Recently, Rob Bell has written a new book entitled “Love Wins” in which he writes about Heaven and Hell and who goes where. He asks a lot of questions that he supposes many people ask about the subject and attempts to answer them. That’s it in a nutshell.
So first, let me talk about Rob Bell. I’ve never read a Rob Bell book until now although many have encouraged me too. I have seen a few of the “Nooma” videos which he creates, but they annoy me for some reason. I tend to shy away from anyone who looks like they are “trying” to be cool rather than just “being” cool, and that’s been my impression of Bell from his videos.
The reason I even downloaded and read this book is because of the backlash it received from the evangelical Christian community. Tinkering around the internet, I began to hear that Rob Bell is a universalist, that he is leading people to hell, that he is a heretic, and so on and so on. Anyone that can piss off evangelicals like that gets my attention and I’m more than willing to shell out $11 to download their book. So I did. And I read it.
Rob Bell starts the book out by asking A LOT of questions. And then he asks some more. I will have to say, of all the books I have read, Chapter One of Bell’s book has more question marks than any other book ever.
- Is Gandhi in hell?
- Of all the people who have ever lived, are only a few select people going to heaven?
- Does God punish people for eternity based on the few short years they have lived here on earth?
- At what age do children who die go to hell if they haven’t heard about Christ?
- Is there a magic prayer that gets you to heaven?
- Is all that matters in this life where you are going in the next life?
We could go on, verse after verse, passage after passage, question after question, about heaven and hell and the afterlife and salvation and believing and judgment and who God is and what God is like and how Jesus fits into any of it.
But this isn’t a book of questions. It’s a book of responses to these questions.
Whew. I am so glad this wasn’t a book of questions. Now let’s get to the answers.
Wait, there’s a problem. Rob Bell doesn’t have any answers. He seems to raise more questions than he answers. In fact he’s attempting to do something that he will never be able to do and shouldn’t even try. Bell is trying to make sense of the way he was raised to believe about heaven and hell in light of his current point of view using the Bible as a back drop.
Bell tells the story of a picture his grandmother had hanging in her house that used to give him the creeps.
As you can see, in the center of the picture is a massive cross, big enough for people to walk on. It hangs suspended in space, floating above an ominous red and black realm that threatens to swallow up whoever takes a wrong step. The people in the picture walking on the cross are clearly headed somewhere–and that somewhere is a city. A gleaming, bright city with a wall around it and lots of sunshine.
I remember pictures like these depicting hell much the way the Bible seems to describe it as a place of darkness, fire and torment. Heaven, from my childhood memories, was a beautiful place with streets of gold, blue skies and happy people. At the age of seven, given the choice between those two places and told that asking Jesus to come into my heart would guarantee the latter, I bowed my head and prayed for salvation.
For most of my life following that moment, at every turn I tried to make my world view fit into that very narrow understanding of a very broad subject. Like Rob Bell, I was taught that there was a systematic approach to salvation and if everyone just followed the path, admitted their shortcomings and prayed for forgiveness they would be saved. Also, Jesus was clearly the only way to heaven. No person, no matter how good a life they led could get into heaven without acknowledging Jesus as their savior. Conversely, any person, no matter how terrible and sinful their lives were could be forgiven if they would simply mutter a prayer for God to save them in Jesus’ name.
Now, this a way simplified summation about a very complex process, but it is what I was raised to believe. I surmise it is what Rob Bell was raised to believe as well. Quite honestly, and I know there will be some Bell defenders against me on this, but I feel pretty confident that this is the message of the Bible.
I think the Bible is clear that there is a real afterlife, a real Heaven, a real Hell and that your soul and spirit will live forever in one of those two places. Bell tries to make an argument in Chapter Two that when the Bible uses the word “eternal” it is actually a different word from “forever”.
Let me be clear: heaven is not forever in the way that we think of forever, as a uniform measurement of time, like days and years, marching endlessly into the future. That’s not a category or concept we find in the Bible. This is why a lot of translators choose to translate aion as “eternal”. By this they don’t mean the literal passing of time; they mean transcending time, belonging to another realm altogether.
…when Jesus talked about heaven, he was talking about our present eternal, intense, real experiences of joy, peace, and love in this life, this side of death and the age to come.
…To say it again, eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God.
No wonder the evangelicals are a bit upset. Especially the Southern Baptist kind (as I was raised and ordained). From that perspective this is a very unorthodox, non-traditional and dangerous teaching. When I was a pastor, I would have called this “New Age” thinking.
Now onto the subject of “Hell”.
Bell starts off by saying that Jesus’ use of the word is to speak of “Gehenna” which was a real place with which his followers could relate. It was the town dump, where garbage was brought to be burned and wild animals came to fight over scraps of food. Keeping with his view of Heaven, Bell is painting us a picture of “hell on earth”.
So when people say they don’t believe in hell and they don’t like the word “sin”, my first response is to ask, “Have you sat and talked with a family who just found out their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?
Some words are strong for a reason. We need those words to be that intense, loaded, complex, and offensive, because they need to reflect the realities they describe.
So is hell a real eternal place for Rob Bell? It doesn’t appear so. What Bell seems to be saying is that if a person dies and hasn’t embraced God’s way, he will enter into a holding pattern of sorts. He seems to embrace the idea of purgatory, a “time of pruning” or an “intense period of correction”. Although he isn’t very clear on this, he writes:
Failure, we see again and again, isn’t final,
judgment has a point,
and consequences are for correction.
And if that isn’t enough to give Bell critics the rope they need to hang him with, there’s this summary on the subject of hell:
…we need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
And for that,
the word “hell” works quite well.
Let’s keep it.
From the perspective of a deeply devout, infallible Bible-believing, God-fearing, evangelical perspective… I can certainly understand why they feel the need to speak out against these types of teachings by someone who teaches from the same Bible they use. This is pure drivel. Hell according to Bell is mainly about the hear and now, not forever. To an evangelical, that just doesn’t fly. And I couldn’t agree more.
NEXT UP: How does salvation work for Rob Bell?