For just over a month now, Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, has been one of the hottest topics on the internet. Such is the reality of today’s world engaging with what we might term as pop-theology. It’s not bad, as I also look to engage with such writings, and I think an informed church of today should also consider such. But, of course, no topic of discussion begins or ends with one book. It only becomes one voice in the midst of a larger discussion for centuries, if not millennia.
With Rob Bell’s newest release, most have found themselves in one of two corners – seeing the negatives or seeing the positives. It seems less have approached the book desiring to see if both positives and negatives lie within the text.
I, personally, am finding myself somewhere in the middle. And so I hope to address what I see as both positives and negatives within the book.
Speaking for myself, I must admit I have gone through somewhat of a struggle. It follows from my observations of some of the reactions that arose just over a month ago, even before the book hit the shelves. As one theologian-scholar noted, of which I agree with this small insight – many of the reactions in the blogosphere and further abroad seemed to come from more of a fear-driven paranoia. And, so, I believe a much more patient and pastoral wisdom should have been present in the initial reactions and engagement with the pre-release material.
Now, let me acknowledge straight up that part of the shepherding ministry is that of protection. This is exhibited throughout Scripture and I personally have had to engage with such a role as a shepherd, not just on a theological level but on a practical-life level as well. And so I appreciate this particular ministry of church leaders (well, I can only hope church leaders are involved in such).
Still, what was exhibited a few weeks ago was a bit too much from my perspective. Yet not only did we stop there, but it at least seemed that some of the recent follow up was only added in justifying certain reactions rather than humbly learning and rethinking how to respond rather than react. Yes, there is a difference between reacting and responding.
This is why I personally have appreciated some of the pastors and scholars that have not rushed to get their reviews and perspectives out there for everyone to read. From what I can see and tell, these men and women have responded more wisely, and thus I believe such responses are worth engaging with over others.
Because of some of these reactions that I have personally disagreed with, I have found myself battling with a desire to only look at the positives in the book (yes, I believe there are some positives to be uncovered). But I do admit that I have also appreciated engaging even with those who have hit hard at the book. We learn so well from reading from those we disagree with theologically, or disagree with their approaches or motivations.
So, after those introductory thoughts, on to the book I go.
In all, though there are varying sub-points that could be addressed, I see three major themes to engage with:
- View of God
And as Rob Bell rightly points out, with even the same acknowledgment coming from those who disagree with the book, your view of God will affect your view of heaven or hell. Well, our view of God will affect every bit of theology and life.
But on to the 3 topics.
With Bell’s perspective on heaven, I really cannot argue with too much. Bell takes time to emphasise the reality of heaven in the now, in the present. Now, I think many Christians realise that we are to pray and ask that the kingdom (rule) of heaven (or God) come on earth (Matt 6:10). Many recognise that the kingdom of God has come in the arrival of Christ, the king, and the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit, empowering the church to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom and live knowing the age to come has already broken in to this present age.
If we do not realise this, then I think we are missing a vital aspect of Scripture.
No, it is not here fully. We await the day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess (whether we interpret it from a more universal reconciliationist or exclusivist perspective). But the age to come, or heaven, has come into the present. The new creation renewal of heaven and earth has already broken into the lives of the new creation and new birth followers of Christ. We taste now of the powers of the age to come, seeing glimpses of the full and final marrying of heaven and earth.
To deny such or even downplay such is to deny and downplay Scripture’s teaching.
Of course, we cannot only look at those selective Bible passages. And Bell has taken time to mainly emphasise those. Still, from my perspective, knowing these specific passages may rarely get emphasised, only seeing heaven as something future, maybe even as simply ‘pie in the sky’, it is refreshing to remember that heaven, the rule of God, has come and is now here. And we are to continue to pray it comes on earth as it is in heaven – the will of God being done as people come to know Christ, believe the good news, submit to Jesus as Master, show the compassion of Christ, bring peace and justice into a needy world, seeing the sick healed, those in bondage to depression or pride or addiction or shame set free, etc.
What I would challenge most of all is the lack on any focus on conversion-new birth (or whatever biblical terminology or metaphor we would choose to utilise). Bell does rightly recognise there are many phrasings and metaphors used to describe such. To reduce the gospel to the proverbial four spiritual laws is, well, not the biblical model.
But, following Jesus does ultimately come through new birth, conversion, coming to new life in Christ, etc. Some know when (or about when) this happened. This is true of myself. Many are not so certain. But, as one wise person once said – you don’t have to know what time the sun rose to know it rose. You just know it has risen.
So, though date setting for our conversion (or Christ’s return, for that matter) is not as highly relevant, we still must recognise that following Jesus, truly following Jesus as the Master and Lord he says he is, comes through an actual transference from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. Acts of kindness and justice and compassion are great, even when they are done by an atheist or agnostic. But doing those things doesn’t inherently make one a follower of Christ. True Christ-followers are participating in such acts, also looking to make the good news known, but who have been converted (or whatever imagery one uses).
Still, it is saddening when those who claim conversion do not actually participate in the works that Christ has called us to.
Of course, I am not touching into the questions such as – what about those who have never heard, what about those without their full mental faculties, what about children? All I am doing is addressing the general tenor of Scripture’s teaching, for that is typically what Scripture does. Sometimes, but not always, the ‘side’ questions are considered and addressed. But, many times, they are not, especially we note this if we don’t take Scripture as a kind of instruction manual addressing every in and out of life. Principles are laid forth in Scripture, and we start there. But every question is not answered (and I am happy with that, knowing this is a walk of faith).
But, in general, Scripture emphasises conversion-new birth as part and parcel to following Christ. And so I sense the necessity to do so. But, though I might be jumping ahead a little, I am ok with some of Rob Bell’s questions as to how that practically might work out for those who have never heard. Will God judge on the basis of the general revelation the person holds? Will God have saved people through the work of Christ, though they lack a certain understanding of that work? (Of course, how many claim to have an understanding of the good news and work of Christ, but that understanding is based in a particular church-based tradition rather than biblical teaching.) And there are quite a few other questions.
So I have not too many bones to pick with Bell on his main focus in regards to heaven. And, even more, I do wish much of the church would get on board with the reality that heaven is a reality even now.
With regards to hell, Bell takes the same track in emphasising the present nature of hell. This is not your average Bible study on hell. And knowing that Bell does question the typical evangelical view of hell, that of eternal conscious torment, even putting forth the possibility that all hard hearts will be melted by God, I think people have been quick to disregard his ‘now’ perspective of hell.
But first off, I do appreciate Bell engaging with some of the words of Scripture that we translate as hell – Sheol, the pit, Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus. By no means has he done a deep scholarly study of these words. But he has at least taken a little time to try and address what these words meant in their historical context. And, though I don’t agree with every thought of Bell in regards to his view of hell, I do recognise a deep need for Christians to re-evaluate their view of hell. I suppose we misunderstand quite a bit of the biblical teaching because our view of hell (and heaven) has been shaped by medieval mythology rather than what these words actually mean.
But back to hell in the now, in the present.
I personally had never really carried that perspective. And, at times, to hear people say, ‘I’m going through hell right now,’ the tendency was to think, ‘You have no idea.’
But as I began to ponder things more, I recognised that if the kingdom of heaven can be a reality now, then the kingdom of hell can be just as much. If heaven can break into the now through salvation, through healing, through right-living, through acts of justice, through proclamation of the good news, etc, then cannot hell come through rejection of Christ, through sickness, through wrong-living, through injustice, through sin, etc?
I believe we would have to respond with a resounding yes.
For me, this doesn’t negate the future aspect of hell, just as we should not deny a future reality of heaven (and, oddly enough, Bell doesn’t deny a future reality of hell, though he might hold to a more ‘non-traditional’ perspective). And, so, to consider the present reality of hell – of death, destruction, the imagery of Gehenna – in the now does not have to be an outright foreign prospect.
With regards to Bell’s perspective on hell in the future, he takes time to look at the parable of the the ‘prodigal son’ in Luke 15. Now, I am aware, and I can only imagine Bell also realises such, that this parable is not ultimately about the nature of heaven and hell. Still, I found it interesting to hear Bell share some thoughts around this parable – that heaven and hell exist somewhat simultaneously (or side by side) because hell is like being invited to the party of heaven but to completely hate being present at the party.
Of course, this has caused concern for most evangelicals.
And I don’t think we need to settle our theology on hell, or heaven, based upon the parable of Luke 15 (though some will rush to found some of the details of their theology of hell or heaven on other parables).
What I would say is that, though the Bible presents teaching on the reality of hell, using great and grave imagery of the reality of hell, much of it is not definitive practical statements of how it is all worked out. Much of it is just that – imagery.
