Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hell? Yes


Well, everyone is all a-twitter about Rob Bell's new book on heaven and hell, "Love Wins." I haven't read it (yet*) ... but of course neither has anyone else that I know personally who has complained about it. So I guess I won't let that stop me from commenting.

Supposedly Pastor Bell gives people the impression that he is a "Trinitarian universalist," which basically is the belief (operating within an evangelical framework) that no one will actually (ultimately) go to hell. Not having read it, I'm not sure whether that's an accurate assessment or not of his views. But I do have a hard time with universalism (Trinitarian or otherwise) itself — reasoning as follows:

1) As I get older, I've noticed a tendency to "calcify" in my beliefs. I think we all do. That's why it's so much easier to stake a claim of faith as a younger person. And it's why older folks rarely get saved. (They do sometimes, but less frequently.) It's not because we old farts are smarter, or anything like that; I think it's just because our lives have settled into patterns. (I write as a 54-year-old, mind you. I have a whole half-century of calcification under my belt.)

Observing this general tendency leads me to believe it is less and less likely, as time passes, for people who have not yet seen the need to repent, to do so. Repentance means turning, changing. In John Bunyan's classic, Pilgrim's Progress, he describes how hard it becomes, the further you travel down a wrong road (after having branched off the straight and narrow at some unfortunate point), to turn back and find where you went wrong, and start over again. Repentance is always easier (and more likely) the closer you are to the point from which you went astray. The older you get, the further you travel, the harder it becomes.

For those of us heading toward the Kingdom of God, rather than away from it, I think this fact brings encouragement. But I fear for those yet unrepentant.

2) I know that it's possible to repent and turn to Christ even on one's deathbed. It happened with my grandpa, and it happened with the thief on the cross. But is it possible to repent at some point after death? The Bible gives us only hints ... no direct teaching ... that while it might be possible, it's highly unlikely.

1 Peter 3:19-20 provides one very intriguing such hint. It says that after "being put to death in the body and made alive in the spirit," which I take to mean after He was crucified but probably before He was resurrected, Christ "went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built." I've read several and varied interpretations of this passage, but I think the best is what seems to be the plainest, that Christ had some sort of communication with deceased people who were in some after-death state referred to as "prison." Probably that same place referred to as "Hades" (not hell exactly, but a precursor of sorts) which Christ spoke about in the parable of the "rich man" and the beggar Lazarus in Luke 16.

As we know from the scriptural account of the flood, "those who were disobedient" during the days of Noah were "eating, drinking and marrying," carrying on as if God didn't exist, as if He didn't matter, and as if He would never bring judgment for sin. (Just as so many around us today are doing!) They mocked Noah and the Ark, and ended up being taken completely by surprise by the Great Deluge.

The real question, I think, is: What was the nature of Christ's communication to them? What was the proclamation? What was the point of Him preaching to these disobedient spirits?

The whole episode reminds me of C. S. Lewis' brilliant little novel, "The Great Divorce." In a dream Lewis takes the reader from a limbo-like hell, on a bus ride to heaven, along with a bus full of other passengers. Each is given the opportunity to stay, if they wish. I don't want to be a spoiler, but the bottom line is pretty much that none do, at least that we are aware of, with the possible exception of the dreamer. Heaven is far too uncomfortable a place for those who have grown accustomed to the self-centeredness of hell.

The name of the book I think illustrates the very thing we are talking about. Like the diverging roads in Pilgrim's Progress, the reality is that the story of history is the story of the "great divorce" between good and evil. Some would have us believe that "all roads lead to Rome," that there are many ways to God. But Scripture teaches in stark contradiction to this belief that there is a straight and narrow path, trust in Jesus Christ, which alone leads to salvation and an eternity with God. All other paths spiral away into darkness.

So, if Christ was preaching to these spirits in prison, was He giving them an opportunity to repent? I have to think that must have been it. Else, why bother? What would be the point, to simply wag a finger at them and say, "See? Noah was right and you were wrong." They already know that, apparently.

And if Christ indeed preached repentance to these spirits, did any repent? Did any find freedom? We don't know. I hope so. Peter doesn't say.

