Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Friday, April 1, 2011

McKnight - A Critique of Love Wins 1


Exploring Love Wins 1
Scot McKnight
April 1, 2011
Filed under: Universalism

I will begin this series on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, with a prayer. I am asking that you pause quietly and slow down enough to pray this prayer as the way to approach this entire series:

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing:
Send your Holy Spirit and pour into my heart your greatest gift,
which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue,
without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.
Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.†

Our goal is not to win; our goal is not to classify Rob Bell; our goal is not see who is the most faithful; our goal is not to say who has the best review; our goal is not to debate other reviews. Our goal is to explore together the Bible’s teaching and the themes of this book by using Rob Bell’s book — and as we explore these themes to come to reasonable conclusions about what we are to believe. [If you'd like to spread the word about this conversation, please tweet it or FB share it above.]

Universalism and pluralism are perhaps the biggest challenges to the church’s traditional theology today. I did not say universalism and pluralism are “threats,” though one could say it that way. I say “challenges” because I am convinced many in our churches are at the least easy-going inclusivists and many are somehow confident universalists (or almost that). If you are not hearing this issue in your church it is probably because the environment is not safe enough to probe the question in public. Rob Bell is hearing this message loud and clear. I’m glad he’s provoking people to think about it.

We will meet this challenge to the historic, orthodox belief of the church, not by pounding the pulpit of exclusivism, which will confirm the convinced but mute the voices of those who really do have questions. We can rise to the challenge by entering into the reality of the problems and by proposing fresh, creative, biblical and theological resolutions that compel the church to think clearly about the magnitude of its claims — that salvation is found in Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ alone. What C.S. Lewis did in his generation with The Problem of Pain, and then later with A Grief Observed, as well as with The Great Divorce, needs to be done in our generation. I’m neither suggesting that Rob Bell is on par with Lewis nor that Love Wins is that book. What I am saying is that the issues emerging from this universalistic challenge to the church are vital because there is no book that meets the challenge. Love Wins puts the question on the table.

Are you willing to open up to the questions he will ask in this book? Are his questions, some of them that broach universalism and second chances and God’s expansive love, viable and safe in your church?

This series will explore what Rob Bell says in his book, and it will riff off of what Rob says. Don’t expect blow by blow arguments. In some ways I want to take up the challenge myself. In other cases I will probe into Rob’s arguments and disagree with them. Sometimes I will agree with him.

First, Rob Bell says Jesus’s story “is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us” (vii). This God-loves-us story has been hijacked, he says, by a “growing number of us” and he says there are “millions of us.” The hijacked version of the story is that a “select few Christians will spend forever in … heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better” (viii). This hijacked story says it is a “central truth” and Bell says this story is “misguided and toxic.”

Serious questions: In your church’s teaching, will be most people be saved? many? some? few? Is your church one in which most or some or few will be saved? Or is your church one that is agnostic about this question? These are the questions that haunt this book and these are the questions that many are asking, or want to ask but are afraid to ask. I am asking you to weigh in on this one.

I can put it this way: In light of how the gospel is preached in your church, and assuming 95% [I don't of course know but let's say that number is right] North Koreans have never heard the gospel, what percent of North Koreans will spend forever with God? Maybe this kind of question makes you feel uncomfortable, but it’s one we have to face. That is one of the deepest concerns in Rob Bell’s book. It’s time to be honest about what we think. The gospel claim is that salvation is found in Christ alone (Acts 4:12). What about those who have not heard? Where do you stand?

Do you ever ask what kind of image of God is conveyed if most humans will be excluded from the good presence of God?

Second, Rob says lots of people have questions about the Jesus-ness [my word] of this hijacked story. And they want to come to Jesus and to the Bible and to the Christian tradition and ask questions about that hijacked story. “There is no question,” Rob claims, “that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous” (x).

Third, in order to be complete in my sketch, Rob says what he teaches in this book … that “nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me” and he connects his own approach as part of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith.”

I’ve got questions here because I don’t know who is defining “orthodox” … there’s an entire history about the questions about the afterlife — who will be there, how to get in and what keeps you out — that involves complex theological problems and to say what Rob says requires some careful nuancing of that history and those issues. But notice his words: “taught, suggested, or celebrated.” That word “suggested” is loose enough that I’d say what he teaches in this book has been suggested, but that’s not the same as the “historic, orthodox Christian faith.” Suggestions and faith are not the same.

Why Rob Bell Wins

I picked several running commentaries from the HomeBrewed boys to give a flavor of what is currently running on the "other side" of evangelicalism. The stuff the major conservative Christian medias aren't talking as excitedly about in reviews of Rob Bell's Love Wins book. These guys take offence at Bell being called liberal and tell why they are willing to make a defence for moderation in place of crying "heresy".




Rob Bell Wins
By Deacon Bo
Mar 16th, 2011
Category: bible stuff, engaging, media, thinking
Tagged as: eschatology, Rob Bell, universalism

I watched the live- webcast of the Rob Bell interview about his new book “Love Wins” and blogged a couple of thoughts on it at an Everyday Theology. It got a good response so I thought I would post it here.

In case you had not seen the webcast, you can watch the video of the event here.

Here are my two quick thoughts on it:

1. We are not having this conversation in a vacuum
2. Rob Bell is up to something

We are not in a vacuum and the context of this conversation is post-enlightenment / post-christendom. That means a couple of things:

a) everyone has their own bible
b) most people can read it
c) evangelicals do not have Popes or councils to make decisions on this kind of stuff
d) for Reformed folks (Piper, Driscol, Keller, etc) the bible just doesn’t say what they need it to say
for this thing to be air tight.

SO – we have a couple of issues!

The biggest issue is that we take passages like Matthew 7 (which one of the white women in Rob’s audience asked about) where Jesus says “wide is the road that leads to destruction” and we THINK that it is about Hell. It is not. We have been taught to read the Bible wrong. We trade one word for another all the time. I wrote about that here.

Then – some one like Rob comes along and calls that into question (he is up to something) and people FREAK out.

Matthew 7 isn’t about hell. But we got so comfortable thinking that it was … now we are uncomfortable with how comfortable we were.

I’ll give you another example: Paul never mentions hell. In any of sermons (Acts) or letters. It is not there. I wrote about its absence here.

Here is another one: Revelation – which is not to be read literally – teaches (even to those who DO think it is literal) that hell is not eternal. Even in that scenario hell is temporary and is emptied into the lake of fire. They are not the same place or for the same purpose. read Revelation 20:14-15.

But since many don’t know that… we end up asking “wait! if there is no hell … then why are we even doing evangelism or missions“. The answer is that we were doing them for the wrong reason. Some of it was colonial … some of it was worse.

We should do evangelism and we should do mission – but not because of this understanding of hell.

So – I am not saying that Rob Bell is right. I am not saying that everyone will be saved. But the reality is that many have not taken these passage seriously. Passages such as:

Colossians 1:20 “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Romans 5:10 “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

2 Corinthians 5:18 “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation”

That’s my 2 cents. What did you think?


