Sunday, June 24, 2012

Jeff Cook, "C.S. Lewis, Rob Bell & 'Love Wins'"


This is something I've been mulling over for a few weeks. I think I agree with most of what Cook says about Bell. I don't see much difference between Bell and Lewis, though there are nuances. Bell seems for more hopeful about God potentially saving all, whereas Lewis had a more pessimistic streak about such things.
This post is by a friend of the Jesus Creed blog; Jeff’s got a strong point to make about Rob Bell’s new book and the seeming culture war at work in the responses. He isn’t suggesting that such a battle is all that is in play, and I’m asking us to give his post a very careful hearing and reading. I’m not enough of a CS Lewis expert to give a definitive answer, though I always have thought the end of The Last Battle went in a universalistic direction. Perhaps we can have some CS Lewis experts speak up today.

Rob Bell, CS Lewis, and the Real Argument at Hand

After a couple of weeks of dialogue it is clear to me that the primary issue in the debate over Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is not about what Bell is saying, but how he says it.

I suspect many felt poked in the eye by the way Harper and Rob decided to market Love Wins. I suspect Bell intimidates some because he is part of a culture they do not understand and cannot control (that culture is urban, postmodern, and discovers the truth more naturally through questions, sarcasm, and intuition than through the systematic presentations of the top Christian publishing house).
And let’s not kid ourselves, I suspect the fire behind the debate is often about envy and resentment of a very talented man, about our own inability to get a hearing in the public square, and about the fear that new ways of talking about Jesus might trump what some have preached for decades.
These issues are big, but they are not only about doctrine. The issues at hand are about culture and control, about how the theology of emerging Christians will be defined, and about the continuing fight between postmodern and modern expressions of Christianity. This seems clear to me now, for I would like to defend the following claim:

There’s not one controversial idea in Love Wins that is not clearly voiced as a real possibility by the most popular evangelical writer of the last century, CS Lewis. 

Lewis and Bell hint at a number of theological possibilities in their writings that cut against what we might call the majority opinion, including: the possibility that those in hell might journey toward the grace of God after death, the possibility that those who have not heard the name of Jesus might find salvation in and through the image of Christ in their own pagan stories and myths, the possibility that some will eventually receive God’s grace freely after death, the possibility that hell is about bigger things than God’s wrath, the insistence that the metaphors describing what Jesus’ cross accomplishes and how his work is applied to us are culturally subjective, and that some ancient pictures of the atonement may be too confusing to help us right here, right now. All of these lines of thought were in Lewis’s writings before they were in Love Wins.

Let’s look at one example. Though I [Jeff Cook] do not hold the following position (I’m an annihilationist regarding hell), consider how Lewis, like Bell, advances the possibility that those in hell might one day journey toward the grace of God after death. Lewis writes, “I would pay any price to be able to say ‘All will be saved’ but my reason retorts, ‘Without their will, or with it?’” Notice in this and other quotes like it, the salvation of a soul is not dependent on God’s will, but the will of the damned. In the same vein, he wrote, “I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given” (The Problem of Pain, 110). This is a confession that God wants to save all and would provide such roads if God thought they’d work.
For the rest, click HERE.



  1. It's pointless to try to give Bell's heresy a pass by claiming that C.S. Lewis had similar thoughts. If he did, he was in as much error on Scripture as Bell. The fact that God is just demands that punishment be dealt to the unrepentant sinner. The matter of will is addressed extensively by the Apostle Paul in that Salvation, from the start is the act of God's Grace, not our effort. Jesus mentioned that he died for "His Sheep" not everyone. He came to redeem the elect whom the Father chose before the foundation of the world.

    1. Hey Bryn,

      "It's pointless to try to give Bell's heresy a pass by claiming that C.S. Lewis had similar thoughts."

      I'm not so certain I agree. I think, since most Protestants love C.S. Lewis (despite his views on purgatory and post-mortem salvation), then I confess I find it odd that they would accept Lewis and not Bell. And Bell's theology hasn't been officially condemned as heresy anywhere that I know of.

