This is a guest post written by one of my students–Austin Fischer. As you can see, he’s particularly bright (and not just because he agrees with me about most things!) and articulate. I think he makes some very good points about the controversy surrounding Love Wins here. However, just because I post a guest essay here does not mean I agree with everything in it (the standard disclaimer!)
Love Wins? God Wins?
As has been duly noted at this point, Love Wins has sparked a firestorm in the evangelical world because it has exposed some deep fissures. These fissures have been around as long as evangelicals have but certainly seem to be growing. In a lecture on universalism, Scot McKnight suggested that evangelicals have reacted with such vitriol towards the book because it threatens the very heart of the evangelical ethos, which (according to McKnight) is the belief that people need to be converted. As such, Rob Bell’s flirtation with universalism has threatened the importance of conversion and thus incurred the wrath of evangelicalism.
Yet McKnight’s contention seems to make two questionable assumptions. First, it assumes there is a blanket evangelical rejection of the ideas in Love Wins. Second, it assumes that those evangelicals who are rejecting Love Wins are rejecting it for the same reasons.
Why Can’t We Agree On What Love Wins Is Saying?
The first assumption is problematic on a couple of levels. First off, it seems implausible to say there is a blanket rejection of the ideas in Love Wins because there has been little consensus as to what exactly Love Wins is saying. There is an interesting dynamic at work here, because—to speak candidly—Love Wins is not a complex book. It’s not hard to follow and it doesn’t use big words. Bell doesn’t write sentences longer than six words. He writes. Like. This. So why can’t we come to a consensus on what Love Wins is saying? How can some people think the book teaches universalism and some think it doesn’t?
The answer is exceedingly simple: we’re not good readers. And the fact that we’re not good readers has nothing to do with inadequate education or IQ. It has everything to do with a growing trend in evangelical (and perhaps wider) culture towards sectarianism and the loss of moderation. Lots could be said here, but suffice to say there are fewer and fewer people trying to be in the center anymore. The center is seen as a weak place, a place lacking conviction, a place where the cowards huddle together and try not to offend anyone.
Not too long ago I was talking with a pastor about being a “moderate” Christian and he rebuked the very existence of such a thing: “When it comes down to it, I don’t think there are any moderates.” Hmm. When I asked him to substantiate the claim, his answer was telling: “Because even moderates are passionate about some things.” Apparently, a moderate is a person who isn’t passionate about anything…except everybody being happy. This moderate caricature is as pervasive as it is inaccurate. And while I don’t care to offer a full-blown definition of what it means to be a Christian moderate, I think it is helpful to say that to be moderate is to be passionately committed to meaningful conversations in pursuit of the truth. To be a moderate means you check the impulse to caricature, distort, talk over, and assume you know what someone else is saying. As such you can be a conservative moderate or a liberal moderate, a Calvinist moderate or an Open Theist moderate. Whatever.
We’re not good readers because we’re not good at being moderate. We don’t really want to listen to opposing ideas and we don’t want a real conversation. We think “we” have the truth and “they” don’t, so why have a conversation? Bluntly, if we find it difficult to have an actual conversation then it’s probably because we’re arrogant and ignorant, not informed.
So why can’t we come to a consensus on what Love Wins is saying? Because we don’t want to hear what it is saying. We just want to use it as a springboard into a monologue about why we’re right.
What Is Love Wins Saying?
This said, what is Love Wins saying? Like I said, it’s simple and really not that much different from what people such as C.S. Lewis, Moltmann, and Hans Urs von Balthasar have said; namely, in the end we can’t say anything too firm about the destiny of human beings other than the fact that God will do what God wants with us. Bell speculates over what God does indeed plan to do with us (i.e. giving us all eternity to allow God to save us…a flirtation with universalism) and that speculation is certainly fair grounds for conversation and criticism. Indeed a moderate would encourage such! But the fact that so few grasp this clear, simple thesis of the book is a sad indictment of the current evangelical climate. Like I said, we’re not good readers.
The second problem with the assumption is that there simply hasn’t been a blanket evangelical rejection of Love Wins. Some evangelicals agree with most, if not all, the book. This leads us to an examination of the second assumption: Are all evangelicals rebuking Love Wins for the same reasons?
Why is Love Wins Rejected?
The second assumption—that all evangelicals are rebuking Love Wins because it questions the need for conversion—is problematic because evangelicals are so diverse. The primary example of this is seen in the variously labeled neo-Puritan/neo-Calvinist branch of evangelicalism, characterized by the theology of Jonathan Edwards (especially as articulated by John Piper), the preaching of Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Francis Chan, Tim Keller, and the influence of Al Mohler and company. To state the obvious, this branch of evangelicalism holds as fundamental numerous beliefs that stand in direct antithesis to any “free-will” branch of evangelicalism. As such, it should come as no surprise that while free-will and Calvinist evangelicals might both rebuke Love Wins, they don’t do it for the same reasons.
