I’m going to hazard a guess that most readers of this blog are familiar with the recent uproar caused by Rob Bell’s promotion of his newest book, titled, Love Wins. If you’re not, let me give you the brief version:
Rob Bell is a popular teacher, most famous for his NOOMA videos where he gives short, poignant teachings, usually framed with lots of probing questions. Young adults especially are attracted to his tendency towards unconventional methods of teaching and his very vocal belief that we should be living like Jesus lived, being kind and compassionate to all sorts of people. However, he has also been viewed with concern by many church leaders for quite some time, who have felt that he has been worryingly silent on some major theological issues (such as the need for conversion) and carelessly dismissive of others (such as the virgin birth) [source]. Judging from the promotional material for his recently-announced book, it appears to many people that this book is going to clarify Bell’s position as a universalist. Universalism claims that there is no such thing as eternal punishment, and that all people eventually are saved and spend eternity in heaven. This is a serious enough break with the Bible to qualify as heresy.
While the book has not yet been released, and it is thus too early to say for sure if that’s Bell’s position, current indicators are not looking good. The promo video has him asking incredulously if we can know for sure that Gandhi (a Buddhist) is in Hell. He asks how a God who sends people to Hell could possibly be good. From that line of thought, he directly transitions into stating that people are often repelled by Christianity because “they see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies”. He wraps up with saying that “…whatever we have been told and been taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine. The good news is that love wins” [YouTube source]. While a shadow of reasonable doubt concerning his theological stance can be upheld, it’s awfully hard not to worry.
Though I will firmly reject Bell’s theology if he turns out to deny eternal punishment — and will be profoundly unimpressed with his misleading marketing if he doesn’t — he is certainly right about one thing: Love does win. Of course love wins.
We just need to know what that looks like.
At its core, love looks like a bleeding, broken Man nailed to a Cross — and oh, by the way, this Man just so happens to be God. You know, God — the same One we had been sinning against and grieving for millennia. The same One we accuse of being too harsh for allowing anyone to end up in Hell. The One we, as the human race, had resoundingly hated and reviled. Yes, that God. The fact that He hung there on that tree is how we know what love even is (1 John 3:16). No one on earth has ever had a love greater than this (John 15:13).
Backtracking a bit, we must see that God created humans because He wanted to have fellowship with them. He had no practical or sentimental need for us. He is just so overwhelmingly loving that He wanted to create a people with whom He would dwell and to whom He would reveal His glory. The Father desired to have children on the earth, and to raise up a people who would willingly love and be a worthy bride for His Son. And since He actually desired love, and not mere service, He allowed those people the dignity to choose Him or to turn Him away.
Yet with no other provocation than the words of a serpent, we rejected Him. He spent thousands of years then making Himself known, moving in and through His chosen nation on the earth, determined to bring forth a Seed who would redeem fallen humanity. All the while, we raged and kicked against His leadership, insisting on pursuing false gods and toxic, temporary pleasures. We had basically no interest in being right with God, and for any of us who did, we weren’t able to do it through our own works.
Anyone of lesser patience, grace, and wisdom, would have thrown in the towel on that mess in very short order. He had given us everything, and in return, we hated Him. He didn’t even owe our existence to us, much less salvation from our self-made condemnation. But nonetheless, He took an impossible situation with obstinate people, and gave a new and living way — He gave Himself, in the person of His Son. He humbled Himself across a dizzingly wide chasm to be the Mediator, the peacemaker, that fallen humanity could never produce. He took on human flesh and shed sinless human blood that we could actually be reconciled. Humanity was now no longer hopelessly cut off from the Holy God. The irresistible pattern of sin and death on earth had been definitively interrupted, and there was now hope for the kingdom of God to actually come to the earth without eradicating all the people on it. People could commune with God. God could actually live inside of people. Satan couldn’t stop it. Humans were being won over by it. It seemed like it couldn’t be done… but God did it (Luke 18:26-27).
Clearly, though, the whole of humanity did not respond to the God (who is love) showing us what love really looks like. A number of us did respond, to be sure. But others dug in their heels yet harder, refusing to love the One who is altogether lovely. Though He gave absolutely everything possible to give, this too was scorned and rejected by many. They preferred living in futility and darkness to submitting to the light and love of God. They preferred raging against God to being humbled and broken by His unfathomable sacrifice for them. They would rather cultivate a heart given over to vile and worldly lusts than one that is alive in love for God and for people.
So now, in this context, what does God’s love look like? It is easy to recognize it in things that we approve of, that give us good feelings, and that materially benefit us — things like financial blessing, physical health, and peace and prosperity in our nation. It’s true that God can, and does show us love through those means. But if we think God’s love only means He did the Cross thing, and now is nice to us, we miss a significant aspect of what the Bible says His love is like.