Your First Steps into Biblical Universalism…
By Tripp Fuller • Mar 21st, 2011 • Category: books, engaging, media

So the number of permanent residents in hell is on your mind? I’m gonna guess it wasn’t a few weeks ago until Rob Bell solicited a few twitter-bombs from some conservative dogma police. Since then it has been really popular to blast Bell for being un-biblical, heterodox, and all other sorts of bad stuff. That’s cool if you are interested in getting into someone’s head, supplying their intentions, and making judgments on behalf of the truth (which these individuals apparently have undiluted access to!!).

BUT if the conversation has got you thinking…is ‘love wins’ really a dramatic deviation from the church’s tradition and just some sexy packaging for liberal theology I would like to introduce you to a few Early Church Fathers who could introduce you to a ‘love wins’ way to read the Bible: Clement of Alexandria (ca. 160-215 C.E.), Origen (ca. 185-ca. 251 C.E.), and Gregory of Nyssa (331/340-ca. 395 C.E.)

These fellas are not just minor voices who should be ignored but essential for the develop of the doctrine of the Trinity (ps…it’s a big deal doctrine). I will avoid a discussion of the Trinity and their brilliant philosophical modification of Platonism to simply say that the nature of divine love articulated in the Trinity led them toward affirming God’s universalism.

(1) But more than the Trinity it was the Bible that got’em! Don’t believe me? Then try it out! Remember these three things and read some Bible to see if Biblical universalism is jiving with you. Here are some of these three fellas favorite Bible passages…John 12:32; Acts 3:21; Romans 5:18-21, 11:25-26a, 32; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 15:22-28; 2 Corinthians 5:19; Ephesians 1:10; Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:20; 1 Timothy 2:4; Titus 2:11; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 2:2. (For serious play-by-play through these Church Fathers’ readings of the Bible see Steve Harmon‘s book Every Knee Should Bow: Biblical Rationales for Universal Salvation in Early Christian Thought.)

(2) But before you read them check out these three features of Biblical Universalism and see if they help frame your Bible reading:

a) God is Love….this means that there is nothing about God, in God, or comes from God that is not love. Love is not something God occasionally does or engages in but is the very essence of God. To say ‘God is Love’ is to say that the great mystery of God is a mystery in which every depth that is yet to be understood or revealed is another depth of love. God is love. Love known and unknown by nothing but love.

b) Love requires freedom…..this means that God’s actual goal for creation, to bring it to fruition within the divine love (Paul’s ‘all-in-all’), requires creation to have genuine freedom. Even Calvinists pretend its true in their daily lives. For example, when two lovers consummate their marriage in a passionate act of sweet love making, freedom, vulnerability, and risk is what made the actual act – intercourse – making love and not rape. The freedom to give oneself to another and to receive the other as other is not a human contaminant to love but essential. Because the God who is Love desires to love the whole world and genuine love involves freedom, the creatures of the Creator have received the gift of freedom to love God as a result of God’s own free decision to create and love.

c) Love Wins….God’s love wins. Why? Because the God who is Love is the one and only true God. The infinite Creator of all the universe who is love, is infinitely committed to loving and living in love with the world. This finite world and every finite person within it will remain for all eternity an object of the pure divine love. So both the Creator and creature’s freedom can never be compromised for premature victory. This means a). No one can or ever will be forced into loving God for the very love God desires requires freedom & b) Nothing, including one’s death or present state of response, can force the infinite God of Love to quit pursuing any and every part of God’s creation.

I hope you can see how this is NOT universalism of the blank check variety. The only thing universal here is the scope and reservoir of God’s love. The eschatological optimism is not about anyone, anything, or any action other than the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is precisely that very particular vision of God that can lead one to be optimistic, hopeful, and excited about the future. Why? because the world’s future is God.

Select Comments

1. Tripp Fuller on March 22nd, 2011 at 1:45 am:
Rob Bell’s eschatological optimism is NOT liberalism. Why?

- it still affirms Hell’s existence (liberals tend to demythologize all ‘other-worldly’ talk)

- only God’s redemptive work in Christ redeems (a liberal would call this a subtle & gentle form of Christian exclusivity)

- Love wins (this one is more for postmodern liberals…..A winner brings a loser! Love winning clearly creates a binary between Love and hate\evil\? and we all know that binaries are the one great Evil!)

2. Deacon Hall on March 22nd, 2011 at 9:34 am:
You got it, buddy. The affirmation of Love and the fact that it wins is an affirmation of the Triune God’s grace and freedom. Universal salvation is no demand we can make of God, but one that I’m willing to posit God freely makes for us.

3. Tripp Fuller on March 22nd, 2011 at 9:44 am:
Deacon Hall comes out of his dissertation? I believe this is one topic we actually agree on!

5. Bill on March 22nd, 2011 at 11:04 am:
Really good post and comments – another good book is “The Evangelical Universalist” by pseudo-Gregory MacDonald (borrowing the names from Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald). And the point about Rob Bell differing from Liberalism can’t be emphasized enough (he has a high christology, affirms miracles, the Trinity, etc. – all unnecessary for liberals). It’s amazing how much you’ll see that accusation floating around without any basis (see Mohler’s blog or Christianity Today, unfortunately). But if you want a solidly plausible defense of Protestant Liberalism, as Tripp shared yesterday, see McLaren’s latest post about all this.

6. xxxx xxxxxx on March 22nd, 2011 at 12:44 pm:
Thank you for reminding us that the material in Love Wins is nothing new; it is only repackaged.


Romans 10 in the Spirit of Universalism (not Exclusivism)
By Bill • Mar 29th, 2011 • Category: bible stuff, thinking

It’s worth reiterating the importance of what was said in Deacon Hall’s post about not making demands on God. Only a universalism with this conditioning could be ”biblical.” Indeed, concerning these things, “Do not be arrogant, but tremble” (Rom 11:20).

And to stress God’s absolute freedom, doesn’t Paul warn that God could have made us, like clay in the potter’s hands, “objects for his wrath” (Rom 9:22)? But as recipients of “the good news that’s better than that,”[i] we choose to believe and humbly confess: this isn’t the last word. The love and character of God revealed in Christ says otherwise.

The voices of condemnation and heresy hunting have been too loud lately. They leave their traces everywhere on the blogosphere. Normally, we can ignore them, or at least drown them out with a more generous orthodoxy, not laying claim to any one interpretation absolutely. But instead of running for the hills when we hear red flag phrases like “biblical Christianity” thrown around, it might be better to answer this time.

In light of this, after Tripp and Deacon Hall’s posts, and in the spirit of “continuing the conversation” Rob Bell has started into the “next inning” (McLaren), I thought it might be constructive to look at a common exclusivist proof text from Romans 10:14-15 (see recent examples here and here), by which certain sects try to justify the belief that the vast majority of humanity in history must be consigned to hell – whatever hell is exactly (see a great post by Ben Witherington at Patheos about this here). I think that challenging this narrow and restrictive viewpoint, successfully or not, was Rob Bell’s chief concern in Love Wins.

14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Roman 9-11 as a whole is concerned with the tension between Israel’s disobedience and election.

Chapter 10 in particular addresses the gospel – the “Word of or about Christ/messiah/God” – as that which Israel indeed has “heard” before and should know. Paul references Isaiah 53:1, and the aorist (past) tense of the Greek word for “obey” in this case clearly makes reference to an announcement already received, having prepared the way as a condition for the present preaching of Christ by “missionaries.”[ii] Paul is saying that the Hebrews should have recognized Jesus as a “suffering servant” like the figure depicted in Isaiah’s song.

The correlations between the latter part of Isaiah and Romans are striking:

Isaiah 49:18 (see Rom 14:11), 50:8 (see Rom 8:33), 51:1 (see Rom 9:31), 51:8 (see Rom 1:17), 52:5 (see Rom 2:24), 52:7 (see Rom 10:15), 54:16 (see Rom 9:22), 59:7 (see Rom 3:15-17), 59:20 (see Rom 11:26)

But concerning v. 14 most explicitly, which is where the attention must be focused:

“To explain ou ouk ekousan as meaning ‘about whom they have not heard’ is not really feasible; for the use of akouein with the simple genitive of the person meaning ‘to hear about (someone)’ would be very unusual.”[iii] In other words, Paul is not condemning those who have not heard yet. Calvin’s commentary, which is otherwise still useful, awkwardly takes these questions to be referencing the Gentiles, but this makes little sense in view of Paul’s on-going mission, seeking of funds, and intention to travel all the way to Spain. He’s clearly just talking about Israel here (10.1) since he answers his own question in the affirmative (10.18 – “did they not hear? Of course they did”).

Furthermore, the “beautiful feet” of v. 15 would be merely “decoration” if this verse were meant to exclude those who haven’t heard a priori, but instead it forms the next step in the argument and draws our attention to Isaiah 52:7, showing that that prophetic message had indeed been fulfilled, and the apostolic proclamation commissioned. This runs quite contrary to interpretations by those like Thomas Schreiner who insist on an exclusivist reading, as he even laments the inclusivist leanings of C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham![iv]

So what about the Gentiles? When referenced (which is not as often here), the context is quite optimistic, and meant to contrast their acceptance of the Gospel with the rejection on the part of the Jews. Then comes the Deuteronomy quote:

“I will make you jealous of one that is not a nation, and with a foolish nation I will provoke you” – v. 19.

And even Isaiah anticipates this. Israel’s rejection of the prophets had been seen before:

“All day long, I stretched out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Isaiah 65:2).

Jesus echoes this in Luke 13:34:

“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, and you were not willing.”

Ok, great, so God loves the Gentiles . . .But does God abandon Israel? No, God remains faithful to the covenant – something Paul has in mind throughout the letter, just as was promised to Abraham:[v]

“I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means!” (Rom 11:1)

There is some harsh language in this passage, so we must be careful and not take our “inclusion” for granted, but before the closing doxology, “Paul’s [final] emphasis is on the positive rather than the negative: this remnant people is being formed on the basis of God’s gift in Christ Jesus (5:16; 6:23).”[vi]

30Just as you who [Gentiles] were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, 31 so they [Israel] too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you. For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all (Rom 11:30-32).

Sounds like a good promise! Is Paul contradicting himself? No, for the people of Israel are still representative of God’s chosen people whom he is saving, and this judgment at present is penultimate,[vii] but the justification of the ungodly by faith on account of God’s righteousness (perhaps the major theme of Romans), which is also the resurrection from the dead, is the only hope both of the world in general and also of Israel.[viii]

Let us be awed by the depths of the riches and the mercies and purposes of God! (11:33-36)


[i] See Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011).

[ii] Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: a literary and theological commentary (Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2008), 173.

[iii] C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans (T&T Clark Int’l, 2004), 534.

[iv] See Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Baker Books, 1998).

[v] Johnson, Reading Romans, 177.

[vi] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (IVP Academic, 2009), 180.

[vii] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, 1st ed. (HarperOne, 1996), 415.

[viii] Ernst Kasemann, New Testament Questions of Today (SCM Press, 1969), 187.

An Overview of Universalism

In addition to McKnight's blog below please also refer to an earlier posting of Universalism (It's Many Forms and Varieties) from Timothy Dalrymple's. Both articles together show the many versions of universalism that is being discussed while noting the cultural divide within orthodox Christianity.



Waiting for Rob Bell

by Scot McKnight, March 2, 2011

Whether evangelicalism was paying attention or not, it is now. Universalism, or at least the prospect of it, is the single most significant issue running through the undercurrent of evangelicalism today. This all became clear Saturday when some decided to accuse Rob Bell of universalism on the basis of excerpts of his (not yet released) book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived and on the basis of a video and the book’s description at HarperOne. So, while this new story is about Rob, I want to contend it is even more about the significance of universalism.

My own estimation is that somewhere near 75% of my students, many if not most of them nurtured in the church, are more or less (soft) universalists. They believe in Jesus and see themselves as Christians but don’t find significant problems in God saving Muslims and Buddhists or anyone else on the basis of how God makes such decisions. The Baylor Study of Religion, if my memory is correct, asked a question or two that reveals that an increasing number of American evangelical Christians think the majority of humans will be saved. That’s the issue and Rob Bell had the moxie to write a book about it. He’s rattled cages with his promo video and he will undoubtedly stir the waters in the book.

Many in the evangelical church have happily lived as if universalism is not an issue for good ol’ evangelicals. Those of us with our ears to the ground know better, and that is why I addressed this issue in a chapter in my book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow. I called that chapter Eternity.Life. I begin by saying I believe in hell, but I want to believe in hell the way Jesus does. And I believe in heaven, but I want to believe in heaven as Jesus does. What Jesus believed about heaven and hell diverges at times from what many Christians think about heaven and hell.

As I wrote that chapter and as I listen to this new round of volleys, some of them embarrassing and some of them so over the top and so many of them without having read one word of the book, I keep thinking we need once again to define some terms so I want to sketch a set of simple options. (Then I’ll say a few things about Rob Bell. By the way, we won’t know which of these categories fits Rob until we can read his whole book.)

Which of the following views do you think are “unorthodox”?

Universalism is the general belief that all will be saved, regardless of religious beliefs. The Muslim and the Christian are on the same basic path – and for universalists all will be saved.

Universalism needs to be distinguished from pluralism though as I have sketched “universalism” above there is precious little difference. Pluralism focuses on the legitimacy of each religion and belief system and that each of them prepares a person for final existence with God. For pluralists, there’s no unique saving place for Jesus Christ.

Christian universalism is a bit different: Christian universalism denies pluralism and balder forms of universalism by contending that all can or will be saved, but only through the saving work of Jesus Christ. While many who advocate this fail to recognize that those in other religions simply don’t believe such a thing, and in fact may say they don’t want to be saved through Christ, the Christian universalist confidently trots out the idea that whether they know it or not, God saves through Jesus Christ. But the big point here is that all can and will be saved through Christ.