3) I think the final stake in the heart of the universalist monster is the reality that we see in Scripture: The Apocalypse (which means "The Unveiling") reveals that in the final days of our history there will be a separation, sheep from goats. Those on God's right hand will enter the kingdom. Those on his left will accompany the devil and his angels into the everlasting lake of fire. Which sounds pretty darned (excuse the expression) final to me.

This is such an unpleasant truth but so starkly stated by Scripture that it cannot be else but true. People, says the writer in Hebrews 9:27, are "destined to die once — and after that to face judgment." God gives us grace and mercy for a time, space to repent, but the very process of living (and then dying) is itself a process of calcification, of confirmation of whatever choice or series of choices we make — choices toward God, as we are living; or away from Him, as we are dying. Knowing Him, and entering in to His Kingdom; or being commanded: "Depart from Me — I never knew you."

In conclusion, I agree with Rob that, ultimately, "Love wins." God has created all this for a reason, and were it not for the Cross, none of us would be saved. Scripture says that, ultimately, "Every knee will bow" to Christ ... and I hope the universalist is right, that every knee will bow willingly, in repentance and humility. The power of God's love is indeed incomprehensible.

But, as anyone who studies the attributes of God knows, while God is indeed love, love is surely not God. In other words, love is not all He is. Yes, He is wholly loving; but he is also wholly just, wholly sovereign, and wholly holy! He created us in His own image, as free moral agents. We can choose to live with Him, or we can choose to live without Him. I hope with all my heart everyone ultimately chooses to live with Him. But I also know that God's justified wrath against all evil will win out in the end. "Love winning" ultimately means that justice will be done, that the demands of holiness will be fulfilled, and that no sin will be tolerated before His throne.

*Post Script: Since writing the above, I've actually sat down and read Pastor Bell's book ... or at least as much of it as can be reach through's free preview. (Which is quite a bit.) And, I really enjoyed what I read, and it made me want to read more, so I'm sure I'll buy the book soon.

What I read didn't really answer the question I raised above (is he propounding universalism?) and I think in truth he probably didn't intend to. Like a good author, he raises more questions than he answers. He is obviously trying to get us to think, not just about deep philosophical questions and unchallenged opinions, but about the nature of God, and how there really is just so much we don't (and can't yet) know.

Have you read it? I'd be interested in your thoughts.


Dave said...

Hi Larry, Nice post, very good read. I find it interesting that some of my friends embrace a book like “The Great Divorce” but shun the book “Love Wins”, because neither idea is taught in the bible. The bible states more often than not that the last state of the unrepentant sinner is going to be eternal torture in a lake of fire, and that the sinner is not going to just walk into it willingly but is going to be tossed into it by the angels.

Now what I find interesting is that my friends will embrace C.S. Lewis’s book and say, see God is not going to torture the sinner, the sinner is so set in his ways that even given the chance to repent after death he will just cling to his old ways and continue to shun God. This is obviously an attempt by the author to make God’s judgment more palatable to the ever evolving morality of modern human beings. But these same friends will decry the work of Rob Bell and say that he has strayed away from what the bible teaches in that the unrepentant sinner must ultimately pay for his sins. Rob is saying that Jesus paid the price and is going to make sure that everyone benefits from it. Since neither idea is explicitly taught, but as you pointed out, can be inferred from some of the scriptures, then both ideas should be weight out through careful study.

I am glad you are thinking about reading “Love Wins” and would enjoy your take on it.

Larry Short said...

Thanks David! Good, thoughtful comments. As usual, I agree with some (but not necessarily all) of what you say.

I will chew on it though and possibly respond later. In the meantime, it's good to hear from you and I hope things are going well. Let me know how your daughter and your mom are doing. And how the house search is going? Any news?

Dave said...

Hi Larry, sorry if I had not told you that I bought a house shortly after you told me about your relatives house for sale. I thought I had corresponded with you about it but I am getting old so chock it up to that. My daughter is doing fine, she is in her second year of high school. My mom is not doing so well and is currently in a local care facility. Thanks for remembering them.

Larry Short said...

Dave, thanks for letting me know. Our thoughts and prayers are with Lavonne and with you and your family. It's a tough part of life to walk through, when your parents get old and need help, I know. I'm glad you're there for her.