If you’re anything like me, then you are no doubt suffering from Rob Bell fatigue. It happened to me with Bono a few years ago. I love Bono. But I grew tired of seeing him on every magazine cover and hearing about him everywhere I turned. I doubt I’m alone. I bet even Bono—big as his ego is—suffered Bono fatigue! And I bet Rob Bell is suffering Rob Bell fatigue.
So why another post on Rob Bell? Because I think that in all the malstrom of commentary, in all the defending and allegations and so on, it seems an interesting point has been overlooked. The point is this: if what Rob Bell says in his book is true, and if what Rob Bell has recently said at Mars Hill is true, then it looks like LOVE does not win in the end. And that’s disappointingly bad news, and Love Wins a case of false advertising.
To see why it is plausible to believe that, according to Rob Bell, LOVE really doesn’t win after all, let me begin by providing an argument for what I like to call Christocentric Universalism, the belief that eventually all are reconciled to God and enjoy everlasting union with him in a New Jerusalem. Here it is:
1. God’s intentions ultimately will be realized.
2. Among God’s intentions is that human beings flourish.
3. Human beings cannot flourish if they are suffering the torments of hell forever and ever and ever.
4. Therefore, eventually, all are reconciled to God (since being reconciled to God is the only way for human beings to flourish).
The only way to avoid the conclusion is to deny one of (1) – (3). Yet each has a lot going for it. For instance, to deny that God’s intentions ultimately will be realized seems to suggest that small, finite creatures like us can thwart God’s good purposes and intentions forever. And that doesn’t seem right. We can thwart God’s good purposes, of course—we do it every day. But forever? No! To borrow from Charley Sheen, God is a winner. So says the first premise of this argument anyway.
One way, however, to avoid the universalist conclusion is to deny (2). And this, I would like to suggest, is what Rob Bell does and why if what he says is true it looks like LOVE doesn’t win after all.
One way to deny (2) is to say that while it is true that among God’s intentions is that human beings flourish, God has other intentions or purposes that conflict with this one and, sadly, trump. Enter free will. The idea is that while God desires that all are saved and reconciled God also desires that all are saved or reconciled by their own free choice. And since God values free will so highly, God will not coerce or violate the free will of those who choose to separate themselves from God. The idea is that honoring the free choice of those human beings who choose their own eternal misery is itself a manifestation of God’s love.
Here’s where the problem arises, however. Does that really seem loving? Suppose I learn that one of my children abuses heroine. Suppose I know that if they abuse for one moment longer they will be irretrievably and permanently lost. Which is the loving thing for me to do here: to say “I love you but I value your free will so very much that I am going to honor your choice to continue abusing and to utterly and irretrievably destroy yourself” or “I love you, but I do not value your free will more than you; you’re going to rehab.”
As a human parent, while I value my children’s free will I do not value it more than my children themselves. Likewise, one might argue that God values human freedom as a great good. But it is a relative good, however great it is and not an ultimate good. Human beings, one might think, are ultimate goods. And God will not value human freedom over the humans who have it.
Here’s the idea. All things being equal the very best is for human beings to freely embrace God and come to him. And perhaps God will give each human being the very longest leash possible to come freely. But if ever—way, way, way down the future of eternity—one reaches a threshold beyond which if they exercise their freedom one moment longer they would be eternally lost, LOVE will say “NO! I love and value YOU more than your freedom. I will not allow you to be eternally lost.” Isn’t it plausible to believe that this is how LOVE would act?
Now I’m not suggesting that a universalist has to take this path in order to retain her univeralism. She could simply insist that eventually all are reconciled and all are reconciled freely. God has all eternity. Eventually everyone will freely and without coercion be reconciled. All I want to point out is that to suggest that God values free will so much so that God is willing to eternally lose a human creature who has it does not seem especially loving. God, it could be argued, would love and value the human being more than its freedom.