Monday, April 18, 2011

Rob Bell, Love Wins, and the C&MA View of Hell

In order to offer a contextualized review of Rob Bell's Love Wins, the question I have been considering in recent weeks is whether its author could sign the statement of faith of the Christian & Missionary Alliance in Canada. Based on early reactions to the book I decided to focus mainly on article five of the statement, which states in part:"The destiny of the impenitent and unbelieving is existence forever in conscious torment." In the preceding posts I came to the conclusion that, however one might interpret this article, it intends to say that hell is a finalized God-enacted judgement of impenitent fallen humanity involving a state of being with infinite duration wherein persons are ever aware of their pain. Having dwelt at length on the C&MA's view (see parts 1, 2, 3a, 3b, and 3c), I turn now to Bell's book.

Before we begin we should note that Rob Bell says that he "believes in hell." (It's an odd phrase, but I guess we know what we mean). Undoubtedly aware that he is thinking against the grain in some ways, Bell himself does not think his book a "departure" from "the orthodox Christian faith." Indeed, while Love Wins claims to be about "life's biggest questions," it also claims that its more controversial parts concern matters that are "not that essential" (x). Thus on one hand I believe Bell might genuinely be stymied if he were refused membership in the C&MA.

On the other hand, however, this book is rather provocative in tone, and I think its at-times-haphazard imaginations bear considerable responsibility for the confusion that the it created. Although the UK title is a bit less misleading and incendiary than the US release, it is tough to deny that in its attempt to focus on "the heart of life's big questions" Love Wins does its fair share of sword-rattling speculation about "the fate of everyone who ever lived". That said, I think that a generous reader ought to recognize fairly early on the following:
Love Wins gives an extreme Arminian response to a certain brand of Calvinism in order to counter a caricatured view of God that Bell thinks has disenfranchised and confused too many people for what he considers to be all the wrong reasons. The book is an apologetic meant to re-emphasize the 'good' in Good News and the 'love' in God is Love. Bell does this rather sloppily and provocatively at times, but also clearly and creatively at others. In my view the book does not need to be categorically dismissed, but like much of the pop-theology genre it does require further thought, in some places more severely than others. Mainly, however, Bell wants to get first things first in our understanding of who God is and what God is about, and in doing so he is much more interested in the ramifications for discipleship and mission than with speculation about the after-life. To these ends I think he by-and-large succeeds.
But since we're talking about hell here, we better get on with it. As indicated, when Bell talks about hell he does not want to talk as much about its after-life component as its presence on earth in human history. The most prominent example of this is his creative reading of the fantastic parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus which claims it is not primarily about then and there, but here and now (74f, 107). Bell continually turns eschatology-talk into a consideration of the realities at stake in everyday life (67, 74). But on further reflection, isn't that what the New Testament itself is trying to do? For all the hiccups along the way, I do think that if we miss this we may not only get off on the wrong foot with Love Wins, but with many of the apocalyptic passages of the New Testament that are concerned.

But alternate emphasis is one thing, and contradiction another. Does Bell go so far as to flatly deny the eschatological implications which the C&MA has seen fit to categorically assert? To be sure, he is often rhetorically at odds with the common evangelical view. Most notably in this regard, Bell:
  • raises questions about the justice of infinite punishment for finite years of impenitence (4);
  • opts for a qualitative rather than quantitative rendering of the biblical words for "eternal" (31, 57f, 92);
  • steers away from the picture of heaven as only being "somewhere else" (23f);
  • exposes the scarcity of the word "hell" in the Bible and undermines common views based on some background context for the words "gehenna", "abyss", and "hades" (67f. He is right about these, but doesn't really give the whole story either, after all, people didn't invent the common view of hell out of thin air);
  • refers to statements (like ours) on church websites which announce that the "unsaved dead will be committed to an eternal conscious punishment," suggesting that this is a rather unwelcoming and potentially confusing message to offer online passers-by (96);
  • suggests that people will be free to get out of hell at any time in the future if they come to believe in Jesus because "love demands freedom, and freedom provides that possibility" (114, 155).
So far this doesn't sound very C&MA-friendly. However, let's also note the following point by point qualifications. In addition to the above, Bell:
  • returns to the eschatological vision and suggests that "there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God" (106-107);
  • allows that one of the words for "eternal" is "a versatile, pliable word" (92) and opts for a view different than either annihilationism or universalism (104-106);
  • maintains that the word "hell" and much of its connotations should be retained (93);
  • affirms the usefulness of "agonizing language" about "fire" in certain contexts to communicate the awfulness of injustice and sin, also noting the brilliance of a "nuanced, shocking story" about the "gruesome details" of good and evil when used in the Spirit of Jesus (73, 77);
  • resists declaring for certain that all will be saved and affirms repeatedly and clearly that God is a "God of judgement" who "says no to injustice" and acts "decisively" to "put an end to it," because heaven, he says, has "teeth, flames, edges, and sharp points" (34-36, 49)
No wonder people either love this book or hate it. You can find in it whatever you want. All this goes to show that Bell could have been more clear. But should he have been more clear? What is Bell actually trying to accomplish?

