6 thoughts before reading Love Wins

I thought I’d share some semi-random Rob Bell observations—after watching his video stream, before reading my yet-to-be-purchased copy of Love Wins.

But first, some context. My wife and I were members of Rob’s church for several years. I’ve had some interaction with him — but I don’t presume to guess what he’s thinking on this or any other subject. Also, I got to help on one of his books and even found my way into a footnote or two.

Here goes…

1. I’ve yet to be convinced that Rob is a full-blown universalist.

Mind you, he might be. (A good friend of mine predicted more than five years ago that Rob would end up there, so…)

But tonight, Rob said something quite incompatible with universalism: “God is love, and love demands freedom.” (One of the best quotes of the evening, as others have already noted.)

It was the idea that love and coercion are incompatible which led me away from Calvinism (well, that and the fact that I don’t see it in the Bible). I’m indebted to Rob for sharing this insight several years ago. And seeing as it helped me discover a bigger (and I think more biblical) picture of God’s love, I’ll always have an appreciation for Rob, even if he goes down some roads I’m not prepared to travel myself.

Back to the point. (Hey, if Rob can jump all over the place, so can I.) If love and freedom go hand in hand — that is, if God doesn’t simply preselect a few lucky souls while damning or passing over the rest — then the opposite must hold true, too: God doesn’t force anyone into his kingdom. People are free to reject him. And when you reject eternal life, as far as I know there’s only one other option.

In other words, universalism is just as incompatible with divine love as monergism. (There’s your Scrabble word for the day.)

2. I seem to remember an early description of the book hinting at the notion that hell is (or will be) empty.

I’m curious to see for myself what Rob has to say about this in Love Wins. Personally, I have a hard time embracing the idea. If people are free to accept or reject God, how can we be sure that hell will be empty one day? Even if people get a second chance in hell, how do you know everyone will take it?

C.S. Lewis entertained this scenario in The Great Divorce. Yet he seemed to think people in hell would find it difficult to choose anything else—much like someone who’s used to eating nothing but junk food might recoil at better, more wholesome food.

At some level, entering God’s kingdom means facing up to the fact that I’m not the boss of me. And there may be some people who are never willing to do that, no matter the price of their refusal.

3. There’s a good chance I’ll read Love Wins and still have no idea what Rob thinks about the present/future vacancy situation in hell.

Rob is notorious for raising provocative questions without definitively answering them. If you’re inclined to like Rob, this is part of why you regard him as a brilliant teacher. If you dislike Rob, this is probably more than a small part of what makes him so irritating to you.

No surprise, much of the recent online chatter has coalesced around this very point. Defenders saying, “Don’t get all worked up; Rob is just asking questions.” And detractors saying, “Yeah, but the WAY he asks the questions tells you everything.”

Both sides may have a point. I like Rob’s style because it feels in tune with the ancient Jewish style of teaching, which cared as much (or more) about the questions you asked as the answers you gave. And let’s face it: people asked some fairly provocative questions in the Bible. So it’s not like any of us should be quick to condemn Rob for raising questions.

On the other hand, sometimes answers can be good, too. Yes, the church has often been quick to answer questions nobody was asking (to paraphrase Ned Flanders). So I appreciate Rob’s desire to not be THAT guy…the one who says, “You wanna know what I think?” and doesn’t pause long enough to hear the resounding “Hmpf.”

Still, sometimes even I want to say, “Come on. Just tell us what you think.”

4. Rob is not exegetically sloppy (but sometimes he could be more careful). 

Rob’s critics like to throw this accusation at him. Basically, it’s a fancy way of saying he makes certain Bible passages say what he wants them to say. I think this criticism can be taken too far. (Like the rest of us have never misused the Bible? Maybe this is the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he said, “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.”)

Still… there were two instances tonight where I thought Rob could’ve been more careful. The first was when he quoted Jesus as saying, “If you’re not against me, then you’re for me.” (Actually, what Jesus said when speaking to his disciples in Luke 9 was, “Whoever is not against you is for you.”)

In any case, much as I’d like this passage to be about those who’ve never encountered Jesus, the context doesn’t seem support it. (If you’re interested, click here for a more thoughtful biblical defense of “accessibilism,” the view that holds out hope for hose who’ve never heard the gospel.)

