I just finished reading Rob Bell’s new and very controversial book, Love Wins. Full disclosure; to date, I have totally embraced all that I’ve read from Bell. Velvet Elvis (2005) was a very timely and formative read for our church community and last year I desperately chased him down for two months trying to get an endorsement for my book (I didn’t get it).
And now I’m wondering if that may have been a good thing.
I get why Bell would see the need to write a book like this; there are lots of big questions and scary misconceptions on the topic of hell out there. And I applaud him for taking the risk. But I’m not sure he got it right. Not sure at all.
The way I see it, this book is an attempt to present a view of hell that stands in opposition to the thinking of the ‘turn or burn’ crowd (the hyper-evangelizing, uber-judging, Christian stereotype that uses hell to scare people into heaven). Only, by pushing back against that caricature, I think Bell has swung too far in the other direction; into what clearly appears to be universalism (the belief that God will eventually save everyone – that there is no eternal hell).
While I’ll admit that I love the possibility of this being God’s plan – that his love and grace are indeed big enough to include everyone – I just can’t square it with either the bible or 2000 years of God-held, kept and led Christian tradition. Parables of rich men and beggars, foolish virgins, and sheep and goats all seem to speak of a point of no return, of some kind of eternal hellish reality (along with a few other biblical texts). Surely the church hasn’t been totally wrong on this issue for all these years; has it?
Yes, there are all kinds of scriptural references that seem to support a more universalistic perspective (many include the phrase ‘all things’ like “I am making all things new” Rev 21:5). And yes, there are just as many verses that seem to support an eternally hot and fiery hell. So what’s a thoughtful Christian to do?
Perhaps the Bible’s ambiguity is meant to point us to a greater truth; that none of us can know or understand the mind of God when it comes to the mystery of his eternal election (why he would choose some and not others). Even as eternal-hell-believing Christians are wrong in thinking they definitively know what God thinks on the matter (just four easy steps and you’ll be safe), so too are the Universalists who insist that God would only love in an all inclusive kind of way.
How in the world do they know?
God is a mystery. He’s all powerful and good and yet he allowed evil to infiltrate his good creation. God then solved that problem of evil by mysteriously taking on human flesh (fully God and fully man – explain that with words), and then let himself be inexplicably crucified. God is totally sovereign even as he has given us free will (can anyone explain that reality?). He’s three even as he is one.
Everything about who God is and how he thinks is fraught with mystery. So who are we, on either side of this hell issue, to make a judgment on what his take is on such a weighty eternal matter?
By taking a side, and hubristically calling it God’s side, both sides err.
I get the sense, that in writing this book, Bell took some bait that he should have ignored.
Yes, ‘hell on earth now’ is a tragic reality that Christians should fervently work to abate, but that doesn’t negate the possibility of a more eternal hell.
Yes, many of Jesus’ judgments were aimed at real time, then and there, realities, but this fact doesn’t necessarily cancel the future oriented, prophetic, eternally judging application of his teachings.
Yes, it would seem like the best story God could tell would be one where everyone is eternally saved, but (and I really don’t want to make this argument) what if God doesn’t define ‘best’ is this same way?
Yes, Christ died for all things, people’s souls and the rest of his good creation, but this fact does not necessarily negate the possibility of an eternal hell.
Yes, Jesus is at work in the lives of all people, both inside and outside of the church, but this does not speak to the matter of whether or not there is a hell.
Yes, Jesus’ love is bigger and wider and longer and deeper than we can ever imagine, but so is his holiness and justice.
And now I’ll stop, before the irony of claiming to understand how this all works becomes too overwhelming.
I hope Bell’s book stimulates all kinds of healthy dialogue regarding the doctrine of hell. And I pray that, as we engage this complex and mysterious topic, humility wins.