Seriously, This Post Really IS about Rob Bell

David Opderbeck is the smartest kid in the room on any blog he frequents, including this one.  He’s got a post up dealing with what I think is the single biggest flaw in Love Wins — and, David says, in Francis Chan’s polemic against Love Wins — which I haven’t read, and don’t plan to.

David writes:

“God can do ANYTHING he wants.”  So say Preston Sprinkle and Francis Chan in their book “Erasing Hell.”  It’s fair to say that this proposition is the cornerstone of Sprinkle and Chan’s theodicy of Hell.  “Won’t God get what he wants?”  So asks Rob Bell in his book “Love Wins.”  It’s also fair to say that this question, along with the belief that God wants everyone to be saved, is the cornerstone of Bell’s theodicy of Hell.’

David goes on to write about the philosophical ideas of nominalism and voluntarism.  It’s a long, sophisticated post, and I commend it to you.

However, I’ll write the same thing in a bit different terms:

In Love Wins — particularly in chapter four — Rob makes two claims that I think are mutually exclusive:

  1. God get whatever God wants.
  2. God is bound by love.

I don’t think that Rob can have it both ways.

If God gets whatever God wants, then God is completely sovereign and is not bound by anything — not the laws of physics, and not the law of love.

If, on the other hand, God is bound by love, then God has abdicated some of God’s sovereignty, in which case God does not necessarily get what God wants.

In either scenario, a case can be made that there is no hell (or that hell is empty, as it seems Rob (and C.S. Lewis and John Stott) would have it).  In scenario one, God wants everyone to go to heaven, so there is no one in hell.  In scenario two, love binds God to embrace everyone after death, meaning that hell is empty.

So I’m not saying that Rob Bell is wrong in his conclusion.  I just think that he sets up a fallacious argument to get to his conclusion.

What say you?

See my other posts on Love Wins here.

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  • I think you’re right in the way you summarize Bell’s arguments in the 4th chapter. And I think in my own reading I translated it based on my own ideas. I turn his assertions into this (and I think it’s very close to Bell):

    1. God gets whatever God wants.
    2. God CHOOSES love.

    In this way, God is completely sovereign and God makes a choice to extend grace.

    • Yes. This.

    • JoeyS

      Yes, and it seems that if God wants Love then ultimately, and Bell makes this claim, Love offers choices, one of which is rejection of God. In that sense, God gets what God wants.

      Bell leans heavily towards the idea that God WANTS all people to be saved, but he never jumps on that boat completely. His heavy lean, though, makes it hard to deduce that what he is actually saying is that Love requires choice and God wants Love.

    • What about the Bible saying that God IS love?

  • Tony, I agree with you that 1 and 2 are not compatible. But, I think Rob would way that God chooses to be bound by 2, not abstractly bound by 2 as if it is prior and external to God and determines his actions (or something similar).

  • (way = say) #NeedAnEditor

  • Travis Greene

    I think Moltmann deals with this in Trinity and Kingdom. God only wants what is consistent with the love that God in fact is. God’s freedom (like ours) is not libertarian freedom between options, but the ability of acting consistently with oneself. God can still get whatever God wants, God just can’t want whatever God wants. “He cannot deny himself.”

    I don’t believe in that sort of sovereignty anyway, but I think they can be consistent.

    • Yes, I think this is right. Another way of saying this is that God is bound by love because God binds Godself by love. The bond is internal to God and God’s nature, not external, but arises FROM God’s sovereignty and not in opposition to it.

    • I came here to say this. So, this.

  • Careful. We’re applying logical inference to a transcendental being. You cannot reason this out. Reason gives us hints, ideas and hypotheses but is incapable of proof here. Even in mathematics, logic has been proven to be fundamentally incomplete.

    But mostly I’m commenting to ask where did CS Lewis claim an empty hell? To me he always seemed quite certain that we may choose to reject God, as he long did.

    • michael bowers

      I couldn’t agree more with you John. It seems that as humans we feel the need to put very finite labels on a very infinite being in God. Sometimes the people that claim to celebrate the “mystery” of God tend to at times strip that very thing away from Him. It’s almost like suggesting that God is late for an occassion. How could He be? God is not bound by our understanding of time. I guess I don’t exactly know how to define God in the sense of what He is bound by or not bound by…and that’s OK with me. Although these types of conversations are fun to have at times with other brothers and sisters, I don’t know how crucial “finding the answer” is when discussing living for Christ (not suggesting anyone here is saying it is). I too am not sure where C.S. Lewis states that “hell is empty”. It seems that reading through Lewis that he understood people would reject God here on Earth, and God honors their choice.