Let's keep in mind that by someone's count Bell asks 350 questions in this book, and I would venture to guess that most of them are meant to show he is not the only one whose views contain some tensions asking for resolution. I have to admit, I'm with him on this. The first issue he raises in the book is the issue of "double-predestination" and the next one has to do with the infinite torment of hell (2). The former is to me a highly unsettling and theologically problematic view and, as I discovered again in the last few posts of this series, the latter is not without its layers of perplexity either. The more literally we think about the "God behind the back of Christ" or the vivid descriptions of hell the more the vision seems ready to slip through our hands. We probably have to admit that we get into the realm of speculation pretty quickly with these issues, and my level of sympathy with Love Wins probably has a lot to do with Bell's willingness to confront them and paint a different picture.

Of course, this doesn't excuse Bell for adding further confusion. But let's note that he is less dogmatic about the picture he paints than some holders of these other views have tended to be about theirs. In fact, it occurs to me the more I reflect on this book that what Bell is trying to do is mine the tradition for that thread of material that opens up alternate imaginative space that helps people to recognize and trust that God is just and loving and good. Disturbed by overboard speculations into the after-life, Bell wants to bring us back to the basic point. In doing so no doubt reverts to overboard speculations on another extreme. There are some problematic theological tendencies that arise (such as in his account of freedom), but his basic point is well taken, I think, even if he doesn't really resolve all the tensions he raises.

"Hell is refusing to trust [God]," says Bell, "and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God" (175). Bell's point here is not to describe hell in order to scare us out of it, but to get God right so that a few more might seek the kingdom of heaven on earth. "We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell" (177). The problem is defining God by His No rather than His Yes: "Let's be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us" (177, 182). "When your God is love," Bell says, "you are free from guilt and fear and the terrifying, haunting, ominous voice that whispers over your shoulder" and "you are free to passionately, urgently, compellingly tell the story" (181-182).

But what is this after-life thing called hell? "Hell is being at the party," and like the older son in the parable of prodigal, it is "refusing to join in the celebration" (169). "Hell is our refusal to trust God's retelling of the story" (170). Could it be that the C&MA statement, while being more specific, might still be reconciled with Bell's agenda? I'll try to assess this by tackling the statement in two parts and seeing what Bell has to say about it.

1) "Destiny"?
I think the C&MA statement means to say that the "resurrection of the unjust" entails their finalized judgment, from which there is no return. However, there are many reasons to believe that Bell would prefer the C&MA statement's "destiny" language than this "finalized fate" interpretation (see 102). For one thing, Bell suggests that hell may be a place of pruning rather than punishment. I don't recall seeing this in my research on the word kolazo [punishment], but Bell is able to find several passages to support this agricultural rendering and the implication that God's goal in discipline is always our repentance (86f, 90).

Bell squirms at the idea that "God would have no choice but to punish [people] forever in conscious torment in hell" because this makes God out to be "fundamentally different" in the next life than He is in this one (174, emphasis mine). Note that Bell doesn't deny the possibility of an everlasting hell for the unbeliever - his issue is with the vision of God which makes this somehow necessary for Him.

