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Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part IV

To have a better understanding of this series, first, read the introduction, then the overview of Love Wins.  In part three, we examined the question:  Is Rob Bell a Universalist? Having read each of those sections, you are ready for the next question.

Does God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave?
One of the more provocative teachings that Bell adheres to throughout the book is the teaching that God’s love and mercy extend beyond the grave.  In other words, he consistently implies that people will have more opportunities to respond to God after death. Bell pushes for this extension of opportunity to decide for Christ postmortem in multiple ways. First, he emphasizes all passages in scripture that point to the universal scope and reach of God’s love.  He makes the case that, when God corrects, rebukes, or punishes, it is always for the purpose of healing, redemption, and love.  He reminds us that God has made peace with all creation through Christ’s redemptive work accomplished at the cross and he makes strong appeals to having a proper view of God.   For example, in Chapter 7, The Good News is Better Than That, he says,

“Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later the same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.  God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever.  A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony” (Bell 2011:173,74).

He makes the case that if an earthly father was like this, we would call the authorities, and that if God can switch gears that quickly, it raises a lot of questions about whether God is trustworthy and good.

Bell here and in other places, makes the case for postmortem decisions.  Is he alone in this idea or is this something that the church has taught?  Most evangelicals give space for certain kinds of postmortem decisions.  Most would probably not sentence babies to an eternal conscious suffering, without some chance to respond.  They may mention David’s words about seeing his baby in the next life.  A number of people would give space for those who have never heard the gospel. Many would give space for those under 12 to respond to Christ, because they have yet to reach “the age of accountability.”

But for Bell, these feel quite random.  In addition, he says that if everything is about heaven and hell, as the traditionalist understands them, “then prematurely terminating a child’s life anytime from conception to 12 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?” (Bell 2011:1).

So is the God of second chances only the God of second chances prior to death?  Don’t the scriptures teach, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)? How are we to understand this verse?  The Lausanne Covenant is one of the more ecumenical evangelical statements of faith, put together in 1974 by participants from more than 150 nations at the International Congress on World Evangelization.  Having read through this statement of faith, I saw how carefully it was crafted, especially as it relates to this current issue.  Under article three, when talking about the uniqueness and universality of Christ it states,

“All men and women are perishing because of sin, but God loves everyone, not wishing that any should perish but that all should repent.  Yet those who reject Christ repudiate the joy of salvation and condemn themselves to eternal separation from God”.[1]

Notice the careful wording here when it comes to the final judgment and the fate of unbelievers.  This statement is careful to condemn only those who have expressly chosen to reject Christ.  It makes no definitive judgments regarding those who have not had the chance to reject Christ, due to not hearing the gospel or their age.  One of the nuances that Bell brings up in his book is about the people who hear about Christ, but not the real Christ. He mentions a real-life example of a young lady who grew up in an abusive household where “my father raped me while reciting the Lord’s Prayer… my father molested me while singing Christian hymns” (Bell 2011:7).  Bell asks, will she face eternal conscious suffering in hell for rejecting that Jesus?  In Love Wins, Bell pushes for second chances for everyone, postmortem.  Are his arguments convincing?  Is all this just an emotional appeal, or does it speak to our view of God?  Are there other arguments that cause Christians to believe that there may be chances for people to respond after death that Bell doesn’t mention?

According to Karkkainen, roughly 25 percent of all self-identified Christians are Eastern Orthodox, which is the same amount of all Protestants put together.[2] So what are the Eastern Orthodox teachings on this matter?  Can we gain any historical and theological insight from this rather significant tribe of Christians?

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev is a leading theologian for the Orthodox Church with dual doctorates, a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford University and a doctorate in theology from St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. His chapter on eschatology in the Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology has some rich insights on this question of postmortem opportunities.  Before examining this particular aspect, it would be important to understand some basic beliefs as they relate to final judgment.  According to Alfeyev, the Orthodox believe every human being will stand before God at the last judgment, whether they are Christians or pagans, believers or unbelievers. In regard to hell, he states,

“According to many theological and liturgical texts of the Eastern Church, Christ in his descent into hell liberated all people from hell – without exception.  Truly, hell has been ‘abolished’ by the resurrection of Christ: it is no longer unavoidable for people and no longer holds them under its power.  But people re-create it for themselves each time sin is consciously committed and not followed by repentance” (Cunningham 2008:114).

