Friday, April 8, 2011

How Rob Bell Brought Evangelicals closer to Catholicism

Though this is a review of Rob Bell's Book Love Wins, I'm going to start out with six much more Catholic Quotes:

"The Bible, sacred Tradition, and the writings of the earliest Christians testify that the Church teaches with Jesus’ authority. In this age of countless competing religions, each clamoring for attention, one voice rises above the din: the Catholic Church, which the Bible calls "the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). " Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth, Catholic Answers

"The need for integrity obviously becomes necessary after death, for entering into perfect and complete communion with God. Those who do not possess this integrity must undergo purification. This is suggested by a text of St Paul. The Apostle speaks of the value of each person's work which will be revealed on the day of judgement and says: "If the work which any man has built on the foundation [which is Christ] survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire" (1 Cor 3: 14-15)." - Pope John Paul II, on Purgatory, in his great series of homilies on the subjects of the last things, John Paul II on Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

"I demand from you deeds of mercy which are to arise out of
love for me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always
and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to
excuse yourself from it (Diary, 742)." Diary of St Faustina of Poland, who had private revelations from Jesus and Mary on the subject of Divine Mercy.

Dare We Hope that "All Men May Be Saved"- a quote from a title, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthazar, a Swiss theologian who was writing about this way back in the 1980s and 1990s

"Maybe the greatest threat to the Church is not heresy, not dissent, not secularism, not even moral relativism, but this sanitized, feel-good, boutique, therapeutic spirituality that makes no demands, calls for no sacrifice, asks for no conversion, entails no battle against sin, but only soothes and affirms." -Archbishop Timothy Dolan, apparently in a tweet from his blog

"If you stay on the Bus, 'tis Hell. If you Get Off the Bus, 'twas but Purgatory"- bus driver in The Great Divorce by CS Lewis.

Now that I'm done with my five quotes- on to Rob Bell's Book, Love Wins. First, you should know I'm biased- a faithful orthodox Catholic following the teachings of the soon-to-be-beatified John Paul The Great, who was the Pope for the majority of my life. As such, I truly do believe that the Roman Catholic Church has the Fullness of the Truth of Christ- and that while other religions and other denominations have bits and pieces of partial truth, Only the Mother Church has the "big picture" of Christendom, and thus, Western Civilization.

Pastor Bell's book merely confirmed this for me. He's closer to the truth than most of his fire-and-brimstone TV-show-and-8000-seat-church pastors out there, that's for sure. He has at least come to the completely correct conclusion that a God of Perfect Mercy and Perfect Love does NOT sentence people to Hell for eternity- that when that door is locked, it's locked from the inside, by people who don't understand God very well. He has returned from the predestination-ism of Calvin and the Puritans to the "soft universalism" that the Catholic Church has taught for the last 2000 years; Hell exists, we can see it every day in our fellow men, but we have no definite teaching that ANYBODY, not even Judas, has been left there for eternity (though that's a danger, as Pastor Bell's book says, of getting into the habit of rejecting God's story in favor of our own).

But he's missing some details. And they're not insignificant details either.

The most glaring detail he's missing, and it's because he's come from an evangelical background, is HISTORY. He's got the message of Christ right. He's got the conclusion correct. But he's missing 2000 years worth of debate about the subject, and even goes so far as to deem history irrelevant to the conversation, more than once claiming that "time doesn't repeat itself". Maybe not exactly, but history does indeed teach that those who don't learn the lessons of history- are bound to repeat the same mistakes. Which leads us to one of the MAJOR mistakes of the Protestant Reformation that hampered Bell in writing this book.

Without a good understanding of Purgatory- NONE of us, even with the grace of Christ, deserve Heaven. You can be the best Christian ever. You could follow in the very footsteps of Christ with all he did. But God isn't just Perfect Mercy, he's Perfect Love- and that means TOUGH love, which includes Perfect Justice. NOBODY can come to him without conversion from sin, conversion from believing the "Wrong story" as Bell writes. And so without purgatory, he's left with all sorts of "creative tension" between the idea that some will reject God's grace and all are invited in. But as Pope John Paul The Great teaches- ALL who believe, even if we have the wrong story, have the hope of having that story corrected after death in Purgatory. We can still, painfully, have our story, our will burned away- if we haven't already done it here on Earth.

Hell is real. I see it in the faces of the homeless I volunteer with. I see it in the pain of the addict and the abused. But Heaven is real too- I see it in the Roman Catholic Mass, but also in the peace of the monk and the nun, and in the innocence of children. John Paul The Great, when he gave the homilies linked to above, caused a scandal when he said that Heaven and Hell aren't PLACES, but rather STATES OF MIND.

