Love Wins (no, really it does)

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This past week I worked my way through Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins.’

I realize I am rather late to the party, and, to belabor the metaphor, I was actually quite content to not even attend the party at all, as I find most books written by  prominent contemporary mega-church pastors to be dreadfully boring with nothing terribly interesting to say.

Love Wins was certainly no exception. To be fair, I was not expecting much. A few years ago I attempted to read Velvet Elvis and simply could not bring myself to stay awake long enough to read it.

Not even half of it.

Obviously, my previous sentence is slightly tongue in cheek- while it is actually true that I only managed about 40% of the book, the use of a single statement offset from a paragraph for emphatic effect is meant to be demonstrative of the (near) entirety of Rob Bell’s writing style.

Excellent point.

At this juncture in any reaction to this type of book it is common practice to qualify the subsequent thoughts in advance with statements to the effect of “I have a great deal of respect for Rob, and I think he asks some good questions and makes some good points, but I am going to offer a scathing critique nevertheless” or “Rob isn’t taking a systematic or exegetical approach to this discussion, but is rather looking at the overall narrative, asking questions that probe the boundaries and assumptions of x traditional understanding of x.”

Or something in between.

Which is stupid.

Ok, it’s not actually stupid, (or perhaps I should have phrased it in the form of a question? hyperbole is better interrogatively, after all) but it betokens a rather unfortunate reality within the modern world (or at least on the internet, which is too often the same thing) in which one must qualify one’s feelings towards an individual’s work/thought/beliefs while offering a response to it, as if to have x reaction to someone’s writing automatically correlates with some ready-made personal or emotional posture towards them.

Which is stupid.

And I blame the internets for everything.

Except cute kitteh pics.

What does this have to do with the Love Wins?

Nothing.
And Everything.

I have already mentioned that I don’t really like Bell’s writing or his writing style. I understand that it is meant to be quasi-poetic and use metaphors and imagery and stories and such, but none of these really seem to apply to the actual writing style. If it is supposed to be poetic, it’s honestly simply weak poetry. The metaphors and imagery are likewise not terribly compelling, and are often only half-heartedly developed.

I think the biggest difficulty is that Bell’s writing gives off the impression that it is attempting to be a long-form Nooma in a book. While some of the Noomas are monumentally forgettable, (‘Name’ quite readily comes to mind) some of them are actually reasonably profound, such as Dust, which, although steeped in rather glaring anachronisms, is nevertheless able to overcome such pedantic objections with its underlying theme.

The careful reader may sense a tension in my thoughts so far, in that I seem to have contradicted my own posture towards approaches to this book.

Which is stupid.

To which I might object that I am merely attempting to deconstruct traditional approaches to reacting to this book.

I might be merely parodying Bell’s writing style to prove a point.

I could also be intentionally contradicting myself to embrace the tension and live within it.

Perhaps the stream of critique is wider than we are used to admit, and deep enough to envelop more.

So which is it?

Is it deconstruction?
Is it a parody?
Is it an intentional contradiction?
Is the stream wider and deeper than we could have ever imagined?

If you feel your mind succumbing to boredom and frustration so far, wishing that I would get on with it, sighing because I am plodding incessantly through tenuously connected thoughts that may (one may dare to hope) have some underlying teleology, then you know how I feel.

Alright, enough of that. This post is not really intended as a review of Love Wins, because I honestly did not find most of it interesting enough to do a complete review. It’s an extremely quick read: I finished it in a little over an hour. Lest one imagine that I merely scanned through it, the book itself is only 200 pages, and employs a fairly large typeface. (Gotham Light, perhaps?) Additionally, as Rob writes in short bursts, often with only one to three words to a line, there is a lot of empty space for paragraph breaks.

Which is fine. (ok, ok… enough is enough.)

Given that I found the book generally uninteresting, the only portions that really caused my intellect to perk up were the portions which really strained the limits of credulity. As such, since those portions were about the only remotely interesting items in my reading of Love Wins, what follows is a brief engagement with them, in no particular order.

