Love Wins: Part 6, Winning, But Not Like Charlie Sheen

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,
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.
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.

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.

Bringing freedom.

That is when Love truly wins.

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38 thoughts on “Love Wins: Part 6, Winning, But Not Like Charlie Sheen”

  1. Hey Richard,

    You may have addressed this before, so forgive me if you have. You seem often to reference not being big on "sovereignty" or the traditional "isms," etc., as part of your distancing from various forms of Reformed theology. But in some sense, isn't your theological arc a great loop finally returning -- albeit transfigured -- to Reformed theology a la Barth? Your understanding of human freedom (or lack thereof, at least in popular usage) is quite similar to Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Barth: we can't "choose God" or "un-unfree ourselves" when the very condition in which we find ourselves (unfree, distorted desires) entails the flat inability to do so. Thus, we need the (sovereign! omnipotent! irresistible!) love of God so to overwhelm our unfree, foolish, distorted, sin-and-death-ridden selves so that our true selves, purpose, loves, and life might flourish in community with others in fellowship with God.

    Is that faithful to your perspective? If so, where would you say the difference lies? (Or are you prepared to call yourself Reformed? even Calvinist? Come on, that'd be a pretty sweet conversion story -- you couldn't help it!)

    I'm wondering if it's the arbitrary/inscrutable/providential/explanatory/sheer-power piece, not what I've just pointed up. But that's just a guess.

  2. Hi Brad,
    Yes, I'd say that in many ways I've moved closer to the Reformed in how they view "the bondage of the will", to use Luther's phrase, and the resultant need for God to actively intervene in saving us.

    Here are some of the differences with the Reformed:

    1. A rejection of the doctrine of election (well, not election as Barth sees it, but election of the double predestination sort). That is, while the free will part of my Arminian soteriology has shifted the universal love of God--God's will is to save everyone--has remained firmly intact. I guess I'd say this: in Adam all die, in Christ all are elected.

    2. I don't believe in a "moment of salvation/election." As I said in this post, I'm a gradualist. I see all this as a slow process of purification and sanctification. Being saved is a long, militant struggle against death and the devil.

    3. Finally, I don't believe in original sin, a total depravity. I believe we are dust enslaved to the Powers. Salvation is being set free from this bondage.

    In sum, I'm a little bit Arminian, a little bit Reformed, a little bit Greek Orthodox!

  3. Having heard so many critique's of Love Wins from traditional perspectives, it's interesting to see it challenged from the other side.  I'm still working through all this, but I will say that I, too, am uncomfortable with the notion that "the doors of hell are locked from the inside."  This idea really begs the question as too why God would be powerless to open those doors from the outside.  In The Great Divorce, CS Lewis envisions those in hell being given an opportunity to improve their fate, which most refuse.  However, as you have well articulated here, there's no reason to suppose that God can't continue throughout eternity to supply the "irresistable grace" (that is operational here on earth on a small scale) necessary to change hearts and minds so that the unsaved will want to unlock those doors.

  4. Yes. I don't want to be too hard on Bell. For the most part we very much agree. I think all he needed to say is something like this, "Yes, God allows us to walk away if that is what we want. But God never gives up and keeping reaching out to us." I would have been totally cool with that, even if Bell posited that, for some, God remained unsuccessful. That is, what I object to isn't God's failure per se in Love Wins, but the passivity of God's love that is depicted.

  5. Thanks Richard. Very thoughtful and thought provoking. :-) I think that people who have struggled through the pain of addiction and the longing to be free of something that is killing them understand the point that you are making about freedom. I would choose to be free but, like Paul in Rom. 7, my "freedom" is leaving me wretched and on a de-humanizing trajectory.

  6. Yes, we need rescue.

    "Who will rescue me from this body that is infected by death?" (Rom. 7.24)

  7. Hi Richard

    Three of my guiding principles on free will:

    1.  The causal relationships within a created universe reflect the nature of the creator (a variation on the natural justice argument).  In other words, the consequences arising from my actions will contain within them a kernel of truth and love.  Or put another way, 'sin' can be defined in terms of the damage done to a relationship (with another human, God or the natural environemnt).  Were I to reflect on these consequences, I would be presented with the possibility of embracing this truth and moving towards the creator, even be it one slightly altered construct at a time.

    2.   Those who are least free to detrmine their own actions can be the most determined to do so.  Those who are most determined to have and express free-will are often those with the most self-destructive behaviours - who have the most to learn from reflecting on their own actions but who are often least well equipped to do so (due to poor executive brain function and/or deep, unmet emotional needs).  This is a huge simplification, I realise.

