rhetorical question and the other that followed it are a way of condemning people who disagree, people on the other side of the culture war. The question is an insult. It does not promote understanding or harmony.
Worse still a pervasive tactic throughout, “Love Wins”.
I don’t think it’s an unfair question at all. It might be a rhetorical device. It might be a mask for some issues around the atonement or the evangelical culture wars. It also might just be curiosity. I’ve certainly wondered about it before, which is why I posted it.
I don’t think it’s condemning anyone to point out where one sees a potential error—unless to suggest that someone might be wrong is to condemn them.
The language is condemning, not because it implies a difference in theology, but because it imputes a desire to keep people out of heaven and stinginess to those who disagree. If Muow had only wanted to disagree, he could have just said that he, like Bell and many others, prays that God will bless everyone and that he believes he has a basis for hope that this prayer will be answered. Instead, Muow has morally condemned those who do not agree with him as “stingy” and as “wanting to keep people out.”
I still don’t see condemnation. If Mouw had “just said that he, like Bell and many others, prays that God will bless everyone and that he believes he has a basis for hope that this prayer will be answered,” how would he have been addressing his concern that some views really are characterized by a “salvific stinginess?” Are we never allowed to probe the views of others?
Mr. Mouw poisons the well. Mr. Bell’s thoughtful critics are concerned over particulars regarding a very ill defined inclusiveness. No more no less. Mr. Mouw would do better to respond to specific criticisms.
No one on either side of the debate should impugn the character of the other, particularly when it appears they simultaneously impugn the character of God.
I don’t know what to say. You don’t see condemnation. I imagine the other side of the conflict does. I don’t believe the Christians who disagree with Muow and Bell think of themselves or God as stingy, and I don’t think they are.
I don’t agree with either Muow’s theology or that of his critics, but I can see how a question that implies stinginess would be considered offensive. Muow is offensive in other ways too. Consider the following example.
In Muow’s comment, quoted by Witherington, he told a story about Jewish “rabbi friend who struck me as a very godly person… When he died… I held out the hope that when he saw Jesus he would acknowledge that it was Him all along, and that Jesus would welcome him into the heavenly realm.” That means that Muow believes accepting Jesus, even after death, is the key to salvation. And if the rabbi did not accept him, he would have been sent to hell. Bell seems to be saying the same thing. This seems virtually the same to me as the belief that the rabbi would be sent to hell if he did not believe before he died. So what if hell is temporary – until the person accepts Christ – how is that less cruel than permanent hell? Is this not conversion by torture? Will Jews who don’t convert upon death be tortured until they convert posthumously? Is this not Christian anti-semitism masquerading as “generous” inclusive love?
Do you realize how repugnant Muow’s story, his theology, is to a Jew? I heard a Muow-type pastor say something like this to a Jew at a Christian wedding. We were all sitting together at the banquet. The Jewish woman appeared obviously offended. The Muow-type was clueless and foolishly persisted. In his mind he was being so kind and inclusive. She became furious. I was repulsed and wished I were not a Christian. I took her side and stopped the pastor from saying any more. I wanted to throw my plate of food in his face.
Of course I can see how offensive your description of Mouw’s story/theology would seem to a Jew. But I am neither endorsing Mouw’s theology or his approach here. I was simply isolating a question that I thought was interesting for conversation. If the word “stingy” is the problem for you, would it help to substitute “restrictive?”
Perhaps I’m missing something, but it seems a bit ironic that you are expressing moral condemnation of someone—or at least their theology/approach—because you feel that their views are morally condemnatory. You initially expressed some resistance to the question I quoted because it was an “insult” and was a “way of condemning people who disagree.” But your comments here seem to quite clearly lean in that direction with respect to Mouw and the “clueless” and “foolish” pastor like him at the wedding who “repulsed” you and made you want to throw things at him. I’m not saying you aren’t correct in your assessment or that you aren’t entitled to your views, but I think it is important that we apply the same standards for discourse across the board.
My language is condemning.
You seem to grasp that, but not the condemnation in Muow’s language.
