When Relationship Isn’t Enough

March 11, 2011 — 8 Comments

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Like a lot of other evangelicals, I’ve been drawn in by the whole Rob Bell Love Wins discussion. By and large, I have been ashamed of the way that evangelicals have gone after Bell, largely without giving his book a fair treatment, many responding to an artfully produced marketing video as the sole basis for their critique. Even those that have had access to a slimmed down “review” copy of the book have decided to condemn the work before the reading public has a chance to assess it themselves. Why all the vitriol? Oddly enough, I think that evangelicals are scared to lose hell.

For the past two centuries, fear of eternal damnation and everlasting corporeal punishment has driven millions into fervent profession of faith in Christ. Having had to genuflect at the foot of the cross only briefly, many of these converts seem satisfied that their “fire insurance” has been bought, they’ve opted-in, and can resume their daily lives. The super-convicted may ruminate on the implication of billions of other people aimlessly wandering toward hell and be motivated to evangelize them. Some even write books about it. For evangelicals, the fear of hell is a big motivator for conversion. Perhaps even the prime motivator (Upon re-reading this post, I decided that this sentence was just plain unfair). The way to avoid hell? Put your faith in Christ. To have the doctrine of hell called into question seems to shake the very foundations of evangelicalism. That is frightening for what it implicates about evangelicalism.

Is hell at the heart of the Gospel? Is the avoidance of eternal punishment and damnation the “good news?” I submit that it is not. The good news of the Gospel is that estrangement from God is no longer the only option. Restored and reconciled relationships with God, with one another, and with Creation, are possible precisely because of the blood of Christ, which is powerful enough to cover all the sin that ever has been and all the sin that ever will be. It is, in a word, the promise of shalom. Usually translated “peace,” it is a concept that is better understood as “wholeness” or “intactness.”

It is this possibility of restored and reconciled relationships which is the through line of the Scriptures, not the avoidance of hell. The first effects of sin were relational. Adam and Eve were ashamed to be naked in front of each other, then they hid from God. His question to them was not, “What have you done?” but, “Where are you?” Strained relationships would typify the human existence from that point forward. Everything that was once good, would now have its goodness mixed with pain. For their transgressions, God did not bring the thunder of fire and brimstone, rather he uttered the two most damning words He could, “Get out.” They were expelled from the presence of God and from the paradise for which He’d created them. That’s the pain of hell.

Yet the hope of a fully restored shalom is woven throughout Scripture. God’s promise to Abram was that through his descendants, God would bless all people. Israel was to be a blessing to all nations. The charge of the prophets against the priests and kings was that they went around proclaiming, “Shalom, shalom,” when there was no shalom (see Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11, 14:13, 23:17, 28:9, among others). Over and over God expresses his disdain with mechanistic religiosity used as a substitute for relationship (see esp. Amos 5:21 and pretty much everything Jesus said to the Pharisees). What God desires is a restored relationship with His creation and, principally, the crown of creation: people. Relationship figures prominently Jesus’ ministry. He defines eternal life as knowing God, being in relationship with Father and Son (John 17:3). This knowledge of God is for all people, made available through the work of Christ on the cross. Just as shalom is wrecked through Adam, so also is shalom restored through Christ:

“[J]ust as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18-19)

“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he ‘has put everything under his feet.’ Now when it says ‘everything,’ has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:22-28)

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard on one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, his is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed us to the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-21)

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to you who were near.” (Ephesians 2:14-17)

“This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:9-10)

God’s desire is not, first and foremost, condemnation. He is not some cosmic masochist who delights in meting out punishment. His desire is reconciliation. His desire is, quite simply, us. He does not wish anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:9). The whole trajectory of the Scriptures points to God’s love for all His creation and the eventuality that His reconciliation will be complete. The fullness of His Kingdom is a city whose gates are never closed (Revelation 21:25). Our inability to understand that, our woolliness about God’s purposes, our obsession with divine retributive justice points to our repeated tendencies to make God in our image.

“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8)

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of the age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

To that we might also add that the mercy of God is more merciful than the judgment of man (James 2:13), and His love is greater than all else (1 John 4:16). We need, in my estimation, to shift the discussion back to the foundational issue: we are estranged from God, yet He has made possible full reconciliation. The sooner we are reconciled to Him, the sooner we can start living out the lives He has ordered for us. Our faith is one that is grounded in forgiveness and restoration, not fear and the contractual obligation of salvation through profession of faith in Christ by a God who must not like us very much. If, in the end, the very act of seeing God on his throne is too much for even the most ardent atheist, will we bitch and moan about fairness (like the elder brother in Luke 15:29-30 or the worker in Matthew 20:11-12)? Or will we welcome them to the party, overwhelmed by the incomprehensible mercy of God and the breadth of the blood of Christ?

So let us preach Christ crucified. Let us speak of a God who loves all the cosmos so much that He purposed to eradicate our separation from Him through the death of His Son. Let us proclaim the hope of shalom for even the most wretched sinner. And let us be very, very careful of mistaking that we get to decide who that is.