Evangelical universalism is newer on the block and argues that God saves exclusively through Christ and that those who deny Christ, or who have not heard of Christ, or who have rejected God’s natural revelation to them, will be judged and will experience hell. In other words, these folks believe in hell – though they believe “less” (or as they might say “more”) than the traditionalist. But they believe hell is not eternal but instead temporary and once one has experienced judgment for one’s sins one will have, by the grace of God and through the merits of Christ, the opportunity to respond to the gospel – and this news is so good and God’s offer so gracious that eventually hell will be emptied and all will find redemption in Christ to enjoy God’s salvation forever.

There is yet another version: annihilationism or conditional immortality. This view is traditional in its appeal to evangelism and to the gospel of salvation through Christ alone – it is an exclusive claim – and that those who don’t respond to the gospel will be judged and will experience hell, but that eventually their punishment will run out and they will be utterly destroyed and annihilated and cease from existence. Here one has both a traditional view of hell and, at the same time, some kind of correlation between temporary sins – say 75 years of utter rejection of all things pertaining to what they know of God and Christ – and the experience of justice. When that justice runs its course that person will be utterly extinguished. Instead of an eternal consciousness of separation from God, these folks believe only in an eternal consequences.

Then there’s the traditional view: those who reject Christ, and some believe God’s mercy will be wide enough to include those who have never heard of Christ but have responded to the light they have comprehended (inclusivism) – and there’s latitude here for variations of several sorts, will be judged on the basis of that light. For traditionalists and some inclusivists their number is few so that billions who have not responded to Christ will suffer eternal and conscious separation from God. Some inclusivists would contend that many, if not most, humans will be finally saved.

The pressing issue today is both to comprehend the absolute seriousness of the Christian claim, to realize that the ground has shifted in that many who are associated with evangelicalism simply don’t believe the traditional view and have embraced some kind of universalism, and we need also to understand the options so we can all, one more time, go back to the Bible, to our church traditions, and study all over again – as if for the first time – what to believe.

Now a word or two about Rob Bell. I don’t know what Rob thinks and I won’t know until I read his book. Too much of what I’m reading on the internet is speculation.

I’m grateful to God that Rob Bell is opening this after-life door and, from what I’m hearing, he’s only looking inside the door to see the prospects of universalism, asking you and me to realize both that we have some thoroughly unbiblical ideas and that we need to rethink this stuff all over again. I don’t expect Rob Bell to say one thing new, though I expect him to say what he says well enough to grab our attention.

Friends, this is an old discussion, and there are some great studies out there. Rob Bell is almost certainly not adding something new, but he’s pushing the door open and saying, “Folks, this vast and massive room of universalism and what’s awaiting us when we die are things we must take much more seriously. The next generation of Christians are pressing upon this door and we better stop and listen and think it through one more time.”

My contention is this: the approach to this generation is not to denounce their questions, which often enough are rooted in a heightened sensitivity to divine justice and compassion, but to probe their questions from the inside and to probe thoughtful and biblically-responsible resolutions. We need to show that their questions about justice and God’s gracious love are not bad questions but good questions that deserve to be explored.

I’ve not read the book, and I don’t trust blurbs or excerpts. Nor do I trust my own judgment of watching a provocative promo video and think I know where he’s going. Nor do I trust those who say they have read the book or parts of the book.

But I’ll tell you this: Rob Bell is asking my students’ questions on that promo video and then, as you watch the video, he walks away. Rob and his people are artists, and you can read that walking away any way you want – but I’ll wait until I read that book for myself. I hope you do too.

The Enigma That Is Rob Bell


What Launched the Bell Battle?
Part 1: Rob Bell is No C.S. Lewis
By Timothy Dalrymple
March 30, 2011

A guest post at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed, from philosopher/author Jeff Cook, suggests that “the debate over Love Wins is not actually a fight only about doctrine. It is about angst caused by different cultures and philosophical precommitments.” The anger directed at Bell is partly because he “intimidates some because he is part of [an urban, postmodern] culture they do not understand and cannot control,” and because of “envy and resentment of a very talented man” and (to paraphrase) a sense of creeping cultural irrelevance on the part of modernist conservatives. Thus, “the issues at hand” are “about culture and control” and “the continuing fight between postmodern and modern expressions of Christianity.” Professor Cook’s primary evidence for this is that C. S. Lewis, he says, advocated more or less the same ontology of hell as Rob Bell does, and yet he evokes none of the ire Bell has. Indeed, Lewis is widely admired.

I do not entirely disagree with this argument (although I disagree with the claim that some are intimidated by Bell; I don’t sense that at all). The response to Bell is not “all about” anything. It has multiple layers to it, and it’s important that careful writers and teachers who care about the future of the church differentiate those layers and deal with each properly. But I think Cook gets Lewis wrong, and fails to see what really differentiates Lewis and Bell.

There certainly are — and I think this comes through most clearly in the comment sections on both sides — deep aesthetic and cultural antipathies that form, beneath the disagreements, undercurrents of dislike and distrust between the pro-Bell and anti-Bell camps. The detractors see the “hipster Christian” chic of Rob Bell, the black-rimmed glasses and the trendy outfits and the overuse of secular buzzwords, and it fairly screams “cultural conformity” in their minds. Bell is automatically associated with progressive politics, with the self-absorption of the fashionable young urbanite, with coffee-house snobbery against conservative Christians, and with a desperation that is willing to abandon core theological commitments in order to be liked. All of this happens before the book is opened. And on the other hand, when an evangelical (even a moderate like our own historian Thomas Kidd) posts something mildly critical of Bell, he is accused of being a fundamentalist who hates science and probably would have opposed interracial marriage and supported slavery. The critic (in this case Kidd) has never mentioned science, or politics, or social issues, and yet the commenter already has a full profile of him in mind. This shows the power of these subterranean cultural battles in the current debate.

And there may also be personal antipathies, a resentment based in the feeling that Bell does not really deserve all the attention he receives. Detractors likely feel that Bell receives an awful lot of attention not only because he’s talented — there are many folks out there with extraordinary teaching talents — but because he says fashionable things, things the secular media love. Bell is the kind of Christian that non-Christians want us to be. He’s the kind of Christian that non-Christians would want to have a beer with. So he is lavished with attention; he’s called a “rock star” and “the next Billy Graham” and “the most exciting voice in religion today.” There may well be resentment that other pastors/writers/speakers also toil away, and with great talent, yet receive no such accolades and no New York Times bestseller status because their claims are not as trendy.

These cultural and interpersonal reasons for the antipathy between the Bell supporters and detractors are just the natural consequences of human sinfulness. There is nothing nefarious at work, except for good old-fashioned sin. And it runs both ways. Most of the comments we’ve seen at Patheos have been from Bell supporters, and they’re responded pretty nastily to those who make criticisms of Bell, however mild those criticisms might be.