Gates

Rob engages in a bit of speculation, and speaks of the gates of the New Jerusalem in this manner:

But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go.

Rob uses this to hold out the possibility that there is a chance of eventual reconciliation with those who are outside. Notwithstanding the assumptions about ‘time’ that are wrapped up in this, (which I’ll look at in another point) the discussion of gates cannot simply end there.

In the ancient world, gates were a symbol of a city’s strength. A gate would be one of the weakest elements of a city’s fortifications, as it would be the convergence point for an enemy attack, and thus a strong gate meant a strong fortification. During the day gates could remain open because the army was roused and ready for battle, good visibility meant that approaching threats could be quickly identified and preparations made. Having the gates opened was a symbol of strength, a symbol of peace.

Thus, for gates to remain open conveys the idea of strength and security-  nothing can threaten the city. In fact, the most interesting aspect of this passage is what Rob doesn’t really deal with. Previously there is the battle between the Lamb and his enemies, between God and Babylon. (Babylon obviously refers to Rome, a city that itself had relatively few fortifications because of being secure in its own greatness and the strength of its armies.) These same enemies in all their vices and hatred of God and the blessed are the ones who are spoken of as being ‘outside.’ This is actually quite profound, in that even though the enemies of God are outside of the gates, the gates remain open.

The picture presented here is of course consonant with the audience to whom this is written. Christians are being persecuted by their enemies, oftentimes those who have power and represent the authority of Rome. In John’s vision the promise is that those who endure to the end will be safe from their oppressors, that God’s power is so much greater that even the presence of their enemies can cause no fear. This, of course, harkens back to David’s words in the Psalms where he says “He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Another interesting bit from the Apocalypse’s description is the presence of angels at the gate. As Revelation is engaging in a recapitulation of sorts of the Genesis story, the presence of angels seems a rather unmistakable reference to the angel positioned outside of the garden for the explicit purpose of guarding the tree of life. This is cashed out in the passage immediately following the description of the gates: “But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.”

Granted, one cannot perhaps read too much into the metaphorical language and draw an exact equivalence between the language as allegorical and a theological position, but at the same time, if the language and imagery of gates is going to be employed to make a theological point, or at the very least to engage in theological speculation, as Rob does here, the entirety of the image and not simply one component of it would seem to be the proper object to pursue.

However, one of the more troubling aspects of Rob’s speculation is in the idea that “people are free to come and go.” If we grant that those outside (the enemies of God) are free to come into the city after eventually having a change of heart, (or for whatever reason) what reason might there be for not allowing that those who are in the city might equally have a change of heart and choose to go outside the gates? Rob seems to answer it himself earlier:

We see people choose another way all the time. That impulse lurks in all of us. So will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides possibility. People take that option now, and we can assume it will be taken in the future.

For John’s original audience, the fight against sin would only be just beginning; indeed, it would never actually end. Even after death, even after persevering unto the end, that impulse would still lurk within, and one may still eventually succumb to it. Rather than a message of hope for those undergoing suffering, it would seem to be more of a message of despair. Granted, they may eventually choose to return to God, but that would leave open the possibility that even after such a return another relapse could occur, ad infinitum.

Rob talks elsewhere about telling good stories, and it’s hard to imagine that being a good story.

Mothers and Sons

The boundaries of credulity were equally probed in Rob’s treatment of the request of the mother of James and John.

In Matthew 20 the mother of two of Jesus’ disciples says to Jesus, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and other at your left in your kingdom.” She doesn’t want bigger mansions or larger piles of gold for them, because static images of wealth and prosperity were not what filled people’s heads when they thought of heaven in her day. She understood heaven to be about partnering with God to make a new and better world, one with increasingly complex and expansive expressions and dimensions of shalom, creativity, beauty and design.

