Last year, Rob Bell set off a firestorm in the blogosphere with his book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” The reason for the controversy about the book? Rob Bell, a popular pastor and author with a sizable following, seemed to be advocating universalism, offering his inclusive vision as an alternative to traditional, exclusive views of salvation, heaven and hell. In the book, as well as in a promotional video released shortly before its release, Bell set out to raise doubts in people’s minds about the traditional view, often by asking a series of provocative questions. Here’s what Bell said in his video:
Several years ago we had an art show at our church and people brought in all kinds of sculptures, and paintings, and we put them on display. And there was this one piece that had a quote from Gandhi in it; and lots of people found this piece compelling. They’d stop and sort of stare at it, and take it in, and reflect on it—but not everybody found it that compelling. Somewhere in the course of the art show somebody attached a hand-written note to the piece, and on the note they had written: “Reality Check—He’s In Hell.”
Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this, for sure; and felt the need to let the rest of us know? Will only a few, select, people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And, if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe; or what you say, or what you do, or who you know—or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated, or baptized, or take a class, or converted, or being born again—how does one become one of these few?
And then there is the question behind the questions, the real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message—the center of the Gospel of Jesus—is that God is going to send you to hell, unless you believe in Jesus. And so, what gets, subtly, sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that; that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good; how could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news.
This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies; and they say: “Why would I ever want to be part of that?” See, what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about Who God is, and what God is like. What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, and beautiful, that whatever we’ve been told or taught, the good news is actually better than that; better than we could ever imagine. The good news is, that love wins.
The promotional video was amazingly successful in what such things set out to do: generate lots of buzz and debate about a book before its release. The blogging community was heatedly debating the book and Bell was generating great publicity through various media interviews. Bell even landed on the cover of Time magazine on April 14. The issue’s cover story, Pastor Rob Bell: What if Hell Doesn’t Exist?, published right before Easter, presented a sympathetic take on Bell’s effort to re-think the Christian message for a postmodern age.
Last year on this blog I too joined the fray, writing several articles critical of Bell’s views, as I began a series of articles in which I hoped to cover the topic of hell and offer a thorough response to Bell’s book. In my initial reactions, I intuitively sensed that Bell’s book was headed on a dangerous theological trajectory. Yet other priorities, including seminary, interrupted the series of articles. But recently, I was faced with writing a term paper on the topic of hell for a systematic theology class, and chose to use Bell’s book as a thematic way to delve into the subject. Thus I have had opportunity to analyze Rob Bell’s message in “Love Wins” again, more closely and systematically . My sources for the term paper included a re-read of “Love Wins” and several book-length responses to it, as well as several well-written book reviews and many other online articles on hell. Having written my paper, I conclude that my initial concern about Bell’s theological stance was more than justified, and in the paper I defend traditional understandings of salvation, heaven and hell against Bell’s re-fashioning. I have decided to turn the paper into a new series of articles I’ll present here.
As I write in my paper,
Reading ‘Love Wins’ stirs me and others in a direction Rob Bell likely did not intend— to defense of the traditional view of hell. Why the outcry against Bell’s ideas, some might ask? Do traditionalists take such sadistic delight in the thought that some will burn for all eternity that we feel compelled to take up arms for this view? I believe rather that the response to Bell’s hell reflects an intuitive understanding that hell is a vital doctrine closely tied to many others in the redemptive plan, and that to redefine or discard it introduces theological imbalance and confusion in our common understanding of that plan. But more than this, I think there is recognition that if our loving Savior Himself warned about hell more than any other person in Scripture, then telling the story of hell is not incompatible with love, for it is love that motivates His warnings.
I hope this new series will help readers think about what may be lost by abandoning the traditional view of hell, which, though unpleasant to contemplate, is an integral part of the gospel message.