UPDATE: I’ve started a new site dedication to the discussion/study of hell/justice/love/etc. I’ll be porting the material on this site to it and extending the materials already posted here. Take a look at http://www.justiceandlove.com/.
In this post I am attempting to accomplish several tasks simultaneously:
- An introduction to Rob Bell and the current firestorm surrounding his latest book Love Wins.
- A review/commentary of said book (Love Wins) on its own merits, apart from all the additional materials currently being generated via various interviews Bell is partaking in.
- A listing of resources for further study upon this topic from orthodox and unorthodox perspectives.
By the time I finished writing a summary with a few reference notes and including items for further study I’m plum tuckered out writing this article. In addition to the four to six hours it took me to read Bell’s book it has probably taken me another two or three to create this article. As such, I did much less commentary on Bell’s ideas than I had initially intended…There are many areas in which I could expand significantly, but instead of pouring more time into this already sprawling article I’d ask you for the questions that come to your mind – and I’ll attempt to answer them as best I can from Bell’s book or other resources available to me.
I believe that serious thinking about heaven and hell is important for all Christians. I would go so far as to say that while we (evangelicals) maintain a doctrine of hell, we deny it with our lives. I have met very few individuals who truly live in a manner consistent with what they claim to believe.
That said, I would warn those considering broaching this topic that it should not be entered upon lightly. If you are not prepared to engage this topic seriously – which will include a significant amount of emotional and spiritual turmoil – it may be best not to approach it at all.
Perhaps the worst we can do is pretend to engage this topic – really engage it – and instead simply touch it and run away – kidding ourselves into the belief that we have really dealt with this topic. There is pain involved in any serious consideration of hell, if you don’t feel pain in the process – you aren’t doing it right. If you don’t want to puke and cry, you haven’t hit the heart of hell.
- Rob Who?
- Review / Commentary
- Chapter 1. What About the Flat Tire?
- Chapter 2. Here is the New There.
- Chapter 3. Hell.
- Chapter 4. Does God Get What God Wants?
- Chapter 5. Dying to Live.
- Chapter 6. There are Rocks Everywhere.
- Chapter 7. The Good News is Better Than That.
- Further Study
Rob Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan with attendance estimated at 8,000-10,000 each Sunday. Bell received his Bachelors from Wheaton College and then a Masters in Divinity from Fuller Seminary. He moved to Grand Rapids and served under Ed Dobson before branching off to found Mars Hill.
Bell first became well-known for his NOOMA series of videos which utilize his teachings, indie music, and an artistic visual flare to talk about faith and life. Bell went on to author several books including Velvet Elvis, Sex God, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Drops Like Stars, and most recently Love Wins.
Bell has long been a controversial figure on the evangelical (Christian) scene. Lighthouse Trails Publishing argues that contemplative spirituality and spiritual formation are anti-Scriptural movements and aligns Bell with both of these. You can find a long history of articles questioning Bell’s orthodoxy over a number of issues at Apprising Ministries (Ken Silva). But it was only recently that Bell became the center of a tremendous amount of angst within evangelicalism. This firestorm was set off by Justin Taylor with his post Rob Bell: Universalist? and really spurred on by John Piper’s tweet “Farewell Rob Bell.” Now, the book has hit the shelves and is being voraciously devoured around the world…including by yours truly. I began reading the book yesterday evening, read again tonight, and have now completed this small volume
The Review / Commentary:
I’ll take the book chapter by chapter and provide snippets from the book as well as commentary on various points. I’ll try and pull in various resources as they apply throughout the book as well as providing a more extensive guide for further study at the end of this article.
- “I believe that Jesus’ story is first and foremost about the love of God for every single one of us. It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.”
This may seem like one of the most common sense statements one could make about the Christian faith, but Bell is subtly taking on a major viewpoint within Christianity. John Piper is representative of this view. Put simply: God chooses (according to His own mysterious will) whom He will extend grace to volitionally choose Him and receive the gift of salvation. Anyone God chooses will be saved, anyone He does not choose will not be saved. For a exposition of this line of thinking see Piper’s book Desiring God Chapters 1 & 2 “Happiness” and “Conversion”. These individuals generally agree that God loves everyone, but insist that God loves some people differently than others – thus some are saved from hell while others are damned to hell. For those who are first encountering this conception one’s response may be “Ridiculous!” but I assure you that this is the serious belief of many of our leading theologians and pastors – not only contemporaneously but also historically.
