By Charles Redfern
We’ve been played.
My inner skeptic roared when HarperOne launched its pre-release publicity campaign this winter for Rob Bell’s Love Wins: “With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly hopeful – eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And, ultimately, Love Wins.” That’s raw bait, nurtured and bred for remonstrating bloggers, tweeters, and columnists and their free publicity. And they chomped. John Piper issued his now-famous tweet, “Farewell Rob Bell” with a link to a critical Justin Taylor review, and John MacArthur delivered one of his typical broadsides. All unwittingly read their lines from the marketers’ script. Some progressive evangelicals raced to Bell’s defense and, on cue, cried that many hadn’t read the book. Nor had many of them, but they still snarled at the critics while reciting their buzz words: “dialogue,” “understanding,” and “conversation.” Who can disagree? Except that the snub-like calls for civility reeked of incivility: there was constant second-guessing of motives.
Surely the publicity stunt was a cynical ploy. Of course I liked Bell – especially his innovative NOOMA videos – and anyone needling the finicky heresy watchers can’t be all bad. But I refused to buy the book (thus this blog’s woeful tardiness). Don’t we see that script? Doesn’t everyone know how this play ends? We’ll discover harmless shibboleths cloaked in hip, “with-it” lingo. Eggs will drip from a thousand faces while HarperOne laughs its way to the bank … Right?
Suddenly, the script fell into the shredder. Scholarly and gentlemanly Nijay Gupta was critical; Mark Galli of Christianity Today voiced concern, Ooze reviewer David McDonald disapproved. Really? The ever-so-emergent and relevant Ooze? [in fairness, Ooze editor Spencer Burke wrote an “Open Letter to Rob Bell” in which he portrayed Bell as a victim; see here]. Bell himself smiled his way through television interviews while ducking question after question.
Is he really saying all that?
I checked out Love Wins from the library, hoping Bell would vindicate himself. I’d be his Number One fan.
No teapot tempest
I was deeply disappointed, and I do not enjoy saying that. Bell, nice and sincere guy he no doubt is, whittles God to one characteristic, love, and then renders him insipid. Most disturbingly, he does it all in a sleek, choppy, semi-pseudo-postmodern style in which he bombards us with 86 dissociated questions in the first chapter alone – many of which deserve book-length answers. And there are sentence fragments. Loads of them. Lots. Many. Like this. Gone is the Lord who opens the ground that swallows a band of rebels, who blocks an entire generation from the Promised Land, who hardens Pharaoh’s heart, who exiles his people and only allows the return of a small remnant decades later. Transcendence and holiness are gone. Revulsion over sin is gone. Wrath — which is in the Scriptures whether we like it or not — is gone. Bell cites Origen for precedent but neglects his teaching’s later condemnation as heresy. McDonald put it well: “Rob refused to acknowledge counter-examples from the Scriptures to his main point, dealt clumsily with any perceived objections or inconsistencies and – perhaps most frustratingly – claimed about a dozen or so historical theologians as part of his peer group, many of whom – quite simply – would have had Rob’s opinions tossed from their church faster than you can say the-Council-of-Nicea-wasn’t-just-a-chapter-in-the-Da-Vinci-Code.” He acknowledged Hell’s existence after remolding it and relieving it of its eternal features: It’s a stop-off place, a “time out” corner from which we may later emerge. It’s really a kinder, gentler Purgatory.
… Or it seems. You never know with Love Wins. As Gupta says, “If you watch interviews of Bell on YouTube commenting on his views and his book, he … rarely answers any question about Hell directly. In that sense, we can’t really condemn him for his beliefs. We don’t really know what they are!”
Some see similarities to British writer C.S. Lewis, but they’re ephemeral. Lewis seemingly rescues Bell with one line in The Problem of Pain: “I believe that if a million chances (to leave Hell) were likely to do good, they would be given.” But read the next sentences: “A master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again. Finality must come sometime, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when.” Lewis argues for Hell’s irrevocability (“That the lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude we cannot doubt” … “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside” … Lost souls “enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through eternity more and more free.”).
