Sunday, April 10, 2011

Love Wins: A Critical Review – Part 1

God’s Love and The Cross

Given the title, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and the content of the book, I am confident that Rob Bell’s foundational thesis is buried in a statement he makes regarding hell:

We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell. (p 177)
Rob Bell’s thesis is that the very essence of God is love. The word 'very' has several meanings, but the way in which he uses it here is a common use, and it means ‘complete and absolute.’ He is using this to describe the essence of God, that is, what God is in his being. To say that the very essence of God is love is to say everything that God is in and of himself is nothing else than love. Love controls God; nothing He does, thinks, says is contrary to love because it is impossible to be otherwise without contradicting Himself.

This verges on saying that Love is God, but I doubt that Bell would go that far. God is a Trinitarian being, one essence that exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. I can agree from a Trinitarian perspective that the very essence of God is love because each person of that one essence loves the other supremely. But that is not what Bell is talking about. He is talking about God’s love toward objects outside the inter-Trinitarian fellowship. He is talking about God’s love for his creation and in particular for that creature made in his image, man and woman.

To say simply that very essence of God is love is to make a statement that is not very clear and raises a serious question, If God is completely and absolutely love, does that mean He has no other attributes?

I readily admit that is an absurd question, but the asking of it points to the absurdity of the idea that God in his essence is completely and absolutely love in relation to his creation. The very fact that by divine fiat (God said, ‘Let there be light.’) God brought the creation into being out of nothing clearly reveals his omnipotence and omniscience not to mention his sovereignty (Romans 1:20; Psalm 19:1-4a).

I think Bell would affirm these attributes to one degree or another. But in doing so, he faces some serious challenges, which he either glosses over or ignores outright.

If God does have these other attributes then how can Bell be so dogmatic that love is the essential attribute of God? If the attributes of omnipotence and omniscience are granted, then we must also consider other attributes such as God’s holiness and justice (seeing that the Bible does so, Psalm 99:3, 5, 9; Isaiah 6:3; Habakkuk 1:13; 2 Timothy 4:8; Revelation 4:8; 6:10; 16:7; 19:2).

I mention holiness and justice in particular because I think Bell does not understand them aright and therefore does not appreciate their impact on the very things he talks about in his book: heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived. Bell’s flawed conception of these unfavorably affects his view on the love of God and divine punishment.

Bell’s position is one-sided. It is not the love of God alone that has direct implications for punishment, but the holiness and justice of God do as well. If God is utterly holy and absolutely just how can He not hold men accountable for their sins and inflict everlasting pain and suffering for their heinous offenses against Himself?

Bell’s answer on the one hand is that God simply cannot do that, for that kind of God, who would consign a man to unending torment for sins committed during a mere life-time, is unloving and cruel.

Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? (p 2)

The biblical answer to each of these questions is a resounding Yes! and I plan to show how so in a later article.

On the other hand, Bell’s answer that prohibits everlasting punishment is the cross of Christ, but his assessment of the cross is superficial. He spends no time exegeting the passages that he cites, he simply states the text without any explanation of its meaning in terms of its context or corpus of belief held by the writer. Regarding the cross he tallies so-called metaphors that the New Testament writers use to explain the cross. It is a sacrifice that does away with all other sacrifices (pp 123-126), reconciles all things to God (p 125), pays the price to free guilty sinners (p 126), destroys death and overcomes the world, (p 126), and buys back (redeems) something that was lost (p 127). Bell is very earnest to convey the idea that these metaphors were adequate for their time and place in history and culture, but we should not be limited to them:

The point, then, isn’t to narrow it [the meaning of the cross] to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. To elevate one over the others, to insist that there’s a “correct” or “right” one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors. They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners could grasp.

The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine in flesh and blood. He’s where the life is. (p 129)
If I understand Bell’s message here, the so-called use of metaphor makes all the New Testament renderings of the meaning of the cross dated. Important as they were in their time, they are not so useful for us now. Their real usefulness in the New Testament world, as it should be now, is to make a point about something deeper, and that point is “...Jesus...where the life is.” An arcane pronouncement, which Bell makes no diligent effort to elucidate.

To place the various perspectives of the New Testament writers of the cross on the ash heap of outworn metaphors and images is telling of Bell’s superficiality when it comes to hermeneutics (the interpretation of scripture). It is particularly exposed with the metaphor of sacrifice. Bell cites Hebrews 9:26 as an example:

We read in Hebrews 9 that Jesus “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (p 123)

Bell explains this as a metaphor to counter the centuries old practice of pagan ritual sacrifice whereby a peaceful relationship between us and the gods was hopefully attained:

That’s how it worked. Offer something, show that you’re serious, make amends, find favor, and then hope that was enough to get what you needed.

So when the writer of Hebrews insisted that Jesus was the last sacrifice ever needed, that was a revolutionary idea. To make that claim in those days? Stunning. Unprecedented.

Whole cultures centered around keeping the gods pleased. This was obviously a very costly, time-consuming ordeal, not to mention an anxiety-producing one. You never knew if you’d fully pleased the gods and paid the debt properly. And now the writer is announcing that those days are over because of Jesus dying on the cross. Done away with. Gone. Irrelevant.

The psychological impact alone would have been extraordinary - no more anxiety, no more worry, no more stress, no more wondering if the gods were pleased with you or ready to strike you down. There was no more need for any of that sacrifice, because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice that thoroughly pleased the only God who ever mattered. (pp 124, 125)

For the New Testament writers, sacrifice was not a figure of speech by which the pagan might come to understand the folly of his ritual and abate his fear of never appeasing the gods. Nor was the imagery of sacrifice a random notion that seemed a likely choice to make Jesus intellectually or culturally palatable to his hearers.

Sacrifice was not a metaphor. Sacrifice rose out of the history of redemption, namely, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. For the writer to the Hebrews, the cross is without meaning if it is not understood in the light of Old Testament sacrifice, and if Bell had been honest to include the context of the verse he cites, he would have had to bring the meaning of Old Testament sacrifice into the sacrifice of Christ:

Of this, John Murray writes:

It lies on the face of the New Testament that Christ’s work is construed as sacrifice. And the only question is: what notion of sacrifice governs the pervasive use of the term sacrifice as it is applied to the work of Christ? This question can be answered only by determining what was the notion of sacrifice entertained by the New Testament speakers and writers. Steeped as these were in the language and ideas of the Old Testament, there is but one direction in which to seek their interpretation of the meaning and effect of sacrifice. (Redemption Accomplished And Applied, p 24).

Murray then expounds the meaning of sacrifice on the basis of the Old Testament ritual, in particular, the Day of Atonement.

I am making a special point regarding Bell’s hermeneutic because it should throw up a red flag. If he so blithely misconstrues the purpose of New Testament writers in the explanation of the cross in this one aspect - sacrifice - can he be trusted with his assessment on other aspects. Does he have any real understanding of the nature and scope of Christ’s death as the once-for-all satisfaction for the just punishment of God for the sins of his people? Does he truly understand the meaning of 1 Peter 2:24:

Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed.

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