It is far from evident that Jewish people did not envision the coming of God’s kingdom or heaven in earthly or at least quasi-earthly terms. Given the anti-Roman sentiment that existed among them, the existence of the Zealots, the crowds following Jesus because he gave them food to eat, the failure of the crowds and even the disciples to understand Jesus’ parables concerning the kingdom of heaven, the attempts of the crowds to proclaim Jesus king, the welcoming of Jesus into Jerusalem as king, and the very real historical uprising that led to the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, it certainly brings into question such an assumption.

It is also hardly clear from the story in Matthew that the mother’s motives are so noble or that she had this understanding that Rob predicates of her. In fact, as Mark relates that James and John made the request, it seems rather to be the case that they knew their motives were bogus and stooped low enough to attempt to mask their real desires behind their mother’s request. The whole notion that she wanted them to partner with God in the ways that Rob describes is exploded by Jesus having to immediately give all the disciples a lecture on greatness in the kingdom of heaven. Rather, Matthew and Mark both make it extremely clear that James and John (and it would seem the other disciples as well) still had a concept of the kingdom of God that involved power and all that goes along with it.

The interesting thing is that even following the resurrection the disciples still have this notion that God’s kingdom involves these types of things, in that they are still inquiring as to when Jesus is going to set up his kingdom on earth. After all, they ask him: “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” In fact, according to Luke’s narrative it is the last question they pose to him. It would take the coming of the Holy Spirit for them to understand differently.

Sheep and Goats and Other Words

Far more strained is Rob’s treatment of the sheep and the goats. This is one of the only sections in which he goes after some kind of exegesis, leaving one with little but to wish that he hadn’t. But first we have to back up to a previous section and look at his concept of aion.

Aion is one of those words that is not easy to find an equivalence in English for, not only because of the linguistic difficulties involved, but also because of the baggage that many people normally attach to certain words. Aion is translated in many cases as ‘eternity,’ sometimes as ‘age,’ ‘the worlds,’ etc. Here Rob points out accurately that aion has different meanings and that it doesn’t really point to the idea of ‘forever’ that many normally associate with ‘forever’ or ‘eternity;’ that is, a perpetual sequence of measurable units of time that go on without end.

I agree wholeheartedly with this critique of the colloquial understanding of ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting.’ To understand forever as a clock that simply keeps on ticking and ticking without end is certainly foreign to the linguistic import of aion.

However, Rob then goes on to say

The first meaning of this word refers to a period of time with a beginning and an end.

This is not entirely accurate. Certainly aion can be referring to something that is (at least in retrospect) limited in duration, something that has a beginning and an end. However, the word primarily dealt with the totality of the subject in view, and thus conceptually either was concrete in its view of the totality (e.g., aion referring to the duration of a human life) or abstracted from limitation to refer to something in regards to its perpetuus. (e.g., the aion of the Emperor’s glory and reign.) Thus, aion is more about looking out beyond the horizon of view, without specifically referring to a beginning or an end or to duration. (As the Hebrew olam essentially has the same view, olam was usually rendered for aion in the Septuagint. In fact, olam is far more about the undefined and hazy horizon of view.)

We then move on to the parable of the sheep of the goats, which is certainly not one of Rob’s finest moments.

Since the story of the sheep and the goats is readily accessible in Matthew 25, I won’t belabor the already robust length of this post by recounting it. Rob goes on to say this:

The goats are sent, in the Greek language, to an aion of kolazo. Aion, as we know, has several meanings. One is “age” or “period of time”; another refers to intensity of experience. The word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish.

An aion of kolazo. Depending on how you translate aion and kolazo, then, the phrase can mean “a period of pruning” or a “time of trimming,” or an intense experience of correction.

There are quite a few difficulties with this, that it’s almost difficult to know where to begin. However, that has never stopped me before, so let’s proceed.

The biggest struggle I have with his statement about an ‘aion of kolazo‘ is not necessarily his translation or the rendering he gives, but rather that neither aion nor kolazo actually occurs within the story about the sheep and the goats. At the risk of being pedantic, (a risk I am more than willing to take) Rob engages in one of the most rudimentary of errors- that of defining the meaning of a word based upon its etymology.

