Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part VI
If you missed the first parts of this blog series, you would benefit from reading them prior to this final entry. I have them listed here for you:
Part I: Introduction
Part II: Overview of Love Wins
Part III: Is Rob Bell a Universalist?
Part IV: Does God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave?
Part V: Understanding Heresy and Orthodoxy
I have made an update to this post, in regard to Origen’s condemnation. (3.23.11 at 5:15 p.m.)
Now with a better understanding of heresy and orthodoxy, how do these ideas help us judge whether Rob Bell in Love Wins is teaching heretical ideas or if his teaching is within the bounds of orthodoxy?
My Judgment on the Matter
First, it is important to note, as Bell does, although in an exaggerated way, that a “hopeful” universalism or what Peter calls in Acts 3:21 “apokatastasis” – universal restoration – is something that well-known theologians have taught throughout the age of the church. In All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origin to Moltmann, Steve Harmon, a theologian teaching in the School of Divinity at Gardener-Webb University and a visiting professor at Duke Divinity School, mentions that in early Christian theology there were three major readings in regard to those who did not respond positively to God during their earthly lives. The majority reading, held to by Augustine and Tertullian, held that such persons would experience separation from God in ever lasting torment. The punishment was eternal in duration. Justin Martyr and Arnobious, apologists living in the second and third centuries, offered a minority reading. They held to the annihilationist view, in that the punishment of the wicked was eternal in effect, once they are thrown in hell, they experience the “second death”, they are destroyed, and thus evil ceases to exist. There was another minority reading, which was represented by Clement, Origen and Gregory, who taught that “punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration, but its effect is not destruction but transformation” (MacDonald 2011:63,64).
In addition, Harmon notes that, while the Fifth Ecumenical Council branded some of the teaching of Origen as heresy, he thought the objection had less to do with apokatastasis than with Origen’s understanding of the pre-existence of the soul and cyclical time. Though Alfeyev gives five distinct reasons that Origen’s understanding of apokatastasis was rejected. First, it doesn’t align with the vision of scripture that we are moving in history toward a better place, not returning to the starting point. Secondly, it practically excludes the idea that “one can follow Christ into eternal life only of one’s free choice” (116). Thirdly, Origen’s system of apokatastasis is closely linked with the theory of the pre-existence of souls, an idea firmly rejected by the church. And fourthly, “Origen’s version of the apokatastasis raises the question: what is the moral sense of the entire drama of human history, if good and evil are ultimately irrelevant before divine mercy and justice?” (116). Alfeyev concludes, “The council of Constantinople in 543 and the fifth ecumenical council in 553 condemned the teaching of Origen and his followers on the doctrine of apokatastasis. But having condemned Origin, the fifth ecumenical council said not a word about the teaching of Gregory of Nyssa, who also wrote of the total extermination of vice and the final salvation of all people” (Cunningham 2008: 116). Alfeyev references Gregory’s work On the Soul and the Resurrection (7-10). Thus Alfeyev would conclude the council condemned a view of apokatastasis, in particular Origens view. Harmon, on the other hand mentions Gregory of Nyssa, saying that he developed a “concept of apokatastasis virtually identical to that of Origen, save Origen’s protology, [yet] was never condemned by council or synod, [but] was revered by the later church as a staunch defender of Nicene orthodox, and was canonized as a saint with a feast day on March 9th” (MacDonald, 2011:64). In my e-mail conversations with Harmon, he confirmed that although some of Origens teachings were branded as heresy, the church never declared Origen a heretic.
With this said, I don’t think that universalism, as defined earlier in this essay squares with the teaching of Scripture, nor do I believe that Rob Bell is a universalist. There seems to be much wisdom in a nineteenth century German pietist who said, “Anyone who does not [hope for] believe in universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass” (MacDonald 2011, 64). I also would agree with Hans Shwartz that “Only those who are already in this life connected with eternity in time, with Jesus Christ” can have assurance, and “even in our most sincere concern for them [unbelievers], we have to acknowledge the ultimate hiddeness of God, a God who is beyond justice and love. At this point we can only hope without knowing for sure that his never ending grace will ultimately prevail” (Schwartz 2000:396,7). And so with the Orthodox, “the question of the salvation of all humanity cannot be addressed theoretically: in invites not speculation, but prayer” (Cunningham 2008:118).
So should we divide over hell? How does the doctrine of unity and love shape our approach to our understanding of the fate of those who don’t believe? When Jesus says, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35), he unites unity and mission. His prayer in John 17 gives me hope that visible unity can and will be reality at some point. If this is to be an increasing reality, as Protest-ants we must recognize that there is something in our DNA that takes pleasure in dividing, because we have become quite skilled at it. We must recognize we have much to unlearn and would do well to take Jesus’ doctrine of unity and love seriously.
Understanding that unity is a gift and promise as well as a calling and task is foundational. Helping Christians overcome common myths in regard to ecumenicalism is imperative as well. Unity is not becoming Unitarian. Unity is not having unanimity on everything. We can walk hand and hand without seeing eye to eye on everything. It is not about losing our identity or our doctrine, but sharpening them. It is about bringing ourselves fully to the Lord’s Table to listen and learn from one another. And finally, unity is not uniformity, all of us doing the same thing in the same way at the same time. Unity values diversity. Unity seeks to “speak the truth in love.”
When it comes to the two questions we address here, in light of what we have learned from McGrath as well as Harmon and Alfeyev, I do not believe we can brand Rob Bell a heretic. And, in light of the fact that it seems like universalism has been a minority voice in the church since the early days, and the fact that some in the past have gone further than Bell on this matter, I do not think we can call Love Wins heresy either. That is probably why people like Eugene Peterson states: “In the current religious climate in America, it isn’t easy to develop a thoroughly biblical imagination that takes the comprehensive and eternal work of Christ in all people and all circumstances in love and for salvation. Rob Bell goes a long way in helping us acquire just such an imagination. Love Wins accomplishes this without a trace of soft sentimentality and without compromising an inch of evangelical conviction in its proclamation of the good news that is most truly for all” (From the cover of Love Wins).
Other notable Protestant leaders have chimed in with similar judgments, including Richard Mouw. So what about those who are calling Bell a false teacher or calling his teaching heresy? Well, in good Protestant form, Scripture is always the final authority in matter of faith and life, and each believer must make his/her own judgments on the matter, but of course the cry for heresy must be from more than a few individuals and it certainly needs to come from more than just one evangelical tribe, although each tribe certainly has the right to hold to their ideas of orthodoxy and heresy. But of course, that does not mean it applies to the entire church, or even just evangelicalism.
Maybe the best way to live up to our protest-ant name is to protest against death-oriented behaviors and death itself, whose sting was taken by Jesus so that death might be swallowed up in the victory of love. For who is it that has the keys of Hades and death in his hands? (Rev. 1:18) I have to say that I am glad it’s not in the hands of those who easily call their brother a “false teacher”, but rather it is in the hands of Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. He, alone, is worthy to judge, and I have confidence that his judgment will be exceedingly beyond all that we can ask, think, or imagine.