Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Rob Bell, Universalism, and The Cross

Two articles have been written lately about Rob Bell's upcoming book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

The first one is written by someone criticizing his upcoming book. You can read it here:

The second one is by CNN writing on the controversy this book is erupting. You can read it here:

I suggest you read at least the first article and watch Rob Bell's video embedded in it before reading my post.

Rob Bell has been a popular and controversial figure for some time. His Nooma videos have been seen by countless people, he is a pastor at a very large church, and he has written several successful books.

His next book seems to be a mystery as to its true content. Many are holding out judgment until its release, and many are criticizing its supposed premise beforehand. I obviously have not read his book, but only have his video and public silence since this controversy started to go on.

I don't really want to criticize Rob Bell or the book directly, but this controversy has brought up a few questions. For one, is Hell a real place? How could God judge people and cause them harm? And what place does the Cross play in all of this?

Hell is a controversial subject. Many people have abused the notion of Hell to manipulate and coerce, and many have used it as a sole motivating factor for conversion. On the other end it seems many have abandoned the very idea of Hell as barbaric and outdated. As you can see in many of the comments on the above mentioned articles many people are extremely offended by the idea of eternal punishment, and especially that a loving God could be behind it.

I would contend, that regardless of public perception and opinion, you cannot call yourself a follower of the Jesus in the Bible and disregard any idea of Hell (or punishment, or judgment, or whatever term you prefer). Maybe you could throw out the traditional idea of Hell (A deep cavern of fire with Satan as the master torturing his victims for eternity), but you cannot throw out the whole thing. Judgment by God is all over the Scriptures.

I think at the heart of this topic is not really the actual idea of Hell, but the idea that a loving God could actually cause harm and punish people who disobey Him, be it for eternity or for a small amount of time. But, the Bible is clear. The only thing that awaits people who live contrary to God's will suffer from it. Consider these verses:

"But these people, like irrational animals - creatures of instinct born to be destroyed - speak blasphemies about things they don't understand, and in their destruction they too will be destroyed, suffering harm as the payment for unrighteousness." 2 Peter 2:10-13

"But by the same word the present heavens and earth are held in store for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men." 2 Peter 3:7

"This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with His powerful angels, taking vengeance with flaming fire on those who don't know God and on those who don't obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." 2 Thess. 1:7-9

I'm not one of those people who enjoys talking about Hell and the judgment that awaits those who live in rebellion to God. As a 21st century American born into a postmodern generation, I do not like that idea at all. But just because my cultural influences and intuition tell me to find that idea uncomfortable, it does not stop that idea from being reality.

It's funny how doctrinal change in the Church tends to flow with culture. This is why we have the Scriptures. Men change their minds based on what their cultures hold in high esteem. Today we hold tolerance as the ultimate virtue. But God does not. "Tolerance" as it is often used today is nothing more than a cowardly acceptance of wickedness. Should we "tolerate" hate, murder, racism, child abuse? Should God? And why are we so angry for Him for postponing judgment until our lives are over, and then executing His judgment fairly upon everyone?

At the heart of the matter is the Cross. Most false teachings attack the Cross. The prosperity gospel says, "If you bless God, He will bless you with material possessions." Yet, our Savior lived homeless, persecuted, and finally tortured and executed among two criminals. The Cross stands in defiance of the prosperity gospel. Living as Christ's disciple does not guarantee peace in this world, and in fact we can expect the opposite (John 15:18-19). It is the same with the idea of Heaven and Hell. If there is no such thing as a coming judgment, then why bother with the Cross?

Some might say that the Cross does show God's love, but that it's not God rescuing us from Himself, because that doesn't make sense (many comments on the articles mentioned say as much). But there's no way around it. The Cross without judgment is senseless. Does God really need torture and death to show His love for us? Hasn't He already showed us that? He gave us life, food, friends, family, and many other joys. Did He really need to prove He loved us?

God created the Universe, this beautiful world we live in, and us. He created us, above all else, in His very image. This is a beautiful gift to us. We can create, think, make art and music, have families, eat and drink, build, and pursue. Yet, since the beginning man's message back to God has always been the same:

"We don't trust You. We know you say not to eat this fruit, but we think it's good. We know you say not to lie, cheat, commit adultery, act selfishly, slander Your name, and many other things. But we would rather live our own way, so just go away."

Each of us have sinned (Rom. 3:23), and this treachery cannot simply go unpunished. Of course we are untrue to our nature and can say one thing and do another, or hold a standard in some cases and then change our minds when it is convenient. But God does not sway. He is holy, just, and right. In His world that is His own, betrayal must be met with death.

Yet, His love remains. He watches us rebel and declare our trust in ourselves, but He loves us all the same. And He sent His Son to pay that price and bring us back. It wasn't flippant, and it wasn't a merely symbolic act of kindness and love. It was the grand act of love that bought us back to Him. In short, without judgment the Cross is an absurdity.

Yet, not everyone will accept that love. Many have spurned it, and many will spurn it still. What should we expect God to do? Save them anyway? How does that make sense? His gift is free, and He only bids us trust Him and live in Him. And here we stand offended that He would still punish people...

What arrogance.

Many have what C.S. Lewis called "all thrills and no work." They want the good feeling and peace that Christianity produces, but they don't want the harsh realities that go with it. Men want to fashion their own idea of a religion that provides themselves with the best results (good feelings, public approval, license to live the way they already do) without any requirements upon themselves. But we cannot approach God like that, or I'm afraid we'll simply be following ourselves.

We have to approach God as children, recognizing our place. He is God, and we are not. We are the ones who have wounded, taken advantage of, and betrayed. We cannot come to Him demanding that He act a certain way when He is Sovereign. If we really believe that God is good, then we have to believe that in the end God will do, above all, what is right. So while judgment may confuse and frustrate us here, that does not give us the license to change the clear teaching of judgment in the Scriptures.

And it makes the Cross that much sweeter, and should motivate us to share its message with all who will listen.


brettincasie said...

I. Love. This.

I wanted to quote the things I liked best, but the list was too long.

Thank you for posting!!

Donovan said...

Good post. You said it well Josh.

Joshua Tucker said...

Brettin - Glad you liked it. Hope things are going well for you. Great work on the AIM blog stuff lately by the way.

Donovan - Thanks man. Good seeing you yesterday, sorry we didn't get to chat.