Check your premises" all about hell

Posted: 08/03/2011 in book review, hell, Rob Bell
Tags: , , ,


LOVE WINS. – Available March 15th from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

There’s a new virus spreading on the internet. It’s called “Rob Bell releases a new book.”

People have already begun to accuse Rob Bell of universalism. I’ll keep my opinion of Rob Bell quiet until I get a chance to read the book, which comes out later this month. Nevertheless, there is already a huge blog buzz about a prominent evangelical pastor making statements that sound like universalism. He would not be the first minister to be anathematized as such.

The purpose of this blog is not to take a position on exclusivism (only Christians go to heaven), inclusivism (Christians and some others go to heaven), universalism (everybody goes to heaven) or annihilationism (there is no hell), but rather to frame the debate. Specifically, I feel that detractors of Rob Bell (or anyone else who sounds universalist) might consider checking their premises.

What I mean is this: people who argue for the necessity of hell or God’s wrath often assume that certain premises are true and undisputed. They are so deeply assumed that people often forget how to defend them. This is bad, because -mark my words- debates about universalism/inclusivism will lead to additional debates about the three premises I am about to mention. If other Christians want to persuade Rob Bell or others, they must be prepared to defend these major premises, and not make the mistake of assuming that they are self-evident and undisputed. the new reformed Christians especially (forgive the generalization) seem to make this mistake.

Also, yes, this kind of thing is important for everyday Christian living. After all, another Pastor, Kevin DeYoung argues that we need hell to even forgive our enemies.

Let us begin:

Premise number 1: Justice is avenging evil-doers. This seems to make sense right? Justice, especially divine justice, is making sure that the evil-doer gets what’s coming to them. Think of the death penalty. A famous Texas comedian once remarked “If you kill someone [in Texas], we will kill you back.” A more academic example is Kant, who said that the death penalty was not just an option, but a moral requirement in the case of a murder. Even the Christian saint Thomas Aquinas said that “Justice was getting what is due to you.”

However, this is not the only vision of justice. This idea of retribution has been criticized. An alternative is the idea of restorative justice. This type of justice is not concerned about smiting evil, but restoring what was lost to evil. Instead of “If you kill someone, we will kill you back” it says “If you kill someone, God will raise them back to life.” It also implies that all are corrupted by evil, and restorative justice seeks to “restore” what evil did to the soul of the evil-doers themselves.

Premise Number 2: Penal Substitution is the best/only atonement theory. Penal Substitution is common idea. It is so popular that many do not know of any alternatives. I had to get a degree in theology before I heard of alternatives!

It works like this: Humanity has offended God with sin. Since God is infinitely good, so the debt of sin also infinite. Humanity is finite and cannot pay the infinite debt. God must somehow “pay” the infinite debt since no one else can. So God became human in Jesus in order to pay the infinite debt on the cross. This is very dry and technical, but I think it sounds familiar to everyone.

Now, please look for that description of atonement in the New Testament. Yes, please find something very specific. Make it as specific as Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (“why God became man”). A Lutheran minister once shared that penal substitution comes down to us from the middle ages -and he’s right. Anselm wrote in the 12th century. That does not make his theory of atonement wrong, but it does put it up for debate doesn’t it? When we think about penal substitution, we should not think “how does the Bible teach this?” but rather “did Anselm get it right?”

Premise Number 3: Things are made right/good because God says so. Of all the things mentioned here, I think this one is the quickest to come up. Someone might say that heaven doesn’t seem good if there’s a tiny torture chamber somewhere near it. Similarly, someone might mention that God’s goodness does not allow room for eternal suffering. A common response is something like “God decides what is good” along with pious appeal to Romans 9:16-19.

The problem with this, is that it assumes a certain answer to the famous Euthyphro dilemma. The question is “Are things good because God loves them, or does God love them because they are good?” I think many Christians answer “good because God loves them” and may even endorse baby eating if God said so. I don’t think, though, that the question is so easily settled by an appeal to Romans 9 or similar passages. That passages tells that we don’t know the reasons for God’s choices. God may not tell us his reasons for mercy, or those reasons might be beyond our keen, but neither one of those implies no reasons at all. Not all Christians are happy with “because God says so” type of answers. This blogger sure isn’t

Now of course it is possible that someone might believe all three of these premises and be a full blown universalist. Alternately, they may disagree with all three and still be an exclusivist. No matter what though, these things are going to come up in the internet debates, magazine articles, and book reviews about Rob Bell’s new book. If Rob Bell really is a universalist, and his detractors uses these premises to condemn him for it, they will need to articulate and defend them quite carefully.

