Saturday, June 18, 2011

On H(B)ell

I just want to take a minute to throw in my two cents on Mr. Bell and his book, and make a couple comments on hell along the way. I think now that most of the fervor has passed, it should be safe to do so. However, as Francis Chan's new book on the same topic is due out soon, I am sure the discussion (argument) will resume again shortly. I will not even attempt to give a full critique of Bell's book, as this has been done by many before me, and much better (and if I am honest, much worse as well). Many blogs, videos, etc. have been devoted to this topic over the last few months. I have read many if not most of the substantive ones. In my opinion, you will find the fairest and best here.1 Now then, just a few comments.

First, if you are interested in the debate, or just want a popular-level introduction to what the Bible says about hell, you should read the book. It's a quick read, and if you can get past Bell's three-words-per-line writing style, an enjoyable one. As Ben Witherington points out in the review linked above, Bell is a poet, and he seeks to present the Gospel--and difficult issues like hell--in a way that will touch the heart as well as the mind. He does this well and I applaud him for it.

Second, all the hype surrounding the book and the controversy it caused is disappointing. I almost did not even read it myself, since Bell is not a scholar (though he is an educated pastor and seeks to use solid scholarship to inform his views) and I was sure that whatever he had to say about hell had already been said before, and probably better. I was right. However, Bell is up-front about this, saying early on in his book that he is merely re-stating what many have said before, for a culture that in many sectors seems to have forgotten. The controversy is disappointing precisely for this reason. He is not saying anything novel, and the fact that a book like his is able to make such a splash just provides further evidence (as if any more were needed) that Christians don't read. In fact, once I had read enough of the book to realize Bell's actual position, my first thought was "This is almost verbatim C.S. Lewis." Indeed, Bell cites Lewis' The Great Divorce in his bibliography. I was not the only one to notice this. This is interesting since many evangelicals seem to live by what Lewis has to say on most topics. I've even heard people criticize Bell's view of hell and simultaneously affirm Lewis'. All I can assume is that they have misunderstood one or both. However, Bell's book does seem to have re-initiated the discussion of hell and related topics among lay-people, and hopefully will spur them on to go deeper. This is a good thing.

Third, the response of the majority of the evangelical community (yes, the majority) to the book is disgusting. Even before it was out, there were many Christians condemning not only the book but Bell himself. He was called a heretic (see photo) and bid "farewell" by brothers and sisters in Christ who ought to know better. I'm talking prominent Christian leaders. Scholars, theologians, pastors. Major Christian book retailers refused to carry the book. The blogosphere lit up with angry Christians condemning what they had not yet even read. I doubt many of them ever did. Sadly, even after the book was out, the reviews still continued to be rather one-sided and eisegetical.2 Most were divided into two camps: one attacking Bell, misinterpreting his arguments and their context, or else generally refusing to acknowledge that he had made any; the other (smaller) one defending him against the onslaught. The charitable, Christlike voice of love and understanding--the one that seeks to comprehend before it judges--was unfortunately difficult to hear.

Fourth, the claim that Bell is a universalist is absurd. I find it difficult to believe that some who ought to know what this term means and who claim to have read Love Wins can still say this. As mentioned above, Bell is no more or less a universalist than C.S. Lewis, and I don't recall hearing anyone condemn him for this. In fact, his views of hell (such as its being "locked from the inside") are often quoted in defenses of the doctrine. Universalism, simply put, merely says that everyone will eventually be with God for eternity. Now to be fair, Bell does not outright condemn this view, but he is very clear about the reality of hell, both in this life and the next, and the possibility that it may be forever. For him, as for Lewis, the deciding factor here is not God's wrath, but rather our choice: "God gives us what we want, and if that's hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free."3 Bell is also not a pluralist, in the sense that all faiths are equally valid and lead to God. He describes the Christian view as an "exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity," affirming simultaneously that anyone who is saved will be saved by Jesus and He alone, and that who gets saved by Him is limited only by His infinite grace and their free choice.

Fifth, what we believe about hell is not the most important thing. Indeed, it is possible to be a thorough universalist and an orthodox Christian with respect to everything that Christians have always held to be true.4 Pluralism is less clear, though we would certainly not want to say that a pluralist could not be saved. But the important point is that while this doctrine is important (very important) and should be discussed and wrestled with by all believers, it is not in the center circle, and perhaps not even the second circle, of our faith (see here). True, our beliefs about it will likely make a difference in how we view God, humans, and how the two are related. But it should not, I maintain, effect the way we treat people, or even the urgency with which we spread the Good News. And it certainly should not cause us to forsake the Spirit of Christ and resort to senseless division and mean-spirited namecalling.

