Gandhi, Bell, and Eternity in Hell

Posted by in Bible & Theology, Church & Missions, News & Culture

Every other Christian blogger it seems is saying something about Rob Bell, so I might as well join in. I’ve seen the promo video for Love Wins on Youtube and I’ve read various reviews from people who’ve seen it as well and from those who have read through a copy of the book. (By the way, if I were to do a video response to Rob Bell’s promo video for Love Wins, it would look something like this…)

Justin Taylor is credited for starting the current debate when he wrote a criticism of Bell’s theology after watching the video. Some say that Taylor jumped the gun. After all, how can we judge someone’s beliefs without actually hearing from them first hand?

If you follow my personal blog at all, you’ll know that I frequently read books and write reviews of them. This however, is not one I plan to read. I typically try to pick up books that I anticipate that I will enjoy, which is why most get pretty good reviews. As a seminary student I get plenty of opportunities to read things I’m not interested in.

Undoubtedly by deciding not to read Love Wins, I have just tipped off the Rob Bell supporter that I am a judgmental traditionalist who believes God fits into a box. But then again, do we really have to read Mein Kampf before we can argue that Hitler was a sick and twisted man with a demonic worldview? I’m not saying Bell is like Hitler—if anything, he fashions himself as a Christian Gandhi—but can’t we make an educated assessment even without reading his book?

Surprised?

What surprises me most about this debate is that I thought it was already common knowledge that Rob Bell is not orthodox in his understanding of heaven and hell. The thought of him being called a universalist shouldn’t really shock anybody, and, to be honest, I doubt even his followers could reasonably argue that he isn’t. The reason Rob Bell doesn’t want to be labeled an inclusivist or universalist is because Rob Bell doesn’t want to be labeled.

A label means confinement, and Bell wants to be a free spirit (but not labeled “free spirit”). Something that can be labeled is something that is not original, unique, or free. However, I think Bell doesn’t mind carrying a label if that label can be impossible to identify and define clearly. But inclusivist and universalist are pretty rigid labels.

Some months ago Amazon had Bell’s first book, Velvet Elvis (which was written six years ago), as a free download for a week. I snagged it and used the search feature to find all the instances of the words hell, heaven, and the like. If you weren’t lucky enough to get a free copy, check it out on GoogleBooks.

Bell’s views on heaven and hell are either summarized by many of his statements in Velvet Elvis or at least hinted at, hence my assertion that you could have guessed it based on his previous works.

Early Implications

As I mentioned, Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis came out back in 2005. Why didn’t the blogosphere explode back then? I don’t know, but the internet has changed a lot since then. Perhaps there was an explosion, just smaller. Youtube was brand new, MySpace was the social networking site, Facebook was accessible only to college students and high schoolers, and Twitter was nonexistent. Though the internet made for faster communications, nothing has quite revolutionized it like Facebook and Twitter. On top of that, Bell just might not have been as popular.

But had Velvet Elvis come under the same scrutiny as Love Wins, these issues would have come up earlier. Here, for instance, are some selected quotes from his earlier work that make his assertions in Love Wins kind of a foregone conclusion:

“What’s disturbing then is when people talk more about hell after this life than they do about hell here and now. As a Christian, I want to do what I can to resist hell coming to earth. Poverty, injustice, suffering—these are all hells on earth, and as Christians, we oppose them with all our energies.”

 

Hell now is worse than hell later? Yet how can this be if people will spend only a moment (comparatively) in a “hell” on earth and an eternity in hell after death? It can’t. I don’t know how many ways, hypothetically speaking, that hell could be worse now than later, but none of them could be characterized by eternal suffering and still fit with what Bell says here. This likely means either that the suffering is comparatively worse now, or that the suffering is comparatively shorter later.

Speaking on the parable (though in no other parables do the characters have names, hence it is likely a historical account) of the rich man and Lazarus, Bell states, “This is the one story Jesus tells in which somebody is actually in hell after they have died.”

What gets subtly sort of taught (to borrow a line from Bell’s promo video) is that few people go to hell after they die. Notice the emphasis he adds—one storyactually in hell. Is it any surprise that Bell is said to be a universalist? It doesn’t take an English major to figure out that Bell is insinuating that few if any people end up in hell after they die. It wouldn’t take much to transition here to an argument that Jesus’ parable was merely a rhetorical device that doesn’t intend to comment on our state after we die, but rather the way we live here and now. This, in fact, is what Bell has done.

“The translator is faced with a decision about how to translate the word [gehenna]. If he or she uses the word hell, later readers might miss the fact that Jesus was talking about a present reality. If the word gehenna is used, readers might understand the present, geographical meaning of the word but miss the bigger implications.”

 

Some people would be tempted to assume that “bigger implications” means “eternal suffering,” or at minimum “something to do with a post-mortem experience,” but that is not what Bell is getting at here, especially when considered in light of his previous statements. “Bigger implications” just means “more than a garbage heap.” Jesus’ main point is not that hell was a present reality. Jesus was using a present reality (a burning garbage heap) to point to an eternal reality, not merely to “poverty, injustice, suffering.”

Difficult to Argue With

Immediately following this line Bell argues that a lack of certainty on the biblical teaching about hell is humble, and I believe this is why it is so hard to get him to speak clearly on what he believes. Just this morning Albert Mohler wrote about Brian McLaren’s response to his review of Love Wins. In it McLaren rings out with the same humility talk regarding the confidence we have in what the Bible teaches:

“…no articulation of the gospel today can presume to be exactly identical to the original meaning Christ and the apostles proclaimed. That doesn’t mean we can’t proclaim anything with confidence, but it demands a proper and humble confidence rather than a naive and excessive confidence.”

 

Apparently the difference between “humble confidence” and “naïve confidence” is whether you believe the Bible communicates a message that can be understood or not. If the answer is yes, you put the “undie” in “fundie.” If the answer is no, you are humble and can propagate any view you chose.

In an interview that’s posted online when he is asked about heaven and hell he attempts to say that holding to an orthodox understanding is speculation. And his views aren’t? What he’s doing then, is setting up his defense by saying that those who are convicted of the biblical truth of eternal conscious suffering in hell are proud and arrogant.

I don’t have to read Love Wins to figure out that Rob Bell first and foremost considers hell to be a present reality that we make for ourselves. I don’t have to read Love Wins to know that Rob Bell does not hold to orthodoxy. I don’t have to read Love Wins. Rob Bell has already shown us that he’s experiencing heaven now. I fear what he will experience later.