God Wins Chapter 5 – The Pitfalls of Literalism

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The hermeneutical trend of reading the bible in such a way as to take literal the words on paper allowing for no genre, context, or apocryphal meaning is a not only a danger to serious biblical interpretation, but so too which forms a hermeneutical blind-spot for other fields as well. In studying the move between oral and written cultures, one must notice the dangers in having something written as opposed to having heard something. For the hearer, he or she is able to noticed the facial features of the speaker, for hidden cues, or the tone and pitch of the voice. In a written performance, that is missed and indeed, the reader becomes the speaker. This is, I suspect one of Galli’s pitfalls in understanding Bell, if he ever really attempted to do so. In this chapter, The Point of Heaven, Galli shows his subjective literalism not only in reading Scripture but in reading Bell as well.

He starts the chapter off by declaring that “someone more or less” is missing from the picture, which I assume he means God. I am unsure as to how he thinks that God is missing from Bell’s heaven, as I suspect that it is more of a matter of perspective. As an example, God is not missing in Esther or the Song of Solomon, but ever present, even if He is never mentioned. But, as we proceed with the chapter, Galli’s literalism obfuscates Bell and Scripture. He correctly notes that “Heaven is also used to describe the reality where God rules.” Yes, it does, but Galli goes on to say that “Wherever this heaven is, it is not on earth.” And yet, we are commended to pray “thy kingdom come (to earth), they will be done on earth as it is in heaven” which is seeking the joining of the realm of Heaven to the realm of Earth, which we see not just in the final pages of Revelation but so too the very first chapters of Genesis. He cites John 14.2 and Philippians 1.23, giving the allusion that Heaven is some far off distant realm only coming to earth in a quantum superposition. And yet, this is due to the abject hermeneutic which Galli is using. While it does not behoove me to give a fully sourced critique of this work (at this time), Galli ignores the use of language in John which doesn’t mean a far distant heaven, but one here on earth, inaugurated by Christ – the Kingdom of God. Galli is not so much arguing against Bell but showing that he hasn’t read much of the Kingdom Theology or is enveloped in current scholastic studies about the ancient Jewish understandings behind the New Testament books, which oddly enough, were not written by medieval European white men. I would suggest, especially for a better understanding of the passage in John reading ]]’s book, ]], published by Tyndale House Publishers.

He concludes this section by giving into the last few centuries’ doctrine of escapism (I’ll Fly Away!) by saying that both Jesus and Paul acknowledged “this dimension of heaven” then it would be accurate to “think of heaven as… a destination to be arrived at.” I would counter that Galli should read Perrin, Wright, and others of the New Perspective on Paul as well as the Book of Revelation which doesn’t have us going to heaven, but reverses that, to reunited humanity with God where humanity was first given dominion, on earth. While the pilgrimage themes are important, as Galli notes, we have to understand that all of Creation was and is moving towards a New Creation. Oddly enough, he notes the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land, failing to note that Jacob was there at first, but took his family into Egypt, and only later, after the Exodus event, did they return to where they started. While I appreciate narrative theology, and I supposed that this is actually what Galli is following, I think that we have to be careful not to focus too much on the reoccurring themes as a permanent fixture of human existence or the Divine-human relationship as we miss that often times, these story lines are concluded in Christ.

In the next section, A Tangible Heaven, we see again a re0ccuring theme in Galli, that of being anti-experiential, as if experiencing God has somehow ceased. He again ignores, or is perhaps unlearned, in modern scholarship which should help us out of that abject hermeneutic, but it seems that Bell is at least familiar with recent scholarship and theology based upon said scholarship. He quotes Bell in trying to explain eternity who writes that eternity is “intensity of experience that transcends time” (pg57, Love Wins). Galli goes to the Greek lexicon which admittedly may not support the meaning of the word, but are lexicons meant to provide context and usage or to translate the word? This is a different in the use of ‘word-for-word’ bibles and those bibles translated, such as the NLT, using the dynamic equivalent model. That’s because literalism, even in translation, can obscure the actual meaning of the word. So, while Galli is right that the literal definition of the word does not mean what Bell writes of Eternity, he is wrong in that eternity doesn’t mean Bell says it describes. Bell is not alone, either today, or from history, in describing eternity as an experience rather than a length of time. Dr. Alexander Melnyk notes that the 5th century Christian theologian, Boethius, saw heaven as experience as well. Dr. Melnyk writes,

We sometimes, mistakenly consider eternity as if it were a never ending stream of time. This is not what is meant by eternity. Probably the best definition of eternity was given by Boethius, who lived in the fifth century. He pointed out that even if time were unending, it would still not be eternal. Eternity is a special quality which enables all moments to be present. Thus God experiences all times as if they were here present in this very moment. But that is not the whole story.

While the light from the East is important, I want to now rebuff Galli with someone closer to his belief, a more conservative pastors, Rev. George Cutler*, who in a sermon, writes,

There is a difference between the succession of events in time and the “intensity of experience” in eternity. The intensity of experience will envelop the manifestation of extensity when time ceases to exist. The word “extensity” denotes the quality of having extension or the attitude or sensation by which spatial (pertaining to space which also involves time) extension is perceived. The word “intensity” refers to the quality or condition of being intense, i.e., extreme (absolute) in degree, power, or effect, as the essential quality of eternity is intensity rather than extensity. Even though the anthropomorphic axioms “everlasting” and age-enduring are the widely accepted descriptive terminology conveyed in the scriptures; to think of length as the essence of eternal life is to suppose that the reality of it is to be measured by how long it lasts.

