Jun 222013
 

As we saw last weekend, the book of Job begins and ends with a short story. And that short story is about a wager.

The wager occurs in connection with a conversation between God and "the Satan" (literally, "the accuser"). God is proud of the faithfulness and righteousness of Job, but the accuser challenges him: Job, he says, worships God "for nothing," since God has blessed Job with possessions, family, and health. Take away the "rewards," and he will no longer follow God, since he no longer has any reason to do so.

God then agrees to allow Job's family and possessions to be taken, as proposed by the accuser. However, when Job remains faithful, the wager escalates. "Skin for skin!" the accuser shouts. Harm Job himself, he reasons, and Job will turn. Thus, not only are Job's possessions and children taken from him, but also his health.

The question at issue in this wager is simple: is Job capable of following God willingly, even where he does not benefit from doing so? The circumstances in which Job is placed create the perfect "test." Since Job's family and possessions are taken from him, he has no reason to believe his faithfulness is being rewarded. Likewise, he has no reason to fear punishment from God. Everything is already lost.

Three points about this wager:

First, the wager is not about Job's righteousness, so much as it is about God's "faith" in Job. Job believes in God, but – more importantly – God believes in Job. The divine hope is that Job will willingly and freely follow God regardless of the circumstances. The Satan, on the other hand, hopes that Job's devotion will vanish when he can no longer discern that he will benefit from his relationship with God.

Second, it is not only Job, but all of humanity that is on trial. Job is merely the archetype for all of us. Later, as the poetry in Job gathers momentum toward its mind-melting conclusion, we will  see that, from the beginning, God has been "wagering" on humanity, hoping that we will all come to follow God freely.

Third, because it is about all of us, the wager makes us aware of the difference between "true"/authentic religion and "false"/Satanic religion. In Job, "false"/Satanic religion is any system of faith that requires promises of rewards and threats of punishment to be effective. Authentic religion is any system of faith that allows humanity to freely approach God, without coercion.

And there you have it. At stake in Job is the question of whether humanity is capable of following God purely because we choose to do so or whether we must be lured (or beaten) into submission.

I think that the poet would have a lot to say about some of the discussions that are occurring between Christians in our day. Here are a few examples:

  • Prosperity. Some Christians have become critical of what they call a "prosperity gospel" that is being embraced by some churches. In its strongest form, the prosperity gospel asserts that God is certain to provide great reward to anyone who tithes and gives freely, but not all people go so far to say that this principle is absolute. The poet, I think, would question these claims in their strongest forms.
  • National Exceptionalism. Some Christians embrace the idea that God can and does favor groups and nations that properly worship God over and above other people and nations. They claim that their nation's power and success is a result of God's favoritism. Again, I think the poet is pushing back against this concept, asking us to reconsider whether we are exceptional simply because we are wealthy and powerful.
  • Hell. Some Christians are beginning to question the concept of hell, as it has been traditionally understood by the Church. In response, supporters of the traditional concept of hell often argue that people will not follow God unless they are motivated by the prospects of punishment. I believe that Job is also speaking directly to that debate, reminding us that God's desire is for us to worship freely, and not because we are coerced to do so. (The recent controversy over Rob Bell's book Love Wins illustrates just how strongly people feel about this issue – on both sides.)

Here are some issues, then to consider:

  1. In what ways do systems of rewards and punishments still influence our approaches to faith?
  2. Is the fear that people will never follow God without promises and threats legitimate? Or do you think that such fears come from our darker side (or "the Satan")?
  3. How does all this fit in with God's promise to enact justice, setting the world straight? (the poet will eventually have something to say on this point, by the way)
  4. What does a life of authentic faith (unmotivated by promises of prosperity or threats of punishment) look like?

[Note: many of the ideas that are at work in these posts are inspired by and/or come from Gustavo Gutierrez in his book On Job. If these posts interest you, I highly recommend the book.]

Jun 192011
 

Hopeful Universalism lives with an unresolved tension. It recognizes that some parts of scripture point toward an exclusive kind-of salvation that is found only in Jesus, leaving some on the “outside.” But it also recognizes that other parts of scripture point toward a Christ who is reconciling “all things” to himself, looking to a day when every knee bows and every tongue confesses. This strange paradox is captured perfectly in I Timothy 4:10, which speaks of “God, the savior of all men, and especially those who believe.”

Hopeful universalism neither explains away nor over-emphasizes either of these two voices. Rather, it chooses to acknowledge the paradox, to live with it, and to trust that, even if universal reconciliation is not to be, all things are still moving toward a resolution that is “too wonderful to know” (Job 42:3).

Jun 182011
 

I am a hopeful universalist, or, to put it in slightly more provocative terms, a universalist sympathizer.

