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Love Always Wins

2011 February 28

I spent this past weekend in an experience that gave me more hope in the church than I have felt in a long while. I had been invited to lead workshops on everyday justice at the Salvation Army’s Call for Imaginative Faith Conference, and I ended up being amazed by what I saw at that conference. I know the SA has issues and I don’t agree with all of their theology, but I saw for the first time a church using their passion for Jesus to do serious work to care for God’s creation and God’s people. I saw denominational leaders confessing of a past where their church cared only for the spiritual and not the holistic needs of people. I heard stories of carbon offset projects in China that restore eroded lands by planting mulberry trees – trees on which silk worms can grow, providing a source of income for women in an area preyed upon by human traffickers. I heard stories of the rebuilding of New Orleans that focused on people’s strengths and not simply their vulnerabilities – getting at and helping fix the root of their problems (like asking why people can no longer afford to pay their electricity bills and discovering it is because some church group rebuilt their home as cheaply and as energy-inefficiently as possible -which can start to be addressed by giving them a $50 dollar home greening kit). I was amazed by the creative and imaginative ways I saw people doing whatever they can to do the most good as they strived to always love God and love others.

And then I came home and saw the social networks ablaze with the inquisitional fires of the evangelical church jumping at the chance to denounce Rob Bell for his audacity at (supposedly) proclaiming in his upcoming book that in the end love truly does win. From the blog posts dismissing him for his universalism to John Piper’s juvenile tweet of “farewell Rob Bell,” it was hard not to laugh at the absurdity. Here I had spent a weekend having my faith in the church’s ability to actually follow Jesus somewhat restored to only be immediately reminded of the vitriol many in the evangelical world possess for any who don’t buy into their very historically recent and rather scripturally unfounded definition of what it means to be a “biblical Christian.” But what truly got to me was how in how this debate was framed those opposing Bell’s ideas were being forced to claim that in the end God’s love actually doesn’t win. Like Jonah pouting after God didn’t utterly annihilate the people of Nineveh, they are actually defending a system that puts limits on God’s love simply because they want to be the ones with a corner on the truth who get all the goodies in the end. Call it doctrine or dogma or self-centeredness, it simply confounds me that people still continue to argue against the love of God.

What appears to be at the source of the controversy is Bell’s supposed claim that a loving God would never judge anyone to eternity in hell (although since most people –including myself – have not read the book yet, no one really knows if that is what he is actually saying. But check out the YouTube promo video here). So Bell is being called a universalist which in evangelicalese is code for “I’m a heretic who hates the Bible” (or something to that effect). But if Bell is saying what I think he’s saying (and of course I have no idea, but I’m throwing my 2 cents in anyway), he is actually far more in line with traditional orthodox Christian theology than this new-fangled thing called evangelical theology. I’m betting that the position he is asserting is that of a universalist who believes in hell (which is where I’ve found myself landing these days as well).

In this view nothing – not human doctrine nor prejudice – can stand in the way of a God seeking to reconcile all things to godself. God created humans to be in constant relationship with godself – growing ever closer to mirroring the image of God we were created in. We instead chose to attempt to be godlike without God, walking away from God in the process. But God did not reject us. God could have withdrawn from us, casting us away from divine perfection – annihilating us in the process since by nature we could not exist apart from that which we were meant to be in eternal relationship with. Instead God was merciful and simple let us walk away. But like Dante so beautifully portrayed in his Divine Comedy, even as the furthest reaches of hell are frozen over as Satan flaps his wings in a furious attempt to fly further and further away from God, he is still not out of the reach of God’s love. Hell exists, but it is a place of our own creation as we try to flee from God asserting “our will be done” instead of “thy will be done.” God does not condemn us to hell, or cast us out of his presence (which would destroy us); instead God pursues us out of Eden and even into hell, offering the gift of blessing and redemption. We are meant by nature to be in relation with God, created in God’s image our purpose is to bear that image and continually reflect it back to God through our acts of worship in this world. Despite our attempts to flee to the furthest reaches of hell, God still reaches out to us because if we still exist, we are still image-bearers, and God seeks after us to restore the racked icons of our person to godself.

When the historical church couldn’t understand how a person could be forgiven and reconciled to God they declared them an anathema which means that their fate be cast up to a higher court for although it was beyond them how they that person is in Christ he or she could never be beyond God. And if in the consummation of creation all things will be reconciled to God, then unless we want to assert that God rejects and therefore annihilates those who flee from him, we have to believe that in the end God’s relentless pursuit of his beloved results in the actual redemption and reconciliation of all things. In the end all that belongs to God, all that was created in the image of God, will turn away from its rebellion and be reconciled unto God. In short, in the end love wins. Love is not fettered by temporal constraints, or extended only to the workers that arrived early in the day. We were created to be in relationship with God, and it is the return to that state of theosis where we can participate in the covenant where we are blessed to extend God’s blessing to the world that God desires for us.

I saw a glimmer of a church that got that with the Salvation Army this past weekend – a group of passionate followers of Jesus taking seriously the call to end the injustices that stand in the way of the blessing and reconciling of the world. They know, in their own peculiar way, that love wins. So instead of trying to put limits on God’s ability to redeem creation and pouting about wanting to be the only ones the divine lover chooses to pursue, maybe we can start acting as if God really does rule the universe. Maybe we can accept the gift of God’s love and instead of selfishly keeping it all to ourselves we live into our identity as blessed icons and give that love away.

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23 Responses leave one →
  1. February 28, 2011

    Julie,

    Thank you for this thoughtful and reflective posting on the whole issue surrounding Rob Bell. Why is it such a bad thing to believe that God’s love might actually prevail?

  2. February 28, 2011

    Yes, I thought Love Wins is the essence of the gospel. When did that become controversial? Your third paragraph is beautifully written.

  3. February 28, 2011

    “Which in evangelicalese is code for ‘I’m a heretic who hates the Bible'” gets a simultaneous happy face and smiley face.

    Beautiful and hopeful piece, Julie. And thanks for sharing your great experience with SA.

  4. February 28, 2011

    Make that happy and sad faces. :):(

  5. February 28, 2011

    Thanks girl! Amen on that! ya know i think i’m gonna get this verse tattooed on my friggin arm or down my back…………..
    Romans 8:38-39
    For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, 8:39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
    and prolly add “bad theology” to that list!
    xocathryn

  6. John M. permalink
    March 1, 2011

    Ironically, many of the same people who find your doctrine of hell heretical, are ardent admirers of C.S. Lewis, who put forth the same doctrine in The Great Divorce.

    But most of all – Well done, Salvation Army! The point is to share God’s love, in every way we can. Sounds like they’re doing that.

  7. March 1, 2011

    Julie, thanks for your thoughts here. Rob Bell is courageously devoted to the truth and has stepped out in the face of many whose incentive it is to maintain the status quo.

    I’ve also written my own thoughts on my own blog here.

  8. March 1, 2011

    Well done… I wishbI could have said it so well. I completely agree with your assessment or evangelical theology vs orthodox theology, I don’t think most people get that.

  9. March 1, 2011

    Hey Julie

    Nice to see your thoughts about your experience at the Sally Army (my tribe) conference. Really appreciated your perspective.

    I often wonder if we’ve not done the best job of letting folks know what we’re really about. I know I often get pangs of frustration at how we are often seen by society at large.

