In my previous article, Lady Gaga, Rob Bell and Hell, I spoke of the controversy that has surrounded Rob Bell’s recent book, “Love Wins.” I completely agree with Denny Burk’s excellent review, when he says, “Bell likes to make assertions that are cloaked in questions. It is a manipulative tactic that has an air of epistemological humility but which he employs with great skill to make theological arguments.” Bell’s questions/arguments just so happen to end up proposing a totally new “story” of the Christian faith, one that denies the traditional view of hell as eternal punishment for sins committed in this life, even as he makes a strong case for a universalistic salvation scheme.
Before its release, Justin Taylor had raised the issue that Bell’s promo for Love Wins strongly implied a universalist stance. Many blasted Taylor for his pre-critique. And Bell denied being a universalist. Yet now that the book is released, Bell’s own words seem to show he advocates a post-mortem universalism. He writes,
Given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God (Love Wins, p.107, bold text mine).
Even after making a bold statement like this that sure sounds like universalism, Bell still says he’s not a universalist, “if by universalist we mean there’s a giant cosmic arm that swoops everybody in at some point whether you want to be there or not.”
In “Love Wins”, Bell explains his position, “Will everyone be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or fully answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires (p. 115).”
Is Bell being cagey, or just inconsistent? Does love win in the end because God “gets what He wants (p.98)” and given enough time everyone is saved, or does the “freedom that love requires” mean that some will forever deny God?
Denny Burk well sums up Bell’s position,
God either will fail in His purpose to save all or He will not. Bell cannot have it both ways, but he certainly tries. This section of the book will allow Bell to say “I am not a universalist.” Even though his heart is clearly with the universalist position, he gives himself a back door to deny it. This is why Bell’s teaching is so subversive. He presents one of the most compelling cases in favor of universalism that one will ever read in a popular book while denying that he is one himself.
If “love wins” (i.e., everyone will be saved eventually, even after death), how does this impact the traditional doctrine of hell as the eternal punishment of sinners who in this life did not embrace God through the saving message of Jesus Christ? On the subject of hell, Bell is again slippery, for does not deny he believes in a real, literal hell. But Bell’s definition of hell is not the traditional view. For Bell, hell is when “God gives us what we want” (Love Wins, p. 72). He emphasizes the “hells” people experience in this life, as a consequence for resisting and rejecting all that is “good and true and beautiful and human now (p.79).” There is also a hell after death in which Bell assumes people will continue resisting and rejecting God, but it’s clear he thinks there’s still hope for such to be eventually reconciled to God.
Bell, in typical fashion, asks leading questions that imply disagreement with the traditional view of Hell,
Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person will suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few, finite years of life? This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God, it raises questions about the beliefs themselves… What kind of faith is that? Or more importantly: What kind of God is that?” (Love Wins, pp. 2-3).
Denny Burk writes in response,
because Bell has already labeled the traditional doctrine of hell as “misguided” and “toxic” (p. viii), it is not difficult to see that Bell already has an answer in mind to these questions. Indeed, the very way in which they are phrased shows that these questions are leading to a conclusion. Bell suggests that God’s own character would be in question if the traditional doctrine of hell is true. Thus these are assertions and not true queries. These are assertions about the reality of hell and the nature of God.
Bell then, seems to be asserting these ideas bout hell:
- God’s loving nature precludes Him from condemning people He created to eternal punishment.
- The traditional view of hell is unfair and incorrect in proposing that God punishes people infinitely and eternally for sins committed in a finite lifetime.
- The idea that only a few select few will be saved, while everyone else is damned, cannot be acceptable to God, nor should we find it acceptable.
- God would not create millions of people knowing in advance that they will end up in hell, or that He will damn them to hell.
- A Christian who believes in traditional propositions about hell is misguided and has a wrong view of God.
Though I believe Bell’s take on hell, as well as his universalistic scheme of salvation, are incorrect in their interpretation of the Bible, Bell does raise challenging questions that ought to be answered. The doctrine of hell is truly terrifying, and I think it is quite natural for human beings to recoil in horror from it, especially as we imagine our loved ones (or anyone, for that matter) being sent there. Thinking back to the man in the Lady Gaga video, is the traditional doctrine of hell something so harsh and misguided that it ought not to be included as part of the gospel message? If God is love, does He and can He send people to hell? Assuming one answers these two questions affirmatively, there’s still more tough questions. Why must hell be eternal? Why did God create some human beings that He knew would be in hell?
If we can wrestle with such profound questions and come out on the other side with a surer, biblical grasp of God’s purpose in creating hell, understanding better how hell may bring glory to God, and emerging with greater reverence and love for God, then the current controversy serves a good purpose.
Having raised the questions, I’ll tackle them in Part 2.