Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On Rob Bell and the Myth of Universalism

I should have written this post months ago but have been busy with other things. Still, I want to get my thoughts down on this important subject. Rob Bell published a book earlier this year called 'Love Wins'. In it he posits that God is love and that love will win out over all evil. Sounds pretty good so far huh? But he goes on to suggest that love winning must surely mean the salvation of most all people whether they currently embrace Christianity or not. He seems to suggest- very vaguely in a Rob Bell kind of way- that people get a second chance and that eventually, in eternity beyond this world, most everyone will end up in Heaven because of the irresistible pull of love. I would love for this to be true and Bell ask some good questions along the way that I don't think his critics have answered very well but what I want and what is truth are two different things!

Rob begins by asking a good question (which is what he is famous for by the way). In the opening of his book he says that when we present the Gospel Evangelicals very often say that God is holy and just and hates the wicked. They go on to say that Jesus came to die for our sins and saves us. Bell's question then is this: Are we saying that Jesus came to save us from God? And if this is the case what kind of God are we seeking to spend eternity with? Do we even want to spend eternity with such a God? This stings me because I have indeed proclaimed just such a Gospel- years ago- and I don't like it at all. It isn't that I don't like it because I don't prefer it- as if the character and nature of God is somehow my own choice- but rather I don't like it because it is a lie. It misrepresents the nature of God entirely. Bell wants to rescue Evangelicals from proclaiming a God who is narrow, vengeful, and mean. Well, good. God is not vengeful, narrow, and mean and we should not proclaim Him to be.

Unfortunately, Bell's solution to the problem is classic heresy dressed up in new clothes. With no recognition that the Church has throughout history struggled with these questions and no biblical backing he postulates his own view of truth. Many critics have already torn Rob's ideas to shreds here so I wont go into it in detail. In short, Bell suggest that because of Jesus' death on the cross all sin is atoned for and in eternity all people will see God's love- regardless of their earthly decisions- and accept it and be saved by it. He goes on to suggest that the few who will not bow the knee to our savior will go to Hell but that Hell is not eternal, suffering is not eternal, (after all love wins) and those who go to Hell will cease to exist. This is known as the doctrine of annihilation. The problem with this view is not so much that it is unsavory as much as it has no biblical backing. 'Forever and ever' are used too many times by the biblical writers to mean 'not at all'.

But here I am writing on this topic when it has been exhausted by countless writers. Why? I am glad you asked. It is my belief that of all the writers who have written on this subject none of them have satisfactorily answered Bell's questions. The truth has yet to be told. The error lays in our basic understanding of salvation and what it means to be 'lost'. The consequences of our misunderstandings here are the reason the church is weak and poor. This issue is huge and we need very much to get a proper understanding of it. Bell saw his critics coming and he knew what they would say. "But God is just and holy! People must go to Hell for eternal punishment because they are sinners. Don't you want God to be just and holy?" I will answer this for Bell, 'No, we don't.' At least most of us don't think we want that. Just and Holy for most of us who have grown up in the church means that God loves us and hates our enemies. We have a vague notion that we all deserve punishment and are really glad that Jesus sacrifice somehow gets us off the hook. Some of us are grateful but most of us are just glad that the whole 'sin' deal is dealt with and now we can go on with our lives.

The thing is that God is holy and just. Holy means 'other than, or set apart.' What we are really saying is that He is not like us. This is an excellent thing. It's like when you are talking about police and you think of the riot police in Syria shooting unarmed people in the street and you say, 'Yeah we have police but they are not like those guys!' There is a God but He is not like anyone you have ever met- and trust me on this one- that's a very good thing. God is love. We take all the worldly definitions of this and confuse the issue as much as possible but once we back up and read 1 John we can't get away from it. He is love. That is not a metaphor or some kind of symbolism. It is what He is. And He will win, the title of Bell's book is dead on correct. The misunderstanding is in the nature of sin and what it means for love to win.

