Why I defend Rob Bell’s Love Wins (and other controversial books)

Why I defend Rob Bell’s Love Wins (and other controversial books) July 9, 2011

Well, I don’t defend EVERY controversial book!  But I have gone out on a limb to defend Love Wins and open theism.  (Not that the two are the same; the only comparison I make right now is they are both controversial evangelical theological prop0sals that have been attacked almost exclusively by Reformed evangelicals.)

After reading Mark Galli’s book God Wins and reviewing it here, I went back and re-read Bell’s Love Wins–looking for the weaknesses and dangers Mark points out.  What I find is this.  IF I were a Calvinist, I would find Love Wins troubling.  But as an Arminian, I find it challenging but not particularly troubling.

Now, to some critics, that will simply prove that Arminianism and theological liberalism are closely related.  I don’t think so.  Here’s what I think.  I think SOME evangelical Calvinists are so allergic to both Arminianism and liberalism that they tend to lump them together and not see their differences.  There’s something in American evangelical Calvinisms’ DNA that makes it see a trajectory from Arminianism (or anything like it) to liberalism.  I deny that trajectory and, in fact, tend to think it is the other way around (if anything): Calvinism leads to liberalism.  (I’ve argued that here before.)

Here’s what I’m getting at (in several distinct but related points):

1) I tend to defend both Bell’s theology in Love Wins and open theism BECAUSE the main arguments I read and hear against both are versions of old Calvinist arguments against Arminianism.  The brouhaha over Bell’s book is reminiscent of the uproar over an earlier book titled Love Unbounded by Robert Brow (a Canadian theologian) and Clark Pinnock.  That was a thoroughly Arminian book that sounded a lot like some of John Wesley’s theology.  But it was accused by (almost exclusively) Reformed critics for leading to universalism and neglecting God’s justice and wrath.  It was accused of being human-centered rather than God-centered, etc., etc.  Christianity Today published a lengthy review of Love Unbounded that led to a firestorm of controversy that, I take it, changed CT’s direction from then until now.  As a result of the controversy it became much more Reformed in orientation (although I don’t think that’s official editorial policy).  Almost all the arguments I read against open theism are from evangelical Calvinists and are just as valid against Arminianism as against open theism IF THEY ARE VALID AT ALL.   I’m not saying that Bell’s Love Wins, Brow’s and Pinnock’s Love Unbounded, or the books of the open theists are simply Arminianism.  They’re not.  But the arguments I read AGAINST THEM are the same arguments used against Arminianism.  Namely that they are human-centered, belittling the glory of God, neglecting God’s justice and wrath in favor of too much emphasis on God’s love, etc., etc.

2. That doesn’t mean I defend Bell’s theology or open theism at every point.  I don’t.  I haven’t “signed on” to either one, but I don’t think they’re as dangerous as evangelical Calvinists make them out to be.  I don’t see either one on a slippery slope to theological liberalism.  But to joint the chorus of critics of either or both would be to at least appear to join them against Arminianism as well.  (Let me illustrate.  I once knew a black theologian who was far from James Cone in his theology but refused to criticize Cone because that would be to side with people who he knew would hate his theology almost as much as they hated Cone’s.  Cone was extreme, yes, but nearly all black theologians recognized that Cone’s white critics’ arguments against Cone would, if accepted, damage the whole cause of black liberation.)

3. To Bell’s Love Wins specifically now.  It seems to me the crux of the debate has to do with two different interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:4: “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”  Bell, together with all Arminians, interprets that literally (or should I say naturally?).  With all Arminians he does NOT think any valid interpretation can read that as saying God wants only some (the elect) to be saved such that “all people” simply refers to “people from every tribe and nation” as most Calvinists say.  So, Bell is simply drawing out the good and necessary consequence of that, together with rejection of universalism (which is clear in the book as we’ve already discussed here), when he says that God does not get all that he wants but love wins anyway because love includes giving the loved ones freedom to return love or not.  This is simply Arminian logic put very bluntly and blatantly.  Yes, God wins IN THE SENSE THAT he gets what he wants–a creation in which free creatures can either accept his love and be saved or reject it and be lost.  But God DOES NOT GET WHAT HE WANTS IN THE SENSE THAT he really wants every single person to be saved but it doesn’t happen.  This is why Arminians distinguish between God’s antecedent will and God’s consequent will.  God’s consequent will is perfectly fulfilled, but God’s antecedent will (expressed in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9) is NOT perfectly fulfilled

BECAUSE of God’s love that allows ultimate and final resistance to itself.