I agree with Bell on this commitment to the love of God (while at the same time maintaining the complete sovereignty of God), believing that we cannot subjugate an accurate depiction of the love of God for the sake of accurately depicting the sovereignty and justice of God.
- “I’ve written this book because the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them.”
Bell asks a lot of the right questions and is certainly right that these questions are appropriate and acceptable to ask – but he falls short in addressing these questions to the full extent they deserve. Specifically, he fails to provides readers with accurate resources for verifying his deductions and conclusions. Throughout Bell tells us that certain interpretations and meanings are true but fails to provide references to which we can look to verify his interpretations. I understand this is a lay text rather than an academic text – but adding endnotes would not have inhibited the readability of the text and would certainly have enhanced its usefulness.
Chapter 1. What About the Flat Tire?
Bell is a master storyteller. It is obvious that he has studied the art – and studied the teachings of Jesus – and become quite gifted at using story to make a powerful point. The stories one finds in this chapter are no exception, but I’ll allow you to read the stories for yourself – lets stick to the meat of the argument.
Actually, there isn’t really an argument in this chapter – its more an introduction – a throwing under the bus if one will. Bell pulls out all the stops and asks a lot of really hard questions, the kind that haunt us when insomnia won’t leave us alone at night or in the midst of a great tragedy (like the current crises in Japan and Libya):
- Is Ghandi in hell? (pg. 1)
- Why you (or me) and not them? (pg. 2)
- Is there an age of accountability? (pg. 3)
- Are there specific words that must be said? (pg. 4)
- What about Muslims (and Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.)? (pg. 6)
- Can someone go to hell because someone else didn’t do or share what they should have? (pg. 8)
Bell brings the bus around for a second pass by pointing out stories in Scripture where salvation appears to come from different means – e.g. the centurion (Luke 23), Nicodemus (John 3), Luke 20, Matthew 7, Zaccheus (Luke 19), the paralyzed man (Mark 2), 1 Corinthians 7, and Paul (Acts 22). As he poetically states,
“Is it what you say,
or who you are,
or what you do,
or what you say you’re going to do,
or who your friends are,
or who you’re married to,
Or is it what questions you’re asked?
Or what questions you ask in return?
Or is it whether you do what you’re told and go into the city?” (pg. 16)
In essence, Bell wants to shake us up before he offers any answers. He wants to knock down our presuppositions and our pat explanations about salvation before he attempts to build them back up again.
Chapter 2. Here is the New There.
As I read this chapter I noticed it sounded a lot like another book I have been reading – N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. Sure enough, at the end of Love Wins Bell recommends Surprised by Hope for further reading on heaven.
So what exactly do Rob Bell (and N.T. Wright) believe about heaven?
- Heaven is a real place that is someplace else, but also coming into existence here.
- Heaven is a dynamic and earthy place, much like here and now, but without all the loss and evil.
- We have the opportunity to be part of making heaven and earth come together.
- At the same time, man will not simply strive on towards perfection (ala Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity), it is God who is leading and ordaining history.
It is important at this juncture to note Bell’s discursion into Hebrew and Greek grammar, as this will be important to his discussions later on about hell. Namely, Bell notes that the Hebrew word olam and the Greek word aion which are oftentimes translated eternal are used in a less definite sense in Scripture – particularly revolving around a period of time, but indefinite in length. Bell’s emphasis here is not on duration but quality, that this age and the age to come are different in quality rather than in duration. Thus, the emphasis in heaven is not on its length but upon its quality.
Bell further discusses anger/justice/judgment in relation to heaven and how God will bring about the next age by a definitive act of judgment, but his emphasis here is on helping everyone understand that we all truly do desire to see justice occur – as he states, “…we hear people say they can’t believe in a ‘God of judgment.’
Yes, they can.
Often, we can think of little else.
Every oil spill,
every report of another woman sexually assaulted,
every news report that another political leader has silenced the opposition through torture,
imprisonment, and execution,
every time we see someone stepped on by an institution or corporation more interested in profit than people,
every time we stumble upon one more instance of the human heart gone wrong,
we shake our first and cry out,
‘Will somebody please do something about this?'” (pp. 37-38)
The practical emphasis of the chapter is two-fold. First, Bell wants to convey that heaven is something that we are part of now and that will be here on a renewed earth. Secondly, Bell wants to convey that heaven will be other than we expect in its population – that the religious always believe they know who will be in heaven, and yet Jesus repeatedly demonstrated that everyone they didn’t expect was there – and oftentimes they weren’t!
Chapter 3. Hell.
Now for the good stuff…well, I mean the really controversial stuff. In this chapter Bell takes an extended look at hell. Lets just whiz through what he finds:
References to hell are scarce, there is no conception of hell as we think of it today or as it is portrayed in the New Testament. Rather it is a murky afterlife described by the term sheol, relevant Scriptures include Psalm 18, 30, 103, 6, 16.
The main word for hell is used twelve times by Jesus and it is Gehenna (and once by James to describe the tongue). Ge means Valley and henna means Hinnom, thus the Valley of Hinnom – a physical location outside of Jerusalem at the time of Christ where garbage was dumped (pg. 67). When Jesus spoke of “hell” Bell believes the Jews were thinking of a real, physical location that was a garbage heap. Bell explains how things like gnashing of teeth literally occurred in this garbage heap.
Then there is Hades which is akin to the O.T. sheol and is mentioned in Revelation 1,6,20, Acts 2, Matthew 11 and 16, and Luke 10 and 16.
Bell argues that hell is a literal reality – but emphasizes it as a current reality and a future potential based upon our decisions. “God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.” (pg. 73) Bell suggests that language about gouging out our eyes is hyperbolic and yet at the same time urges us to take it seriously stating, “But when you’ve sat with a wife who has just found out that her husband has been cheating on her for years, and you realize what it is going to do to their marriage and children and finances and friendships and future, and you see the concentric rings of pain that are going to emanate from this one man’s choices–in that moment Jesus’s warnings don’t seem that over-the-top or drastic…” (pg. 73)
Then Bell turns his attention back to Luke 16 and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. He begins by demonstrating that at least some portions of the parable probably aren’t meant to be read literally – e.g. can people communicate from hell with folks in heaven? Bell suggests the message is focused on the rich man keeping himself in hell – he is fixed there b/c he refuses to accept his equality with the poor man, still seeing Lazarus as someone to serve him – even when he is in hell. While Bell raises some fascinating points in this section – I’m not sure we can justify the separation as being created and maintained by the rich man based on the text itself
“Often the people most concerned about others going to hell when they die seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while the people most concerned with the hells on earth right now seem the least concerned about hell after death.”
While this is not so much a theological as a practical statement – it is a powerful statement worth our contemplation. It is not necessary to sacrifice one’s passion for people and justice now for eternal concerns, nor is it necessary to sacrifice eternal concerns for people and justice now. Rather the answer is in a vibrant passion on both fronts, not one or the other…still, we must acknowledge that an escapist mentality can too frequently leave evangelicals looking apathetic to the world’s needs.
Bell takes a semi-preterist position on much of Jesus’ warning on punishment and destruction. He sees this as referencing the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersal of the Jews during the rebellion in A.D. 70.
Next, Bell argues that Scripture (in the Old and New Testaments) moves from punishment to restoration – and that the purpose of punishment is always redemptive. He references Sodom and Gomorrah and their renewal (Ezekiel 16), as well as renewal in Jeremiah 5, 32, Lamentations 3, Hosea 14, Zephaniah 3, and so on.
This is used to shore up an argument concerning Matthew 25, which is one of the most difficult texts concerning the nature of hell, since its statement about eternal punishment is juxtaposed directly next to eternal life and many scholars argue that the two must reference the same duration and that weakening the duration of punishment would weaken the duration of life. Bell falls back on an understanding of eternal as quality not duration but then suggests that punishment here also is redemptive – since the word for punishment is the Greek kolazo which was used to describe the pruning of a tree to ensure it produced more fruit.
Overall, Bell argues that:
- Scripture says a lot less about hell than we think it does.
- God’s punishments are always redemptive in nature.
- The nature of the punishment is measured in quality, not duration.
This chapter is very reminiscent of some work done by a prolific Universalist scholar in the 19th century – John Wesley Hanson. Specifically:
I would be very interested to know whether Bell consulted these two works in the process of writing this chapter…
Chapter 4. Does God Get What God Wants?
This chapter is very similar in argument to works by a contemporary philosopher and theologian, Thomas Talbott, formerly of Willamette University, in his book The Inescapable Love of God. Essentially, Bell posits in condensed form the argument of Talbott – that if God is truly sovereign and able to accomplish His will and desires the salvation of all – how can other but His will occur?
This position takes on both the position held by Piper and co. mentioned at the beginning of this review that states that while God is all-powerful He loves people in different ways – and thus some are sent to hell while God still loves them and also the other majority layperson position (Wesley, Arminian, free will) which holds that man by his own will refuses God. It supports the idea that God loves all in the same manner and that God is able to accomplish His will and thus all men will be saved.
At the same time, Bell is unwilling to unequivocally suggest that all will, in the end, be redeemed. He acknowledges the Arminian position as valid and in so doing takes a traditional stance on this position dating back to Origen and also acknowledges N.T. Wright’s position of some form of lessening of humanity due to one’s growing distance from God through sin to the point of non-human existence (though still continuing existence in some form), as well as annihilationism (as held by John Stott). He also highlights the viewpoint of some that there are second chances after death and suggests that Martin Luther was one who believed in such though Justin Taylor has taken Rob Bell to task on this point.
Bell points to Matt. 19, Acts 3, Col. 1, as demonstrating the belief in universal reconciliation and traces this belief system through the early church in church leaders such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eusebius, as well as the general sentiment that universalism was widespread as reflected by Jerome, Augustine, and Basil.
In the end, Bell is happy to allow the various views (excluding a strict, traditional view) within the span of “orthodoxy” , and not to draw a definitive bead on a particular philosophy though it seems evident that his personal belief is that all will eventually be reconciled – that none will ultimately be lost forever.
In addition to similarities to Talbott’s works, there is significant similarity to the plurality expressed in C.S. Lewis’ works, such as The Last Battle, where Lewis suggests that a sincere follower of another religion may experience salvation without ever knowing Christ in a concrete sense.
Chapter 5. Dying to Live.
Bell discusses the nature of Christ’s death and resurrection, why it was necessary, and how we should view it. He seeks to demonstrate that multiple metaphors were used by the early Christians to describe what Christ did and does and that these all describe aspects while not fully describing it in any one term.
- Hebrews 9 indicates Jesus is the fulfillment of all the sacrifices (pg. 123).
- Colossians 1 indicates that Jesus is the means of reconciliation between God and man (pg. 125).
- Romans 3 indicates that Jesus was our means of legal justification (pg. 126).
- 2 Timothy 1 indicates Jesus as the victor in battle over death (pg. 126).
- Ephesians 1 indicates Jesus as the redeemer or purchaser of our salvation, in financial terms (pg. 126).
I think Bell makes a valid point. Too often we focus upon one aspect of Christ’s redemption, ignoring other aspects. This may be especially true of our emphasis upon the legal aspect as opposed to all other aspects.
Also interesting is Bell’s suggestion that while there is nothing wrong with sacrificial imagery, we should decrease it since that is not terminology that people are any longer familiar with – most people having never been involved in sacrifices (pp. 127-8).
Bell suggests that we enter a way of life in our relationship with God, that this involves a dying in order to live.
Chapter 6. There are Rocks Everywhere.
This chapter walks dangerously close to the realm of pluralism. Bell is vague enough in his language that it is difficult to tell whether he is playing loose with words or whether he is pluralistic in his belief that all faiths can lead to God. In any case, his argument here is reminiscent of that presented by C.S. Lewis in the last volume of the Chronicles of Narnia, “The Last Battle.” His essential point is that one does not have to use or know the name of Jesus to experience the saving power of Jesus and that while all are saved through Christ, it isn’t specified that they must interact with Christ in some specific manner to be saved. Some may think of the Romans passage which speaks of the necessity of hearing the good news (Romans 10) and Bell does not tackle these verses in his book.