Because if a leader admitted that he doesn’t know exactly whether or not you’re going to Hell you might not slavishly follow his every command.
Would it not be pridful to be 100% sure?
Ouch! That’s some serious (too frequently warranted) cynicism!
Sorry to bother you Ryan, but Richard Mouw?
The president of Fuller, Rob Bell’s alma matter?
The fellow addressed the LDS assembly on Nov. 14th and apologized for Evangelical Christianity’s sins against them?
The fellow who wrote the afterword to “A Different Jesus?: The Christ of the Latter-day Saints: by Robert Millet and agreed that they’re both “saved by Jesus”, as if Millet was talking about the same Jesus in any way, shape, or form?
Is Mouw any reliable representative of Biblical theology if he can dialogue with people who claim that their god is an alien despot from the planet that orbits the star known as “Kolob” and then talk about our similarities?
(Check out the Abraham 3:3-9 in the Pearl of Great Price. You can learn all about Kolob and the home planet of the god of the LDS folks on LDS.org. Remember, stuff that’s on LDS.org is official teaching of the LDS church.)
In your mind would it be possible to disagree with Mouw on his assessment of the LDS Church and still think that he’s asking a good question?
Probably just echoing Gil here, but I don’t really see why someone who is wrong about this or that issue would be disqualified from asking an interesting question to discuss. If that were the case, I suppose none of us would be able to ask (legitimately) interesting questions…
Re-reading the quote from Mouw, I’d say he’s simply out of touch. As far as I know, the same people who are speaking out against Bell (aka. Mohler, White, DeYoung, etc.) write books against the strongest forms of KJV Onlyism and other “our single church/movement contains the only true believers” pseudo-Christianity.
Sure, categorically speaking, people can be wrong on one thing and right on dozens of others.
My point about Mouw is that if he’s so utterly confused that he thinks Mormonism and Christianity are basically seperated brethren, I don’t take him seriously as a judge of anyone’s theology…and a man’s level of credibility affects how seriously I take the questions he asks.
We’re all free to toss out opinions and ask any questions, but if I spoke up and asked questions at a national meeting of the American Institute of Cardiologists, I’d likely be ignored for good reason.
Well Luther thought that Jews were possessed by the devil and many of us still take justification by faith seriously.
“Why are we rougher on salvific generosity than on salvific stinginess?”
The problem with this question is the identity of ‘we.’ The people who are rough on salvific generosity are a different group than the people who are rough on salvific stinginess. These two groups don’t overlap, at least on this issue.
Yes, I think you’re probably right, Chris. To be fair, Mouw seems to have a fairly specific “we” in mind—namely, those criticizing Rob Bell. I think he’s probably trying to point out that the main concern of Bell’s critics seems not to be salvific precision (there’s an interesting phrase!) per se, but with being imprecise in the wrong direction.
Whoever Mouw may have in particular mind with his first question, I think the second question why we are rougher on salvific generosity than salvific stinginess is an important one, and a profound one. I have wondered myself why one sometimes encounters such adamancy around hell. I know that people will say there’s a great many reasons — upholding certain Scriptures, ways of interpreting, etc.– but it seems to me that there’s also something in us as humans that definitely wants a just God, but the kind of just God that’s for me and not for “those others.” It cuts pretty close to the bone when I read the parable of the employer who paid those who worked only a short while the same amount as much as those who worked all day, and find myself sympathetic to the complaints of the all day-ers. It almost seems as if we feel we have to be rewarded for having been Christian on earth, as if it was such a miserable thing… But as I think about this further, I find myself so deeply grateful that God is like that employer, for surely it’s the mercy and generosity of that surprising justice that I need too. Oh how I need it!
If Jesus — who shows us exactly what God is like — calls me to love my enemy, pray for my enemy, bless my enemy — that says something about the God-heart. I believe we can live not only with the hope that all will be saved but the confidence too. Love does/will win. And far from this making me comfortable and complacent, it arouses in me repentance, a sense of how much I need this grace, great gratitude for it. —
I agree with a great deal of Dora’s post (all but the last few sentences). I think we lifers (slight change of Dora’s metaphor to add some street – translated: long-time Xtians) need to think/feel deeply about the point she raises.