For Bell, it is not obvious that God's love will eventually win everybody over (this is not what the title means); he is perfectly comfortable leaving that question unanswered and hoping against all hope that the answer is yes. It seems to me that this is exactly the attitude that Jesus carried. He warned severely that not all would be able to follow him, and that many would falsely believe that they were. The future for those people, He said, was horrible. And yet, He exhorted them to choose life, and prayed for the forgiveness of those who hated Him. This is the spirit I find in Bell's book. I wonder how so many Christians can respond to this spirit with either vitriolic hatred or vain condescension.

Which looks more like Jesus to you?

1 This link is to Part 1 of 8.


3 Love Wins, pg. 72.

4 This is not to say that a universalist would be denominationally orthodox (he likely wouldn't in most circles), only that there is not enough about life after death in the creeds that unite the church to rule out the possibility of some form of universalism.


  1. Excellent points! I've been wanting to read this book and will as soon as I (finally) finish several I'm currently reading.

    Sadly, Bell seems to be the contemporary punching bag. I know he's generated other supposed controversies with his other books and Nooma series. What I've read, so far I've liked. Granted, his work is derivative, but he does a great job at compiling information (and citing his sources) to act as more of a thought-provoker (although, as you've pointed out, most people don't respond with much thought).

    I remember people dismissing his book Sex God claiming it was just obscene or silly (even though they had never read it). I remember another saying something along the lines of "Who needs it, we've already got Every Man's Battle." I picked up a copy when it came out and got more from it than any other book on sex, purity, or relationships than I had ever read before. It provoked me to seriously question my beliefs and actions and led me to develop a much larger concept of purity and love.

  2. May I recommend two excellent books by an old Irish Biblical scholar/theologian named Henry Constable. The first, namely, “Hades: Or The Intermediate State of Man” (available for free at Google Books : is on the biblical teaching on the nature of man. It argues, and in my humble opinion conclusively shows, that the Bible teaches that at death all human beings become unconscious, awaiting resurrection. The second, namely, "The Duration and Nature of Future Punishment" (available for free here argues, and again in my opinion demonstrates, that the Bible teaches that the wicked will be utterly destroyed, that is, put out of existence, at the second resurrection. For a shorter piece arguing this latter point, check out this resource:

  3. from the non-believers point of view: it is amazing to me to watch people discuss theologic points like hell with any semblance of certainty. Like CS Lewis' speculations or Rob Bell's or whoever' can make up whatever one wants and feel good about it, be comfortable with, and feel is logically consistent...but there is absolutely no way to prove a whit of any of these speculations. You can dream up an infinite number of interpretations of this scripture passage or that or someone else's claims about hell and there is no way to tell who is correct, no test in reality whatsoever.
    Worse, it is the height of arrogance in any religion (the Abrahamic ones seem to be inordinately good at it) to judge anyone else and condemn them to eternal punishment. How dare you. Hell and damnation are the most despicable ideas ever dreamed up by human invention, you dont even know the people you summarily judge. The billions that will roast in hell according to the various Xian or Islamic doctrines are humans just like you, people who may live exemplary lives. The sooner this nonsense disappears form our cultural habits the better. You should be ashamed of yourselves. We non-believers of any stripe may be unbelieving scum deserved of hellfire to ya'all but we dont condemn anyone. That part of religion, any religion which smugly judges other people to be inferior, sucks. And you people parsing this delusion as if you have some special access to knowledge is patently ridiculous. Take a good look at yourselves. Too bad you and I both know your JC never said whats in the Johannine comma, as it was added later, but you ought to follow it's good advice.."let he who is without sin..."drop your disgusting ideas like "the wicked will be utterly obnoxious.

  4. Thanks for the comment Bill. Two brief thoughts: (1) This post (like several I write) is addressed to Christians concerned with these issues. I realize this isn't a discussion between believers and unbelievers so much as between those inside the church. Sorry if anybody feels alienated. (2) I wonder how closely you read the post. Rob Bell (and myself) would agree with nearly everything you say about hell.