The blogosphere blew up in advance of Rob Bell’s release of Love Wins in mid-March, and two things annoyed me about the whole thing before I even read the book:
1. The conservative, Neo-Reformed sector seemed to think this was the first time large numbers of us were questioning the classical understanding of the doctrine of hell and evaluating other possibilities.
2. Most of the complaints they were going to make against Bell’s style and content would be impossible to defend against.
I love Rob Bell. I believe he loves Jesus, loves the church, and wants to see people engaging the world with the love of God. He’s a gifted public speaker and has a definite role to play in challenging the popular perceptions of the Bible and of the character and actions of God. So when I saw the now infamous trailer for his book part of me thought I’m glad someone in the mainstream had the backbone to bring this up since so many of us have been thinking about it. And then there was the part of me that knew I would have to defend Bell and his book at some point, and that part thought Crap. Couldn’t we have gotten any body else to write this?
Rob Bell, you see, is a visionary, big picture guy, and one who relies on intuition both in forming and communicating his ideas. He is not bothered by details, by potential conflicts, by evidence, by the need to anticipate objections and defend against them. You know, all the things you might need in a debate. Regardless of whether you agree with the claims of Love Wins, you’ll be frustrated to find that the book is written in such a way that it serves as the perfect pinata for eager Calvin fanboys at a Reformation Party. Bell doesn’t keep his gloves up at all, and punches are easy to land.
I guess I need to back up a little and discuss Preemptive Annoyance #1 from above. The arrival of Bell’s book does not in anyway serve to usher in a new conversation or introduce new ideas about eternity to our generation. It serves more as a coming out party, a culmination of conversations that have been happening for years. The fact is a lot of us have questioned the belief in eternal conscious punishment for a long, long time.
My own belief in the classic perception of Hell started to crumble seven or eight years ago when I began to question Hell’s punishment coming through physical torment. It didn’t make sense for a variety of reasons I don’t have room for here. I still believed in an exclusive gospel, but my idea of what eternal seperation from God would look like was changing. Even once I became a Calvinist for a time (I like to think of it as my Election Year) I never bought into the idea of a fiery pit of sinners being burned for eternity.
The bigger change came however when the very idea of an absolute salvation based on an earthly decision started to evaporate for me. It tied in with my issues with Calvinism, with the mathematical requirements it placed on God and the fact that for all its talk about placing all free-choice in the hands of a sovereign God, it seemed to spend most of its time tying those very hands. A God who is the victim of His own nature sounds an awful lot like a human being to me.
It helped that the two biggest influences in my spiritual life, Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis, also questioned the idea that our eternal fate was sealed at the point of death. L’Engle even went so far as to suggest that Lucifer himself might someday surrender to God’s love once again. I have no idea about Lucifer, but I think she was on to something in believing that ultimately no one can escape the love of God, that a short window of earthly time is not the limit of God’s generosity. Even Calvinist Richard Mouw has suggested that God might make exceptions for individuals who were prevented by life circumstance from accepting Christ. This isn’t the place to lay out all my reasons, but I trotted into 2011 under the working hunch that God’s mercy was much, much wider than what I had historically been taught in Evangelical churches.
And I’m hardly alone. I think it’s safe to say the majority of Emergent-leaning churchgoers harbor at least suspicions about the absolutist view of eternity we’ve been pitched. In fact, as a side note, so do most conservatives. You know anyone who believes little children go to Hell? Why is it taught that they go to heaven if they die young? It’s found nowhere in Scripture. The two passages that are used to support it are shaky at best. King David says in mourning to his infant son that the boy cannot come to him, but he will come to his son. These are not the commissioned words of the Holy Spirit, but the quoted words of a mourning father. At one point Jesus says that the angels of little children behold God’s face in heaven. And…scene. That’s it. Neither one of these doctrinally supports the idea that children go to heaven when they die. This is almost universally believed, however, because both our emotional hearts and our logical minds recoil from the idea of God holding children accountable to the Gospel. It doesn’t match His character, regardless of whether the need for atonement appears absolute by some interpretations of Scripture. But I digress.
That was Preemptive Annoyance #1. Numero Dos deals with the fact that regardless of whether large numbers of us take issue with the classic view of eternity, Bell does nothing to equip us with for defending ourselves in debate. But here’s the really frustrating part: he thinks he does. He tries real hard to write like a scholar. He fails badly. It’s sort of embarrassing at points.
Tell me if this ever happened to you in high school: you have some friends hanging out at your house. You’re trying to argue that something is cool and your friends disagree. You’re doing your best but they have the advantage of numbers. You’re really hoping another cool friend will show up who can take your side. Instead your dad walks in the room with brown tube socks up to his knees, blue dress shorts and a tucked in tourist t-shirt. He immediately jumps to your defense and says Thing in Question is cool. You promptly concede the point to your friends.
This is exactly the frustration of reading Love Wins, except instead of cool substitute exegetically sound or logically consistent (actually, if you read the above paragraph and do just that it’s pretty amusing). Bell cites none of his sources. He picks and chooses the meanings of Greek words. He plays word games while ignoring obvious rebuttals.
Case in point: Bell sets out to list every use of the word Hell in its various forms in the Bible. He spends a few pages doing this while trying to explain how they can mean other things than, you know, Hell. From reading other sources I gather some of these are legitimate and some are suspect. That’s not the annoying part. The annoying part is that he ends this segment by saying “And that’s it. Anything you have ever heard people say about the actual word hell in the Bible they got from those verses you just read.” Confident in the dramatic point he just made, he completely ignores any reference to the lake of fire which, you know, Relelation says sinners will be tossed into. Now, there may be an alternate meaning to those verses too, but by completely ignoring them in favor of making his point about the actual word hell, Bell leaves himself wide open to an easy rebuttal. And this happens all through the book.
You’re probably getting the impression I didn’t like Love Wins, and that’s not at all true. I enjoyed the book. I like Bell and I think he understands his intuitive reasons for questioning the classic view of hell very well for himself (I don’t have time here to explain what he actually believes about hell. Read the book). A friend pointed out last weekend that Bell isn’t trying to make a logically strong case but just to get people questioning and opening the discussion, but I can’t entirely agree. He clearly thinks he’s making a logically sound case in the book or he wouldn’t bother trying to prooftext or make his painful attempts at parsing Greek verbs. His strong suit is in getting people questioning and opening the discussion, but he doesn’t consistently play to his strengths in this book. That’s fine for some of us who have others reasons for holding these views, but many will be left woefully ill-equipped by this book.
It is easier to argue for Hell from the Bible than it is to argue against it. It just is. That doesn’t constitute a victory for those who believe in eternal conscious punishment, but we should admit that trying to disprove Hell on purely exegetical grounds is darn near impossible. There are other, stronger reasons to question hell, such as the general Biblical revelation of the character of God and our own consciences reflecting that character as we bear the image of God, but those hold little weight with the Neo-Reformed crowd. When it comes right down to it we’re at pretty much the same place after the book’s release as we were before it. I can’t think of any way around the following:
1. There are a lot of verses in the Bible that seem to suggest Hell and eternal conscious punishment, and this is the view held by the majority of church leaders throughout history. Because of this it is almost impossible to conclusively argue for universalism or inclusivism or Bellism based purely on Scripture.
2. There are a number of verses in the Bible that seem to suggest a wideness in the mercy of God, and the character of God revealed in the Bible and our own consciences agrees with this. Because of this it is almost impossible to conclusively argue for exclusivism and eternal conscious punishment based purely on Scripture.
So. There we are, and there we most likely will stay.
A few weeks ago my friends Alise put up a get-to-know-you post on her blog and asked her readers to answer three questions about themselves. For one of them she asked us to make up an ice cream flavor, describe its flavor and name it. I wrote the following:
My flavor would be full of things that go down really easy but on closer examination are somewhat suspect. We wouldn’t explain where we got any of the contents from, and it would be kind of annoying to eat because of the way it was put together. It would taste good, but the all the flavors would be really ambiguous and hard to define. Some people would love it and some would hate it. Ultimately it would be interesting but not something I would go in for very often, even though I liked the person who created it. I would call my ice cream Love Wins.
I enjoyed the book, but found much of it frustrating. I still don’t know exactly what I believe happens when we die and face God, though I certainly believe God’s mercy is wider than I used to. My hunch is towards something like Bellism, which is a lot like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, but it’s just a hunch. Bell’s book didn’t do much to inform my position on this issue, though it does serve as another conversation point on the journey. I hope my friend is right and Love Wins will see great effectiveness in opening dialogue and allowing closet Hell-doubters to “come out” and know they aren’t alone. I hope also for a better case presented by a more capable writer in a better organized format in the near future.
reading. (Come on, I had to.)