‘FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS…’ CHAPTER FOUR: DOES GOD ALWAYS GET WHAT HE WANTS?

In some ways, the premise of Rob’s question, raised in Chapter Four, is not entirely logically coherent.   If the answer to this question  (Does God always get what he wants?)  was yes, would we even have sin and evil in the world?   Would Adam and Eve have fallen in the first place?    Would there even be a need for salvation or Hell?

If God is truly like the way Augustine depicted him, not merely almighty and all good, but always ‘Charles in charge’, determining every little thing that happens in all of time and history in the whole universe,  then it is very difficult to explain, without absolute cosmic dualism (as in Manicheanism which Augustine escaped from) how in the world Evil got a foot in the door of the universe in the first place.

And if God didn’t always get what he wanted in the beginning, why in the world would be believe he will get all he wants in the end?    Because ‘Love Wins’?    Really?    But if love is an expression of some sort of freedom of choice, whether by God or by humans,  are we really supposed to believe that God’s love stops being freely given and freely received and becomes at some future juncture more like the Godfather than like God—‘making us an offer we can’t refuse?’     This is not a coherent line of thought no matter how much we believe God loves us all.  I do wish one of Rob’s friends or editors had pointed some of this out before he wrote the final draft of this book.    As it is, the book thus far makes Rob sound more like a hopeless romantic rather than a dangerous heretic.

Chapter  4 begins with listing things Rob has found on church websites of the ‘turn or burn’ variety.   Yes, there are such churches, and yes they do have such things on their website.  I’ve even seen a church in the mountains of North Carolina which has on the church sign— ‘an independent, premillennial, King James preaching, total immersion Baptist Church’.  The only thing missing on the sign was snake-handling, but that might have scared away all the customers.    What Rob is probing when pointing out references to Hell on websites right next to ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life’  stuff,  is the apparent or perceived contradiction between these two messages.  I say apparent or perceived, because in fact these two messages are not incompatible if in fact you hold the very view of God and love and freedom Rob has.   Some people don’t ever want anything to do with God.  Not now, and not ever.

As in previous chapters,  Rob cites a pile of texts, soundbyting them rather than doing contextual exegesis of them,  for the purpose of suggesting that God never ever gives up on anyone.   The problem with this is that many of these OT texts are about God’ s covenant faithfulness to his own chosen people, not to the world in general.   And in regard to the notion that we are ‘all children of God’   the Gospel of John in fact says—- No we are not!   We are all creatures of God, created in God’s image, but we are not all inherently ‘children of God’.  John 1-3 is pretty clear you don’t become a child of God through the decision of your parents, or through mere physical birth, or through the will of a spouse,  you become a child of God by being ‘born again’.  My goodness, even Nicodemus is told he must be born again in order to enter God’s kingdom.

Does God love everyone, the whole world?  Yes he does, as John 3.16 says.  Does that, or being created in God’s image automatically make anyone a child of God—-  no.   There are issues of being part of the people of God.  And here perhaps more than anywhere else is one of the fundamental problems with Rob’s argument—- bad ecclesiology.   As Paul puts it in 1 Cor. 12—- when it comes to being a real child of God “we were all baptized by one Spirit into the one body of Christ (whether Jew or Gentile), and all given the one Spirit from which we all drink.    God has a people, and the lost need to become found and a part of that people.    This is one of the major messages of both the OT and the NT and it involves  covenanting,  it involves a people set apart,  it involves conscious involvement in the people of God, if you don’t die in infancy.

One of the real problems with this chapter (see e.g. p.  102)  is the tendency to talk in binary opposites.   Is God like the woman who seeks the coin, or is God one who will allow you to spend an eternity in Hell?     Is history tragic, or does love win?    In fact, the Bible is complex, and it gives complex answers to these sorts of questions— questions we have debated for two millennia and can’t be resolved with a simply setting up of a ‘you can give me this or you can give me that’  (cue the Kia commercial)  because both can’t be true.   In fact both can be true.   It can be true that a good deal of history is tragic and also true that God’s love wins in millions and millions of cases.

