Chapter 4 Synopsis:
This is the chapter where he begins to say things that will make some Christians uncomfortable. But making us feel uncomfortable is not a reason to call him a heretic. His case is made artfully and solidly. He gives evidence that the church fathers, the scriptures, Christians all throughout the past two thousand years have believed that God will somehow have his way in the end. He notes:
– Many hold the position that we get this life and only this life to believe in Jesus.
– Some think there is some kind of second chance after death (Luther thought this).
– Some say there will be an endless amount of time to say yes to God. He writes, “At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance to God.”
This third one is what theologians sometimes call “infinite subsequent chances.” Again, this is not a new idea, nor is it peculiar to theological liberals. He poses a very good question, “Could God say to someone truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation, ‘Sorry, to late’? Many have refused to accept the scenario in which somebody is pounding on the door, apologizing, repenting, and asking God to be let in, only to hear God say through the keyhole: “Door’s locked, Sorry. If you had been here earlier, I could have done something, But now, it’s too late.”
He walks through the typical argument that some people will choose evil forever (this is straight out of C.S. Lewis & The Great Divorce). “Lots of people in our world right now choose to be violent and abusive and mean and evil, so why won’t they continue to choose this path after they die.” He notes that when humans choose evil, they often spiral down. It begins to consume them totally. Evil can get its claws into us so deeply that we can’t live w/out it, and eventually that person’s humanity could simply melt away over time – they become less than human. This is where he affirms that the possibility of infinite hell is real.
He rightly points out that Christians do not all agree on how to settle the question about who goes where when and how. It’s resolved in a number of different ways, and any way that you choose will be opposed by other Christians. In his words, “Serious, orthodox followers of Jesus have answered these questions in a number of different ways…however you answer these questions, there’s a good chance you can find a Christian or a group of Christians somewhere who would answer in a similar way.” His perspective is that the Christian faith is big enough to handle these different perspectives. There is no official doctrine held by everybody.My thoughts here are that this is why we cannot set ourselves up as the gods of orthodoxy and condemn Rob Bell as a heretic. Remember this when people are passing judgment on Bell’s orthodoxy. There are sincere, orthodox, vibrant Christians who disagree with even the guys who are condemning him.
When Bell puts it to a fine point, he asks, “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions 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.” It makes me wonder if maybe the tension is exactly what God wants? Maybe the tension is the only way that we can actually grow toward love.
A little commentary on my part: This is part of why Bell gets attacked. It’s not for what he says, it is for what he will not say. He will not pronounce judgment on this issue, but chooses instead to live in the tension and leave the ultimate answers – especially concerning who goes where, when and how – up to God. Here’s the deal. He’s not lowering the divinity of Jesus – his Christology is very high. He’s not adding anything new – this is not a novel idea, many have said it reaching clear back to the Hebrew scriptures. He’s not –strictly speaking – a universalist. He stops just shy of this because he still allows for the possibility that many will reject God in the end. He’s just saying that because of who God is, God will never stop trying. You can’t call him a heretic based on this belief because there is evidence of this point of view in the scriptures, the church fathers, etc. He’s not passing judgment on the issue, he’s living in the tension, while expressing complete and total confidence in God’s infinite love. For people who need certitude, this will always bother them. For those who are in search of truth and understanding, we’ll be accustomed to tension and not feel the need to pronounce our views “right” and everyone else’s “wrong.”
To conclude the chapter, Bell makes an interesting twist. He says, “Does God get what God wants?” is a question we cannot answer. But the question, “Do we get what we want,” we can surely answer. The answer is yes – we get what we want. If we want isolation, despair…etc, we get it. If we crave light, truth… etc. we can have it. This is an interesting move and something to consider.