Love Wins imagines a continued state of freedom wherein one could have life with God if one wanted. This second-chance post-mortem reality raises some serious exegetical red flags, and most certainly does not jive with the perceived intent of the C&MA statement. The word "destiny" might give a bit of wiggle room in this regard, but the move is definitely problematic.

Curiously, however, Bell asks: "Does God get what God wants?" And even though everything he has said points to yes, he refrains from answering. We can't answer it. We can't speculate, and we are in no position to make demands, even if they conform to our own logic and desires. The whole problem with the older son in the parable of the prodigal was that he thought the Father owed him (186). At the limits of our knowledge, Bell turns instead to the question we can answer, which is whether we want God (116). "Do we get what we want?" Bell's answer is yes, because "God is that loving" (117). Even if it means an infinite hell of separation from the life of God (113f). With this move Bell puts our free will atop the pile in an extremely Arminian way, and the problems with this would take a whole series of blog posts. Is God so bound by our freedom (see 103)? Is this even the best way to define "freedom"? Do we even have that kind of freedom (see 104, 106)? Has this account really answered the objections of theodicy? How could God let it get like this? Surely it is a "terrifying freedom," Bell admits (72f).

This is where all the questions of people who seemed to have no chance come flooding to mind. Those who die as young children. The people who got picked on in youth group and never went back. The unreached. It is not uncommon at this point to imagine an "age of accountability" to account for the children making it to heaven or to leave open the possibility of dreams or visions from Christ for those who have died without having heard the gospel. There are some proof texts for each of these ideas, but by and large we recognize that they are imagined scenarios which help us trust God with what is clearly the mystery of His justice. Our knowledge of God's love and mercy inspires them, but doesn't become an indifference-feeding dogmatism that takes away our desire to evangelize. For Bell's part, he imagines a "second chance". Hebrews 9:27 makes it pretty tough to go along with him, even if he does rally a few texts and some Prophetic themes to his support. Whatever we think of Bell's biblical backing, I think we can grant him a bit of imaginative ground-clearing, so long as he admits it is speculative (which he does). Indeed, Bell leaves the tensions "fully intact" and unresolved, and confesses that there will be many objections (115, 111). But what Bell wants to say is that the love of God is preeminent and it has no absolute need of a populated hell (let alone evil) in order to be seen glorious and good and true and right.

As many new questions as this opens up, it certainly does shift the tension to the right place. Rather than being left to contemplate the absurdity of a God behind the God revealed in Christ who actually elects people precisely in order to damn them, we turn our attention to the absurdity at the doorstep of hell (113-114). Evil is the unresolved paradox confronted by the death of the incarnate Son of God for humanity. We might think we know sin, but at the cross we see it for what it is (a point Bell would have done well to make, but didn't). There we see the impossibility of our situation if we are left to ourselves; the situation we need reconciled. However, we also see that Jesus rose from the grave.

The "destiny" seems clear. Life with God, or not. I'd venture to say that the C&MA is more interested in calling this a finalized fate at death or Christ's return, but if one allowed Bell to interpret it in terms of "results" or "pathway", there might be some room for him yet.

2) "Existence forever in conscious torment"?
At first glance it seems we have an even bigger problem here, but this is not necessarily the case. Although he does plenty of exegetical gymnastics with the word "forever", Bell ends up needing it to last plenty long, because "there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God" (106-107). This means existence, and it means it could last forever. It could be that Bell has some kind of "after-time" in which there is no real measurement of duration, but we don't get any specification along those lines besides the aforementioned undermining of quantitative translations of the words for "eternal".

If Bell does use the image of "burning forever" he usually does so in order to gain leverage against the idea in favour of what he considers to be more striking images of hell in the contemporary experiences of rape, genocide, abuse, and oppression (70-79). I think this has at least some rhetorical merit to it. After all, in many cases the Bible's hell-talk seems meant to startle us with the frank realities of evil and death and judgment. Thus it may be worthwhile bringing some dynamic equivalent translations to bear where the literal translations have lost some force due to the now-cartoonish pictures of medieval hell-scapes in the modern mind.

