Rob Bell, Universalism and all that Jazz.

I promised to respond to the many comments put up after I posted my thoughts on Rob Bell, Universalism, and seeing and understanding God as a threat.

First up, my brother.

“Interestingly enough, I’ve heard people use Luther’s major premises to argue for something that eludes to universalism. I’ve also noticed that people who strongly detract against universalism assume penal atonement as the *ONLY* possible theory of atonement. I don’t know if Rob Bell can be accused of believing in toy god, but I look forward to reading his book along with random stuff written by non-theists and other people who I might not agree with.”

Joel, I think people go to Penal Substitution to defend against universalism because it has a high view of God’s justice and holy nature and it is most applicable in our context. Most Westerners are unfamiliar with feudal notions of honor, debt and satisfaction that is necessary for the Satisfaction theory to make sense.  The problems with the Divine love/Moral influence theory make it actually appear to support universalism.  If the cross inspires a love to God that adheres us to him enough to avoid Hell than all we really need is love.  Love, not Christ, is what saves and I hope you can see how this would feed into an argument for universalism.

Also, your comment at the end was unnecessary. You know me well enough to know that I read a wide variety of literature, much of which is not in line with Christianity or my own beliefs.  I’ve read the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, Greek literature and mythology, a variety of Christian authors and the Bible.  I read all of these critically and none of these sources perfectly suit my personal beliefs and feelings about God.

I don’t think I wrote about it but I had voiced my belief, before the book hit shelves, that Rob Bell was actually going to be found orthodox. This has been confirmed by you, blogs you link, and even Dr. Mouw the President of our seminary. (And who wouldn’t defend our horse in the race as it were.)

So why did Rob Bell appear to open himself up to accusations of universalism in interviews and promotional materials?  Why does he not cite or reference major claims in his book? Some suggest that Rob Bell’s ambiguities are a result of his communicating style where he asks questions and gives no answers.  In this Rob Bell is creatively reaching a new generation, a generation that is comfortable with if not craves mystery. Rob Bell wants people to think for themselves and not struggle with the questions themselves.

While this might be the case I also think that these ambiguities are a very clever marketing bait.  How much press has Rob Bell and his book gotten from John Piper?  How many read Rob Bell because of Piper’s tweet and the blogs of others? How many bought his book and read it to confirm his alleged universalism? I am sure Rob Bell is not the first, not the last, to use such a tactic to move books and get an audience. But at whose cost?  Bell is supposed to be a teacher and pastor and such people should provide teaching and answers.  I get that Jesus taught in parables but he then explained these parables when the disciple didn’t get it.  To just leave people questioning is not really the role of a pastor, in my opinion, regardless of what generation you’re speaking to. Even if Bell does provide answers in his book, how much trouble has this uproar cost our witness in the world and how much of it could have been avoided with some more direct answers by Bell in a number of interviews and videos?

Second up, a blast from my TWU past, Mike Rauwolf.

“…I did want to share a couple of personal observations. As an associate minister in a church, I’ve been guilty of presenting a “toy God,” capitalizing on His love, his desire to rescue a fallen creation, renewed relationship, etc. but leaving out the fear and holiness aspect.

On the other hand, I’ve been guilty of the opposite: Showing God as angry, just and wrathful, but failing to leave people with the hope we now have in Christ…

I find that it’s very difficult to maintain a balanced perspective. How can God be both? You say that God hasn’t changed, and you’re right, but our relating to Him has. Hebrews describes this change in detail. Where once we could not approach the throne directly, now we do so boldly and with confidence. If I read you right, I see you posing the question, ‘has this confidence allowed us to remake God into the image of something else?'”

Dr. Thompson was far better at bringing this out in the lecture.  Thompson mentioned that some in the room had known only the terrors of God and not his mercy and more cautiously explored this topic.  Because the Bible contains violent images where God is the perpetrator and some people have suffered abuse, this can set up God as an abuser.  This too is only part of the picture of God.  Just as a loving God without a just God is incomplete, so a just God without a loving God is incomplete.