    3.  Choice is a function of our environment as much as our inherent nature.  Many aspects of human behaviour once talked of as traits (e.g. resilience, leadership skill, self-esteem etc.) are now understood to be better constructed in terms of the quality of the network of relationships of which we are a part.  To change someone's destructive choices, it's often just as - or more - helpful to look for the capacity for change in that person's environment as in their character.

    For me, this brings me to a view of free-will as 'the freedom to constrain my choices to God's good and perfect (and always loving) will'. 

  8. Richard,

    Your take on freedom echoes what Jurgen Moltmann wrote in his essay  “The Logic of Hell.”

    “Judgment is not God’s last word. Judgment establishes in the world the divine righteousness (equitableness) on which the new creation is to be built. But God’s last word is ‘Behold I make all things new.’ From this no one is excepted. Love is God’s compassion with the lost. Transforming grace is God’s punishment for sinners. It is not the right to choose that defines the reality of human freedom. It is the doing of the good."

    There is no possibility of anyone remaining outside the gates or locked in a self-imposed hell bubble. It is not about each individual making his or her way to heaven but rather heaven (the full indwelling presence of YHWH) is coming to us--both the living and the dead.

     God comes to us not from above but from the very depths of hell--the godforsaken hell of Golgotha. No matter how deep into despair and nihilism we may descend, both as perpetrators and victims of sin and death, there before us is Jesus the crucified who has brought God’s presence into that place of godforsakenness.  No one can descend out of reach of God’s presence because Jesus has already been there and will catch the fallen and raise them out of the depths of hell into the "sonrise" of God’s new creation

  9. Thanks for this. I agree. A part of the problem with a conditionalist approach is that the agency is all on the human side, it's too anthropocentric.

    BTW, where's that Moltmann essay to be found? 

  10. It comes from Jürgen Moltmann, ‘The Logic of Hell’ in God Will Be All In All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann.Here is a link to the full essay:

  11. Hi Richard,

    Long time reader, first time commenter!  This "Love Wins" discussion is causing me great headaches and heartache; maybe that is a good thing even though it feels bad. It chips away at a theological foundation that I am not sure comes from tradition or ultimate truth. I have always tried to construct my picture of God on Jesus' analogies about the Father; "the kingdom of heaven is like...".  I give a lot of weight to the story of the prodigal's father.  That seems to be a clear picture of the Father allowing the son to choose a hell of his own making; passively waiting but of course never withdrawing the invitation to come home.  What heals the son's affections in that story but his own sense of despair and misery?


  12. It's interesting to see the prodigal son story alongside the lost sheep story, where the Shepherd is not passive but actively goes out in search of the lost sheep (leaving the others), picks it up and carries it into the fold. God seems to interact with each of us differently at different times. I like that variety.

  13. As for why the 'collective freak out' over Bell but not Lewis, I think it has to do with marketing of the brand. Bell is wanting to be or represent the 'face' of the evangelical Christianity brand, when most evangelicals thought the brand definition was all sewn up. It's threatening for some pastors to have congregations saying 'oh hey, so I can believe THAT and still be an evangelical? What else have you been not telling us?'
    That's part of it, I think, in any case.

  14. Welcome!

    I don't think we're so far apart (thought that might really scare you!). I hinted at what you are talking about in the post, the idea that Bell might be playing a rhetorical game. Specifically, is it realistic to expect that people would keep walking further and further away from God if that reality was growing increasingly dark and painful and despair-filled? I don't think so. And if that's the case, then the Father can wait patiently at the house waiting for the lost children to come home. And personally, that's sort of what I think is going to happen. Everyone, eventually, comes home. But Bell hedges on that point, suggesting that people can keep walking away, forever and ever, into pain. And that doesn't make sense to me.

    But let's go for a bit in that direction. Let's say a person can walk so far from God that they become damaged, in heart, soul and mind. They get so far and become so damaged that they just can't find their way home anymore. In that instance the question becomes, will the Father leave the house and go after them? I think so. Luke 15 includes the story of the shepherd leaving the flock and going after the one lost sheep. I think God will do that if necessary.

  15. "What sets us free is having our affections healed. When our loves come to rest in Love."

