Tuesday, March 29, 2011

To hell with them fellas. Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms.

Is Josey Wales more orthodox than Rob Bell?

Bell is the founding pastor Mars Hill Bible Church, a megachurch in Michigan, and a popular author, most recently of Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

As you may know, there's much controversy concerning Bell, particularly accusations that he's officially left the realm of orthodoxy with his denial of hell.

I've not read the book, so I can't speak to that subject as of yet, but I would like to offer a few comments as well as a few links for further reading.

First, I'd like to address what's been termed "optimistic inclusivism," which is in contrast to an exclusivist view.

Evangelical (assuming for a moment that term still has meaning) Christians adhere to the biblical concept of exclusivity where salvation is concerned. That is, salvation from the wrath of God only comes through Jesus Christ, the crucified & risen Son of God (cf. John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

As you might imagine, that's among the least popular tenants of Christianity. It's much more popular to assert that (a) because God is love/loving, (b) He saves everyone, regardless of their theological allegiances. Hence, love wins.

As Ed Stetzer points out, this is not an original thought with Bell, though his attempt as an alleged evangelical to seemingly persuade evangelicals is perhaps what's setting him apart.

The error, of course, is in starting with a concept of love and then attempting to conform God to it, including His actions. Rightly, we start with God and a recognition of His various attributes as well as an understanding that God's actions define love, rather than vice versa. We also must clarify whom it is God loves and how He loves various people in various ways.

As I understand it, the rationale is that we can hope that because God is loving that He will act in a certain way, particularly with regard to hell.

Second, I have to say I wonder if, at least practically speaking, many of us haven't unwittingly succumbed to such an optimistic inclusivism. Theoretically, sure, everyone who's not been saved from God's wrath by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone is justifiably sentenced to hell to pay for their sin.

Yet, when was the last time you heard a person say, "So and so is in hell"? Won't we more than likely say, "I don't think he/she was a Christian, so he/she might not be in heaven."

Even if folks are content to express such about public figures, with whom we typically have little firsthand knowledge, what about family members? What about people we are confident had little to no interest in the things of Christ?

Do we practically become optimistic inclusivists? "Well, I hope Uncle Fester's in heaven, though I have my doubts."

I ran across an interesting article accusing 99.9% of pastors of agreeing with Rob Bell, at funerals, at least.
"I think pastors honestly have the hope that — despite evidence to the contrary — the deceased finds himself or herself in the presence of God."
At some point, I intend to read Bell's book and to give a fair and informed assessment. Until that time, I will only contend that, according to the Scriptures, hell is not just an idea; it's a place, a place of eternal torment and punishment.
XX. The Judgment - God has appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world by Jesus Christ, when every one shall receive according to his deeds: the wicked, those apart from Christ, shall go into everlasting punishment; the righteous, those who are justified, into everlasting life. (Providence Church statement of faith)
To negate (universalism, even optimistic) or minimize (annihilationism) hell is to do disservice to the Scriptures and those in whom the fear of God needs surfacing. Additionally, the character of God is attacked, as He is portrayed as "more loving" than He portrays Himself.

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At 29 March, 2011 21:39, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good thoughts. Perhaps more importantly in-light of how this brouhaha has played-out: responsible tone.

I would quibble with one thing... Just as the Bible unabashedly labels God as holy, so too it labels Him as love. There is no other attribute given such elevated billing. While I appreciate the point you're seeking to make, and think it's valid, I don't think it's consistent with Scripture. Love is a defining attribute of God as is holiness. It's the essence of who He is. The real question is: how do you define love? There's the rub. Does God have to fit our definition of love? Or are we willing to let Him define it in ways we're not real comfortable with?

At 29 March, 2011 21:40, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BTW, it would be much better to be discussing this over a SACWA.

At 29 March, 2011 22:04, Blogger GUNNY said...

I don't disagree, especially about the SACWA. Every theological discussion would benefit from the presence of SACWA.

Of course, even believers wrestle with the concept of God's love. If God loves me, then why am I going through X?"

Does God love the non-elect the same way as the elect?

Does God love all believers the same, or does He have favorites?

At 29 March, 2011 23:44, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We're supposed to love our enemies and do good to them. But God gets to torture his forever?