What does that mean? It means, as I recited in a prior post, that I’m not a universalist, but I suspect that God might be.*

Hopeful universalists can be contrasted with what we might call dogmatic universalists, who believe and teach the certainty of universal salvation (i.e., the concept that all people will be saved…which usually means that they will eventually be saved, after a period of time in hell).

For the dogmatic universalist, universalism is a matter of theological certainty/necessity. For the hopeful universalist, it is instead a matter of possibility. Hopeful universalism, then, is best characterized as a particular attitude of prayer, rather than a strict academic or theological teaching.

________

*I adapted that statement from this video of NT Wright, which was the subject of a prior post. Wright, it should be noted, didn’t really adopt this statement (it was made by someone else). However, he used it to point out the flexibility and play that is at issue in the universalism debate.

Apr 082011
 

When people begin talking about hell and limited versus universal salvation, one of the first problems that they encounter is one of vocabulary. More specifically, a lot of folks become confused because there isn’t a robust lexicon that describes the different nuances of beliefs about hell.

Case in point: After Rob Bell published his promotional video for Love Wins, many began to assume he was a universalist because of a statement, made in the video, which questioned whether Gandhi was in hell. Universalism, in their mind, meant any system which asserts that non-Christians will not end up in hell. Universalists do believe that, of course, but there are a number of other belief systems that similarly hold to such a teaching. Bell has spent a lot of time denying that characterization, and trying to explain what he really thinks (a point I’ll get to in a minute) because most of us don’t have a vocabulary that can account for more than two beliefs about hell. Either you are a universalist or you believe an an “eternal conscious torment” type of hell. There is no language for an in-between view that questions either the “eternal,” or the “conscious,” or the “torment” part.

For some time, I have been convinced that the terminology that is utilized by scholars who reflect on the criminal law could be useful in this discussion. Why? Because for centuries, now, there has been an ongoing academic dialog about the appropriate motivations for imposing punishment on those who have committed offenses against the State, and that dialog has a robust vocabulary. That vocabulary seems almost ideally suited for similar discussions about divine punishment.

So…what purposes might the State have in punishing someone for a crime? There are 3-4 major streams of thought. They are as follows:

  • Retribution. Retributivists believe that moral misconduct deserves punishment. Such punishment serves no purpose other than to bring harm to someone because they have done a wrong. Retributivists do not care if it stops anyone else from committing a crime, nor do they care if a person is made a better citizen as a result of the experience. The sole purpose of criminal punishment is vengeance. The criminal did something that was wrong, and they “have it coming to them.”
  • Deterrence. Those who believe in deterrence believe that punishment is inflicted to “make an example” of someone, so that others will not commit similar crimes. Their purpose is to benefit society as a whole, not to “get even” with someone.
  • Rehabilitation. Rehabilitationists believe that the punishment is for the good of the individual. Under this theory, punishment should be designed to help the criminal to become a better citizen, so that he can be restored to the community.
  • Denunciation. Those who ascribe to denunciation view criminal punishment as an act, on behalf of the community, which denunciates certain conduct. To the denunciationist, retribution and rehabilitation are both valid reasons to punish.

Deterrence and rehabilitation are utilitarian beliefs.  That is, they holld that punishment is merely an end to a good. Unlike retributionism, they do not hold that, because someone as done something wrong, they “have it coming to them.”

Why does God punish? I think the same terminology fairly well fits the theological spectrum as well. In my mind…

  • Retributivists believe that people who do bad things deserve to be punished for no other reason than that they did something bad.
  • Deterrentalists believe that God “threatens” us with hell to get us to stop doing bad things. (I suspect that some theological liberals are deterrentialists – that is – they think that hell is a divine threat to get our attention, so that we will treat the marginalized with respect; it’s God’s way of saying “Stop acting up right now, or I’ll turn this universe around and we’ll go right back into the primordial chaos!”).
  • Rehabilitationists believe that hell exists to reform us so that we can enter into God’s world as responsible eikons (people made in the image of God).
  • Denunciationists might believe that hell is both a threat/deterrent and a “just desert.”

In the end, however, most of the debate comes down to a debate between retributivism and rehabilitationism. Retributivists believe in a God who is rightly vengeful in His holiness. Rehabilitationists believe in a God who will never abandon efforts to reform a person, no matter how evil they are or how long they resist such efforts. Those who believe that God’s rehabilitation can and must ultimately result in the salvation of every soul are also universalists.

[“Rehabilitationism” as I am using it here is sometimes described in theological circles as “restitutionism.” In my lawyerly mind, that isn’t a good word, because “restitution” is a process by which a criminal literally repays someone for something that they have taken or stolen.]