Others point out that the well-respected John Stott theorized that the Hell-bent will be eventually annihilated. He makes sense at first: “The [hell] fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and unquenchable,’ but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which rises for ever and ever.”’ I respect Stott and I’m open to his approach, but it seems that Lewis undercut him years before: “Our Lord speaks of Hell under three symbols: first, that of punishment (“everlasting punishment,” Matthew 25:46); second, that of destruction (“fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell,” Matthew 5:28); and thirdly, that of privation, exclusion, or banishment into “the darkness outside,” as in the parables of the man without a wedding garment or of the wise and foolish virgins.” The point: fire, which was really an allusion to the continual flame at the Jerusalem dump, gehenna – one of the words translated as “hell” – is only one of the metaphors used for eternal darkness.
And a dilemma with annihilation: Bell’s quest for an infinite number of chances is, well, annihilated.
No deliberation allowed
I’m used to, uh, “unusual” teaching (notice: I didn’t use the “h” word [that’s spelled, h-e-r-e-t-i-c]) – but none has been flung at me with gimmicky, synapse-frying, rapid-fire questions tailored to dam the intellect in the name of dialogue, which is the book’s most serious and troubling flaw: Its very format dulls the reflection Bell says he wants. A sample of the writing style (page 14, italics added):
So do we have to forgive others, do the will of the Father,
or “stand firm” to be accepted by God?
Is it what we say,
or what we are,
or who we forgive,
or whether we do the will of God
or if we “stand firm” or not?
My response: Two can play that game:
Who is the “who” when we say “Prince of Peace”?
Is it Jesus
or Jesus Christ
or Christ Jesus
or the Son of Mary
or the son of Joseph?
And why do some pose
or false questions
or complementary questions
or opposite questions
that have nothing to do with each other?
Mark Rich nailed it: “This style is clearly calculated and chosen. It was created by Madison Avenue specifically in order to sway readers emotionally while short-circuiting their reason. We have all read this style before on pages of advertising copy. But I, for one, have never had to face down a whole book of such stuff.” He adds: “Thinking is an unusually rare thing, because most of the time nearly all of us are merely opining rather than thinking. Real thinking means at least two things. First, it means thinking through a difficult matter. To think is to think one’s way through a matter from beginning to end, top to bottom, to put the whole question into order and into context. Second, it means leading others through that same argument, that same thought path, such they are then formed and empowered to be able to make their own way through that same matter and then to lead others as well. Opining is mere intellectual dating; thinking is intellectual love.”
Others have written more thorough reviews highlighting the book’s logical, theological, and exegetical flaws – even while they strain for graciousness. Go here and here and here; purchase Mark Galli’s book-length reply here. Suffice it to say that Bell has illuminated our need for solid hermeneutics and careful exegesis.
Dissenting from the dissenters
But here’s my real grievance: Why the knee-jerk progressive evangelical reaction? Julie Clawson, who read the book but failed to see its implications, serves as an example in one of the more civil reviews: “Does Bell believe in hell? Yes. Does Bell believe in heaven? Yes. Is Bell firmly rooted in Christian orthodoxy? Yes. Does Bell believe that Jesus is the way? Yes.” In fact, Bell is so slick and slippery we barely know what he believes (remember Gupta), which makes her following statement fascinating: “Bell’s gift is to take tremendously complex theological concepts and translate them so that they are not just understandable but also blessedly practical.” She then plunges into subtle judgmentalism: “Bell gets at the heart of what Christians believe about God and isn’t afraid to challenge the implicit assumptions about God that are at the core of some Christians’ belief systems.”
Notice: Those disagreeing with Bell are “afraid” to challenge their “implicit assumptions.” Let’s psychoanalyze and second-guess motives and subtly divide Christians into “us” and “them” and “in” and “out” (to use the book’s jargon): Bell fans are “in;” non-fans are “out.” She makes a good point: “Jesus’ work on the cross isn’t just an historical event, but an ongoing narrative of redemption and reconciliation. Our faith isn’t just about going to heaven when we die, but about entering that relationship and partnership with God now and for eternity …” Anyone with an already-but-not-yet view of God’s Kingdom would agree. Most don’t think of heaven or hell as exclusively future events, but they also embrace their eternity.