Now, let me lay my cards on the table. (I am now free to do so.) I found “Love Wins” deeply frustrating. Not because it advocates something close to universalism. Not because of its inclusivism (if not outright pluralism) and eternalism (I explain here). I’ve always been surrounded by people — even Christians — who believe things very, very different from myself. And I actually think the biblical witness on the afterlife is fuzzier than some on the conservative side of this debate will admit. I find the hopeful (yet ultimately agnostic on the matter) attitudes of Karl Barth and C. S. Lewis profoundly attractive. All of which to say: while the fact of Bell’s influence concerns me, I don’t particularly care that Rob Bell is something close to a universalist.

Rather, I found the book frustrating because (1) of the way it treated scripture and (2) the way it treated what has traditionally been considered the orthodox teaching of the western church. I do not blame Bell for being a universalist. Actually it’s almost boringly predictable. But I do blame him for the way he treats God’s word and the way he treats the majority report of the church. This — apart from some subtle but important theological differences (more on that later) — is what separates a Rob Bell from a C. S. Lewis. Even when C. S. Lewis wrote something that might depart from traditional orthodoxy on some matter, Lewis did not caricature or mock what the church has taught as “toxic,” “psychologically crushing” or irrational and backwards.

I believe that this is responsible in large measure for the very strong negative reaction that has flowed toward Love Wins from certain quarters of American Christendom. Again, there is no one thing the Bell Battle is all about. But I do believe this was one of the factors that provoked such acrimony. Bell’s book, to many, feels like an attack. An attack upon orthodoxy, an attack upon a traditional interpretation of scripture, an attack on what they have been taught throughout their lives. Lewis’ books never felt like an attack on orthodox Christian belief; they felt like an eloquent defense and a careful, biblical, theological and literary rendering of that belief. Yes, it’s a matter of philosophical pre-commitments. But it’s also, simply, that Bell caricatures and condemns traditional Christian teaching while Lewis represents it thoughtfully and charitably, even when he wants to suggest the possibility of a different view.

So I am going to publish three more posts (this being the first) on Bell’s book in the days to come. SECOND, what does Bell — in my view — get right? It’s important to begin here, to represent one another honestly and charitably. (I will include here a comment on the most important theological matter Bell gets wrong, which is his understanding of the person and work of Christ.) THIRD, how does he interpret the scriptures? And FOURTH, how does he treat what the majority of the church throughout its history has taught?

Universalism's Forms and Varieties

A Framework for Understanding the Rob Bell Controversy
By Timothy Dalrymple, March 18, 2011 6:18 pm

It’s taking me longer than I had hoped to write my own review of the famously hip Rob Bell’s famously controversial new book, Love Wins, but in the meantime I wanted to offer what I hope is a helpful framework for understanding some of the issues at hand. I happen to believe that only 10-20% of the controversy is really about universalism. The greater part of the controversy is about the questions behind the questions — progressive accommodation to contemporary culture versus conservatives holding-fast to inherited theological tradition, selective reinterpretation of the Christian message versus a profession of the whole counsel of scripture regardless of its offensiveness to modern ears, etc; the other, central theological issues Bell reformulates — the character of God, the nature of the person and work of Christ, and the means of salvation; and the way in which Bell thoroughly and repeatedly casts doubt on, caricatures, and condemns what has been the traditional teaching of the western churches for many centuries now.

Bell is to be complimented and thanked for some things, and criticized for others. But more on that anon.

For now, it strikes me that people are wrestling with the question, “Is Rob Bell a universalist?” in part because the terms have not been sufficiently clear. Some say Bell is clearly not a universalist because he says that God will not forcibly save everyone, and some may continue to reject God even in the afterlife. Some say Bell clearly is a universalist because he strongly implies that God’s loving pursuit of every individual — in the present life and in the life to come — must eventually prevail. Still others say that Bell should properly be called a Christian universalist or an evangelical universalist, because he believes that all (can?) (will?) be saved but through the intermediation of Christ.

The most philosophical nuance I’ve seen in the online discussion so far has been Scot McKnight’s post on the variety of universalisms, but even this is confusing because these are not all positions on the same axis. Let me explain. The colors red, yellow and blue are all at different points on the electromagnetic spectrum. So I can make a list — blue, yellow, and red — in which all three elements in the list are differentiated along one axis (in this case the axis of wavelength). But if I create another list that runs thus — blue, yellow, red, red apples, red cherries — then I have created a a typology with two axes (colors or wavelengths, and types of fruit). If I were making a graph, I could not just create a one-dimensional line, and locate the colors at different points along the line; I would have to create a two-dimensional grid, with colors along one axis and kinds of fruit along another. If I added another axis, I would have to create a three-dimensional cubic graph, and so on.

I hope this is clear so far. If a child asked me to hand her a kind of paint, and I said, “Do you want blue, yellow, red, or red apples?” (not apple-red but actual red apples), the child would look at me curiously, because I would have just confused different categories. Well, I find a similar confusion running through some of these conversations about universalism. There are actually several different axes at play here.

1. The SOTERIOLOGICAL axis: What is the mechanism of salvation? Is it known and confessed faith in Christ (exclusivist) — or might a person be saved by a kind of pseudo-faith even if he or she does not know or confess that this is through Christ (inclusivist) — or can a person be saved by a variety of religions through their own mechanisms (call this soteriological relativism)?

What becomes clear at this point is that inclusivism and universalism are not on the same axis. One is a statement about how people are saved, and the other about how many are saved. To this point, one would have to say that Rob Bell is an inclusivist. He believes that people of all religious tribes and none, whether or not they confess Christ or understand Christ or have ever heard of Christ, can be saved by the redemption God made available through Christ. While this is not traditional Christian doctrine, and has not been evangelical doctrine, it is not terribly heretical either. The Roman Catholic Church has held to a doctrine of inclusivism ever since Vatican II.

(It’s worth noting that there are sub-distinctions in each of these. Some have begun to call exclusivism by a different name, particularism, and distinguish different varieties of particularism. So, for instance, one could be an “agnostic particularist” if one believes that those who never had the opportunity to respond to the gospel in their lives on earth will have an opportunity to respond postmortem. Traditional particularists believe that there is no such postmortem opportunity, but others have argued that God knows how each person would respond if given the opportunity, and saves those who would have responded in faith. My point is not to advocate one of these, but to say that there is a whole body of philosophical literature on this, and many options within the options. See Collin Hansen’s post here for some other varieties.)

2. The EXTENSION axis: How far does God’s grace reach in effective redemption? Are all people ultimately saved (universalism) — are most people ultimately saved (majoritarian) — or are the saved a relative minority (minoritarian)?

A universalist can be an inclusivist (all people are saved through Christ) or a soteriological relativist (all people are saved through various means). And an inclusivist can believe that all, most, or still a relative minority are saved through Christ). Rob Bell clearly rejects the minoritarian view. He calls it “tragic” and “crushing” and “unbearable.” He also presents the minoritarian view as the mainstream teaching of the church for centuries. In the infamous promotional video, Bell evokes an exclusivist minoritarian view and suggests that such a God could not be good, and that such teachings have led many to reject Christianity as “an endless list of inconsistencies and absurdities.”