4. I think that is what offends critics of Love Wins–the suggestion that God doesn’t get what he really, perfectly wants.  That seems to them to demean God, to lessen his glory.  But that requires them, Calvinist critics, to interpret those verses in a very non-natural way–as referring to God’s “wish” as opposed to his want OR as referring to only some people (the elect).  In either case God’s love is lessened or distorted so much that it is not recognizable as love.  As I say in Against Calvinism (coming out in October), Calvinism makes God’s love of an inferior quality to the love he expects of us (1 Cor. 13).

5. The deep, inner logic of the attacks on Love Wins seems to me of this variety.  The ones I have read and heard ALL arise out of Reformed assumptions about God rather than out of Arminian assumptions about God.  And there’s the main difference.  Not all Arminians will agree with everything Bell says, but the general thrust of his theology in Love Wins is classically Arminian–that God permits free creatures to resist his love out of love and therefore love wins even as God seems to lose something.  Because of the risk his love forces him to take, and human resistance to it, God ends up not getting all that God wants.  ON THE OTHER HAND, of course, God DOES GET WHAT GOD WANTS–this world in which his love can be resisted.  It’s dialectical but not contradictory.

6. I do wish Bell had been more cautious and clear in Love Wins about the freedom God grants creatures.  He could have been clearer about prevenient grace as the ground of freedom.  But I don’t expect one book to say everything.  I give him the benefit of the doubt and assume (knowing he went to Fuller Seminary) that he does believe God’s grace is the source of whatever good we do.

7. Simply to respond that God Wins is to raise some questions from the Arminian side.  In what sense does God win?  Does God get everything he wanted?  Does God want hell–antecedently as well as consequently?  If you say no, then why does hell exist?  It has to be because of free will and that has to be because of God’s loving self-limitation.  If you say yes, then that raises a host of questions about God’s goodness.  There don’t seem to be alternatives.  Either God wanted hell antecedently, in which case God is a monster, or God only wants hell consequently (to the fall) and that means God doesn’t exactly “win” in every sense, right?  But love can still win IN THE SENSE that love wants free response and not coerced or programmed response.

8. I don’t know for a fact that Mark Galli is a Calvinist.  He might be or might not be.  But as an Arminian I worry that his critique of Bell’s book comes across as a critique of Arminianism.  Sure, there are specific criticisms in God Wins that an Arminian might make–such as Bell’s idea that persons in hell have freedom to choose to leave hell for heaven.  C. S. Lewis thought that was a good and necessary consequence of belief in God’s love, but not all Arminians embrace that idea.  Most probably do not.  But that’s not the main point.  IF I understood Mark’s main line of criticism of Bell’s Love Wins it is that it sentimentalizes God’s love and neglects God’s justice.  But it doesn’t.  As I re-read Bell’s book I saw numerous instances in which he affirms that God will allow people to reject him to their destruction in hell.   To say anything else about God’s justice is to divorce it from God’s love.  ALL Arminians regard God’s justice as tied closely to his love.  The only alternative to Bell’s general approach would seem to be “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” in which God gets glory and pleasure from damning and destroying sinners.  How is that love?  As Wesley said, that is such a love as makes the blood run cold!

9.  I don’t think all of Bell’s critics are aware of the side of the debate I’m trying to point out–viz., the Calvinism versus Arminianism aspect.  Bell might not even want to be an Arminian!  And for all I know Mark might not consider himself a Calvinist.  That’s beside the point.  I’m not talking about parties here; I’m talking about perspectives.  Bell’s is generally consistent with Arminianism; Mark’s criticism (at its deepest level) is generally consistent with Calvinism.  I would like to suggest to both sides that what is really going on in this whole controversy over Bell’s Love Wins is another round of the old Calvinist versus Arminian debate.

What to you think?

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  • Tom

    As an Arminian, I found so little in the book worth getting upset about.

    I, too, wish Bell had said things a little more clearly. And at times I felt like he was drawing conclusions too quickly.

    But, man, I just couldn’t figure out whey my UM brothers and sisters were so quick to accept the Gospel Coalition’s (I hate their title!) critique…as if their perspective somehow represents all those who truly believe the gospel.

    • Jon McGill

      Do you think the Gospel Coalition/T4G (since they’re basically the same thing) would ever permit an Arminian to speak at one of their conferences, and if not, can they really claim to be coming “Together” for the gospel’s sake? Has an Arminian ever spoken at one of their conferences, I’m not sure?

      • rogereolson

        I don’t know, but I suspect not.

  • Richard

    Spot on in identifying the trend imho. Which leads to the question raised by another blogger whose name escapes me – Why are those that hold (lightly or otherwise) to TULIP feeling threatened by a book?

    • rogereolson

      Because they think anything other than their theology, perhaps especially Arminianism, leads to liberal theology which is the worst fate possible.

      • James Moon

        As a young guy reading from various sources, in my opinion, I don’t think they ground their defense of calvinism over arminianism on that slippery slope arguement. I think they genuinely think it’s more biblical.

        Even John Piper says that arminians can be Christian hedonists, but he thinks they would ‘flourish’ more under a calvinist perspective. In no message given by Piper, nor Driscoll, or Tim Keller (popular calvinists) do they suggest that arminianism would lead to liberal theology.


        • James Moon

          I think the real reason if I put forward their best motive possible is that they may feel that if indeed the traditional understanding of hell as a place of retributive justice is true (thus Bell is wrong), this teaching may deceive many, especially those of us who are apathetic.

          I think another reformed pastor named Francis Chan came out with a book that expresses this concern and I believe he is sincere, called ‘Erasing Hell.’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnrJVTSYLr8

        • rogereolson

          Keep reading and watching and listening to them. That always comes up eventually. I’ve been told it to my face numerous times by Calvinists.

          • Bob Kundrat

            Roger isn’t that kind of insincere? Several examples of popular Calvinists who do not charge Arminianism as leading to to liberal theology are provided and you respond with, to paraphrase, “just keep paying close attention and they’ll mess up”, when you yourself in your own blog state that you’ve argued that Calvinism leads to liberal theology.

            Isn’t this just another example of both side making the same mistake or are you saying that when you make the statement it’s OK?

          • rogereolson

            I’m saying I’m right and they’re wrong. 🙂 One place where the charge is made that Arminianism leads to theological liberalism is the youtube video that has been discussed here before.

          • Shane Pennington

            I was just thinking how this is just the sort of uncharitable statement that usually drives you bonkers.

          • rogereolson

            So why not explain what’s uncharitable about it?

  • David Rogers

    I haven’t read Bell’s book, but I still don’t understand why Calvinists would get so upset about it. According to the logic of Calvinist theology, not one single elect person is endangered in their salvation by any heresy and not one non-elect person is helped salvifically by orthodox theology. The only thing I can see is that Calvinists must as a matter of orthodox routine condemn that which is “heretical” but the passion to condemn does not have to be there because there is no “real” danger for the elect.

    If Bell is heretical (and since I didn’t read the book I am not saying he is) then Arminians have a system of orthodoxy to guard that has a real stake in this controversial matter.

  • K Gray

    None of the following suggest a classic theological debate to me:

    Hell is a place we make with our choices, and thus can exist in this life and/or after;
    Hell afterlife involves a “period of pruning” or an “intense experience of correction”;
    People in hell can end up in heaven.
    Because no one can resist God’s love, His love will eventually melt even the hardest hearts.

    The very practical, important question Bell addresses is “the fate of every person who ever lived.” I don’t see that central question as a classic theological debate between two major or commonly-held views.

    The conclusions he draws from some Scriptures also seem very unusual, like the gates of new Jerusalem being open suggests more people can always come in. Is that something Arminians believe?

    • rogereolson

      As I said in my post–no, classical Arminianism does not include everything Bell suggests in his book. But at the deepest level they are in agreement–that God lovingly gives people the freedom to choose to either love him or not. And that God really desires the salvation of everyone and does not predestine anyone to hell.

      • K Gray

        He goes pretty far beyond that, don’t you think?

        • rogereolson

          I said I don’t agree with everything he suggests in Love Wins. My argument is that his basic underpinnings are Arminian and that is what really gets critics’ hackles up.

          • K Gray

            Not mine! It’s ‘has God really said….?’ where the problem lies, IMO. It’s Bell’s selective and unusual use/interpretation of Scripture to support some of his unusual conclusions about ‘heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived.’ And the ensuing confusion and lack of agreement on ‘what Bell believes.’

          • rogereolson

            I don’t find it all that difficult to understand what Bell believes. It’s the same thing C. S. Lewis believed and articulated in The Great Divorce: Hell is the “painful refuge” God provides for those who refuse his love. “Hell’s door is locked on the inside.”

          • K Gray

            One huge difference between Lewis and Bell is their intent in writing:

            Bell: Love Wins: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every
            Person Who Ever Lived

            Lewis in The Great Divorce: “…I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course- or I intend it to have- a moral. The transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.”

            Bell tells us without question we are wrong, and teaches (by narrative, question and Scripture use) about heaven, hell and the fate of everyone.

            Lewis begs everyone not to use his book to guess or speculate on the realities of the afterlife.

          • rogereolson

            Uh, no, I think you’re wrong. Lewis didn’t want his book to “arouse factual curiosity about the DETAILS of the after-world.” That’s why it’s an allegory. You interpret his statement as forbidding guessing or speculating about the REALITIES of the afterlife. Those are two different things. As Niebuhr rightly said, “We should not want to know too much about the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.” That doesn’t mean he didn’t have beliefs about heaven and hell. “Details” and “realities” are not identical concepts.