Let’s start with kolazo. Rob is correct that it is a term from horticulture, which has reference to pruning. This would be a potentially fascinating insight if kolazo were actually used in the passage. However, it isn’t. Rather, the term is kolasin. (kolasis)

Close enough, surely?

It is true that kolasin has kolazo as its root and is derived etymologically from the latter; however, simply because one word shares an etymological relationship with another does not mean that one can then define the actual word employed by its etymological root.

The fact that one is a noun and one is a verb is another matter altogether.

In reality, while kolazo can indeed refer to pruning, in and of itself the term is not ‘positive’ (in regards to helping a tree to grow). The idea is of ‘lopping off,’ and can be employed of pruning a tree (which, to be sure, is good for the tree, but bad for the twigs being pruned) as much as clipping the wings of a bird. (bad for the bird)

Additionally, kolazo is certainly not limited to the implication of pruning. Its comparative use in the scriptures demonstrates that chastisement and correction and even punishment is as applicable. (Not to mention that this sense had already been applied to it centuries antecedent to the NT) For example, in Acts 4:21 kolazo is employed in reference to the Council’s decision to not further detain and punish Peter and John:

When they had threatened them further, they let them go (finding no basis on which to punish [kolazo] them) on account of the people, because they were all glorifying God for what had happened.

If ‘pruning’ were indeed meant here, one might wonder what exactly the substance of the threats may have been.

However, let’s assume for the sake of argument that kolasin retains essentially the same meaning as kolazo in regards to pruning. As aforementioned, kolazo etymologically contained more of the idea of ‘lopping off,’ which is either positive (but only indirectly) or negative in reference to the object of kolazo. For the plant, pruning is a good thing, in that it removes the dead and unfruitful branches. However, for the branches, which are object of the action, pruning is nothing short of destructive. There is nothing within the term kolazo itself that necessarily determines which view is in sight. (Actually, while this borders tenuously on the anachronistic, Aristotle defined the derived term kolasis as having reference to the one who suffers, which may hint at the view intended by its etymological ancestor.)

Notwithstanding that, the idea of branches being pruned is not unheard of in the Scriptures. Jesus uses a quite striking image of the vine and the branches- the branches which do not bear fruit are cut off and thrown into the fire and burned. In this image, it is only the branches which remain in him that are pruned, not the ones who do not remain in him.

But back to my initial observation- the term being employed is not kolazo but rather kolasin. Etymologically related? Yes. Essentially the same word? No. While kolazo certainly originally had the idea of pruning, kolasis, at least quite long before the time of the NT, had essentially lost this connotation. (The idea of chastisement or punishment was even within the scope of meaning for Plato and Aristotle, in the Septuagint, Philo, et. al. That is not to say that it was employed in a monolithic way by these, but neither was it a meaning that was not present or available.)

I have already mentioned that there is another missing word in Rob’s rendering of this passage, and that is aion. Rather, the word employed is aionios. As with kolazo and kolasin, aionios is etymologically related to aion, in that aionios is the adjectival form of aion. However, while the words are similar in derivation, aionios is a far more specific and philosophical term.

Aionios was heavily influenced in meaning and import by Plato, who conceived of the world as a moving image of eternity; the gods stand outside of the world in an existence that is not only eternal but has the quality of sameness- not being subject to change, time, etc.

In Plato’s view this is constitutive of aionios– not simply eternity but the eternity of sameness, of always bearing within one’s being the same immutable essence. Aionios, thus, is essentially to describe the life of God, or, more accurately, God. Since it can only be truly predicated of God, aionios essentially is an adjective of contrast, setting the eternal immutable world of God against the created world that is nevertheless an eternal image.

As such, aionios (in a similar manner as aion) does not have duration in view, in the sense of measurable segments of time moving forward without end. However, this duration-less-ness of aionios is not because of it not lasting forever, but rather because it has as it characteristic element the idea of being incapable of change.

Rob perhaps senses a disconnect here, for he goes on to state that ‘forever’ (in the sense of measurable segments moving forward without end) was not a concept held by the Jews or cashed out by the somewhat equivalent term olam. There are two considerations here. Firstly, olam is the nearly equivalent term to aion, not aionios. One would expect the difference between the two to be significant, as the difference between two closely related Greek words is likewise significant. Secondly, it is in all probability anachronistic to cash out the 1st century Jewish concept (or lack thereof) of ‘eternity’ based upon the meaning of a Hebrew word, for the simple reason that by Jesus’ day a majority, if not more, of Jews did not read or speak Hebrew in a primary sense. At the very least a wide majority of Jews used the Septuagint as their scriptures, and had for some time. The Septuagint was even used in Jerusalem and quoted by such writers and Philo and Josephus.

As such, for many Jews the Septuagint helped to form their religious and philosophical worldview. In this manner, words such as aionios which were loaded with philosophical and theological meanings (especially for those who had been educated) had their underlying Greek connotations brought to bear more so than Hebrew equivalents, many of which might very well be incomprehensible to some, or at least lessened in import and formative power. Granted, the ancient world was certainly not monolithic, but neither can the meanings of words commonly used by Greek authors be overlooked.

Having said all of that, it’s time to return to Rob’s statement that prompted this whole tangent. 🙂

Aionios, as aforementioned, in not the same as aion, nor does it mean the same, and so from outset Rob’s approach seems riddled with problems. Aion, after all, is a noun, and aionios is an adjective. They are certainly related, but definitely not equivalent, at the very least any more than any noun can be equivalent to a related adjective.

Adjectives, of course, modify nouns, and aionion is no exception. It is grammatically linked to kolasin and functions to modify kolasin as a predicate; that is, it is describing something about kolasin. (i.e., predicating something of it.)

Thus, Rob’s rendering of this passage as ‘a period of pruning’ leaves us in a bit of a dilemma. For such a translation to be valid, there would have to be a completely different grammatical structure to this passage; something like that would necessitate that both kolasis and aionios be in the genitive case, not the accusative case.

Naturally, since the parallel passage (but the righteous into eternal life) has an identical grammatical construction, it all but raises this question: Is ‘but the righteous into eternal life’ equally to be rendered ‘a period of life’ or ‘a time of life’ or ‘an intense experience of life?’

As such, there are some extremely large difficulties with Rob’s treatment of this passage.
Update: I’ve added a few lines of clarification to what follows since initially writing it.

The last portion that I found interesting was perhaps not (at least primarily) with the book itself, but rather with some reactions to it. I have noticed that a lot of bloggers, commentators and reviewers who have less than positive reactions to it generally fall into the trap of allowing the title of the book to define the boundaries of approach to this subject.

After all, the book is called Love Wins. Rob doesn’t say a whole lot of definite things, which is fine, but his final baseline conclusion seems to be that the reconciliation of all creation- in that all people will ultimately share in the grace of salvation- is at the very least a possibility, in that it is possible that the experience of ‘separation’ from God in hell may not be ‘forever.’ (Others are far more willing to ascribe out-and-out universalism to Rob, but it seems clear that his arguments are, at least in the book, quite a bit more hedged than that, being closer to something of an apocatastasis or Origen or Gregory of Nyssa, although, in my opinion, not as compelling.)

The difficulty arises in that if one holds to the dogmatic understanding of hell as being everlasting, (the dogmatic nature of which is not comprised of conceiving of eternity as a series of time-measured units flowing on one after another without end) one can easily already be at a disadvantage in the realm of categorization. If ‘Love Winning’ signifies at least the possibility that hell is not forever, then if one does hold to a different conclusion, does that mean ‘love doesn’t win?’ And who doesn’t want love to win? I have noticed that some reviewers find themselves in the awkward position of saying something like, ‘well, love doesn’t always win, and doesn’t win with everyone in the end.’

