Christ and Pop Culture writer, Ben Bartlett and guest-writer, Kiel Hauck, two friends who spend their Friday nights playing video and board games in between heated theological, social, and political discussions, come together to hammer out their thoughts about a book that seems to have most other evangelicals shutting down lines of communication, intentionally or not.
Each week, they’ll read one chapter, and trade a few emails discussing the chapter. This week, they discuss Chapter 4: Does God Get What God Wants?.
Kiel Hauck: “Can’t we at least say that it wouldn’t be out of the question to think that God might, in fact, redeem everyone – that he really will make all things new?”
This is without a doubt my favorite chapter of the book so far. I’m not even exactly sure where to start. I guess I’ll begin by quoting a few of the verses he uses in the chapter:
From Psalm 145 – “God is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.”
From Psalm 30 – “God’s anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime.”
From Psalm 145 – “God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”
These verses kind of sum up the motivation behind this chapter. Bell’s purpose here is to show us that there is no point where all hope is lost and that the offer of salvation continues eternally. I haven’t said this yet, not even privately, but I think I’m at a place where I agree. I thought it was interesting to hear that Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Eusebius, Jerome, Basil, and Augustine all, at one time or another, agreed with this notion. He seems to go to great lengths to show that this isn’t some way-out-there idea and that people throughout history have found mystery when it comes to the idea of an eternal hell.
He even goes so far as to say that it’s quite “Christian” to hope for the salvation of all. I’d have to agree, given that we’re told God desires for all to be saved. We’re also told in 1 John that Christ is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” I know the arguments against this idea, I actually wrote an entire paper while in seminary arguing against these verses meaning a universal salvation. What’s clear to me though, is that this isn’t “Universalism.” At least how I understand it. Bell isn’t claiming that all roads lead to the same place, simply that Christ’s work is enough to cover everyone and that given enough time, every knee will eventually bow. These kinds of things are hard to grasp and even harder to swallow, but I ask you Ben – is it that crazy to even entertain the thought that God could redeem everyone?
Most reformed conservatives are going to have to leave their Calvinism at the door while reading this chapter, seeing as Bell’s main focus in this chapter, titled “Does God Get What God Wants?” is to show that we are the ones who get what we want. If we want hell, we are able to make that choice – and many do. His idea of love here is that God is loving enough to let us make that choice. I still wrestle with the whole free will/predestination thing and at times Bell feels a little too loosey-goosey with that particular premise, but I suppose in the end I agree with the overarching idea that our end result as far as hell is concerned is a choice we willingly make.
Here’s what I love most about this chapter and I hope you do as well: Bell asserts throughout the chapter that there’s wiggle room here. He says “not all Christians believe this, and you don’t have to believe it to be Christian. The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle that vast range of perspectives.” He also adds that “those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions that we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.”
I’m hoping you’re in agreement here. It’s fine if you’re not, but I feel like this is a subject so mysterious that it seems difficult to imagine a resounding certain answer about what God will do about the eternity of everyone who ever lived. Do we really have all the information we need to make a certain judgment about how God handles the eternity of his creation? Can’t we at least say that it wouldn’t be out of the question to think that God might, in fact, redeem everyone – that he really will make all things new? I think it’s more than fair to entertain that idea, but I’m interested to see what you think.
Ben Bartlett: “Don’t you think it’s remotely possible that God’s desire for all to be saved is tied to his love, but not necessarily to his largest and most important purpose?”
Imagine with me, for a moment, that a new book comes out tomorrow. The title of the book is, “Sin Loses,” and it’s written by one of those Independent Fundamentalist Baptist preachers with a 6000 member megachurch in Texas. In this book, he asserts Christianity is all about escaping hell. He says God is angry with the world, and has offered us a lifeline but has limited it to just a few people. This preacher cites, among many others, the following passages.
Hebrews 10:26-31 – “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries… It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
2 Thessalonians 1:5-12 – “[those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus] will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.”
John 3:18 – “Whoever believes in him [the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
John 3:36 – “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
The preacher’s main thesis is that you should sell everything you have and frantically tell every single person you meet about Jesus as fast as you can so they can escape hell.
How would you feel about this? Would you still say God is loving? Would you agree that the pastor is a part of the wide, deep, mysterious river that is Christian theology? Would you be comfortable recommending that a friend attend his church and buy into his theology?
See, I think our hypothetical author above has the same problem as Rob Bell. God has a lot of traits… he is loving, yes, but also wrathful and patient and compassionate and just and empathetic and holy. When Rob or our wrath-loving friend above describes a single characteristic of God and then pulls out individual verses that seem to support their statements, they miss out on the fullness of God’s character as he describes it in Scripture. Then, because they allow their theology to be controlled by this limited conception of God, they start to make theological leaps on the basis of that conception in unhealthy directions.
So when you say God desires for all to be saved, of course I agree. I also agree that God desires that there be no sin, that nations submit, that hearts obey, that orphans are fed and widows are cared for. But when Rob asks us whether God gets what God wants, he hits on a crucial point… if God does get what God wants, then God must want something more than our individual happiness. And sin and suffering and wrath and above all the consistency of God’s character have to be part of that answer. And the idea of hell is not disqualified.
