Guest Post by IBD contributor Kyle Larson
Let’s face it, controversy sells. In today’s media-driven, instant-access society, we are prone to skip the facts and report the controversy. The endgame being, of course, to sell more books, gain more viewers or entice readers to frequent your awesome blog. When we hear about Rob Bell’s latest book and the very controversial nature of its content, one wonders if this is what he had in mind. Rather than a treatise on the nature of salvation, one wonders if this a response to the shrinking bottom line. This would explain why someone so well respected as Rob Bell would create a book like Love Wins.
In this book, Rob Bell lays out his philosophy concerning both the nature of God and the extent of His salvation. When reading it, the first thing that came to mind, at least for me, were the controversies that plagued the early church regarding the nature of Christ. From the beginning of Christianity, the apostles taught that Jesus was both God and Man at the same time. For this reason, their writings in the New Testament speak about both the deity and humanity of Jesus. In the early church, neither aspect of Christ’s nature was overemphasized or under emphasized at the expense of the other. Yet during the first three centuries, each new heresy regarding the nature of Christ either overemphasized his deity at the expense of his humanity or overemphasized his humanity at the expense of his deity; Both extremes are simply different forms of the same heresy which denies that Jesus is fully God and fully man.
When reading Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, one sees the overemphasis of one of God’s attributes at the expense of others. Bell is absolutely correct in emphasizing that God is Love. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible describes the Christian God as a God of Love. There are many passages in the New Testament that state that God sent his Son into the world out of pure and perfect love for humanity.
When we look at the book of Psalms in the Old Testament for example, we see a great emphasis on the love of God. It’s hard to miss. Yet, the book of Psalms clearly speaks of other attributes of God. The book of Psalms, as well as the rest of Scripture, maintains an emphasis on God as a being with many attributes, each an equal part of the whole. If one overemphasizes God’s holiness at the expense of his love or goodness, we come up with an inaccurate picture of who God is. This is true regardless of what attribute of God is being overemphasized. If one attends a church where the wrath of God is always preached on and the love of God is hardly mentioned, that church has lost balance. In the same way, if God’s love is overemphasized at the expense of his holiness or wrath, then that church too is off balanced.
This off balanced understanding of God’s attributes begins in chapter 1 of Love Wins, which is entitled “What About The Flat Tire?” In it, Bell asks a series of questions regarding the nature of God when it comes to the eternal punishment of the unsaved. Bell asks if God can still be loving if He allows people to be lost in Hell.
“Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?”
“What kind of faith is that? Or more important, What kind of God is that?”
The ONLY way that we can discover what God is like is by reading what He has revealed about himself in his Word, the Bible. We don’t have to guess what God is like; He has told us. While there are some specific attributes of God that will be explored in this article, there are some very fundamental basics concerning the attributes of God that need to be made clear at the very beginning.
God has no beginning and end; He is eternal. (Exodus 3:14) No other being can say this. God is the creator who created all other things (Genesis 1:1). God is Omnipotent. This means that God has all power and is unlimited. (Jeremiah 32:17, Jeremiah 43:13, Jeremiah 49:`19) God is also Omniscient; He knows all things. (Job 37:16, Psalms 139:2-4, Matthew 6:8) God is also Omnipresent; He is fully present everywhere at the same time all the time. (I Kings 8:27, Psalms 93:3-5, Psalms 139:7-10)
With these basic attributes of God in place, we can now deal some other specific attributes of God as they relate to Rob Bell’s latest book Love Wins.
GOD IS HOLY
God is holy in that He is separate from all creation. The primary reason for this is that God is not a creature. He has no beginning and no end. All creatures have a beginning at some point in time. Not so with God. Being therefore holy, God cannot stand in the presence of evil or sin
Several passages in the Old Testament speak of the Holiness of God:
“Who is like You among the gods, O LORD? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders?” – Exodus 15:11
“‘For I am the LORD your God Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. For I am the LORD who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God; thus you shall be holy, for I am holy.'” – Leviticus 11:44-45
“There is no one holy like the LORD. Indeed, there is no one besides You, Nor is there any rock like our God” – 1 Samuel 2:2
GOD IS RIGHTEOUS AND JUST
The Greek word for “righteous” means “to be just”. God, being the God revealed in scripture, cannot be anything other than totally just and righteous. If we believe the scriptures, and Rob Bell claims this, God will forever be righteous and can do nothing wrong; That would be against His nature.
“The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true; they are righteous altogether” – Psalm 19:9
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; Loving kindness and truth go before You.” – Psalm 89:14
In the second passage particularly, we see several attributes of God together, all in perfect harmony with each other.
God is absolutely holy and righteous along with being absolutely and perfectly loving. All of God’s attributes are in perfect harmony with each other because of who God is. For Rob Bell to elevate only one attribute of God, his love, while deemphasizing other attributes of God he may not be comfortable with is not accurately handling the word of truth. Only after balancing all of his attributes, each perfectly working together, are we offered an accurate and complete and accurate picture of who God is.