Anderson Campbell

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  • davidniyonzima

    Eddy Dean, This is indeed a great commentary on evangelicals and hell. In your comments, I liked the restoration of the Shalom through Jesus Christ. Also, your comments reminded me about the “prophets” in my country who announced that there would be inter-ethnic violence and when the violence did not take place they seemed to be disappointed, not that they predicted what did not happen but by the fact that the violence did not take place, (as if they wanted it to happen!). #dmingml

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – I agree…and with you I believe that by focusing on who is in and who is not we promote a tribalism that sidelines the focus upon reconciliation and inclusion. A question I have is how might we understand justice within the concept of shalom ? #dmingml

  • Anderson Campbell

    @David – unbelievable. We have similar prophets of doom here, though instead of forecasting interethnic violence, they warn of natural disaster as an implement of God’s judgment upon the morally corrupt. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, they gloated that God was finally “cleaning up” “America’s Sodom.” Now, in the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan, they are proclaiming that God is pouring out his wrath on them because they are non-Christian. What happened to our understanding that God “causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the wicked and the righteous alike”?

  • Anderson Campbell

    @Rodger – Justice is integral to shalom, as it is through justice that wholeness is restored. In light of the sacrifice of Christ, which has made the way for any to “opt-in” to justice via His blood, what is justice for the unrepentant? Is it eternal hell for finite transgressions? If the “wages of sin is death” and the “gift of God is life everlasting” does that lead to justice via annihiliationism? For the countless who will live and die without hearing of Christ crucified, what is wholeness for them? Are the damned to a “so sorry you weren’t born in a more affluent and Western country where you’d have been more likely to know Christ” or “my apologies that the people I told to ‘Go’ didn’t go, so now you have to suffer”? These are all questions that bump into the interplay of justice and shalom. You can’t have one without the other, that much is certain. Yet we haven’t but a faint idea of what justice is and what shalom is. We water them down into retribution and peace, respectively. Praise be to God that they are both so much more complex and nuanced than all that!

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – I agree that justice is intrinsic to shalom…and mercy I believe is the language of justice…yet how do we understand justice and mercy for those who refuse such? I am not an advocate for hell and eternal punishment, but it does address the above concern. I know you are taking a ‘I don’t know-who does know but God’ position- but I do know that shalom is centred in Christ [as I do]‘…Another comment is [and this is pretty random] but it follows the idea that through Christ’s resurrection death is defeated [1 Cor15, Hebrews 2]…and hence ‘the wages of sin’…which the judgment in the eschaton is predicated…to what extent does the defeat of death and sin reach back to all those who perhaps had not heard of Christ etc…this sounds universalistic yet can we allow God this option {perhaps a sort of open theism?]. I know – pretty random and not something I will preach on next week.I realise that our views of hell and justice and shalom as you stated is at best like looking into a darkened mirror…it also seems to me they are very much the products of our culture. Hey Eddie…thanks for asking the tough questions. #dmingml

  • Anderson Campbell

    Rodger – glad you picked up on the “wages of sin” reference. The question that keeps coming up over and over again – and the one Bell raises – is “what did Christ’s death accomplish?” Is it, primarily, an escape from hell and punishment or is it primarily a reconciled relationship with the Creator? If the latter, where does judgment and punishment fit in? I argue (and will continue to argue) that Christ’s death is, primarily, a shalom event, making possible reconciliation and restoration of relationships with God, one another, and creation. This is not to say that in shalom there is no justice. Wolterstorff puts it this way:”…shalom is intertwined with justice. In shalom, each person enjoys justice, enjoys his or her rights. There is not shalom without justice. But shalom goes beyond justice. “Shalom is the human being dwelling at peace in all his or her relationships: with God, with self, with fellows, with nature. It is shalom when: The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall like down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and the little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The suckling child shall play over the hole of the asp. and the weaned child shall put his hand in the adder’s den. (Isa. 11:6-8)”But the peace which is shalom is not merely the absence of hostility, not merely being in right relationship. Shalom at its highest is enjoyment in one’s relationships. A nation may be at peace with all its neighbors and yet be miserable in its poverty. To dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, pp. 69-70 [emphasis his]).So, does a hell in which unending, everlasting, corporeal punishment takes place, make possible the shalom of God? Can God dwell in enjoyable relationships with those He sends to hell? Really, will God enjoy that? I infer no conclusive answer to that but it is a question worth asking. If shalom and justice are intertwined and if, as Wolterstorff offers, shalom implies harmonious relationships all around, what does shalom look like for an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, all-loving God with billions of his beloved in eternal torment. It’s tough to consider!

  • Chris Marshall

    “So let us preach Christ crucified. Let us speak of a God who loves all the cosmos so much that He purposed to eradicate our separation from Him through the death of His Son. Let us proclaim the hope of shalom for even the most wretched sinner. And let us be very, very careful of mistaking that we get to decide who that is.”Brilliant perspective here, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant and refreshing.

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