Hellbound? Talk Back: Part 4, Love, Power, Patience and Time

Last week it was my honor to participate in a talkback with filmmaker Kevin Miller after a viewing of Hellbound?.

As I mentioned Monday, I am using posts this week to work back through some of the Q&A Kevin and I hosted, the queries we fielded and some of our answers regarding "universal reconciliation in Christ" or "evangelical universalism."

Today's post is about love, power, eschatology and universal reconciliation in Christ.

The best conversation I had was actually after the Q&A, a talk with Caleb who had read my series "On Warfare and Weakness" (see the sidebar for those posts).

You'll recall that in that series I work with the notion (leaning heavily upon John Caputo) that God, being love, is a weak force in the world. Caleb's question had to do with how I reconcile that notion--God is a weak, non-coercive force--with a vision of universal reconciliation in Christ. More specifically, if God is a weak, non-coercive force how does "love win" in the end, especially if evil is a coercive and violent force that will overwhelm the weak force?

Because it seems that if God is going to "make everything right" in the end some sort of top-down exercise of power is going to be needed at some point. Because if love is weakness then won't evil just keep dominating?

How does love win if love is weakness?

It's a great question that I told Caleb I'd been struggling with. As you'll recall, in the "On Warfare and Weakness" series I bracketed questions of eschatology and focused on the quotidian, everyday existence. But my thoughts about universal reconciliation in Christ pull me into eschatology so I need to make some connections.

Here's the question to be answered: Is force required to bring about the eventual reconciliation of all things in Christ?

Talking about this afterwards Kevin had a great analogy. He said that whenever people ask him if God has to force people into heaven to make universal reconciliation work his response is often "Does anyone have to force you to watch a sunset?"

The beauty of a sunset, any kind of beauty, is very powerful and forceful. But it's not a coercive force. It's something that breaks your heart and moves you. It doesn't push you. It draws you.

The idea that floated through my head was that love is like the sun and the human heart a vast iceberg. Love melts us.

So I do think there are ways we can think of God drawing us, moving us, melting us in ways that aren't acts of force and coercion. And if so, then the weakness of love may be powerful enough to win in the end.

But there is a catch I mentioned to Caleb. Love is slow. Everything we've just described is going to take lots of time. How long to melt an iceberg, to soften the hardest human heart? It's going to take a long time.

The point being, love requires patience, an almost infinite patience. And if you can't wait, if you want to fix stuff now, well, yes, you're going to have to use force. You're going to have to start knocking some skulls together to make the Kingdom come.

And I think that's the key connection. If God is the weak force of love your eschatology has to extend the timeline of God's salvific work almost indefinitely. Love, to remain non-violent, will require a lot of time. Because if there is a time-limit love will have to shift to force to make everything work out alright in the end. If you put love on a schedule you'll end up with coercion. "Hurry up" is always going to marginalize love and produce violence.

Which is why I think soteriological systems that have timelines, like the moment of death or Judgment Day, are inherently violent. In these systems love hasn't been given enough time to do its work, thus God has to step in with force to get the Happy Ending to come in on schedule. In these visions God has to knock some skulls together to make the Kingdom Come. Because of the soteriological deadlines love is rushed and abandoned for violence.

And what I think all this means is that the belief that God is love almost demands the infinite patience of a universalist eschatology. Grace--the slow, non-coercive unwinding of sin--is expressed temporally.

Love wins in the end because love is infinitely and gratuitously patient.

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18 thoughts on “Hellbound? Talk Back: Part 4, Love, Power, Patience and Time”

  1. I love the search for fresh metaphors to convey this. I think a Biblical term for what is being conveyed is "power made perfect in weakness." And so: love is like the sun and the human heart a vast iceberg. Love melts us.

    When I experience what I identify as the presence of the Holy Spirit, there is a clear and unmistakable sense of this vast, unconquerable Power who is also unsurpassable in gentleness. So absolutely gentle. So absolutely powerful. And these are sides of the same coin: it is the assurance and strength of God that also create the possibility of this vast patience and gentleness.

