Bloggers have blogged, academics have pontificated and authors have rushed to judgment in print since the release of Rob Bell’s Love Wins this spring.
Bell, pastor of the 10,000-member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is responding to the fact that “A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.
“That’s how it is — because that’s what God is like, correct? God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy — unless there isn’t confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes us forever. That’s the Christian story, right?”
Not according to Bell. In the end, one is left with the strong impression, not stated categorically, that Bell endorses universalism, the view that everyone will one day be saved. He does believe in hell, but argues that the freedom of choice granted us by God means we can still repent after death. And that is scandal, or at least threatening, to most theologically conservative Christians.
Francis Chan, like Bell a popular pastor/author, has responded to Love Wins in Erasing Hell. Like Bell, he’s at his best empathizing with people in the pew as they grapple, or avoid grappling, with the idea of hell.
“Based on what I hear at funerals,” he says, everyone is going to heaven. Before settling down to determine what the Bible says on the matter, though, he asks a key question: “Do you want to believe in a God who shows His power by punishing non-Christians and who magnifies his mercy by blessing Christians forever? … Here’s my gut-level honest answer: No.”
Chan says Erasing Hell opens up old wounds. “The saddest day of my life was the day I watched my grandmother die. When that EKG monitor flat-lined, I freaked out. I absolutely lost it! According to what I knew of the Bible, she was headed for a life of never-ending suffering. I thought I would go crazy. I have never cried harder, and I don’t ever want to feel like that again … Even as I write that paragraph, I feel sick. I would love to erase hell from the pages of scripture.”
He says he reached a point where he could no longer brush the idea of hell aside — “I had to figure out if the Bible actually taught the existence of a literal hell. How great it would be if it didn’t. Then I would be able to embrace my grandmother again someday.”
So his starting point is not too far from Bell’s. But though they survey the same Bible, they end up at very different places.
Put simply, Bell hopes for the best, while Chan fears the worst. Or, to put it another way, Bell says God’s goodness and desire for our salvation will not allow hell to prevail in anyone’s life, while Chan says God’s goodness is larger than our understanding, and stresses the Bible is very clear that some people are headed for eternal punishment in hell (though he concedes annihilation is a possibility).
Bell says the traditional depiction of hell is a “misguided, toxic” view which “ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”
He is at his most effective when asking questions or telling stories. One of the most effective examples in Love Wins starts with an art show at his church, displaying paintings, poems, and sculptures reflecting their creators’ understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker.
One woman included a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. Many appreciated the quote, but one person attached a note which read, “Reality check: He’s in hell.”
Bell’s response illustrates his punchy style:
Gandhi’s in hell?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without a doubt?
And that somebody decided to take on
the responsibility of letting the rest of
us know about it?
Bell is a brilliant speaker, and he remains effective in print. But he is better at asking leading questions and offering rhetorical flourishes than he is at providing convincing answers.
Take the Gandhi story for example. Many Christians will be very sympathetic with Bell’s questions. How can we know? Who are we to judge? Gandhi was after all a good person responding to the inequities of an imperialist “Christian” Britain.
However — and this is a key problem with the book as a whole — one could also ask virtually the same questions of any claim that Gandhi will end up in heaven: “Really? Gandhi’s in heaven? He is? We have confirmation of this? …”
As far as Bell’s view that the traditional toxic view of hell “subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message,” the fact is that the gospel has spread like wildfire all around the world over the past couple of centuries while aligned, for the most part anyway, with a traditional view of the fate of human beings after death.
“I’m scared because so much is at stake,” Chan says. “If I say there is no hell, and it turns out that there is a hell, I may lead people into the very place I convinced them did not exist! If I say there is a hell, and I’m wrong, I may persuade people to spend their lives frantically warning loved ones about a terrifying place that isn’t real! When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to be wrong.”
Erasing Hell looks at what Jesus, his fellow Jews and his followers believed about hell.
In short, according to Chan, Jesus and other Jews of his time believed:
- Hell is a place of punishment after judgment.
- Hell is described in imagery of fire and darkness, where people lament.
- Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment.
As well, “Jesus chose strong and terrifying language when he spoke of hell … I was a bit surprised at how many harsh statements Jesus made about hell. It probably caught me off guard because I am so used to people emphasizing his words of blessing, not His words of warning.”
In the end, Chan summarizes, “No passage in the Bible says that there will be a second chance after death to turn to Jesus. And that’s frightening. It’s frightening because the idea of an after-death conversion is the most important ingredient for the universalist position. It makes or breaks this view.”
Another useful response to Love Wins comes from Mark Galli. His “rapid response” book God Wins is a good tool to grapple with the issues raised by Bell. Galli is smack dab in the centre of the evangelical establishment, with 22 years as an editor with the Christianity Today group — the voice of moderate, reasonable, educated evangelicalism.
Key to Galli’s approach is to situate the debate in a historical context. For years he edited Christian History magazine. With C.S. Lewis, he warns against ‘chronological snobbery’ or the assumption that modern viewpoints are preferable to older ones. He points out that “universalism … has been a belief ascribed to by only a miniscule number of Christians and has been rejected time and time again by the church.”
In God Wins, Galli argues that God doesn’t need to explain himself; after all, he is the creator of the universe. “In the Bible, whenever God is asked a question that throws into doubt his kindness or justice, he more or less refuses to answer. In some instances he says, ‘You have no idea what you are talking about.’ Or he says, ‘You’ll get an answer in my good time.'”
Galli and Chan are in agreement on this point. Chan says, for example, “Our God is not a person who is slightly more intelligent: His thoughts are infinitely higher than ours … It is natural — no it is expected — that there will be times, many times, when you won’t figure Him out.”
Fans and many others have complained about the attacks on Bell and his theology. Mickey Maudlin, Bell’s editor at HarperOne, and an evangelical himself, asked, “Why such hostility? Why would leaders attack as a threat and an enemy someone who shares their views of scripture, Jesus, and the Trinity? What prevented leaders from saying, ‘Thanks, Rob, interesting views, but here is where we disagree’?”
Maudlin is right, of course, though Bell’s comments about toxic theology, and others, were hardly words of peace.
One of the best things about God Wins is Galli’s conciliatory spirit: “I am glad for the conversation that Love Wins has started. It is a conversation that is prompting us to think more fully and deeply about God … As we engage one another fairly and frankly, though, grounding all we say in the revelation of God’s word, it is the Holy Spirit and not any one of us who will continue to lead the church into all truth (see John 16:13) and thus into a deeper knowledge of God.”
The term “generous orthodoxy” was coined for just this kind of situation. If you have the time, read all three books; together they provide a good sense of current Christian thinking about heaven, hell, and who will be saved. Sure, they’re not the last word in scholarship, but then, most of us aren’t scholars.
Some excellent canadian resources on hell:
- An excellent and free 89 minute MP3 on ‘Hell and the Goodness of God’ (http://www.regentaudio.com) by Regent College’s John Stackhouse. It certainly doesn’t cover the whole debate, but he puts it in perspective and models how such a discussion should be carried out.
- For real keeners, Terrance Tiessen of Providence Theological Seminary in Manitoba wrote the impressive Who Can Be Saved? (IVP, 2004), which comprehensively covers the issue of salvation.
- Brad Jersak, probably best known for his book on the practice of listening prayer, Can You Hear Me?, has also written Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, which questions traditional fire and brimstone images of hell.
- One of Jersak’s partners at Clarion Journal is Kevin Miller. Best known for the Expelled movie, he is now working on Hellbound?, a documentary which will bring the hell debate to the big screen next year.