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There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love questions and those who love answers.
Question-lovers focus on the ambiguity and uncertainty of belief. Reality is bigger and more complex than our theories about it. Consequently, we must be humble in the face of mystery, knowing how much we do not know.
Answer-lovers focus on the clarity and certainty of belief. Reality may slip the grasp of theory at the margins, but theory has a firm grip on reality at the center. So, we must act courageously in the world on the basis of what we do know.
Rob Bell loves questions. His critics love answers. This difference between them—a difference that is both temperamental and methodological—illuminates the controversy surrounding Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
Bell asks, “Does God get what God wants?”—namely, “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:4). He further asks, “Do we get what we want?” A “yes” answer to the first question makes you a universalist, that is, a person who believes that God both desires the salvation of all people and realizes that desire. A “yes” answer to the second question makes you a proponent of hell, that is, a person who believes that we can be separated from God for eternity.
A “yes” answer to both questions makes you Rob Bell, a hell-believing universalist.
If that description of Bell strikes you as an oxymoron, you are probably an answer-lover who longs for clarity and certainty. To you, belief in universalism and belief in hell form an incoherent set. Either/or but not both/and.
But Bell is a question-lover comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. God will get what God wants. And we will get what we want. Either way, love wins. “If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.”
Read that quote again. If we want heaven, love wins. If we want hell…love wins there too?
In my opinion, Bell can make that statement only by redefining hell. The Christian tradition—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—defines hell as the sentence of eternal punishment rendered by God against the unrighteous. One of the source passages for this definition is Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. In that passage, Jesus teaches that he himself will separate the righteous and the unrighteous and render judgment. “Then they [the unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Bell thinks the tradition has misinterpreted Jesus’ words in verse 46. There, Jesus contrasts two fates: kolasin aiōnion and zōēn aiōnion. The standard English translation of these two phrases is “eternal punishment” and “eternal life,” respectively, although the words everlasting and forever occasionally appear instead of eternal. According to Bell, the “word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish.” And aiōnion describes either “a period of time with a beginning and an end” or “a particular intensity of experience that transcends time” (emphasis in original). According to Bell, then “the phrase [kolasin aiōnion] can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction.”
If the tradition defines hell as eternal punishment, then Bell redefines it as temporal or particularly intense pruning. The former is ultimate and retributive. The latter is penultimate and remedial. What Bell says about the interplay of human sin and divine judgment in the Old Testament captures the gist of what he’s saying about hell: “Failure, we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.”
There are several problems with reasoning about hell in this way: First, Bell commits “the root fallacy” when he thinks the root-meaning of kolazō/kolasin determines its meaning. In the New Testament, kolazō and kolasin are translated as “punish” and “punishment” in the four instances where they are used (Acts 4:21, 2 Pet. 2:9; and Matt. 25:46, 1 John 4:18, respectively). The root-meaning in and of itself cannot determine whether that punishment is remedial (which is what Bell intends by “pruning” or “trimming”) or retributive. Second, the word aiōnion must be translated the same way in both of its instances in Matthew 25:46. If hell is temporal, so is heaven. If hell is an intense experience that transcends time, so is heaven. Obviously, Bell desires to limit the duration of hell, but in doing so, he ends up limiting the duration of heaven at the same time. Third, the problem of citing the Old Testament interplay between human sin and divine judgment is that this interplay is corporate and historical. In other words, it applies to the nation (Israel) or city (Jerusalem), not every citizen or resident. And it applies to that corporate body’s experience in this age, not necessarily in the age to come.
Bell doesn’t draw a sharp distinction between this age and the age to come. He argues—correctly, forcefully, and with great insight—that they overlap in the present age. (He also argues—again, correctly, forcefully, and with great insight—that our eschatology should shape our ethics.) Theologians describe the overlap as inaugurated eschatology. In other words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ inaugurates “the age to come” in the midst of “this age.” In terms of heaven, this means that we can begin to experience “eternal life” right here and right now. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “The old has gone, the new is here!” But inaugurated eschatology also applies in terms of hell. Romans 1:18 says, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people.” And 2:5 adds, “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” According to these verses, right now, we begin to experience either “eternal life” and “new creation” or “wrath” and “judgment.”
