Not having read Rob Bell’s book yet (it’s on the way), I can only respond to what I have seen and heard: his own statements in interviews and the quotes from pre-publication copies carefully and thoughtfully reviewed by Tim Challies and Kevin DeYoung. [UPDATE: Mike has received his copy of Love Wins and has written a more in depth review here].
On the merits of the case so far (as much as I’ve heard), I’m inclined to dismiss this latest critique of hell as warmed-over liberalism. I’m not being mean and sweepingly judgmental here. Seriously, read Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith, Albrecht Ritschl’s The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation, not to mention other works by Wilhelm Herrmann, Adolf Harnack, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Bishop John Spong, or Brian McLaren, and you have the basic gist.
That basic scheme goes like this: God’s only attribute is love; his holiness, righteousness, and justice have to be adjusted to this central dogma. Human beings are not deserving of God’s wrath, but only of his encouragement and empowerment to improve. Jesus Christ is primarily a moral teacher, who invites us to share in his vision of creating “a kingdom of ethical righteousness” (Ritschl’s phrase, basically from Immanuel Kant). Since there is no divine justice to satisfy or wrath to propitiate, the cross cannot be represented as a vicarious substitution of “the Lamb of God” for sinners. Since there is no objective condemnation, there can be no objective justification. Since everyone is a child of God, there can be no adoption. The church is merely the community of volunteers for the kingdom-building enterprise. Heaven and hell are as subjective as sin and redemption: it all depends on what you make of your life right now. Yale’s H.Richard Niebuhr captured the essence of liberal religion in this fine description: “A God without wrath brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”
However, the initial impulse to pass over Rob Bell’s book is thwarted by the fact that he is a professing evangelical and his views are indicative of a growing trend. He is not a professor at Harvard Divinity School, but senior pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church. No doubt, he’s reacting to popular images of heaven and hell that have little connection or analogy to our world as we know it. Where Jesus and Paul speak of “two ages”: “this age” (under the reign of sin and death) versus “the age to come” (under the reign of righteousness and life), the popular imagination of many Christians for over a millennium has been closer to Plato’s “two worlds”: the upper realm of disembodied souls and the lower realm of embodied and historical existence. In this view, salvation is ultimately the release of the soul from the prison-house of the body, while in the biblical view salvation is completed when we are raised bodily unto everlasting life. In that day, the vertical boundaries between heaven and earth disappear, as is evident in the Apocalypse. There are many issues that conservative evangelicals need to address in order to weed the garden of low-grade paganism, but they are far less serious than the high-grade paganism that drives moderns to fashion a deity who is other than the one we actually encounter in the pages of Scripture. The biggest issue that the latest controversy reveals is not really whether hell exists. To be sure, we need to challenge the latest examples of Scripture-twisting with respect to the clear teaching of Jesus himself on hell. However, there are even larger questions that denials of hell such as Bell’s raise. Who is God? Who are we? What is our relationship to God? For what can we hope? What do words like “sin,” “redemption,” “Jesus Christ,” “kingdom” mean in the biblical drama? It’s not just a matter of tinkering with a traditional doctrine, but with the very meaning of God’s grace and justice in the cross of Christ. Everything is at stake in this question, especially given the underlying dogmas that Rob Bell, from what I’ve already seen, allows to control his thinking on this subject.
Listen to a special BONUS edition of the White Horse Inn featuring a discussion of the Rob Bell controversy and featuring special guest Kevin DeYoung: