Up to this point I've been briefly (and not very exhaustively) summarizing each chapter of Love Wins, generally just pointing out and framing an area of agreement between myself and the book. And to his point in Love Wins, Chapter Four, I've not had much to disagree with.
But I do start to disagree with the book in the latter half of Chapter Four. So I'd like to take some time to talk about this disagreement.
At the end of the day, Bell isn't espousing universalism in Love Wins. He's espousing a view called conditionalism. Conditionalism says this: the doors of heaven are always open. Even post-mortem. But you have to walk through the gates. God isn't going to force you.
C.S. Lewis famously phrased it this way: The doors of hell are locked, but they are locked from the inside.
In short, God never forecloses on salvation. Not now, not ever. But humans can turn away and keep turning away. Perhaps for eternity. You banish yourself from heaven.
(BTW, this raises a question lots of people have asked about Love Wins. If Bell is just repeating everything C.S. Lewis said--which he is--why the collective freak out?)
Here is Bell walking through his conditionalistic position in Chapter Four:
If we want hell,The regulating idea behind Bell's view is a common one: Love requires freedom. Love wins for Bell, not because we all get to heaven, but because we all get what we want. Love wins because love allows us freedom. So even if someone is separated from God, perhaps for all eternity, that is a win for love. Because you are getting what you want.
if we want heaven,
they are ours.
That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced.
It always leaves room for the other to decide.
God says yes,
we can have what we want,
because love wins.
...Now back to that original question: "Does God get what God wants?" is a good question, an interesting question, an important question that gives us much to discuss.
But there's a better question, one we can answer...It's not "Does God get what God wants?"
"Do we get what we want?"
And the answer to that is a resounding, affirming, sure and positive yes.
Yes, we get what we want.
God is that loving.
If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option. If we insist on using our God-given power and strength to make the world in our own image, God allows us that freedom; we have the kind of license to that. If we want nothing to do with light, hope, love, grace, and peace, God respects that desire on our part, and we are given a life free from any of those realities. The more we want nothing to do with all God is, the more distance and space are created. If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love.
You don't want God and walk away.
God allows this.
So love wins.
Let's think about that. Love, according to Bell, allows people to walk away from God. More, Love allows people to keep walking. Toward what? Away from "light, hope, love, grace, and peace." So Bell asks us to imagine Love allowing people to walk deeper into darkness, despair, hate, revenge, and violence. To get a sense of this imagine the horrors, depravity and bestiality of war. And then keep multiplying that. We imagine Love allowing people to walk deeper and deeper into that?
There are a couple of problems with this idea. First off, we start to suspect that Bell's playing a rhetorical game. Doctrinally, on the surface, he's espousing conditionalism. But psychologically speaking, who is going to keep walking deeper and deeper into a horrific, depraved and bestial existence? I mean, even sociopaths need to relax and enjoy a nice day at the park. Everyone needs a bit of peace and grace. It's just not realistic to imagine people walking, forever and ever, into a deeper and deeper hell.
But the more important question to raise is if a loving God would allow that decent into madness to happen.
The response, I'm guessing, comes back to the issue of freedom. What, it might be asked, am I suggesting? That God thwart our choices and corral us, against our will, into heaven? That seems to be the key idea driving Bell's position: Love requires freedom. This is how love "wins." As Bell says, "That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide."
It's at this point I'd like to push back with a little psychology, because I think Bell's notion of freedom is flawed.
At root, "free will" is a feeling. It might be more than that (e.g., separation from the causal flux of the universe), but this much we know for sure: "freedom" is a feeling.
This feeling has two parts: 1) Self-authorship/ownership and 2) Choice/caring congruence.
We feel free when we "own" our decisions and actions. When I scratch my nose I feel that I "own" (i.e., willed) the entire action. This sense of ownership helps create a feeling of self-authorship. I am writing, with my decisions, the story of my life.
We know these feelings of "ownership" are, in fact, feelings because there are situations when this feeling can become suspended. Hypnosis and disassociation are examples. In such cases my motor cortex is activated--I'm doing things--but I don't feel the actions are "mine."
The second part of the feeling of freedom involves choice/caring congruence. When our choices align with what we want or care about we feel a sense of inner harmony and freedom. I'm doing what I want to do. Harry Frankfurt calls this volitional unanimity. Everything within me "agrees." Desire, choice and behavior are aligned.
Feelings of "unfreedom" occur when we are forced, say, at the point of a gun, to do something that is misaligned with what we care about. We are doing something we don't want to do. The point-of-a-gun example seems obvious enough when we think of external compulsion. But the compulsions can be internal as well. Psychosis, compulsions and addictions are all examples of states where people feel internally overthrown. But these are really just extreme example of what Paul describes in Romans 7, doing things we don't really want to do. Paul describes this lack of volitional harmony as being "wretched." It doesn't feel good. It doesn't feel free. We feel internally betrayed and coerced, "against our will" as it were.
That, as best I can tell, is "free will." "Free will" is a feeling of self-ownership and inner unanimity, what psychologists call voluntary behavior.
Let's now go back to Bell's statement: "That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide." As it stands, this assessment is totally non-controversial. Love doesn't put a gun to your head. Love doesn't force, manipulate, or coerce.
In short, God wants our choices to be voluntary. God wants us to "own" the decision. God wants us to "want" the decision. But for that to happen, as we've just seen, more than choice is involved. For a feeling of freedom to exist we need choice/caring congruence.
Suddenly, this freedom thing is looking a bit more complicated. Freedom isn't simply the absence of external coercion. Freedom is about getting our choices to align with our affections and desires. God abandoning us to our choices isn't freedom. It's a lack of coercion, to be sure. But that's a very thin view of freedom, love and choice.
Let me try to illustrate this by taking on a sacred cow.
You often hear preachers say, "Love is a choice." This is wrong. Love, as any sane person knows, is fundamentally about caring. I'm not saying that love is a fleeting feeling. I'm saying that love is a deeply rooted affection.
And here's the deal, everyone knows this already. So it's a testimony to how crazy things have become that I have to spend words convincing you of something you already agree with. The "love is a choice" idea is so pervasive it takes no small amount of work to stop and note how very strange and inhuman it is. Just think of someone you love (I've got my sons in my mind) and ask yourself: What best describes your experience of love toward these people? Choice? Or a deeply rooted affection?
I don't know about you, but I don't wake up and "choose" to love my sons. No, I wake up and feel a deeply rooted affection.
To be sure, those affections affect my choices and decisions. And that's kind of my point. Caring drives choice. I make loving choices because I care about my boys. I don't choose to care about my boys so that I can make loving choices. That's backward.
(To be fair, the "love is a choice" meme gained prominence among preachers who were trying to preach the centrality of covenant and promise-keeping in the face of marital infidelity where people were justifying their actions with statements like "I just didn't love him/her anymore." And by this people meant, "I don't 'feel' in love with him/her anymore." To push back on that argument preachers started to respond with,"Love isn't a feeling. It's a choice." And what they meant was that feelings of affection ebb and flow, but a commitment gets you through the low periods. This is true, but we should get clear about what is actually going on.
What the preachers tend to miss is that you have to care about commitments for the "love is a choice" encouragement to work! Because if I don't care about my commitments or keeping my promises you have very little leverage with me on this score. Again, that's my point. Caring is what grants us volitional traction. If you don't care about something I can't use it to sway your choices.
In short, what the "love is a choice" encouragement is doing is this: "I know you don't care about him/her right now. But you should care about the promise you made before witnesses. You should care about your integrity. You should care about what God thinks." And so on. The hope here is, because caring has evaporated for the spouse, that caring can be found elsewhere--in God, the kids, the commitment, the extended family, personal integrity/reputation. But here's my point: You've got to find caring somewhere. Because if you can find that caring and bring it to the front you can affect the choice. You can say stuff like, "Okay, you don't love him/her. But think about the kids." You try to fish for some alternative/backup location of caring to give the marriage time to heal and for spousal affections/caring to reemerge.
The point is, I get the whole "love is a choice" idea and what it's trying to so--shifting caring from the spouse to the promise--but let's not mistake preaching for psychology.)
Let's get back to Rob Bell and Chapter Four of Love Wins.
Given what I've sketched above, what's the problem with Bell's view of love and freedom in Love Wins? On the one hand, the notion that Love isn't going to force or coerce anyone into heaven is perfectly true. I totally agree. But there's something problematic if that's all we mean by "freedom," God just leaving us to our choices. Again, freedom isn't about choices. It's about something deeper. It's about what we care about. It's about love.
I think Augustine was pointing at this when he said that all our little loves are shadowy and incomplete until they fully rest in the Love of God. "Our hearts are restless," he famously wrote, "until they rest in Thee." Our affections are broken and scattered. Our loves are all pointed in the wrong direction. And due to that disarray our choices become sinful and self-defeating.
With our affections broken our choices are broken.
And here, finally (!), we can see the problem with conditionalism. If our affections are disordered there is no way we can "chose our way" toward God. Something deep within us is confused and disoriented. We want the wrong things. So if God wants us to turn toward the Kingdom God can't just abandon us to our choices. God can't just step back and say, "I love you. And because I love you I will step back to grant you freedom." That's a recipe for disaster. Because freedom isn't about the absence of external pressure or force. Freedom, rather, is about getting our choices aligned with our affections. But if we want the wrong things to begin with how are we to make good choices?
The point is, love isn't going to win if God just steps back to abandon us to our choices. There might be a "win" in there somewhere, but it's not a winning God would want. That's more like a Charlie Sheen kind of winning, choices running amok because of our disordered affections. No, love really wins only when God begins to work at a deeper level, when Love begins to work with our loves. Love moves our loves toward Love. Our desires and affections have to change before our choices begin to move. And that requires positive action on God's part. Not the withdrawal that Bell imagines in Love Wins.
And here's the deal, this is going to be a very slow process. Because Bell's right on this point: God isn't going to overthrow or coerce our affections, internally or externally. God can't just change our affections overnight without that being experienced as a volitional assault upon us. These are psychic structures rooted deep, deep within our identity. These are psychic glaciers that are going to have to move at a glacial pace.
But they can move, even if slowly. And the slow pace allows us to preserve our inner sense of self-authorship and unanimity.
This is why I prefer universalism to conditionalism. Conditionalism suggests that God abandons us to our disordered affections and the predictable Charlie Sheen-like volitional mess that soon follows. Universalism, by contrast, confesses that God loves us and will not abandon us, that freedom isn't about a lack of coercion. A lack of coercion is not what sets us free. What sets us free is having our affections healed. When our loves come to rest in Love. Where Bell's conditionalism envisions God's abandonment, universalism envisions God's tireless and eternal involvement. Love healing the loves of my life--bringing order, unanimity, and harmony.
That is when Love truly wins.