So there you have the tension: does God punish for punishment’s sake? Or does God punish for our own good? When Rob Bell says “I am not a universalist, because I believe that God gives people choice,” he is saying that he is a rehabilitationist.

Like Bell (and C.S. Lewis, and many anglicans), I am also a rehabilitationalist…but my reasons for subscribing to this view are going to have to wait for another post.

Mar 292011
 

imageMy fondest memories from the first year of law school (if such memories are even possible) involve brief quips that were made by Russell Weintraub, a fantastic teacher and scholar who taught my contracts course. One day, during the reading an extended section from a legal opinion authored by an appeals court judge who was famous for his fluid prose, Weintraub paused to remark: “Now…that’s been said many times before, but never in iambic pentameter.”

That’s how I feel about Love Wins. What Rob Bell says in this book has been said many times before, but never like this. It is Bell’s ability to take complex ideas and translate them into simple, conversational English that makes the book so compelling.

It may also be the thing that has caused Bell to draw such harsh criticism. The Great Divorce is a magnificent work of fiction. But it is just that: fiction. And even then, the theological concepts behind it are a little difficult to parse. Bell, however, does not write fiction, nor does he mince words. He comes out and says what he thinks (and what others have been saying for some time) in plain, conversational English. Sometimes, even, in verse. Bell’s mastery of the art of words, together with his popularity, means that his audience is much larger, and much more capable of understanding him. My sense is that Love Wins has become such a lightning rod because of its potential to be read and understood by a large category of parishioners who have never fully understood The Great Divorce, and who have never heard of The Evangelical Universalist or Origen.

And make no mistake, Bell is on the offensive in this book. He believes that the gospel is often presented in a way that is toxic. It paints God as an abusive, cosmic parent who will torment countless billions of people for all of eternity. Bell is concerned that this version of God is driving people away from and out of our churches. At the heart of the book is this simple message: “You don’t have to believe that God is like that in order to be a Christian.”

Bell presents some of his own ideas in the book, but he doesn’t seem all that concerned about whether you agree with him on the details. His main point is simply that there is a broad stream of conversation about how God deals with us after death, and that you don’t have to “buy in” to this particular viewpoint in order to follow Jesus. His disagreement is with those who insist that “eternal torment for countless billions” is the only valid interpretation of scripture.

All of that would seem harmless enough, except that – as I have already pointed out – there are a lot of pastors and scholars whose approach to scripture in general, and evangelism in particular, is deeply dependent on this one, particular viewpoint. For them, taking away this viewpoint of the afterlife is like pulling out a block at the bottom of Jenga tower.

So that is my overall take on Love Wins. Bell is explicitly calling out the “turn or burn” crowd, and he is encouraging people to look to other places for a better perspective on the gospel. Even though its nothing new, it was bound to ruffle feathers because of Bell’s notoriety and his ability to communicate.

In Soundtrack for a Revolution, Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman highlight the way music helped to shape the civil rights movement. In some ways, I think  Love Wins fills a similar role in the conversation over hell and the character of God. The conversation was well underway before Bell started writing. His book does, however, give a new, almost poetic voice to those who are challenging its validity.

Mar 242011
 

My wife just showed me this piece on MSNBC that details the firing of a pastor over what appears, in part, to be his support of the ideas in Rob Bell’s now infamous book, Love Wins.

For me, this story underscores the need for a strong laity voice in discussions of this nature, whether it be in blogs, on Facebook, etc. Many leaders who are sympathetic to touchy subjects like this are under pressure to be diplomatic, and it helps when the rest of us are willing to speak up.

Mar 222011
 

If you are going to carry on a conversation about hell and the way it is presented in the Bible, it helps to begin by considering who actually – in the words of Jesus – is going to hell. Surprisingly (to some), Jesus doesn’t describe the denizens of hell as people who don’t profess faith in him or who refuse to say a sinner’s prayer.

Hell, we are told, is for bad people.

You know, people who, for whatever reason, never buy into God’s idea of justice.

They never feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, or care for the sick and imprisoned (Mt. 25). They ignore beggars that they pass by every day (Luke 16). They abuse their religious authority, burdening people with pointless rules and teachings to reinforce their own importance and power, and luring them into the same sense of smugness (Mt. 23).

Before you get into a hell-related conversation, then, be clear: whatever hell is, the Bible tells us that people are sent there because of what they did (Rev. 20). Hell is never, to my knowledge, associated with something that someone believes.

[Another interesting feature: Even among those who survive the cut, we are told, there is a great deal of complaining about how others didn’t do enough, or got in on the whole thing too late. That is, some of the hardest “workers” will apparently have a much more narrow view of who should be “in” and who should be “out” than God (Mt. 20).]