      • You’re right — C. S. Lewis didn’t empty hell. In this he broke with his teacher, George MacDonald, who did empty it. And Michael’s last sentence is a good, succinct summary of Lewis’s view of hell.

  • Achim

    I don’t agree. But Bell is right in my opinion.

    1. God gets what God wants: Love.
    because of
    2. God is bound by love.

    Read Phil 2.

  • Joel

    Does God always get what God wants? A 3 year old dies of a rare form of cancer, suffering the entire time – did God want this? A dictator kills thousands of his people on a whim – did God want this? People around the globe go to bed hungry – did God want this?

    If God is a God of love (not that He chooses love, as though love were something external, but rather love is a part of His essence), and He has created beings capable of free will decisions, then He simply can’t always get what He wants.

    • Yes Joel,
      I feel the same. After working with victims of child sex trafficking, I asked myself the same question…in control??? and should/could i say this in introducing one of these little ones to God/Jesus?? “god is sovereign…and in some way he is using this to….whatever??” no can do! this kind of talk may work with speeding tickets and embarrassing moments…but to ascribe such to god?! i can’t/won’t smoke that or sell that. When asked…”where was god?” by that little girl…my only response would be ….god was crying with you in the dust…holding you saying “i never dreamed it would be this way, but i have lots of people and love which i hope will be able to turn your ashes into beauty so you can giggle again….” I know this raises all sorts of theological questions and ramifications which cannot be ansswered, but i don’t care…and don’t think perhaps it is possible to nail it all down…and i hate to play the “mystery” card to trump the conversation, but it’s all i have…and i’d rather camp out there cuz it feels closer to Love than anything else [i know i know….if god were so loving wouldn’t he prevent it!? i get it, but can’t camp here…]

      • Joel C

        Hey Joels! I’ve nothing really to say, but i’m also a Joel amd this is rare. Cheers!

    • Sarah

      God wants us to have free will and to honor that God lets us make bad choices, which sometimes has the effect of dire consequences for those around us, known and unknown. While God always wants good things to happen to and for us, God only extends the invitation of relationship, which refreshes and heals when we accept it.

      I don’t think this is a case of binding or limiting – it is God honoring our ability to make choices, good or bad, and standing with us (loving compassion) when the consequences hurt.

  • I think the distinction becomes less problematic with something like Barth where he argues that, at the base level, God is love. This defining character of who God IS comes before even God’s will (what God does and wants). Love is not trying to get anywhere but simply an end in itself.

    Creation, redemption and judgement, therefore, are always an overflow from the God who is, in his inner being, love.

    Therefore, I think it less of a case of God being bound by love / getting what he wants; rather, I think that, if we are talking theologically, we need to say that God’s will and desire are an outworking of who God is in the core of his being.

  • ben hammond

    I agree with the first could of posts specifically defining what it is that God wants. I remember Bell eventually saying that what he thinks God wants is to ultimately let people have what they want, and he does it through love.

  • Kevin Glenn

    Thanks Tony,
    Where does John Stott express his view on this?

    • Stott expressed sympathy for the annihilationist view of hell, so I think that’s where Tony is going with that. Previously occupied, but empty in the end.

  • First, I don’t think Bell argues that God gets WHATEVER God wants. That’s a New Calvinist position. He argues that in this particular area – the salvation of human souls – God eventually gets what God wants.

    If I understood Bell’s arguments correctly, God self-limits and so people end up in Hell because they have free will.

    But because Bell allows for post-mortem conversion, he argues that God could/hopefully will eventually woo every person with free will in Hell to repent and join God in Heaven.

    That doesn’t contradict either of his premises, does it?

  • Nick

    I agree that Bell is being fallacious, but I don’t think he cares. Bell is pretty anti-modernism, and doesn’t always care whether something is logical or provable. Not saying that excuses the use of fallacies.

    Also, as we’ve all said over and over again when discussing this book, he never comes to any conclusions. He side steps ever being nailed down, by not saying, “God gets what God wants,” but instead asks, “Does God get what God wants?” I don’t think it would be a stretch to assume that Bell does believe the former statement, but we can’t be sure.

    Whatever the reality of Bell’s position may be. I think the point of the book was not to convince people of one way or the other. When I read it, I got the impression that Bell was deliberately slippery because he would rather challenge people and complicate their ideas (even if he needed to use fallacies to do it), rather than explaining what he believes and why he believes it.