    Yup. This is why the Incarnation is so important; it is the beginning of the Redemptive Act. St Gregory Nazianzus said that what is not assumed is not healed; iow, if Jesus is not fully human, including having human affections, then there is no Salvation (however one wants to define that).  When Jesus became a human being, there was a "cosmic ripple" through and through what it *is* to be human; human nature itself was turned 180 degrees, like a parent reaches down and turns a toddler away from impending physical danger.

    The healing begins to happen for us on a Personal level with baptism, with the uniting of onself to Jesus' death and resurrection.  It is from that place of the Redemptive Act of God birthing Trust within us that we can start opening up to allow the Love to which we have been united to work the healing within.

    One of the big reasons I gravitated to the UR position -hoping desperately for an "orthodox" theology somewhere that could support it, before I found Orthodoxy- is that it's really hard to trust a God who has created a "place" like "hell".


  16. I was having a similar discussion with my wife last night. As we discussed the recent spate of divorces, around town among friends and acquaintances, we got all gushy and re-proclaimed our love for each other. She asked, "Even though I'm like this?" My answer was, "Yes, I can't help it." She always then pesters me about my love for her not being a choice but a compulsion. All in good fun.

    But the deeper point is, I truly can't help it. I don't have the "freedom" to not love her. That may be overstating the point, but I think it holds to what you, Dr. Beck, are saying, and maybe even what Bell is trying to get across buy not quite stepping up to. I think what gets us lost is the conflating of "freedom" with "free will".

    I don't believe in free will [which is a whole other country], but I do believe in freedom of a sort. "Liberty" may be a better word. I see freedom as a release from constraint, not complete lack of constraints. Thus, jumping to the point, I believe God, in complete and total love, can indeed constrain us or compel us, and still be loving.

    No parent in their right mind would simply allow their child to jump in front of the train or off the bridge without using all their power to compel her not to do so--to claim standing aside and allowing the child the "freedom" to choose annihilation as "love" is repugnant.

    If Jesus did anything, his crucifixion and resurrection was God pushing back on the cosmic chaos and absolutely not allowing his belligerent children to choose to continue their descent into the darkest abysmal hell. And my universalism imagines a God who will absolutely compel his beloved to turn back from their self-destruction, in this life or whatever follows. Jesus absolutely gave up any and all freedom and liberty he had or could have over love.

    If my or anyone's will to rebel prevails in the end, then love cannot possibly win. In that scenario, God is absolutely powerless, love is nothing, and in the final analysis, neither existed in the first place.

    In my view love does win, otherwise, it simply loses.

  17. Within the Lutheran hive I get nailed for saying this, but Bell here is much closer to the Lutheran exposition than the reformed. (I said we, meaning Lutherans, should be comfortable with Bell at least here and got pummeled because Bell wasn't the 'obvious orthodox person' compared to the hyper-critics.)  Double predestination in the Lutheran understanding is ruled out.  There is election, but as I label it, it is an opt-out election.  You end up outside of it if you walk away.  Election is all gospel.  It is God's gift. (Of course that causes logic problems...)

    Your point two is the tragic divide of the reformation.  Once the legal metaphors took sway - declared righteous - in the reformation, the less Catholic heirs emphasized that more and more to differentiate against any temptation to 'works righteousness'.  We've been fighting that war ever since.  But there is truth to both.  There are stories of dramatic conversions.  And just logically if we are walking in the wrong direction, there is a point where we are grabbed and put on the right path.  At the same time it is a walk.  We have good works put out before us to walk in (Eph 2:10).  And that is a constant struggle.  Sanctification is a real experience.  We really need to be able to speak of both the declaration of righteousness and the walk.

    One question though, how big a difference is it being enslaved by the powers and doing what they want and total depravity?  Luther's bondage picture was that we are a donkey being guided by the powers or Christ.  If Christ is not present, the powers will be.  I'm not sure there is a big difference in experience in total depravity or enslavement.  In both cases I still do what I do not want to do.  I'm not sure you are really denying original sin as much as recovering a different and non-legal but still biblical metaphor for the experience.

  18. I'm pretty unplugged from the news, intentionally so until the next election is over, so I only have a sketchy sense of what's been going on. But my general take on capital punishment is this: the system has proven to be error prone and in light of that we probably shouldn't be executing anyone. Until the false positives are dealt with we shouldn't be messing around.

  19. Hi Mark,
    I agree with you about dramatic/quick conversions (Saul anyone?). Those exist. Mainly I'm just pushing back on the notion that I have to have a dramatic experience to share with the church as verification that God has elected me and that constitutes "salvation." But, as you note, that's a distortion of the Reformed and evangelical traditions.

