Given all the speculation about Rob Bell's upcoming book and lingering questions from my post last week on universalism I thought I'd devote a few more posts to clarify how I approach the doctrine of universal reconciliation.
First, Rob Bell's book isn't out yet, so the speculation surrounding his book might be much ado about nothing. But the speculation I'm hearing is that Bell is going to forward a form of "universalism" that is closely associated with C.S. Lewis and, more recently, N.T. Wright.
The basic argument goes like this.
God's first and final word to all human creatures is grace and love. However, some people will choose to rebel against God, to resist God unto the bitter end. Perhaps even for eternity. These people are "damned," but not through the choice of God. These are self inflicted wounds. God simply gives these people what they want, an existence without God. And that is hell. A self-chosen hell. As C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain:
Finally, it is objected that the ultimate loss of a single soul means the defeat of omnipotence. And so it does. In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat. What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity. I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.Here is N.T. Wright's slightly different version in Surprised by Hope:
When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God...My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whispering of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all prompting to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body in which they inhabited God's good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity. There is no concentration camp in the beautiful countryside, no torture chamber in the palace of delight. Those creatures that still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite in themselves or others the natural sympathy some feel even for the hardened criminal.The main difference between Wright and Lewis is that Wright believes that a continued and willful rebellion against God eventually degrades human personhood beyond recognition, beyond being human. And, thus, beyond pity.
I have a lot of problems with Wright's thesis but I don't want to get into those right now. I only want to point out the common thread with Lewis: Hell is something we choose. Hell is something we do to ourselves.
To repeat, I have no idea if Rob Bell is going to land his new book in this territory (often called "conditionalism" rather than "universalism"). But if he did, I'd just like to point out why he'd be wrong, right along with Lewis and Wright.
Let me first say what Lewis and Wright get right. Two things in particular. (They actually get three things right, but more on the third thing in the next post.)
First, they get God right. Which is very important and the best part of their thinking. In the conditionalist picture God is always a God of love. You damn yourself.
Second, they get death right. As I wrote in the comments a week ago, a big problem with traditional views of hell is how they view death. In traditional views of hell Death, the greatest evil, remains The Moral Clock of the Universe. Your moral fate is decided at the moment of death. Well, many of us wonder, how is Death being defeated in that view? It sure looks like Death is still running the show on earth, morally speaking.
By contrast, universalists (and conditionalists) believes Death has been, really truly, defeated. The Moral Clock, and that's what Death is, was smashed on Easter Sunday. In short, God became the Lord of Time once again, the Lord of human moral history. Death does not sever your moral biography with God. By extending our moral biography with God both universalists and conditionalists marginalize the death-event. Death is no longer the moral pivot of human history, collectively or individually.
So Lewis, Wright, and (maybe) Bell get both God and death right. But here's what they get wrong:
They get human freedom wrong.
To make conditionalism work you have to have a pretty strong belief in free will. Again, hell is a matter of choice. God can't be blamed for hell because humans freely choose it.
There are a couple of problems with this. The first problem is theological. Conditionalism is tantamount to works-based righteousness. If hell is a matter of choice then so is your salvation. You damn yourself. You save yourself. Salvation pivots off an act of human volition. This, as many of you know, is the classic criticism Calvinists make of Arminian soteriology. And, in my opinion, the Calvinists have a point on this score (though it pains me to admit it). Where is the active grace of God in this picture?
The second problem is psychological. Basically, to be blunt about it, there is no such thing as free will. I'm not saying we are automatons, just that "will" is highly contextual. You just can't make a plausible case for free will in this age of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, cultural analysis, learning theory, and behavioral genetics. Our choices are the product of genes, environment, nature, nurture, culture, reinforcement, and simply if we got enough sleep the night before. Who we are at Time 2 is highly correlated with (if not determined by) who we are at Time 1--historically, culturally, biologically, socially, and psychologically. We are embodied, finite and contingent beings. And so is our willpower.
The point is, I while I might choose, right now, to damn myself I don't damn myself by myself. There's a whole lot of context and history behind that damning. Cultural history. Family history. Genetic history. Personal history. All mixed up with a dash of randomness, quantum indeterminacy and chaos theory.
We can't, in short, localize human choice in space and time within the human actor. Human choice is deep, wide, and old. Human choice is a distributed and evolving matrix of which the individual is but one tiny part.
And if this is so, if there is no "ghost in the machine" driving human freedom, then the conditionalists are wrong. They would like to blame the person rather than God. And free will, it seems, would allow you to pull that off. And it would have been a nice solution were it possible or plausible. But, unfortunately, Lewis and Wright are describing a world that simply doesn't exist.
And now we'll wait to see what Bell does...