Popular inspirational speaker and church leader Rob Bell has created a storm with his latest book Love Wins in which he challenges the church’s traditional understanding of heaven and hell. Bell, pastor of the 10,000-strong postmodern church Mars Hill in Grandville, Michigan (USA) and producer of the popular Nooma dvd series, has never been considered a theological heavyweight by evangelicals, despite the fact that he clearly makes every effort to make his teaching biblical (as he sees it) and this book is no exception. Bell’s strength is communicating Christian truth in an entertaining and simple manner for a postmodern generation.
Bell’s favourite technique is to ask reductive rhetorical questions to help people realise the absurdity of the traditional view of heaven and hell. Examples include:
God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy – unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever. That’s the Christian story, right?
A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them, [will] in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who will ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.
Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach us that Jesus rescues us from God.
Bell is not in fact saying anything that erudite theologians in reputable seminaries haven’t been speculating about for decades, a point which he claims in his introduction to demonstrate his ‘alternative orthodoxy’. Where Bell is different, however, is that he does not follow the traditional liberal line of beginning with a God of love and rejecting the authority of the Bible where it contradicts love.
While he begins with the problem (which all of us, in truth, grapple with) that an ostensibly loving God will condemn billions of his own creatures to burn forever, he seeks a fully biblical solution, looking at the teaching of Jesus and all the terms used in scripture for hell. He explains that what Jesus and his listeners would have understood by heaven and hell are not the same as the image the church has inherited, and proposes a solution drawn from the parable of the prodigal son, where the older brother is invited to the party, still has the option of going to the party, but doesn’t.
The book itself is written in Bell’s engaging and accessible style, with plenty of rhetorical questions ridiculing the point he is criticising. However, like Velvet Elvis, it starts with a big impact but gradually fizzles out. It’s long on argument but short on proposition, and ends up being unable to answer coherently the questions that it has raised.
Technically, it fails to tackle head on some crucial texts (e.g. Matthew 13:47-52, Mark 9:47-48, 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9, Revelation 20:10, 15) while claiming to have fully examined everything the Bible has to say about the subject. While Bell is also quite correct by arguing that ‘everlasting’ (aionios in Greek) can be translated ‘for a time’ as validly as it can be translated ‘forever’, he doesn’t deal with how this can apply where ‘everlasting punishment’ and ‘everlasting life’ appear in the same sentence (Matthew 5:46).
Bell concludes that there is (or will be) no such place as hell, if by hell you mean a lake of fire. He implies that he might believe in purgatory, and clearly anticipates a beautiful future for most of us, Christian or not, unless we choose to reject it. And although he doesn’t actually say it, there may be a possibility making that choice after death. And if we do reject it, the consequences won’t be hell, though it’s not clear from this book what they might be.
Whether you love or hate this book will depend on whether you are modern or postmodern. If you are the latter you will be thrilled that someone has had the courage to recontextualise biblical imagery to create a new paradigm empowering us to live life like it really matters. If you are modern, you will be furious that a high profile public figure will so undermine Christian tradition and challenge orthodoxy.
Bell has not succeeded in providing any answers, and while many Christians will be encouraged that the fate of their loved ones who have already died might not be as awful as they had previously believed, many more will be confused by this controversial and ultimately unhelpful intervention. I can’t wait for John Piper to reply, probably by writing a book defending hell.
Many evangelical Christians will be outraged and offended by Bell’s views, but it is lamentable that they care so passionately about defending the traditional understanding of hell, yet do so little to prevent their neighbours being sent there.