Near the end of Luke 9, the disciples tried to stop others in Galilee who were driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Yes, this passage paints a refreshing picture of a Messiah who’s not overly concerned with keeping his club exclusive. But everyone involved in this story had one thing in common: an awareness of (and some sort of affinity for) Jesus. To make this passage a plug for universalism or pluralism is to make it answer questions it never meant to address.

Second, near the end Rob mentioned the description of New Jerusalem in Revelation 21. Noting the writer’s comment that the city gates will never be shut, Rob suggested this might hint at another chance for those outside the gates — i.e. those living in hell’s exile.

It’s a tantalizing prospect. But again, I don’t think it fits the larger context. In this passage, the gates never have to shut because it’s never nighttime in New Jerusalem. Ancient cities used to close their gates at night to protect from outside threats. The point here is that the residents of New Jerusalem have nothing to fear because they’re in God’s constant presence. It doesn’t seem to address whether those outside get a second chance to enter.

5. Rob is 100% right to ask whether the story we tell is really good news or not.

Fact is, there are some who believe the Messiah’s primary (or sole) function is to absorb the fullness of God’s fury, which would otherwise be directed at vermin like us.

Yes, there is judgment in the Bible. Yes, there is wrath. But taken too far, not only does this view afflict God with a split-personality disorder; it fails to do justice to what I think is the primary redemptive motif in Scripture: God as our rescuer, who comes to ransom us from death and sin and brokenness. God who comes to put all things right because the world as he made it is good, and he is determined to make it so again.

Let’s face it. That’s not always the story we’ve told. In which case, I think Rob is right to challenge “Christians at this moment to be incredibly gracious and generous” toward those we like to call “unbelievers.”

6. Even if you disagree with Rob… even if you feel compelled to blog about why you disagree with him on this… even if you believe loads of people will suffer eternal torment in hell… you should hope he’s right and you’re wrong.

As Scot McKnight noted earlier this month, something’s gone terribly wrong “when hell becomes the final, or emphatic, word.” When an earthquake rocks Japan and nuclear reactors teeter on the brink of meltdown, do we say, “Serves them right for playing with uranium”? Or do we grieve over the suffering and loss of life?

Again (and by way of finally wrapping this up), to quote Scot McKnight:

If there is an eternity, and I believe there is, and if there is a judgment, and I believe there is, then let us keep the immensity and gravity of it all in mind and refrain from flippancy, gloating, triumphalism — and let it reduce us to sobriety and humility and prayer. When Abraham faced the prospects of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 18, he didn’t gloat that he was on the safe side but supplicated YHWH for mercy for those who weren’t. We need more Abrahams.

3 thoughts on “6 thoughts before reading Love Wins

  1. Ben – you’re in the publishing business, right? So one of these years, you really should write that book called “Why I Am Not A Calvinist (but used to be)” so you can lay out what you believe and why – instead of just hinting at it 😉

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  2. Hey David – I’m not sure there’s a whole book there. Maybe a future blog post (or two)…

    In the meantime, the short version is that I was told two things, almost 10 years apart, which gradually led me away from Calvinism.

    The first is that when the NT talks about predestination, it focuses largely on groups as opposed to individuals — i.e. God predestined the Gentiles to be included in salvation.

    The second is that when God does predestine someone, there’s always a purpose that extends far beyond that person’s own benefit. People are predestined to be a light to others. I accept that God “elects” some people — Moses, Abraham, David, John the Baptist, the disciples, Paul, etc. But salvation does not stop there. The “elect” are chosen precisely so they can extend good news to the “un-elect.”

    I think this interpretation fits better with the overall biblical story. I also think we have to leave some space for mystery when trying to reconcile God’s sovereignty and human freedom (the latter of which is a gift from God in keeping with a biblical understanding of love).

    Anyway, that’s the short(ish) version.

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  3. Ben, a couple of months ago I was reading a footnote in Jesus Wants to Save Christians and I was ecstatic to see your name in there! I wasn’t sure if it was you or another Ben Irwin, but this confirmed it. awesome 🙂

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