I’d like to spend just a little bit more time on Rob Bell’s book…
First of all, I don’t see what all the fuss is (and I have read the book). As far as I can tell, there isn’t anything that could be called heresy. It’s not even new, as he himself acknowledges:
…Nothing in this book hasn’t been taught, suggested, or celebrated by many before me.
Along those same lines, it is not his intent to write a theological treatise. Rather, his goal is pastoral. He has the people in the pews in mind. I’m sure his writing lacks some academic rigor, but the purpose is to open up possibilities and to say that it’s ok to ask questions.
Furthermore, I don’t think that I’d call him a universalist. In my last post, I mentioned Richard Beck’s definitions of Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universalism (based on Talbot’s Propositions). My guess is that Rob Bell’s position would fall somewhere into the Arminian camp, with the caveat that God’s love is really (really!) hard to resist. Nevertheless, he leaves open the possibility that one could, in theory, walk away from God’s love:
…Love, by its very nature, is freedom. For there to be love, there has to be the option… to not love. To turn the other way. To reject the love extended. To say no. Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to choose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself. If at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is.
And here is where we leave the controversy of Rob Bell behind and change focus…
Free will. The option of resisting God’s love, because that freedom is what love demands. C.S. Lewis put it this way:
…To make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity. I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.
“The doors of hell are locked on the inside.” I really resonate with that. To me, it says that God condemns no one. The door to God’s house is always open, but sometimes we go into our own houses and lock the doors behind us. God is absent. To me, it makes perfectly logical sense to call this ‘hell’.
And that is why I was surprised to hear Richard Beck deny free will. Really? What’s the problem with free will? Well – he has some good points:
The first problem is theological. Conditionalism is tantamount to works-based righteousness. If hell is a matter of choice then so is your salvation. You damn yourself. You save yourself. Salvation pivots off an act of human volition. This, as many of you know, is the classic criticism Calvinists make of Arminian soteriology. And, in my opinion, the Calvinists have a point on this score (though it pains me to admit it). Where is the active grace of God in this picture?
The second problem is psychological. Basically, to be blunt about it, there is no such thing as free will. I’m not saying we are automatons, just that “will” is highly contextual. You just can’t make a plausible case for free will in this age of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, cultural analysis, learning theory, and behavioral genetics. Our choices are the product of genes, environment, nature, nurture, culture, reinforcement, and simply if we got enough sleep the night before.
(If you’re a bit skeptical about his arguments, you might read a bit more about the distinction between free will and volitional integrity.)
I find all of this to be very interesting, and because he knows psychology I’ll take him seriously.
As for myself, I’m not sure exactly what I believe. It’s a question that is still unresolved in my mind. But it also is one that I don’t feel any need to resolve immediately. It’s not going to make or break my faith.
Coming up: Another consideration of atonement