Back to the really big question of Love Wins: Does God get what God wants?
Rob Bell doesn’t just like to ask questions. He likes to ask “the question behind the question.” And in this case I can think of at least two underlying questions:
1. What does God want?
Does God want all people to be saved or not?
I suggested in a previous post that if you answer “no” (like many in the neo-Reformed camp), then you’ll have to contend with some rather direct statements in Scripture to the contrary — not to mention the whole trajectory of the Bible.
2. Does God have to get everything he wants in order for love to win?
Rob seems to think so.
C.S. Lewis agreed with Rob that any outcome other than universal salvation represents a partial defeat. But Lewis wasn’t nearly as bothered by this. In fact, he saw in this one of God’s most awe-inspiring attributes:
What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to… become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity.
First, redemption is a messy, ugly business. Whatever theory (or theories) of the atonement you subscribe to, at the heart of our story is this: God came to earth and died at the hands of his own creation. Not everyone was delighted by the incarnation. Not everyone is thrilled by the prospect of heaven cashing into earth.
In the gospels, Jesus laments over his rejection by some of the very people he longed to embrace. In Romans, Paul is so grieved by the unbelief of his countrymen that he contemplates giving up his own salvation.
There is tension in this story. Universalists try to resolve the tension by saying God wants everyone; therefore everyone must be saved in the end. The neo-Reformed resolve it by saying God doesn’t really want everyone to be saved, so it’s perfectly all right that only a handful make the cut.
That God might not use his infinite power to rig the outcome…
An all-powerful God who doesn’t get everything he wants… not because of impotence but because he gives us space to accept or reject him.
I’m with C.S. Lewis. This kind of God is far more awe-inspiring than either the god of universalism or the god of the neo-Reformed.
Second, we need to ask one more question-behind-the-question:
What does it mean for love to win?
Does it mean, as Rob (apparently) suggests, that everyone (hopefully) turns to God in the end? If so, where does judgment come into the picture?
Now it’s true that for too long, our notion of judgment has been hijacked by Dante’s Inferno, Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, and fundamentalism’s hellfire-and-brimstone sermonizing. I think Rob’s book is, in part, a reaction to this.
But that doesn’t mean judgment has no place in our story. As N.T. Wright says in Surprised by Hope, God’s judgment is actually good news for many (if not most) people:
Throughout the Bible, not least in the Psalms, God’s coming judgment is a good thing, something to be celebrated, longed for, yearned over… In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance, and oppression, the thought that there might come a day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be.
Evil happens all around us. Every day. Just ask the people of Libya. Ask those who lost everything to Bernie Madoff’s ponzie scheme. And of course there are a thousand other less dramatic — but no less real — examples.
According to Scripture, love does win in the end. But justice — which the Bible defines (in part) as vindication for the victims of evil — is part of the equation.
This is why Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians. A rumor had reached Thessalonica that the “day of the Lord” had come and gone. But the faithful were still being oppressed. And their oppressors didn’t seem to be suffering any visible signs of God’s judgment.
For them — and all who suffer unjustly — the question is: What good is the “day of the Lord” if it doesn’t bring vindication?
Put another way, in a broken world like ours, love can’t win without justice.
I seriously doubt Rob Bell would argue with this. I imagine he’d agree that judgment is part of the equation, though he might suggest (as he does elsewhere in Love Wins) that even the harshest judgment seeks the eventual restoration of the one being punished.
Also, it’s important to note that the Bible makes a distinction between those who actively, knowingly resist God’s plan and those who act out of ignorance. When the Bible speaks of judgment, it’s usually talking about the first group.
So does God get everything he wants? Maybe not.
Maybe there’s more to “love wins” than that.