“And then, all He—ck broke loose!” This was Chad Myers’ self-censored description of the tsunami that hit northern Japan on Friday morning, March 11. The video footage was awful. The geologist had it exactly right. There is no more suitable word to describe the stark terror of this terrible event than Hell. No other word in the English language better connects the reality of intense suffering with the despair of experiencing a monstrous and cataclysmic catastrophe. And this made me think of Love Wins, Rob Bell’s book about Hell which has just hit the local bookshelves.
Though I am still reading it, what seems clear is that Bell’s marketing teaser is pretty accurate. In his video-pod he boils down the essence of the traditional Gospel to the assertion that God is going to send you to Hell unless you believe in Jesus. The questions he asks is, “How could that God ever be good? And how could that ever be good news?” In his book he repeats these questions and several dozen more.
In Love Wins Bell is launching a serious critique against the orthodox belief in the reality of conscious, eternal torment for those who reject Christ. I will read it through to the end before engaging his ideas in detail, but in his preface he spells it out:
“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better…. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear” (Preface, vi).
Now, the really bad news hidden beneath Bell’s sympathetic and generous dismissal of the church’s historic teaching about an eternal Hell is that it drives evil and suffering, whether great and small, completely outside the providence of God. A good God who is too good to condemn to Hell is incapable of having anything to do with the major traumas of my life, except to (after the fact) put a kindly but impotent hand on my shoulder and sympathize with my pain. This good-natured, frustrated bystander to suffering can offer us no real hope or comfort at all.
The conclusion is obvious: God has nothing to do with the present calamity in Japan or Haiti’s devastation not so long ago, or any of the tragedies of life. Humans are stripped of hope that even in the bottomless depths of our sorrow God is purposefully, mysteriously at work in a multitude of ways and at a myriad of levels, disciplining, warning, protecting, training, refining, punishing, drawing, strengthening—and yes, loving. Stripping from God permission to “create darkness and light” leaves a major aspect of human reality devoid of His direct, gracious, and infinitely wise control.
What seems utterly inconceivable to the culture-current mind and contemporary teachers such as Bell is that God could be at both times good and severe; that He could be gracious and infinitely powerful; that He could forgive and yet also have the temerity to judge; that He could be both Father and King. These are all mutually exclusive categories for the post-modern student and (we now can say with conviction), to leading spiritual teachers as well. Love and omnipotence are radically contradictory to those who equate authority with oppression. Hence, Bell’s anxious flight from all concepts of eternal punishment and infinite judgment at the hands of a Holy and Loving God.
One thing we have learned from post-moderns is that objectivity is a myth. We are bent and biased by a multitude of factors toward or against just about everything that matters. And one of the problems with this subtle enculturation is that we walk around oblivious to how the tint of our glasses governs how we see the world. This is why C.S. Lewis observed that “Every age has its outlook. . . . We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
The reason why it is unwise to only read books written by living people, or the recently deceased, is that we can all be unwitting participants of the same cultural blindness. Reading only cutting-edge authors can thus be an exercise in reinforcing paradigms that are not only wrong but dangerous—the blind leading the blind, so to speak. “We may be sure,” Lewis goes on, “that the characteristic blindness of the 20th century. . .lies where we have never suspected it. . . .”
Following Lewis’s sage advice I began reading a book that collected some amazingly old sermons. They were preached around 389AD by John Chrysostom, one of the Early Church’s best-known and most compelling preachers. He was in his time as popular as Rob Bell is in ours. As it happens, the last sermon of his I read was preached after a terrible earthquake hit the city of Antioch where his congregation was located.
Three days of wrenching anxiety and sadness have past and this Church Father begins by asking two penetrating questions. They are posed by a teacher who is broken by the devastation his city has undergone but is looking at it through eyes that are submissive to the revelation of God in both testaments. What he asks cuts to the heart of the assumptions which drive Rob Bell’s rejection of orthodoxy.
These are his two questions:
“Have you seen God’s power?”
“Have you seen God’s love for mankind?”
In two short sentences St. Chrys lays out a full-orbed, unapologetic, biblical cosmology. He asks his flock whether they caught sight of the greatness of God’s sovereign power and His limitless love in the midst of the cataclysm they just experienced. For this eminent teacher, these are not antithetical concepts. “His power, because he shook the world,” he continues, “His love, because he made the tottering world firm again; or rather, you saw both His power and His love in both. For the earthquake showed His power, and its cessation showed His love, because He shook the earth and made the world fast again, because He set it upright when it was rocking and about to fall.”
This wise pastor is teaching all of us that in all catastrophes we are to see two things; not love only, or power only. If we deny either, we slide into error and deception and, if we are teachers, we will take many down with us. “The earthquake has gone by,” observes this ancient and godly Bible teacher, “but let the fear remain; that tossing has run its course, do not let discretion depart with it. . . . Consider, if God had chosen to demolish everything, what we would have suffered. I say this, so that the fear of these events may remain sharp in you and may keep your resolution firm. He shook us, but he did not destroy us. If He had wished to destroy us, He would not have shaken us.” (On Wealth and Poverty, St. John Chrysostom, trans. Catharine Roth, St. Vladimir’s Press, 1981).
These assurances which may appear glib and insensitive force us to ask: where is this supposed divine love in the face of horror, devastation and the scattered multitudes of dead bodies? And this is where we come face to face with the inescapable scandal of holy love. This is what is ruled out automatically by Bell’s sentimentalized assumptions about the love of God. This popular love is sympathetic, it is not distilled, pure and unrelentingly holy.
For Bell, God’s love is circumscribed by the frailty of our own human feelings. Bell repeats the same dreadful mistake made by so many teachers scandalized by God’s self-disclosure through the ages. Rather than humbly submit, he deconstructs what is unappealing and crafts a more tolerable God in man’s image.
This is the choice St. Chrys refuses because he knows what all the great teachers of the church have known all the way back to Moses: God defines God, not man. Everything He has written about Himself in Holy Scriptures, from beginning to end, is essential for all of life and for becoming the kind of people that truly honors Him—the kind of people to whom He says: “Come you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Mt. 25:34).
St. Chrys, writing with the gravitas of a wisdom and a courage not of this world, faces the scandal straight on: “But since He did not wish to destroy us,” he states, “the earthquake came in advance like a herald, forewarning everyone of the anger of God, in order that we might be improved by fear and escape the actual retributions.”
Is it even possible for us in this day and in this age to be able to hear what this Father is saying, along with the mighty host who preceded and followed him? Cataclysms are mercy. Catastrophes are warnings. Or so they declare. These events are massive red flags waving high in the sky crying out at those living their own personal, private lives: “Take heed, it is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment!” (Heb. 9:27 KJV)
But where there is no danger of an infinitely painful, eternal and irrevocable separation from God, then tragedies are simply random, meaningless, and ultimately hopeless events full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. But if they are reminders that God is not willing that any should perish but all should come to repentance, then they are severe mercies. This is why Bell’s dismissal is so dangerous—it muffles the piercing sound of the claxon as it shrieks out insistent warnings of the oncoming tsunami.
But, he asks a fair question: How can the threat of Hell be good news for anyone? The answer is given again by St. Chrys whose intellect and emotions were fully submitted to the Word of God: “When and why is the threatened Day of Judgment so full of agony and anguish?” he asks. “In it a stream of fire is rolling before God’s face and the books of our deeds are opened in front of Him. The Day itself is depicted as burning like an oven with angels flying about.” Then, anticipating Bell, he inquires: “How can God then be good and merciful and full of loving kindness to man?” His answer? “Even in this is He merciful and does He show the greatness of His compassion, for He holds these terrors out before us that being compelled by them, we might be awakened to the desire of the kingdom.” St. Chrysostom, Homilies on II Timothy, Homily III (my updating).
The threat of Hell, like the pain of dreadful catastrophes are reminders that there is so much more at stake than getting through life being kind to others and the environment. Like angry sirens, they startle us with these very unpleasant wails that hurt our ears and interrupt our sleep. They blare: “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens–so that only what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, let us worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:26-29).
If nothing else, Bell’s book has performed a crucial service. It forces upon us a choice: take another sleeping pill or be awakened from sweet slumber before all Hell really breaks loose.
I, for one, at least am grateful for that.