The big question on the minds of Rob Bell fans and foes alike prior to the release of “Love Wins” was whether or not Rob Bell promoted Universalism (the doctrine that all people are eventually redeemed). Some even condemned him before the book made it to store shelves (bad form fellas). In response to many accusations, Bell denounced the charge and encouraged his critics to reserve judgment until they had actually read the book. No doubt, Bell played a part in kicking up the controversy as part of the book’s promotional scheme (no fault there) and sure enough on the fateful release day even Amazon could not keep enough copies in stock to satisfy the hungry mobs.
At first I was not interested in reading the book. I have a low “hype threshold” and get turned off easily when the hype rises. However, as time went on more and more people began asking me what the Eastern Orthodox response to the book would be (Orthodoxy is not exactly huge where I’m from). So I took up the challenge, borrowed the book (I am NOT going to spend $23 on a book one can read in a single sitting), and here’s my thoughts.
Bell begins his book with a truth: “Jesus’ story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us.” No complaints there. But what follows from that point on is a defining of God’s love based on Bell’s idea of a “safe” God. God is only safe, Bell reasons, if He not only desires all to be saved (which is Scriptural) but actually saves all people (not Scriptural). Again and again Bell asks the question: “will God not get what God wants?” (p. 98).
I guess that depends. Does God want children molested?
Simply asserting that God’s will automatically comes to pass unwittingly makes God the cause of every morally evil act ever committed. This is not a point that Bell chooses to address.
Anyway, Bell decides that a story where, “everyone enjoys God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all the wrongs being made right is a better story” (p. 111). “Better story” than what exactly? Well, all the other one’s he doesn’t like, and he assures his readers that he will “reclaim” the correct Jesus story from those who have “hijacked” it by telling other stories which “Jesus isn’t interested in telling” (preface vii).
Unfortunately, Bell, like all those individuals who have made a similar bold declaration to single handedly tell the world everything Jesus meant, begins by boxing God into a prefabricated logical necessity. In Bell’s case God must necessarily save all mankind or He cannot be a God of love. Of course, by “love” Bell means whatever Bell determines love to be according to Bell’s own inner disposition and rationality. He, like many Universalists before him, suggests that it is sacrilege to conceive of a God who fails to save all mankind, for if He fails on this mission then He misses the goal and becomes Himself a wicked being. This twisted logic is based on an arrogant assumption that one knows God’s ultimate determination to save all people by divine fiat; or as Bell affectionately calls it – divine “melting” of hearts. The truth is, God’s nature is not determined by anything human. God is love regardless of human existence because God is eternally Trinity. But that’s another blog.
I will need to condense this review as much as possible as it would be more fitting to write an entire book reviewing all the historical and Scriptural mishaps and half-truths presented in “Love Wins.” So, here are some highlights as they pertain to Orthodoxy:
Imagine that you believe in such a thing as an Apostolic Tradition (as taught in Scripture) and in the Holy Spirit’s work among the Church Fathers, saints, and martyrs to deliver the faith down through the ages – one faith, undivided, via Christ and His Apostles – faithfully guarded by the Ecumenical Councils and Creeds of the Church, defending it from the corruption of heresy. Then you pick up “Love Wins” and read about Jesus’ supposed refusal to be “co-opted,” which, “includes any Christian culture. Any denomination. Any church. Any theological system,” saying, “we cannot claim him to be ours any more than he is anyone else’s” (p. 151-152). Never mind for a moment that much of this book, like the quote above, is charged with false inferences which Bell wrestles into his various one-line conclusions. What is the Church to do with, say, the heresy of Arianism, i.e. the doctrine that Jesus is a created being, non-eternal, and operates as a sort of demigod? This was a serious threat to the Church of the 4th century and was squelched by the Church Fathers in favor of the Trinitarian dogma. If the Church had followed Bell’s lead where would the faith be today? What are we to do with the countless heretical versions of God’s nature, Christ, the Church, etc?
He continues, asserting that Jesus, “leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe” (p. 155). Jesus is, “very clear that destructive, violent understandings of God can easily be institutionalized – in churches, systems, and ideas” (p. 183).
What is the reader suppose to conclude from the actual words and the basic tenor of Bell’s doctrine? The message is clear: anything resembling an orthodox, steadfast, unshakable foundation of Apostolic doctrine is wholly out of court for the true Christ follower. With so many “possibilities,” and with such a “wide” gate, with the ineptitude of any one church or theological rendering of the faith to get it right, one is, no doubt, free to have whatever faith they want about Christ; to make it up as they go. This is the legacy of independent, Evangelical, Protestantism, and unfortunately Bell has only reinforced it for all his followers.