Reposts, retweets make me happy. So also do your welcome comments.

  1. Adam says:

    >Going to APU, I really enjoyed theology classes because I knew a lot of my beliefs were at least uncommon. I'd eventually find a theologian that says things I believe and I get the fun of gaining stronger support, or in a few cases, change… my beliefs. The nature of hell was by far the most interesting because after a lot of searching, I couldn't find any theologians that said anything like what I believe. It boils down to, some people love God, and some won't. Hell doesn't have to be a place of torture, it is simply an existence isolated from God. At the rapture, it is possible for the damned to have a change of heart and seek an existence with God, but in most cases this is unlikely as most have had ample time to know God in life and have abandoned him anyway. At the rapture, all those who persist in their rejection of God will be cast into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14). The lake of fire is like what the annihilationists see hell as. So after the rapture, there no longer is a hell, it is destroyed along with everyone in it (save for those who choose to leave and enter an existence with God). I also see Heaven as temporary, but not in the same way. After the rapture, our world is once again without sin as it was in the garden. Those who love God (the residence of heaven) return to Earth.Wasn't Origin a universalist? There are at least a few respectable theologians who believe in that. I myself do not deny that it is possible for the damned to eventually change their hearts and choose a life with God, however there are nu…merous passages that show people are given plenty of chances to know God and still choose to reject him. Mark 3:29 clearly states that Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is an unforgivable sin. I think most if not all interpret that as choosing to not love God, but regardless of what it is, the fact that there exists a sin that cannot be forgiven proves that some people (those who commit that sin) cannot be saved, even by the sacrifice of Christ.

  2. >"Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. For while we were sinners, Christ died for us. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind." -St. Isaac of SyriaA couple of Orthodoxy's most profound saints have been accused of universalism. Universalism in Orthodoxy was proclaimed anathema at one of the later Ecumenical Councils, but it's not as simple as that.The belief that all people go to Heaven was proclaimed anathema because it denies the free will of humans to choose Hell. The nonexistence of Hell was likewise proclaimed anathema.Yet, the fervent hope of these saints for the eventual willful choice by all humankind (and even the fallen angels; some of them are reputed to have prayed for the salvation of Satan himself) to rejoin God in Heaven was not proclaimed anathema, so long as free will and the existence of Hell was upheld.That's not to say that most Orthodox don't believe in an eternal, inescapable Hell, because just about all of them do. And I'm not Orthodox, although I remain heavily influenced by their theology. But I think that's probably the most accurate description of the matter.You die, and can choose where you go. The presence of God is open to all, but it is also painful and purifying, and enduring it requires we repent our sins. If we choose to keep our sins, the presence of God is so painful that Hell is a respite by contrast. We can change our minds later, and repent our sins and rejoin God and the saints in Heaven.On the last day, Death and Hell will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. But what does that mean? And what, really, is the last day? The end of history would probably be when the last bit of human drama has unfolded and there will be no change from thenceforward, at least to my mind. (In a completely non-theological context, that's the position Francis Fukuyama took.)So the last day would be when the last human (or possibly even angel) has rejoined God in Heaven, and it is then that Death and Hell cease to have any meaning, and are destroyed.

  3. James says:

    >I think I have to agree somewhat with Adam. To me, the problem with universalism is that it removes any consequences and makes Christ's sacrifice unimportant, or at least significantly less so. What I mean is this: If everyone eventually goes to heaven anyway, why die for my sins? Scripture makes it clear that Christs atonement was the ONLY way to restore humanity. (Matt 26:39; Luke 22:42; Mark 14:36) So if were are eventually going to "get out of it" anyway, why even bother sending your son as a sacrifice?I suppose the answer to that question would be that Jesus die for everyone's sins, not just believers, but I think the scriptural basis for that is A) weak and has B) moved beyond the discussion of the necessity for hell. Hell means that we need salvation. Without hell, what are we being saved from? That doesn't have to mean punishment. I think God is too good to punish us. Like Adam, I choose to believe that hell is simply a place where we reap the fruits of our decision. If we choose not to follow God, then we are given our choice: separation from God. If we reject God, that is what we wanted right? In that right, I think it's not about justice. It's about free will. I think hell isn't about justice (premise 1.) It is about allowing us to get what we choose. Without a choice of separation from God (hell) then we become mindless robots, incapable of truly loving one another or our maker (the reason we were created in the first place)

  4. >I wanted to chime in that I agree with Adam and James. I do not feel the need to elaborate, since they both did a great job of it themselves.

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