Take a breather, my fellow progressive evangelicals. Remember our label’s second half: evangelical – which means, among other things, that we uphold Scripture as God’s authoritative word (theological liberals have a different view, but that’s not us). How can we cite passages calling for compassion for the poor and environmental stewardship while rejecting references to that destiny-we-dare-not-name? On what grounds do we pick and choose which Scriptures we embrace? No one likes Hell. Lewis speaks for me: “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.” Again: “I am not going to try to prove the doctrine tolerable. Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable. But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral by a critique of the objections ordinarily made, or felt, against it.” I loathe Hell. I quiver like a coward whenever someone seethes: “Are you telling me that my sweet grandmother, who baked cherry pies for thousands of orphans, is in … Hell?” I’m all for welcoming grandma with her pies (although I vote for pecan or blueberry). I wouldn’t object to Gandhi’s presence and I’d be cheering with pom-poms if the Almighty opened Hell’s gate and let some out.
But it’s not up to me – and Bell offers an incredible solution on page 110, where he sketches the doctrine like a cartoon: “… it’s important that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story … In contrast, everyone enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served, and all wrongs being made right is a better story …”
Oh yes. Please tell us a wonderful story. Tell us of a world with no holocausts, gulags, nuclear weapons, or slums. Every child plays in a field of grass waving in the gentle breeze. A little girl blows dandelion seeds. It’s such a tranquil scene – so much “better” than open sewers and land mines. Great story.
It’s also a lie.
We must wrestle with the universe in all its magnificence and ugliness, and Christian theology has always posited some form of eternal banishment. We cannot wish it away by changing the story. We must face it and understand why God relegates some to its confines, careful not to give it Bell’s cartoon portrayal but to understand it through Lewis’s more sophisticated eyes: “Hell” is the ironic fulfillment of those who wish to be their own god. God does not directly torment them; He gives them what they want, which is far worse than burning embers.
A different kind of scandal
I despised writing this. I’ve never written about Hell to this extent and I have no wish to do so again – and I don’t enjoy my own harsh words about Bell and his book. I hope I eventually meet Clawson, whom I view as a sister and an ally. But Love Wins is disturbing on many levels, especially in the way it and its supporters framed the issues. Huge swaths of thinking have been dropped from the debate, including the haunting amorality of a universe without Hell – or at least annihilation. Indulge this scene, written in the style of Love Wins:
Hitler and Stalin now smoke cigars with one another
in Heaven. Heaven. Where St. Frances lives. And Mother Theresa lives. And Clara
lives. With Susan B. Anthony. And Martin Luther. And Martin Luther King.
And Bobby Kennedy and Genghis Khan and Robespierre
and Jack the Ripper and Attila the Hun and Heinrick Himmler and Ivan the Terrible.
And Florence Nightingale and Mahatma Gandhi and Ted Bundy and the Emperor Nero.
They’re all there. All. Everyone.
In paradise. With God. Hitler and Stalin play bagpipes with the people they slaughtered. And Francis and Mother Theresa too.
Because it turns out there are no consequences. None. There is no eternal justice. Nothing.
Because God did not care.
Bell might argue that I’ve mischaracterized him. Perhaps he would say the malevolent would only be there after they’ve honestly repented. Maybe. Possibly. But I doubt he’d comment at all. He says he doesn’t read his critics, which forces me to ask: Why isn’t he involved in the “conversation” he claims he wants? How can we “dialogue” when he’s left the scene?
Perhaps we progressive evangelicals wanted Bell to say something different because he’s been one of us. Perhaps we’re so locked in a siege mentality that we’ll make huge leaps to guard one of “our own.” Perhaps we want him to be right because he’s a genuinely sincere and nice person. Perhaps we’re so enamored with “big tent” evangelicalism that we’ll stretch the canvas so tight it rips (but how big is our tent if we snub thoughtful evangelicals outside our fold?). Perhaps … Perhaps … Perhaps … Perhaps it’s time we remember that we’ve never argued for new doctrines. We argue for the the innovative implementation of a holistic, fully biblical Christianity. We lose our legitimacy if we advocate anything less.
More on the topic
Martin Bashir’s interview of Bell:
Adrian Warnock’s debate with Bell:
Spencer Burke’s open letter: