Rob Bell On Justice

by Matthew Raley Rob Bell starts to make an excellent case for the justice of hell in Love Wins. But he doesn't finish it. Bell's inadequate concept of justice is the next feature of this book I think evangelicals should watch. (First two features here and here.)

Hell is hard to defend if the people who populate it are the ignorant, needy, and wounded who weren't able to check the right theological boxes. But the charge depends on sympathy. Switch perspectives on the population, and hell starts to look like the only appropriate punishment.

That's what Bell does in the middle of his chapter on hell (pp 70-73). There are kids all over Kigali, Rwanda with missing limbs, he says. "Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren't metaphorical missing arms and legs." A rape victim, a 5-year-old boy whose father committed suicide, the surviving relatives of a man whose cruelty extended beyond the grave: all of these show the ongoing cost of sin.

Bell is aggressive in making this case.

So when people say they don't believe in hell and they don't like the word "sin," my first response is to ask, "Have you ever sat and talked with a family who just found out that their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?" (p 72)

I found myself cheering him on as I read this passage. I am a pastor, like Bell. Few have the daily, ongoing experience of evil quite like those on life's clean-up crew -- law enforcement, social workers, doctors and nurses, and pastors. The cost of sin is born day after day in family after family. And the cost mounts. True love demands payment for the sake of those who bear that cost.

But, having adjusted our perspective in this way, having raised the issue of sin's cost, and having asserted our need for this horrible word hell, Bell switches back to the perspective of the ignorant, needy, and wounded who failed to check the right boxes. Isn't it monstrous to punish them eternally? Bell asks (p 102), "Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?"

Suffering infinitely for finite sins, committed in the few years of life. Our sins, Bell assumes repeatedly in this book, are limited in scope.

Really? Our sins are finite? They are? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt?

I am nowhere near granting that assumption, and I have three reasons.

1. The Bible reiterates that our sins are primarily against God, secondarily against one another (e.g. Genesis 39.7-10; Romans 1.18-32). How does Bell propose to limit the cost of sins committed against an infinite being?

2. Human beings live in community. At what point does the impact of a single sin come to rest? A slanderous tweet, let's say? It's true that I can lose sight of a sin's impact, but that doesn't mean I really know where the impact stops.

3. Human beings are linked generationally. A sin committed at one time can live on. That's a key part of the problem of racism in the United States. How can we say that Thomas Jefferson's attitude toward his slaves had a finite impact because it was committed in the few years of his own life?

Bell doesn't follow his own correct reasoning about the cost of sin to its conclusion: The cost goes on to such an extent that no human being knows the full impact of his own actions. And the real problem of justice, as the Bible lays it out, is that all have sinned.

Bell's Redeeming Deity

by Matthew Raley I am surveying features of Rob Bell's book Love Wins that evangelicals should watch over the coming years. A second feature is Bell's description of the nature of God.

According to Bell, the evangelical God is impossible for people to trust. This God has put a time-limit on repentance: death is the end of people's opportunity to have a relationship with him, and hell awaits people who do not believe. Bell says that this sort of God is "violent" and "destructive." If this account of God were true, he says,

A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with [people] would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. (pp 173-174)

He goes on, calling this God "devastating," "psychologically crushing," "terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable."

Bell counters that God is love, and that God's invitation into his love never ends. Hell is not God tormenting people, but people choosing to reject God's love and creating their own torment. Even when they reject God, he always brings them back because redemption is part of his very nature.

Yet Bell's story about how God redemptive nature displays the same divine volatility Bell finds in the doctrine of eternal hell.

For example, Bell uses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to make the argument that hell is temporary. He calls them "the poster cities for deviant sinfulness run amok," recounting how God rained sulfur on the cities, destroying everything. "But this isn't the last we read of Sodom and Gomorrah."

Bell cites Ezekiel 16, where God says he will return the cities to what they were before, then asks rhetorically, "What appeared to be a final, forever, smoldering, smoking verdict regarding their destiny ... wasn't? What appeared to be over, isn't. Ezekiel says that where there was destruction there will be restoration." (p 83, emphasis original)

So God sometimes destroys people to make a point. Then he restores. Bell calls this a "movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life." (p 85)

Using Bell's standard of a loving God, his account of what he calls God's redeeming nature shows the same violence he condemns when discussing eternal torment in hell. The God who destroyed Sodom is the child abuser about whom Bell would call the authorities. The people of Sodom did not choose sulfurous rain; God inflicted it upon them.

The only difference Bell shows between the God who destroyed Sodom and the God who punishes souls eternally is the amount of time involved.

So let's imagine Rob Bell preaching love and hope to Sodom: "This fire isn't forever. Your father loves you! He's inviting you to participate in his love! Just wait: you'll have another opportunity to love God!"

Or we could ask this question: Would it matter to the people destroyed in the fire of Sodom that their punishment was only temporary? Would they trust God any more, or hate God any less because they have another opportunity later?

Or we could make up a scenario about pain. Suppose I promised you that the Soviet guard in the gulag would only beat you every day for 10 years. Would the temporary nature of the torment make it tolerable? What if he only beats you daily for a week? Okay, okay: your beating will only last 5 minutes.

Bell's proposal that hell is temporary in no way makes his account of God's nature coherent.

Celebrity status will not exempt Bell's arguments from the precision of, say, Richard Dawkins. Evangelicals should watch what happens when Bell's distinctions without differences fail to make God any more loveable.

Love Wins accepts generalized standards of love and justice -- standards that are, to be sure, accepted by most people without examination. But the received wisdom of generalizations about "a loving God" or "a just God" fall apart once we delve into specific cases. "Loving" toward whom? "Just" in whose cause?

I think Bell will have to discard every biblical account of God's punishing a sinner in order to preserve his view of redemption. That is where I think his "better story" about God will lead. Bell has failed to put human pain in the context of any serious look at the requirements of justice.

Interacting With "Love Wins"

by Matthew Raley The publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins marks the acceptance of emergent Christianity by the American mainstream. Bell has been featured in a Time cover story, and is now a reference point for all sorts of popular spiritual writing. The pantheon of the American empire now includes Bell's Jesus.

Over several posts, I'll discuss some features of this book that I think will be most important for evangelicals in the coming years.

The first feature: Bell denies that biblical doctrine has significance in human salvation. The Bible contains teachings, sure. But knowing them is problematic, both interpretively, in finding what they mean, and morally, in maintaining humility.

Bell's denial that doctrinal belief is essential to salvation is explicit, coming in his discussion of Jesus' claim in John 14.6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Bell does not deny the exclusivity inherent in that statement. But Bell argues,

What [Jesus] doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him. (p 154)

Love wins, Bells argues (pp 144-157), because Jesus is the sustaining power of all creation, and he saves people no matter what they do or believe, wooing them through recurring opportunities to embrace him.

The denial of doctrine's significance is also implicit, a denial through method. Bell is a deconstructionist.

Bell's claim that Jesus never specifies how people are saved illustrates neatly. It is exegetically preposterous on its face. In the very document Bell discusses, Jesus repeatedly links salvation with belief, as in John 12.44-50, where Jesus makes "the word I have spoken" a person's judge on the last day, and where he declares that the Father has given him "a commandment -- what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life."

(Indeed, Bell quotes a fragment of that paragraph [p 159], in which Jesus says he came to save the world, not to judge. But Jesus said that in order to set up his word as judge, and belief in his word as the "mechanism" that saves.)

Such bits of trivia don't matter to Bell. The Bible for him is not a revelation of God's truth. Rather, it is full of the raw materials for God's story: poems, riddles, metaphors, hints, dribs and drabs of ancient cultural perspectives. We are supposed to find God's story in those materials. Bell complains that historic Christianity has told a story that's bad, having hardened all the raw material into absolutes. There's "a better story" (pp 110-111).

