Rob Bell should be a Calvinist. And I don’t mean that in the way that anyone should. I mean he’s just one step from already being there.
Bell’s style is less assertion, more questions which lead you to an answer. Some of the questions just sound like stock aesthetic hangups (“He asks if God has ‘created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish’ and, if so, how he could do or allow that ‘and still claim to be a loving God’”). But others reveal devastating inconsistencies with Christian pop soteriology (I quote from The Tenth Leper blog, since he quotes from the yet unreleased book):
And if there are only a select few, how do you become one of them? ”Chance? Luck? Random selection? Being born in the right place, family, or country? Having a youth pastor who ‘relates better to the kids’? God choosing you instead of others? What kind of faith is that? Or, more important: What kind of God is that?” (pp.2-3) . . .
Take the age of accountability for example. Some Christians believe that a child up to a certain age is not held accountable for their actions before God. Mr. Bell correctly says that a lot of people believe that age to be around twelve years old. But what if your child lives past that age and ends up not believing in Jesus, dooming themselves to hellfire for all eternity? . . . ”If every new baby being born could grow up to not believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child’s life anytime from conception to twelve years of age would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child ends up in heaven, and not hell, forever. Why run the risk?” (p.4) . . .
If Romans 10:14 is true, is our salvation in someone else’s hands? ”What if the missionary gets a flat tire?” Is someone else’s eternity my responsibility then? . . .
The list goes on for a couple more pages, but the point is made. For Bell, the traditional evangelical understanding of salvation seems to be fraught with difficulties. It’s just far too complicated. Every “simple” statement the Bible makes about how to get saved just leads to more questions.
Yes! I’ve argued using almost identical questions. Was my salvation really dependent on the weather the day the evangelist came out, or on his boldness, or on the fact that he washed his hands yesterday and didn’t get sick? It’s the old question, “What about the people who haven’t heard?”. It’s not an easy question, and we see Bell honestly struggling with it, which is certainly a better response than a lot of unthinking stock answers (or more usually, evasions). And as shocking as merciful infanticide sounds, he’s absolutely right: that’s the only logical conclusion if we believe in an age of accountability.
But this isn’t what has the blogosphere in a tizzy. No, that’s because of this:
Invoking the original language of the New Testament, he’ll argue his case that the punishment referred to here (better translated, he believes, as “correction”, or “pruning”, or “trimming”) doesn’t last forever in the way we understand the term “forever”.
Oh no! It’s easy to see why this has generated such a backlash in the Evangelical community. But his questions – and they are good questions – do seem to lead in that direction, don’t they?
Unfortunately, Bell takes the easy way out from his hard questions:
“What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him.” (p. 156)
Ok, so we’ve shot holes through a certain understanding of salvation. Does that mean we abandon the whole issue? Certainly the topic is weighty enough to warrant digging deeper, rather than just throwing up our hands and exclaiming “This is hard!”.
What Bell’s questions lead us to reject is not the permanence of Hell, but the idea that faith is an act of the will. Bell marches right up to this point…
“If salvation is a free gift that “we cannot earn by our own efforts, works, or good deeds- and all we have to do is accept and confess and believe, aren’t those verbs? And aren’t verbs actions? Accepting, confessing, believing-those are things we do. Does that mean, then, that going to heaven is dependent on something I do? How is any of that grace? How is that a gift?” (pp.10-11)
…and then points his guns at the meaning of “forever”. But oh, this point can be so much more richly developed. John Stott notes in The Letters of John:
[1 John 5:1] shows clearly that believing is the consequence, not the cause, of the new birth.
Faith is not an act at all! There is no tension between act and gift: it’s totally and completely gift, “not of your own doing”. We are not saved because of faith, we have faith because we are saved! And with that, all of our questions suddenly become soluble. No one is saved according to the merit of an evangelist, but according to the inscrutable, ineluctable choice of God: “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” (1 Cor. 3:7)
Bell suggests, in so many questions, that we cannot at the same time preserve human agency and divine wrath. The contradictions and difficulties are just too great. It’s a realization which most people never come to. But alas, having come to that dilemma, Bell throws out the wrong one. And just one step from the doctrine of unconditional election, so clearly expressed in scripture. Unfortunately it seems unconditional election offends his sensibilities, seeing as he lumped it in with will accounts in the first quoted paragraph above. He makes a great and compelling argument, but points it at the wrong foe.
I won’t be so patronizing as to pray for Bell to see the light. Those prayers would be better said for those who haven’t even thought of the issues Bell raises, or see no contradiction between wrath and agency. Hopefully this book will cause many more to ask these hard questions, even if I hope they won’t blindly accept his conclusion. Bell asks all the right questions. But in the end, it seems what wins is just a human aesthetic of love.