With a proper understanding of being, sin and forever, one can hold to the dogmatic understandings of eschatology while whole-heartedly affirming that ‘Love Wins.’

Sin is not primarily about the bad things we do, violating an arbitrary standard or being born to wrong parents in the wrong place at the wrong time, so that we are dangling over the pits of Hell just waiting to be dropped into its caverns. Rather, sin is primarily an ontological problem, in that it is the privation of being. Being comes from God alone; without our being sustained at every moment by God, we would be non-existent. To be in sin is to be like the branches in Jesus’ statement about the vine and the branches- it is to be dead, cut off from the vine which is the source of life.

Rob talks about how God creates, and how creation is a joy. I agree. The thing about being, though, is that God is unwilling for it to ‘not be.’ So unwilling for this that God, who is beyond being itself, took upon himself our being to repair the damage off our lifelessness and sin. If God is the aionios of Plato’s conception, we are that moving image of eternity; but the distance between us is vast. The Incarnation is the ultimate shattering of the boundaries between God and creation, in that Jesus raises humanity and creation up, ontologically speaking, into the life of God.

For God, duration is as meaningless as time or any other category that could predicated of created being. God simply is. Even this simple world is inadequate, because it implies the possibility of ‘isn’t,’ which is not applicable to God. While some might describe eternity as an ‘eternal present,’ even the term ‘present’ speaks to a ‘past’ and a ‘future,’ a ‘then’ and a ‘now,’ which breaks apart the entire analogy.

To share in the life of God is to transcend the limits of time and space that characterize being. Heaven and Hell are not ‘places’ in the spatial sense anymore than they have ‘duration’ in the sense of a linear mode of time. As such, to talk about those in hell ‘eventually’ coming to understand the desperation of their rejection of God is simply a categorical error. Rather, heaven and hell are at their core ultimately categories of relation.

Heaven is less about pleasure and fun and bliss than it is about union with God.
Hell is less about torment and punishment and fire than it is about union with God.

Rob makes an interesting statement near the end of the book regarding the parable of the prodigal son about how we are all at the same party- we are either enjoying it, or we are moping in the corner. I actually felt this was one of Rob’s more insightful thoughts. A similar analogy could be drawn with the sun: (apropos for aionios as understood by Plato vis-a-vis the Allegory of the Cave) for someone with healthy eyes, the sun is the source of illumination and brightness. It lights up the world, displaying its beauty and majesty. However, for a person with weak eyes, the sun is a source of pain and burning, and not only does it hurt, but it actually blinds.

Union with God is the telos of human existence. It is the only thing which can satisfy the longings of the human, the only thing which can answer the reason for existing in the first place. All creation will be in union with God, for God will be all in all. However, hell is not to be actually ‘separated’ from God, for anything that has being is permeated and sustained by God. Rather, hell is to be in a union one does not desire. The difficulty with sin is that it is ultimately the longing for any good that is less than Goodness itself, less than God. Any lesser good is not really a good at all, but becomes a void that simply cannot satisfy the craving for the transcendental Good that is constituent of our being. The aionios of this empty craving is hell itself, the burning of desire for that which cannot ever satisfy.

Sin tends towards non-being, and as such the desire for sin is as backwards as it is tragic, since it brings about the privation of being. Sin will not win out the end, however, for God will not allow that which he created to dissolve into non-being. Hell is the ‘last’ (in actuality the ‘always-the-same’) merciful act of Love who desires things to be and will jealously not let them ‘not be.’ Love is, in its primordial essence, deeper than sentiment or emotion, wider than space and time, higher than desire or affection; it is the substance and impetus of being itself.

Sin will not have the last word, and all the creation that God so lovingly brought into being will share in aionios, even the ones who in their sin would prefer the universe to melt into nothingness.

Heaven is forever.
Hell is forever.

Because, after all, Love Wins.

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Jason Watson

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