      Individual churches may dislike his theology (and they obviously do), but unless Protestantism goes the route of finding a Pope, I don't see much reason in thinking about such things.

      "The fact that God is just demands that punishment be dealt to the unrepentant sinner."

      That's begging the question. I could easily reverse that and claim that God's love doesn't demand punishment because of the atonement.

      "The matter of will is addressed extensively by the Apostle Paul in that Salvation, from the start is the act of God's Grace, not our effort."

      This can be contested until we are both blue in the face. I'll let this go.

      "Jesus mentioned that he died for "His Sheep" not everyone. He came to redeem the elect whom the Father chose before the foundation of the world."

      Again, this can be contested. I find very little evidence to support that view.

      Thanks for your thoughts. ;)


  2. Jeff Cook wrote: {{As such, I see every reason to think that Rob has an identical ontology of hell to CS Lewis, Rob however has more faith in the ability of some to eventually repent, that is the only real difference between them--and it is a belief about people not about God and God’s desires.}}

    (Scott McKnight posted that article a year ago, so I won't try to join the discussion there, but...)

    This is inaccurate to Rob's book (at least--I'm not familiar with his other materia), and to the gist of Lewis' pessimism regarding final salvation in TPoP.

    What Rob is most optimistic about, is God's persistence in acting to save all sinners from sin; and so is almost as optimistic about God's competency in eventually leading all sinners to repentance. (Rob ultimately professes agnosticism about whether God will succeed, but never once claims that God will stop persisting. This is despite Rob's own citation of scriptural testimony apparently indicating final reconciliation of all sinners.)

    Rob's faith primarily, despite what Jeff says, is in what Rob understands to be God, God's desires, and God's abilities. If Rob is wrong, he's wrong about that faith in God, not about some putative faith in human sinners.

    It is Lewis (as much as I love him, and find him much more useful usually than Rob Bell), who thinks he has reasons to believe that God will fail to save some people because, in essence, they defeat Him at last in His intention to save them. This is despite Lewis stressing God's persistence very hard in an earlier chapter of TPoP, even to the point of criticizing people who think that God would ever give up before bringing a person to righteousness. In Lewis' soteriology, though, God does give up: just not before the sinners make it impossible, of their own accord, for God to save them.

    It is Lewis, ironically, who has more faith in sinners than Rob Bell--more faith in sinners as sinners over-against the competency of God to save sinners from sin. (This is a key point of critique by Calvinists for Lewis, along with Lewis' Arminian scope of salvation of course. Rob combines Calvinistic persistence with Arminian scope.)

    Bryn Jones: {{The fact that God is just demands that punishment be dealt to the unrepentant sinner.}}

    Rob Bell and C. S. Lewis both agree strongly with this, and don't deny it. If you've heard otherwise from people, they're misinformed (willfully so or otherwise). Rob even acknowledges that punishment will never stop so long as a person is unrepentant; and allows that this may mean for some sinners the punishment goes on forever.

    If Rob is wrong about punishment, it's because (put shortly) he doesn't believe that God's justice demands for His punishment to be hopeless.


  3. This is really difficult, and fascinating, stuff. Thanks, Nick, for the presentation. I have been a fan of Lewis since finding the Narnia Chronicles in 1968 (since then I think I've read everything he ever published), but have not read Bell. However, it sounds like neither Lewis nor Bell are "universalists" but rather are trying to engage the Christian community in grappling with the "most dreadful decree" (Calvin's own description) of Election and Predestination as a paradox when considered in the light of Almighty God's infinite love and grace.

    I'll come back when I've considered Cook and (maybe) read Bell, but in the meantime, I only want to commend the thoughtful presentation of these difficult matters, and urge ALL to read Scripture daily, and to seek humility in the face of Almighty God (read the book of Job!) and the teaching of the Holy Ghost rather than rely solely on pre-conceived doctrinaire assumptions, when considering these matters.