By Eugene C. Scott
I’m coming late to the Rob Bell lynching. In case you’re coming in late too, Bell is swinging from the gallows for writing a book titled “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”
Despite the megalomaniacal title, Bell’s book shouldn’t have earned him a golden noose. This is not to say that what Bell writes about heaven and hell is not controversial or important. Rather I believe the size of the controversy dwarfs the contents of the 198 page book. Others–Bell cites a few of them–have said and written similar things about “heaven and hell and the fate of every person who ever lived” without stirring as much dust.
So why the excitement? Because Bell is part of the American Evangelical star-maker machinery: hip, good preacher, mega church, author of a previous best-selling book called “Velvet Elvis,” huge following, and conference speaker–though he won’t be speaking at as many conferences because everybody is mad at him. Bell is a Christian celebrity. If I had written this book–or you–only our friends and family members would have called us heretic.
To me the decibel level of the outcry says more about the state of American Evangelicalism than it does about Bell or theology. Evangelicalism has blindly bought in (pun intended) to consumerism as a cultural ideal.
Duck into any Christian book/trinket/Jesus-junk store. Based on most of the products there, we are a community 1,000 miles wide and an 1/8 inch deep. At our local store you can buy “Christian scripture candy” called “Testamints.”
One company sports a name and logo that is oxymoronic: “Not of This World: A Christian Clothing Brand All About Jesus.” As if slick marketing and a cool logo is not of this world. And notice the books in these Christian book stores. Authors having a “platform,” read sales potential, often outweigh artistic writing or powerfully poised ideas.
This focus on celebrity and consuming things supposedly representing our All Consuming God has done far more damage to our sad state of faith than Rob Bell’s debatable theories on hell. Consider how many of us go to church to get our spiritual tanks filled, or hear a good sermon rather than to encounter God. The former are all consumer ideas not found in scripture.
Second, Bell’s book is controversial because he may or may not–it’s hard to tell–believe in hell as eternal punishment the way most other American Evangelical stars do. This is similar to (though more consequential than) a Hollywood star, say Lady Gaga, declaring herself a Republican.
Two of Bell’s main ideas in “Love Wins” are that heaven is not a place in the clouds but living in God’s presence and creation both here and now and then and there (after death) and also that hell is not an eternal fiery pit but rather separation from God here and now and then and there. The after life hell he posits is a redemptive place where those who do not chose God in this life will be able to, eventually.
His first theory–heaven begins here–is not new. Nor is it controversial, despite how most of pop Christianity wrongly believes heaven is only the place we go when we die. Orthodox theologians George Eldon Ladd and Dallas Willard also pointed out that Jesus brought the kingdom of God (heaven) with him when he came to us as Incarnate God and did not take it with him when he left as Risen Lord. If this idea interests you–and it should–read more about it in Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy” or Ladd’s “The Gospel of the Kingdom.” They are not easy reads but they are worth the work. As Bell argues, living as if heaven begins here and now makes a profound difference in our day-to-day lives.
Bell’s second major theme, hell is redemptive, also is not new. It is, however, troublesome and controversial. Bell does incredible interpretive and linguistic gymnastics to get to this point. But he never dives deep into his reasoning nor into any of the competing arguments. Even his prose style feels as if it skims the surface. He uses short, incomplete sentences that read more like bullet points than flowing narrative. This has caused some to accuse Bell of setting up and knocking down “straw-men.”
Hell must be redemptive, Bell argues because he cannot conceive of God not getting what God wants. In other words, “Love Wins.”
Bell reasons this on the basis that God is good and loving and it is inconceivable that a good and loving God would torture his creatures for eternity. Therefore he says, those choosing hell will only be there until they finally choose God.
Aside from the biblical problems this raises, it trips over other issues. First, why is God more loving to–in Bell’s words–“torture” people for only 10,000 or 10,000,000 years? If hell is not compatible with a loving God, then it does not matter how long one suffers there. One second is too long. This solution only reframes the problem but does not solve it.
Second, will people who had incredibly hard and indifferent hearts to human suffering and God’s love here on earth have the same hearts in hell? If so, how much time would they have to spend there to finally choose God? Will Hitler spend 10,000,000,000 years while the woman who murders only her husband spends only 1,000 years in hell? How does that square with unearned grace?
Third, though Bell claims he believes love only lives in freedom and that that freedom allows us to choose or reject God’s offer of eternal love and heaven, Bell’s hell seems to be a place–full of suffering–where all there will change their minds. That sounds more like prolonged determinism not love inspired freedom.
One positive thread Bell wove into “Love Wins” is questioning many status quo, popularly held Christian beliefs. Are these beliefs, such as heaven is only where we go when we die and hell is a fiery place presided over by a horned devil, biblical or do our pictures and ideas for them come from other, less inspired places? But the book is not in-depth enough to answer these questions adequately. That said, I do not believe Bell chickens out in the end, as some have accused. I find Bell lets the infinite nature of these questions remain somewhat of a mystery. I want stronger answers. But we mere humans may not have been given them. Finally, I have read these same questions and answers before and better explored in other places–but by less famous authors.
By Eugene C. Scott