Last week I read Rob Bell’s book Love Wins and Francis Chan’s piggyback book Erasing Hell. Although I have not read the blog hype about Bell’s book, I did order the books to find out what all the commotion was about. Since I’m unfamiliar with the blog debates, this may be repetitive.
Because Bell’s book made New York Times best-seller, I expected to discover something new. I didn’t. So, I surmised that the timing of Bell’s discourse must coincide with a lot of people’s own struggles with questions about eternity.
Let me start with some problems I have with Bell’s presentation. I feel like he over-emphasized one’s “freedom” and one’s “choice.” Bell depicts human freedom as the result of God’s love, which I agree with. But it seems counterintuitive to propose that God’s love wins when I have the freedom to choose what I want.
I also think that Bell takes “restoration” out of its biblical context and imposes his own categories of hell. He offers Origen as an example of a Church Father who promotes the reconciliation of every person and thing, but the Church condemned this idea as heresy.
I disagree with Bell’s reduction of resurrection to the earth’s life-cycle. Resurrection in the New Testament is an interruption and a completely new experience of new life without death.
I do appreciate Bell’s interpretation of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 and his explanation of inclusivism and universalism. But he came across, to me at least, as being quite ambiguous. He presents these views sympathetically without explicitly siding with one of them.
As for Chan’s book, I appreciated that he didn’t simply write a rebuttal to Bell’s book but rather wrote a more extensive discourse on hell in which he also criticized Bell’s thought. I appreciate that Chan leaves open the question of eternal suffering versus annihilation. My main critique of Chan is that although he claims to be open to rejecting the familiar teaching on hell (pg. 16), his a priori commitments to his particular view on hell are evident throughout. I have the impression that he was choosing and interpreting texts through the lens of a Reformed-styled satisfaction theory of atonement.
Chan detracts from his argument by misconstruing Bell’s position (pg. 24 – though he clarifies by caveat in the endnote). I do appreciate Chan’s correction of Bell’s depiction of hell as the “garbage heap” and the appropriation of this metaphor. But throughout Chan repeatedly fails to account for the literary devices of hyperbole, parable, or the apocalyptic genre in which certain references to hell are depicted. Apart from these minor issues, I see more problematic Chan’s belief that hell is a motivation for Paul’s mission and his fideistic approach to God’s reasons for hell. Paul himself declares that he is compelled by love (not hell). And although God’s ways our higher than our ways, this is primarily an exposition of the cross and not a blanket to cover up all the ways i which we don’t understand God. I am a hard-sell for propositional affirmations that are not substantiated by reason especially where we can find in Scripture pointers to the reasoning and effects of hell and not merely an ignorant appeal to mystery.
I am unsatisfied with the (albeit different) assumptions of both authors about salvation and judgment – concepts that merit further articulation when addressing ideas on hell. Although both books are readily accessible for popular readership (especially Bell’s), I think that they needed to bring a more scholarly treatment to the subject – as done by other authors like Sanders’ No Other Name and the Counterpoint’s publication Four Views On Hell.
In comparing both books, it seems that Bell is emphasizing God’s love (and love wins), while Chan accentuates God’s power (saying that God does what He pleases and gets what He wants, otherwise He’s not powerful – pg. 30). Placing so much stress on the ability of God to win all of creation through God’s love may carry echoes of grace, but Bell risks sacrificing the justice accomplished by God by placing victims in front of their perpetrators. On the other hand, Chan stresses God’s sovereignty so much that he skirts the responsibility that human beings bear for their actions.
Both authors draw an apophatic line. Bell resists determining what hell is and who is in hell. Chan resists determining why God judges and how God passes the judgment of hell on people. Here I find myself much closer to Bell than to Chan, and I think that this is one reason why the spirit of Bell’s book is more inviting and attractive. I find many advantages in the indeterminacy of a theology of hell, leaving room for questions rather than speculation.
The fullest depiction of God’s judgment that we have seen up to this point in human history is Jesus on the cross. There, God chooses to absorb our violence, atone our sin, give us forgiveness and reconcile us rather than judge us and separate us from God’s Self. Evidently, God doesn’t want to be God without us. This is how God judges: through His cross.
By leaving the question about future judgment and hell open, we are less likely to create hells on earth. It is a truism that human beings are conformed to the images they worship. Those who established inquisitions and torture chambers justified their actions by claiming that they were following God by saving the soul and destroying the evil flesh. So too we, like the disciples, often call down fire from heaven in a heartbeat when we cry for “judgment” – and this in the name of God!
Here too is the dangerous rub of power and theologies of hell through which the powerful claim to secure heaven for themselves and hell for others. Listen to the words of N.T. Wright:
I think that Leslie Newbigin in his book the Open Secret sums it up nicely:
“The full number of the Gentiles will be gathered in and all Israel will be saved.” This text from Romans has a universal ring to it. Paul’s vision is truly cosmic and universal. His earlier description of Jesus as the new Adam also points in that direction. “As one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all” (Rom 5:18). And yet the same time Paul can say of himself that he must exercise the strictest self-discipline “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). It seems to me that the whole nature of the gospel requires us to maintain this tension and not to try to resolve it either by a rationalistic universalism which denies the possibility of finally missing the mark, or by increasingly fruitless arguments about who will and who will not be saved. When Jesus was asked the question about whether few or many would be saved he declined to answer it but sternly warned the questioner to strive to enter the narrow door that leads to life. There is a kind of confidence that leads to complacency, and there is a kind of anxiety which leads to selfish efforts to save oneself. It seems to me clear from the whole New Testament that the Christian life has room both for a godly confidence and for a godly fear. The contrast between these is not a contradiction. If I know that God in his limitless grace and kindness has chosen and called me to be a bearer of his grace for others, my trust in him will not exclude the awareness that I could betray his trust in me, and that very awareness will drive me closer to him. This is a deeply personal relationship. It excludes, I think, the kind of rationalistic universalism that I referred to. It also excludes, I think, any temptation to set limits to God’s grace, or to write off any human being as beyond God’s redeeming love.