    Another metaphor that points to a different aspect of this synthesis of power and 'weakness': if God is the author, we can think of the ending of the story of this age as something already written. It is written with the ease and authority of an author dashing off a few sentences. However, the middle of the story is still being told. If you've ever tried to write a story, you'll immediately understand that the characters take on a life of their own, a sort of will. And the act of filling out a story is an act of exploration of discovery, with the characters possessing something that sure feels like real agency. It is with complete authority and gentleness that the author must watch these characters work their way to the conclusion. This tension between a known end, and an unknown means, is also behind the classical notion of suspense. It is one of the chief was to create captivating dramatic tension. Maybe the captivation of classical suspense is a moment of self-recognition...the realization that our own story is that kind of story. Maybe God is as weak and as powerful as an author who is discovering the middle of a story whose end is finished.

  2. At the risk of being obnoxious, I not going to resist the desire to post another comment. This talk about weak messianic power made me take a second look at Benjamin's reflection on the angel of history, and I managed to put my finger on something that has always troubled me about it.



    My wing is ready to fly
    I would rather turn back
    For had I stayed mortal time
    I would have had little luck.
    – Gerhard Scholem, “Angelic Greetings”

    There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm."

    The painting: http://tinyurl.com/kn2eaa9

    In reading the painting and Benjamin's text, I've always been confused, because it looks like the angel's back is facing us. That means that if we look past the angel, we are looking over the wreckage of history to the flaming swords that still stand at the gates of Eden. But if this is true, then the angels eyes are not set on Eden, but are turned toward history's end. The angel beholds the reconciliation of all things, its memory of history already fading fast. But we are not this angel. It flies by us, and we are sent into the wreckage of history, the angel now at our back. I've seen this angel fly past. My memory of the awe in its face still burns inside of me.

  3. "The point being, love requires patience, an almost infinite patience. And if you can't wait, if you want to fix stuff now, well, yes, you're going to have to use force. You're going to have to start knocking some skulls together to make the Kingdom come."

    Amen and amen. What I have argued is that we need -- pace Milbank's "ontology of peace" (which somehow, for Milbank, means that we cannot be pacifists), an "ontology of patience." We are patient because God is patient, meaning that patience is part of the very shape of the cosmos. The arc of the universe bends toward justice precisely because it is long.

  4. Richard, this simply has to be true. No other explanation can make sense of the way things really are. As my wife and I have been going through the incredibly difficult process that is my daughter being a teenager I am more and more convinced that this is how love wins. It can never win through the raw exercise of power or force. I used to envision every knee bowing and every tongue confessing as a result of the violent compulsion of a conquering god of war forcing his captives to their knees in preparation for their torture and/or execution. That is not victory. That is not love. Love wins when those cold, icy hearts have finally melted and they fall to their knees and praise Jesus who has patiently shepherded them from the far country back to their home.

    Do we not read our Bibles? Do we not read that God IS love? Do we not read the detailed description of love, and thus the detailed description of God?

    "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love NEVER FAILS!"

  5. Three things that came to mind after I read this post. 1) Loved it, great post! 2) The comparison to the power of the sun drawing us reminded me of this article
    and 3) the idea of God being weak reminded me of the analogy that Jesus on the cross is similar to Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope strategy. Jesus took all that evil could throw at Him, he is submitting to evil and it's looking pretty brutal for awhile, but Jesus was still not defeated. He is left standing after all of evil's efforts. I know this analogy is somewhat flawed because of the violent nature of boxing but I think you get my point.

  6. reminds me of donne's poem "batter my heart oh three personed god" , which ends with, Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I

    Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,

    Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee

  7. I am grateful for the vision of God's patient love. And I think it is a much needed corrective to theologies that are eager to speak of a god who is as inclined towards violent judgment as he is towards love. I just heard mega-church pastor David Platt (who I respect) cast such a vision in a sermon and I was aghast. However, I also think this vision of infinite patience is most attractive to those of us who live in somewhat comfortable, "first world" contexts. I'm pretty sure that our brothers and sisters living in poverty and oppression would feel much more loved by a god who intervenes to judge the unrighteous . . . by a god who does not wait infinitely.

    I would be very much interested in your perspective on this, Dr. Beck (or others).

  8. I am seeing some connections in what you're saying here with a section from Pope Francis' interview the other week, where he talks about taking time and discernment:

    "'Not to be limited by the greatest and yet to be contained in the tiniest—this is the divine.' I thought a lot about this phrase in connection with the issue of different roles in the government of the church, about becoming the superior of somebody else: it is important not to be restricted by a larger space, and it is important to be able to stay in restricted spaces.