This view of the Bible creates a new role for exegesis.

We expound the Bible not so much to learn what is true, as to deconstruct our own preconceptions. So, Bell offers long passages studying such words as hades, gehenna, aeon, et al., not to build up our understanding of what these words mean, but to tear it down. By the time Bell is done with text after text, we no longer know what the words mean. And with traditional concepts safely deconstructed, Bell is free to pick from those materials and tell his better story.

Many conservative theologians are saying that Bell is a theological liberal. To be sure, many of his conclusions are indistinguishable from the old liberalism. But I want to register one qualification that puts Bell and many emergents in a different category.

Modernist liberals 150 years ago believed that the Bible's teachings were knowable, and that our reasoning about texts added to our knowledge. It is not clear to me at all that Bell believes this. Bell seems to believe that knowledge itself is a kind of arrogance, and that doctrinal knowledge, in terms of the fate of every person who ever lived, is of no significance.

Evangelicals should watch this feature of Love Wins to see whether Bell is merely being fashionable, or whether he is flirting with nihilism.

God's Redemptive Justice

by Matthew Raley Ross Douthat made a trenchant observation in his New York Times column on Easter Sunday. "The doctrine of hell . . . assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murder can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so."

The idea of divine justice, that God renders a verdict on our choices and that a guilty verdict demands punishment, is being revised.

Many evangelicals are now saying that we must discard such old notions. They argue that God's every action is redemptive. Because the doctrine of eternal, conscious punishment in hell assumes a punitive wrath in God that has no redemptive motivation, the doctrine is inconsistent with God's nature.

Gregory Boyd (discussing annihilationism) says, "Consider that in the traditional view, the wicked are not being punished to learn something. There’s nothing remedial about their torment. Rather, God keeps them in existence for the sole purpose of having them experience pain."

Modernists made similar arguments more than a century ago. Old notions of justice as payback are barbaric, and Western civilization has outgrown such primitive ideas. Hell thus belongs to the lower rungs of humanity's evolution.

Is it the case that redemptive mercy is central to God's character, and does this characteristic invalidate the idea of hell?

Let's probe the word redemption. The Greek word is lutron, which refers to the ransom price for slaves or captives. There will be no release until the price is paid. Jesus, speaking about the key to his Lordship, says that he came to serve by giving his life as the redemption price for many (Mark 10.35-45).

Another word that expresses a similar idea is propitiation. Paul teaches that God made Christ's blood to be the "propitiation," the appeasement of God's justice, that sinners receive by faith (Romans 3.21-26). Paul also states the reason God made this appeasement in blood: "It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." That is, God's justice is demonstrated by his paying the price incurred by sin.

Redemptive mercy is indeed central to God's nature. But to call God's nature redemptive without reference to the purchase price is to talk nonsense. God does not do "remedial" sentences as a way to satisfy his justice. When he shows mercy to a sinner, he purchases the individual out of death into life.

In other words, Christ's death on the cross was redemptive because the death was entirely punitive. In God's plan the cross was not a sympathy-generating symbol or an attention-getting drama. It was the final propitiation of God's wrath. It paid the ransom.

No payment, no mercy. Full payment, full pardon.

The argument from God's mercy that many evangelicals are now using against the traditional doctrine of hell can also be used -- indeed, has been used -- to attack Christ's atonement for sin. Modernist theological liberals have long preached that the cross couldn't have been about something so primitive as payment. The cross is tragic blood-poetry to them.

I have never been impressed with modernism's treasured fantasy of cultural progress. Today's notion of remedial justice is founded on the lie that sin is not truly destructive of human life. Believing lies like this is not a sign of evolutionary refinement, but of degradation. Sin is destructive, and its deadly consequences cry out for recompense. The fact that we are all under sentence only makes the urgency of the cross more intense.

Douthat cites a contemporary story of sin, the fictional life of Tony Soprano, who rejects one opportunity after another to turn from his life of violence. "'The Sopranos' never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it."

