His Love Endures Forever
I recently finished reading Rob Bell’s new (and controversial) book Love Wins. When I say “controversial,” that is really an understatement. Before the release of the book, Twitter and the Blogosphere lit up with condemnations and denunciations because Bell (an influential preacher) seemed to be suggesting that hell would be empty and that everyone would be saved. (The theological term for this view is “Universalism”). For many Christians, the very suggestion of such an idea is heretical, and Bell was written up and written out by many because of the book.
To tell you the truth, I was disappointed, not by Bell's conclusions, but because I was left without a really good grasp of why he held them. Or maybe, what I really wanted was a couple of chapters showing how texts like 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10 fit into his thesis that eventually at the end of the final day, love wins and God has his way so that none shall perish but all come to repentance. I really liked a lot of the book, but as they say—“The devil is in the details.” I wanted to see how he worked out some of those details. Roger is reading it now; if you have any questions about it, ask him.
Haven't we have all struggled at times with understanding how a loving and gracious God could condemn people to everlasting torment in an unending hell? We had visitor one Sunday who was returning home after the funeral of a beloved uncle and who had stopped at Denbigh for church. She described how loving and giving her uncle had been and all the good works he had done to care for people and better his community. She then said, “It is such a shame that he had to go to hell because he was a Baptist and was so wrong on baptism.” Yikes! Any deviation from the "gospel" truth is enough to condemn? And that's good news? There is a great quote on the back cover of Bell’s book that says this--
“God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond in the right way. Then God will torture you forever in hell.” Huh?
OK, maybe I’m the only one (except Rob Bell) who has ever struggled with that question. What about people who never hear the gospel (OUR fault more than theirs)? What about honest and honorable people who love God as they know Him and seek to follow Him as they best understand Him but have just been misinformed about some issues of doctrine? That describes a lot of people, doesn't it? Actually, that describes ALL people to some point! How do we believe in a God of love and mercy who is also a God of vengeance and destruction?
Well, the historical way to do that is quite simple-- you make sure the God of love and mercy is FOR YOU and the God of vengeance and destruction is AGAINST THEM. That was the technique of the Pharisees and the hard-shell Calvinist. God loves us (holy Jews, the elect) and God created them (Gentiles, non-elect) so he’d have enough fuel to keep hell burning for eternity. You might see how this idea might not play in postmodern Peoria. In fact, this image of the hating God (so graphically advertised by those Westboro idiots and their signs) is perhaps the single major reason why so many Gen-X and Gen-Y people are rejecting the whole idea of Jesus and His gospel today. Those are the folks to whom Bell is writing. I don’t know that he is right; I do hope he get their attention and focus it on Jesus long enough for them to see Him.
But while I was reading Bell (and many of his critics and apologists), I was also reading the Bible. In fact, nothing gets in the way of theology quite like reading the Bible. The Bible seems to have no problem whatsoever in laying paradoxical images right beside each other without attempting to reconcile them. Our reading for today (readings that go along with our theme for Sunday) is from Psalm 136 that unashamedly gives thanks to God because his love endures forever—
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures forever. (136:1-3)
God is glorified because of his creation (136:4-9) and his protection of Israel (136:10-22). The psalm ends with a doxology that praises God for His care and mercy (136:23-26). After every single point is made about the glory of God, the creation of God, and the protection of God of His people, the refrain is repeated over and over in every verse, “His love endures forever.” I know that “His love endures forever” isn’t exactly “love wins,” but I think the psalmist and Mr. Bell could sit down and have a cup of coffee together. Except that right in the middle of this ballad of God’s love is the proclamation of his judgment on His enemies.
To him who struck down great kings, His love endures forever.and killed mighty kings— His love endures forever.
Sihon king of the Amorites, His love endures forever.
and Og king of Bashan— His love endures forever. (139:17-20)
God has enemies. God’s enemies don’t fare too well in the end (although they may seem to fare well for short amount of time). No one in scripture talks more about the love of God than does this Psalmist, but God’s love is presented with something of an edge. It always is. I am reminded of a quote I ran across years ago from P. T. Forsyth--
“God is love” is not the whole of the gospel. Love is not evangelical till it has dealt with holy law. In the midst of the rainbow is a throne.
I just read a great article in the current issue of Christianity Today by Linda Falter entitled, “A Beautiful Anger.” (sorry, no link; CT wants to be paid before you to read their stuff). On the other hand, Richard Beck (a professor at ACU) argues quite eloquently for Christian Universalism on his Experimental Theology blog. (You'll have to scroll back through his blog for more in this series). I thought I had other things to say here, but it is Wednesday and I want to have some things to say in my class tonight. Let me end this already too long blog with a quote from Patrick Mead on Tentpegs
And when I get to heaven … if I happen to look up and see every single person there who ever lived on earth — I will not feel cheated or lied to. I will rejoice and there will be no voice louder in praise and joy in all of heaven than mine. For who could fail to praise a God who loved that much?