Rob Bell’s well intended, and horrible, error
In 2011 Rob Bell relished in the havoc that could be evoked only by a coy publication of his doctrinal views. He decided to address ideas regarding eternal judgment, specifically, the doctrine of hell. He concluded that the God of the Bible is incapable of condemning a divine image bearer to an eternal hell as such an act would not reconcile with his boundlessly loving nature. This assertion was buried in a series of well-crafted phrases that emphasized the existence of a present and earthly hell through which many are presently enduring. And while many, myself included, may concede the legitimacy of such an assertion, one cannot be blind to Bell’s propensity to bury the headline. His contention is that the present hell, which can only exist if freely chosen by the enduring individual, is the only hell that exists. A loving God would not, and cannot, impose such judgment on his beloved for an eternity. The popularity of such an idea requires response.
Essentially, Bell is relying heavily on a single moral attribute; divine love. His contention is that the unbridled affection God has for humanity is displayed perfectly. The upshot of this is the sin of humanity, while absolutely unacceptable, is unable to bridle the love of God to a degree that allows him to act as eternal judge. While his holiness wholly abhors the filth of human sin, the struggle between divine attributes will always lean toward forgiveness because, in the end, “love wins.” But a sincere assessment of such a view must be mindful of the disregard for the remaining moral attributes of God. It would appear that love does not win over sin alone; it also subdues the other attributes (e.g., holiness, justice, and righteousness). But such a view is guilty of ill-defining God, ill-defining moral attributes, or both. Is it sound to treat one attribute as the filter through which God’s actions must pass?
In chapter eight of No One Like Him, John Feinberg addresses the so-called moral attributes of God. He carefully distinguishes between non-moral and moral attributes. The former are overt displays of God’s potency and supremacy. If these attributes stood alone one could only wonder have they could possibly engage such a God without devastation and awe. But the moral attributes of God identify him as both supreme and relational. In this regard, Feinberg may be in agreement with Bell. While God’s divine supremacy cannot tolerate sin, Feinberg contends that his love acts as a “counterbalance” that mitigates the full display of his holiness. His affection for us is such that the scriptural imagery portrays a God who gathers us into his bosom. Such a parental image is surely an affirmation of Bell’s description of God and may have resulted in the thesis of his book. But Feinberg’s assertion is carefully worded and ultimately opposes the universalism embraced by Bell. If the love of God acts as a “counterbalance” when he is engaging humanity, then, by definition, love is also counterbalanced! Bell makes the mistake of treating the love of God as the essential attribute that defines the others. But Feinberg is more properly treating each of the attributes as adjectival of the others. While God loves, his love cannot be displayed in a manner that shirks his holiness. Such is true of divine righteousness as well. While he willingly displays affection for humanity, he never does so at the expense of his unbridled righteousness. To do so would amount to an imbalance within the nature of God. When one presents one of the divine attributes as superior to the others, they have, unwittingly, identified an imperfection in God’s nature.
Unlike Bell, Feinberg’s perspective on moral attributes is properly displayed in the manner in which God pursued the justification of humanity. Recognizing that we are unable to live up to or endure divine righteous and holiness, God the Son lovingly took on the fullness of human nature as he successfully set out to stand between God and man as the perfect intercessor. Those who willingly receive his sacrificial act are made whole and experience the fellowship of God. Essentially, God sacrificed the Son so blissfully rebellious humanity could be adopted into the eternal communion of the Trinity. Those who reject such an act are handed over to the holy hand of God and the just consequences follow their course. In this reality we have God displaying unbridled love while simultaneously honoring his unparalleled holiness. If, as Feinberg contends, there is a mutually existing counterbalance between the moral attributes of God, then the doctrine of justification stands up to rational assessment and God’s nature is unblemished. But if love is the winning force to which all other attributes must surrender, then God is demoted to an imperfect specimen who must improve for the sake of having divine holiness and righteousness equal the perfection of his love. Of the two views, Feinberg’s seems to most reconcile with historic Christianity.