Love Wins: Part 2, What about the Flat Tire?

By my count, there are two ways you can end up in hell.

The first way is that God predestined for you to be there. In the second way, in contrast to the first, God wants you to be in heaven but you reject God's offer of grace. That is, you're in hell because that was your choice.

(There's actually a third way of going to hell involving Las Vegas, three chickens and a circus clown. But it's a rare that anybody goes this route.)

I grew up believing in the second way of going to hell. Specifically, I believed (and still do!) that God "wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2.4). If this is so, it stood to reason that if you ended up in hell you had rebelled and rejected God during your life. God wanted to save you, extended the gift of grace, and you rejected it.

When I was young, this explanation seemed perfectly cogent and reasonable. God makes a gracious offer. You refuse. You reap the consequences. Sure, hell is bad. But we shouldn't blame God. Everyone had their chance.

Or did they?

From time to time at ACU I've led a chapel where I've asked students the following question: If you had one question you could ask God what would it be? What question of faith keeps you up at night?

Overwhelmingly, having done this with hundreds and hundreds of college students, the responses fall into one of two groups: The problem of suffering and the problem of moral luck. Based upon my sampling, I'd wager that these are the two biggest stumbling blocks to faith: The problem of suffering and the problem of moral luck.

The title of Chapter 1 of Rob Bell's Love Wins is a question about moral luck: "What about the Flat Tire?" This question is associated with a discussion in the chapter about how we can expect people to accept Jesus if they have never heard the good news or if the "news" brought to them is messed up (i.e., a distortion of the gospel) or delivered by a faulty messenger (e.g., some huckster faith healer or hypocritical preacher). Basically, Bell is highlighting the contingencies inherent in the process of evangelism. So he writes:

If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us--what happens if they don't do their part?

What if the missionary gets a flat tire?
This is the flat tire of the title. It's not the only issue, problem or question Bell raises in this ramble of a chapter where he asks question after question. But the tire functions as a sort of metaphor, a metaphor for moral luck.

Moral luck is a termed coined by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. Moral luck refers to how we extend moral approbation and disapprobation to people, thinking people "good" or "bad", when many of the factors affecting our judgements these people fall outside of their control. Some people are perceived as "good" when, in fact, they are simply very fortunate. Others are deemed "bad" when, in fact, they are mainly very unlucky.

"Who sinned, this man or his parents?"
"Neither."

Some of this is fairly straightforward. I might accidentally hit a child playing in the street with my car. Wrong time. Wrong place. And that death hangs over my head. Sometimes accidents happen and sometimes those accidents have a moral cloud.

That's unfair of course. If it was an accident there should be no moral blame involved. And yet, we aren't very good at keeping that distinction clear. Ever feel guilty for something that was out of your control?

And the picture gets even more complicated when start to think about accidents of birth. Some of us are raised in Christian, flag-waving, American homes. Some of us are born to devout and patriotic Muslim families in Iran. How quickly do the kids from those two homes make their way to Jesus? Not to say that radical change and conversion isn't possible. Biographies of this sort do exist (e.g., Saul's conversion to Paul). But conversions of this magnitude are atypical and rare. Most of us go along with the god of our culture and/or family. Few Christians ponder how resistant they are to Muslim evangelism to note how it would be the same if the shoe were on the other foot.

In short, should I get "credit" for being a Christian? Or am I merely lucky?

What about that flat tire?

All this is to say that I was very pleased to see Rob Bell raising the issue of moral luck at the start of Love Wins. As I said, I think moral luck is one of the two biggest stumbling blocks to faith. And as best I can tell, few young people feel that they are getting honest, direct, and substantive answers to their questions on this issue. I've seen very little popular (or academic for that matter) engagement with this issue. That's a problem. You have this huge stumbling block to faith with every little by way of recognition, engagement and response. No wonder young people are getting fed up with church.

Of course, if you're a regular reader here, you know I've cobbled together my answer to the question of moral luck. Not saying I'm right, but at least I recognize the problem and have struggled to find something substantive to say on the subject. I think it's time for the church to catch up. And for that, I appreciate Love Wins for pushing the question.

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42 thoughts on “Love Wins: Part 2, What about the Flat Tire?”

  1. I understand the questions you are addressing and have them myself. The stumbling block I have to coming up with the same answers that you are articulating is this: If faith in Christ is not necessary for salvation, why on earth did He have to die? That seems unnecessarily cruel of God. 

    I know you are challenging the idea of Christ's death as atonement (and substituting the idea of His death as destroying the works of the devil), but ...

    1) The works of the devil are still obviously alive and well two millennia after Christ's death and resurrection. To quote Martin Buber, " We know more deeply, more truly, that world history has not been turned upside down to its very foundations ---- that the world is not yet redeemed. We SENSE its unredeemedness."