    Regarding original sin. I do believe that "everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." So in that sense--universal sinfulness--I think we'd agree. But while I agree with the Reformed on the end we tend to disagree on the means. That is, Arminians and the Greek Orthodox don't believe we are born sinful/depraved but that, due to our weakness, sin is inevitable. Sin isn't an intrinsic feature of human nature. Rather, it's a statistical issue.

  20. I'd be in deep trouble if I need a dramatic story.  Well, my mom and dad brought me to the baptismal font... is lacking in dramatic tension.

    Universal sinfulness - completely agree.  While I would say born with it just because saying something is a statistical issue leaves that "black swan" out there.  And that seems like a horrible burden to place on someone.  I'd rather kill even that thought.  But that is conjecture.  I don't think in experience we could distinguish between born with it and universal sinfulness.  Squishy, practical theologian me, thinks in experience the personal question of have I sinned is more important.

    Thanks for the thoughts.  I'm looking forward to what you have to say about Bell's Rock chapter - the almost Hindu or just very Vatican 2 multiple ways.  I was amazed that Piper, et. al. went after universalism instead of that chapter.

  21. I
    almost felt moved to push the like button. Fortunately, I caught
    myself just in time.

    Greeks had at least four different words for 'love.' We have one. As a
    result, our conversation can easily become confused when we talk
    about 'love.'  Love of God; Love of my spouse; Love of my child; Love of that stranger; etc.  All love???

    said: “God can't just change our affections overnight without that
    being experienced as a volitional assault upon us.” Do you think
    Paul 'felt' assaulted on the Damascus road? Everything that was
    meaningful to him was taken away in a flash. However, I can't tell
    that he ever felt his affections assaulted?

    didn't have a Damascus road experience; but, I sat down one morning
    thinking this Christianity stuff was all foolishness and myth and I
    got up believing it was all true. This chameleon like change was not
    my doing or choice. Over time, I noticed I had new 'affections' and
    was making different choices than I had been making. Looking back, I
    can see that the change was instantaneous. I experienced salvation
    in its punctiliar sense. (Yes, there is also a process sense to this
    term. Sanctification also has these two different time senses.)
    And, I had no awareness of desiring any of the changes nor remorse
    about not having my old affections back.

    on my experience, (not exactly statistically compelling) the change
    God makes in one to rightly align his affections is instantaneous.
    And, of course, the decision to do so is up to God and not us. Our
    experience of making Godly choices happens more slowly. Now, the
    thought of god aligning one's affections while they are 'burning in hell'
    makes my head ache.

  22. I'd quibble with your characterization of Saul's conversion story. I don't think he was converted on the Damascus road "in a flash." He saw a flash, surely. And was blinded. And after the vision he sits and fasts for three days. I'm sure he was mulling things over. Then he has his sight restored and is baptized, a sign of repentance. And then he spends several days with the disciples and begins to argue in the synagogues that Jesus is the Christ.

    The point being that, yes, this is a pretty amazing conversion story. But in another sense, the move for Saul wasn't as big as we might think. Nor is there anything in the story about him being "regenerated" by God. He was, across the three day period and in the face of two miracles (a vision leading to blindness and his sight being restored), convinced that Jesus was truly the Messiah. That's it. His allegiances were switched. What he was hoping for had come. His zeal for God (his prior affections) had found its true home. These weren't new affections, just redirected affections. No doubt it was a shock. But Saul, as a Messiah-expectant Jew, was preparing his whole life for this moment and once he was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah everything he'd been preparing for was ready to go. Which is why God likely picked him.

    My point being, Paul didn't sit down at the table and rise a completely different person. He did, however, become convinced that Jesus was the Messiah in the face of two miracles over a three day period. And I'd argue that that is how conversion happens for all of us. It's a change of allegiances. God doesn't enter into a preselected group of people (the elect) and supernaturally change them. No, conversion happens when people come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, repent, and begin walking the Kingdom path. Some get miracles on roads to convince them. But most simply need to hear the message. That's why it's news.

    Happy are the feet.

  23. I think Bell's only sin here is that he didn't publish a popular children's story. In all seriousness, Lewis wasn't facing the same distilled cultural element om his time and not enough people read his work thoroughly enough today to know what he really believed.

  24. So if there are NO conditions beyond the reach of God's love, then why is there that passage about "blasphemy of the Holy Spirit"? My heart is with you Richard, but I still don't think that unconditional universalism accurately describes the Biblical story.