So where does Bell stand on the extension axis? It’s not entirely clear. The question is whether he is a majoritarian or a universalist. He clearly states that some people will presumably reject God in the afterlife just as they did in this life. But will they do so ultimately, forever? He says that God would not force people into redemption, because God respects our freedom to choose. But if God has an eternity to reach out to them, will everyone eventually surrender to the relentless, salvific pursuit of God? The FAQ made available by Bell’s church, Mars Hill Bible Church, is clearer than Bell himself has been. It says: Rob is not saying that “all will be saved, regardless of faith” — but he is saying that “all could be saved,” since “the invitation to God’s grace may extend into the next life.”

There are other possible refinements. A person could be an actual universalist or a potential universalist, for instance, believing that all people definitely will be saved (actual universalism) or that all people may well be saved (potential universalism).

3. This brings us to a third axis, the FATE OF THE REJECTORS: What happens to those who reject God? Will they be tormented eternally in hell, decisively separated from God (for lack of a better word here, traditionalist) — will they be destroyed (annihilationist?) — or will they have an eternity in which to repent (eternalist)?

If you’re a universalist, you cannot be an annihilationist or a traditionalist, unless you believe that none reject God. But an inclusivist could be any one of these three, and an exclusivist could be a traditionalist or an annihilationist. Some Christians over the years have chosen annihilationism, in the view that it would be more merciful for God simply to destroy the unrepentant than to consign them to eternal suffering. Bell is clearly an eternalist, who holds open the possibility that hell will eventually be shut because all people will ultimately repent and take refuge in God’s mercy.

In my reading, Bell is certainly an inclusivist and an eternalist. The question comes on the extension axis: I would suggest that Bell is both a majoritarian and a potential universalist. In some places he seems to prescind from judgment on whether all will finally be saved — who can say, after all, what people will freely choose? In other places he suggests that God would not be fully great, or love would not fully “win,” unless all people are eventually redeemed. So this, I think, is where one should press for clarity from Bell.

Again, ultimately, the disagreements and differences run far deeper than these questions. But these are exceedingly important questions nonetheless, and evangelicalism is coming to terms with the fact that different people who call themselves evangelical are passionately committed to different answers to these questions. I hope that the above offers some sort of conceptual framework that might be helpful.

UPDATE: Added the note above regarding different forms of particularism/exclusivism.

I say this with tongue-in-cheek as I was reminded by Tim's review of my Systematic Theology classes and the endless permutations that a doctrine could be parsed and re-parsed. But I did find Tim's article helpful in elucidating all the many types of universalism that Christians are speaking back-and-forth with one another currently.
I also liked Tim's brief mention of all the jumble of other issues that have arisen as a result of Rob Bell's Love Wins book which gave us a mish-mash of everything in its scatter-gun approach to theology.  But rather than find fault with it, let us see Bell's main message for what it is - a very clear restatement of God's love for us and our responsibility to respond  to God's love through Jesus, his Son and our Savior.
Message-wise, this and other blogs will do the hard work of sorting out the rest of postmodernity's mish-mash of doctrines, one by one, patiently, over the years ahead, as statements and positions become clearer and clearer in our globally transitioning world or pluralistic cultures, religions and socieities. In the meantime, evangelicalism must transition, and with it, its doctrines, dogmas, litergies, and hermenuetic. Emergent Christianity may have some of the answers or it may not, but it is that in-between land of unknowing that is being crossed in the land of the living. It is messy, it can be dissettling, it can be confusing. Through it all we must learn to listen to each other's griefs and complaints and patiently love, not label, brethren who differ.

The Many forms of Hell

A previous article written by the evangelic pastor Tim Keller, "Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age," was posted here not many days ago. Within it I found a section that states how to preach hell to postmoderns, making me think that even as evangelics are positive about their beliefs of hell (as well as their beliefs about what others should believe about hell!) so emergent Christians must likewise be clear in our postmodern approach to this same subject. For I suspect that emergents tend to out-think or out-position ourselves into some contrary form of essegetical (subjectively-imposed) hermeneutic that would leave off the biblical themes of "sin, justice, and hell" when over-preaching on the subject of God's great love and grace to mankind (mostly in response to the evangelic "Calvinization" of the good news of Jesus which is otherwise known as the gospel of Jesus).

And so, in comparison to Timothy Keller's positional treatment of the reality of hell for evangelicals and for postmoderns alike, I came across the emergent-like statements of Ben Witherington's statement on hell, it's reality and its consequences. And with the exception of his thin mentioning of a Protestant-like state of purgatory, I found his comments reinforcing of Keller's earlier description while at the same time focusing on Rob Bell's more postmodernistic explanations of libertarian free will; the consequences of our choices now and in the future; and the constant reality of God's just-love for mankind seeking to rid creation of the consequences of sin, evil, and hell through the personage of his divine Son, our Savior, Jesus.

And yet, this speaks not of universalism but of God's universal love to sinful mankind and His universal redemption extended to all. In the process Witherington brings up the issue of annihilation, or more exactly, the various stages of annihilation within the eternal plan as versus Keller's more definitive, more rigorous view of indefinite, limitless punishment and death that occurs within hell. Either position is well within the realms of evangelicalism and if I were to chose, I'd lean towards some form of annihilation as it seems more natural to me that death apart from God simply "thins us out" in all of our creative makeups physically, socially, spiritually, existentially until there is simply nothing left. And when hell is cast into the Lake of Fire with eternal finality I would think that the state of annihilation has either begun or is then completed. But this is my conjecture and not found anywhere in the bible except through inference (for further reference go here - "The Origin of Sin, Hell and Universalism").

For me hell is very real, very final, and bereft of any second chances. Here we will find that as in life, so in death, every level of our being will be consumed by God's absence; a place where we are finally loosed from our Creator God, who would anchor us within his sheltering havens of purposeful existence. Where his reflected image becomes a shadow that stretches further and further into the darkest corners and furthest voids of eternal darkness. Where God's holy breath no longer infills our souls, our lungs, our spirits as we expire from the absence of his "holy-other" presence. Where we lose any remaining creative purposes and sustenance having set so flinty a course of willful abandonment and rejection to God's mercy and love, the very creative forces that would give us purpose and sustenance. A place where is found loneliness, austerity, torment, grief, remorseful tears - not repentant tears - and yes, even a spiritually black darkness abject of the Light of the world which is very God himself.

In hell is found death in all of its completeness, its agonies, its lostness, its seared hearts and opposition to the Created Will of the worlds and the souls of mankind. Here reigns only sin, only death, only darkness. Well has it been said by Dante, "Abandon all hope ye who would enter." Yeah verily, every particle of our created being would fly away from life to death, where, in the mystery of sin is found the mystery of our stubborn will that would continue to reject God. That refuses to be consumed by God's life-giving, holy fires that can renew our life in created purpose and infilling. Seeking instead consumption within our own hellish fires that give death its own miserable finality.