Chapter 7. The Good News is Better Than That.
I won’t spend much time on this chapter, since it is mainly a restatement of what has been said before with a consideration of the parable of the prodigal son as a reinforcement of Bell’s argument that the good news is better than that most people are going to hell. Bell uses his famous storytelling abilities to convey this point through the parable of the prodigal son.
Chapter 8. The End is Here.
A sort of epilogue to the book, Bell emphasizes the requisite need for trust upon God / Christ for salvation. His argument generally seems to be that trust is required, though the exact object of that trust is somewhat indistinct. This is not to say that Bell denies the physical and historical reality of Jesus, or His divinity – but rather that Bell sees Jesus as working within and outside of His “name” to bring people to Himself. I am uncomfortable with the looseness with which Bell associates knowledge of the historical / physical Jesus with the experience of salvation.
Those who have had theological discussions with me know that one of my primary interests is soteriology (salvation) and that I have a deep interest in the nature of hell. Thus, this topic and the relevant resources are not foreign to me and I have attempted to compile some of the best resources from varying perspectives on this topic. Please let me know if there are additional must-have resources which I have overlooked!
- Morgan, Christopher W. and Robert A. Peterson, ed. Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004. Notes: This is an excellent compilation from a traditional orthodox perspective on hell. It includes articles by a number of contributors examining various aspects of the biblical description of hell and the various alternative philosophies. Among its contributors are R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Daniel I. Block, Robert W. Yarbrough, Douglas J. Moo, Gregory K Bealse, J.I. Packer, and Sinclair B. Ferguson.
- Plumptre, E.H. The Spirits in Prison and Other Studies on the Life After Death. London: Wm. Isbister Limited, 1884. Notes:This was at the peak of the universalism controversy in the 19th century and E.H. Plumptre attempts to carefully and fairly evaluate the evidence on both sides of the argument.
- Parry, Robin A., Christopher H. Partridge, ed. Universal Salvation? The Current Debate. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003. Notes:Publishing by a Paternoster Press, an evangelical publisher in England, it contains a series of essays in which Thomas Talbott offers arguments for universalism while various orthodox theologians offer counter-arguments and critiques. Contributors include I. Howard Marshall, Thomas Johnson, Jerry Walls, Eric Reitan, Daniel Strange, John Sanders, Morwenna Ludlow, David Hilborn, and Don Horrocks.
- Hanson, John Wesley. Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During its First Five Hundred Years: With Authorities and Extracts. Notes: Hanson was perhaps the most prolific proponent of universalism in written treatises during the nineteenth century. In the typical wordy manner of those times, this volume undertakes to demonstrate universalism permeating (or at least being tolerated) in early Christianity.
- Hanson, John Wesley. Bible Proofs of Universal Salvation: Containing the Principal Passages of Scripture that Teach the Final Holiness and Happiness of All Mankind. Notes: An exhaustive biblical study of Scripture in support of universalism.
- Hanson, John Wesley. The Greek Word Aion-Aionios: Translated Everlasting – Eternal in the Holy Bible, Shown to Denote Limited Duration. Notes:Hanson seeks to demonstrate from many sources that the nature of the Greek words aion and aionios is not that of infinite duration but of a limited duration.
- There are a number of further works by Hanson on this topic I will not take time to ennumerate individually, but you can find info. about on Amazon.
- Crockett, William, ed. Four Views on Hell. Notes: I’m always a fan of these little four perspective volumes as they bring together diverse voices that duke it out in presenting their best endeavors to explain their theological position. In this case it includes John Walvoord, Zachary Hayes, and Clark Pinnock.
- Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce. Notes: Probably few theologians have been as influential in the contemporary layperson understanding of hell as C.S. Lewis (cf. Randy Alcorn, who utilizes very similar imagery to Lewis). This novel is also fascinating for its use of Platonic imagery in its portrayal.
- MacDonald, George. Unspoken Sermons: Series I, II, and III. Notes: George MacDonald was a pastor, poet, novelist, and theologian and in these three volumes he provides a number of unspoken sermons – several of which revolve around his understanding of the nature of hell and his hope for a universal redemption.
- Walls, Jerry L. Hell: The Logic of Damnation. Notes: Walls argues for the logical necessity of hell.