See, God can have two kinds of desires. One kind is what he “wants,” but knows isn’t the best thing… I’m sure he wants health and wealth and happiness for all of us, but if that results in hearts that are unresponsive to his authority we have a problem. The other kind is what he “wants” that he definitely makes happen… for instance, God wanted Egypt to let Israel go and he clearly would do whatever it took to make that happen. Don’t you think it’s remotely possible that God’s desire for all to be saved is tied to his love, but not necessarily to his largest and most important purpose?
Some quick side points. I agree Rob Bell is not espousing Universalism as it is classically defined. However, he is offering a theological perspective that I think is clearly not supportable by a balanced reading of Scripture. Kevin DeYoung, for instance, has a fabulous article (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/) highlighting Rob’s plethora of mistakes in his flat-lining and proof-texting of Scripture (not to mention logical mistakes and inconsistencies). It would mean a lot to me if you would read that review carefully and think about whether Rob’s methods are problematic.
Also, Rob’s use of history is really weird. I don’t know all that much about the church fathers’ individual theology, but I DO know that Augustine did not take Bell’s perspective. In fact, I’m pretty sure he went out of his way to declare it heretical. And just because historical figures had particular ideas doesn’t make them acceptable… that’s why, for instance, we don’t accept Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses as part of the church.
But Rob gets the answer wrong. He skips over God’s descriptions of himself as holy, just, wrathful, authoritative, and Other. He reduces God to a sort of all-loving, mysterious sweetheart who has set up a world where everybody gets it right eventually.
Is there wiggle room in our theology? At certain points, sure. But not on things where God is clear. And when I compare Rob’s description of God to God’s description of God, I see a lot of differences.
Kiel Hauck: “I believe that there is payment that is needed for that sin and that there’s only one way for that payment to be satisfied and I believe that it has been satisfied. When we are told “it is finished”, I believe that it, in fact, was finished.”
I’m not making the argument that God is only concerned with our individual happiness, and Bell isn’t making that argument either. I get that. There’s obviously pain in the world. All you have to do is take a step outside the door to gather that much. That’s part of what we bring about ourselves – I fully believe that we bring about pain through our own choices and that effect has been reverberating since Adam sinned. I believe that there is payment that is needed for that sin and that there’s only one way for that payment to be satisfied and I believe that it has been satisfied. When we are told “it is finished”, I believe that it, in fact, was finished.
Maybe I’m misreading you, but it seems like you’re lumping eternal conscious torment in with all these other things that aren’t as severe. Yes, there are things in this world that suck and that God hates, but those things don’t seem to compare to hell itself. At least not to me. You asked “is there wiggle room in our theology? At certain points, sure. But not on things where God is clear.” So God is absolutely, positively clear on eternal damnation? Can we really make that call for God and be confident that we completely understood? Why does this seem like such a stretch (and a dangerous one, at that) for me?
I don’t want to come across as one of those wishy-washy types. I’m not that kind of person, I think you know that. There are many truths that I joyfully hold about God. This one aspect – that God eternally damns those who don’t turn to him, that there’s no hope after this short life for anyone who never knew him, is extremely hard to swallow. You still didn’t address the idea of whether there’s any hope after death that someone could change their heart, unless of course this is one of your certainties and is to be included in that statement. But once again, I ask how we can be certain of God’s judgment. It’s his judgment, not ours and to claim knowledge of his choices with someone’s eternity is quite bold.
On the topic of hell, I want to address something that Bell hasn’t really touched on yet. I can only see this as two ways if hell is eternal. Either someone in hell eventually realizes the sweetness of Christ and turns their heart towards God at some point during eternity but can never escape and continues living in punishment or someone in hell was always going to be hardened towards God and continues to reject him eternally. The only one that makes sense to me is the last one – and if that’s true, then it scares me to think that someone was born that inevitably would always turn their backs to God with no hope. I think that falls under the limited atonement clause in Calvin’s TULIP. It’s a point I used to hold, with that passage from Romans 9 as my defense many years ago.
I’m sure the resounding response to what I’m saying is “oh, get over it! God said it, so believe it, and that settles it!” What I’m attempting to do is to somehow step outside of my worldview and the theological box that’s been created by me and for me and simply look at this as a human. Someone who generally wants to understand how this concept could be true. Perhaps that’s impossible and a failed task from the start, but I at least want to try to wrestle with this.
In response to your story and how Bell is any different from the character you painted – Bell is loving and the other is not. We aren’t called to instill fear and aren’t called to condemn. We are called to love one another. That’s the big difference to me. This is going to sound cheesy, but I do have a hope that love wins in the end. Not just for some or a chosen few, but for all. Maybe hell is love winning somehow and I just can’t wrap my head around it. That’s fine and I’m sure that someday in the presence of God I can understand, but right now it’s pretty difficult.