In contrast St. Paul instructs believers to “keep the traditions delivered to you” (1 Cor 11:2), “withdrawl from a brother who does not walk according to the traditions which he received from us” (2 Thess 3:6), and to understand that the Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). Peter warned that “untaught and unstable people twist Scripture to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16). Along these lines Proverbs teach that a man who isolates himself seeks his own desires (Pro 18:1). And what was that bit in Matt 7:13 where Jesus calls the broad way the road to destruction and the narrow gate the path to everlasting life? One could spend hours quoting Scripture and Tradition that debunks this book, but in short, Christ and the Apostles taught a Christianity totally foreign to Bell’s deconstructed, potpourri, broad way Christianity.
One will argue that I’m being unfair and taking Bell out of context. Let me say that Bell is right in a limited sense – in the sense that there is no boundary, no set people group, for whom the gospel is intended. There is now no Greek or Hebrew, male or female, etc, everyone knows the verse. But Bell means much more than this. Listen to how he handles the name of Jesus in matters of unity with Him:
“Sometimes people use his name other times they don’t … none of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will” (p. 150). Earlier in the book he says, “The Christian faith is big enough, wide enough, and generous enough to handle vast a range of perspectives” (p. 110). What perspective does Bell have of Christ (since all are admissible)? Jesus is, “a life giving energy” (p. 146) who is already known by everyone but under different aliases (p. 152).
Time hardly permits to discuss Bell’s concept of the devil (he is viewed as a redemptive tool, chapter 3), or of hell (a place created by man, not God, existing only in one’s experiences and conditions of life), but I must correct two critical points he makes before finishing this article.
One is his use of the Greek term “aion,” which is used in the English Bible versions as the word “eternal.” Bell claims that this word is never used in the New Testament to describe the concept of “forever” or eternal, but rather denotes a specific range of time, or age; a necessary doctrine needed to make universal redemption plausible in Scripture. This is a claim routinely made by every stripe of Universalism but it is simply incorrect. There are many examples but take for instance Matthew 25:46. The same word in the Greek (aionion) is used for both eternal punishment and eternal life. So, is ‘eternal life’ the same as ‘eternal punishment’ – temporary? The word is also used to describe God’s eternal presence (Rev 1:18) and His abiding Spirit (Heb 9:14), etc. If Bell was consistent on this point he would need to believe that God’s very being is temporary.
Further, Bell argues that if a person resists Jesus in this “age” that he/she can receive Him in the next, since punishment or correction expires with time. But this idea is refuted by Christ as well. For example, Jesus tells those who speak against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age (aioni) or in the age to come (Matt 12:32).
And one note about Bells claim that there is a tradition within Christianity that affirms universal redemption found on page 107. He lists four individuals: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eusebius as supposed likeminded Universalists. For starters, Clement is a highly controversial figure in terms of whether or not he had leanings towards Universalism. He appears to have supported a form of universal redemption, but only of a particular group of people (I’ll save you the details). Origen is the foremost figure in Church history for having a pronounced theology of universal restoration. However, his speculation (which is what he claimed it was) was based on his Platonic ideals of the pre-existence of the soul prior to being born. This is wholly different then the type of Universalism we encounter with Bell. Gregory of Nyssa followed Origen’s thoughts on the issue. And Eusebius, as far as I have been able to determine, never claimed allegiance with Origen’s doctrine though he was a student of his school.
In short, universal redemption has been roundly refuted within the Eastern Orthodox Church historically though one can find strains of it in some circles. Since the doctrine was never formally condemned as heretical it is somewhat “tolerated” as a heterodox belief (it should be noted that Origen’s form of the doctrine was deemed heretical in the 5th Ecumenical Council).
I’ll end with a wonderful quote from St. Augustine who wrote against Origen’s belief that God’s love necessitates the redemption of all. Thanks for reading.
“Very different, however, is the error, promoted by tenderness of heart and human compassion, of those who suppose that the miseries of those condemned by that judgement will be temporal, whereas the felicity of all men, who are released after a shorter or longer period, will be everlasting. Now if this opinion is good and true, just because it is compassionate, then it will be the better and the truer the more compassionate it is. Then let the fountain of compassion be deepened and enlarged until it extends as far as the evil angels, who must be set free, although, of course, after many ages, and ages of any length that can be imagined! …For all that, his error would manifestly surpass all errors in its perversity, its wrong-headed contradiction of the express words of God, by the same margin as, in his own estimation, his belief surpasses all other opinions in its clemency.”
— St. Augustine of Hippo, City of God 21.17