Archive | February 27, 2011

Love Wins- A Look at Rob Bell’s Theology of Hell

So, everyone is up in arms about Rob Bell’s new book: Love Wins.

Robb Bell’s Universalism! Catholic bloggers are also up in arms!

If you’re out of the loop here’s why all the fuss.

Rob Bell’s nuances are seeming to imply that the much coveted salvation prayer of the Evangelical tradition isn’t the moment of salvation, neither are classes, seminars or other such participations.

HarperCollins’s description of Bell’s book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived is as follows:

Fans flock to his Facebook page, his NOOMA videos have been viewed by millions, and his Sunday sermons are attended by 10,000 parishioners—with a downloadable podcast reaching 50,000 more. An electrifying, unconventional pastor whom Time magazine calls “a singular rock star in the church world,” Rob Bell is the most vibrant, central religious leader of the millennial generation. Now, in Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.

What I see going on here is a strong movement of jumping to conclusions. Not unfounded ones, but conclusions that are nevertheless premature. One blogger out there has ACTUALLY READ THE BOOK in its entirety. Others, are quick to dismiss Rob Bell and his ministry as heretical. Now, as a Catholic, I’m not usually on Rob Bell’s side. We do not always agree. I do not think he’s always teaching the gospel. But what I see Rob Bell doing in what scant information is available on his book, unreleased as it is, is that he’s questioning traditional evangelicalism and mainline protestantism.

Rob Bell is living out the end of Evangelicalism, like a softer, kinder, more hipster Derrida, he’s found everything without foundation, and is looking to lay a new one. Or at the very least, undo the harmful byproducts of the old one.

An actual quote from the book is not far from the work of C.S. Lewis, the Catholic position, or a reasonable one found in most people willing to question the reformed tradition.

Love demands freedom. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.

Rob Bell is simply stating the old addage that hell is a door locked from the inside. But what’s more interesting is that the vision he’s drafted while dangerously close to universalism, is also dangerously close to orthodox theology, and that’s what bothers the Calvinists and the other protestant mainliners. Bell expresses a view that might just decentralize going to heaven, and might just work towards a fuller need for thinking about the Resurrection of the Body. That’s awesome, if it is in fact what he’s doing.

Love Wins.

Isn’t that the gospel message? That Jesus Christ enacted a sure victory for God? Isn’t that why we go to mass or church and celebrate? Is the victory of God really so foreign to us that we have to reject any celebration of God’s justice? Now, I’m not going to trumpet Bell’s praises, but I have to say, hats off.

The man took a risk, pissed off a lot of people and has brought a discussion of salvation into mainstream culture. Twitter exploded, Rob Bell was a trending topic, and the blogosphere erupted. This shows me a sign of hope. We live in a culture that wants more out of life and cares deeply about afterlife, despite the overestimations of atheists and some scholars about the widespread nihilism of our day.

The point of this book is in many ways a popular level version of the Theology of Hope by Jurgenn Moltmann, that eschatology isn’t something we should hide until people believe Jesus is the only way, and then spring on them that all their unbeliever friends are hell-bound. Nor is it an embarrassing end-note on Christian theology. Rather, the victory of God should flavor all aspects of our theology.

Lots of people are quoting Bell as saying that Hell is empty.

Now, if what Rob Bell means by “Hell is empty” is, that it is a place of non-existence because we’ve chosen to cut ourselves off from the one who allows us to exist, and hell isn’t a place but ceasing to have a place in God’s love, then that’s all well and good. That’s within the bounds of Orthodox doctrine on hell.

C.S. Lewis noted,  “I have met no people who fully disbelieved in hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in heaven”. So, let’s be careful if Rob Bell is accidentally trying to strip our life-giving belief in heaven through shutting the gates of hell prematurely. I mean, N.T. Wright’s book Justification says many of the same things I hear this book saying. The quote above seems to be Bell’s landing pad in the end. That we can choose against grace, and in doing so we can have all the hell we want.

The Unhealthy Alternative

If by “Hell is empty” Bell means that everyone goes to heaven no matter what…we have a problem. If this is the case then, Christ is useless because God has massacred a man for no reason, or even solely for the reason of pouring out wrath on one so he could lassiez-faire the rest of us regardless of our actions. I don’t want to serve that God, and neither should you. This sort of cheap grace as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call it, is exactly the thing I think the blogosphere might be mis-reading into Rob Bell. Now, I don’t think we have enough information to make a definitive decision on what Bell is really saying, but the quote from the book as provided above seems to make it clear that this is not Rob Bell’s point. I might be wrong, and trust me, I’d love to review the book when I can afford a copy, but by that time I’m sure we’ll all know what he thinks unless one of my well-connected readers has an advance copy they can get me.

I think Bell is simply pushing Evangelical culture to look at itself honestly and recognize it has very shoddy doctrine in issues of salvation nowadays. There’s no singular consensus among protestants except for the “salvation prayer” tradition of most evangelicals, and/or the infilling of the holy spirit experience of Charismatics. I think Bell has asked the right questions, even if in the end it turns out he hasn’t provided the right answers.


Evangelical readers: This is not the end of the world. It may be the beginning of the end of Evangelicalism, but that’s not so bad. Bell has set the elephants in the room in plain sight. Take advantage of this to walk away different. You don’t necessarily need to change, but be open to it, and you might be surprised. Look deeply at your beliefs through this book, and ask the difficult questions. Does your theology of hell say that Love Wins? If not, it might be time to examine more orthodox theologies, and see what God really might be saying to you. After all, isn’t part of the fun of the faith journey seeking after God Himself?

Catholic readers of mine, the gospel is unchanged and the Church has taught this from the start: Love Wins. The entire book of the Revelation to St. John says as much, our world expects as much from us. We’ve been lost in an eschatology that’s been emabarassed to tell the Truth because of the enduring problem of suffering people, but the Truth is…God has won and continues to win through the person and work of Jesus, the sacrament of God.

In Christ, we all win; apart from Him, not so much. But I think Bell wouldn’t disagree with that. If he does, we have problems, but I don’t think that’s what’s being said. The jury is out, but I am withholding judgment until we know a bit more.

The important thing in the end that we can take away from this heated debate is that God’s grace is alive and well in the world of today, and calling us all to reflect more truly a love that wins.