And while N.T. Wright doesn’t expressly confirm Bell’s view, he does in fact come close to calling the view which Galli is seemingly espousing, platonic and gnostic,

In this clip, from an interview regarding his book, ]], we see Bell’s line of thinking expressed academically and theologically by N.T. Wright,


Galli and Bell are more alike than Galli would assume. Neither source their material and they both offer nothing more than bare-bones proof-texts to support their statements. Yes, while he can pull from Isaiah and other Old Testament books, he doesn’t offer context nor real exegesis, only falling for the centuries old misunderstanding of the New Creation which has led us to this present notion of escapism (I’m Leaving On a Jet Plane…..).

One of the issues which has begun to bother me about Galli’s approach to Bell is two-fold. First, he sorely mischaracterizes Bell’s position and then, he forgets that the Christian world doesn’t turn on a small group of Protestant believers. He fails his Theological History exam in recognizing Arminianism and Wesleyanism, and in this case, accusing Bell of the age-old anti-Catholic heresy of “works-based righteousness.” He calls Bell’s interpretation of the story of the rich young ruler wherein Bell urges the audience to “become a person of peace and justice and worship and generosity” a “serious (if inadvertent distortions of the gospel.” Yet again, Bell is not new in this, but is showing his theological heritage in both Wright and long before him, Wesley to some extent. Further, I would argue that, as I referred to earlier, Galli’s literalism is carried over from Scripture to Bell which removes Bell’s context. Bell is not preaching to sinners here, but to those who are already following Christ which is why, as he notes, “there is not a word in the book” about the grace needed to live in Christ. As well, he criticizes Bell for not focusing on the “Follow Me” part of the story which, again, the audience should already be doing. If sermons to edify and upbraid your congregation is a “works-based righteousness”, then many people are guilty of something which may actually be found in Scripture, although not to the error we have made it out to be.

As I have noted before, Galli hasn’t either grasped the theology behind the New Creation, the key of being which the body of Christ our Lord resurrected, or has refused to interact with it. While writing a response may not entail such things, to be honest to the opposing party, one should at the very least seek to understand where he or she is coming from. We meet this lack of interaction or refusal to understand again in the section, What Heaven is About. He first criticizes Bell’s claim that “heaven has the potential to be a kind of starting over. Learning how to be human all over again.” (p50-51, Love Wins) Galli says that Bell must be compared to the “fuller biblical picture.” Yet, for all of this blustery grandstanding of being more biblical than Bell, Galli doesn’t do much better, as in describing ‘heaven’ Galli starts and seemingly stops at Revelation 4.8-11. He does note the vision of the “last days” in Isaiah 2.2-3, which takes place on earth, using metaphorical language. He goes on to state that the “central activity of heaven will not be creativity or work but the worship of God” (referenced by Revelation 4). I don’t get the sense that in Bell’s heaven, worship is denied, but I do think that this is an interesting divide enumerated by the words which we use. For Galli and others, they speak of the Life-After as ‘heaven’ while for Bell, Wright, and even myself, I use the term most frequently as “New Creation.” It is a return, as the final chapters of Revelation puts it, to Eden, where the creativity first took place. In quoting chapter 4 of Revelation, he dismisses the notion that humanity is not yet present with God as well as the vast difference which we see in the heavenly situation when God brings heaven to earth. I admit that Bell’s more philosophic attributions to the Kingdom of Heaven is a bit off-putting, I am reminded that Galli’s extreme literalism is only the other side of the coin of Bell.

Galli is correct, however, that Bell doesn’t mention God nearly as much as perhaps he should have, but again, I go back to the (perhaps excuse) that Bell is preaching to Christian with a different focus than Galli would have him to have. To accuse Bell, however, of coming close to the “Eastern religions” (a term Galli has used several times) is to misunderstand other Christian theological traditions, such as Eastern Orthodoxy and the Apophatic terminology which Bell can easily been seen as fitting into. A different view is not always unbiblical or wrong. Further, our views are not automatically right since we hold them. Bell is not automatically wrong because he espouses theology differently, and neither is Galli. I’m not sure that Galli understands that, but I am sure that he is missing out on the grand narrative of Christian theologies which is a detriment to himself personally, and indeed, leaves a gaping whole in his book.


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3 Replies to “God Wins Chapter 5 – The Pitfalls of Literalism”

  1. Joel, you too “misunderstand other Christian theological traditions” when you call the important insight of Boethius “light from the East”. Boethius was from Rome, which is of course east of West Virginia, but is the city where our whole western cultural and philosophical tradition was nurtured. Indeed the influence of Boethius, born just four years after the last ancient western Roman emperor was deposed, was key to the preservation of western civilisation through the “dark ages” and into the modern world. This is not “light from the East” but the philosophical foundation of the West.

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