I’m a little late to the game for the blog world but I’ve been reflecting on the issues presented in the now widely controversial book published by Rob Bell called “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” I am as interested in the content of the book, notably the historic/orthodox/evangelical beliefs about the after life, as I am about ‘how’ we choose to discourse and/or debate about the topic within the evangelical/emergent/emerging/reformed/traditional/simple/modern/postmodern church community.
Several have written thoughtful responses to the book and to the discussion as a whole. Here are some that I thought were helpful for their perspective or representative view:
I have never met Rob, previously read a Rob Bell book, nor have I seen a Nooma video. However, to treat it fairly, I did buy and read “Love Wins”. I have many friends who have been influenced by Bell’s ministry, both through writing/video and through his church in Michigan (not to be confused with this Mars Hill church). If we are to judge others and who they belong to according to the ‘fruit’ of their life/ministry, then I would say to my experience that Rob has been clearly ‘fruitful’ for the Kingdom of God. My guess is as well, after an initial viceral/emotional reaction to the issues raised in Rob’s book, that even the harshest critics of Bell’s theology would affirm that he is in fact a follower of Christ and a gifted communicator based on the fruit of his life. Though, I would not doubt that a few may personally excommunicate him altogether for a lack of agreement on the issues at hand.
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:5-8 NIV)
The question at hand seems to be, is Rob Bell suggesting that 1) Hell doesn’t exist and 2) If it does, is anyone going there?
“There is a hell now, there is a hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” (p. 79) Bell spends a whole chapter on his beliefs about hell and nowhere did I read or interpret him saying that hell was fictional or soley metaphor. He speaks to the reality of the greek word “Gehenna”, which we translate into the English ‘hell’ being an actual place outside the city of Jerusalem. The Valley of Hinnom, the city garbage dump with a constant fire for consuming waste and the wild animals fighting over scraps with their gnashing of teeth. He raises at the very least a historical and literary question of whether Jesus’ references of Gehenna were not a literal description of a place of eternal fire, but rather a reference point for the 1st century hearers/readers of what the agony of separation and discommunity with the Creator is like. I read Bell challenging some of our traditional concepts of Gehenna but not universally discounting hell, rather he is presenting a different kind of hell.
“To summarize then, we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we exeprience when we reject the good and true and real beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way. And for that, the word ‘hell’ works quite well. Let’s keep it.” (p. 94)
It is obvious that Bell is deeply influenced by the teachings of N.T. Wright, particularly his historical study of the 1st century world that led to his assertions in “Surprised by Hope“. Here is Wright’s description of his belief in hell from Surprised by Hope:
“When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God. One of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflect what you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around. . . My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way (repent), all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all.”
This state of hell seemingly for Bell and Wright is quantitatively the same as the traditional view, it is eternal. However, it goes without being “Captain Obvious” that they are qualitatively different. Traditionally it is a view of a kind of physical torment, in isolation and conscious flesh burning. Bell/Wright are alluding to perhaps an even more wholistic kind of anguish. I think you could argue that the loss of your creative image, the soul identity of what defines you as a mark of creation is a kind of hell that goes beyond description. It is utter and exponential lostness. Bell is criticized for being a ‘softie’ on his theology of hell, he may in fact be suggesting a state of torment far worse than the traditional concepts of Dante’s Inferno.
And to the 2nd question, if there is a hell, is anybody going there? Bell lays out his arguments in more artisitc language than he does with objective belief statements. He’s a storyteller and the ambiguity I’m sure is what those who are quite nervous and reactionary of his assertions even more uncomfortable. Bell on one hand alludes that some “will” choose away from God and be in that place of isolation from the Creator forever. Then on the other hand, the entire thesis of the book is that Bell believes “Love Wins” because that is what God wants. He wants all His creation, died for all, forgives all (even if they haven’t asked for it) and longs for all. If Bell is a universalist, perhaps ironically he is asserting a kind of “irresistable grace” the Calvinist reformers hold to. That in the end, God’s grace and love versus the human will is not a fair fight. He will melt their hearts, they will choose the love of their Creator and therefore “love wins”. (You can surely make an argument here for if this is freewill at all) It seems to me that Bell is hoping and wondering if this is the case. I admitt that I hope and wonder the same, but there is not enough Scriptual evidence for me to form this into a “belief” statement, it remains in the category of ‘wonderings’ for me. I think in this way, Bell’s heart for all to choose this love has him over-stating and over-reaching the Scriptural narratives he cites with this end already in mind. This is the way he chooses to tell the story and he is accountable to God for his voice. So for that you can ask your textual criticism questions, but to label him a ‘false teacher’ an ‘enemy’ and bid him ‘farewell’ (i.e. John Piper’s tweet), is as well, in my perspective, an over-reaction and not nearly the grace given to us from the shadow of the cross.
D.W. Bebbington, in his book: “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s”, lays out the classic definition of an Evangelical with his quadrilateral:
- biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
- crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
- conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted
- activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort
I don’t read anything in Rob Bell that separates him from this camp. He appears to me to be a thoughtful, passionate, lover of God, lover of the Church, lover of the Scriptures and all people as the bearers of the image of God. He certainly represents a comfort within the postmodern context that is qualitatively different than modernist models, but I perceive him doing that yet as an Evangelical. (I don’t mean to put this label on Rob, maybe he doesn’t want it, but I use it for my own identity and see Rob within that scope.)
We, the evangelical church, are human and therefore are prone to not disagreeing well. We, the western hemisphere, also seem to be in the midst of macro-philsophical and cultural shifts in which the plates of change we stand on are in motion. Whatever the realities are of what a modern world (built on the tenets of the Enlightenment) of which Evangelicalism found it’s voice and expansive influence in, the milieu is certainly shifting. Postmodernism, with it’s skepticisim of objective truth and institutional structures, is increasing it’s growth in every fabric of our culture. I think that I am somewhat native to postmodern musings but there are as well times that talk/writing/assertions/statements etc. within Emergent make me reflective in disagreement based upon my understanding of Church history, tradition and the Scriptural narratives. The Kingdom of God is neither modern, nor postmodern, it is the reality of all things under the rule of God. The Kingdom supercedes any of our cultural loyalties or pedagogical attachments.
As Rob Bell seeks to tell his story of passionate and all consuming love of the Creator for ‘all’ His Creation, if we disagree with his interpretations, how ought we to do that in light of the cross we all cling to?
In light of the cross, can we get under Paul’s words : “10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (I Cor. 1:10 NIV)?
And if we disagree, can it be like this: “18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (Phil. 1:18 NIV)?
Time will tell how ‘we’ get along. Mistreatment of Rob is perhaps his own personal hell and a cross he has to bear. In the midst of our disagreements, I am longing for a Church that Love Wins.