And now we come to the escape clause part of the argument.  Since it is obvious that God’s love doesn’t win over everyone in this lifetime— can we go into overtime, and indeed continue to play overtimes until God finally wins, outlasting our ‘March Madness’?   Does God final melt even the hardest of hearts— somewhere out there?

The texts, like Col. 1 or Phil. 2 which are thought to suggest such an outcome  (and of course no one is suggesting such an outcome is impossible for an omnipotent God if he is prepared to run roughshod over the wills of billions of humans), are not quite on all fours with such an assumption about ‘love winning’.   Some of these texts are about how when Jesus comes back, everyone, whether willingly or unwillingly will have to recognize who is Lord, even if they don’t like it.   Notice for example in Phil. 2 Paul seems to refer to demonic or angelic beings who will have to recognize the truth about Jesus,  but we are not being told they will trust and be transformed by this truth.  Indeed, Col. 1 says Jesus triumphs over the powers and principalities on the cross, and 1 Pet. 3 is about Christ proclaiming victory over the ‘spirits in prison’  who are the fallen angels  (see Gen. 3).    And then there are the texts about God reconciling ‘all things’  (not all persons,  all things)  by which is meant God’s kingdom will include all of creation, all will one day be under his rule.   These texts do not proclaim the salvation of every last individual—- and they never did.

Once again,  Rob appeals to some church fathers in support of some kind of universalism.  Again the problem is that he is citing theological speculation of this or that church father,  not the settled convictions of the church as revealed in their creeds, councils,  confessions.  There is a difference.   The creeds, councils, and confessions are the result of the body of Christ reasoning together and coming to some consensus on what orthodoxy looks like.  They are not isolated shots fired in the dark by one or another church father.   I hope no one holds me to every  speculative thought I have put into writing at some point.

The point is— neither in the Catholic nor the various Orthodox, nor the various Evangelical traditions has there ever been a statement of faith by any such church suggesting what seems to be suggested in this chapter in this book.     Rob wants to suggest that the stream of orthodoxy is broad and includes those who at some point advocated universalism.    This can only be said to be true if you  ignore the importance of churches collectively,  and sticks with speculating individuals.   It can only be said to be true if you ignore the nature of the NT canon.   Where did it come from?   Did it drop from the sky?   No.  It was assembled by various Christian groups, and then there was agreement of  whole churches in the east, and in the west, and in north Africa in about 367 A.D.  that ‘these 27 books and no others’  are our NT Scriptures.  This was not decided by Constantine, it was agreed upon and recognized by church synods and councils.

Why am I pointing this out?   You wouldn’t even have the NT to argue about were there no churches and church decisions,  and you had best not ignore what the church writ large has said about the interpretation of this Bible along the way, not just cherry pick this or that church father’s  momentary entertainment of some idea.   In short your theology and soteriology are interconnected with ecclesiology, and you cannot and should not try to decide theological or ethical issues just on the basis of your very selective reading of the Bible or church fathers.    Even the Protestant Reformers would not be happy with that sort of approach to theology and ethics.

Towards the end of this chapter (pp. 112ff.)   Rob points out that the book of Revelation doesn’t end with blood and violence.  It ends with the picture in Rev. 21-22.  True enough, but that new creation only emerges after the last judgment and the casting of demons, the Devil, the wicked into the lake of fire. You don’t get to Rev. 22 by bypassing Rev. 19-21.  You have to go through that part of the story.

The end of the chapter stresses that if we want heaven or hell, we can have it.  God will allow us to have our freedom of choice, and some do and may well continue to choose evil rather than good, unto all eternity.  It is statements like this that allow Rob to insist he isn’t a universalist.

