Rob Bell’s theology is difficult to pin down. He is a highly creative thinker and writes on the page like an artist paints on a canvas. The nature of his argumentation is like a beautifully weaved spider web, that you can't really appreciate until you take a step back and can see it all at once. This is great if you want an engaging read, but downright dreadful if you’re trying to jam the square peg of Rob Bell into the round hole of a book review.
But, for what it’s worth, here is what Rob Bell believes. (I think)
The Nature of Hell
Bell is not afraid of the word “hell”, in fact he concludes his chapter on the topic by saying,
“We need a loaded, volatile, adequately violent, dramatic, serious word to describe the very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us…and for that, the word ‘hell’ works quite well. Let’s keep it.” (pg 93)
At it’s root, “hell” is “what happens when people abandon all that is good and right and kind and humane.” (pg 71) Furthermore, since, according to Bell, we can reject what is good in this life, and we can reject what is good in the life to come, Bell concludes that , “There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.” (pg 79)
As for exactly how long hell is, Bell asserts that God’s judgment has a purpose - namely, restoration of the judged. Thus, hell will not be forever (without end), but will rather be more along the lines of an “intense experience of correction”. (pg 91) While he isn’t dogmatic about it, Bell leaves open the possibility that, since the gates of the heavenly city in Revelation “never shut”, people are free to come and go as they please.
In other words, Bell is asking the question,
“Can God bring proper, lasting justice, banishing certain actions - and the people who do them - from the new creation (heaven) while at the same time allowing and waiting and hoping for the possibility of the reconciliation of those very same people?” (pg 115, parenthesis mine)
So then, if hell isn’t forever, and if heaven’s gates are open - will everyone be saved? To Bell, this is a question we can’t answer. (pg. 115)
In conclusion then, hell isn’t so much a place (over there) to which you are banished for all of eternity (once you die), but rather, an atmosphere you create right here, right now (in this life, and in the life to come).
For example, when we read about "Gehenna" (one of the Greek words for "hell") in the New Testament, it's referring to an actual valley used as a garbage dump that had fire constantly burning to consume the trash. Or, to use a modern example, Bell talked about visiting Rwanda in 2002 and witnessing the carnage of young children missing limbs as a result of the genocide.
"Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren't metaphorical missing arms and legs." (pg. 71)
What is Salvation?
Bell spends a good deal of time in chapter one discussing the question, "What saves someone?" In fact, the first chapter of his book is almost exclusively questions, but then he says at the end of the chapter,
"...this isn't just a book of questions. It's a book of responses to these questions." (pg. 19)
To answer the question of "What saves someone?", we have to jump over to chapter six entitled, "There are Rocks Everywhere". Bell reminds his readers of the story in Exodus 17 when the Israelites were dying of thirst in the wilderness, Moses struck a rock with his staff (at God's request), and the Israelies were able to drink the life-giving water that came flowing out of the rock.
This story seems meaningless at first, but then Bell connects this story with I Corinthians 10, when Paul claims that,
"Our fathers...drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ."
Bell takes this to mean that,
"According to Paul, Jesus was there. Without anybody using his name. Without anybody saying that it was him. Without anybody acknowledging just what - or, more precisely, who - it was." (pg. 144)
This causes Bell to conclude,
"People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways. Sometimes people bump into Jesus, they trip on the mystery, they stumble past the word, they drink from the rock, without knowing what or who it was.
This happened in the Exodus and it happens today. The last thing we should do is discourage or disregard an honest, authentic encounter with the living Christ. He is the rock, and there is water for the thirsty there, wherever there is. Sometimes people use his name; other times they don't." (pg 158-159)
A couple of examples of these "authentic encounters with the living Christ" are offered at the beginning of the chapter. One is about a guy who was smoking pot when he noticed his "kitchen filling with an overwhelming presence of warmth and love." The power of that moment struck the man to the ground, caused him to realize that God loved him unconditionally, and that he needed to receive that love and become a follower of Jesus. (pg. 139)
Another story is told about man who, after blacking out because of a terrible work accident, "saw a white light". This man "knew instantly that the white light was powerfully good and right, but it produced in him a profound sense that he wasn't that good and right." So he began repeating the words "please forgive me" and then came to, in the hospital. (pg. 141)
To Bell, these are simply modern examples of someone trusting in Christ.
Trusting in what is good, powerful, right, loving, and beautiful.
Trusting in the Rock.
And there are Rocks everywhere.