  25. I understand. I'll take sympathy if not agreement.

    Regarding the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit I don't think it's very straightforward as to what Jesus is talking about. Some people misattributed Jesus' power of exorcism to the devil and they will never be forgiven for that? Ever? For that misattribution? That won't be forgiven but a serial killer could be?

    That's the surface level meaning of the text and maybe that's what the text means, but I think something else is going.

  26. Wonderful post--thanks for extending and deepening my understanding of the question. And as always happens with me, I have a new set of questions from my new vantage point...

    If the aligning of my choices with what I care about is to align me with God's love, eventually, is there a time when I no longer need to "take up my cross" (antecedent to heaven)? 

    It seems that your account so far has not accounted for the need to grow into a perspective beyond ourselves--to care for others as much as ourselves (and more so) in loving imitation of Christ. And to grow into that perspective a person must get over herself, for the purposes of your post, not just in the sense of wanting to align her choices with what SHE cares about, but with her care for what others need, want, and care about. 

    It gets sticky, in my opinion, because there will need to be a critical mass that builds up on the side of loving others and God more than self, or the process you describe won't begin. Kind of a chicken and egg question, into which a theologian will want to inject the gospel as the crucial difference maker. I'd love to see this addressed, and if I'm stepping on your plans for a future post, sorry!

    BTW: The Euthyphro dilemma can be solved by this, for purposes of Christian theology, it occurs to me. If God's goodness is on a different and higher plane than ours, then theology is not dissolved into naturalism as soon as a coherent account of its workings is accomplished....   

  27. Oh WOW!!! Amen...AMEN...AMEN. If I had a trumpet, I'd blow it right now. This is the fundamental reason I've moved into the Reformed faith camp. You are touching on some incredible themes here from Calvin: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, and Irresistible Grace....  Yes there is a place for Free Will... but ultimately God has to move. He has to do inner work on us and in our lives before we can even choose to seek him. We are at his mercy and our regeneration is at his mercy. Fortunately that's the business he's in. Calvin was wrong on limited atonement... Enough about Calvin...

    These articles you are publishing on this "Love Wins" series must be put into a pamphlet, book or something and published. All of these discussions about a the hell/death focus of modern Christianity, and the Christus Victor focus, and God getting what God wants... and I can't remember all of them... God is writing out on here, what I believe in my heart, must be spread to every Christian group. This stuff you have put on hear, when properly ingested and thought out, could revive and revolutionize Christianity in our corner of the world. I pray the Spirit will spread all of this and change hearts!!!

  28. Hmmmm.  re the 'love is a choice' talk, I just attended a conference on forgiveness considering the events at Nickel Mine (where the Amish school girls were shot and killed).  One of the speakers said that mainstream American culture assumes that forgiveness comes when you work through your emotions and then you decide to forgive.  His point was that the Amish did the reverse: they believed God meant them to forgive the shooter, and they first made the decision to forgive based on their understanding of what response God wanted.  Then they embarked on the emotional journey of forgiveness.  This speaker (sorry I can't remember his name) called that 'decisional forgiveness' and said that actual feelings of forgiveness might not appear for a long time afterwards, but that making the decision to forgive was one way to open oneself to feelings of forgiveness.

    This is just to say that I think our statements of what we want to want, want to do, want to be, even if we are not there yet, can help us move in the direction we want to go, even if the feelings aren't quite there.

  29. I've actually had some talks with the researchers pioneering the decisional vs. emotional forgiveness distinction. I've let them know that I think it's a pretty bad model. :-)

    But your last point is well-taken. "Love/forgiveness is a decision/choice" is powerful, rhetorically speaking. It's an effective and important sermon. So on that front, as an act of persuasion, I'm all on board. But like I said in the post, let's not slide from good rhetoric into psychological modeling.

    Because here's my problem with the decisional forgiveness model, and the Amish are a wonderful example. The decisional forgiveness model is too thin and Cartesian in its anthropology. The Amish are a community deeply committed to the virtues of peace. It's one of their defining characteristics. Thus, they live their whole lives forming and practicing those virtues. So when it comes time to "decide" their affections have been properly shaped. A vast reservoir of virtue is there, personal and communal, waiting to be tapped. The Amish can "decide" to forgive because they care so much about peace. True, at the start they might not care much about the perpetrators, but they do care about peace. And this illustrates my point perfectly: Caring has to be found somewhere. For the Amish, it's caring about peace.