The New Testament teaches inaugurated eschatology, but it also teaches consummated eschatology. If the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurates, his second coming consummates. Consider, again, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, which begins this way: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him…” (Matt. 25:31). Or 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Or Revelation 19:11: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.” In these passages, and in many others, Christ’s return marks a definitive turning point in the relationship between God and his creatures. In the words of the Nicene Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
For Bell, there does not seem to be a definitive turning point, a crisis moment where destinies are finalized. Hell, especially, is temporal and remedial. How long one spends there depends on how long one resists God’s love. “Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.” Bell draws attention to Revelation 21:25, which says of the New Jerusalem: “On no day will its gates ever be shut.” Then he writes: “That’s a small detail, and its’ important we don’t get too hung up on details and specific images because it’s possible to treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process. But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go.” Bell sees this as an image of hope. Those who have chosen hell can choose heaven. Logically, though, the image contains a note of despair, for what stops a person who has chosen heaven from choosing hell? Absent the precipitating event of Christ’s second coming and the final judgment, it seems to me that life as Rob Bell portrays it will always be an ongoing struggle between heaven and hell, with no guarantee of a final resolution.
And if that’s the case, in what sense does love actually win?
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In The Pastor, Eugene H. Peterson tells “the story of my formation as a pastor and how the vocation of pastor formed me.” Peterson is best known as author of The Message, his “translation” of the Bible into “American words and metaphors and syntax.” He recently completed a five-volume series—“conversations”—about spiritual theology. And he has written numerous books about the pastoral vocation, the seedbed out of which all his other books has grown. This memoir narrates the journey of a Pentecostal kid from Montana becoming a Presbyterian pastor in Maryland.
For pastors, it is must-reading. For one thing, Peterson’s story shows how God uses the particularity of our circumstances to shape us into the people he wants us to be, under the tutelage of Holy Scripture. For another thing, it offers a searing critique of the commoditization of American religion that turns “each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric.” And finally, it does all this through a storytelling that alternates between humor, anger, frustration, and hope—the emotions all pastors face in their ministries.
Example: Peterson recounts being bullied by Garrison Johns in elementary school. Instructed by his mother to “turn the other cheek,” Peterson endured the insults and beatings until “[s]omething snapped within me.” He wrestled his tormentor to the ground, pinned him with his knees, and began pummeling him with his fists. His entreaties, “Say ‘uncle’” met with no response, so he began shouting, “Say, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.’” After a couple more hits, Johns said the words, gaining Peterson his first “convert.” How easily the “world” infects the “church” with disease-ridden modes of ministry!
Another example: Early in Peterson’s ministry, a local mental health institution invited him and other clergy to a two-year course in therapeutic technique. In the 1960s, when this took place, the pastoral counseling movement was gathering steam. Peterson learned much that was helpful from this instruction. But he also learned that counseling was not the pastor’s vocation. “The people who made up my congregation had plenty of problems and more than enough inadequacies, but congregation is not defined by its collective problems. Congregation is a company of people who are defined by their creation in the image of God, living souls, whether they know it or not. They are not problems to be fixed, but mysteries to be honored and revered.” That is the pastor’s task.
In Peterson’s telling, the pastor is “not someone who ‘gets things done’ but rather the person placed in the community to pay attention and call attention to ‘what is going on right now’ between men and women, with one another and with God—this kingdom of God that is primarily local, relentlessly personal, and prayerful ‘without ceasing.’”
Local, personal, and prayerful. For me, these three words summarize Peterson’s take on the pastoral vocation. Pastors lead congregations in a specific place. Montana is not Maryland. American is not Africa. Wise pastors understand the conditions of the place to which God has called them.
And they pay attention to the people among whom God has called them. Peterson quotes Baron Friedrich von Hügel, “there are no dittos in souls.” Pastors must minister to people in their individuality, attentive to their inherent contradictions. Like his Uncle Sven, who was adored by his little sister (Peterson’s mother), but abhorred by the wife he abused, and who killed him in self-defense: “When I finally did become a pastor, I was surprised at how thoroughly Sven had inoculated me against ‘one answer’ systems of spiritual care.” Souls are not dittos, and no ministry is one-size-fits-all.