Verily this is a mystery and one to which God knows all too well. Who fearfully has set Himself as a wall and barrier to that eternally hungry pit. Who placed Himself into the maws of hell as atonement and propitiation, lamb and sacrifice, justifier and redeemer, in our place and for our salvation. In-and-by His very self has He prevented so awful a future for mankind, who is our life and soul-keeper, our Lord and Shepherd, the God of mercy, love and justice. Fear Him, heed Him, seek Him, loose Him not from thy very soul. He is thy very breath and life, light and vine, water and bread. To Thee we give praise and humble worship. Amen.

April 1, 2011
(revisited March 20, 2012)

Please also refer to another related article I've written on this subject entitled  "LOST in Purgatory? Parts 1 & 2"

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The Bible and Culture: A One-Stop Shop for All Things Biblical and Christian

Hell? No??
March 16, 2011 by Ben Witherington

The subject of Hell has suddenly become front burner flame-on hot since little bits of news have been leaking out about Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins. Patheos is just beginning what will be an extended conversation on the book and the issues it raises, in what it hopes will be a charitable and constructive conversation. See here.

I have not read the book yet, but I do know the testimony of the President of Fuller Seminary, Richard Mouw, who says the book is all about Jesus and within the bounds of what could be called generous orthodoxy as opposed to stingy orthodoxy. I will write a full review when Harper sends me my copy of it, but in the meantime, let’s address the basic questions -

Does the NT teach that 1) there is a Hell, and 2) some folks are going there (not necessarily in a handbasket), and 3) they will experience eternal torment once there?

I have put the matter in three parts, because you could answer questions 1) and 2) with an emphatic yes, and in fact say no to 3). Indeed, there is a time-honored tradition of interpreting the NT to say that what happens to the damned is that they are consumed in Hell or Gehenna or the Lake of Fire — pick your favorite moniker — but then, since they are consumed, there is no eternal torment. Their suffering does not go on and on forever. And one of the possible implications of interpreting the NT this way is that when we finally get to the new heaven and new earth, only believers in Christ are left standing on the premises. Now this is certainly not universalism in the typical modern sense of the term; it’s not an “all dogs go to heaven” kind of universalism, or a Unitarian kind of universalism. This is, instead, the view that except for those who willfully and knowingly refuse to have any part in Christ and his kingdom, ‘Love Wins’.

I had a student come up to me this week who thought he had resolved the above conundrum and said we need not choose between anihilationism and eternal torment because for the person in question, the torment is forever, if by forever we mean always until he or she ceases to exist. This is an interesting spin on the old question, and worth considering especially when you actually do your homework on the Hebrew word ‘olam’ or the Greek equivalent ‘aeon’.

‘Olam’ has been loosely translated ‘forever’ but the problem with this translation, according to my esteemed colleague Bill Arnold in his 1 Samuel commentary, is twofold: 1) in the phrase berit olam (loosely forever covenant or eternal covenant) it becomes clear that olam actually means a covenant of a definitely long but unspecified duration. In other words, it doesn’t exactly seem to be a synonym for our [English] word ‘eternal’ which means infinitely going on into the future. 2) notice that we have the phrase ‘olam wu olam’ in the OT, loosely translated ‘forever and ever’. Now the phrase ‘wu olam’ is totally unnecessary if in fact ‘olam’ by itself means ‘forever’. In that case, the additional phrase is redundant. And in fact we have the same issue with the word ‘aeon’ in Greek which could be rendered ‘forever’ but it could refer to a specific period of time— an age or aeon. And sure enough we have this same redundancy with a similar Greek phrase. For example in Heb. 13.21 (in some mss.) we have the phrase ‘unto the aeon of aeons’. Why exactly would we need the ‘of aeons’ phrase at all, if ‘aeon’ itself means forever in the modern sense? Inquiring minds want to know.

But what exactly does the Bible say about Hell?

Let’s start with some basic facts. Fact Onethe Old Testament says little or nothing about Hell. What it does talk about is Sheol, the land of the dead, which in Greco-Roman thinking has been called Hades. For example, in 1 Sam 28 we hear about Samuel’s shade or spirit being called up from Sheol to be consulted by the medium of Endor. Samuel is none too pleased about the summons, but he is not depicted as having been in either heaven or hell. He is simply in the land of the dead. This concept of Sheol continued on well into the New Testament era, and may well represent what Paul believes about where people have gone who have died, but who are not in Christ. For Christians, of course, Paul says “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5), but what about everyone else?

In 1 Cor. 15, Paul says quite literally that Jesus is raised on Easter “from out of the dead ones”, not merely raised from death, though that is true, but raised from out of the realm of dead persons. This suggests that the dead are still out there, and have not yet been consigned to Hell.

Indeed, traditionally the Christian idea was that no one is consigned to Hell until after the Final Judgment — which, in case you’re wondering, has not yet taken place! Paul is perfectly clear that the Final Judgment comes after Jesus returns, and there is the bema seat judgment of Christ (again 2 Cor. 5) before which we all must appear to give an account of the deeds we have done in the body. (Yes, even Christians are accountable for such things). Thereafter, it would appear, we are assigned to our eternal destinations.

Or consider Revelation 20. Though this is a highly metaphorical and apocalyptic text, it nonetheless suggests the following sequence: 1) the return of Christ; 2) the temporary confinement of Satan; 3) the resurrection of those who are in Christ who will rule with Christ during the millennium; 4) the resurrection from the dead of those not in Christ at the end of the millennium; 5) Satan released, and 6) a final hubbub which leads to Jesus’ judgment on Satan and the nations who are sent packing off to the Lake of Fire, once and for all. So 7) the new heaven and new earth does not emerge until after Final Judgment has been done on the earth. And when John says “and there was no more sea” this is metaphorical but refers to there was no more chaos waters, no more Evil in the universe. This may suggest that Hell is not forever and ever. Amen. But there is other evidence, which can be read in different ways.

Let’s be clear that the answer to the first question — Is there a Hell to be found in the New Testament — is certainly yes. And Jesus is perhaps the one most clear about this. He calls it Gehenna, and he says it’s rather like the stinky garbage dump in the Hinnom Valley south of the City of David, and like a garbage dump its where the worm does not die and the fire never goes out. And there are people expected by Jesus to go there, as the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus shows in Lk 16. Granted, this is a parable, an extended metaphor, but it is surely referential, and it indicates the rich man is in an unpleasant place and there is no remedy. There is an unalterable divide between the bosom of Abraham and the place where the rich man currently resides in the afterlife. The parable teaches that how we live in this life has consequences for where we end up in the afterlife, and this must be taken seriously.

A good presentation on the implications of this is C.S. Lewis’ famous work – The Great Divorce.

