Bell’s Hell

I suspect that Rob Bell’s new book will prove more subtle than MacArthur’s.

Maybe it doesn’t take much of a prophet to say that.

Here’s what I am betting Rob actually will say, in his book Love Wins.  I take a clue from a book by my former teacher, Lynn Gardner.  In Commending and Defending Christian Faith, he summarizes St. Augustine’s views on the final destiny of each of us:

In the end of time God will give people what they love most–sharing his presence or eternal separation from him.

In this way of thinking, it is possible that “love wins” could mean hell is an option for those who prefer to live without God.

This was also Dante’s view.  In his inscription on the gates of Hell one reads,

Primal love made me.

G. K. Chesterton said hell is a tribute to the dignity of man.  C.S. Lewis summarized this view, saying there are some who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and some to whom God will say, “Thy will be done.”

What these ways of thinking about hell have in common is that they see it not as an arbitrary punishment but as the consequence of God giving humans free choice.  In Dante’s vision of Hell the choice of sin and the punishment of sin are the same thing.

God loves us enough to let us have our choices and to let our choices be meaningful.

I think something like this is what Rob Bell will present as one possible option of what hell could mean.  I think he may well present as another possible option the real possibility that love really will win. God will find a way to reach every human being with his love and bring even the most hardened sinner to repentance, reconciliation, and redemption.

Hell, a place of punishment, could be a means to bring about this change of heart on the place of hardened sinners.  This was hinted at by many of the Eastern fathers.  The Scottish author George MacDonald, who so greatly influenced C.S. Lewis,  said,

God will not conquer evil by crushing it under-foot-any god of man’s idea could do that-but by conquest of heart over heart, of life over life, of life over death, of love over all.

I believe that no hell will be lacking which would help the just mercy of God to redeem his children (more here).

The great biblical commentator William Barclay agreed with his fellow Scotsman.  He cites the  Greek fathers Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, and refers to several passages in the New Testament (more here).

I think Rob will say there are a variety of options for understanding the final outcome that are compatible with the teaching of Scripture and the character of God.  I think he will say none of us can know for certain and humility behooves us.  What we do know is that we can trust God to have a solution that is consistent with his wisdom, power, and love.

I like what Scot McKnight said,

If there is an eternity, and I believe there is, and if there is a judgment, and I believe there is, then let us keep the immensity and gravity of it all in mind and refrain from flippancy, gloating, triumphalism — and let it reduce us to sobriety and humility and prayer (Jesus Creed).

[For a review from someone “who actually read the book,” check out Greg Boyd.]

Are You a Slave to Jesus?

Christians have always understood the paradox: in the service of God is perfect freedom.  John MacArthur’s sermon and promo for his book Slave doesn’t seem to appreciate subtleties like paradox.  He recognizes that the δοῦλος – κύριος metaphor is a metaphor; but he doesn’t seem to recognize that it is an inadequate ultimately judged inadequate by Jesus and Paul.

A twenty-minute check in the library confirmed that MacArthurs conclusions after three years of intensive study are basically valid–on the literal level and with one important exception.

Two standard Greek reference sources, Kittle’s famous Theological Dictionary and Bauer’s lexicon as edited by Danker in the third edition.  Both agree that δοῦλος basically means “slave.”  Both of these sources also agree that in Greek culture the whole idea of slavery was degrading, whereas in the middle eastern world of great empires, the kings ministers were called “slaves” or “servants.”  In that context, it was considered an honor to be the δοῦλος of a great king.

This concept was transferred in the Hebrew Bible to the privileged servants of the Lord: Abraham, Moses and the prophets.  The Lord keeps his servants in a special relationship to himself:

Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?  (Numbers 12:6-8)

Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7).

It is in this sense that Paul applies the term δοῦλος to himself and other members of the apostolic team; other Christians he normally calls brothers and sisters.  The expression paradoxically implies humility and service on one hand, but honor and authority on the other hand.

Jesus and Paul both recognize the inadequacy of the expression δοῦλος to convey our relationship with God.  Jesus said,

I no longer call you servants . . . Instead, I have called you my friends (John 15:15).

In the epistle to the Galatians, Paul compares the relationship slaves to heirs.  The whole point of Galatians is to reject the imagery of slavery in favor of the mature and free relationship that adult children have with their father.  Galatians is the magna charta of Christian liberty and the manifesto of the Reformation.

Because you are sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts . . . so you are no longer a slave, but a son or daughter  (Galatians 4:6)

The Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother    . . . we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman (Galatians 4:26,31).

Reviewing Books I Haven’t Read

I’m going to “review” a couple books I haven’t read yet–or rather I’m going to comment on the main idea of a couple of new books, based on the authors’ presentations elsewhere of the contents of their books.

I heard a sermon by John MacArthur last week on the radio driving home after a visit with the grandchildren on the theme of his new book Slave; I assume his own words are a fair representation of his views and a fair summary of the conclusions he reached in his book.  If you missed the sermon last week, you can see a You Tube promo for the book by MacArthur himself.

I tell my students, if they are going to review a book they should actually read it.  So I won’t call this a review.  I will call it a presentation of my on thoughts on the same topic.

The other book is not out yet–Rob Bell’s Love Wins on Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever LivedRob Bell also has a You Tube Promo of this new book.  Many people have already judged the book, some favorably, others with condemnation.  A pastor in Minnesota dismissed the book and its author with a tweet, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”  (More here)

I am going to try something even bolder than reviewing a book without actually reading it–I’m going to predict what the author’s conclusion is.

But right now I have to go teach hermeneutics to my students.

More than a Reaction

Kit-Kat and I read David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions over the weekend.

In some ways, the title is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that the book is merely a reaction to Richard Dawkins and his buddies like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.  I suspect that the work was already underway when pop-atheism books became best sellers.  Hart does make some reference to these authors, mainly to point out their lack of philosophical sophistication as, for example, when Dawkins  asserts that

“natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence.”

Hart responds,

The question of existence does not concern how it is that the present arrangement of the world came about, from causes already internal to the world, but how it is that anything (including any cause) can exist at all.

The real point of Hart’s book is indicated by part of the subtitle, “The Christian Revolution.”  The book is primarily a historical essay on the influence of the Christian Gospel.  Hart is not primarily defending the church as an institution or Christendom as an ideal civilization.  He is tracing the influence of the Gospel’s revolutionary ideas that each human being is created in the image of God and is of infinite worth.

Had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for his brethren . . .

Had we not inherited a civilization based on these beliefs, we would never have come to believe in human rights, economic or social justice, or the basic human dignity.

Hart describes the basic brutality and inequality inherent in the classical civilization that Christianity replaced.  Then he describes the unspeakable horrors brought by the secular societies that replaced Christianity–the more than 100 million victims of mass murder in the 20th century.

In the process of his narration, Hart corrects many myths about Western history, including myths about witch hunts, the ignorance of the middle ages, and the antagonism between the church and science.

One essential difference between the Christian vision of reality and the post-Christian version is the definition of freedom.  In the Christian vision freedom means the opportunity to develop one’s true nature, to become what one is meant to be.  In the secular, post-Christian world, freedom means the arbitrary and spontaneous exercise of one’s choice, free from all restraints.  When secular rulers began to exercise their will uninhibited by the restraints of conscience, the results became genuinely horrendous.

Almost Christian

After two and a half centuries of shacking up with the “American dream,” churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism.

Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. Oxford, 2010.