Do as I say, not as I do?

At 30 March, 2011 08:02, Blogger GUNNY said...


Thanks for the comment. Your criticism is not original, but it's still popular. It's popular because it seems to squarely call God's goodness into question.

If Hell be real, is God a hypocrite?

Much could be said (e.g., the obligation of God to enact justice), but one thing that always comes to mind is that our enemies might not be God's enemies.

In other words, God knows all things, including those who will hate & rebel against Him their whole lives, suppressing the knowledge of God that has been revealed to them (Rom 1:18-20).

However, those who are in opposition to us could be (a) God's children who are throwing a tantrum of sorts and we could be God's instruments of their repentance & restoration or (b) God's sheep who have yet to hear His voice and come to Him (i.e., unconverted but elect).

I'm not saying that's an entirely satisfactory answer, but it I think it's got validity.

To that, I would add there are many times I have tasked my children do that which they don't understand, expecting them to trust me, something which might even seem hypocritical to them. I have my reasons and don't always feel obligated to reveal them or do the things they are expected to do.

While I realize that may open me up to questions of hypocrisy, I also realize that most parents out there can relate. We know things they don't and they are subordinates, not equals.

How much greater is the gulf between God and His created beings, wherein He's elevated from and not obligated to us?

At 30 March, 2011 12:10, Blogger Larry said...

I don't think we're supposed to say "so and so is in hell." That is an inference right out of the Providence statement of faith you quoted!

"God has appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world by Jesus Christ, when every one shall receive according to his deeds: the wicked, those apart from Christ, shall go into everlasting punishment; the righteous, those who are justified, into everlasting life. (Providence Church statement of faith)"

The first part is the salient part; it comes from Acts 17:31, where Paul, preaching to unconverted Gentiles, tells them "He [God] has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed."

In other words, this is yet future. They won't be in hell until judged. Our whole system of jurisprudence is removed by those who assign people to hell before they are judged. Hell is based on justice, not on hearsay.

At 30 March, 2011 12:28, Blogger Larry said...

However, having said that, we must warn people within our scriptural bounds, which allow us to say a very great deal.

For example, we certainly can say that someone is a "son of hell," as the Lord said of some of the Pharisees in Matthew 23:15. We can say that there we have no reason to believe that a person will escape hell, similar to the Lord's exclamation "how will you escape the sentence of hell?" in Matthew 23:33.

There are plenty of blanket condemnations of the unrighteous, the wicked, and predictions of their end, and there are a boat-load of things that are available for naming those headed for hell as far as we know. To gravitate to the one thing we are not allowed to say is strangely perverse, and (to me) sounds like not waiting until the Lord comes. After all, when the Lord comes, it is we ourselves, as Christians in Christ, who will judge angels and the world (1 Cor 6:2ff).

At 30 March, 2011 12:51, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not calling God's goodness into question. I'm calling your interpretation of scripture into question.

If God creates human beings who are predestined to be his enemies ("vessels of wrath") and then subjects them to eternal conscious torture because he chose not to make them his friends then, yes, all that talk in the Bible about love and forgiveness sounds pretty hypocritical.

One approach to this dilemma is to simply assert that eternal torture of beings who had no hope of avoiding eternal torture is perfectly consistent with a God of love and forgiveness because... well... God's so different from us that somehow it's still true. This would appear to be your position.

Another approach is to question whether or not the eternal torture bit is actually correct.

Seems to me that there's way more scripture devoted to describing God as loving, forgiving, and merciful than there is to expounding the notion of eternal torture of the predestined damned. So I think one would be wiser to interpret the latter in light of the former, rather than the other way 'round.

Incidentally, you've got a bit of a straw man in your post when you contrast "optimistic inclusivism" with exclusivity by saying that exclusivism asserts "salvation from the wrath of God only comes through Jesus Christ, the crucified & risen Son of God", implying that inclusivism denies this point. That's not necessarily true. An inclusivist can fully hold that salvation comes exclusively through Jesus Christ, and that anyone who is saved is saved only on that basis, regardless of what he understands or believes about that fact. Say for example, I just sent $1000 to your paypal account without telling you. You'd still be in possession of that money which would really be yours even if you didn't know it was there. Or refused to believe me when I told you it was.

At 30 March, 2011 15:42, Blogger GUNNY said...


I checked my PayPal account ... no joy. I guess it's the thought that counts.

My apologies for mis-reading your previous comments. I guess I didn't correctly ascertain the crux of your critique.

Well, if it is a bit of a straw man, I can assure you it's unintentional. Albeit anecdotal evidence, my experience has not been universalism based on solus Christus, but rather people who merely say, "God's not gonna send people who never even had a chance to hear of Jesus to hell. That's not cool."

Typically, those folks aren't overly concerned with the question of atonement being made for their sins. The expectation or anticipation is merely their forgiveness out of a sense of fairness.

That, of course, would necessitate a different discussion, but I'd not shy away from arguing for the atonement only applying to those covenantally related to God through Christ.

I would describe my position differently than you did, but I will concede I do take an approach whereby I recognize two things I hold can be seen to be in conflict with each other.

I also don't deny a greater emphasis in Scripture on God's love vs. hell, etc. However, I'm of the ilk that if only one passage was there, it would be enough to establish a doctrine. With hell, I think we've actually got more than enough.

What I read of hell is that (a) it's very bad, probably worse than we can imagine and (b) it's for a very long time, seemingly never ending.

Now, we could argue about who will experience such, but I often think the assumption of those more "anti-hell" is that nobody deserves to go to that kind of hell.

Okay, maybe Hitler and a few others *might* deserve it, but nobody else.

I start from the end. Hell's real. People are going there. Ergo, they deserve to go there, because God's not given to injustice.

Of course, I also start from the premise that all deserve to go to hell. If He saves any, He's more gracious than need be.

So, I don't think, "That innocent peep across the planet doesn't deserve to go to hell, so he should go to heaven like me."

I think, "I deserve to go to hell, just like everybody else," and I'm often overwhelmed by the reality that I'm anticipating missing that eternity solely by His grace.

At 30 March, 2011 15:50, Blogger GUNNY said...

You raise a valid point, Larry, about judgment ultimately being future. Yet, at the same time, there's rarely any reservation about declaring the opposite (i.e., so and so is in heaven).

From Lazarus vs. the Rich Man (Luke 16), we can ascertain that after death the location of those not redeemed is not good, being in Hades (sometimes translated as "hell").

I'm not so much arguing we should declare judgment on those we deem outside of Christ, there's a significant amount of hubris in so doing. However, I would submit that the rationale for not doing so for most people is not so much that as an "optimistic inclusivism."

I realize that's conjecture and "objection" would be called in a court of law, but I think I'm right.

At 30 March, 2011 22:13, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The story you're telling is that all of humanity deserves to be tortured for eternity for being descended from Adam, and is entirely powerless to even want to do anything about that. God, for whatever reason, chooses a tiny sliver of that humanity to redeem, even though he could save everyone else... but for them it's curtains. Or rather, they'll wish it were curtains -- in reality, it's torture forever.

The question is: If you look at the big picture of God's interaction with humanity in the Bible, the promises to Abraham and the patriarchs to bless all the nations through them, the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, the Sermon on the Mount, that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them"... If you step back and take all that in, is your story really the best interpretation? Does the God who tells us he became a man and died out of love for us so that we could be brought to life really sound like a god who would create people (lots of them) he intended to torture forever all along? I'm not asking if you can find chapter-and-verse passages that would seem to support the various parts of your story... I'll grant that your interpretation is possible. It's also possible that the Illuminati assassinated JFK and that O.J. really was framed by the LA police. There's a big difference between "possible" and "most likely".

I just don't see it. And I don't see how suggesting other more likely stories is necessarily "doing disservice to the Scriptures" and "attacking" the character of God. I don't know Rob Bell and don't plan to read his book: alternatives to eternal torture have been expounded before many, many times by men who I'm sure have better credentials than he. But I've been taken aback by the rhetoric that's been hauled out against him -- particularly by Calvinists, who really shouldn't be so worried since Bell can't do anything to turn aside the elect anyhow. (They're not hurting his royalties though...)


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