But that still leaves us with the question of the actual eschatological realities involved. Bell balks at the idea of infinite divine torture, but reckons at every point that God is actively the Judge (174, 36-38). As is seen in Romans 1-2, God can be wrathful in letting people have their way. There were some critics who said that Bell removed God from the equation, but I do not see how this is the case. Hell can be God's active judgment on human rebellion without being God's design for any of us. God can be active in such a way without being the author of evil or even the one to blame.

But what kind of experience is this post-mortem hell? Is it to be thought of in bodily, spatial, and temporal categories or is this where the "forever" question comes into play as a reconsideration of the kind of reality which is actually entailed? Are our attempts to describe full separation from God from within our life-span as fraught with difficulty as our attempts to imagine eternity from within time?

Bell is adamant that God is anything but "a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that [people] had no escape from an endless future of agony" (174). He adds that "no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise" the "glaring, untenable, unacceptable" construal wherein "your God is loving one second and cruel the next" and "will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years" (175). Not leaving us much guesswork here, is he? But not so fast.

For all its rhetoric, when it comes back to the descriptions of hell, Love Wins reminds us that Jesus himself told parables like the sheep and the goats "to wake us up" (197). These stories contain "strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities," presumably because the choices we make "matter more than we can begin to imagine" (196). Thus, on page 93 Bell concludes:
[W]e need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God's world God's way. And for that, the word 'hell' works quite well. Let's keep it.
Of course, Bell is less disposed to speak of hell as a place of fire and brimstone, but he does seem to believe that it involves consciousness, and that the experience will be more in line with the hellish parts of earth than otherwise. Here again I think we are in more amicable territory with the words of the statement than with what the C&MA probably means by it. The statement doesn't describe Bell's view, but it doesn't have to exclude it. (It kind of depends how we interpret statements of faith.) "Torment" may not be the word he'd use, and "forever" would require some imagination, but on the face of it the statement might work for him if he really wanted to be in the C&MA.

Frankly, I think if he were looking for a denomination he could do a lot worse. Historically speaking, many in the C&MA will have shared Bell's Arminian leanings and most certainly his missionary impulses.While concern about hell-fire has traditionally played into the C&MA's motives for mission, these have historically been more conditioned by the compassion that springs from the good news of the gospel and the hope that Christ's kingdom might come on earth as it is in heaven. Indeed, the final article of the C&MA statement says "the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is ... the believer’s blessed hope, [and] this vital truth is an incentive for holy living and sacrificial service toward the completion of Christ’s commission," citing Matthew 24:14 in support. As mentioned before, Rob Bell is right in the spirit of A.B. Simpson here, and so there is plenty of common ground to be had.

But would the C&MA want Bell? Or would it (should it?) see his treatment of hell as a liability? I think it possible that the two could be reconciled if they so desired, although obviously there would be interpretive work to be done in both directions. I trust we would be willing to so engage one another. This brings us to the actual purpose of this series, which is obviously to ask not about Bell personally but about the sympathizers or opponents he may have in the denomination already. My conclusion is this: Those pastors and members in the C&MA who might be at odds in regard to Rob Bell and our statement of faith should be able to come to a mutual understanding, even if it involves some mutual theological sharpening along the way.

To this end I hope my series might be helpful, and yet my dissatisfaction with the extent of my own exegetical and theological work thus far employed tells me that I would have plenty to learn in the future myself. I only hope that in this matter my denomination will be willing to move from the communion table to the foyer and and the board meeting together, willing to open our Bibles and speak the truth in love. I said before that this doctrine of hell isn't a hill I'd personally like to die on, but something I would be willing to give my life for would be a church that can theologize together without fear of caricatured dismissals, ungracious labeling, or arrogant interpretation-thumping. I would need a church to help me avoid those things myself.