    "...According to St. Ignatius, great principles must be embodied in the circumstances of place, time and people. In his own way, John XXIII adopted this attitude with regard to the government of the church, when he repeated the motto, ‘See everything; turn a blind eye to much; correct a little.’ John XXIII saw all things, the maximum dimension, but he chose to correct a few, the minimum dimension. You can have large projects and implement them by means of a few of the smallest things. Or you can use weak means that are more effective than strong ones, as Paul also said in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

    “This discernment takes time. For example, many think that changes and reforms can take place in a short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment. Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later."


  9. A couple of thoughts.

    I think of Yoder's work on pacifism regarding "revolutionary patience" and his argument that we aren't to try to be "in charge of the world." And yet, that's easy for me to say given where I sit in the world.

    But I don't think a lack of coercion means a lack of forcefulness. I'm thinking here of the firmness of Gandhian pacifism. More, as many Christian pacifists have said, if you aren't willing to die for the cause, like a solider is willing to die, then we're not really talking pacifism. There is a loving "force" here.

  10. Today I finished reading Will Campbell's "Brother to a Dragonfly" and then watched the documentary, "God's Will". In the documentary Campbell gives the following quote:

    "Unconditional grace is Golda Meir chasing Hitler around the pinnacles of heaven for a thousand years and after a thousand years he stops and lets her pin a star of David on his chest. Pretty graphic notion, but I do believe that."

    Seemed relevant to this discussion. As brother Will said, it's a pretty graphic summary of the patience of unconditional love and grace.

  11. What is missing for me in all of this discussion is the notion of Justice and how it is met. There have been some truly horrific acts perpetrated on innocent victims in the history of mankind. Seems to me that this material world has been set up with intrinsic negative consequences to actions short of an ideal. Why would we suppose the afterlife would void of similar consequences of a life lived for self at the expense of others?

  12. That makes good intuitive sense, Tommy -- it's probably why we started believing in an afterlife in the first place. This frustration at "intrinsic negative consequences short of an ideal" is the heart of apocalyptic discourse, I think. We want things to be cosmically set right.

    But salvation by grace through faith already undermine this intuitive sense of justice? Doesn't, on some level, the desire to see particular kinds of wicked people punished as a logical necessity unwittingly capitulate to a kind of works righteousness? Christian theology, particularly Protestant theology, doesn't really posit that the wicked (as such) will be punished while the righteous (as such) will go their reward, but that some of the wicked (because we are all wicked) will be met with punishment whereas others, having Christ's righteousness imputed to them, will go to a reward they don't truly deserve.

    That's not really my theology, and maybe it's not yours, but that seems to me a pretty standard understanding (narrated with a whiff of reductio ad absurdum, but just a whiff.)

    All you need for the wicked to be punished and the righteous to be rewarded is straight-up apocalypticism. Jesus doesn't have to die for that.

  13. Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

    I lean toward a Christus Victor view myself, but still appreciate the explanatory power of a Penal Substitution view of how the Cross saves us all. But I hold as a core conviction that libertarian free will is real, this is a big reason I like what Greg Boyd is doing in Minnesota. I believe that God is most certainly NOT the author of the evil in this world, a conclusion that I think a traditional view of God's providence logically leads. I think God is the author of choice, this to me is beautifully displayed in the Garden with the Tree of Life and The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And I think that while God desires all men to be saved, as Richard put in previous blog post so well, God ultimately gives a man what he wants, he allows man to choose his own destiny. While I really appreciate the view of "evangelical universalism" proposed in the movie, it does not resonate as true to me because of my own experience in this world as my previous post implied. I am not denying it, I think it would be wonderful if true. But if I am to believe the Bible is inspired, I cannot put all of the Hell and Judgement teachings in some sort of preterist interpretation, or just simply a style of literature.

    Also, I am no longer certain Jesus HAD TO DIE. So while I lean toward a ransom theory of sorts, I have a general mistrust in the institutional church and therefore in traditional systematic theology. We seem to want to attribute all sorts of evil obviously committed by men to be God's providence, so saying that Jesus HAD TO DIE seems another way of doing that. But on the flip side, God knowing what would likely happen to Jesus and using it for His own purpose (such as some type of ransom to pay), that seems like what the most intelligent being in existence might be able to accomplish without violating an individuals own choice.

    I know I am all over the map of ideas in this post, but it kind of represents where I am at. I think the deconstruction of my inherited traditional views has been the easy part, building a new cohesive world view, well that is not so easy. I think ultimately that view will live in the tension as the Bible seems to insist upon that if one is to hold onto its authority in some fashion. This tension is something we generally don't like, but it is how faith is truly nurtured I think.

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