Ambiguity, Universalism, and the Character of God

Last week (or was it two weeks ago?) I wrote about ambiguity and poetry. I’ve been thinking about it again with all of the flap over Rob Bell’s latest book. A few points before I get to my own. The book hasn’t even been released yet, so nobody has read the whole thing, making the backlash premature. As people, we like to lash out about/against something without knowing the whole story. I don’t know anything specific about the book, and my comments will be on the video found in the link above. I’m not a huge fan of Rob Bell, as I find the theology in some of his videos a little questionable, and his books simply don’t hold my attention. However, he says something in the promo video (again, linked above) that has me thinking (a loose paraphrase):

God promises to send us to hell, and Jesus came to save us from God. If God was really a loving God, why would he have to save us from himself, and how could he choose to send anyone to hell to burn for eternity?

I disagree with the way Bell says a couple of these things, and I’m not sure if it’s an issue of semantics or deeper theological issues. In Genesis, God gave Adam and Eve a choice and a verdict–eat from any tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. If you eat from the tree, you will die. Some people don’t like or accept a God who would make such an ultimatum, but it’s a fact of life that we have to make decisions every moment of the day and each decision has a consequence. Death means separation from God, which leads to suffering and torment, thus hell.  So is it God choosing to send people to hell or is God allowing people to make their own choices, and thus deal with the appropriate consequences. (I know, the argument is much more complicated, right and wrong must be explored, morality must be evaluated, etc. I’m just trying to lay a little groundwork.)

I have personally gone round and round about the character of God, love, and hell. I often ask the question of whether or not a loving God would send somebody to hell, but I’m learning that maybe that’s a backwards way of looking it. As Timothy Keller discusses in his book Reason for God,  is God “sending” somebody who is completely set on rejecting God to hell, or is that person just continuing on the path of the self?

Either way, God’s Biblical character seems to embody ambiguity. God gets angry in the Old Testament and wipes out everybody but Noah. He gets disgusted and destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses seems to change God’s mind when God is ready to wipe out the Israelites. God establishes the old testament law and then honors people like David and Solomon–two guys that lived very “worldly” at various points in their lives. There are stories in the Bible of wrath and love. How do those coexist?

I know many people who don’t care for such “contradictions”,  and conclude that a contradictory God cannot/should not exist or does not deserve praise. Why is it that we (humans? Americans?) refuse to believe in something (or attack outright) we don’t fully understand? Are we so focused on science that equal opposites just cancel each other out, resulting in nothing? Can ambiguity in poetry be a microcosm for an ambiguous God? Is it the ambiguity of God or the hypocrisy of “the religious” that drives people away?


7 thoughts on “Ambiguity, Universalism, and the Character of God

  1. Perhaps the problem is that the Bible comprises several different traditions that can’t be reconciled. This makes God’s “character” inconsistent. (Is there one God or multiple Gods in Eden? Or did God invent “the royal ‘we'”?) But I’m out of my bailiwick here, as you know! Those of us not convinced by the Bible (or the Vedas, the Koran, etc.) always wonder about people like Rob Bell, who pretend to know “the fate of every person who ever lived.” Takes a towering ego, it seems to me, to claim such a thing. Maybe the illness Charlie Sheen suffers from isn’t as rare as we think.

  2. Regarding God ‘sending’ people to hell …

    A careful reading of the Bible in it’s purist form presently available, the Concordant Literal, which is an exact word for word translation from the earliest known Hebrew OT and the Greek NT, fails to identify a hell. There is no such a place as hell in the Bible. The concept of hell was introduced by the early translators and we have bought into it ever since because, let’s face it, we like the idea of God saving “us” and damning all those heathen non-believers.

  3. Joe–What do you mean by “traditions that can’t be reconciled”? I’m trying to figure out how the idea of the trinity (or multiple Gods, as you put it) is connected to various traditions. But maybe I’m drawing connections between the wrong thing. I think it’s interesting to note that many Muslims don’t understand the idea of a trinity for just that reason–how can three beings be one? I’m interested in knowing what you mean by traditions and or inconsistencies. And I think that Rob Bell is questioning the traditional (or what we’ve come to label as traditional) view of judgement. Do you think that the Bible propagates arrogance by stating that Jesus is the only way to be with God for eternity, or do you think the arrogance lies in the way people express/lecture/preach with fire and brimstone?

    wellwateredgarden–I’m cautious of relying on one translation of the Bible and anointing it as the most accurate. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, British Israelite-ists, etc. are guilty of this, and it can lead to scary things. Plus, the word banks of Hebrew and Greek are much smaller than English, so a word-for-word translation being 100% accurate (I think) is a dangerous assertion. My brief research of hell seems to contradict your assertion of the origin of “hell”. Either way, I think that scare-tactic or fear mongering (see Westboro Baptist Church for a perfect yet disgusting example) is in direct opposition to Christ’s example, and even Paul’s. The minute we use our salvation to hold something over someone else’s head, the moment we have failed to share the gift of grace.

  4. I agree … yet I believe the notion of everlasting torment is not a Biblical teaching. Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus and Grave all erroneously got translated into ‘hell’ and neither the Hebrew nor the Greek knows anything about eternal damnation through torment in death.
    It is all born out of the arrogant notion that if I consider myself a believer and you don’t agree with my particular bent of my belief, you must be wrong and “God will get you for it,” and send you to eternal torment.

    I like your insightful/thoughtful way of thinking …

  5. Great point. I wonder if the meaning of hell (in an eternal burning and damnation sense) is the combination of eternal separation from God mixed with the lake of fire in Revelation. Either way, as you say, it’s a major problem when we begin to think that we determine salvation and the condition of other people’s hearts. It’s a classic case of human nature: turn everything towards the self so the self can have power and be in control. And there is something disheartening when you believe something so strongly, and invest so much in somebody only to have them completely reject your world view. Of course, when we get our feelings hurt, we want retribution and “justice” and often lose sight of grace.

    Thanks for the good discussion!

  6. I lost track of this discussion, Joel! My “multiple deities” comment wasn’t meant to address the Trinity, but the Genesis narrative (3:22): “The Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us.” What “us”? Either there are multiple gods, of which the character in Genesis is one, or he’s using the royal “we” (a joke, of course; bad taste?). Anyway, the scholars I’ve read on the subject generally agree that the Pentateuch shows evidence of being assembled some time in the 5th century by someone who wove together various traditions into a rather inconsistent story with many “unreconciled” elements. The Book of J, by David Rosenberg and Harold Bloom, talks about this from a literary point of view—the only point of view that makes sense to me, of course.

    As for hell, the word is a translation for different words in different books. “Hell” in 2 Peter 2:4-5 is a translation of the Greek word “Tartarus”, a place in the underworld even lower than Hades; Luke 12:5 uses “hell” to translate “Gehenna”, a valley south of Jerusalem where children were sacrificed to the god Moloch (the Jewish Encyclopedia says “the valley was deemed to be accursed, and ‘Gehenna’ therefore soon became a figurative equivalent for ‘hell'” ). Like everything in the Bible, the concept of hell was created over time by human beings, using their human experience of pain and retribution.

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