I have set you a watchman to the house of Israel; therefore you shall hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me. When I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die; if you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at your hand. Nevertheless, if you warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered your soul. (Ezekiel 33:7-9, 3:17-19)
My heart lacks appetite for publicly critiquing and directly confronting the absurd nonsense that I hear from those who purport to represent Christianity. Really! Truly! I say this, despite the overwhelming evidence that I do unapologetically publicly critique and directly confront the absurd nonsense that I hear from those who purport to represent Christianity.
I cannot do otherwise, even if I must forgo ambitions for public office. I have tasted too much of Hell and some of Heaven; such that I intimately know of these spiritual realities. The Gospel and Full Counsel of God that I observe in Scriptures; when unfiltered by second and third rate theological/philosophical ruminations, disingenuous sophistries, factual and scriptural selectivity and interpretative contortionism; is pristinely rational and grants a wondrous intellectual and moral clarity.
And I will seek to use as incisive a surgical wit, to which I have been endowed, to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (1 Corinthians 10:5). But I retain a terror that in “speaking truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15); I favor or appear to favor too much, the truth side. Inevitably, some people will always declaim; although I have little motive in denigrating another. Or they will accuse without being able to honestly and objectively point out the mean-spirited in that specific comment. (With written, recorded words, one can always return to source.) But there are occasions when after one speaks repeatedly and gently on a matter of great import, a polemic thump is necessary.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. (The Second Coming – Yeats – 1919)
I am irked by observation of the Evangelical garden that those who appear to have some handle on the truth of the Gospel and Full Counsel of God, speak timidly and apologetically about that which they do know. They fear that they will lose a potential convert if they offend too quickly one’s audience with unvarnished truth. And because of the precarious position of preachers in Evangelical churches, a natural self-interest cannot but help but insidiously factor in a preacher’s attitude and conduct.
And certainly, when it comes to higher and more obscure Christian truths, it might be wise to ensure the spiritual neophyte is properly weaned. However, on elemental and necessary truths; if one maintains a mindset always waiting for the right time to potentially offend one’s interlocutor, there is good chance that the right time shall never dawn, before the interlocutor leaves for other pastures. The frank truth might never be faced. And whose fault will that be? And the pussyfooting watchman may find his slinking becoming a habitual state of futility.
I have often been party to family debates about whether to tell the loved one of their terminal condition. For some, sparing the information is deemed to spare unnecessary despair and depression etc for the patient; although I suspect that cowardice plays a part. Were I the terminal patient, I would be enraged by the withholding of information. I am a MAN, who can confront the truth. For, I would not have had time to make unnecessary amends if amends were necessary or make final plans for the disbursement of my imaginary fortune.
One may lose those who were never there to lose. (“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” 2 Timothy 4:3) On the other hand, those who are primed by misfortunate circumstance, by irritation of the lies within lies of our era or by inauthenticity and insincerity, might find laying it on the line, refreshing, worthy of respect and consideration. And from my uncle’s witness, who initially detested the message that he heard, the distasteful challenge forced much rumination on the message before his acceptance. Even in the disingenuously pursuit of bringing bring forth counterarguments, the very participation in the dispute of the offended interlocutor, must have some modicum of benefit. (“So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:11)
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I have been averse to directly disputing over Rob Bell and his vision of a non-Hell Hell in “Love Wins”. Many have previously stomped on that well-tread ground. Jefferson Bethke, cited above, has done it very well and artfully. I was not sure what hitherto unmentioned argument, I could add. Furthermore, there are so many weeds in the Evangelical and Christendom garden that it might be prudent to turn these other ones over, which are neglected by others. And one must be leery of chasing every butterfly of heresy and heterodoxy over hills and meadows; such that one wastefully loses time and focus. So, I have not given studious consideration to the controversy.
However, when I begin to see extensive discourse on blogs and message boards, which betray a wide-spread and enduring resonance of Rob Bell’s ideas, a double take of his message must be given. It occurred again on another blog board today.
What if the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10, 14-5) is the holiness of God that purifies instead of some sort of eternal punishment?
And the chap followed with the argument that “the gates to the city are left open and the fruit of the trees are for the healing of the nations”, intimating that at any time, a person in that other place has finally resigned to seek the love of God, he/she shall be Raptured from that lake of fire into the New Jerusalem. Coming from the Ontario hinterland, where I never locked the front door for twenty years, the idea of the gates to the city are left open has different to me.
Rob Bell has watched Jeopardy just too many times; framing all his assertions in the form of a question. It is all too evident that his rationality cannot conceive of Hell as a final resting place for the all; despite Scriptures to the contrary. And in that, his god and authority is located in the priesthood of his subjective faculties and not on the plain and unfiltered rendering of Scriptures.
Is there a point at which a change of heart no longer means anything to God? Because the central story of the Bible seems to be; God is looking for repentance and a change of heart. You’re headed down this path. I’m pleading with you begging with you. Jesus is the divine flesh-and-blood. No, no, come this way. So for many the simple argument has been; why if this is the central narrative; “Come home, come home, the Father’s waiting for the prodigal, come home”; would all of the sudden, a point be picked at which God says all those things that always mattered to Me, that I celebrated, no longer mean anything?1
Or one can view Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” promo2, which in the tradition of American humour, JeffersonBethke had satirically mimicked…
Rob Bell frustrates the conservative Evangelical movement because of his eely ability to avoid being pinned down. Presidents Nixon and Clinton could have taken a university course on Deniability from this lad. But Bell’s approach has its precedents. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1)
Rob Bell, it is said, denies his denial of the existence of Hell. Rob Bell, it is said, denies his denial of his belief in Universalism; the belief that all persons will eventually go to heaven, despite Christ’s words that “For, many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14). (I haven’t yet pinned down the source of his deniability).
