In this series on hell we have been responding to Rob Bell’s alternative vision of the Christian message. In “Love Wins” Bell’s essential claim is that the traditional (he labels it “toxic” and “misguided”) view that some are saved by Christ while others are lost in hell forever turns the good news into bad news that drives people away from the opportunity to embrace Christ. Moreover, he argues that this is not in fact the real message of Christianity– the true message is that “love wins” because God will relentlessly pursue everyone in love until every heart is won– even if this requires pursuit after one’s life on earth has ended. For Bell, this triumph of God’s love is what the Bible means when it speaks of all things being reconciled to God and all things being made new.
Thus far in our series we discussed why in the first place Christians came to believe in hell as an eternal place of punishment. We concluded that Scripture warrants this view and that the fact that the doctrine is naturally unpalatable is a proof of its validity. Though a painful truth to contemplate, hell is important because it comes to us from Scripture, mostly from the lips of Jesus Christ. For this reason we suggested that hell is an integral part of the gospel message, bound together with other key doctrines– the heinous nature of sin and God’s holy nature. We can’t simply nor easily discard the traditional doctrine of hell.
We also took a brief historical look at how the Church has thought about the afterlife/hell and concluded that Bell is mistaken to locate his views within the orthodox stream. In this post, we begin to examine Bell’s particular brand of inclusivism, showing its ties to previous streams of thought. Please note that this series is not a personal campaign against Bell– but strongly objects to the refashioning of the traditional Christian message Bell and others are presenting, as we think these innovations do incredible spiritual harm.
Bell’s thoughts on hell have precedents in the thinking of such disparate theologians as the heretic Origen (whom he follows in thinking God’s victory consists in full redemption of everything) and the reformed Barth (with whom he shares the thought that God’s sovereign power suggests that He can and will “get what He wants”, i.e., everyone saved). In line with Victorian thinkers, Bell’s God is universally benevolent and a father to all, and Bell’s tendency to be embarrassed by the traditional view, and to re-define hell in metaphorical terms that place hell more in this world than the next, follows the liberal Christian trajectory. His position on the scheme of redemption falls closest to inclusivism. Yet I agree with Michael Wittmer, quoted earlier, who labels Bell’s position “incipient” or “functional universalism”. Bell thinks the only people who may not be immediately won to God (I use this phrase since according to Bell, all are already saved) are those who by free choice resist God’s call; nevertheless he suggests that such people will eventually succumb to God’s relentless pursuit of them.
Bell’s inclusivistic, post-mortem view of salvation includes a partly metaphorical and partly purgatorial view of hell. Bell rejects the traditional view that salvation involves conscious turning in this life to Jesus Christ in faith, so as to be rescued from the punishment and condemnation due one’s sins. Hell is neither a literal place of eternal torment nor a judgment inflicted by God, but the consequence of rejecting and resisting that love. Bell writes,
God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone. God extends an invitation to us, and we are free to do with it is as we please. Saying yes will take us in one direction; saying no will take us in another. God is love, and to refuse this love moves us away from it, in the other direction, and that will, by very definition, be an increasingly unloving, hellish reality. We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell.
Following liberal Christian theologians, Bell’s hell is what we experience in this life, our “refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story”. Bell does claim to believe in a “literal hell”, but when he says this refers to the sufferings of this life, not the next. He writes,
Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs. Have you ever sat with a woman while she talked about what it was like to be raped? How does a person describe what it’s like to hear a five-year-old boy whose father has just committed suicide ask: “When is daddy coming home?” How does a person describe that unique look, that ravaged, empty stare you find in the eyes of a cocaine addict? I’ve seen what happens when people abandon all that is good and right and kind and humane.
We have mentioned that Bell’s view offers postmortem opportunities for growth and salvation. Indeed in Bell’s picture both heaven and hell are places where one gets to re-think choices and decisions one has made in this life. Our time in heaven or hell will be a necessarily purgatorial process, since Bell thinks each of us will need a lot of work after death before we will be fit for heaven:
Jesus makes no promise that in the blink of an eye we will suddenly become totally different people who have vastly different tastes, attitudes, and perspectives. Paul makes it very clear that we will have our true selves revealed and that once the sins and habits and bigotry and pride and petty jealousies are prohibited and removed, for some there simply won’t be much left. “As one escaping through the flames” is how he put it.
Bell’s salvation picture might be summarized then as: a loving God who is not angry at sin; a salvation already accomplished for us by Christ that we just need to open our eyes to see; heaven or hell is of our own making but never final since in our freedom we can always choose for or against God’s love; God meets us in whatever religious tradition we may be in; God won’t punish or condemn any to an eternal hell but will pursue and perfect everyone in love, even after death.
It is not surprising that such a view finds widespread acceptance in a Church infected by the modern sensibility that highly prizes human reason, freedom and individual choice, and which is increasingly dismissive of the traditional Christian worldview that once, but no longer, dominates Western thought. In our next post we’ll examine the Scriptural case Bell makes for his understanding of hell.