Saturday, April 9, 2011

Love (Doesn't) Win After All. Why Rob? Why?

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.


David D said...

From an adoptive parent: Sometimes I think freedom is overrated. My orphan did not choose me freely, I compelled his sonship. The least loving thing I could have done was to left him an orphan. I did not compel his love, this came from naturally from his sonship.

Reader John said...

Although I now hope for the salvation of a much higher proportion of the human race than I did when a Calvinist (because I more unequivocally believe that God loves us all), I believe it is a dogma of the Orthodox Church that there is no repentance after death. So we don't need to "thwart God’s good purposes and intentions forever" -- only until repentance becomes impossible.
Maybe this little tidbit will sum it up from my perspective: early in my journey to Orthodoxy, and ever since, The Great Divorce has become my favorite C.S. Lewis work. I am cooperating with God to become the kind of person for whom God's presence is perceived as light, not flame, so that eternity in His presence will be bliss rather than torture.

Keith DeRose said...

Hey, Kevin: As you know, I'm one who thinks Love will win in the end. I think Bell's views are very close to that -- more on that in a minute.

But, first, to the extent that he holds out the possibility that Love might not win in the end in the case of every single person, I very much think his position would be that this would not be due to a failure of (2), but of (1). God's purposes are to win over every single person so they can all thrive. That seems pretty clear in the book. But it must be free. If someone freely resists in some final way, that will be a case of one of God's purposes going unfulfilled. Or so it would seem to me.

I'm not sure, though, that we should read Bell as saying that some will resist to the end. I'm actually quite doubtful that he has any positive belief to the effect that some will be forever separated. At any rate, I don't see anywhere in the book where such a belief is expressed. To the extent that he's not a universalist, it's not b/c he positively believes some are forever lost, but because he does not take it to be certain that all will be saved -- He recognizes a possibility that some will freely refuse salvation to the end.

Bell seems to think merely holding that out as a possibility makes one not count as a universalist. There I disagree: So long as one thinks it's probable enough that all will be saved, one should be counted as a universalist, I think. But whatever label should or should not be applied to him, the substantive issue is how likely is it, on Bell's views, that all will eventually be saved? I wouldn't be at all surprised if his answer to that would be something like "I really don't know" -- in which case, he really should be classified as a non-universalist. But there are some pretty strong hints in the book that he thinks it's quite likely indeed....

Consider the middle of p. 98. It's done through question rather than assertion, so this isn't conclusive, but the questions seem to be asked so as to very strongly invite the answers I'll supply in brackets:

Will all people be saved,
or will God not get what God
wants? [Um, the former?]

Does this magnificent, mighty,
marvelous God *fail* in the end?
[Um, no?]

Anyway, the whole bit from there thru the middle of p. 103 is sounding to me to be tending toward it being quite probable indeed that all will be saved.

Also, on pp. 150-1, it sounds like *Jesus* is pretty confident that he'll get everybody:

Within this proper, larger
understanding of just what the
Jesus story even is,
we see that Jesus himself, again
and again, demonstrates how
seriously he
takes his role in saving and
rescuing and redeeming not just
everything but everybody.

He says in John 12, "And I, when
I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all
people to myself."

He is so sure, confident, and set
on this:
All people, to himself.

Cody Stauffer said...

I would want to pose a question here: doesn't the totality of who someone is have to include their will? I would want to say that, if God does value humans as good, then that would have to include all of who we are, including our wills or volition. In other words, in your scenario, God would value all of our humanity, EXCEPT our wills. As a father myself, I also want my daughter to be mature and complete, and that means learning about decision making and the effect that our choices as human beings have, on ourselves and others.

I think of the father from the prodigal son story here. The father gives the son exactly what he wants, though he no doubt knows what that will lead to. In the end, the son learns precisely what his father's love is all about, and it is enriched through his experience- it would not have been so had the father intervened and completely erased the son's decision. Now, in practical terms, this does not mean I would not intervene on my child's behalf, but there is nuance to be allowed here, when one thinks of the ways our children could have their wills impaired, etc.

I think the point of the term "Love Wins" can have several different ways of thinking. It COULD be that it means "God gets what God wants in the end." But it could also mean that Love will allow for our choice, and in that way, Love wins- meaning, you get what you want, with the hope that one day you will want what God has always wanted for you. But, being love and accepting the totality of human existence, it means there is a chance you might never want that. That is the risk love entails. If we think of "winning" (please, no Charlie Sheen cracks) like the world thinks of winning, then God getting all that God wants makes sense. But if we remember the paradox that is entailed by combining LOVE with WINS, I think we can see that it means God is willing to risk putting aside what God wants in order for us to one day accept it.

dave said...

good blog. you are right about Bono, BTW:
he often says
"I'm sick of Bono, and I AM Bono"

KBC said...

Thanks for that great insight. I've always had a problem with the "God values/respects human freedom argument (to such a degree that he has a hands off approach." Your argument put into words what I felt. Thanks! BTW - I do believe that God's purposes will ALL be accomplished. Why? Because free-will does not determine God's decree. Thanks again! -Kerry

capiderm said...

I appreciate the thoughts that you have shared, that makes my skin and bone holy after all.. :)