But mostly, pastors pray, by which Peterson means that they enter an ongoing conversation with God characterized by listening and speaking to him. Early on, Peterson learned that “the vocation of pastor had to be understood entirely under the shaping influence of the biblical text,” which teaches the redemption of creation and calls for a response of worship.
Peterson’s memoir alternates between exasperation at what American churches so often are and hope at what they could be. He experienced both emotions in his ministry as a Presbyterian pastor in Maryland. But the dominant note of this personal narrative is hope. The church is “a colony of heaven in the country of death, a strategy of the Holy Spirit for giving witness to the already-inaugurated kingdom of God.” This definition is not theological boilerplate. Peterson learned it from “wise Christians, both dead and alive.” And though a Presbyterian, he shares the Pentecostal conviction that “everything, absolutely everything, in the scriptures is livable,” including a different way of being pastor and church in the world.
P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.
I had hoped to start TDW today, in time for Lent. However, the start of our study of Amos is going to be delayed for a few more days. Sorry!
Dr. George O. Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, sent the following letter to ministers this morning:
The 16-member Task Force for the Consolidation of the three Springfield Assemblies of God residential schools met for the first time last week, under the leadership of Chairman George O. Wood. He opened the session with a discussion of the group’s five-part assignment and reviewed desirable outcomes, namely, that the work of the Task Force:
Dr. Wood led the group as it discussed common language to use in this process. A variety of possibilities was mentioned on how collaborations come into being, and rationale was given on why the church’s Executive Presbytery chose the consolidation model for this venture.
“The word ‘consolidation’ was chosen carefully since it means ‘to unite’ in higher education,” Wood explained. “It is used to describe the uniting of two or more institutions that will result in a new one.”
Considerable time was given for each institution’s stakeholder group to discuss their understanding of the mission and core values of their institution. This resulted in a discussion of the many commonalities in shared values of the three schools the complementary missions of the three. The Task Force expressed the hope that the consolidation will address a Biblical understanding of spiritual and character formation to ensure that a Biblical position on ministry is an integral part of the consolidated university.
The Task Force organized itself around four working groups:
Mission: This assignment is to evaluate the current statements of mission and core values, giving consideration to the discussions of the Task Force, and propose a statement of mission and articulation of core values for the consolidated schools. Members: James Bradford, chair; Charles Self (AGTS) Fred Frank (CBC) and Arnold “Bud” Greve (EU)
Institutional Structure: To design a plan for the structure of the university in terms of its educational system and academic programs. These structures may be colleges, schools, divisions, departments, programs, centers, branch campus, extension programs, virtual campus, library, learning centers, etc. Further, to determine the nature of campus configuration in relationship to these structures. Members: Robert Rhoden, chair; Byron Klaus (AGTS); David Arnett (CBC); Robert Spence (EU).
Governance: To propose a plan for the consolidation of the three boards, including a plan for board organization and board work; the consolidation of the three administrations to provide management and operational effectiveness; and for the consolidation of the current faculties into a unified faculty with authority for educational policies and planning. Finally, to undertake a legal audit to determine if there are legal liabilities, restrictive obligations, government/professional regulations and if fund erosions result through consolidation. Members: George O. Wood, chair; Richard Dresselhaus (AGTS); Gary Denbow (CBC); John Lindell (EU).
Bylaws: To provide a draft of bylaws, to be authorized by the new board of trustees (directors) for ratification by the Executive Presbytery, reflecting the proposed statement of mission, proposed governance system, and institutional structures and any other matter that represents mandated authority. Members: Doug Clay, chair; Don Judkins (AGTS); Betty Johnson (CBC); Ted Pappit (EU).
Name of New University
Subject to the approval of external governmental and accrediting agencies, a motion prevailed unanimously to recommend to the respective Boards of Directors of the three schools that the name Evangel University be the name for the consolidated university and that the consolidated university embody structural elements that will honor the legacies and fulfill the missions of the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Central Bible College, and Evangel University.
The Task Force is comprised of the general superintendent as chair; 3 members of the Executive Presbytery; the board chairs of CBC and EU and vice-chair of AGTS board; the presidents of the three schools, one faculty member from each (chosen by vote of the faculty); and one non-credentialed donor from each.
George O. Wood