    And this is why I think the person who presented on decisional forgiveness might have done a disservice to the audience. The Amish didn't decide to forgive because they had more willpower than others. No, they decided to forgive because they were a virtue-forming community of peace. The point being, if we preach "Forgiveness is a decision" to typical churches we're misleading them into thinking that willpower, rather than virtue formation (the caring I'm talking about), is what produces forgiveness. And that "Love is a choice" misunderstanding is a recipe for disaster because communities aren't putting in the requisite virtue-formation work to prepare for when the storm comes. Churches are mislead into thinking that forgiveness is a choice made after the fact when, in fact, it's all about the years of virtue preparation before the fact.

  30. Richard, I think you hit the nail on the head when you used the word "healing" at the very end. I've gone back and forth between the past 30 years of being a conditionalist and more recently a universalist. When I think of salvation as healing, I can come to no other conclusion than the one you just described.

  31. Please forgive my use of hyperbole in the 'in a flash' statement.  I need to choose my words more carefully for this choice of words seems to have masked my point.

    In your post you say:  "God can't just change our affections overnight without that being experienced as a volitional assault upon us."

    Then in your comment here you say regarding Paul:  "These weren't new affections, just redirected affections."

    Are you saying that God can't change but He can redirect affections without volitional assault?  Thus, redirection is somehow different from change?  How much redirection is required to equal change?  By the way, how in the world do you know what God can not do?

    You also say in your comment here:

    "Nor is there anything in the story about him being "regenerated" by God."

    "God doesn't enter into a preselected group of people (the elect) and supernaturally change them."

    "He was, . . . convinced that Jesus was truly the Messiah.  That's it."

    THAT'S IT!!!  What else is there?

    It is so hard for me to see how you can read Galatians 1:15-16 and Acts 22:14-16 and still believe these sorts of things.

    If that is not election playing itself out in Galatians 1, then what is it?

    In Acts 22:14 he doesn't believe and at the end of verse 16 he does.  How, and even why, did that happen in that short space of time???  As a small aside, all those infinities in verse 14 are aorists.  There is no process of learning going on here.  More like 'in a flash.'

    He's trying to kill these Jews for their beliefs and a few days later he is their strongest ally?  He wasn't regenerated but all of a sudden (and not on the Damascus road, of course) he believes?  Just human rational thinking about events was all that happened?  Seriously?

  32. Yes, seriously. That's how people in the Churches of Christ think about it. Again, we're not Reformed so everything you say about conversion sounds foreign and strange to us. And us to you.

    Once again: Same bible, different conclusions, both biblical.

  33. My problem with what Bell portrays as freedom is that it seems to me as if God puts himself on the market and waits to see who will buy.

    It is not just the passivity that bothers me, although that does of course, but also that it fails to account for the fact that for someone to make a choice to "say yes to God"  he must first (and during) be healed by God first, what you call "Love moves our loves towards Love".
    God is not selling us a commodity that we are free to accept or turn down based on personal preference, he is healing us from a fallen nature, resurrecting us from death, working in Love to nurture our innermost being... only then can we claim to be "able to choose". So what part of all that is a mere choice?

  34. I'll try to put together some thoughts here. For a while, I've been on the spectrum of non-traditional views on hell, so this comes from that. 

    I like to build on the "universe bends towards justice" idea, and picture judgment as a bend in a tunnel. If we bend with it, turning our wheels early, we'll do fine. If we wait longer, we'll have to jerk to the side sharply, causing an unpleasant experience. If we wait too long, we'll run directly into the side of the wall. 

    "Mortalists" (or conditionalists or annihilationists) tend to think many people will hit the side of the wall, and go up in flames.
    Conditionalists like Bell tend to think we're in a bumper car, and can always back up and try the turn again.
    Universalists tend to think the tunnel is very straight, and the curve very slight.

    This is caricature, but I think the difference between universalism and conditionalism has the effect of stating how "severe" we think this curvature to be. For example, in your previous posts praising hell as something we all need, the tendency would be to assume that since everybody gets hell, we're all approximately in the same boat...which, given someone like yourself, doesn't seem that bad. :) 

    In contrast, historically I would see some groups and cultures hitting the curve hard, and experiencing almost total destruction. We can look at redemption in that scenario as a process of life-from-death, an extreme hard turn. Universalism has seemed to tone down the severity of that turn.

    I'm not sure if this is coherent or not. To be clear, I'm not actually objecting to universalism, just as you're not really drawing a hard line between you and Bell. Instead, I'm wondering if what gets lost in these discussions is the actual importance of us human beings conforming to the reality of love and justice.

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