I love Mark Galli’s analogy of what we Methodists (and many other Christians) frequently call prevenient grace: the sense in which God’s Spirit enables human beings to respond to the gospel. As the analogy makes clear, we are free to accept or reject eternal life. But the very limited role we play in our salvation is hardly the point.
The point is that a loving God initiates and provides the means by which we can be saved. I made a similar point in Monday’s post about freedom: simply having freedom of choice, however good and necessary that is, hardly solves our human problem.
A man finds himself in the middle of a vast sea, treading water. There is no land in sight, no boat on the horizon. He is hungry and thirsty and rapidly tiring. He’s headed for death. This man may have free will to swim in one direction or another. He may choose to swim or to tread water. But when it comes to the most important thing, he has no choice—he cannot choose to survive. He’s going to drown.
Then along comes a rescue ship. When the ship gets close, it lets out a raft with three men on board. Rowing over to the desperate man, they stretch their arms out over the edge of the raft and grab him. He grabs their arms as they pull him into the boat. They take him on board the ship, give him medical attention, and get him home. The man is saved.
When this man then recounts his story to his family, how will he describe it? Will he say, “Well, the rescuers loved me so much, they pretty much let me decide my fate. And, really, it was my free will that made all the difference.” No, he will describe how utterly hopeless his situation was, how grateful he was to see the rescue ship, how wonderful those three men who pulled him aboard were, how excellent the navigator was to find him, and so on.†
Galli employs this analogy to counter what he perceives as Rob Bell’s overemphasis in Love Wins on human choice in relation to salvation or damnation—heaven and hell are mostly a matter of God’s giving us what we want. Never mind, Galli might say, the ways in which sin offends God’s holiness. Never mind the ways in which hell is what we deserve. Never mind that hell is what we would get apart from God’s saving work in Christ.
Do we have a problem with hell because we underestimate our problem with sin?