But it is only as consequence of this latest blog board ‘altercation’ that I realized what Rob Bell truly subscribes to. Rob Bell indeed does not believe in Hell. He believes in Purgatory; a purgatory that encompasses all those who could not or cannot be bothered coming to Christ in this life. For, the thing that differentiates Hell from the classical medieval understanding of Purgatory is the hope of escape in the latter. The escape in medieval Catholic understanding occurs after a person has sanctified himself sufficiently, to be worthy of living of heaven. (What is not comprehended by the medieval church was that true righteousness is beyond even our conception. Therefore, how can we possibly attain that which we do not what it is? Hell has the added feature of despair to the eternal torment. Indeed, it would seem that the fullness of eternal torment cannot be achieved without the despair.
His reasoning cannot but believe that after some time spent in hell, anybody and everybody is going to say, “Enough is enough. I repent. I want you God.” And zap; Rapture from Hell begins.
Now the standard fare of Scriptures could be trotted out. From the parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31); the former in “Hades, where he was in torment” (v23), Christ asserts “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:26). “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). These are among the many.
However, it is evident that the ‘obtuse’ use of Scriptural texts will not convince such a person. They have constructed, with assistance of Scriptures, a philosophical god with the definitional attributes of love. And in that love, rational deduction demands that God could not possibly punish forever.
Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. (Mark 7:13)
The conservative and Guardians of Scriptural inerrancy, the Southern Baptist Convention, ought to understand and approve of such reasoning. This identical approach to Biblical hermeneutics is evident in the use of Welch’s grape juice in Communion. The SBC set a precedent, when the direct Scriptural commands about the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper was superseded by a rational theological deduction from Romans 14; not to cause one’s brother to stumble by use of a thimble of wine, lest a crack in the door to that person’s pre-existing alcoholism might be split wide open. Thus, these scrupulous-about-baptism-as-immersion Baptists are less than scrupulous about that other ordinance. And the true peril and enduring legacy of this 19th Century, largely American theological innovation, is the establishment of that precedent of swapping out scrupulous fidelity of Scriptures in the name of a higher love and gnosis. For, one notices that this interpretative key itself has become the crack in the door.
Indeed, Universalism itself, which now rages within Evangelical circles, has been creeping wider, generation by generation. One sees it in an infamous interview Billy Graham with Robert Schuller in 1997.3
SCHULLER: Tell me, what do you think is the future of Christianity?
GRAHAM: Well, Christianity and being a true believer — you know, I think there’s the Body of Christ. This comes from all the Christian groups around the world, outside the Christian groups. I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the Body of Christ … I think James answered that, the Apostle James in the first council in Jerusalem, when he said that God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for His name. And that’s what God is doing today, He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ, because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.
SCHULLER: What, what I hear you saying, that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into human hearts and soul and life, even if they’ve been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you’re saying?
GRAHAM: Yes, it is, because I believe that. I’ve met people in various parts of the world in tribal situations that they have never seen a Bible or heard about a Bible, and never heard of Jesus, but they’ve believed in their hearts that there was a God, and they’ve tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived.
SCHULLER: I’m so thrilled to hear you say this. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.
GRAHAM: There is. There definitely is.
A parallel spirit in the Catholic Church is similarly evident. John Paul II reiterated a developing devolution from historical Catholic orthodoxy of “no salvation outside the Church”4. In response to criticisms against Dominus Iesus, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by current Pope Benedict XVI, John Paul II declared “This confession does not deny salvation to non-Christians, but points to its ultimate source in Christ, in whom man and God are united.” (October 2, 2000). And a few months later, he declared:
Those who have chosen the way of the Gospel Beatitudes and live as “the poor in spirit”, detached from material goods, in order to raise up the lowly of the earth from the dust of their humiliation, will enter the kingdom of God… All the just of the earth, including those who do not know Christ and his Church, who, under the influence of grace, seek God with a sincere heart (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 16), are thus called to build the kingdom of God by working with the Lord, who is its first and decisive builder.5
And for generations before that, many have doubted the fairness of justice with regard to the damnation of infants; as if the principles of justice and mercy were identical. However, this is a tough argument. “Who can bear it?” And thus, baby baptismal and non-baptismal regeneration have been largely taught by the Hellenist, Reformed and Evangelical churches in countless centuries prior. The problem is that their logic invariably leads to Universalism. The yeast of Pharisees and scribes has hereby grown to full malignancy.
The question I ask myself is whether it is worthwhile arguing from a rational perspective. For, even if I were to convince such an interlocutor of the validity of existence of eternal torment or a “few are chosen” heaven; the interlocutor retains his subjective faculties as ultimate authority of what True and Good. There will come a time when there will be another counterintuitive Scriptural assertion, which the interlocutor will dispute on the basis of his subjective faculties. And there may not exist a credible ‘Christian rationalist’ to confront them.
On the other hand, based on personal experience, it might be that a person needs to have his pre-existing ideas overturned sufficient number of times before that person comes to full confidence in the authority of Scriptures, regardless of their counterintuitiveness to that person’s reason and other subjective faculties.
To these ruminations, I shall return…
- Rob Bell, “Heaven and Hell: Pastor Rob Bell Extended Interview”, Religion & Ethics News Weekly – PBS, July 8, 2011, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/july-8-2011/heaven-and-hell/9108/, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zBXuRIQ3gg, (Segment (min:sec) 7.23 – 7.58)
- Rob Bell, Transcript of Love Wins Promo Video, (2011).
- The Hour of Power (Television), “Say ‘Yes’ To Possibility Thinking”, Program #1426, May 31, 1997
- Fourth Lateran Council (1215): “There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved.”
- Pope John Paul II, All are called to build God’s kingdom, (December 6, 2000), Article 4, 5.