Even if one believes in eternal conscious punishment, the practicality of how all that works out is somewhat mysterious. So we must be careful in allowing the apocalyptic and poetic Jewish imagery to inform us of the practicality of hell, just as we cannot allow the same to inform us of what heaven really looks like. When heaven and earth fully and finally collide, I don’t expect pearly gates, mansions nor a gold-glass street. It is all imagery.
So when hell becomes a practical reality for the unrighteous, I don’t believe we are bound to have to expect a physical place with fire and flames. Again, it, too, is all imagery.
Now, do I personally think that hell is being invited to the party of heaven and hating it? No. But I also don’t think the practical outworking of what hell is like is describable outside of the use of imagery. Hence, probably one reason Bell used the story of Luke 15 (just think if Jesus had never used that story and Bell came up with it himself, would we be ok with it?).
What is interesting is that a man like C.S. Lewis gets a pass with describing hell as he does in The Great Divorce. Matter of fact, Lewis gets a pass on a lot of things (I like Lewis, I’m just recognising we give him passes all the time because he is, well, C.S. Lewis). We say he gets a pass because he is writing fiction. But guess what Lewis is doing with his fiction? He is also teaching. He is writing story and imagery and allegory, but he is teaching. And that is what Bell is doing with an already well-known story – that of the prodigal son.
Again, I don’t think the intricacies of the parable describe what hell is (or what heaven is). And I suppose Bell wouldn’t say those intricacies are the practical reality (or maybe he would). But what he has set out to do is teach why people would be ‘tormented’ in hell – seeing the party, receiving an invitation, even being with in ear-shot of it like the older son in Luke 15, but hating it immensely.
But let’s move on to a sub-point of this discussion on hell, it all being connected with the destination of the unrighteous.
Over and above anything else, I think one of the more problematic notions of the book that many a evangelicals have dealt with is the idea of a second chance after death. And this is probably why Rob Bell receives the label of universalist. He seems to flow somewhere between the possibility of a second chance of repentance to implying that all will ultimately have their hard hearts melted by the love and grace of our good God.
I suppose that Rob Bell would be better classified not as a universalist in the traditional sense – nothing really matters, for we all get there in the end. But as more of an evangelical inclusivist or universal reconciliationist. Bell’s emphasis is on the ultimate reconciliatory work in Christ (i.e Col 1:20 and Eph 1:10).
I am glad that Bell took time to emphasise these passages. In the discussion of the final state of the unrighteous, or those who have not accepted Christ, we head to [imagery] passages that seem to describe the reality of eternal conscious punishment, that of unquenchable fire where their worm does not die (i.e. Mark 9:42-50). Boy, that is Jewish imagery if I have ever read it.
But Bell makes us deal with the passages that speak of ALL things (not 30% or 80% or 99%) being reconciled and summed up in Christ. How does that all play out? Maybe it is in annihilation of the unrighteous. Or maybe it’s with even more mercy and grace being extended to the unrighteous, as Bell proposes.
Bell also helps us see Rev 21:25 – its [the new Jerusalem] gates will never be shut by day – asking us to ponder whether there is a second chance to enter through those never-closed-doors.
Now, I am aware of the ever-quoted Heb 9:27 – And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment. It is the well-known passage to shoot down any notion of a second chance. The words of Rev 22:15 also seem quite definitive as final words at the end of the whole biblical canon – Outside [the gates] are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. We also read in Rev 20:15 that the unrighteous are thrown into the lake of fire, which is where the adversary-devil, the beast, the false prophet, and Death and Hades are also thrown (which could, again, point to annihilation).
In the end, I think there are enough ‘tension passages’ that challenge us to at least take some time to refresh our study and rethink how this all plays out for those who did not accept Christ in this life.
I personally do not see or hold to a second-chance theology. But I do have some reconcile-all-things passages and a gates-never-shut passage to stir into the mix of the whole canonical teaching. Oh, I am aware that there are great explanations of how those verses fit in to the larger picture. But sometimes, if we are honest, they are slid in as somewhat subsidiary compared to other judgment-wrath passages.
So, while my theology has not changed here, it has at least put me in a place of considering how this all fits together within the teaching of the canon of Scripture on the destiny of those who have not heard of Christ or rejected Christ in this life, and how God can still reconcile all things in Christ but at the same time have millions, or billions, being consciously tormented.