But Rob wants to leave the door open a crack, and so he draws attention to the fact that in the new Jerusalem the gates are always open.   Now that imagery implies to Rob that there is still hope for the outsiders who have chosen darkness rather than light.   The problem with that is not only texts like  Rev. 21.8 and 22.14-15.   The problem is that Rob ignores the verse that speaks of angels at the Twelve gates of the city— God’s bouncers, who will never allow the wicked in  (check out the angel guarding the Garden of Eden post Fall).  Indeed, the fate of the lost is  said in Rev. 21.8 to be the second death in the lake of fire.   We are not told the angels at the gates have fire extinguishers and will hose down the outsiders, so they can become holy and enter the city.    Because, as John says—- you have to be holy, have to be set apart by and for God, to enter the city.     In other words, the image of the open gates is a reassurance to John’s persecuted, prosecuted, and executed churches that there will be no more danger to them when they arrive at the crystal city.   There will be no more night, no more deeds of darkness— they will be safe and secure in God’s arm forever.   Revelation is the book of the martyrs and the imagery here is meant to reassure the martyrs they will not have to deal with their tormentors any more—- ever.  It is not meant to encourage speculation about reversals in the afterlife.

  • Justin B.

    One thing I didn’t see in your review was the part of the chapter where Bell says the question isn’t does God get what He wants, but rather, “Does He give us what we want?” My impression is that not even Bell sticks with the question whose premises, as you pointed out, stand on weak ground.

  • Dan

    I also wonder what Bell does with texts such as I Thessalonians 4:3, which says that it’s God’s will that believers abstain from sexual immorality. Does God always get what he wants?

  • http://www.joshandjenny.org Duffy

    Great blog Mr Witherington. I especially enjoyed reading this one.

  • toddh

    I understand what you are saying here, and it’s pretty close to what I have believed for a good portion of my life. But I find Bell’s vision of God and the future more compelling. He may not be right, but I hope he is.

  • Danny D

    In your rebuttal to Bell’s use of Col. 1 and Phil 2., I’d also like to mention a place that I feel explicitly states what you get from the texts Bell discusses. In James 2 it says, “you believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” It seems fairly obvious that acknowledgment does not equal any kind of faith or personal benefit, although I have to admit there have been times I have struggled with the Phil 2 passage in the same way as Bell.

  • mason

    Dr. Witherington I appreciate your fair and detailed review of Rob’s book. One of the issues for me and I realize that it is not a new point, but rather an old point that I have not reconciled in my own mind is “how will I enjoy eternal bliss in the new heaven and new earth, knowing that Aunt Betty or more on a personal note that one of my children are experiencing eternal torment or even annihilation? can all tears be wiped away if i know that my child is lost forever?” I realize that this is my problem and not God’s but how would you response to this concern?

    blessings…

    mason

  • Peter

    First of all, Bell doesn’t advocate firm universalism. His answer to the question in the title of the chapter is “maybe”. He could be described as someone who hopes or longs for universal reconciliation, which is different than dogmatic universalism.

    That puts him in the same company as folks like Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, William Willimon, Karl Rahner, Hans Kung, Jurgen Moltmann…. need I go on? That’s just what I came up with in a minute’s time.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Mason according to the end of Revelation there are trees with medicinal leaves in the new Jerusalem. Why? The healing of the memories. Peter, I think you are right, as I said, Rob is more of a romantic that a firmly committed universalist. And yes, James 2 makes the same point— belief that does not transform you does not save you.

    BW3

  • Andy

    Dr. Witherington, thank you for the careful analysis of Bell’s book.

  • Percival

    Dr. Witherington,
    How sure are we that the Phil 2 passage refers to angels and demons? Could it not refer to people who have died? Do demons even have knees? :)

    2:10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, 2:11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

    It seems that usually (always?) a confession of the lordship of Jesus is a confession of allegiance. It is not merely a recognition of the state of authority as in the James passage where demons recognize there is one God.

    (In the interest of full disclosure, I lean toward annihilationism. But it is an honest question nonetheless.)

  • Andrew

    A pretty good response to Bell’s book, and I really appreciate it.

    I’m not sure if I would of added the reference to 1 Peter 3 (and the story Noah in relation to Peter’s text would be Genesis 6), as really who Jesus was speaking to in regards to the ‘spirits in prison’ is as clear as mud. The spirits were those around during the building of the ark, not necessarily the Nephilim (Gen 6:4). But possibly the people that rebelled during the time of Noah … and if so could give some credence to Bell’s position (though that would be stretching it as it were) because why would Jesus preach to those spirits? was it as some commentator’s say to proclaim victory! or hope?

    Like I said.. clear as mud for this reference anyway.

  • http://www.worshiptheologically.com Anthony Parrott

    Concerning the point about being God’s children, would you disagree that Paul in his sermon on Areopagus is affirming Aratus’s line of poetry that states “We are his offspring” (Acts 17:28). In the next verse Paul states, “Therefore since we are God’s offspring…” Is Paul merely affirming our created status or is he suggesting a more intimate relationship between God and humanity?

  • Rick

    Anthony, I think that Paul is trying merely to refer to created status as opposed to the sense of being children of God, i.e. heirs of God, which is what John describes.

  • Marc Axelrod

    Fantastic discussion! I don’t think I’d want to sit under Rob’s teaching until he works out some of thse things.

  • rDA

    John 3:17 — For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

    Because He loves us, Jesus’ “mission” is to save the world — that is, everyone, 100%. However, most Christians would probably say that the majority of humanity is destined for hell (“Narrow is the path”). It would seem, then, that the Hate of Satan is much more powerful than the Love of Jesus when it comes to convincing people where they want to spend eternity. So, looking at the number of souls saved vs lost, it would appear that Jesus loses and Satan wins.

    Mission failed?

  • http://anchorforthesoul.wordpress.com Daniel

    rDA,

    Read the next verse.

    John 3:18– “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

    Jesus’ mission is to save the world, and yet some will refuse to believe in Him. These people are condemned already.

  • rDA

    Daniel,

    I understand that people will refuse to believe in Jesus.

    However, my question is: Since it appears that a majority of humanity will choose Satan and hell, did Jesus fail in his mission to save the lost? How is it that Satan’s hate is more powerful than Jesus’ love to convince most people?

  • Bill

    Good discussion! I appreciate the fact that the discussion is about the meaning of the Bible. A number of the other reviews that I have read have focused on secondary issues, in my opinion. I find it a constant temptation to begin my thinking with how a particular belief will effect me emotionally, rather than what does the Bible actually say. It appears that we are sometimes dealing with questions about the authority of the Bible.

  • http://www.joshuahouse.org Jonathan Rue

    Thank you for this blog, Dr. Witherington. It is very well -reasoned, especially the part about the consensus of the church versus cherry picking random speculations of this or that church father. I couldn’t agree more, and it would seem that when you treat church history this way, you’re cutting off the branch you’re sitting on because of the way that scriptures were written, codified, and preserved.

  • http://christianpascu.com Cristian

    “You wouldn’t even have the NT to argue about were there no churches and church decisions.”

    This is something often forgotten by many who come up with brand new views on christian theology. From the ‘Sola Scriptura’ to theist evolutionism.

    Christ can not be understood out of His body, the Church, out of the life of the Church, outside the unity of the Church.

  • Accelerated

    This chapter highlights what Bell is trying to say about God, the hound of heaven, seeking the ultimate possibilities of a Father seeking to save all of his children, each and every one, in every way possible. Ben, this is where you kick in and get reactive in order to preserve your private thinking as if it safeguards God from saving the wrong people. You start getting pointed here in his accusation of Bell being a universalist, which is a false assertion which Bell does not claim either in interviews or in his writing. Some have called him a functional universalist which is also a misnomer.

    You state: “The end of the chapter stresses that if we want heaven or hell, we can have it. God will allow us to have our freedom of choice, and some do and may well continue to choose evil rather than good, unto all eternity. It is statements like this that allow Rob to insist he isn’t a universalist.” Come on Ben you can’t have it both ways–does Bell state that people can continue to choose evil rather than good, unto all eternity or not?

  • Kevinreddington

    So God doesn’t get what God wants? There are some things too good even for God to have? What if he wanted Adam to fall because he knew that despite man’s choice for sin he could bring redemption, which is a better ending than having a world that never fell.

    Not necessarily defending Rob, just curious for your thoughts.


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