My contention is that neo-Calvinist evangelicalism doesn’t rebuke Love Wins because it undermines conversion (I mean what could undermine conversion more than unconditional election!?), but because it doesn’t teach Calvinism. To put it another way, they are not rejecting Love Wins so much as they are rejecting anything that is not Calvinism.
This is blatantly obvious if you’ve read any of the numerous books written in response to Love Wins, many of which are written by neo-Calvinists. Now to be clear, I’m not criticizing them for writing a response. That’s the moderate way! But what they and many others fail to perceive is that most of the ideas they critique in Love Wins are not critiques of universalism but of any sort of free-will theism. They are not criticizing universalism but basic free-will theism.
God Wins: A Case Study
An excerpt from God Wins by Mark Galli is helpful: “What is assumed in…Love Wins is that the human will is free, autonomous, and able to choose between alternatives. [Love Wins] assumes that the will is not fallen, that it needs no salvation, that it doesn’t even need help” (71). A number of things jump out. First, where does Love Wins assume that the human will is not fallen and does not need help? This is a massive indictment and if it were true then I would assume all free-will theists would join in the indictment. But where is it? Page number? Nope. See the above section on being bad readers.
A second thing that jumps out is the lack of an acknowledgement of a mediating position; namely, that while the human will is naturally “turned in on itself” with a propensity towards evil, the grace (prevenient) of God heals our fallen will so that we can actually choose for God or against God. This idea—that prevenient grace heals our fallen will to the point that we can indeed make a decision for or against God—is not universalism. It is classical free-will theism, the predominant Christian understanding of the relationship between human will and divine grace for two thousand years (see Against Calvinism by Dr. Roger Olson for substantiation of this claim).
Does God Give Us What We Want?
Related to this is Galli’s critique of Bell’s central assertion in Love Wins: in the end, God gives us what we want. In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis suggests that the doors of hell are locked from the inside. That is, those who end up in hell are there because they wanted hell and not because God was keeping them out of heaven. God has forgiven everyone (or made forgiveness possible for everyone) through the cross so that salvation, redemption, and reconciliation are possible for every last person and thing in the cosmos. In my view, all Bell does is pick up this line of thought. It’s not universalism. Lewis was clearly not a Universalist and believed many would indeed choose hell (especially the theologians!). It is, I think, a fair and plausible explanation of what Scripture tells us about God and his purposes for the world.
But according to Galli, the idea that God gives us what we want would be “very bad news” (because he mistakenly dismisses the notion of prevenient grace wherein our wills can be healed so that we can indeed want God), and on top of that it’s unbiblical. He tries to substantiate his claim by citing all the texts that talk about how we’re slaves to sin, insinuating they prove God doesn’t give us what we want because all we would want is sin. In doing so he makes the glaring mistake of failing to acknowledge the basic free-will explanation of such passages. At the risk of monotony, free-will theism holds that we are indeed enslaved by sin but by God’s grace our will is healed so that we can indeed make a decision for God. In other words, according to free-will theism, God does indeed give us what we want, granting us the grace so that we can make a decision for or against God.
Along these lines, to say that the idea that God gives us what we want is unbiblical is, to a free-will theist, itself unbiblical. I would argue that every single time Scripture admonishes us to repent or perish, to do evil or good, to obey God or disobey, to follow or not to follow Jesus, it is telling us that God gives us what we want. And to put it mildly, there are a lot more verses in the Bible about this than there are about our will being fallen, though both are true and easily reconciled by free-will theism.
Seen in this light, I think God giving us what we want is one of the most foundational and often-revealed truths in the Bible. It doesn’t necessitate some mushy sentimentalism in which God exists to serve our every need and wouldn’t criticize Hitler for beating the Virgin Mary. Nope. It just means that our God’s peculiar way of dealing with his creation is not to give it what it deserves. Rather it is for him to take what we deserve upon himself, up to the cross and down into the grave to ensure that none of us have to get what we deserve. We can get what we deserve if we so choose, but we don’t have to. And God doesn’t do this because he has to. He does it because he wants to, which is the great mystery we call love. Love wins? Yep. God wins? Yep.
So what does Love Wins say? I think it says that in the end the only thing we can be sure of is that God will do whatever he wants with us, and that Jesus and the Bible teach us that what God wants to do with us is let us have what we want. In other words, in the end God lets us choose between heaven and hell. That sounds pretty orthodox to me. Now to be sure, Bell does flirt with universalism, so fire away with criticism at that. But the problem is that lots of the “evangelical” criticism isn’t that Bell teaches universalism: it’s that he doesn’t teach Calvinism.
So if the problem with Love Wins is it teaches that God graciously gives us the chance to choose between heaven and hell, then I think evangelicals should have a problem with those who have a problem with Love Wins. In the end, God does give us what we want. I can’t think of anything more evangelical…or biblical.
 I should note that I don’t know Galli’s theological presuppositions. Indeed at points he seems to affirm free-will theism (see his response metaphor on 73-74). To me he appears to be either a confused/inconsistent free-will theist or a confused/inconsistent Calvinist.