I spent this past weekend in an experience that gave me more hope in the church than I have felt in a long time. I had been invited to lead workshops on everyday justice at the Salvation Army's Call for Imaginative Faith Conference, and I ended up being amazed by what I saw at that conference. I know the Salvation Army has issues, and I don't agree with all of their theology, but I saw for the first time a church using their passion for Jesus to do serious work to care for God's creation and God's people. I saw denominational leaders confessing of a past where their church cared only for the spiritual and not the holistic needs of people. I heard stories of carbon offset projects in China that restore eroded lands by planting mulberry trees -- trees on which silk worms can grow, providing a source of income for women in an area preyed upon by human traffickers. I heard stories of the rebuilding of New Orleans that focused on people's strengths and not simply their vulnerabilities -- getting at and helping fix the root of their problems (like asking why people can no longer afford to pay their electricity bills and discovering it is because some church group rebuilt their home as cheaply and as energy-inefficiently as possible -- which can start to be addressed by giving them a $50 home greening kit). I was amazed by the creative and imaginative ways I saw people doing whatever they can to do the most good as they strived to always love God and love others.
And then, I came home and saw the social networks ablaze with the inquisitional fires of the evangelical church jumping at the chance to denounce Rob Bell for his audacity at (supposedly) proclaiming in his upcoming book that in the end, love truly does win. From the blog posts dismissing him for his universalism, to John Piper's juvenile tweet of "farewell Rob Bell," it was hard not to laugh at the absurdity. Here I had spent a weekend having my faith in the church's ability to actually follow Jesus somewhat restored, to only be immediately reminded of the vitriol many in the evangelical world possess for any who don't buy into their very historically recent and scripturally rather unfounded definition of what it means to be a "biblical Christian." But what truly got to me was how this debate framed those opposing Bell's ideas as claiming that, in the end, God's love actually doesn't win. Like Jonah pouting after God didn't utterly annihilate the people of Nineveh, they are actually defending a system that puts limits on God's love simply because they want to be the ones with a corner on the truth who get all the goodies in the end. Call it doctrine or dogma or self-centeredness, it simply confounds me that people still continue to argue against the love of God.
What appears to be at the source of the controversy is Bell's supposed claim that a loving God would never judge anyone to eternity in hell (although since most people -- including myself -- have not read the book yet, no one really knows if that is what he is actually saying. But check out the YouTube promo video here). So Bell is being called a universalist, which in evangelicalese is code for "a heretic who hates the Bible" (or something to that effect). But if Bell is saying what I think he's saying (and, of course, I have no idea, but I'm throwing my 2 cents in anyway), he is actually far more in line with traditional orthodox Christian theology than this new-fangled thing called evangelical theology. I'm betting that the position he is asserting is that of a universalist who believes in hell (which is where I've found myself landing these days as well).
In this view nothing -- not human doctrine, nor prejudice -- can stand in the way of a God seeking to reconcile all things to Godself. God created humans to be in constant relationship with Godself -- growing ever closer to mirroring the image of God we were created in. We instead chose to attempt to be Godlike without God, walking away from God in the process. But God did not reject us. God could have withdrawn from us, casting us away from divine perfection -- annihilating us in the process -- since, by nature, we could not exist apart from that which we were meant to be in eternal relationship with. Instead, God was merciful and simply let us walk away. But like Dante so beautifully portrayed in his Divine Comedy, even as the furthest reaches of hell are frozen over as Satan flaps his wings in a furious attempt to fly further and further away from God, he is still not out of the reach of God's love. Hell exists, but it is a place of our own creation as we try to flee from God asserting "our will be done" instead of "thy will be done." God does not condemn us to hell, or cast us out of God's presence (which would destroy us); instead God pursues us out of Eden and even into hell, offering the gift of blessing and redemption. We are meant by nature to be in relation with God, and, created in God's image. Our purpose is to bear that image and continually reflect it back to God through our acts of worship in this world. Despite our attempts to flee to the furthest reaches of hell, God still reaches out to us because if we still exist, we are still image-bearers, and God seeks after us to restore the racked icons of our person to Godself.
When the historical church couldn't understand how a person could be forgiven and reconciled to God, they declared them an anathema, which means that their fate be cast up to a higher court. However, even though the church couldn't figure out how that person was in Christ, the church still asserted that he or she could never be beyond God. And if in the consummation of creation all things will be reconciled to God, then, unless we want to assert that God rejects and therefore annihilates those who flee from God, we have to believe that in the end God's relentless pursuit of God's beloved results in the actual redemption and reconciliation of all things. In the end, all that belongs to God, all that was created in the image of God, will turn away from its rebellion and be reconciled unto God. In short, love wins. Love is not fettered by temporal constraints, or extended only to the workers that arrived early in the day. We were created to be in relationship with God, and it is the return to that state of theosis where we can participate in the covenant where we are blessed to extend God's blessing to the world that God desires for us.
I saw a glimmer of a church that got that with the Salvation Army this past weekend -- a group of passionate followers of Jesus taking seriously the call to end the injustices that stand in the way of the blessing and reconciling of the world. They know, in their own peculiar way, that love wins. So instead of trying to put limits on God's ability to redeem creation and pouting about wanting to be the only ones the divine lover chooses to pursue, maybe we can start acting as if God really does rule the universe. Maybe we can accept the gift of God's love and, instead of selfishly keeping it all to ourselves, we live into our identity as blessed icons and give that love away.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.