Which is where I think Bell failed for the third time. And in so doing, I think *some* will misinterpret his work, as they did John Paul The Great, as they did to Hans Urs von Balthazar, as millions of Catholics did in the "Spirit of Vatican II" in the 1970s. They built that faith that Archbishop Dolan considers so dangerous, this faith that consists only of "sanitized, feel-good, boutique, therapeutic spirituality that makes no demands, calls for no sacrifice, asks for no conversion, entails no battle against sin, but only soothes and affirms." Fear of Hell has a purpose for some. That purpose should NOT overwhelm the Love of God, true- but God's Love wouldn't be love without a fear of Hell. We cannot stay addicted to sin and enter Heaven. We MUST go through Purgatory- we must follow The Way, The Truth, and the Life if we are to join life instead of death. I don't think Bell entirely sidesteps this; he repeatedly gives us stories where those who are disobedient to God, "build their own hell". But I do think he downplays it to a dangerous degree. ALL are offered the Grace of God. But not all souls in the past have taken God up on that grace- and as Sister St. Faustina teaches in her diary:

"Today I was led by an Angel to the chasms of hell. It is a place of real torture; how awesomely large and extensive it is! The kinds of tortures I saw: the first torture that constitutes hell is the loss of God; the second is perpetual remorse of conscience; the third is that one's condition will never change; the fourth is the fire that will penetrate the soul without destroying it - a terrible suffering, since it is a purely spiritual fire, ....the fifth torture is continual darkness and a terrible suffocating smell, and, despite the darkness, the devils and the souls of the damned see each other and all the evil, both of others and their own; the sixth torture is the constant company of Satan; the seventh torture is horrible despair, hatred of God, vile words, curses and blasphemies. These are the tortures suffered by all the damned together, but that is not the end of the sufferings. There are special tortures destined for particular souls. These are the torments of the senses. Each soul undergoes terrible and indescribable sufferings, related to the manner in which it has sinned. There are caverns and pits of torture where one form of agony differs from another. I would have died at the very sight of these tortures if the omnipotence of God had not supported me. Let the sinner know that he will be tortured throughout all eternity, in those senses which he made use of to sin. I am writing this at the command of God, so that no soul may find an excuse by saying there is no hell, or that nobody has ever been there, and so no one can say what it is like.

I, Sister Faustina, by the order of God, have visited the abysses of hell so that I might tell souls about it and testify to its existence. I cannot speak about it now; but I have received a command from God to leave it in writing. The devils were full of hatred for me, but they had to obey me at the command of God. What I have written is but a pale shadow of the things I saw. But I noticed one thing: that most of the souls there are those who disbelieved that there is a hell. When I came to, I could hardly recover from the fright. How terribly souls suffer there! Consequently, I pray even more fervently for the covnersion of sinners. I incessantly plead God's mercy upon them. O my Jesus, I would rather be in agony until the end of the world, amidst the greatest sufferings, than offend You by the least sin. (741)" Diary of St Faustina on Hell

But note she also writes:
When the sisters got up at eleven o'clock at night to keep vigil and welcome the New Year, I had been writhing in agony since nightfall, and this lasted until midnight. I united my sufferings with the prayers of the sisters who were keeping vigil in the chapel and atoning to God for the offences of sinners. (1451). When the clock struck twelve, my soul immersed itself more deeply in recollection, and I heard a voice in my soul: "Do not fear, My little child, you are not alone. Fight bravely, because My arm is supporting you; fight for the salvation of souls, exhorting them to trust in My mercy, as that is your task in this life and in the life to come." After these words, I received a deeper understanding of divine mercy. Only that soul who wants [to be damned] will be damned, for God condemns no one. (1452)
Oh, how beyond comprehension is God's mercy! But- horror -there are also souls who voluntarily and consciously reject and scorn this grace! Although a soul is at the point of death, the merciful God gives the soul that interior vivid moment, so that if the soul is willing, it has the possibility of returning to God. But sometimes, the obduracy in souls is so great that consciously they choose hell; they make useless all the prayers that other souls offer to God for them and even the efforts of God Himself..(1698) Diary of St Faustina on Hell

Without this choice- which to Rob Bell is merely a tension- God's Love simply isn't love. Without giving us the freedom to choose Hell, Hell will be as much of a surprise and a scandal as Heaven.

And so I end with the prayer Our Lady of Fatima asked all Catholics to pray, at the end of every decade of the Rosary, for the hope that all souls may be saved:

"O my Jesus, Forgive us ours sins, save us from the fires of Hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy." - Our Lady of Fatima

If this has moved you- I encourage you to look up the Chaplet of Divine Mercy- and pray it every day at 3:00pm- the traditional time Christ died on the Cross for our sins.


Ted Seeber said...

One cannot really fully address the Catholic sense of Soft Universalism without also discussing extra ecclesiam nulla salus- this link goes to the best article I've ever read on the subject, written by Fr. Peter Stravinskas for Envoy Magazine a few years back

Theodore Seeber said...

thanks for this blog entry. just noticed it. i credit my arrival at the Catholic Church to Mr Bell; ironically enough. one can sit around pegging specific things he said in his book as "his doctrine"; but the point of his books is humility and questioning, binding and loosing, etc. he's questioning the modern hardline fundamentalist protestant position, which in his mind, is driving people away from God. he's not saying Hell isn't real; he DOES very much acknowledge Hell as a real thing. He doesn't take it lightly. he does point out the uses of the word Gehenna, Sheol, and Hades. Jesus was speaking on "hell" to the mostly the pharisees. Rob Bell just doesn't think we should go around "evangelizing" in the name of Hell; like so many do. SO MANY critics continue to say this about him and his "hell doctrine"; i just wonder if they read the whole book. in fact, i believe he's more in line with our Pope, believing and hoping that God wants ALL men saved; THIS is from where Rob Bell is coming in LOVE WINS. Love: the culmination of faith and works. Rob is speaking, i believe, to a very "fundamentalist" audience who all they preach is Hell, and hate. i'm praying for Rob everyday because i believe he is so close to coming into the Church. his knowledge of tradition, including rabbinical, is off the charts. i think he'd be a great spokesman. thanks

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