Tuesday, March 15, 2011

An old Brethren take on Love winning

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Pastor Rob Bell
(photo by feyip, CC lic.)
Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, has caused quite a stir in the U.S. Christian blogo/tweetosphere for the past few weeks, the stink getting so bad that even mainstream media has taken note and sales for the book have already been wildly successful (as of this moment it's #5 on all of Amazon). When the uproar over whether or not Bell is now preaching age-old heresy of universalism started, I immediately thought of an old Brethren teaching of "universal restoration," which sometimes got labeled (usually pejoratively) "universalism."

Last summer when I was working on my Brethren studies, I read quite a bit out of The Complete Writings of Alexander Mack. Mack was the first Brethren leader in central Germany in the early 18th century. He had a Reformed upbringing and was later influenced by Radical Pietism and a warm engagement with the Anabaptist-Mennonites around them. The movement that started out of that eventually resulted in the stream that I now stand in 300 years later, the Church of the Brethren.

Mack's belief in "universal restoration" held that hell is real, but punishment would not continue for all time, ultimately all are restored to God's love, but there was a sense of levels and those who went through hell "would never attain the high state of bliss possible to those who chose to follow Christ in life" (4).

This notion of levels of bliss helped hedge against laziness, I suppose, but Mack still cautioned: "(I)t is much better to practice this simple truth that one should try to become worthy in the time of grace to escape the wrath of God and the torments of hell, rather than deliberate how or when it would be possible to escape from it again... Even though this is true, it should not be preached as a gospel to the godless" (98-9, emphasis mine).  It's worth noting that recent sociological research done by Brethren scholar, Carl Bowman, has shown this early Brethren belief to have been almost completely abandoned. Anecdotally, though, there are a few young [thx, Paula!] Brethren who probably think this is worth taking seriously...

Methodist theologian, Greg Jones, has also wrestled with this topic in his excellent 1995 book, Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis. Set in the context of what it means to love our enemies, Jones insists that "Christians should not use the possibility that God will eternally punish someone as an excuse for our own cultivation of moral hatred" (258) and notes scriptural ambiguity in texts "that indicate the possibility of being lost for all eternity (which) exist side-by-side with those that indicate God's will, and God's ability, to save all humanity. The reality of hell must be acknowledged, as also must the possibility that ultimately hell will be empty” (254). This certainly seems to resonate with what Bell is exploring in his new book.

Here's a public interview/discussion with Bell which was just created tonight, where he's interviewed by Newsweek editor, Lisa Miller. On this video, Rob and Lisa don't even come out until 13:00 so scroll forward if you watch this:

Watch live streaming video from lovewins at livestream.com

Finally, a few more links I've found helpful as this discussion has played out:

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