You are correct to point out the fact that while God has not changed how we relate to him has.  I did not bring this out in my post and I should have.  However, I think your words accurately describe my fear.  Do we just have confidence in loving God, so we forget that God is also just and we needed to be saved from something?

Third, Simeon Franklin

“The wrongness of the portrayal of Jesus saving us from God is exactly why I have never felt penal substitution is adequate to fully explain salvation.

Simeon, I read your blog and appreciated how you brought out the fact that there is a multitude of ways scripture talks about how atonement happens and that there is not one clear “biblical” model for atonement.  I agree with you that this situation helps us to relate the Gospel to other culture and other people and even remember our conversation months ago where you brought up Loki/trickster popularity in the hacker sub-culture and how Christus Victor could play well into that context.

Each model seems to break down at a specific point and it is clear that you, like others throughout history, believe that penal substitution breaks down because Jesus saves us from God. God saving us from God fails to make sense to you.  I do not share this belief.  If God is truly in charge of everything, if God is the one who decides what is sin, if God is the one who decides what the punishment for sin is, if God decides who to forgive and whom to damn, I do not see how we can be saved from anything but God.

Did Satan determine what was sin?  Did Satan decide what the punishment for sin was?  Did Satan decide whom would come to a saving faith in Christ and who would not?

I would ask you to explain two things so I can better understand your argument.  First, in your opinion why is it offensive/nonsensical that God saves us from God?  Second, why did many people in the Old Testament fear God, and why is “fear of the Lord” deemed an appropriate response to encountering God in a variety of passages?

Fourth, another blast from the TWU past James Hamrick,

“I think it’s amusing how much reaction there has been to previews of Rob Bell’s book.
Kevin, thanks for reminding us of some of the texts and traditions we like to overlook as we struggle to understand God. Some thoughts:
-universalism does not necessarily negate the justice of God, and should not be equated with some kind of ‘toy’ view of God. If you believe the cross satisfies the justice of God for some, why couldn’t the cross satisfy the justice of God for all?
-There is a very real sense in which the cross saves us from Satan and the principalities and powers. I think we can learn much from the Christus Victor ‘theory’ of the atonement in this regard.
-Can you really love this kind of God? Can you love a God who is so angry that the only way he can keep from torturing people for all eternity is to vent all of his wrath on his own son? Can you love a God who can now look the other way when people do bad things because they’ve been ‘justified’ — i.e., when he looks at them as they do horrific things he sees them covered in the blood and entrails of the son he poured out his wrath on and is somehow appeased by this?”

James, thanks for writing another thoughtful comment that pushes back on me.  I appreciate it.

To your first point I think you are correct, in a sense.  I think if God had decided that the cross would be sufficient to save everyone regardless of their faith in Jesus Christ then universalism would not violate God’s justice.  However, from the Bible it appears that God did not set the world up like this and not all roads lead to Him.  Some will be saved through the narrow road that leads to the Father through Jesus Christ but many will walk the wide road to destruction.

I connect universalism with a “toy God” view because I think universalism is the natural consequence of many who cannot believe God is who He says He is in the Bible.  Only comfortable with a “toy God,” (a partial representation of God from scriptures) their understanding of salvation reflects this.  The former often dictates the latter.  People with a more robust view of God can “get” why God would condemn some to Hell.  People with a “safe/toy/incomplete” God cannot understand why God would condemn some to hell so they change their understanding of salvation.  Does this make sense?

To your second point, I think I would argue with Abelard that if Satan and demonic powers have any dominion over us it is at the express permission and will of God.  God might have used Assyria or Babylon to judge the Israelites, but the ultimate cause of their punishment was God and His will.  In the same way because I believe Satan and demons are under the complete and absolute control of God.  Satan and demons serve at the pleasure of God and I do not believe have authority or power beyond what God permits.  Therefore to be saved from the Devil in the Christus Victor theory (even it is completely true) is still to ultimately to be saved from God.

To your third point I have a lengthy response in another post.

About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
This entry was posted in Letters between friends and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Rob Bell, Universalism and all that Jazz.

  1. Simeon says:

    I posted a response to your questions Kevin –

    Thanks for the conversation!

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