Love Wins

No, I haven’t read the Rob Bell book, so this isn’t a review. I may or may not read the book at some point. However, the rather strange controversy over the promotion of the book has brought to my mind many things I’ve read over the years. I decided to write a post in order to share a few of them.

Fear of torment is the way of a slave, desire of reward in the heavenly kingdom is the way of a hireling, but God’s way is that of a son, through love. — St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain

I heard a professor from a Christian university ask Rob Bell what it did to evangelism if Hell was not an actual place and, I suppose, a looming threat. I had several thoughts when I heard that question. The first, of course, is that the idea of Hell as place seems to owe more to the ancient pagan Greek concept of Hades than anything identifiably Jewish or Christian. I’ve explored Hell elsewhere, so I won’t rehash that here. But, Dante aside, it’s not the Christian understanding that there’s some place under the ground where the dead go.

But even more I thought of St. Nicodemos. Fear should never be the driving force in Christianity. Yes, it’s true that fear can be the beginning of wisdom, but perfect love drives out fear. If our evangelism attempts to instill fear or motivate through a promise of future reward, then whatever it is, it is not Christian. If we are driven to evangelize from fear, then I would have to question our motives as Christians. Actions taken either to instill fear or motivate through the promise of reward also look highly manipulative to me. And manipulation is many things, but it is most emphatically not love.

How then should we proclaim Christ to people? The words of St. Isaac the Syrian are, I think, good ones.

Conquer evil men by your gentle kindness, and make zealous men wonder at your goodness. Put the lover of legality to shame by your compassion. With the afflicted be afflicted in mind.  — St. Isaac of Syria

When we believe that we need to threaten people with hell in order to evangelize, we are capitulating to our own will to power. We are manipulating the other person in order to convert them to our way of thinking. We can tell ourselves it’s for their good, but that’s a lie. We are satisfying our own lust for power and control. When we act in these ways, we dehumanize our subject, treating them like an object to satisfy our own passions. Yes, we clothe it in noble terms. We dress it up in piety. But that’s all lipstick on a pig. God does not treat us that way.

Ultimately, of course, this train of thought rends the Christian understanding of God as made known in Jesus of Nazareth beyond all recognition. Instead of a good God of love, we end up with a capricious God who cannot forgive and requires payment for all debts. And if you do not hide behind the payment offered by the Son to the Father, then you will suffer forever. Our finite offenses reap infinite punishment. This God is not only capricious, he’s a torturer of the worst sort. No, that’s not the language used, but that’s how it deconstructs.

St. Isaac saw that clearly. This is not a new discussion. Modern Christianity has not discovered much that ancient Christians did not consider.

The man who chooses to consider God an avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it, that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness! The aim of His design is the correction of men; and if it were not that, we should be stripped of the honor of our free will, perhaps He would not even heal us by reproof. — St. Isaac of Syria

The above is exactly what so many modern Christians do when they describe God as just. The justice they have in mind is vengeance and retribution and the God they describe is an evil God.

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good’, He says ‘to the evil and to the impious.’ How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers?…How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? Where, then, is God’s justice, for while we are sinners Christ died for us! — St. Isaac of Syria

Indeed. People want God to treat others justly according to their own personal sense of justice, whatever that might be. But the truth is that we cannot judge because we do not know and we do not love. But we cannot stop God’s love.

Our wickedness shall not overpower the unspeakable goodness and mercy of God; our dullness shall not overpower God’s wisdom, nor our infirmity God’s omnipotence. — St. John of Kronstadt

And, in turn, we are judged by our love.

Always remember that at the Last Judgment we are judged for loving Him, or failing to love Him, in the least person. — Archbishop Anastasios of Albania

The drunkard, the fornicator, the proud – he will receive God’s mercy. But he who does not want to forgive, to excuse, to justify consciously, intentionally … that person closes himself to eternal life before God, and even more so in the present life. He is turned away and not heard. — Elder Sampson of Russia

As Christians, we should be praying always for love to win.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted March 18, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    This is a great post, I love all the quotes!

