Saturday, April 02, 2011

Bell v. Hell

I've just finished reading Rob Bell's controversial new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011). Let me first say that I like Rob Bell. I read and watch pretty much everything he publishes. He is a gifted communicator and, whether you like him or not, one of the most influential voices in the church today.

Love Wins toys with a postmodern universalism/inclusivism where heaven is forever here on this earth, and hell is only temporary at best. I believe there are profound insights and yet deep flaws in Bell's book examining heaven, hell, and God himself. In this post I'll tell you what I liked and didn't like about the book. Then you can read Love Wins for yourself.

I liked the questions Bell asked--questions we have all asked, or at least should be asking. I liked the questions about heaven, salvation, the now and yet not-nowness of our Christian life. Bell is heavily influenced by the Christus Victor view of atonement and looks for creative, relevant ways to express to our culture what Christ has done for us. I even enjoyed hearing his questions about hell, including "Is it real and is it really forever?" My favorite question was "If God gets what he wants, and he desires everyone to be saved, does everyone go to heaven?"

I didn't like that he tried to answer all the questions as he did. He bit off more than he could chew in this volume of work. It's one thing to ask questions, it's another to answer them thoroughly. Great scholars take time to develop logical and conclusive arguments. You are free to disagree with them, but their work is solid. Bell's interview on MSNBC made it clear that while he was ready to ask the big questions, he wasn't ready to answer them. Bell is not a scholar; he is a pastor, and there is a big difference. I have forgiven him in the past for some sloppy scholarship, granting him artistic license as an author/speaker. But this time he sought to speak as an authority on the subject and came up short.

Personally speaking, I like the idea of universalism--the theological doctrine that all people will eventually be saved. The doctrine revolves around the philosophy that a loving God would not send people to an eternal punishment in hell. So either those who do not become believers during their lifetime are given multiple opportunities postmortem to choose Christ, or perhaps hell is not a real place, or perhaps hell is temporary, or perhaps there are other ways to heaven. Universalism includes a wide variety of views, but at its core is the premise that everyone is, as theologian Karl Rahner says, an "anonymous Christian" and thus with God in heaven forever.

I would love to be a universalist. I would love to be an inclusivist. I'm not just saying this, I really would.But I can't. It's just not biblical. It doesn't line up with what the Bible teaches. I'm not saying that universalists/inclusivists are not Christians. Many Christians, including a few early church fathers and great theologians, have been and are universalists. What I am saying is that it's poor theology, and Bell overstates its acceptance in the orthodox view of Christianity.

A big problem in the book is that Bell only takes time to discuss the passages that tell of God's love for the world, God's desire for everyone to be saved, and Christ's complete work on the cross. All wonderful and true passages. It's what Bell ignores that is problematic for his "Love Wins" premise. What about the passages concerning God's holiness, justice, and anger? What about the sacrificial system that is necessary for justification, redemption, atonement, and propitiation? Bell conveniently leaves these out of his argument.

But here's something I don't like: how Rob Bell is being viciously attacked by other Christian leaders as a heretic. It is relentless, Pharisaical, and mean. A lack of love and grace pervades the voices of many critics. Why destroy the man while attacking the message? Is there no room for reasonable discussion? Is this how we should treat a Christian brother? Is this what Christ would do?

I like how Bell is handling the opposition. Yes, in the book he can be condescending to his critics, calling those who disagree with him "misguided" and "toxic." But since the book's release Bell has seemed to stay above board. Even from his pulpit last Sunday (Mars Hill Bible Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.), he resisted retaliating against his detractors. "Love your enemies." Now that I know is biblical.

For full theological definitions of Christus Victor, universalism, inclusivism, etc. please visit For a better and more creative look at this subject, read The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis.