Monday, September 26, 2011

Love or God? @markgalli @christianaudio

The first part of my review of Mark Galli's God Wins, primarily based on Randy Alcorn's preface is here. This post reviews and engages the rest of the book, solely based on Galli's words.

Galli cites Jeremiah that the human heart is evil and deceitful. However, this is not the full picture. It ignores the New Covenant promises that Paul describes and that John Eldredge has spent many books emphasizing: Christ gives us a new, good heart. This missing element is overlooked by many of the neo-Calvinists today, which creates a punitive justice-focused system of salvation and theology and that I believe is far too narrow in focus.

Galli's first chapter clarifies different types of questions: Questions about God and questions about oneself. Galli illustrates this with examples from Mary when she asks how God will make her pregnant (not doubting that God will be able to do it) and Zechariah questioning how he can be sure that God really will give him a son (doubting the agency of God). Galli argues that Mary's type of question is good, while Zechariah's is sinful.

The contrast is compelling, but I'm not sure it's accurate. Galli seems to forget the clear case of Thomas after Jesus' resurrection, demanding to see physical evidence to believe that the resurrection has actually occurred. This sounds more like a Zechariah question to me. Yet Thomas was not at all condemned, rather met with deep love and the evidence he needed. God, of course, does not always provide the evidence we want, but asking is not necessarily sinful.

Galli argues that Bell only presents God as agent. He describes the downfalls of this extremely well, explaining that God as agent means God doing things for us. I completely agree with Galli that God as agent misses the Gospel, with God as lover as a more accurate and deeper understanding of God. This is one of my criticisms of most of the neo-Calvinist movement--I only see them presenting God as agent and leave out the whole relationship thing. At the same time, to be fair, this may be my reading of them, just as that is Galli's reading of Love Wins. I actually read that lover element in Bell's work far more than an emphasis of God as agent. If Bell limited God to this agent role, I would be in complete agreement with this criticism.

Additionally, Galli and other critics of Love Wins have argued that Bell does not present a full picture of the Gospel. I agree; he didn't. But I don't think he meant to. He was focusing on a particular element, just like most books do. In academia, an entire book can be focused on an incredibly narrow topic in order to go in-depth. In the popular press, people aren't used to this, but I think that's a better analogy for Bell's work. Bell was simply asking questions about the theology of Heaven and Hell, which is only a small element of the Gospel.

Further, Galli has joined the chorus of many others who have criticized Bell for asking questions and not resolving them. I don't see the problem there. Bell explicitly states he wrote Love Wins in order to get people to think, not necessarily to draw a line in the sand. Readers of my blog know that I value that type of perspective, so I obviously appreciate that type of writing more than taking a clear stance. Yet that makes it harder to categorize someone...

At one point, Galli criticizes Love Wins as presenting Christ's Incarnation as more important than the crucifixion and resurrection. I'm not sure that's an accurate depiction of the book anyway, however, even if it were, that may not be incorrect. Protestantism has historically emphasized the resurrection, hence the empty cross that is frequently displayed in churches. Roman Catholicism has focused on the crucifixion, resulting in the crucified Christ on display. However, a lot of the Orthodox Church has prioritized the Incarnation. So there is, in fact, a significant history of focusing on the Incarnation.

One of the central lines and arguments in Love Wins is the question, "Does God get what God wants?" while referencing Scripture that God wants all people to be reconciled to him. Yet the book also discusses how God loves us so much that he gives us what we want, so if we want Hell, we can have it.

Honestly, the way Bell phrased this no-win question was not entirely fair, but it's a beautiful literary style and excellent for an argument. However, Galli takes it a bit concretely, emphasizing how people's wants are not stable nor can be very healthy for us. Using the analogy of a child's wants, a loving parent does not simply give into those desires. In fact, love gives someone what they need, not what they want. True enough.

However, I didn't read Love Wins in the same way. I would have a hard time believing Bell meant this type of superficial wanting. Rather, it is a deeper acceptance or not of the reality of God's love. The best example of this I can think of is from Les Miserables (spoiler alert, if you don't know the story). Javert, the officer of the law, has been tracking Jean Valjean for decades, with the belief that once a thief, always a thief. When Valjean spares Javert's life later, Javert is unable to accept that reality. He cannot live in a world of grace and transformation, so he commits suicide. He would rather die than live. That's the wanting that God will not force on us. There are people who will not be able to handle who would be accepted in Heaven, so they choose Hell.

This relates to another one of Galli's central criticisms of Love Wins: It gives too much weight to people's free will. Galli argues that people running their own lives is not freedom, but rather slavery to sin, and there is definite truth to that. He also basically argues for a bondage of the will perspective, explaining how the Holy Spirit is what gives us faith to believe in God. Again, I think Galli read Bell's book too literally. The bondage of the will and freedom of the will debate has existed for centuries and continues to do so, now particularly in the realm of neuropsychology. I'm not going to get into that debate for now, but again, the point is that there is a long, strong history supporting a freedom of the will and even some combination of bondage and freedom.

Galli also criticizes Love Wins as presenting God as impersonal and not present in Heaven. I would simply chalk this up to differences in reading because I read Love Wins as an intensely personal, relational Father who is the epitome of Heaven. Bell may have used different language than many evangelicals do in describing the personal nature of God. However, I found the language incredibly meaningful and personal.

Like many critics of Love Wins, Galli labels it as supporting universalism. The problem with most of these comments is that they use a particular definition of universalism. The way I have always heard universalism defined is that all religions are essentially equal, along the ideas that all paths lead to God. That's most definitely not what is presented in Love Wins. In fact, on page 78, Bell states, "What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody." Earlier, he explains that Jesus is the only way to God. However, does not mean that people of other faiths cannot be saved through Jesus: "What he doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him" (p. 77).

Some people cannot comprehend how a person Jesus could save someone from another religion and not be a universalist. But this perspective would state that Christianity does have greater value and insight into life and God than other faiths. It is a Christianity worth believing, as Doug Pagitt has said. True universalism would say Christianity is not better than any other faith. That is simply not present in Love Wins.

What I think was the best contribution this work provided to Christian literature on the argument for eternal damnation was that finite events have long-term consequences. A car accident that was not my fault can result in an amputation or many other issues. The decision to get drunk once can lead to all sorts of behaviors with very lasting consequences. This is how many things work, although we try to think all consequences don't last. Galli's argument is that this is the situation with Heaven and Hell and our decision to follow God in the present life. Rather than God necessarily punishing us, those eternal states are simply the natural consequences. The question Bell raises that many people have asked still remains, though: Would a loving God set up these as the natural consequences?

Ultimately, God Wins is stimulating, but I found Love Wins to actually demonstrate a fuller and deeper view of the Gospel and God than God Wins, albeit Galli's reason for writing this book was the lack of fullness and depth in Love Wins from his perspective. If one is very interested in the Heaven-Hell debate, this is a good resource for additional ideas.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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