So far we have seen that the rather clear answer to the question is there a Hell and are some people going there is— yes, and yes. But consider for a moment the further implication of that parable in Luke 16. It suggests that Abraham, and poor Lazarus did not go to Hell, and yet neither one of them believed in Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Indeed belief in Jesus as the risen Lord doesn’t even arise amongst Jesus’ followers until Easter and thereafter. Do we really want to say that nobody went to heaven before Jesus died and rose again? That would be pretty bold theology, and it is a theology contradicted by OT stories (Enoch and Elijah taken up into the presence of God), and Jesus’ afterlife parable in Lk. 16. And then of course there is the issue of whether people are consigned to Hell because they have never heard of the existence of Jesus. The answer to this latter question is no.

The basis for judgment on anyone is the sins they actually have commited, not something they never knew. Indeed, Luke and Acts indicate that God has mercy and forgiveness on even Jesus’ executioners “because they know not what they do”. Are we really going to argue that when Jesus asked God to forgive his executioners, God turned him down? I don’t think so. It would seem then that there is a place for considering the possibility that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, greater than some might think. Romans 1.18-32, which is not about final judgment but a present temporal judgment suggests that God’s existence and power is evident to all in creation, and so no one is ever condemned for not knowing God at all. They are condemned for rejecting the light they have received, refusing to recognize the evidence of God and his power which is everywhere. So the answer to the ‘what about the lost person in some obscure place where the internet and Gospel has not penetrated’ is that each will be judged on the basis of what they have done with the light/revelation which they have received from God.

If you do study the life and teaching of Gandhi who certainly did know about Jesus and his teachings you will discover that Gandhi didn’t really have much of a problem with the teaching of Jesus — he had a problem with the church. There are a lot of people out there like that these days. More importantly, I don’t think anyone is in the position to say that Gandhi is burning in Hell and we know this with absolute certainty (an issue raised by Rob Bell’s advance video for the book). That is to presume to know the final destiny of someone and where their heart was when they died, and frankly no one has such knowledge except God! We can talk about the criteria the NT establishes for salvation in Christ, but we can’t talk about whether this or that individual definitely embraced these truths before he or she died since we are not omniscient. It is God who looks upon the heart. These facts should cause all censorious Christians to take a chill pill when it comes to definitively consigning someone, especially some living person, to outer darkness, especially since ‘where there is life, there is hope’.

What about texts which suggest that Hell is a place of eternal torment? Yes, there are such texts, and they can be interpreted that way. Perhaps the most famous of these texts is 2 Thess 1.5-10 (ESV) which should be quoted in full:

5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal (aeonion) destruction, away from[b] the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. 11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (note - there is that word aeon, in this case aeonion in vs. 9, and in the NIV translated ‘eternal’, as above.)

Notice several things about this text:

1) the point at which people are punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the Lord’s presence is “on the day when he comes”. Not before the return of Christ, but on the day when he returns. This certainly suggests that while lots of people are in the land of the dead just now, none of them are yet in Hell. That comes after the final judgment of Jesus. [this could also be construed to be a purgatorial position, but not necessarily, per Witherington, who is postulating the SHEOL position of the OT/NT meaning of the grave and of death  - res]

2) what are we to make of the phrase “eternal destruction”. This has usually been interpreted to mean eternal torment. But note the word destruction. The phrase seems almost an oxymoron — how can anything be eternally destroyed? If it is destroyed, isn’t it done with, over, gone? I agree that this phrase might be interpreted to refer to eternal torment, but this is not perfectly clear. Eternal torment may be the implication of Jesus’ parable of the weeds which ends by saying “They will be thrown into a blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13.43) but Jesus does not say for how long. The fact that the fire doesn’t go out in Gehenna does not tell us how long a particular person in Gehenna suffers from it. 2 Pet. 3.7, similarly talks about the judgment and destruction of the ungodly but it also shortly after this talks about the destruction of the old heavens and old earth, and the author seems to imply that once something is destroyed it is gone. In this case it is replaced by a new heaven and a new earth.

What are the implications of all this? I don’t think we can debate that the NT says there is a place we today call Hell, and that some people will end up there, because of their own choices and wickedness. Whether they will experience eternal torment is more debatable. My advice however is that we abstain from pronouncing a final judgment on any human soul; that is Jesus’ job at the final judgment. We simply don’t know the outcome of many who are not followers of Christ now.

And here is a final reason for caution — Romans 11 clearly says that when the Redeemer comes forth from Zion he will turn away the impiety of Jacob — that is, says Paul, when Jesus comes back and the dead are raised, “all Israel will be saved”, which at least means a lot of Jews being saved who currently do not believe in Jesus. Perhaps what Paul means about the second coming in Phil. 2.5-11 is that there will come a day when all will recognize Jesus as the Christ and as Lord, at the eschaton, even though many of them don’t do that now. But there is a difference between recognizing and embracing the truth about Jesus. The demons recognize the truth about Jesus, but it does not transform them.

What I am more sure of than ever, is that there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ, and that in the end ‘every knee will bow and ever knee confess’ even those humans or demons who want to have nothing to do with Jesus thereafter. Salvation in the end is not just a matter of being forced to recognize the truth — it’s about positively embracing and trusting that truth. And there are apparently some who will never ever do that. To them God says “if you insist, have it your way”. Hell is the place you experience the absence of the presence of God for as long as you continue to exist. Whether there is a time when Hell will cease to exist, like the crystal sea of Revelation, equally orthodox persons can debate. Annihilation or destruction of Satan, Hell and its inhabitants is a possible interpretation of the eschatological endgame, but it is also possible Hell will go on ‘olam wu olam wu olam‘. If the former is true, then the last persons standing are all followers of Christ according to Revelation. Revelation 21.8 seems pretty clear — “But as for the cowardly, the faithless…[etc.], their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death”. Even more telling is the statement in Rev 22.15 which states that after the new heaven has landed on the new earth and the new Jerusalem has been set up, “outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” It would appear from these last two text, that Hell still has a future, even after the new heaven and new earth event shows up. What this suggests is that love, even divine love, does not always win with everyone, not even in the end, and it breaks the heart of God as it should break ours.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy Part One (Inferno), and in Jonathan Edward’s rightly famous sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ we find vivid depictions of Hell. Whether or not these lurid pictures amount to ‘over-egging the pudding’ as the British would say, it has never been the case that we should consign some idea to the dustbin of history simply because we find it troubling or even offensive. Indeed, it may well be the hard edges of the Gospel which we most need to hear in an age in which the unholy Trinity holds sway over our culture — the wrong sort of pluralism, the wrong sort of universalism, and relativism.

Hell in the New Testament is a constant reminder that there is a final accountability for our beliefs and behaviors in this life, whatever the particulars and temperature and durability of Hell may be. It is a reminder that this life is basically the time of decision, and the decisions we make now can indeed have eternal consequences in the afterlife. And, frankly, this is not bad news. It is a part of the Good News that in the end justice as well as mercy, righteousness as well as compassion, and holiness as well as love wins. Thanks be to God.

Ben Witherington, one of the world's leading evangelical scholars, is Amos Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of over 40 books and is a frequent commentator on radio and television programs.