Rob Bell's notorious question about whether Gandhi is in hell is fair enough, says Douthat. "But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?"

The Pantheon's Embrace

by Matthew Raley The Romans achieved cultural durability not through military force, but through the embrace of every god in their empire. They appropriated Greek culture wholesale, and affirmed the other traditions they conquered. While their broad piety was generous toward foreign gods, the generosity was motivated by shrewdness. If a conquered city could keep its gods, and if Rome could endow those gods with cosmopolitan nobility, then the city would be less resistant to control.

As a tool of empire, the pantheon works really well. Better than armies.

Time, the American century's literary temple, gave its blessing to Rob Bell last week in the form of a cover story. Author Jon Meacham is both a journalistic eminence (the former editor of Newsweek) and a serious observer of our religious life. To whatever spiritual trend he devotes his keyboard, there is a higher order of national attention. The controversy over Bell's teachings about hell might have remained a matter of small interest to non-evangelicals, but not anymore.

I'll write another post about Bell's book, Love Wins. I don't want to examine his doctrine based on the blast of writing for and against him. Also, I won't draw any conclusions about Bell's teachings based on Meacham's piece. The analysis belongs to Meacham, not Bell.

My interest here is in the Time artifact itself: how Time presents Bell, how Meacham frames the theological issues, and what sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals by the American pantheon.

How does Time present Bell?

He is a rock star. The photo of him is edgy. Meacham describes him as "a charismatic, popular and savvy pastor with a following." The message in this package seems to be, "Don't mess with Bell. He's way beyond other evangelicals in style. We embrace him."

How does Meacham frame the theological issues?

Meacham treats heaven and hell seriously, being careful to say that Bell only claims to question theological rigidity, but also pointing out the implications of Bell's ideas. Of Bell's suggestion that everyone may end up in heaven, Meacham asks, "If heaven, however defined, is everyone's ultimate destination in any event, then what's the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life?" Meacham accurately says that Bell is "more at home" within the "expansive liberal tradition" of Harry Emerson Fosdick.

R. Albert Mohler notes, "This may mark the first time any major media outlet has underlined the substantial theological issues at stake."

So, hat-tip to Meacham.

What sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals?

The American pantheon is opening the front door wide and proclaiming, "All ye who are weary of theological rigidity, come unto me and I will give you rest."

The invitation is pointed. Meacham's theological literacy has the effect of posing a clear choice to followers of Christ: keep your father's Christianity (with no blessing from Time), or drop that traditionalism and be sprinkled with the holy water of sophistication. Bell's Christianity is "less judgmental, more fluid, open to questioning the most ancient assumptions." Adopting Bell's attitude will get evangelicals the "seat at the table" they have coveted.

Further, the invitation is backed by power -- the power of perceived cultural inevitability. Meacham asks, "Is Bell's Christianity ... on an inexorable rise?" Then he quotes Bell himself: "I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian. Something new is in the air." Whatever that quote means, it at least signals that Bell is using March-of-Progress inertia to advance his ideas.

The heavily implied victory of the New stands behind Time's invitation to evangelicals. You know you can't hold out forever. Bell is a plausible enough theologian for you and for us. Let us embrace you and be done with it.

The reason Jesus never entered the Roman pantheon, of course, was that his exclusive claims invalidated all rival gods and goddesses, and threatened the durability of Rome's culture. The Jesus of the New Testament was never amenable to broad, cosmopolitan pieties. If he were turned into a statue, an abstracted symbol of Goodness, then he would have fit nicely. But 1st century Christians understood that accepting the pantheon's blessing was a surrender to imperial control, and that the real Jesus did not need the emperor's permission to rule.

This is Bell's moment. He mounts a rostrum of significant cultural authority, and what he does with this moment tells what he believes most deeply. Is Christ alone the Savior? From what exactly does He save us? The American pantheon has always been willing to embrace Jesus, so long as Jesus' followers do not deny the other gods their place.

What is Rob Bell's creed?