          • K Gray

            The stark, critical difference between Lewis’ Great Divorce and Bell’s Love Wins remains:

            Lewis: “I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy,” an “imaginative supposal,” “not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us.”

            Bell: “But this isn’t a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions”. – Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, p. 19 (for example).

          • rogereolson

            Well, I just have to think Lewis was either self-deceived about what he was doing in The Great Divorce or he was being disingenuous with that disclaimer. I seriously doubt he wrote the book for sheer entertainment!

          • K Gray

            Maybe this is a case of readers’ assumptions differing, as you noted.

          • James

            With a difference that Bell also believes in post-mortem opportunities to unlock it as God’s love can potentially woos them.

            If hell is like this, then yes you can hold how you’re more close to Rob Bell vs. calvnists (which also to a degree I think would agree with Lewis as well). But if hell is everlasting torment, as a means of God’s retributive justice, then Rob Bell will challenge you I think on that.

  • Scott Gay

    These past two posts on Rob Bell’s Love Wins deserve to be widely read. John Frye had two posts recently on Jesus Creed called “Love means never having to say Hell”. While he has always seemed to have a heart for ministry(In the sense you described this week), I don’t understand his abrasive reponse to “Love Wins”.
    Off topic, but since these posts on Bell’s book bring up the topic of the slide to liberalism- isn’t it true that the United Methodist Church is liberal, at least in leadership?

    • rogereolson

      I think that’s safe to say. But, of course, there are many exceptions.

      • Paul

        I find the cavalier way in which Evangelicals speak of liberalism in such dismissive manner to be a bit disheartening.

        • rogereolson

          How would you say they should speak of it?

  • It has been my observation that just about every book that has come out since “Love Wins” is a rebuttal to Bell’s theology. Francis Chan (whom I admire) just came out with “Erasing Hell” and addresses some of the issues that Bell touches upon. The neo-Calvinists praised Chan as if he were God. And now, Galli’s book seems to be a rebuttal as well. I’m not sure Chan sits in the Reformed camp, but he certainly holds to the age old traditional view of hell. What I think Bell and others who sit in the Emergent camp are doing is trying to give us a peek into the post-modern world… allowing us to view biblical interpretation not from a traditional modern view, but the new post-modern perspective. This is why applaud controversial authors like: McLaren, Pagitt, McKnight, Boyd, and Bell.

    • Brad Quicksall

      “Biblical interpretation…from the new post-modern perspective”? That may be, but it is certainly no substitute for the strong exegetical arguments that Chan raises….arguments that poke gaping holes in Bell’s arguments. Let’s not throw out solid Biblical research for the sake of post-modernism.

  • Hi Roger,

    To be honest, I’m tiring of the brouhaha that tends to be whipped up by the upper echelons of Christianity every time someone dare tell the world about a loving God (ala The Shack), that I haven’t really wanted to read Rob’s book (although I think I might do so now) as I firmly believe in a God whose love colours all His other attributes and didn’t feel like having to deal with the ire that usually tends to well up when I’m afronted with empty arguments trying to argue against it.

    One point I wanted to make, which is a bit of an aside, is that (in my opinion) we all-too-often mistake the mention of God’s justice as being a negative and wrathful thing aimed at the destruction of any being that may have found themselves on the anger-driven side of God.

    I believe justice simply means “God setting this tumultuous world right” – and is a positive thing that we should be looking forward to, not a negative thing that we should fear. Even if the term justice implies a sense of wrath and punishment, surely God, being defined as a Loving God, would work out any ‘making-right’ with that same love that saw him laying down his life at our hands for our salvation?

    I think, for some reason – maybe it’s as a counterpoint to this grace that just boggles the mind – there tends to be a prevalent notion that God is perpetually angry and paces about heaven with a deep need to thump something – eagerly awaiting Judgement Day.

    In all honesty, I find it deeply saddening and I applaud Rob and Paul Young and others who have done much to re-introduce the idea of a loving God to His people.

    I thoroughly enjoyed your critique and the level-headed manner in which it was delivered – thank you.

    • Cameron (& Roger),
      This response says it well. Thanks. It does make me think of Moltmann’s (I think in “The Crucified God”) and Heschel’s (in “The Prophets”)line of thinking that wrath isn’t the opposite of love but is “injured love.” Moltmann specifically points out that the opposite of love would be “indifference.”

      I’m sure this spawns numerous critiques and praises, but on this specific point I side with Cameron, Moltmann, and Heschel.

      Dr. Olson, I deeply appreciate your work here. Thanks. I wish more like you were speaking out about these things.

  • Rob

    I am still not quite sure how Calvinism leads to liberalism. Is it that people get sick of it and go the other direction? Although it sounds strange, I could believe there is a connection. After all, 17th century New England: Calvinist; 21st century New England: Liberal.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, that’s my critique. Throughout the later 18th century and early 19th century especially Congregationalists in New England abandoned Calvinism without any influence of Arminianism. They began to realize how Calvinism makes God a monster and simply thought about God’s love. They tended to by-pass the Arminian option (equating that with being Methodist!) and move toward liberalism. Horace Bushnell is the classic example. He clearly believed in free will and clearly rejected TULIP, but there’s no hint of any influence of Arminianism on him. Not having that option, he moved quickly in the direction of what we now call liberal theology (although of a very conservative type compared to today’s liberals!).

      • John I.

        I always appreciate (and learn from) your eludication of the history of Christianity and theology and its connections to today.

      • Timothy

        Is this also why the Reformed response to Bell has been so vitriolic. Universalism is the obvious solution to the appalling conundrum of Calvinism, how can a loving God damn people. And yet their desire to remain faithful to scripture prompts them to reject that solution. But the solution remains a permanent temptation that if acceded to will lead them to a rejection of the Bible (as they see it). Their response is therefore often shrill in a way that Arminians can usually avoid. Haiving said that, I think of myself as Arminian and I find other things to get shrill about.

  • I do not think the immediate issue was that they reached the conclusion that Calvinistic soteriology made God a moral monster wherein only a few were selected to eternal life. A step before this was the spiritual exhaustion that one reaches to make one’s calling election sure within the reformed order of salvation. It is hard to keep Calvinism from boomeranging back upon the Christian who believes it, for though it seems to make salvation sure, it rather easily makes it a search for one’s own election, a search that is guaranteed to twist one’s mind beyond anything resembling mental health. I think it is this spiritually exhausting process that drains the energy out of any Reformed revival that will ultimately lead to a less emotionally demanding religious system. Unitarianism seems an organic outgrowth of Puritanism, as strange as that may seem. It certainly has proved to be historically a phenomenon, if not a direct cause and effect.

    • rogereolson

      I agree with that about Unitarianism being an organic outgrowth of Puritanism. There’s little to know evidence of any Arminian influence on the beginnings of Unitarianism that I know of.

  • James Moon

    I think the whole calvinist vs arminion debate is a false dichotomy, because they both require that God operates according to time-we choose vs God chooses.

    However, even in modern science, there are reputable physicists and theorists suggesting that time is just another dimension, and that in reality, there may indeed be more. For instance, a 2d person would not be able to see things in 3d. Even if you put something 3d into a 2nd world, they would only see 2d lines.

    Likewise, to me, this suggests that as finite creatures, we’re not able to fully comprehend things of God. We can explain it in our 2d language such as us choosing him (calvinist) vs God choosing us (arminian), but the bigger picture may be able to reconcile these into a fuller truth.

    • rogereolson

      But Arminianism already DOES reconcile them! 🙂

      • James

        Isn’t the bottom point difference is what determines new believers to become new believers-does God elect and impart His spirit in us to believe OR do we decide to believe in the freedom God grants.

        i.e. when I put my trust in Jesus, was it me who ultimately decided even if God wooed me or did God supernaturally give me new eyes to see?

        How does Arminianism reconcile them?

        • rogereolson

          See my essays about Arminian theology posted here earlier. Or, better yet, read Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. In a nutshell, though, the key Arminian concept is prevenient grace–God takes the initiative and calls, convicts, enlightens and enables sinners so that they can freely accept or reject the gospel.

  • James Moon

    This also reminds me of the apparent contradictions that I see with my pentecostal friends. For instance, several of my Christian brothers and sisters claim they or their leaders have the gift of prophecy-being able to foretell the future whether in a societal way or individually, and yet they also pray in a very open-theism kind of way that God to move and do something for them.

    If we give them the benefit of the doubt that both the gift of prophecy and that prayer moves God to act, then it seems like a contradiction, but maybe in God’s reality they are both true, but we can’t comprehend exactly how they can be reconciled.

    • rogereolson

      Or it could be (they might reply–as do some open theists) that God has settled some things about the future but left other things open.

      • James

        Ok, I can see that.
        I guess when those prophecies get very specific in detail that affect people, it does seem to suggest that their ‘fate’ is set.

  • James

    One last thought (just an opinion) related to the calvinist vs arminion debate as it pertains to your article. Of note, one can see that even progressive (perhaps liberal?) guys like Tony Jones have a beef with Rob Bell’s use of freedom (link below).

    And based on Tony Jones’ posting, I would argue that the liberal framework actually coincides more with a calvinist perspective specifically regarding the calvinist/arminion debate.

    The liberal perspective suggests that it is societal and environmental factors that shape us and our behaviors. In that way, liberal policy usually revolve around making changes on a societal level, whereas the conservative would emphasize personal freedom and would argue that the individual’s actions are of his free will and thus responsible for them.

    So the more liberal you are, the more you’ll say that it is external factors that shape our actions and that we’re not as free as we think we are. I.e. we’re more products of our environment (as Tony Jones I think is saying). However, Rob Bell takes what I think is a more conservative approach and emphasizes individual freedom and choice.

    Likewise, calvinists will say that coming to Christ is not based on our free will but rather a product of factors outside of ourselves-namely God. For instance, calvinists will say that it was indeed by God’s action we’re Christians. They’l claim that even if we think it was us choosing God based on free will, one must question how much ‘free will’ we’d have to follow Jesus if God made us to be born in China under the Han dynasty in the 1st/2nd century.

    So both the liberal and the calvinists will argue to what degree is ‘free will’ is an objective truth and may assert it more as a human construct: we think we have it, but to what degree does it really exist? Both liberals and calvinists would argue that are decisions and behaviors point more to factors outside ourselves as the cause, yet both would deny that this gives us excuse to be passive about things and deny responsibility. But the Calvinist will say it was God who chose us and it is the Holy Spirit in us that prompts our desires and hence our obedience.

    Here’s Tony Jones’ blog on questioning how much freedom do we really have: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2011/04/07/rob-bell-is-not-a-universalist-how-much-freedom-do-humans-have/

    • James
    • rogereolson

      True. However, I seriously doubt Tony Jones agrees with the Calvinists’ divine determinism.

      • James

        Yeah, because he doesn’t like them (j/k?), but I think the parallels are there and may even perhaps be reconcilable.

        If God is the one who decided in forethought (how we plan things to do) where and when we were born, that already determines a lot about whether we’ll be Christian or not. So Calvinism can say God determines and foreknew who’ll be a believer via the mechanism of selecting the type of environment and century we’d be in.

        And let’s just say God doesn’t know the future as he also lives in the constraints of time, I’m sure given God’s experience and expertise, God surely can calculate the odds of whether someone will be a Christian or not.

        • James

          Sorry another thought just came to mind and thank you for allowing me to post them.

          My question is let’s say free will exists and let’s say hell is a place of eternal suffering, which I think is what you believe. If hell is eternal suffering, why does free will become a key factor as to whether God is loving and just?

          Can we really say God is more loving and just because he gives us humans the freedom ‘to reject Him,’ knowing that the consequence is an eternal hell of suffering if we do?

          The best analogy that I can think of is: If I was a parent and I gave my child the freedom to walk wherever, but I saw that my child was walking onto the road with traffic and so I yell at him to come back and yet he continues to walk towards this road where cars are driving by. In light of the consequences that surely will happen if he doesn’t listen to me, what difference does it make whether my child had an opportunity to turn back or not. In light of knowing that my child will get hit if he disobeys, it would be cruel if I don’t do all that I can to run after him, intervene and even scoop him up if I have to.

          Likewise, whether we have free will to turn to God or not, in light of an eternal hell of suffering, the fact that God allows people to hell can be seen just as cruel as a calvinist perspective of God-maybe more cruel because at least in the calvinist perspective what is the default fair thing is hell for everyone because the default nature is hell bound.

          Does God respect our autonomy to that degree that he would not intervene? If God felt he needed to respect our autonomy, I think God can be creative enough to get our attention so that we do decide to turn to him- like a Paul like experience.

          This is why at least Rob Bell and universalists are consistent. The reason why Bell can somewhat justify freedom is because to him hell is not a place of active eternal torment and punishment (what the crux of why calvinists like Francis Chan are concerned about). His view of the after-life hell is the potential for us to stay isolated and not respond to God’s love and take part in God’s community with the post-mortem opportunity to always enter with the hevenly gates are open, with the hope that God’s love will woo him in. i.e. getting hit by a car is not what happens to my child if he disobeys, just that he missed out at worse and at best will be won over to join God.

          And universalists I think would argue like that as well.. that free will doesn’t change anything about the nature of God if there’s an eternal torment for some or many.

          • rogereolson

            That’s a wrong analogy. The correct analogy is one of reciprocal love. What kind of love requires (by control) another to love him or her?

          • James

            I’m just saying that if you believe in autonomy/free will but yet still believe in eternal eternal torment, it really doesn’t make a difference at least to the modern mind whether a person really had a choice or not.

            It is for this reason, why calvinists aren’t arguing Rob Bell on the notion of freedom, but that Rob Bell is essentially challenging the traditional understanding of God. As Bell said, what we think of hell will determine how we think of God. Free-will/pre-election doesn’t make a difference.

            Jesus knew Judas was going to betray Him, become possessed, and then commit suicide or whatever. The question is not whether Judas had a choice or not, why did Jesus ALLOW Judas to do it knowing his ultimate destination will be ETERNAL suffering.

            It’s a false dichotomy to say that the if God doesn’t grant us autonomy, the only other option is for God to force Himself. If you’re God, I’m sure God is creative, charming, persuasive, enough to win someone.

          • rogereolson

            Read Mark Galli’s book God Wins. He does challenge Bell’s book primarily on the issue of freedom.

  • Hey Roger, when you said, “when he says that God does not get all that he wants but love wins anyway because love includes giving the loved ones freedom to return love or not. This is simply Arminian logic put very bluntly and blatantly.” I felt you like you practically paraphrased me when I reviewed Love Wins. Commenting on the same point in Bell’s book you do, I wrote:

    “Love is a choice. That is Wesleyan-Arminian theology. That is Eastern Orthodoxy theology. That is the theology of virtually all of the early church fathers. Love wins because God is Love and God wins. Love wins because love requires reciprocal choice. Love wins because if the person chooses “Hell”, they get what they want. “God is that loving” says Bell, “because love wins.”:

    • rogereolson

      Great minds think alike. But watch out! An old Russian proverb says “Where two think alike, one is superfluous.” (I actually heard that first from Wolfhart Pannenberg.) Maybe it’s I who should watch out! 🙂

    • James

      Keep in mind Derek, that Rob Bell’s hell is simply that of choosing to be in isolation, not eternal conscious torment.

      The deeper question of Rob Bell’s book is not about freedom but about hell.
      Rob Bell: love = autonomy yes, but worse case scenerio there is no eternal conscious torment, but just living to not take part in God’s community. However, the doors will be open forever. And bell argues that God may eventually restore and woo everyone into heaven.

      Arminians: love = autonomy yes, but God will not do all that He can to woo or persuade people enough to prevent them from an everlasting torment in hell. This is the main attack of Bell’s book: What kind of God would allow people to be in such a hell.

  • Roger –

    Did you see Scot McKnight’s post this week referring to an article by Rob Bell’s editor from HarperOne, Mickey Maudlin. Maudlin asks whether Christian tribalism or theological liberalism are more dangerous. And discussion is going on in the comment box at McKnight’s blog.

    • rogereolson

      No, I don’t really have time to check out other blogs. I should find the time. But I usually don’t. I know Mickey Maudlin; he was my editor when I wrote some articles for CT. (He used to have the position currently held by Mark Galli at CT.) I’ll try to look at this exchange as I know both Mickey and Scot and respect their minds.

      • Thanks for the response, Roger.

        I think it interesting to really consider what seems the bigger threat in the world today – theological liberalism or Christian tribalism.

        I know different groups will answer differently. American conservative evangelicalism (maybe with a reformed focus) tend to answer things much more differently than a lot of the church does elsewhere.

        • rogereolson

          One thing I wonder about is why “theological liberalism” is contrasted with “Christian tribalism.” My experience is that theological liberals can be among the most tribal of people.

  • Colby E. Kinser

    The premise of this article is flawed. I am a critic of Bell and Pinnock and open theism, but not strongly Calvinistic. The flaws of these works are not because they are not Calvinistic enough. The author of this post has done the same “lumping” of camps as he decries – lumping me in with Calvinists just because I critique certain works.

  • I was recently fired as youth and teaching pastor for my belief that Hell is not eternal torment. I wrote a book about my beliefs and what the Scriptures actually teach on the subject. It’s coming out soon, you can check out my blog to follow along. I’d love to get the message out to as many people as possible. The book is called “What the Hell” How Did We Get It So Wrong? http://www.whatthehellbook.com

  • Jared Hanley

    Roger, we spoke through email a few months back. I get confused by Arminian theology. I think Calvinism is so much simpler. You talk about God’s antecedent will and His consequent will here. What does that even mean? Honestly, I have no earthly idea. Most Reformed theologians use the terms perfect will and permissible will (which I first heard from my mother who is an Arminian-leaning Pentecostal, certainly not a Calvinist) or God’s revealed will and His hidden will. Those are very simple concepts to grasp that use words that are found in everyday speech. I just don’t follow Arminian theology. Maybe it’s over my head.

    I consider myself a Calvinistic Pentecostal. I teach Sunday school at a Pentecostal church. I am reading your historical theology book right now and I really appreciate what you say about Pietism (in spite of the fact that you try to shut those of us who are mongergists out of Pietism). But, again, your explanation of Arminianism in that book was downright confusing IMO. I read Wesley in college as an Arminian and I got confused. That’s part of what made me more open to Calvinism. I just thought surely there has to be something better than this. God’s self-limitation is another area that confuses me. I just don’t understand that.

    • rogereolson

      I want to take you at your word, but seriously, how difficult can these concepts be? I have trouble understanding why anyone cannot easily understand them. I find John Piper’s idea of God’s “complex emotions” much more difficult. As I explain in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, God’s antecedent will is that no one end up in hell; God’s consequent will (to the fall) is that those who choose it go there. How difficult is that? It’s a lot easier to understand (IMHO) than the Calvinist distinction between God’s prescriptive and decretive wills. Are you telling me you have no trouble understanding those?

      • Jared Hanley

        I suppose prescriptive would be what God has prescribed in His Word (revealed will) and decretive would be what God decreed before time (hidden will). I don’t have any trouble understanding that. It makes a lot of sense in light of Acts 2:22-23 and Acts 4:27-28.

        I think God’s emotions are complex whether you’re a Calvinist or an Arminian because either way there is something that God wills in one sense that He does not will in another sense. In other words, Calvinists and Arminians agree that God desires all men to be saved. However, Calvinists believe that God values His own glory above His desire to see all men saved and Arminians believe that God values human freewill above this desire.

        My parents told me to overlook the passages concerning predestination in the Bible when I was growing up. But, somehow I always knew that there was more to it than I had been told. Back in 2006 I came to a place where I had one of those mountain top experiences with God and I came to embrace the view of God’s sovereignty that I hold now. I can say along with Jonathan Edwards that at one time I hated the doctrine of predestination, but now I have come to see it as something exceedingly pleasant, bright, and sweet. I can see why Paul would say in Ephesians 1 that election is something to praise God for. Without it, we would have never been saved.

        • rogereolson

          Fine, but don’t say you can’t even understand the distinction between God’s antecedent will and God’s consequent will. It’s the simplest thing in theology. I think you were just trying to pull my chain with that earlier comment.

  • Jared Hanley

    I seriously didn’t know what those words meant. I looked it up and I understand it now. Antecedent will has to do with God’s intention to save everybody and consequent will has to do with His will to give eternal life to those who receive His grace and to allow thos who reject His grace to suffer eternal punishment under His wrath.

    But I don’t understand how that’s loving for God to allow people to go to hell.

    My pastor at the Pentecostal church that I grew up in held firmly to libertarian freewill and even rejected the Reformed view of suffering and the sovereignty of God. And he would have ripped Rob Bell’s book to shreds. Most of the fire and brimstone Pentecostals that I know would. I don’t think it’s fair for you to characterize this as an Calvinism vs. Arminianism issue. It’s not.

    As you say in this article, you are the go to guy for Arminianism. Conservative evangelicals right now are looking for a shelter from the postmodern thinking that is ravaging the church right now. But they won’t find it in people like you. I don’t mean any disrespect but you don’t represent the conservative Arminianism that I was raised with. The Arminianism that I was raised with looked more like Calvinism in terms of how conservative it was. I don’t see any Arminians who are very conservative engaging in serious rigorous theological discourse with postmodernism and Calvinism. They should be if they want people to remain Arminians.

    • rogereolson

      First of all, what you said in the beginning was that you couldn’t understand the distinction between God’s antecedent will and God’s consequent will as if the concept is difficult. And you said it in a dismissive manner that sounded like ridicule to me. It’s one thing to say you don’t agree with the distinction for such-and-such a reason and another thing to say you don’t even understand the distinction. You say “I don’t understand how that’s loving for God to allow people to go to hell.” Really? I find that hard to believe when all that has been explained over and over again here and everywhere in Arminian literature. I’m not going to go over it again. Read Against Calvinism. I think you’re doing the same with my comments about Rob Bell’s book. I think you’re being disingenuous. I never said I agree with Bell’s book; I said I defend it because most critics don’t seem to have even read all of it and nowhere does it say God will save everyone. It raises the question. I really suspect you are just here to provoke me and that’s not welcome here. Say WHY the Arminianism you were raised in was more like Calvinism than my Arminianism and we’ll go from there. Be clear and specific. Don’t just throw accusations in vague generalities. Do you even know what “postmodern” means? I can’t tell because you don’t define it and it is an essentially contested concept.

  • Ginny

    Exactly how many angels did you say you can get on the head of a pin? I missed the exact number.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t remember speculating about the number. But the question is an interesting one because it has to do with the nature of angels. As spiritual beings, do they occupy space? However, this question has always troubled me because I was raised to believe that dancing is sin, so only fallen angels could possibly dance on the head of a pin. 🙂