Let’s just be straightforward about it: Rob Bell’s newly released book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is controversial, provocative, and potentially divisive. Controversial? Of course, the topic is! Provocative? Of course, he states that he means to challenge widely-held assumptions. Divisive? Only if we allow it to be.
It may be too much to hope for, but it would be a good thing if the controversy stirred up by this book prompted people to do some careful biblical study and theological reflection on the issue of eternal judgment.
Instead of writing a book review, I’m going to provide links below to experts who are doing a good, thorough job of that. But first, a few thoughts.
1. There is nothing wrong with wrestling with the concept of hell. In fact, an argument can be made that we honor the truth of God and the authority of God when we read his word, think about it carefully, try to interpret it, come back to God with our follow-up questions, go back to the text, interact with other believers, and so on. It is a search for Christ-centered understanding. The whole idea of eternal separation from God should never be an easy doctrine to accept. To wrestle with this puts us in good company. The father of faith, Abraham, debated the justice of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah with God himself (Gen. 18:20-25). Abraham’s conclusion? “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
2. We should be aware that in the history of Christian thought there have been different interpretations of what eternal judgment looks like. Some of the views have barely any Scriptural support, but others detail varying ways of taking the key passages.
3. In the reaction to Bell’s book the word “heretic” has been used carelessly. In the late second century Irenaeus confronted the Gnostics in his Contra Haereses (Against Heresies) for beliefs that were entirely unbiblical regarding the nature of God, salvation, and everything else. And so follows the history of heresies. The word “heretic” is a reach when you’re talking about the nature of eternal judgment, something the Apostle’s Creed doesn’t put within the core of Christian beliefs. On the other hand, it was frustrating to hear Rob in a television interview say that the root of the word “heretic” is “able to choose.” C’mon Rob. You don’t really need to toy with the label.
4. The book takes up major theological issues, but with no citation of or interaction with theological authorities–historic or modern. (Bell hints at serious questions about substitutionary atonement, for instance.) If someone is going to offer a provocative interpretation of gospel texts, it should not seem like personal musings.
5. There is an opportunity here. For anyone respecting God’s revelation in Jesus and in Scripture, we could–if we choose–take some time during the next twelve months to dig into God’s word to take a deeper look into the issues of both heaven and hell. I know every time I have, I see something I never saw before.
So, for your consideration:
Rob Bell’s church, Mars Hill Bible Church, has a written FAQ about Love Wins.
From a New Testament scholar who speaks in everyday language, Dr. Darrell Bock, the former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, the author of numerous commentaries and other works, is doing a multi-part review of Love Wins. His take: Bell raises some good points, but the things he leaves out makes for problems.
Also, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington is writing on the topic of annihilationism, the interpretation of eternal judgment which understands the biblical passages as pointing to the destruction of the wicked, rather than the idea of eternal conscious torment. There are some highly respected Christians and scholars like F.F. Bruce, John Stott, Philip Hughes and many others, who have at least left this interpretation as a possibility, which is a better alternative than those who reject Christian faith because they cannot fathom the apparent cruelty of a God who would inflict people with unending conscious torment.
This might be a good time to recall Abraham’s conclusion when he was wrestling with the judgment of God. He rested on his belief in the goodness and rightness of God’s character precisely at the time when he could not fathom God’s actions. His trust came out as “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” God will do what God will do, and we can trust that it will be consistent with both his holiness and his love (as P.T. Forsyth said).
What do you think?