    J

  10. Robert M Wales permalink
    March 1, 2011

    You commend SA for thier work and rightly so. Having a ministry to homeless people I am aware of the great work they do. Every denomination does the same works through out the world so do all other religions and beneovelent org. So why is SA the only ones doing the work of God. I am an evagelical I have never said or even thought the things you say I have said or thought nor have I heard any of my friends say these things. What gives you the right to put lies in my mouth. In all the different churches I have attended never has anyone said love does not win on the contrary we believe Love is the greatest of all powers it conquers all.Romans says that nothing can seperate those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord from Gods love. If you are not in Christ Jesus and he is not Lord over your life you are seperated from Gods love. I have seen the worst this world has and know what it means to be seperated from Gods love, but it is always there for who so ever will believe in Christ Jesus. A heritic is some one who leads others away from God. Yet you say nothing can seperate us from God but brand people as heritcs. How can this contradiction be true? I have never found anybody I agree with 100% but disagreeing with some one doesn’t mean I brand them a heritic.
    One last question. If some many organizations are doing the same thing that the S.A. is doing why are they so bad? The only difference I can see is that they invited you to speak.

  11. March 1, 2011

    Robert – I find it interesting that you turn the Romans verse around to say that people can be outside of God’s love. The verse says that nothing can separate us from from “the love of God in Christ Jesus”, not that those who are in Christ Jesus are in God’s love. I agree that Jesus is the way God’s love and redemption is mediated to us, but I will not put a limit on God’s love to only those who in this life join the Jesus club. You just did exactly what you accused me of putting lies in your mouth about. You limited God’s love saying there there are people who are outside of God’s love – I just don’t think finite human beings have the ability to make that decision for God (not even if we turn around scripture to do so).

    And of course there are a lot of churches doing good things out there. But most churches I’ve encountered either don’t do so out of a passion for Jesus, or they assume acts of love are somehow subordinate to telling people about Jesus or to doing acts of contemplative worship. So IN MY EXPERIENCE of churches, the SA was a refreshing group to encounter. I understand you disagree with me, but that was not cause for you to insult my character with your line about invitations to speak.

  12. March 1, 2011

    Julie – I love it when your posts are so rich with truth that I know I am going to have to come back to them a dozen times before it all soaks in. With this whole Rob Bell controversy (and I am definitely getting his book!) I am scratching my head thinking “Where did we ever get the idea that God’s agape love was conditional?” It certainly isn’t in the Jhn 14:6 verse — that does not say you don’t get to heaven unless you are a Christian, it says that you have to go through the Son — so Jesus gets to decide, not us. Anything other than that smacks of arrogance and pride. Keep prechin’ it sister. Eventually our loving voices will be heard over the din of hate. Love WILL win in the end.

  13. March 2, 2011

    P.S. Here is a link to someone who has actually read the book:

    Love Wins

  14. March 2, 2011

    Thanks for this deep and thoughtful exposition on your position. I loved how rich and think your description of God’s love is for all. Thanks for the post it was certainly one of the best I’ve read in this whole storm of build up for that book.

  15. Erica permalink
    March 6, 2011

    Here’s a perspective from someone who actually HAS read the book:
    http://www.gregboyd.org/blog/

  16. John Jenkins permalink
    March 13, 2011

    Wrong. Justice wins.

  17. March 13, 2011

    John, two quotes came to my mind when I read your short comment. That of St. Isaac the Syrian is one I have pondered for some years now. Peace.

    Fear of torment is the way of a slave, desire of reward in the heavenly kingdom is the way of a hireling, but God’s way is that of a son, through love.

    —St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain

    Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, He says ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers?…How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us!

    —St. Isaac of Syria

  18. March 14, 2011

    Justice is love

  19. March 15, 2011

    Julie- I always love reading your thoughts in Sojourners, and was very glad to learn you have a blog. Thanks for sharing your insights.

  20. Jacob permalink
    February 19, 2012

    If there is no hell and in the end our faith doesn’t matter for God loves us too much to send us to hell then why be a christian, why even be a good person . Unless God is love and justice, that is why he sent his son to die for us out of love that is why we can go to hell for not following him is justice. John 3:16 For God so loved the world the he gave his one and only begotten son that WHOEVER(notice no conditions no exceptions) will have eternal life. John 3:3 JESUS answered him “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is BORN AGAIN he CANNOT see the kingdom of God.” this is God being just He gave a way it is up to us to take it.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. To Hell with Rob Bell? – Living Loud
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