Top critical review
19 people found this helpful
Looking for answers? Not the book for you. Looking for good questions? Keep reading!
on April 9, 2014
Bell raises a lot of perceptive and fascinating questions about the Bible's treatment of the afterlife. I don't think he deserves the criticism he's received (for instance, that he's a heretical universalist); he doesn't take that position directly, although the questions he raises about the nature of God, and what really is or isn't said about hell in the Bible, might leave you with that impression.
Basically, if you want to walk away with clear ANSWERS to the questions he raises, this isn't necessarily the right book for you.
What Bell does do is, through his questions pop some evangelical/fundamentalist "bubbles" that may need to be popped, or at least thoroughly discussed. For instance, the contention (supported primarily by 5-point Calvinists, but also assumed by many other Christians) that at the moment of death, the curtain drops and your fate is sealed. That even if (when confronted with the majestic God who created you, in judgment) you fell to your knees and said, "I'm sorry I didn't believe in you and receive you earlier! I now understand the error of my ways. I believe in your now. Please forgive me, cover my sins with the blood of Christ!" God would shake His head and say, "Nope. Too late. Your fate is sealed, you will be tormented in hell forever for not taking this position 10 minutes earlier."
Bell points out that that doesn't sound like a loving father who "desires for all men to be saved" and he has a point. However, I realized that 5-point Calvinists will make two valid points (which Bell plays with but doesn't really address directly): 1) The words of Christ himself (in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) seem to indicate that the decisions we make in this life, and the inclination to make those decisions (based on the "ordainment" of God, according to Calvinists) are effective for all of eternity; and 2) If God truly does ordain those whom He desires to be saved, to eternal life, and those whom He desires not to be saved, to eternal death, then He would certainly do so before the "it is appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgment" deadline.
However, I would point out to those who argue (on the basis of Heb. 9:27*, "It is appointed to men once to die, and after this the judgment"), "Once saved, always saved" and "Once you die in your sins, you are always lost," that even that proof text itself is not explicit about the amount of time, space, or other events that elapses between those two things (once to die, and then -- when? -- judgment). Catholics would probably insert into this space, "Hence, Purgatory" which of course is the view that an intermediary state of being is needed to fully purge/cleanse our souls from sin before we can be allowed into a sinless heaven.
Not being Catholic (and not seeing any direct evidence for Purgatory in Scripture), I naturally do not accept this contention, but something akin to Purgatory (and supported by the Old Testament metaphor of the "Outer Court of the Gentiles" when it comes to the Temple, or to similar outer areas of the Tabernacle) might possibly exist in the fringes of the journey to Heaven. C. S. Lewis alluded to this in his brilliant allegory, "The Great Divorce," wherein a busload of passengers are delivered on a day-trip from Hell to Heaven. They have great difficulty even stepping upon the grass, as they are so incorporeal, and it is quite clear that they must become "adjusted" to the realities of heaven (their souls cleansed from all that binds them to Hell) in order be able to traverse "inward and upward" toward the Center of God's universe.
The Great Divorce leaves us with the sense that all of the bus riders save one judge this journey too difficult to make. They are too comfortable in Hell, having gone there in the first place because they are too uncomfortable being exposed to the holiness of God, with all of its demands. In other words, they are too used to being the Captains of their own ship. The narrator alone leaves you with the impression that he is going to miss the bus ride home to Hell, and make the changes necessary to travel inward and upward. (I.e., repentance after death.)
Based on Bell's words in "Love Wins," I think he would agree with Lewis. Although I don't think he necessarily views Hell as a place of punishment (where God pours out his wrath on sin by torturing lost souls in eternal torment), he certainly does contend that "a hell of our own making" exists. He affirms free will, the fact that God gave men the ability to choose, and will never force them to do otherwise. He agrees that if God freely gives man the ability to choose his grace, there must be the possibility that some will not choose it, perhaps may never choose it.
But, at the same time, as I mentioned earlier, he raises some intriguing questions. Evangelicals agree that God is omnipotent (as expressed by Bell's phrase, "God gets His way"). And most of them agree with straightforward interpretation of the verse "God desires that none should perish." (Although I recognize that 5-point Calvinists might not acknowledge the straightforward interpretation of this verse. One friend said to me: "That verses doesn't mean 'everyone' ... just the elect." But, I'm sorry, that's not what it plainly says.) If God wants all people to be saved, and He ultimately gets His way, what does this portend for the future of all people?
Also, there is the intriguing passage in Isaiah 45:23 -- "By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: `To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.'" Which is reinforced quite heartily by Paul in Romans 14:11 and Philippians 2:9-11. If every knee will bow and every tongue will confess (swear allegiance to, according to Isaiah) the Lordship of Christ ... then where are His detractors now?
Only three possibilities, as far as I can see: 1) Rob Bell is right, Love Wins in the end, and ultimately God gets his way. All repent and are covered by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. 2) Those who fail to repent (the goats) are destroyed in the "Second Death," the lake of fire reserved for the Devil and his angels (Revelation), and all others (the sheep) worship God forever as He intended. Or 3) This verse doesn't really mean what it seems to mean ... either "every" doesn't really mean "every," or as my Calvinist friend might contend, "bowing to the Lordship of Christ" is forced upon unbelievers somehow, which raises the question: is forced allegiance really allegiance?
I've ordered those three possibilities in accordance with what I HOPE is true. But, scripturally speaking, I think the best argument really is for option #2. Scripture doesn't really seem to entertain the possibility that Satan and his demons will ultimately repent and serve God, although I don't see this as outside the realm of possibility for God's grace, certainly. (Remember, "He who is forgiven much, loves much.")
The bottom line is, just as Scripture really isn't clear on these things (what we need, after all, is to trust God today, and having clear answers to these questions doesn't necessarily lend itself to that trust, does it?), I don't think we as fallible human beings can be completely clear, either. Bell makes a good point that there is not a hard-and-fast clear-cut interpretation of these matters. My Calvinist friends might cry "Heresy!" but such hand grenades haven't helped the cause of Truth much when discussing such things, as far as I am aware. I certainly don't see that Rob Bell's conclusions (or at least the questions he raises) are anti-biblical in any way (unless C.S. Lewis' are ... and, I don't see that either), so I'm certainly not ready to throw the first stone. (And, might I add ... I've actually read the book! Many of his critics have not.)
Bottom line: Some things in Scripture are very clear. (Jesus is the Son of God, for instance!) Some things are less clear. (The exact nature of hell, for instance.) When debating the latter, a good dose of humility can go a long way. I believe Pastor Bell showed good humility in the way he wrote this book, and am a bit embarrassed by the lack of it in many of those who have responded to him.
There are some things about the WAY Bell writes (his imprecise, somewhat vague, poetical style, which I assume comes from the way he preaches) that annoyed the heck out of me. But once I survived this in the first half of the book, I felt like the second half made wading through the first half worth the wait. (Hence, the three stars.)
*By the way, even hardcore Calvinists will agree that Scripture presents several different types of "judgment," and it is not immediately clear which type Heb. 9:27 is referring to. If "judgment" refers to the Great White Throne Judgment, the final judgment at the end of days, depicted in Revelation, then certainly there is some "space" which must be inserted where the word "then" occurs in this verse.