SBC Tomorrow welcomes Dr. Paul Owen as guest contributor*
Having heard all of the internet buzz about Rob Bell’s new book, I decided to stop in at the local bookstore and pick up a copy. It’s an extremely short book, and only takes a couple of hours to read. It has a relaxing and engaging tone and writing style, and I’m sure it will sell well, given all the publicity it has received on Morning Joe and other news venues. But what of the content?>>>
Let me just start out by saying that there is nothing particularly amazing about the theological contents of this book. His theology is evangelical, Arminian, and Baptist. His view of Scripture is well within the mainstream of the evangelical world. His openness about the question of the salvation of people outside the Church is hardly remarkable. He plainly upholds justification by faith, the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, the bodily resurrection of Christ and all the faithful at the end of the age, etc. All of the typical evangelical shibboleths. So what of the particulars? The book has its merits, but certainly it is not beyond criticism.
In his opening pages he addresses a couple of central issues. One has to do with the fate of souls who die outside the Christian faith. People like Gandhi. What should we say about them? Bell fairly asks the question, “Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this?” (p. 1). The other question has to do with the nature of the afterlife for billions of people who die as non-Christians: “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” (p. 2).
I think Bell’s questions are fair, as they reflect the rather glib approach to these matters that too many evangelicals assume, at least at a popular level. With respect to the first question, the possibility that God’s grace may be wider than the visible Church is hardly unique to Bell. It is maintained by a wide assortment of religious inclusivists (like Pinnock and Rahner) who maintain that while Jesus is the sole source of salvation, grace is still available through channels other than the Bible, the sacraments and Christian preaching. This position is not far from that expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which does not exclude from the possibility of salvation those who “through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church” (para. 847). “Through no fault of their own” can embrace a wide variety of circumstances, and it allows for people who may know “of” Christ and his Church (different from knowing Christ and his Church), but for various reasons do not come to a saving acceptance of grace prior to death. And the charitable Christian hope (and that is all that orthodoxy can express) for the eventual salvation of all or at least many human souls who die outside the Church is found (with different emphases and details) in Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Ulrich Zwingli, some of the Anabaptist Radical Reformers, Karl Barth, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Torrance, and (with more caution) Richard Mouw and the late Donald Bloesch.
While I would not agree with every detail of Bell’s viewpoint, he asks fair questions. While there is no promise of eternal salvation outside the Christian Church, we really ought not to dogmatize about the fate of particular souls who have died. We do not know the mysteries of God’s secret election. God says in Romans 9:15, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” That is God’s call, not ours, and it is foolish to act as though if God were to be merciful to more people than we expect on Judgment Day, we would take up our Bibles and quote Scripture at the Almighty. Peter said of Cornelius (before he received the Holy Spirit and water baptism), “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). So Cornelius was in some sense “acceptable” to God even before he was saved (cf. Acts 11:14). If he was run over by a chariot on his way to meet Peter, must we assume he would be damned to hell? Revelation 20:15 says that one must have his name in the book of life to avoid being thrown into hell; it does not say one must have been in the visible Church prior to death. And Romans 11:26-29 promises that at the return of Christ, all of the elect within physical Israel will be saved (apparently including many of those who rejected the gospel during Paul’s day). So while we cannot dogmatically offer assurance of salvation outside the Church, there are hints in Scripture that the mercy of God is wider than our present knowledge.
Chapter 2 is largely unexceptional. His larger point about heaven not being the hope of believers (but rather a renewed earth) is certainly overstated in light of John 14:2, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and 5:10, 1 Peter 1:4, and Colossians 3:1-2, but clearly the eschatological renewal of all things will include the physical world and spatial order. Anyone who has read Anthony Hoekema or N. T. Wright has heard these themes before.
The weakest chapter in my view is chapter 3. Few educated readers will be convinced by the argument that the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) was really all about the “hell” that the Rich Man was making of his own life in the here and now (pp. 77-79). Nor will they follow his suggested understanding of Matthew 25:46 as referring to an “age of pruning” (aion of kolazo?). There must have been some oversight in the editing process at this point (p. 91), for neither aion (a noun) nor kolazo (a verb) is used here, nor the genitive case “of,” but rather the phrase is kolasin aionion (literally “eternal punishment”). Somebody really should have caught that before this book went to print, as it makes the reader skeptical as to Bell’s level of care in the handling of Scripture.
And how can you have a whole chapter on hell with no real discussion of the lake of fire in Revelation 20? Certainly, it depicts non-elect people, whose names are not written in the book of life before the beginning of the world (Rev. 13:8), as being condemned to the flames of eternal judgment. Now certainly, we can understand these apocalyptic flames to be something other than physical torments in a literal lake of fire, but we still have to grapple with the fact that at least some people (cf. Rev. 14:9-11; 19:20; 20:10) are consigned to an eternity of punishment outside the heavenly city (Rev. 21). The text cannot simply be glossed over.
The only thing that needs to be said about chapter 4, is that Bell certainly does stop short of outright universalism. “Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact” (p. 115). Which he does quite explicitly. “We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires” (p. 115).
Bell’s discussion of Colossians 1 in chapter 5 (pp. 125, 134-135) is a helpful reminder of the cosmic scope of redemption. Colossians 1:20 states that the purpose of Jesus’ death was the reconciliation of “all things” to himself, and that would include all the invisible orders of angelic beings as well (v. 16). The Church is the center of that reconciliation (vv. 22-23), and the means of entering into its subjective benefit, but the goal of this action moves beyond the Church to embrace all things. This must be part of what Paul speaks of in Philippians 2:10-11, how every knee will bow, and every tongue will one day swear allegiance to the enthroned Son of God (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24-28). Whatever “eternal punishment” means, it does not mean an ongoing state of hostility between God and his creation. Even those who remain forever outside of the New Jerusalem will nonetheless be subjectively reconciled to God, though without the blessing and reward that will belong to the elect in heaven.
Chapter 6 is essentially just an amplification of the theme of God’s universal presence that we find in Acts 17:28 and Psalm 139. While I can agree with the essence of what Bell says, I am not sure he does adequate justice to the reality that the Church is the body of Christ, the place where his Real Presence is enacted through the Eucharist, and therefore the Temple of God in the present age. God is not simply present and available everywhere, and recognized as such in the Church (pp. 156-157); rather he is present in the Church in a way that cannot be accessed through any other earthly channel. Maybe Bell would agree with this, but his discussion leaves one with questions as to the uniqueness of the Church (as the sole bride and body of Christ) and the sacraments and the preached gospel as the mechanism of God’s saving grace on earth.
In chapter 7, Bell seems very concerned that the gospel not be undermined through petty depictions of God. “God is a merciful and loving Father, but if you make the wrong choice and don’t accept Jesus into your heart, he will punish you with eternal torments in the fires of hell forever.” Something along these lines seems to be Bell’s problem. It seems to me that, rather than extending the hope of salvation wider than the Church has historically seen fit to do (which means that ordinarily there is no hope of salvation without baptism into the visible body of Christ, for this is how God’s election manifests itself), it would be better to emphasize the following points:
1) Hell is not a literal lake of fire. To take it otherwise is to misinterpret symbolic apocalyptic imagery.
2) Hell is a continuation of physical existence in a place which is not free of tears, death, mourning, crying, and pain (Rev. 21:4). Only in the love and embrace of God can we find freedom from all that pains and troubles us in this life, and that love has been revealed in the life and death of Jesus Christ.
3) Those who choose to reject God’s love, despite his benevolence and good will towards them, and despite the death of Jesus which made salvation possible for them, choose to alienate themselves from eternal life and God’s free gift.
4) The details of God’s election are a mystery. We don’t know who all of the elect are, and many of them may well lie outside the boundaries of the visible Church.
5) We know that God is a God of love and justice, and that the punishments meted out on those who do not seek refuge in Christ, will be suited to their choices and in accordance with what they deserve (Rev. 20:12).
*Paul L. Owen is Associate Professor of Bible and Religion at Montreat College in North Carolina, where he has taught for the last ten years. He earned his Ph.D. in New Testament at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His work in theology and biblical studies has appeared in a number of venues, including the Calvin Theological Journal, Trinity Journal, the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, and the Journal of Biblical Literature. His most recent publication (co-edited with Larry W. Hurtado) entitled, Who Is This Son of Man? The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus (London: Continuum, 2011), is the first multi-authored, edited volume exclusively devoted to the historical and linguistic background of the Christological title “son of man” in the New Testament. He is also a recognized authority on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and has published in numerous LDS and non-LDS forums in the service of Christian apologetics and interfaith dialogue.
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