  • Bell’s argument isn’t that God gets “whatever” God wants. There is no “whatever” there. What he does argue is that God wants a very specific thing: for all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, as quoted from 1 Timothy. He then provides many other scripture verses making this same (or similar) point, and concludes that if this is what God wants–due to God’s love for all–then it will be so.

  • Scot Miller

    I think Bell made a mistake to say God gets whatever God wants, which rests on a theologically mistaken notion of omnipotence. If God is love, God’s power is not coercive power, but the persuasive power of love, which lets things be (or, as Paul says in 1 Cor 13, love “does not insist on its own way”). God may be eternally redeeming the universe to Godself, but God has to deal with the real choices made by free beings in the universe (just like the father of the prodigal son let his son go). Process theologians are more helpful here than the more conceptually confused “open theists.”

  • Maybe I’m asking a different question here, but wasn’t (isn’t) God’s most loving act granting us freewill to choose hell (i.e., not Him)? Bell never suggests otherwise – his main assertion is that one can stay in hell as long as one likes (physical death is not a deadline). Who’s to say some won’t continue to groan and gnash their teeth in eternity just as they do in life as they continually seek their own will apart from their creator? Here God chooses love AND God gets what He wants without making death an arbitrary deadline.

    I haven’t read Chan’s book either, but none of the rebuttal books/essays/rants I have read address this effectively. They are always too busy arguing some point Bell never made.

  • I think the flaw in your logic is that you are separating God and Love. Consider 1 John 4:8, God is bound by love because of “God IS love”. So yes God is sovereign, but then this means love is also sovereign also. And love cannot, not love… Therefore Love Wins.

  • Chris P.

    I’m typically the dumbest guy in the room when commenting on blogs. I’m also the most self deprecating. 🙂

    Maybe I’m not understanding the subtlety of “sovereignty” but I don’t think that God being sovereign negates His overriding attribute of love. I guess what I’m asking is what makes it a fallacious argument? What fallacy is committed in suggesting what Bell suggests?

    Furthermore I concur with the suggestion that Bell doesn’t suggest what others have suggested he is suggesting.

  • dopderbeck

    Thanks for the props!!

    A profound and I think moving aspect of this in scripture is Jesus’ relationship to Jerusalem. In Luke 13:34, Jesus says “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” In Luke 19:28-41, the “Triumphal Entry” — really the “Tragic” Entry — Jesus weeps over the city, and says “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.”

    Jerusalem is here both the city-in-history that will be destroyed in 70 A.D. and a metaphor for God’s relationship with His people. Here is the whole mystery: Jesus’ wanting — longing! — for the peace of the city, the city’s resistance, the hiddenness of peace and thus the hiddenness of God. Maybe not the whole mystery, since the New Jerusalem is not yet in view.

  • chris

    I don’t believe God gets what he wants – he wants all to Love as He does and we don’t. Non of us do; and many don’t even try. Some will know Jesus and His love and enter relationship with that love in order know it better and better, others will not. Love does indeed win. All are given choice. Love demands choice.

  • I think you’re right, as the statements are worded. But a change in wording might eliminate the fallacy:

    1. God gets whatever God wants, and his “wants” flow from his nature.
    2. God’s nature is love.

    Same basic idea…I think.

  • Dopderbeck (RE: your comment) – how fascinating. Those two passages from Luke were in my family’s advent reading this morning (for the calendar we use). In a way, I think the New Jerusalem is also in Jesus’ eyes in that scene: a wanting now that goes unfulfilled, and a wanting now&then that will one day be fulfilled. Thanks for the extremely thoughtful post and I thank you for it. Thanks, Tony, for added space to discuss here.


  • I think the phenomenological approach by Opterbeck is helpful for most everyone’s comments above: to separate nature from reason or the will of God from the actual being of God will place the separator in an untenable dilemma of choosing one or the other. Bell toys around in that space but then uses “disembodied reason” to make his argument. I think Dallas Willard plays in the same arena and yet looses traction as well when allowing nominalists and volunteerists to reduce his arguments.

    We know about God (sure many voices that might be argued to differ), what God does will inform our definition of God. The terminology we assign to that, like “love” (because of scripture, tradition, experience, whatever), is what God-talk-ers will trade in. Virtue Ethics does the best for me when it comes to this… the stories of God and God-work informing our own actions/vision– talking about more than that “on behalf” of God is to rise to the disembodied “separator’s” place.

  • I’m not sure that the two are mutually exclusive.

    God, is love and as love, gets what he wants. What he wants is love and what he wants comes from love.

    For me, it’s like the Prodigal Son falling at the feet of the Father. The Son tries to reject the Father’s love and define himself. The Father rejects this attempt and embraces him. He disempowers his Son in order to love him as I think he often does with us.

    For me, God wins and Love wins when he rejects our choice to fight his love and lavishes it anyway, refusing to allow us to choose our trajectory or destination. His love conquers us, spares us, frees us and does not entertain our choice if they are an attempt to reject him.

    • Frank

      The Prodigal Son would not have been there to fall at the feet of the father if he did not decide that coming home was better than going his own way. Love does win if we let love win. We still have that choice.

      • Richard

        But he comes home to negotiate a job with his dad. He hasn’t really returned to his sonship, he’s still trying to make his own way as a worker for his father.

  • Marshall

    To say God chooses not to make a choices: that is, to be bound: ties a rationalist knot. To me it makes more sense to say that a part of God’s eudaimonia to desire to draw all beings towards himself. Which we know or surmise from observing how He expresses himself in the world, same as we learn about Socrates’ notions of virtue by observing his speech and behavior. Apparently there would be something contradictory or unsatisfactory in compelling “good behavior”.

    What happens to people who refuse to play nicely is above my pay grade, and “as for me and my house” I vastly prefer to focus on not refusing. Personally.

  • Jeremiah Ritchie

    Not sure if this works on the existential level, but if God IS love, then isn’t he bound by himself? If this is the case, wouldn’t he retain his sovereignty?

    I have a harder time believing that God gets what he wants than that he is bound by love. If God gets everything he wants, then he wants sin, too; the gossip, greed, lust, murder, rape, apathy, etc. My theological needle doesn’t point that way.


  • David Vanderveen

    Actually, I think this criticism misses the point of LoveWins entirely. Rob is not writing an argument or treatise in LoveWins, he’s wrestling with the mystery of a Christian faith and asking lots of questions. Pointing out the paradox in a person’s lyrical discussion of a paradox is like reading LoveWins and asking Rob, “So, Muslims are going to Hell, true or false?” If the book is trans-rational, why would you try to bring it back to an analytical process?

  • David Vanderveen

    …there are also very good rational arguments why David Opderbeck’s argument hinges on flawed assumptions about what it means that God chooses love, and thus freedom and why he does get what he wants. But I cannot imagine why this is a profitable exercise.

  • Dave

    Love God and do as you please.
    Be love and do as you please.

  • If we’re still operating under a Newtonian cosmology, it’ll be tough to square these two apparent contradictions. But the Quantum world offers us a different view. And the Christian mystics have foreseen it. I doubt Meister Eckhart or Julian of Norwich would have trouble with Rob’s way of framing things.

    The Danish physicist, Niels Bohr said something like: If you’re not confused, your mind made numb, by the Quantum world, then you’re still stuck in an outdated one. Heisenberg, Einstein and others bear witness that we’re no longer living in a deterministic universe, bound by the old laws. Rather, this new, participatory universe is a complicated web of relations in which two apparent contradictions are not contradictions but complements.

    I’m thinking the Incarnation and Resurrection are both invitations into whatever the Quantum world is (and whatever is beyond it). And it’s high time we follow the saints and mystics into it and out of the cosmologies that hold our theologies captive.

    Mystery. Mystery. Mystery.

    The gospel’s a summons into a life of prayerful participation in the Divine who holds our disparate lives together and drawing us all toward the Parousia in which the prayer of our Lord Jesus is fulfilled at last (John 17.21).

  • Tony,
    Please source your claims about Stott and Lewis. Thanks.

  • It’s funny how so many Christians get upset at the fact that God will save all yet are fine with Him damning most. Love is the greatest commandment, to love God and love others. God’s love & mercy endures forever. If it only endures in this lifetime, what good does that really do? Jesus’ sacrifice was and is enough and will translate to the afterlife. God will take care of those who reject Him in this life but He will not write them off forever. His will is stronger than ours and the Scriptures teach that He wants all men to be saved.

  • Lock

    The door opened for him to go to Hollywood, right Tony?

  • nnmns

    Jason makes a good point about a lot of Christians; they’d be disappointed if a lot of folks weren’t damned.

    There’s such an easy way out of this conundrum. There’s no objective evidence for any god, let alone one of the Christian versions. Acknowledge that and this whole issue goes away. Of course the fun of debating it goes away, too but how long can we be enjoying debates based on nothing?