Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bell on Hell

Rob Bell is a pastor and an author. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, his new book published just this month, has created a lot of discussion, not only in Christian circles but in the secular world as well. The Wall Street Journal published a review of Bell’s new book in its March 18 issue, and this month he has also been interviewed on Good Morning America, Morning Joe, and other TV programs.
Bell (b. 1970), a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, is the founding pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. His first book, Velvet Elvis (2005) was a bestseller and his new book is already on the bestseller lists. It debuted on the USAToday Top 150 at #15 (based on sales through March 20), and on March 25 it was #4 among all books sold on
Much of the interest in, and criticism of, Bell’s book is because of what he says about hell. He thinks that there is a hell, but it is a view far different from the traditional idea held by most conservative/evangelical Christians and by most Catholics. Bell understands hell as primarily the suffering that people experience now because of the bad choices they, or others, make.
From the very beginning of his book, Bell calls into serious question the view that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better” (p. viii).

“Hell” is the title of Bell's third chapter, and there he acknowledges that “God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it” (p. 72). This is due to “the freedom that love requires” (p. 111). (One of my seminary professors used to say that hell is “Love’s rejection of the rejection of love.”)

But the lack of love creates hells for others now. And Bell observes, “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” (pp. 78-79). Bell prefers the latter position.

Not surprisingly, some conservative/fundamentalist Christians have staunchly criticized Bell’s views on hell and related matters. And a Methodist pastor in North Carolina has even been dismissed from his pastorate because of his positive statements about Bell’s book. (You can read about the pastor and church here.)

As for me, I was favorably impressed with Bell’s book. At the very least, it gives us a lot that we need to think about seriously and to discuss. I wondered, though, why he did not deal with the position known as annihiliationism. I write about that idea and other matters related to hell in my The Limits of Liberalism (pp. 225-7), ending that section by saying that my position ”does not embrace the harshness of the traditional view, but still takes sin and its consequences much more seriously than the position held by most Christian liberals.”


  1. Good for Bell! It's always good to see someone with a conservative pedigree, challenge the really nutso doctrines passed down by a fundamentalist Christianity. The idea that pious Hindus/Muslims/Jews/etc. who live lives of commitment and service are going to spend an eternity in hellish torment is beyond comprehension anymore. You would think that all of us, since Kant (since Ecclesiastes and 1 Cor. 13 for that matter) would be a lot more humble about our metaphysical views about that which is outside human experience.

  2. I listen to Rob Bell's sermons via iTunes on my iPhone as I drive to work in the morning. He has a lot of good things to say and to preach. Some of his theology in this area reminds me of what was/is preached at Broadway Baptist in Kansas City. I continue to waver in this area of doctrine. To portray it in unfair extremes, I feel caught between orthodox Christians with all the correct doctrine and little compassion, and compassionate, loving heretics who represent doctrinal ideas that have been rejected time after time over history. And behind the debate operates fear...fear of God, fear of Hell, and fear of getting it wrong and finding oneself standing on the "wrong side" of the line on judgement day. Although it is a later addition to the Gospel of John, what gives me hope is the judgement of Christ with the lady caught in adultery brought to him by the pharisees.

  3. Rick Bell's Nooma series has long been a thought provoking challenge for a new generation of seekers of the Way.

    I have not read this book, but a YouTube interview with Bell highlights the re-working of the ancient "heresy" espoused by some early Church fathers, and still frequently debated on the edges of Christendom and endorsed within a few cults. A couple of other blogs highlight the polar divide and bi-lateral name calling between postmodern/universal Christians and the sola scriptura foundational Christians over this controversial book. Bell is somewhere in between the two and is trying to work this out in a public forum. - A poor choice in this age, which will certainly not lead to Church unity.

    Regrettable, because there needs to be a safe forum to ask questions, and understand how the Church has traditionally responded.

  4. Which Afterlife?

    In his new book "Love Wins" Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from "the greatest achievement in life," my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote "In God we all meet."

  5. John: Eph: 2:9 says that By grace through faith are you saved and that not of works lest anyone should boost.

    Now Anton speaks of pious Hindus/Muslims/Jews/etc. living live of commitment and service. One can be committed to and serve any cause. It is not what we do but what God by his grace does through Jesus for, in, and to us. Anton, will deny this, but based on what he has said I can not escape the conclusion that he is saying, "all roads lead to God."

    I want to make two things very clear. I do not believe that God sends humans to hell. First of all, We send ourselves to hell by rejecting Love. God is love, 1 John 4: 8/John 3:16." Only in the following sense can we say that God sends anyone to hell, "hell is" " love's rejection of the rejection of love."

    Secondly, the lake of fire may very well be God's effort to communicate to our finite minds. If God is eternal, and if our souls are eternal, our rejection of Love(God) affects us eternally. To me hell is being separated from Love(God) for eternity.

    If God is Holy and Just how can he accept a soul as evil and unclean as an unrepentant Hitler. If he accepts him and not everyone else then he is unjust and unholy. If he is Just and Holy you can not have him accepting unrepentant soul. Because that would be sanctioning evil and that would make him unjust and unholy.

    To experience God is both in and outside of our normal "human experience." part of the experience of God's presences is metaphysical.

  6. I recently read an article on misotheism, based on a recent book by Bernard Schweizer, "Hating God." While Schweizer admits that misotheism exists in the Bible, citing Job's wife telling Job to "curse God and die," he mostly is interested in recent examples. However, Job lead me to think of others, most notably, Cain. I always thought of Cain's problem with God as being one of not understanding that his problem was with God, rather than with Abel. It dawned on my slow brain that perhaps Cain knew what he was doing from the beginning. Like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum, he killed Abel exactly in defiance of God. When God cried out "What have you done?" Cain had Him exactly where Cain wanted Him.

    Which brings us back to Rob Bell's thoughts. God poured out all the grace on Cain's guilt that Cain was willing to accept. Cain and his descendants laid the foundations of civilization. In contract, all Seth's descendants did was live suspiciously long lives. Seemingly empty long lives. Somewhere in the fire of the relationship between God and Cain was the true mystery of life, and a measure of our total inability to put God into a neatly labeled box. God pours out love where no sane person would seemingly do so.

    The experience of God destroys the metaphysics about God. At best, we are like Moses in the wilderness, leading broken lives, coping as best we can with forces beyond our control. Then there is God, unexpected, unbidden, perhaps even unwanted. Just as the God of Abraham returned in full power after hiding for 400 years, sometimes God just smashes into our lives. So what can we do? Well, like Moses, we can go where the ride takes us. Like Jacob, we can wrestle through the night for a blessing. Like the woman in Jesus' parable, we can persist with an unjust judge for justice. Which leads to an interesting question. What, exactly, was Jesus telling us here about His own understanding of God? The experience of God destroys the metaphysics about God.

  7. The problem with the Gospel is that it is not nearly as clear and simple in the Scriptures as I was taught in Evangelical upbringing.
    God seems unconstrained by our time in either direction (physics points to problems with time constancy anyway, as well as additional dimensions), and the inter-connectivity between faith and good works and relationship. I use the apostolic and early church father's writing to sort through the interpretive intent.

    St. John 5:24-30; Ephesians 2:8-10; Galatians 2:20 to point out a few. Time is questionable, works are critical, and much seems sacramental - all pointing toward mystery which we cannot fully grasp.