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.