What Hell Is Rob Bell Talking About?

I blogged about this before (see here) but I finally went out out and bought Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, And The Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. I spent the last day reading it.

I must say, I’m not impressed. Neither am I outraged.

My good friend Andy Bannister put it this way on one of my Facebook status updates (and he’s riffing on a quote from Bell’s book):

‎We need a loaded, dramatic, adequately expressive, suitable weighty word (which will, of course, and with sufficient caveats from the more Platonically inclined Patristic fathers) describe the very real, in both an objective and subjectiv…e sense, feelings (both emotional and intellectual) that wading through the text of “Love Wins” engenders. We need a word that refers to what happens when a publisher gets overly excited by the possible sales, financial rewards, best-seller list placements and the such like that a book may achieve through controversy alone, no matter that it is full, like a pomegranite is full of pips with meaningless metaphors, nor laden to the gunwales with extraneous verbiage and a tendency for its sentences, like an infinite number of monkeys typing in oven mitts, to run on and on with no apparent end in sight. That word is, I suggest, “meh”.

As I read this book, a thought kept coming to me: he’s ripping off C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, a profoundly imaginative (if unorthodox) work about a vision of heaven and hell. In Lewis’ book, hell is a separate, dim, sad city of greys and browns that consists largely of miserable people content to live miserably. The narrator of the book begins in this city, but soon enough gets onto a bus and, dramatically, rises up over the city until the bus is suddenly immersed in a radiant light more intense than any the sun could ever hope to produce. The narrator goes on to describe this place as more real than reality, where the grass, the wind, everything has sharp edges of definition that injure the unaccustomed. It’s a brilliant literary device and Lewis does wonders with it.

Bell rips it off. And his biggest change is say that hell isn’t separate from heaven. They are the same place, a perfected version of this current reality where God’s love reigns and those who don’t want to live like that are just miserable party poopers.

A truly thorough review of the book would cite specifics, but as this is a lazy blog post, I’ll just do what Bell so often does himself – tell you what I think and let you do with it what you will. To wit, some points of interest:

  • Bell is adamant that hell as many Christians currently conceive of it is wrong. In fact, borrowing a page from Brian McLaren’s handbook, he goes so far as to suggest (without bluntly saying) that most Christians don’t really know what Jesus taught. Of course, Bell does, and he spends a great deal of the print in the book on condescending to the benighted. The funny thing is, most of those people won’t ever read his book, so Bell is preaching to his choir, and he does so pitch-perfectly.
  • Despite being so strong in his belief of what hell isn’t, Bell offers next to nothing on what hell actually is. He shrewdly (my assumption, anyway) avoids putting down any vision or doctrine of hell that isn’t a vague notion. One quote, from page 173: “We create hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of our story.” Pardon the pun, but what the hell does that actually mean? He’s using the parable of the Prodigal Son to advance his notion that hell is relational, but he never actually spells out what that entails. On some pages, it sounds like he believes those who reject God will be separated from Him; on others, he suggests that heaven and hell are both lived in the presence of God. Bell puts next to no edges on his ideas, making the book maddeningly weak, and undermining of its own conceit.
  • Bell’s definition of hell might best be described as the love-child of Jean-Paul Satre and Walt Kelly: “We have seen hell, and hell is us.” Bell suggests that hell is a mindset that denies God’s glory, creating a separation from God that causes pain and torment. It’s not physical, but mental/emotive. Of course, Bell also suggests that God is so beautiful and wonderful that no one can resist Him or His love, but that particular concept comes early in the book and gets quickly shunted to the side. He vacillates from Irresistible Grace (though he never uses that term) and Free Will (never uses that term either) without ever offering what is reality.
  • In his chapter titled, “The Good News Is Better Than That”, Bell asks a provocative question, but like an inexperienced lawyer in court, he hasn’t considered the full answer to it. Writing about the portrayal of God as vindictive, schizophrenic (my word, not his), and vengeful, Bell paints a picture of people living a tired, powerless life because they believe wrongly about God. And he asks this question: “This is the problem with some Gods – you don’t know if they’re good, so why tell others a story that isn’t working for you?” Think for a moment about that question – why tell others a story that isn’t working for you? Bell’s answer is clear: if the story doesn’t work, it must be wrong. Change it. And so he has with his book. But the unanswered question still remains: why wasn’t the story working for you? So the story doesn’t work for you; it doesn’t mean the story isn’t true. Bell seems more than willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of pragmatism and comfort. While expounding the immensity of God, he shrinks Him down to a Beatles song, “All You Need Is Love.” He doesn’t address the hard questions about hell – he offers soft answers to some and completely dismisses others.

And that may be the biggest disappointment. Bell’s assertion that many people have a hard time with the doctrine of hell and the complexities of God’s love and judgment is spot on. I know many folks who cannot get past the question, “How can a loving God send people to hell?” Bell seems firmly in that camp, and has done his best to craft a story that does away with the discomfort of hell. Like the embarrassing drunk uncle, or the aunt who spouts racist epithets at family gatherings, the answer is to just remove hell from the story, to make it into something more palatable for those who can’t get past it. And it works. A world without hell seems much easier to explain and much more desirable to live in.

The problem, it seems, is that such a story isn’t true. And I’d rather build my life on an uncomfortable truth than a nicely-fitted lie, no matter how well-intentioned it may be.

As a post-script, let me say that there was one consistent theme in Bell’s book that struck me powerfully, and that was the need for Christians to embrace a wide stream of belief without belittling those who disagree with us. As a Southern Baptist, I heartily amen this. The irony is that Bell disavows his own admonition within the same pages he’s written it. I think there is plenty of room for difference within Christianity, plenty of room for a variety of expression and ritual. But what Bell is asking for is room for divergent and incongruous versions of Christianity to be counted as Orthodoxy, and that simply cannot be.

Believing that there is only One Truth upon which the universe is built is not intolerant or hateful – it’s logical. It’s consistent with the Bible. It’s practical, even.

It’s just not sexy. And in the end, Bell seems to have a problem with that.

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