Rob Bell Is (Not) a Universalist: How Much Freedom Do Humans Have?

Rob Bell Is (Not) a Universalist: How Much Freedom Do Humans Have? April 7, 2011

All this week, I’ll be posting about Rob Bell’s controversial new book, Love Wins. And this Sunday, April 10, I’ll be guest hosting Doug Pagitt Radio from 12-2pm CDT, talking with Keith DeRose, Michael Horton, and a special surprise guest! The entire two hours will be devoted to a discussion of the book, in advance of Rob’s appearance the following night at Wayzata Community Church.

A couple weeks ago, I mused about a theme that has come up in several interviews that Rob has done since John Piper started the kerfuffle surrounding this book.  Rob has said repeatedly that human freedom is pivotal to his thesis in the book.  In fact, his premise regarding freedom seems to be more philosophical than theological:

Love requires freedom

So, the first question to ask is, Is it true that love requires freedom? The converse way to ask this is, If someone does not have the freedom to love another, is it really love?

It does seem, on the face of it, that love cannot be compelled.  Forced love is the metaphorical equivalent to rape, and no one thinks that rape is love.  So I can see how Rob comes to conclusion that love requires freedom.

However, I am left with two questions.  First, what I asked previously: Does Rob overestimate human freedom?

One of my favorite bloggers, theo-psychologist Richard Beck, has tackled this in a wonderful post, “What I Don’t Get about Greg Boyd (and Rob Bell).”  Therein, Richard avoids the question of determinism (Piper) versus free will (Boyd and Bell), and instead proposes categories of strong versus weak volitionalism.  That is, we all believe that we have some freedom of choice (even Piper), but how much freedom is up for debate.  Richard thinks that Boyd and Bell afford human beings too much freedom, and he writes,

If I could ask him, here’s the question I’d ask Greg Boyd: Why would you build your entire theological system upon a historically recent, non-biblical, philosophically contested, scientifically disputed, and perennially controversial anthropocentric abstraction?

For it seems to me that for Boyd’s theology to come out right free will has to come out right. (Which is why he’ll never agree with me on this as he’d have to start over, theologically speaking. Back to square one. And who would want to do that?)

This is a great question for Rob, too.

As is this question: You say that God always gets what God wants (eventually), and you say that human beings have the freedom to choose for God or against God (even after death). How do these two premises jibe?

Augustine, in his Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints, argued that foreknowledge equals fore-causation.  In other words, if God knows that something will happen, then that thing will necessarily happen.  It can’t not happen.

As far as I can tell in Love Wins, Rob doesn’t argue vehemently for God’s foreknowledge of the future.  In fact, he may be going a bit more in a Hegelian/process theology direction, in which God and the forces of time and history are inextricably intertwined.

It seems to me to be a contradiction to hold that God gets what God wants, and that human beings have near-absolute freedom to love or not love God. Except that process theology may be a way around that (Tripp?).

Finally, there’s this: Rob speculates (and he makes clear that any talk about what happens after death is speculation) that human beings will get more chances to accept God or reject God in the afterlife.  This is an idea with which I concur — it seems quite ridiculous that God bases our eternal destiny on just a few years on this spinning rock.  But Paul writes that we currently only see as through a foggy glass; in the afterlife we will see God’s glory fully and clearly.  When confronted with God’s fullness, it seems reasonable to think that everyone will embrace God (even the “Hitler types” that Richard Mouw thinks will continue to reject God).  And if you find this reasonable, then I think that you’re probably a functional universalist.

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