Song of Solomon describes it this way: “…love is as strong as death, jealousy as cruel as the grave; its flames are flames of fire, a most vehement flame” (SoS 8:6). We have to remember that, in God’s love, He is as a bridegroom in love with a bride. The love of a husband for his wife includes, and even necessitates, jealousy. One would have to wonder what kind of husband would smile politely and welcome illicit lovers of his betrothed wife into his house. One would have wonder even more what kind of husband would treat an abuser of his wife in such a casual way. The book of Proverbs doesn’t imagine the possibility of that scenario, but rather says, “Jealousy is a husband’s fury; therefore he will not spare in the day of vengeance” (Prov 6:5).
Keeping that in mind, let’s look forward a couple of thousand years from the Cross. Here, we come to Revelation 19, describing the end of this present evil age. Jesus is returning to earth, He is rescuing His people from oppression and persecution, and He is going to make the wrong things right once and for all. Anyone will readily agree that this is a good thing. No more pain? No more suffering? No more injustice? Yes! Do it, Lord! All of heaven and all of the saints rejoice in this, and specifically in two things: 1) The marriage of the Lamb (19:6-9), and 2) the destruction of a corrupt worldly system, whose smoke of burning torment will rise forever (19:1-5).
Wait, what? Rejoicing over the Lake of Fire? Whatever happened to love? Isn’t this scene a bit harsh?
Not when it means that wickedness is definitively answered once and for all, it doesn’t. Revelation describes this city, this Babylon system, that is being tortured with fire forever: it is a great harlot (17:1), the kings commit fornication with her (17:1), the inhabitants of the earth are made drunk with her immorality (17:1), she has a cup full of abominations and filthiness (17:4), she is gleefully killing believers (17:6), she oppresses multitudes (17:15), her sins reach to heaven (18:5), she is haughty (18:7), and she trades in human trafficking as casually as she does in livestock (18:13). There is nothing remotely virtuous or misunderstood about this system. Although many people will mourn the loss of its great wealth — Such a contribution to the world’s economy! Such splendor! Such artistry! — the entire system is wicked, through and through, with nothing remotely redemptive about it.
In Revelation, we also see the condition of humanity as a whole — people are killing one another (6:3), worshiping idols (9:20), unrepentantly engaging in murder, sorcery,* sexual immorality, and theft (9:21), raucously rejoicing over the death of anointed prophets (11:9-10), worshiping Satan and the Antichrist (13:8), openly blaspheming God (16:11,21), and gathering with malicious and fully cognizant intention to fight against Jesus — the very One who gave them every opportunity and means to be saved in the first place (16:14,16).
Despite what is sometimes heard in well-meaning sermons, God is not throwing people into the Lake of Fire over that one stick of gum they stole from the drugstore when they were six. Although He would hypothetically be justified in doing so, it is never, ever as simple as that. No one ever lives a life that would be holy if it were not for that one stick of gum. The person who rejects Christ’s sacrifice is committing the greatest injustice of all time — looking at the full extent of God’s love and claiming they don’t need it, don’t want it, don’t agree with it, or outright hate the idea of it. And with such a complete disagreement with the Holy One, it is just a matter of time, opportunity, and pressure before all manner of unrighteous thoughts and actions begin to emerge. People do not end up in Hell because they were pretty good, but not quite good enough for Heaven. People end up in Hell because they reject righteousness, truth, and holiness — and it is not possible for them to do otherwise because they have rejected the One who defines and embodies those things.
How could a good God look at raging injustice, with people killing and plundering one another, running wild in every sin they ever desired, allying themselves with the father of lies himself, and shrug it off? How could a good God say, “Well, it just seems so harsh to do anything too severe. I mean, come on, they made some mistakes. I’m willing to look the other way, because I just hate seeing people suffer. I am nice, so I refuse to intervene.”
In other words, how can a good God be seriously unopposed to evil? How can a good God be willing to tolerate suffering, injustice, and hatred on the earth forever? How could a good God allow His saints to eternally be persecuted and killed under the reign of sin, in order to avoid making utterly unrepentant people suffer in divine punishment?
Jealousy is a husband’s fury; therefore He will not spare in the day of vengeance. It is because God is love that He must deal with wickedness once and for all. It’s because He is love that there is a Lake of Fire to begin with. It’s because He is love that He even allows people to say no to Him. And at the end of the day, it is His love that will completely and finally deal with injustice and sin. When there is no more sorrow or sighing, when death is defeated, when God dwells on the earth with us and we are forever dwelling in the fullness of joy in His presence — when all the wicked have been cast into the lake of fire — it will all be fulfilled. Sickness will be no more. Pain will be no more. The devil will be destroyed forever. The world will truly be right.