If we are honest, it’s not as easy as giving a few bullet points and passing on to the next sub-topic of eschatology. It takes some deep evaluation of the Scripture text beyond a brief perusal.
3) Our View of God
As I said, our view of God will affect every other point of our theology. You can’t get away from it. And one thing that Bell does is set up camp in the view that God is love.
God is love. This cannot and should not be denied. The Bible shouts it. Both the life and death of Christ shout it. This is a central aspect of God. And paying lip service to such in a theological statement is not the same as actually believing it and living it.
But what many people have challenged Rob Bell on is his lack of recognition that God is also holy, God is also righteous, and that the Bible tends to make it quite clear that sin is unacceptable to our holy and righteous God.
Of course, with this blog post already just over 3000 words, I don’t want to get in to all the discussion of how the holiness and love of God work together. But they do. I suppose that Bell and plenty of others would be quick to emphasise that the holiness of God has been 100% completely and already satisfied in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Or maybe he wouldn’t say that.
I think the biggest challenge to my thinking about God, and hopefully to others if they will take up the challenge, is found near the end of the book. Bell says that, when ‘presenting the gospel’, we usually communicate that God loves the person unconditionally, loves all people unconditionally. But, if they rejected the gospel we are now presenting, and they were to go outside and get hit by a car (why we use that illustration, he is not sure), then God’s disposition towards that person would change forever. God would no longer be one who loved them unconditionally, but He would now be one who would consciously and eternally torment them forever.
He struggles with such a notion.
Now, I understand the in’s and out’s of why we would say this. I was trained up in Evangelism Explosion many years ago and started out with similar questions and points. God loves us, but God is also holy. We have our chance in this life to believe the good news of what He has done in Christ and repent of sin. But if we did not make the decision in this life, we wouldn’t get another chance (enter in a quotation of Heb 9:27). And so God’s holiness would then call for the judgment of wrath to fall upon the one who rejected the gospel.
But I never really thought about the whole practical change-of-disposition perspective: this moment God unconditionally loves you, but die the next moment without believing the gospel presentation I just gave you and God will torment you for all eternity. This view troubles Bell. And, I must admit, pondering such troubles me (at least from a practical level).
I’m sure many can come in to clarify how it all works. And I am not changing my view on the importance of proclaiming the gospel, believing the gospel for our salvation, the work of Christ in the cross and resurrection, even still not convinced of a second chance in the age to come. All I am saying is that that caricature (it is a caricature, maybe even an unfair one) is not all to exciting to ponder. Is it correct? Am I missing something? Should I just accept it by faith? (I have probable and practical explanations myself, I’m just typing out the questions that I hope would arise as we reflect on our view of God.)
So what does that say about my view of God? Yes, maybe your view of God as well. Why the sudden change in God’s disposition?
Well, I suppose the easy answer is to say that, before the person dies, God is both holy and loving, and after they die (whether accepting or not accepting the good news of Christ) God remains both holy and loving. But still, how is the eternally tormented one still knowing the love of God? Or maybe that one attribute of love no longer exists for the unrighteous? But then, back to previous ponderings, how are all things being reconciled in Christ in this way?
So, I appreciate some of the questions to ponder honestly before God, and honestly before others, if they are willing to ponder those questions without jumping to quick conclusions. I am not despising conclusions, just simply noting that we might need to guard against our desire to quote a few Scriptures, state a few points, and move on. Maybe it is ok to peacefully rest in the mystery of some of the questions.
For those who are not so keen on questions (or despise them), well, I would encourage you to recognise that we live in an age where questions are sometimes of more import than answers. At times, that can be a hindrance. But, at times, it can be helpful in bringing us to a point of rethinking certain areas that need to be rethought. I suppose Martin Luther and John Calvin and William Tyndale and John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther King Jr and a whole host of others asked questions that led to change that needed to come.
Do I consider Rob Bell in line with those aforementioned giants? Not really. But history is made up of lesser people, like you and me, challenging the status quo with probing questions. Real, honest, authentic, probing questions.
In the end, I do recognise that some of Bell’s theology is not particularly in line with what I believe is solid. I believe some of his thoughts on heaven, hell and God are not in accordance with the full tenor of biblical teaching. But, like many before him and many that will come after him, I do believe he has given us some things we do need to grapple with as we have our Bible’s open and our hearts open to the Spirit of God that breathed out the text of Scripture.