    2) If it is inconsistent with God's revealed nature to condemn anyone to hell for eternity ... why is it not inconsistent with God's revealed nature to condemn His Son to die a cruel and torturous death? 

  2. Kim,
    I appreciate you questions. But it's hard for me to muster sympathy for God killing himself in the face of billions who have died as or more horrific deaths on this earth. In short, I think your sympathy is misplaced. Mainly because of your atonement frame.

  3. "If faith in Christ is not necessary for salvation, why on earth did He have to die?"
    To prove that death can be and will be defeated, and that there is nothing (even killing His own son) that can separate you from the love of God. "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do."

    "Where sin abounds grace abounds all the more."

  4. First, I am well aware that the following will not make any sense to you.  Nevertheless . . .

    First, do you know of any time when God asked for your sympathy?  If not, why mention the difficulty?

    Second, if we replace 'men' with 'ants' or 'angels' with regard to 'billions of horrific deaths' does that change your problem with God?

    The problems are putting man on too high a pedestal and considering mainly the physical part of the cross and not the voluntary rift in God's being.

  5. Richard,

    As always, thanks for your work on and through this blog. After reading the above post, I searched Experimental Theology for "moral luck" and found your old post, "Why I Am A Universalist, Part 4: Moral Luck". The beauty of this latter post almost moved me to tears. Therein you claim that the sting of Death is that it limits our time to find/accept/welcome God in this life. Thus, I think the notion of Death's defeat is all important for this discussion. You go on to quote Romans 8, where Paul says that nothing—not even time—can separate us from the love of God in light of Christ's reconciling work at the cross. Talk about a reason for hope! 

    At any rate, your contribution here again gives me a sense of peace because it reminds me that my neighbor's salvation isn't contingent on me. As Oscar Romero said, "We are workers, not master builders; ministers not messiahs." Once we shed our messiah-complexes, we can go about the work of faithfully witnessing the goodness of the master builder. 

    I think the value of your work here and of Bell's work in Chapter 1 of "Love Wins" is that you both remind us to be humble—ultimately, we aren't in control and that's okay. We trust in a the Messiah who defeated Death once and for all. Therefore everyone has time. Thanks be to God. 

  6. Yes, again this makes no sense. In my comment to Kim I talk about her sympathy and how it is misplaced. Which doesn't have anything to do with God needing or asking for my sympathy. Again, I've no idea what you are talking about or responding to, sense-wise.

  7. Perhaps my questions do arise out of my framework (no surprise there) but I wasn't expressing sympathy for God. I don't think God needs my sympathy. I was expressing a question about the nature of God. I was assuming that at least we share an assumption that Jesus' incarnation and subsequent death were voluntary. 

  8. "But it's hard for me (Dr. Richard Beck?) to muster sympathy for God . . ."

    "In my comment to Kim I talk about her sympathy . . "

    "but I (Kim T.) wasn't expressing sympathy for God."

    WHAT???

    At any rate, I thought there was merit in the 'ants' and 'angels' point.

  9. I feel like, with specific context to the "flat tire" perspective, that it would be prudent to bring up Philip, who God literally guided into his meeting with the Egyptian eunuch and presented him an opportunity to spread the gospel before being literally teleported (!?) elsewhere. The problem with the argument of moral luck is that luck fails to take into account the sovereign supremacy of a God who a.) wants to see everyone saved, b.) has the omnipotence to effect that desire, and c.) has done so in the past. Perhaps I'm being idealistic, and I'll admit that this perspective doesn't preclude universalism (in fact, I'm sure many wiser and more learned individuals than me would see these facts as precisely a reason for it!), but all i mean to say is that while unfortunate circumstances may not be supportive of our understanding of non-universalist soteriology, it's neither an adequate argument for it in the face of the reality of our God.

  10. Also, to add not to disagree, some (Borg maybe?) have suggested that Jesus was put to death because of our sins (exemplified more immediately in the socio-historical context in which he lived) rather than (or in addition to?) FOR our sins in a mystical sense.

  11. It seems to me that if we follow the 'flat tire' theory and say that people can't be saved unless we other humans 'reach' them, that is putting humans on too high a pedestal.

  12. I assume you realize that the comment above replying to myself was intended to be a comment to you.

  13. Emma,
    I agree completely.  Yet, in my comment, I was mainly thinking about Richard's problem with theodicy.  Please don't misunderstand me.  I don't even like to step on an ant.  (Well, the big ones, not so much the tiny ones.)  So, naturally, the idea of a human suffering is extremely painful to me.  And, for eternity?  Of course not.  But, human suffering is so horrific to us because we value them and assume that God does so in a similar manner.  Certainly, He values my parents or my children etc. as I do?  Well, not necessarily.  We define how his love for us ought to play out.  And, just maybe we have man on the wrong pedestal?

  14. Funny, I'd rather squish the little ants than the big ones. No doubt this says something profound about our theologies, our psychologies, or at least our attitudes to ants...

  15. Maybe my use of the English language does need an overhaul!  To be clear:  I don't like to step on the big ones!  So, I think at least our attitudes towards ants are similar.

  16. For what it's worth, Dr. Beck, I followed your logic (and syntax) in your response to Kim.  And YOU have MY sympathy.

  17. Caught between the rock of universalism and the hard place of hell, perhaps the most pressing question is 'For whose benefit is the story told?'

    The prophets didn't bother with chronology. They told truths in and out of time to the benefit, horror or comfort of their listeners. And then came Jesus and dispensed with time (and prophets - Heb. 1:1) altogether. But would this timely narrative have existed had it not been told, believed and retold? Or would the world have continued carrying its burden of guilt alone, sacrificing itself on the altars of dead gods?

    Because timeless knowledge required faith back then; faith that would have been in vain had it not been actualised ("if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile...") Yet that actualisation was itself a manifestation of faith; indeed, of God himself - something to be believed. And not just psychologically, because a story without truth is quite empty, like words without action or life without meaning.

    The answer to the problem of suffering does not lie on this side of death, but seeing the victory beyond death gives us the courage to face it. Those who believe death to be wiped out can start claiming the world back from it in earnest, as heralds of a new reckoning: a timeless, eternal kingdom.

    So it's not important whether the missionary arrived or not. The secret is in the telling. There once was a missionary on his way to a remote village, but then he got a flat tire... or was stuck on a boat in a storm at night, was swallowed by a big fish and believed dead for three days.

  18. Kim, I think what is necessary is the assumption (of the grateful community) that God has taken the sting from death and is undoing the works of the devil even if that is incomplete or not always obvious and secondly, that the Father did not punish the Son, but the Son and the Father together chose this suffering (inflicted on them by a fallen world) for the sake of the liberation that would flow from it. This makes it love and not a kind of masochism.

  19. Why a mystical sense? Why not 'for our sins' in the sense of 'for the undoing of our sin'... which fits with the alternative formula 'for us'. Of course 'because of our sins' is also true.

  20. You know, it makes me sad that no one thought my "third way of going to hell" joke was funny. People, I write these jokes for you! To be a liitle beam of sunshine in your day!

  21. (There's actually a third way of going to hell involving Las Vegas, three chickens and a circus clown. But it's a rare that anybody goes this route.)

    That was a joke? I thought I remembered that episode of C.S.I. ...

    :-)

  22. One solution to moral luck is to embrace it a little.  Certainly for those of us who step towards a more compatibilist approach to freedom would have to admit a degree of moral luck.  Some of Bernard William's early work on dilemmas (1970s!) is persuasive to me, that if we find ourselves in a moral dilemma having to wrong one party or another (not always our own fault for finding ourselves there in the first place, against Aquinas), we usually always find ourselves feeling a little guilty, I suggest rightly so.  The truck driver who quite accidentally killed someone who jumped out in front of them, if he felt completely unmoved and remorseless about it I would think a little less of him.  Obviously not as bad as wrongdoing where luck plays little or no part, although that may be more rare than you think.  ('I was brought up better than that', how fortunate). 

    Agree it doesnt work for salvific luck though.  Hmmm...

  23. "Moral luck" is one of the biggest reasons I consider myself a universalist. I just cannot bring myself to believe in a God who creates humans to be born into situations where they will either never hear the Gospel or, if they do, they will not respond to it because they have faith in the beliefs and traditions they were raised in, and then God punishes them with an eternity in hell because they aren't Christians.

    Those humans did not choose to be born into a situation where the chances of the becoming Christians is almost zero. God did. To punish someone for a situation beyond their control is barbaric.

    If a human parent did something similar to their child (say, a father beating his child solely because the child has brown hair), we would take the child away and throw the father in prison for child abuse. Heck, we'd also probably question his sanity for abusing his child for such a crazy reason. Yet some of the same people who would condemn the human father believes God, our divine Father, does the exact same thing thousands of times a day!

  24. "To punish someone for a situation beyond their control is barbaric."

    Absolutely!  Question; how do you KNOW (not surmise) they don't have any control?  God seems to think they do according to Romans 1:18ff.  Just a thought.

  25. AND they label it Justice.  My human father "punished" my sister and me by stepping on our clubbed feet (we were both born with a genetic neuropathy).  In the 1950's nobody spoke up for children, unless they were dead.  And then he left.

    As we matured into adults, many in the church would advise us to consider God our "heavenly father".  Even today I am in correspondence with a man who tells me to "imagine God as the kindest and warmest father of all".  And he wonders why I have no idea how to do that.

    I consider my greatest accomplishment to be my own success as a father.  I hope my daughter would agree.

  26. So then David, are you surmising that the people "born into a situation where the chances of them becoming Christians is almost zero" CHOSE to do so, as if THEY had control over it? An interesting theory.  And at what point in their pre-existence did they do so? Or, if you believe in a God who DETERMINED the future of all mankind before the foundation of the world, how could any of us have any control over what He would CAUSE to happen?

  27. It is interesting that you would suggest that God may NOT value our fellow humans - His own creations - as we do. If so I can hardly wait to share that "good" news with my fellow man, much less have a "relationship" with a "father" like that.

    "Love your neighbor as yourself... but just remember that God may not." (just another scripture rewritten to conform with the traditions of men)

  28. This 'interesting theory' you lay out is not mine.  But, as it turns out, I was indeed born into a family where the chance of me becoming a Christian was absolutely zero.  I wonder how God could have fixed that problem????

    "Or, if you believe . . ."

    The problem is that if we take God's 'brain' as the standard and put ours on the same scale, then even with the most powerful microscope we can imagine, we won't find it.  Oh, I know, we are just so smart, so logical, so rational, etc!  But, compared to God . . .

    Anyway, He's explained this very problem in Romans 1 and 9.  Seems as though He is satisfied that all is well and we don't have to worry about all those aborigines who may never have heard.

  29. YUP!  A lot of people are happier with a God who thinks about stuff just like they do.

    Truly, His children are supposed to share the good news (1 Cor 15:1-4).  For, that is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.  And, the good news is not 'trust God because He thinks just like me.'

    Oh, and I am quite sure you know that before you can 'love your neighbor' you have to . . .   well, you know.

  30. Since we are made in His image I must assume that we DO think about stuff just like He does. "My ways are not your ways" doesn't mean that He is completely different than we are (in that He might NOT value each and every one of us) but that He DOES love us all even we don't love each other. His ways are BETTER than ours... not opposite.

  31. "But, as it turns out, I was indeed born into a family where the chance of me becoming a Christian was absolutely zero."
    Not by YOUR choice or under YOUR control, but by GOD'S choice and under HIS control.

    "I wonder how God could have fixed that problem????"

    That's just it.... It's GOD'S problem, so GOD fixes it. He never expects us to fix HIS problems, nor does He rely on luck or good tires.

  32. "Seems as though He is satisfied that all is well and we don't have to worry about all those aborigines who may never have heard."

    Yes all is well. We are all in His good hands.

  33. What do we have to do?
    I know plenty of people who are not christians, who love their neighbour just as well as the best of them.
    Love is what you DO, not what you SAY or FEEL, and it is not the exclusive domain of the faithful.

  34. I think it might be a little misleading to describe our plain observations of moral luck and human suffering as "stumbling blocks to faith". It might be more straightforward to say that the doctrines of traditional theism (divine providence, hell, and divine love) are simply incoherent with plain human experience (suffering and moral luck). Because if that's the case, the real thing inhibiting faith is the lack of a Christian theology that is bold enough to actually acknowledge human experience, and make significant moves away from its cozy traditional doctrines.

  35. For the longest time, I had no idea how to do it either. My biological father abandoned my mother when he found out she was pregnant. My step-father liked to take his temper out on me. For most of my life, "father" meant abuser. And, after what I was taught in church about hell, I believed "heavenly father" meant the same thing.

    It wasn't until I experienced for myself what the love of God truly is that I was able to let go of that fear. Even after that, that fear can occasionally raise it's ugly head. It's still a fight, and it probably will be for the rest of my life.

  36. Sorry, if something I wrote gave you the idea that I thought anybody had any control of who their parents are.

  37. Hey Richard,

    You said,

    "I think it's time for the church to catch up. And for that, I appreciate Love Wins for pushing the question."

    And I believe that is the most important point. Rob is actually addressing issues for which Conventional (Western) thinkers have no thoughts. Not answers but thoughts. "Death" we are told is the "Finish Line" and therefore final.  Post-death questions haven't been considered and any discussion is met with stake-burning mobs.

    Fortunately, Rob isn't afraid of stakes or mobs.

    But, now that he has established the question we have a lot of theological work to do. There are a number of gaps to fill in.

    Thanks for writing. I enjoyed the joke but being a bit dense my first thought was, "I have never heard that possibility before." :)

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