If you have read this far please stay with me for a bit more- I am getting to the point finally. The Bible uses a couple of metaphors to describe the effects of sin and our human condition. We get these confused and this has led to both Bell and his critics getting it wrong. In Luke 15 we find three parables describing things that are 'lost' and the desire to find them. The point of these parables is to show the nature of God as He (as love itself) is determined to save us and restore our relationship at all costs- even the costs of His own Son. But we get confused. We think these parables are about us (a common human failing). We talk about 'lost' people as if they are just somehow misplaced and if only they could be found and put on the right road then all would be well. In this context we have arguments about sin and judgement. Some say that if people are merely lost then surely God should have mercy on them. "After all it isn't their fault, what about all those who don't even know about Jesus? Surely God would not send those to Hell who have never even heard the truth? It isn't fair! They are 'just' lost and we should be pitying them instead of condemning them." The response is usually that God is holy and just. "Those poor lost souls deserve Hell and so do I but thank God I was saved, darn shame about those who weren't. Hey, did you see who won on Dancing with the Stars the other night?" No, friends we are missing the other metaphors for those who do not know Christ. The Bible says that we are dead in our sins. Lost means that we would be fine if only someone just pointed out the way. Dead is not a choice. Dead is not a decision or a minor irritation. God told Adam that in the day that he ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil he would die. He did die and so have all of us. God could choose to put a bunch of dead people in Heaven but they would still be dead. God is not harsh, or mean, or unloving to send people to Hell. Hell is where the corpses go regardless of how much we love them. I loved my grandma but I carried the coffin to the graveyard just the same. Her body belonged in the ground no matter how much I would want otherwise. We could have kept her in the living room but that would not have helped her or us. This is the reality that God has faced. He is all powerful and He can raise the dead but if they will not be raised then there is no place for them but Hell.

Now let me say something else about Hell that most do not understand. It is eternal in the sense that it is final and forever. Once a soul has refused life and remains dead it will go to Hell and burn there in the knowledge that it was created for life and can never ever have that. Hell is awful, not like Dante's Inferno or our popular mythologies of Hell being eternity in the waiting room of the Department for Motor Vehicles. Did you see the pictures of the survivors of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan? Those folks were really devastated. Can you imagine? Everything that they knew, their homes, work, school, communities, friends, family, evaporated in minutes. They are disoriented, their very personalities changed by the whole experience. Hell is that times a million. The body dies and the broken and dead soul discovers that all of what it thought reality was is gone. Don't imagine your dear Aunt who knitted you a sweater when you were ten years old burning in a fiery pit thinking, 'I really cared for little Timmy and now here I am burning alive while he is in Heaven living it up.' Whatever was good and wonderful about your dearly departed aunt is gone. In this sense annihilation is not entirely false. There is goodness, and decency in people who do not know Christ but for those who are not made alive in Christ none of what was the marred image of God in them will remain. Sin destroys lives here on earth how much more in Hell! I don't pretend to understand everything on this point but this I do know, we will know the truth in the end when we stand with our God at the last judgment and whatever the final state of all things is we will declare God to be holy, just, and love itself.

Do you see where all this takes us? If the dead are dead forever then what of the living? If salvation is not just a free pass at the final judgement but a dead soul come to real life then what does that mean for us now? If you are truly alive then you and every truly alive person in your church are not just 'better than everyone else' you are ALIVE! This makes you real and eternal and everything else this world is not. This world is not eternal. The money you work for, the home you build, the life you lead will not stand forever. In that sense it is not real. You too will face death and everything and everyone you value will be washed away in an instant. What will remain? God is love and whatever in you is love will remain. Souls are eternal and every soul you have valued and invested in will still be there at the end of all things. How should you be living your life then? The church is weak and poor because we have become experts on building organizations that will pass away while filling those organizations with eternal souls that we do not invest in or value. What am I saying? Forget about your parking lot, the color of your carpet or your tax exempt status. Forget about politics and who who wins what powerless temporal position. Invest your time, energy, and resources in people. Use the hurt and the suffering around us for what it was intended for: to make us stronger, more loving, more alive, more like Jesus who will reign forever and ever. This is our calling and in this we have so far fallen far short of where He has created us to be. It isn't about Hell, its about a soul made alive and what that means for now and for eternity.

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