A painting in the Sanctuary Notre-Dame des Fontaines, La Brigue called the "Last Judgment : the damned souls."
Apparently Rob Bell’s best-selling Love Wins and its ambivalent stance towards an “eternal” hell (as “eternal” has historically been interpreted by evangelicals at least) continue to send ripples. Two authors, author of Crazy Love Francis Chan and senior managing editor of Christianity Today Mark Galli have now responded with their own books, both of which seem at the outset (from a reading of Stan Guthrie’s review in Books and Culture) like a sniffing out of any potentially dangerous “universalism” (the idea that all people at some point in the scheme of eternity will be saved) in both Bell’s book and the Bible.
I am grateful for this latest round in the discussion. If truth be told, I am also intrigued by the way in which Bell and his more narrative, impressionistic engagement with the topic of heaven and hell have become such a lightening rod. A universalist reading of Scripture- (if in fact Bell is advocating this, and I, having read Love Wins, am not sure he totally is)- is in no way new in a survey of centuries of church history. Nor does it stand outside quite a wide spectrum of varying takes on the subject, all of which qualify as “orthodox” Christianity.
So why does Bell elicit such strong reactions, I wonder? Take this opener to Guthrie’s review, for instance: “Rob Bell, as you may have heard, sympathizes with those who have left the church because of their discomfort with the doctrine of eternal punishment. Alas, he seems to lack sympathy for people still in the church who believe in a God who sends unbelievers to hell.” Or, take N.D. Wilson’s voicing of a common refrain among Bell’s critics that Bell “cannot be pinned down.” Wilson goes so far as to imply that Bell, in his peripatetic questions, is a “pensive rabbit.” (A bit uncharitable if not harsh, don’t you think?) What follows is a rather sarcastic and summary dismissal of the questions Bell raises, with little appreciation for the grays in which Bell would invite us to inhabit when it comes to engaging Scripture on the subject of heaven and hell.
The implication here? That if Rob Bell cannot be pinned down, Scripture can be. But I beg to differ. The Bible I read does not give a consistently clear, definitive answer to the question of what “hell” looks like. Eternal torment in flames of fire. Total annihilation. “Gehenna,” or the rubbish heap where worthless things are thrown out. Yes, “hell” is all these things. But “heaven” is also a place where, we are told, “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Which, I might add, begs a question: how are those of us who find ourselves within the “pearly gates” of eternal bliss to live pain-free when our agnostic uncle, whose lap we used to crawl up onto at family reunions, is eternally burning away in flames of fire in the next room over, or being continuously water-boarded (to borrow a more contemporary metaphor for eternal torment)?
So while maybe I needn’t be so surprised by the way in which Bell has become a bit of a punching bag, I am disappointed. Because at its heart, this debate about heaven and hell really is an argument about who God really is and whether God is who God says God is- whether God really is Love and whether we can trust that God is Love. And it seems to me that the basic statement, “God is Love,” is one that we evangelicals, regardless of our differences, might be able to get behind.
Which leads me to think that Rob Bell is right: if we believe that God is Love and that God “wins,” then we must also believe that “Love” wins. The details of what that victory looks like exactly in the scope of eternity remain elusive- at least insofar as we are willing to admit the insufficiency of Scripture and our human limitations to answer such questions with great certainty. When Bell as a prominent leader in the church does this very thing, it gives the rest of us permission to wrestle with God and Scripture, too. And, it should. “Love” requires it.
So back to the opening line of Guthrie’s review: “Rob Bell, as you may have heard, sympathizes with those who have left the church because of their discomfort with the doctrine of eternal punishment. Alas, he seems to lack sympathy for people still in the church who believe in a God who sends unbelievers to hell.”
It seems to me that until we understand that the church is the one organization that does not exist for itself- that the church exists in love for the sake of God’s world- it will be easy to interpret one church leader’s daring to believe in the triumphant conquest of God’s Love as subtle “church bashing.” In other words, an over-arching concern to engage and problematize a doctrine (eternal punishment) that is a stumbling block for many outside the church, not to mention a good many within the church, probably will come across as a belittling of the many good people in the pews who hold to that same doctrine. But sometimes a bit of self-deprecation when it comes to the things we in the church spout is the very best way to witness to a love that really is cosmic in its vision and scope. And, if we evangelicals are serious about proclaiming God’s love in Jesus Christ in word and deed, maybe the best place to start is with the things we’re most sure about.