(And here comes the However) However, I cannot say that I live with the hope or confidence that all will be saved (i.e. the guys that ran the Nazi death camps). I can/do live with the confidence that there will be justice. At this stage I leave the details up to God. I admit to the tension of wanting grace for myself and justice for “others” (aka my example; I could add to that example). But for the life of me I can’t imagine a form of justice that entails eternal conscious torment.
Larry, your response had me wondering, had I been too rash in using the word confidence? I’m pretty sure of the “hope” word, but is confidence too strong? At the least I should clarify that I’m not using it in the “I know this is what and how” but more in the sense of trust, a sense of confidence in the possibility, rooted in what we know of God’s Desire that all will be saved (not desire as I know it, but Desire with a capital D, for nothing is impossible with God ) — and in what we see of the pictures prophets like Isaiah paint — what we see in statements like “when I am lifted up I will draw all people to me” and the glimpses Paul gives of God’s mystery revealed in Christ “”set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things” (Ephesians) and “through him to reconcile to himself all things… making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians) and “every knee shall bow” (Philippians). There’s just too many “all’s” not to have confidence, again not in the sense that I have any clue how it all comes together with free will and how judgment fits — and I certainly believe there is judgment — but in the sense of faith in what we glimpse of God’s heart and desire. But, I really should know better than to wade into the finer points with you trained theologians! So, I commend to your reading (because he explains it much better) the second chapter in Richard John Neuhaus “Death on a Friday Afternoon” for a discussion of how full our hope can be. Yes, for me. And yes, for the Nazis.
I think you’ve highlighted a very important feature of this issue, Dora. Salvific stinginess (and probably salvific generosity, too) often has more to do with us and our need for control and certainty than with God. A God whose generosity exceeds our own can be threatening after all. Like Larry, I have no particular desire to see divine generosity extended to Nazis but am quite pleased to think that it nicely covers my own wrongs. It’s so difficult to see beyond ourselves—theology as biography… As you say, gratitude and hope are the probably best responses to the God who looks like Jesus.
(Larry, I’m with you—eternal conscious torment is a punishment that I can’t imagine fitting any crime.)
Hi Dora, I’m interested in understanding how confidence in God saving all people, leads to repentance. This really speaks to the heart of the issue for me. What do we say to those who caution that this confidence actually affirms sin? If Ken is right and all have been forgiven, what compels me to do the good thing? Shouldn’t I just live to satisfy my desires?
Hi Paul, please see my somewhat run-on response to Larry S. above in terms of what I mean by confidence, and maybe that explains why I think it motivates repentance. I’m thinking of repentance in terms of turning to look at Christ, turning to follow, changing because of what I see in this One I follow that’s so much bigger than anything I deserve. So glimpsing that bigness, seeing some of that mystery revealed in Christ (but still so darkly,yes, of course) draws and motivates. It’s the repentance brought about by gratitude.
The apostle Paul addresses “shall we sin so grace will abound” and perhaps it’s the same question and answer as to “shall we have confidence in God’s drawing ALL to him in salvation so people will just keep on sinning.” No, of course not. The argument in Romans continues from there in all its Paul-complexity, but still the overall message is how dependent we are upon God’s grace, and that “God has consigned all people to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.” Such love, such mercy reveals that disobedience of mine, my lovelessness, my need, my complete inability to be there or do likewise without the action of Someone else to make such reconciliation possible.
One last sentence about repentance, from Richard John Neuhaus: “The message of sin and grace [in Romans] is not aimed at distinguishing ourselves from others, but is a call for ‘us’ to repent of the presumption that we are in any position to make such distinctions.”
Is temporary conscious torment okay?
If so, how long is okay? A few minutes? A day? A year? A thousand years?
It seems like if you say even temporary torment is bad, then you are going further than Bell. Or was it Bell’s position that divine torment is okay as long as someone prefers that to heaven? (a kind of freewill defense of divine torment)
If you say that all torment is bad, then God would be bad for inflicting it. Or, it must be that God would not inflict it in spite of what the prophets in the old and new testaments said. That would seem to mean that God just said bad things about torment but did not mean them, or that the prophets got that part of the message wrong or lied or just liked to talk tough, maybe to scare people.
Ken asks “how much is too much?” My ans: I’m quite content to leave the judgement details to the Almighty. Further, on the prophetic judgment utterances I’m equally content to hear those utterances as “Take This Seriously” (translated: don’t screw around and ignore what I’m saying). I’m not sure judgement equates to ‘conscious torment.’ Perhaps the judgement language translates to extinction (no small thing) or loss of personhood but some type of continued existence (NT Wright’s speculation in “Surprised by Hope”).
Don’t hear my hope for some form of judgment as wishing torture on anyone.
I have not read Wright’s book about this. It seems like “loss of personhood but some type of continued existence” might be something like torment under anesthesia, or eternal life in a state of disorientation, torment in or through a stupor.
It seems like extinction or annihilation is the same as the death penalty. I think that could be considered torment too, even if not eternal torment. If Bell is right there would be a time after death in which a person sweats this out before their extinction or annihilation.
In addition, I would imagine it would be hard on the survivors if some people make it and others don’t. It would be especially hard on the mothers of the ones who don’t make it. They would be tormented eternally and might choose annihilation instead, if that were an option. Hell would be empty, yes, but eventually I think heaven might be empty too. Sensitive souls might find the second death better than heaven. Or else, heaven would only be occupied for eternity by insensitive souls.
I think the judgment-lite movement in evangelicalism has a few problems. They are fighting with the judgment-full-bodied movement over a calorie or two and that’s all. Their lake still burns with fire and brimstone.
For myself, I would find a God who has witnessed all the blood and tears of history and chooses in the end to do nothing to be far more problematic.
This post responds to Ken’s post of March 29, 2011 4:32 pm
Ken thanks for the pushback.
Growing-up in my circles, I’ve heard speculation about how we’d feel in heaven about other people (loved ones) who didn’t make it. (McLaren has a memorable line about this that goes something like a party in the living room with a torture chamber down in the basement. ) Answers from my childhood/youth seemed to point to a kind of amnesia of the person in heaven. Or perhaps bliss would override the feelings/memories you suggest. The biblical materials don’t seem to provide an answer so this was/is all speculation. Adult reflections that I recall right now speak about finally being able seeing things from God’s perspective and being satisfied with his perfect justice.
I agree that what you frame the “judgment-lite movement” is not without its’ issues. But I think you may be pushing things a bit too far when you write that extinction/annihilation could be considered a form of torment.
In my view the other options eternal conscious torment call into question God’s character. “Everybody makes it” doesn’t deal with justice or evil. I think you are seeing in my comments at least is someone trying to understand love, justice, evil and the God of the Bible. And that’s no small task for this little brain.
I do see in your comments someone trying to understand those things. I think that the task has no solution. Or if it does, it lies in a different approach to the Bible and theology from the path of evangelicalism taken by Bell and Muow. As a nature lover, one that I admire is that of Teilhard de Chardin.
My personal belief is that God is merciful and that this is the message of the Bible, in spite of contradictory passages and in spite of centuries of tradition. The judgment has already happened. The need for justice has been met. All have been found guilty, and all have already been forgiven. The guilty have been set free.
It is hard to say whether I have come to this notion through trying to understand these things as you describe, or whether I was given this idea through the liberal theology of the unconditionally forgiving parents I had or whether it is just through studying the Bible. I do think it is possible through studying the Bible, the whole Bible, not just the New Testament. I cannot point to specific texts that legitimate this idea over others. It is just the sense I get from the whole.
Above Paul raised some interesting questions in a reply to Dora’s comment:
“If Ken is right and all have been forgiven, what compels me to do the good thing? Shouldn’t I just live to satisfy my desires?”
The standard Protestant and evangelical answer, especially among those who follow Reformed theology, is gratitude for the grace of God for salvation and the working of the Holy Spirit in us accounts for the good things we do. But this answer is one that has traditionally been given by those who believe that without their salvation they would have burned in hell. So, it is not such a good answer for one who believes everyone is saved.
I think Teilhard de Chardin offers a more suitable answer for a universalist Christian. It has to do with seeing the universe as the mystical and cosmic body of Christ, with seeing all of humanity and all of the rest of creation as part of a whole, a unity. Christ, mystically and cosmically, is moving us all towards unity. It is implicit in this theology that all of creation is saved. And what we call good can be attributed to that movement towards unity.
His writings are hard to find. Occasionally I find something in a used book store. One nice book, if you ever have a chance to find it, is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Writings Selected with an Introduction by Usula King.
In one of the most moving prayers I have ever read, quoted in that book, Father Chardin, while taking care of the wounded and scared on the front line in WWI where he had no access to “bread, nor wine, nor altar,” prayed, “I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world… Receive, O Lord, this all-embracing host which your whole creation, moved by your magnetism, offers you at this dawn of a new day.”
Obviously, this is not evangelical theology. I don’t think evangelical theology can manage a universalist theology, or even a quasi-universalist theology like that of Bell and Muow. Those who try are forced into contradictions involving judgement and mercy for which they have no explanation other than to say, with strained credibility, it is a mystery.
Ken wrote: “I think Teilhard de Chardin offers a more suitable answer for a universalist Christian. It has to do with seeing the universe as the mystical and cosmic body of Christ, with seeing all of humanity and all of the rest of creation as part of a whole, a unity. Christ, mystically and cosmically, is moving us all towards unity. It is implicit in this theology that all of creation is saved. And what we call good can be attributed to that movement towards unity.”
how does this paradigm address the reality of evil?
If all humanity is being moved towards unity – how do i understand the rank and very real evil that I see every day? At least Evangelical Theology for all its’ warts seeks to deal with both the biblical materials and the reality of evil.
i’ve not read Chardin nor delved into the universalist paradigm. But evil is very real and in my view needs to be addressed.
I don’t think there is evil in the universalist view. It is like in evolution – no such thing as evil.
Chardin’s theology begins, at least in part, with evolution. Harm and suffering are being overcome in the evolutionary movement in which in the Christian vision of Chardin is movement towards unity.
In modernity, in liberalism, there is no belief in evil like there is or has been in evangelicalism and like there was in the premodern world. Even in the relatively liberal theologies of Bell and Muow, evil is not really Evil, it is just a symbolic name for bad choices, an unpleasant side-effect of freewill, one that can be corrected even after death so that, by correct choice, hell can be emptied.
Ken, my day has been filled with dealing with homeless folk, violent offenders, child-safety issues, mentally ill, domestic violent offenders – anyone who does not believe there is such a thing as evil/Evil has been smoking BC bud.
bad choices, unpleasant, side-effects of freewill don’t begin to touch evil – the personification of Evil can certainly be debated – however, i think i’ve met and seen the product of his handiwork.
i’m a tad exhausted …. and get cranky.
I do understand.
Contrary to the assertions of Bell and Muow, evangelicalism is not deficient for want of a greater universalism. It is a coherent and merciful theology. And so is that of Chardin, and other liberal theologies, even though they don’t meet evangelicalism on this point. When there really is evil, not just bad choices in which something bad is mistaken for the good, then certainly it belongs in the lake that burns forever with fire and brimstone.
Even though my own theology is liberal, and even though I admire Chardin greatly and find peace in it, I have no quarrel with evangelical theology.
Larry, one thing I want to add. Evangelical theology is substantially the same as that of Luther, subject to minor variations among Protestant traditions. Luther is to Protestant theology what Bach is to music. I love and admire Luther’s writing, his theology. It is profound and beautiful and full of grace. Modernity suffers diminishment where it is unable to admire Luther’s writings, just as they are, without rearranging them for modern sensitivities.
Thank you, Dora. A repentance of gratitude. A holy and high minded view of God. A holy and high minded view of our relationship with God. I shall keep this mantra close to my prayer. A repentance of gratitude. Thank you.
I’m not so sure that knowing anything more is necessary for me right now.