In that regard, let me close with Bell's own appeal, which is that we need to come to terms with the fact that we're going to have plenty to disagree about and react against, and so we are best to come to peace that passes our understanding rather than perpetually recoiling in hostility to those who tarnish our vision of God (194-195). Bitterness and reactionism aren't going to help. There is a downward spiral and there is a miraculous interjection of self-giving grace that has resurrection as its promise of peace and hope. Which do we celebrate at the communion table, and how much does it really depend on us?

We could define love a thousand different ways and make it our god and it wouldn't really get us anywhere. Such love may not win, but we do believe that Jesus does. So we pray for his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, and we love our neighbours and even our enemies in the way that Christ has loved us from first to last.


Nathan said...

Jon, it's been so cool to see you engage this book so constructively. I love that you've been working within your tradition. Thanks for this whole series!

With you, I think that Bell could have avoided some of the backlash by being clearer, more pastorally careful, and much more charitable in his rhetoric. Still, there's a lot to like in Love Wins.


I nodded when you came around to say, "[S]omething I would be willing to give my life for would be a church that can theologize together without fear of caricatured dismissals, ungracious labeling, or arrogant interpretation-thumping. I would need a church to help me avoid those things myself."


I wonder, though, if you've done what you say you'd want to avoid by saying that "[double predestination] is a deplorable and untenable doctrine." I'm not so naive as not to understand why you (and others) would say so. Yet even though I'm no longer a Calvinist in these sorts of things, I can't help but be saddened by this common, narrow, and dismissive Arminian sentiment. There have been many wonderfully orthodox Christians who hold to some form of determinism (soft determinism / compatibilism. Any view like that really logically entails a kind of double predestination. It feels to me like that view is well within biblical orthodoxy, and deserves a spot at the table.

I imagine you and I would think in similar ways at the intersection of divine sovereignty and soteriology. I'm all too aware of the too-stark vitriol that comes from the neo-Reformed camp. But isn't that all the more reason for we on 'this side' of things not to approach reciprocation?

One more time, I'll see "thanks." I so appreciate the way you model public theologizing for us. I've got a lot to learn.



Jon Coutts said...

Yeah, you're right. I have a hard time containing my personal distaste for double predestination, but I should definitely be more charitable, especially if I'm going to be preachy about doing so. I'd hate to dismiss people from the theological table or close down actual conversations we could have, simply because my rhetoric has been so vehement. Thank you for calling me on that. I'm going to try to reword that bit, but don't remove your comment or anything. If there is going to be both "public theologizing" and speaking the truth in love, then the corrections should be noted alongside the praises.

I hope those who hold to double predestination will forgive my late-night hard-headed castigation and engage me where we disagree. My sympathy for Bell's book, even with all its problems, probably reflects to a good degree my common discomfort with this particular view. So if there is going to be headway in the small corners of evangelicalism which we inhabit, we'd probably be best to find a way to hash this doctrine out amongst ourselves. Probably we'd have to talk seriously about Romans 9-11?

I appreciate your comments Nathan.

Brett Gee 英 明 said...

I wrote a long comment but then I lost it some how. So, let me say that I really enjoyed this constructive work. rather than a random critic, you decided to hold it up against something a lot of people hold to be right and true and took a look where they differ, and where they are similar.

I wanted to make one more note. I was reading this week about Abraham. When God was set on destroying Sodom, Abraham seemingly stepped in a bargained for Lot's life. There is also Job's struggles and even Jacob, who actually wrestled with God. In some of these situations, God was going to do something and people's petitions seemingly changed his mind.

Regarding Bell, lets just say for a moment that he is way off. His scripture and reasoning are wrong and billions of people are suffering for eternity. Well, wouldn't it be in the spirit of Abraham to plead for these souls? Would it be out of line to say "God, I think this is a bad thing. I want you to change it"?

What's the harm? Too loving? Too much hope? Dreaming of God's love and Mercy being too big?

Somewhere in that Love Wins book is Bell's hope that, even if some of his ideas don't line up, that things could be different than how we think they actually are. I've been searching mainly because something inside me says that it is not possible for God's ultimate plan to save the world to fail so badly that billions of people are in Hell. There has to be something missing. His news is Good.

Anonymous said...

you should check out this vid. a good remake of the original video that sparked it all by bell.