The Prodigal Son
In chapter seven, Bell uses the story of the prodigal son to pull everything together. As you know, in this story, there are three characters - a father, and his two sons.
The younger son in the story demands his share of the inheritance, skips town, squanders away his wealth, become destitute, and ultimately returns to his father who welcomes him back with open arms. His father even throws him a party, complete with music, dancing, and a fattened calf.
The older son, never leaves homes, serves his father faithfully for many years, lives a life of obedience, and becomes furious when he returns from the fields one day and hears about the celebration for his wayward brother. His father comes out to talk to him, and they have a heated exchange about the fairness of the whole situation.
Bell points out that each character in this parable is telling their own version of the story.
The younger son tells a story. And in his story, he is "no longer worthy" to be called his father's son.
The older son tells a story. And in his story, his father is unfair and should actually be giving the party for him.
The father tells a story. And in his story, both sons are fully loved and accepted in his eyes.
The younger son he welcomes back with love, commanding that a robe, a ring, and shoes be given to him.
The older son he reminds of his love saying, "Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours."
Now, the two sons are faced with a predicament. Which version of the story are they going to believe? Their own story? Or their father's story?
In looking at this predicament, Bell claims,
"The difference between the two stories is, after all, the difference between heaven...and hell." (pg. 169, ellipsis Bell's)
"We believe all sorts of things about ourselves. What the gospel does is confront our version of our story with God's version of our story." (pg. 171)
"We create hell whenever we fail to trust God's retelling of our story." (pg. 170)
"To reject God's grace, to turn from God's love, to resist God's telling, will lead to misery. It is a form of punishment, all on it's own." (pg. 176)
The older son was "Refusing to join in the celebration. Hell is being at the party. That's what makes it so hellish." (pg. 169)
Conversely then, heaven is what we experience when we trust God's version of our story. That He loves us unconditionally. When we believe what the father said, "You are always with me, and everything I have is yours."
"The father's love cannot be earned, and it cannot be taken away. It just is. It's a party, a celebration, and occasion without beginning and without end." (pg 187)
"The father has taken care of everything. It's all there, ready, waiting. It's always been there, ready, waiting. Our trusting, our change of heart, our believing God's version of our story doesn't bring it into existence, make it happen or create it. It simply is."
Thus, heaven isn't some harp and wing infested ethereal paradise to which we'll fly away to someday. Rather, it's something we participate in right here, right now.
"Jesus invites us, in this life, in this broken, beautiful world, to experience the life of heaven now. He insisted over and over that god's peace, joy, and love are currently available to us, exactly as we are." (pg. 62)
Then, once we die, we are free to continuing participating in God's version of our story - if we so choose.
The picture Bell paints of life after death is one that looks very much like life before death. You've got some people who choose to believe God's version of history - that He loves us, wants a relationship with us, and has sent us His only Son to make that happen.
And then you've got some people who choose to believe their own version of history - that they don't need God and are going to journey across the landscape of eternity on their own, apart from the father.
For those who choose God's version of history, let the party continue.
For those who choose their own version of history, the gates of heaven aren't shut, and the potential for reconciliation remains.
As he pondered this after-death scenario, Bell commented,
"An untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God's pursuit forever, because God's love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts." (pg. 108)
"Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God's unrelenting, infinite, expansive love? Thousands through the years have answered that question with the resounding response, 'God's love, of course.' At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God." (pg. 109)
"If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That's how love works. It can't be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins." (pg. 118-119)
I will respond to Bell's position in part three of my review.
I have tried my best to accurately represent Bell's position in these few short pages. However, I am keenly aware that a position will never be argued as persuasively by someone who doesn't actually believe it. If in reading this review you found Bell's arguments wholly unconvincing, the fault is mine. If you desire to feel the full force of Bell's book I recommend you read it for yourself.
My desire in outlining Bell's beliefs is not so I can turn around and mock or ridicule them, this helps no one. Neither is it my desire to prove Bell wrong, as if this whole exercise has just been a contest which can be won. For one thing, I couldn't hold an intellectual candle to Bell. For another thing, proving somebody wrong DOES NOT make you right. Disproving an atheistic argument (for example) does not in some way prove Christianity is correct.
As we ruminate on what we find in Scripture, may we always compare it first to what we believe, before we compare it to what someone else believes.
As we stand proudly in our ivory towers, pondering the eternal fate of others, may we never neglect to fall face down in the mud before Christ and ponder our own.
And, as we consider this different perspective put forth by Bell, may it cause each of us to give pause, and think carefully about what we've always believed about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.