Wednesday, May 11, 2011

My Review of Love Wins: Chapter Four

Does God get what God wants?

That's the first big question of the chapter.
And the last big question of the chapter is:  
Do we get what we want?

Yes. To both. But not a simple yes, rather a tension, drama-full yes.

Rob is going to make a case from Scripture that God "wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." [1Timothy 2]

And so the big question of the chapter: Does God get what God wants? Or in the end, "will God shrug God-sized shoulders and say, 'You can't always get what you want.'" (103)

It is pointed out in Luke 15 that "the God Jesus teaches us about doesn't give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn't give up. Ever." (101) Rob insists that God accomplishes what he purposes to do, and that the Scriptures point to a God who "will be united and reconciled with all people." (100)

Some will say, though, that we only have this lifetime on planet Earth to make a decision that will effect our eternal life in heaven or hell. They emphasize the nature of love - that it requires freedom. (103) God allows people to choose, God allows people to get what they want. If people want God in this life, they will get him in the next; if they don't want God in this life, why would they want him in the next? And thus there will be eternal reward for those that love God in this life and eternal torture for those that didn't love God in this lifetime.

Though this has been the majority view, Rob goes on to point out other perspectives Christians have held to over the years. Some, like C.S. Lewis, proposed the idea that a person's humanity just ebbs away after refusing to love God in this life and the next. A few have suggested that we maybe God gives us a second chance after death. Or endless chances, believing that "the love of God will melt every hard heart." (107)

What Rob will do then in the rest of the chapter is increase the tension between believing that both God and people get what they want, that "love, then, wins and all will be reconciled to God." (109) Rob upholds the free-will nature of love, that God allows people to reject him, but also that God never stops inviting people to repent - in this life or the next.

At the heart of this proposal is a focus on three main texts - here's how Rob writes it:
And so beginning in the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody because Jesus says in Matthew 19 that there will be a "renewal of all things", Peter says in Acts 3 that Jesus will "restore everything", and Paul says in Colossians 1 that through Christ God was pleased "to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven." (107)

Because there are Eastern Church Fathers who upheld a belief in the reconciliation of all things and people, and these three texts as well as the one initially referenced in 1Timothy 2 are in the Scriptures, Rob wants Christians to be gracious to one another when it comes to the eternal destiny of mankind. He points out that within the Christian texts and tradition there has always been "that vast a range of perspectives" (110), and that "one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it." (111)

It's Rob's way of saying that he could be wrong, or that you could be wrong. Either way, we're still Christians, we're still Christ-centered, and we can still accept one another. The problem can arise when one group of Christians are convinced they are right and that the other group is wrong - even heretical. Interestingly, the early Eastern Church was more reluctant than the Western church to condemn and declare an idea heretical. And it is in the Eastern Church fathers that we find more openness to the idea that through Christ God will save everyone.

In chapter three Rob argued that the purpose of hell was correction, that it was form of judgment intended to bring about repentance. In this chapter Rob is arguing that the correction and judgment will be effective - not because of the torture but because of God's love for them and how he works in their heart. Rob is insisting that those who go to hell when they die will not stay there because of what Christ accomplished on the cross. Since love requires free will, God will not force his love on people, nor will he ratchet up the torture to coerce confession. Rather the emphasis seems to be on letting people live out the consequences of their actions - both in this life and the next, while at the same time being continually loved by a God who doesn't ever give up. As the Apostle Paul says, "Love never fails."

The chapter ends with an overview of Revelation - a book of the Bible that is highly influential on people's understanding of heaven and hell, who is in and who is out. It's a book "written by a real pastor in a real place to a real congregation going through very real suffering." "At the heart of the letter he paints a picture for them of God acting decisively to restrain evil and conquer all who trample on the innocent and the good." "But the letter doesn't end with blood and violence." (112)

Here is Rob's three summarys about the final two chapters of the book - and the Bible: 
 "God must say about a number of acts and to those who would continue them: not here you won't." (113)
He also observes that the gates of the New Jerusalem will be open. He wonders if this implies that for those that continue to choose hell in the next life, God keeps the gates open, that repentance will always be an option. "Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God for ever because of their choices? Those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. (115)
Finally, "God announces, 'I am making everything new.' That is what God love does. It speaks new words into the world and into us." (115-116) This leaves open the possibility for God to do a new thing - even for people in hell.

In Revelation, death and Hades (hell) get thrown into the "lake of fire." Rob doesn't really ever explore what is this lake. It's a metaphor for something. The end of hell? The end of the judgment and correction? The end of wickedness? The beginning of something new? The emphasis has been on the torturous nature of the "lake of fire." But what if is supposed to emphasize a cleansing, much like a raging forest fire is necessary for an old forest to become renewed? It's this kind of direction that Rob seems to be pointing.

His final paragraph:
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.

Rob seems to believe that people get a second chance, that hell is corrective, that people choose their own hell now and then, he thus also believes that God seeks to save people from their sins both now and then. God's love compels him to rescue people from their hell now, and their hell in the life to come. 

God will give people as much time as it takes for them to repent. He'll let them live with the consequences of their sins as long as they want. When they're ready to turn around and love God and neighbor, he'll be there to help them start over again. So love wins - love waits, but love also actively works. Love is both the end and the means.

Where Rob is most vulnerable in this chapter is his interpretation of Scriptures. To keep the book accessible to a wide audience, he can't do thorough exegesis of each Scripture he points to that supports his ideas. And he can't address every Scripture that would seem to undermine or challenge his suggestions. For those who don't know their Bible well, his use of Scriptures may or may not be helpful. For those that do know their Scriptures - well, it's up to them to do their own comparing and contrasting.

Rob is a savvy writer and pastor - part of his argument hinges on people considering the consequences of their own life now. As they consider whether or not they believe in hell or a loving God, he's attempting to get them to look at their life now. It's not really about whether a loving God sends billions of people to a torture cell for a billion years. The real issue is that you have to live with the consequences of your actions. 

For Rob, speculating about heaven and hell distracts you from actually becoming the kind of person who loves God and neighbor. God is holy, God is just, God is righteous, God is lots of things - including love. And the Great Commandment is not "Be holy as I am holy." It's not, Be without sin as I am without sin. It is: Love God and love your neighbor. And love always perseveres. And thus it is permissible for Rob to point people to a God who doesn't quit in this life or the next.

A logical response to this chapter and idea: what if Rob is wrong? What if it is only in this life? What if people read this chapter and decide to procrastinate on making a decision for Christ because they think they can repent in the next? What if more people go to hell because of Rob's book? What if Rob is leading people astray by this teaching? Is the risk worth it if Rob is wrong?

This a very Evangelical Christianity kind of question. And so it's true - he could be wrong. But since it's mostly American evangelicals that will be reading this book, and since most American evangelicals aren't actually evangelizing, the concerns of American Evangelicals may not be so warranted. I don't like it when Rob uses a straw man to support his arguments, and I don't like it when others use a straw man to undermine Rob's points.

Rob is reaching out to people who already have rejected some form of Evangelical Christianity. And in doing so have left behind church, a vibrant faith, and some even their faith in God. They are already doomed to hell, according to American Evangelicals. Rob is trying to help them find a new way to connect to the God of the Scriptures - which is a very Evangelical thing to do. For Rob, everything centers on Christ - that's very orthodox. But for Rob, he doesn't hold to the Evangelical version of hell - and that's unacceptable for many.

So how great is the risk? Would you stop evangelizing if people didn't stay in hell forever? Would you cease to invite friends to church if you knew that in Christ all will someday go to heaven? Would you stop encouraging people to follow the way of Jesus if you knew that God has already forgiven all our sins? Would you quit reading your Bible and neglect growing in Christian maturity if you knew that God would let you into heaven anyway?

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