GOD IS MERCIFUL
The Mercy of God is emphasized throughout the Bible:
“The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.’ 19“Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” – Numbers 14:18-19
“O give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His loving kindness is everlasting.” – Chronicles 16:34
“The priests stood at their posts, and the Levites also, with the instruments of music to the LORD, which King David had made for giving praise to the LORD–‘for His loving kindness is everlasting'” – 2 Chronicles 7:6
Rob Bell does a good job giving many other passages throughout the book that speak of God’s love and mercy. We have no argument with Rob Bell here.
THE WRATH OF GOD
Yet the Bible also solemnly speaks about the Wrath of God. Some of these passages include the following:
”… and My anger will be kindled, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” – Exodus 22:24
“Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” – Exodus 32:10
“When he fills his belly, God will send His fierce anger on him and will rain it on him while he is eating” – Job 20:23
These are just a few of the many passages that speak of the Wrath of God
God’s mercy and God’s wrath are not contradictions , rather, as Dr. Norman Geisler explains in his Systematic Theology series, God’s Wrath acts upon one person and his mercy on another person. It would be contradictory to say a person is both a Christian and a non Christian at the same time and therefore also a contradiction for this person to end up both in Heaven and Hell at the same time. Rob Bell would be correct if he reached this conclusion, but he never follows his own reasoning to this conclusion. In fact, he peppers the book with statements on how terrible God would be if He sent a person to Hell for rejecting Jesus.
In writing about a situation in which a person hears the Gospel, rejects it and later on that same day dies in a car accident, for God to send that person to Hell, Rob Bell writes:
“God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly Father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had escape from an endless future of agony. If there was an earthly Father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good.” (Love Wins, pg 174)
This statement reveals a serious misunderstanding of the immutability of God. God is unchanging in his nature and in all of his attributes. He retains all of his attributes at all times. He doesn’t discard one attribute in order to display another of his attributes. Again, all of God’s attributes work together in perfect harmony, but they are also eternally constant and unchanging in nature.
GOD IS UNCHANGING IN HIS NATURE
“Also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.” – 1 Samuel 15:29
“Even they will perish, but You endure; And all of them will wear out like a garment; Like clothing You will change them and they will be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will not come to an end.” – Psalm 102:26-27
“For I, the LORD, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” – Malachi 3:6
Bell uses certain words to describe God’s right to exercise his attributes of justice and righteousness. Some of these words include: “vicious”, “cruel” and “relentless”. It’s almost as if Bell is saying to God, “You can display only your attribute of Love. If you manifest any of your other attributes, such as justice, righteousness or Your wrath, then you are cruel and mean and vicious.” But if that were the case, then is Bell appealing to some greater being than the God of the Bible? He must if he is going to use some other standard or a measuring line to judge the God of the Bible. Of course, this simply cannot be the case if Rob Bell truly believes there is only one eternal being, the God of scripture.
In a related extended passage from the Book, Bell writes:
“… if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all eternity for sins committed in a few short years, then no amount of clever marketing, or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one true, glaring, unacceptable, awful reality.” (Love Wins 175)
Bell also says that this kind of God has something “wrong” with Him. (Love Wins 175)
Again, what is Bell’s standard of measurement? Does he know a God greater than the God of the Bible to whose greater moral standard he can appeal? Bell, who cannot stand a God of judgment, ends up judging God himself. Words such as “cruel”, “mean”, “vicious” and “wrong” are all words that imply a judgment. The two previous extended quotations from Love Wins remind us of the long series of questions that God asked of Job, who was questioning the way that God does things.
“Then the LORD said to Job, ‘Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it.’ Then Job answered the LORD and said, ‘Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; Even twice, and I will add nothing more.’
Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm and said, ‘Now gird up your loins like a man; I will ask you, and you instruct Me. Will you really annul My judgment? Will you condemn Me that you may be justified? Or do you have an arm like God, And can you thunder with a voice like His?’” – Job 40:1-3,6-9
Is Rob Bell a fault finder of God? Is Rob Bell reproving God for being who is He in his very essence, nature and attributes? Is Rob Bell trying to instruct the eternal God who has all power, knows all things and is everywhere present at the same time? Is Rob Bell trying to annul the righteous judgments of God? Is Rob Bell condemning God so that he can be justified in his understanding of who God is? These are serious questions that Rob Bell needs to answer
GOD IS THE CREATOR
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk or who laid its cornerstone … “ – Job 38:4-6
GOD IS ALL POWERFUL (OMNIPOTENT)
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea Or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you understood the expanse of the earth? Tell Me, if you know all this.
Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth a constellation in its season and guide the Bear with her satellites? Do you know the (ordinances of the heavens, Or fix their rule over the earth?” – Job 38:16-18,22
As we conclude this first article, we can only hope that Bell’s response will be the same as that of Job
“Then Job answered the LORD and said, ‘I know that You can do all things, And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me. I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.'” – Job 42:1-6