So…wait a minute! Aren’t we saved by grace through faith? How can we be judged by works, yet saved by grace?!

That, to me, is the million dollar question.

Paul, in his letters, talks quite a bit about salvation through grace. He also talks about God’s judgment and wrath. Never about hell itself, however. We should be careful about conflating the two concepts. When Jesus talks about hell, he is talking about God’s judgment; but we shouldn’t assume that, every time Paul mentions judgment or wrath, he is talking about hell.

One way of answering the works/judgment versus grace/salvation question is to say that faith in Jesus provides a sort-of “Get Out of Hell Free” card. Just keep it tucked in your wallet or purse, then pull it out on judgment day. But the Bible’s accounts of hell aren’t stories where everyone is condemned, but then a few manage to slide by because they have one of the Jesus coupons. They are stories about good people and bad people. And it’s the bad people going to hell. Good people don’t.

Which has made me wonder, for a very long time: What if judgment by works and salvation by grace aren’t two diametrically opposed things? What if its not one or the other? What if God does both of these things to and for each of us? And what if the message of the Bible is this – while God can and must do both of these things, it is his grace, in the end, that is supremely triumphant?

Questions like that seem to point in a better direction, and I hold to some speculations about how all of this might work out in a wonderfully spectacular way. But many of the ideas I hold to are just that. Hopeful speculation about the next world.

What I can say for certain, in the meantime, is that Jesus is intensely interested in what we do in this life. If we want to avoid hell, he tells us, its time to start doing works of justice.

Mar 222011
 

My initial impression from the jacket, Table of Contents, and Preface: this is not a book that will gingerly poke at the idea of conscious eternal torment for millions. It’s a full frontal assault.

From the back cover:

“God loves us.

God offers us everlasting life
by grace, freely, through no
merit on our part.

Unless you do not respond the
right way.

Then God will torture you forever.

In Hell.”

Huh?

More to come.

Mar 182011
 

 

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I am astounded by the interest the mainstream media has in Bell and his new book. As I’ve said before, Bell isn’t offering anything new (he says it himself in this interview); he is just doing a better job of making it understandable… and, by complaining, the folks who don’t like what he is saying are only increasing his visibility and influence.

The down side of all the publicity: the book is selling like hotcakes, and Amazon hasn’t yet shipped my copy (which I preordered)!

Mar 162011
 

As I was browsing my Facebook feed tonight, I stumbled across a link from Curtis – one of our readers – to this YouTube video, which I think is best characterized as a carefully laid ambush of Rob Bell on his new book, Love Wins:

 

The video title – and comments that follow – say that Bell “squirms” during the interview. They also say there is a lot of inconsistent double-talk. I am not sure I agree with that assessment. He is obviously uncomfortable and caught by surprise, but his answers – which deal with fairly complex theological and scriptural issues – come across to me as quite coherent. Then again, I’m already familiar with Bell and his views, and the interview moves at a fairly quick pace, so I can see how others might struggle to follow him.

Many of the comments that follow (I glanced through 50+ pages before I gave up reading them) are – to put it mildly – vicious and dismissive. And surprisingly, there is very little substance to most of them. Many of them seem to do little more than celebrate the fact that Bell seemed uncomfortable. One commenter made a dismissive remark about Bell’s “God is love” philosophy, citing two passages that he claims contradict it. This was bizarre to me because that phrase – exactly – is a central theme in the Gospel of John and in 1st and 2nd John.

Commenting on this same controversy, Scot McKnight recently said that: “I find some people can get intoxicated on wrath and it can lead them in a triumphalist dance of anger.” Makes sense to me. If you think you live in a universe where “wrath wins” for the vast majority of humans, then…well, that cosmic view is going to come out in the way you respond to this stuff.

I expect Bell can deal with this adversity. My worries are about all of the people in fundamentalist and reformed churches who have questions about this issue, and who are listening to the harsh absolutism that is coming from their peers, pastors, and leaders. Their questions are going to continue to go unasked because this sort-of tone is intimidating and silence-inducing. No one wants to be branded a heretic or dismissed from their church with a curt “farewell.” Better to keep your questions and anxieties to yourself.

And one final note: I haven’t read the book yet, but based on the interviews I’ve seen, it sounds like Bell is not saying much of anything that is different from NT Wright, CS Lewis, and even the aforementioned Scot McKnight. If he is on shaky ground, he is not alone, and if you want to prevail in a debate over the issue, it isn’t enough to simply discredit Bell. You’re also going to have to take on a classic Christian writer and one of the most highly respected New Testament scholars of our day.