Monday, March 14, 2011

DeYoung, Bell, and Holiness

Kevin DeYoung has criticised Rob Bell's new book at length on his blog.

This review and some others that I've read may well be right in their denials and affirmations about heaven and hell. But there is an implicit message in them that I think is too narrow, and ultimately, unbiblical. The message is this: People go to heaven because of God's love, but people go to hell because of God's holiness (or justice). Bell is being accused of neglecting the holiness of God by denying the eternal, conscious torment of sinners in hell. That's quite an accusation, and one that I think is at least partially unfounded. I say that because to talk only about salvation isn't to not talk about God's holiness: quite the opposite, in fact.

I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. - Hos. 11:9

Kevin DeYoung seems only to leave open the reality that God will execute his burning anger because he is the Holy One. Hosea speaks of God's holiness, his otherness, as the very reason that wrath will be spared. Therefore the tension within God is not "I am loving so I want to save you, but I am holy so I must unleash my anger on you". Tension is described in the passage, but it is the tension of what should have the final word over Israel - judgement or compassion, exile or return? Because God is Holy, judgement is penultimate, but compassion and return are ultimate.

To reinforce the point, Ezekiel speaks of Israel's restoration as occuring for the sake of God's Holy name (Ez. 36). When Yhwh's people are saved, Yhwh's holiness -- not his love, not his holy love, but his holiness -- will be vindicated.

DeYoung and others are keen to attach the 'holy' modifier to Bell's reckless, liberal 'love'. In this understanding, a fundamental question underlying the biblical story, How can a holy God dwell with unholy people?, is answered by the (holy) love of God revealed in the cross of Christ. My point, however, is that the question, How can a holy God dwell with unholy people? can be answered by appealing to very holiness which seems to stand in our way. How can a holy God dwell with unholy people? Because he is holy! Because his holiness is strong enough to cleanse us of our unholiness; a strength revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ.

This isn't to presume on the holiness of God as standing at our beck and call, nor is it to deny God his role as judge. Yet as Stanley Hauerwas said during a radio debate in the UK, "God judges the world, and that's a good thing." Contrary to the implications of DeYoung's review, God is holy, and that's a good thing for the unholy to hear.

Holiness wins.

(For a similar discussion of a narrowly understood biblical word, see this post on justice)


  1. I dunno bro - i see the point you're trying to make but, like Bell, you seem to want to pull passages out of their context and apply them to your argument.
    This is what the message of the gospel is:
    God is holy and we are not; we have all "gone our own way like lost sheep" and God's right and JUST response is to damn all of us to hell b/c of our treasonous rebellion and mocking of the God of universe.
    In LOVE, God sent Jesus to turn aside/propitiate His wrath against that rebellion by living, dying and being raised to life, that all who would put their faith in Jesus might be saved from "the wrath to come".
    One of the big things i learned recently that opened my mind a lot on the issue of God's attributes is that He is ALL of them at once - God doesn't put on the 'love hat' in Jesus and then take that off and put on the 'holy hat' or the 'omnipotent hat', etc. He is holy and loving, as i think Galatians puts it both the Judge and the Justifier.
    Because God is Just, He must punish sin, but b/c He is also Love, He has provided a way to take that punishment for us. Make sense?

  2. I very much DON'T want to pull passages out of their context and apply them to my argument. My argument is simply that 'holiness' is much more broad then DeYoung's understanding. The texts Ive mentioned support this, both in context and out of context.

    As for your gospel message, it promotes just the kind of thinking Ive been arguing against. Think about this: Because God is Just, he must liberate us from the effects of sin. If that doesn't sit well with you then I would say that you're not thinking about justice in a biblical way.

    I'm not saying that everything you've said is untrue, just for the record. Quite the opposite, in fact. But what you've presented isn't *it*. There's much more to the gospel than that. I say that confidently because the gospel Jesus proclaimed contained many things absent from yours.

  3. That's an interesting take.

    I am reminded of something Miroslav Volf recently wrote while exploring "God is Love":

    "But lest someone think that God must then be indifferent to sin and wrongdoing, some people will “be excluded from “heaven” as God’s world of love… not despite but because God’s love is universal.” – Captive to the Word of God, p.143

    Rob Bell said something very similar in a recent interview:

    "If by Universalism we mean that love doesn’t win and God sort of co-ops the human heart and says “Well you’re coming here and you’re gonna like it.” Um, that violates the laws of love, and love is about freedom, it’s about choice." (here: )

  4. Dec -
    you wrote, "Because God is Just, he must liberate us from the effects of sin." I'd love to hear you flesh that out a bit more. My initial reaction is to say, 'Absolutely! And He is doing just that! But the effects of sin will always remain until Jesus returns when all things will at last be reconciled to Himself' - but maybe i'm missing your point. Also, i'm talking about personal salvation in my gospel message - not the reality that the trees and the ground will one day not bear the curse of sin; that's awesome but it doesn't effect my eternity. So, sure, Jesus said lots more about His kingdom ect. but i'm just stripping it to it's bare bones.

    Derek -
    who wrote the "laws of love" bro? Nowhere in Scripture will you find anything other than, ""Our God is in the heavens, and He does whatever He pleases" Ps. 115:3. You (and Bell) are confusing a sentimental notion of romance with a divine attribute of God - not the same thing.

  5. Something else to consider:
    What does it say about the nature and character of God (and of heaven) to even imagine that He would reveal Himself to someone and bring them into His family and presence and they would respond, "....hmmmm. I dunno. I didn't ask to be brought here. This violates the laws of love Jesus. You can't force me to be here!' Seriously lads!