  2. Posted March 18, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks. I get a little frustrated at what most people are calling the “traditional view” because it’s not really very traditional at all. The true traditional view always starts with a God of unwavering and unchanging love and mercy and forgiveness who is always acting to heal and rescue us. It’s our hearts that are in question, not God’s.

  3. Posted March 18, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    excellent! I get so weary of hearing about God’s justice when the meaning is vengeance. God’s justice isn’t about vengeance nearly so much as it is about redemption. What good is it simply to torture a wrongdoer? How does that remediate the wrong? But to rehabilitate the wrongdoer so that he contributes productively to the community has great value. God-as-Punisher is ultimately pointless (though perhaps temporarily comforting to those feeling victimized). Only God-as-Redeemer makes any sense if we also believe in God-as-Creator, God-as-Sustainer, God-as-Love. Justice as redemption offers hope not only to the perpetrator but to the victim. Victims need redemption from crime just as much as perps–perhaps even more.

  4. Posted March 19, 2011 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    Excellent post! I’m reading St. Isaac the Syrian for Lent and came across that quote. From what I’ve read of people who have read Rob Bell ‘s book, he doesn’t seem to be too far from Orthodoxy.

  5. Jayflm
    Posted March 19, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    As to the question posed by the professor, perhaps he should have been told to read the evangelistic messages in the book of Acts if he wanted to know how biblical evangelism works. Not a single one of them warns of Hell.

    Thanks for the post. While I don’t have the knowledge of ancient church teaching to critically evaluate the quotes you share, I have come to believe that an open-minded reading of Scripture leads to something very different than “eternal conscious torment.” My own conclusion on the scriptural evidence is that it points to conditional mortality, or as it is often called, annihilation of those not included in Christ.

  6. Posted March 19, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Steve. No, he doesn’t seem that far from Orthodoxy.

    Personally, I covet your prayers. I find myself in an odd place. I had been deeply immersed in the first millenium Fathers years before I ever connected them to modern Orthodoxy. To a large degree, they formed my understanding of Christianity. I drew the connection from them to modern Orthodoxy, curiously enough, through a Protestant discussing the Jesus Prayer — a prayer that had come to me and which I had been praying for some years. I’ve learned a lot since that particular intersection, but Orthodox teachings have never seemed ‘new,’ but rather something I have ‘always’ believed.

    Now, I am in that odd space where I see no path to becoming Orthodox and no path where I do not. (I don’t know if that makes sense, but I hope it does.) If I’m honest, the only thing I can say is that I don’t know what the future holds.

    Jay, the ancient church rejected annihilationism because it denies the foundation of our salvation — that Christ fully joined his divine nature to our human nature. We do not die or cease to exist because it is impossible for God to cease to exist. In other words, it is no longer our nature to die.

    Beyond that, I don’t really have answers. The quotes I’ve included are representative, though. By all means, explore on your own, though. Don’t take my word for it.

  7. Posted March 20, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Great! Thanks!

    Ronald

  8. Posted March 20, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed your comment on Scott McKnight’s thread on Bell (comment 41). The entire discussion is so out of context, because it’s main impetus is from Evangelicals whose understanding of Orthodoxy ranges from 150 to 400 years old, and denies everything that comes before it. It is very difficult as a post-Evangelical person to begin to find one’s way, there are so many stereotypes to stumble through. Thank you for your comments.

  9. Posted March 20, 2011 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Todd. It’s also strange the way many evangelicals today like to throw around words like ‘heterodox’ and ‘orthodox’ without recognizing where they actually stand in relation to the history and tradition of Christian interpretation and belief. And given the naturally schismatic predilection in Protestantism, the words usually don’t really mean anything more than saying, “You don’t believe what I believe” or “You believe what I believe.” And when someone comes up with a different belief or interpretation, if it’s different enough and they are charismatic enough to get others to agree with them, it often just becomes the basis for a new sect.

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