For the Orthodox, “hell consists in being tormented by sorrow for the sin against love” (Cunningham, 2008:114).  It is the belief of the Orthodox that, after death, the sorrow one has for sin is a belated remorse that is unfruitful, for true repentance is remorse and a change in the way one lives.  And one only has a chance of correcting their mistakes in this life.  “As Symeon the New Theologian writes, after death there begins a state of inaction, when nobody can do anything, good or evil.  Thus, one will remain as one was at the end of one’s earthly life” (Cunningham 2008:114).  The orthodox hold to a judgment at death, as stated by Symeon, but at the same time they make a distinction between the judgment that takes place at death – “state of inaction, when nobody can do anything, good or evil” – and the last judgment.

According to Alfeyev, the Orthodox have always rejected the idea of purgatory, “where it was always thought that God’s mercy cannot be limited to just a certain category of the deceased.  The Orthodox belief is based on the idea that, until the Last Judgment, changes for the better are possible in the fate of any sinner” (Cunningham 2008:115).  This possibility of postmortem decisions for the Orthodox is developed fully by Alfeyev in his book Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective. In this book, he gives a rich history of the line from the Apostles’ Creed that most Protestants are totally unfamiliar with: “He descended into hell.”  He mentions that, while the Catholics view this descent into hell as Christ delivering the Old Testament righteous from it, the New Testament speaks of the preaching of Christ in hell to unrepentant sinners, and quotes I Peter 3:18-21:

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirit in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited” (I Peter 3:18-21).

This text does not stand alone for the Orthodox, for the descent of Christ to Hades is a rich theme in Orthodox history.  As Alfeyev mentions:

“Many church fathers and liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church repeatedly underline that having descended into Hades, Christ opened the way to salvation for all people, not only for the Old Testament righteous. The descent of Christ into Hades is perceived as an event of cosmic significance involving all people without exception.  They also speak about the victory of Christ over death, the full devastation of hell, and that after Christ’s descent into Hades there was no one left there except for the devil and demons” (Alfeyev 2009:10).

It is for these reasons that the Orthodox while not dogmatic, have a hope for all who have died and all who will die until the final verdict of the Judge is pronounced at the last judgment.  According to Alfeyev, the Orthodox believe that “God will always, eternally, wish for the salvation of all people; but God will always, eternally, respect the free will of the person, and cannot save people against their will.  This is the great paradox of the mystery of salvation” (Cunningham 2008:117).  For the Orthodox, “the question of the salvation of all humanity cannot be addressed theoretically: it invites not speculation but prayer.  As long as the Church lives – and it will live forever – the prayer of Christians for those outside the Kingdom of heaven will not cease” (Cunningham 2008:117).  Their faith is backed up by works, as every day when the church gathers around the Eucharist, it prays for the salvation of all people who were created and made in God’s image.  So does this help resolve the matter?  Some may choose to discount the Orthodox position, but on what basis?  Will they also exclude what Augustine has written?  I think not.  I side with C.K. Chesterton when he says, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors” (Chesterton 1959:45).

When Bell proclaims the universality of God’s love and holds out for people to have the opportunity to make decisions for Christ postmortem, should this be taken as heresy or orthodoxy?  Is he a heretic or a saint?  How are we to discern this?  Is it just up to our own personal judgment or does it involve something more than that?  In the next post, we will seek to better understand heresy and orthodoxy with the help of Alister McGrath.

[1] Found at http://www.lausanne.org/covenant

[2] Karkkainen, Veli-Matti, Lecture notes for ST503, Ecclesiology and Church Global, pg 8.

24 Responses to Divided by Hell? An Assessment of “Love Wins” by Rob Bell: Heresy, Orthodoxy & Final Judgment – Part IV

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