I can understand why an outsider might think that all the attention surrounding Rob Bell’s redefinition of hell is one more example of evangelical lunacy. To an outsider, our insistence on a traditional doctrine of hell must sound a bit like Mormons of the late nineteenth century clinging to their ill-fated doctrine of polygamy. Why hold on so tightly to a doctrine that, when properly conceived in quiet moments of meditation, could send you into a frenzy of horror? Are we, the old-fashioned orthodox, so sadistic that we delight in the thought of eternal conscious torment of our fellow human beings?
That would not give Jesus good publicity. I get it. But I don’t know anyone who believes in hell who delights in the thought of multitudes being there forever. Why, then, do we consider this such an important issue?
As Bell rightly pointed out in his promotional video, this issue has everything to do with what we think of God and the particular shape the gospel will take in our understanding. I agree with Bell that the Bible is one unified story, but my disagreement with him is that he, along with numerous others who seek to accommodate the faith to a modern or postmodern world, has misread the plot.
Every story must have a conflict, and every story moves toward a climactic moment when that conflict is resolved. Everyone who claims the name “Christian” would agree that the climax of our story is the cross and the empty tomb. Something happened in the death and resurrection of Christ that has resolved the conflict. But if we cannot agree on what the conflict is, we will not agree on what actually happened at the climactic moment. You can usually tell a lot about where a person stands on a whole range of theological issues when you are able to pinpoint how he or she reads the biblical storyline. Here are several ways that the conflict is interpreted:
1. Satan vs. God. Satan and the powers of evil are the aggressors who have invaded God’s world and held mankind under the bondage of oppression. Through the cross and resurrection, Christ has defeated the powers of evil and rescued humanity. In this way of reading the story, we are primarily victims in need of deliverance from oppression. Those who locate themselves in this story tend to be very vocal about the need for social justice. They emphasize the effects of the gospel as overcoming evil in the structures and institutions of this world.
2. Man vs. Man. Although similar in many ways to the above, this way of reading the story focuses less on the spiritual forces of evil and more on the social effects of sin. In the cross, Jesus has given us the great example of non-violence. He has taken into himself all of the hostility we could throw at him, and by refusing to retaliate he has broken the cycle of violence, thereby leading to the restoration of human society. This way of reading the story is less common, and I would imagine that many who hold to some version of it usually also include it as a sub-plot rather than as the main plot.
3. Man vs. Self. I do not base my comments here on Rob Bell’s book, for I have not yet read it. I am not pretending to write a book review. I am basing my comments on his public statements. If it turns out that, if and when I read the book, Bell demonstrates that my interpretation of his public statements is completely off base, then I will retract these statements. Having said all that, I think Bell falls into this interpretation of the Bible’s story. He insists that the great barrier to our fellowship with God is our free will. He says that hell is the reality we choose to create for ourselves, and we can unchoose it at any time, before or after death.
I will not speculate on Bell’s understanding of the atonement, for I honestly do not know what it is. But I can speak to theories of the atonement that fit into this way of reading the story. The so-called “moral influence” theory asserts that the death of Christ is a public demonstration of the love of God that is intended to move our hearts and cause us to give up our hostility and turn to him in repentance. What we really need, in this storyline, is something that will prompt us to make the right choice. The hostility is entirely ours, and once God woos us out of it, the conflict has been resolved.
I see elements of truth in all of these conflicts. The Bible teaches all of them in one way or another. But the problem is that no single one of them tells the whole story, nor can any single one of them be used to deny the conflict that is fundamental to the Bible’s storyline, which is as follows:
4. God vs. Man. Based on my reading of the story, the Bible consistently presents this conflict as the one in need of resolution and the one grand conflict to which all of the others are attached like spokes to the hub of a wagon wheel. It is the great integrating conflict of the whole story.
This conflict begins in Genesis 3, where God drives humanity out of his place and puts us under the sentence of death. Throughout the rest of the story, God is the one who poses the greatest threat to a rebel human race. He is the one who wipes us out in a worldwide flood (Genesis 6-9), confuses our languages and scatters us (Genesis 11), and brings devastating judgments against Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18) and later the nation of Egypt (Exodus 1-15).
Even in the midst of his chosen people, Israel, God communicates clearly the fact that he must keep his distance from a sinful people. Only priests may enter the tabernacle. Only the high priest may enter God’s dwelling place, the inner sanctuary, and that only once a year when he brings blood to make atonement for sins. A plethora of bloody rituals constantly reminds the people that their sins deserve death, and the only reason they themselves have not been consumed in their sin is because God has graciously provided these animals as substitutes in their place. Throughout Israel’s history, the greatest threat to Israel is not the Philistines or the Midianites or the Egyptians or the Assyrians. The greatest threat to Israel is God. And we see this clearly on those occasions when individuals transgress the divinely ordained boundaries and are consumed by the wrath of God on the spot (see Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10, for example).
The prophets only intensify the proclamation of God’s wrath, warning the nation over and over again that if they do not repent, they will soon experience the horror of the Day of the Lord. Note carefully that this is a coming day of judgment from God, not a present experience of alienation from him. Israel does not create her own subjective state of “exile” by resisting God’s love. She merits exile as an active judgment from the God she has offended by her wickedness. The Day of the Lord comes to Israel, driving her out of the land of blessing, much as Adam and Eve had been driven out long before. And in the exile of Israel, we have a foretaste of the final, eschatological Day of the Lord, the day when all nations will face his coming wrath.
It is in the context of this storyline that we reach the climactic moves. John the Baptist and then Jesus summon Israel to repentance once again, only this time they do so on the basis of the fact that the Kingdom is at hand, which means in turn that the coming wrath of God, long expected to come at the end of history, is also at hand. Their message is one of amnesty to rebels who will throw down their arms and surrender to their rightful Lord while there is still time. And then Jesus goes to the cross where he suffers as our substitute, facing head on the wrath of God that we deserve. And then God justifies him on the third day by raising him from the dead, thereby appointing him King of the cosmos and head of a redeemed humanity. The conflict of God vs. man has been resolved.
There are multitudes of verses and passages that I could draw on to illustrate that this is the primary conflict of the Bible, but I will just go to one. In 1 John 2:1-2, we read, “My dear children, I write these things to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” There are two words in these verses that are of special significance: “advocate” and “propitiation.” Why do we need an advocate with the Father unless the Father, in some sense, stands against us? If we do not recognize the God vs. Man conflict in Scripture, then there really is no need for an advocate with the Father. This observation should then inform the way we understand the meaning of the word “propitiation,” which is essentially a sacrifice that renders a deity favorable. It was common to offer proptiatory sacrifices to the various gods of Greco-Roman culture as a way of getting them on your side, but the biblical idea of propitiation is far more glorious. For according to Scripture, God has done no less than propitiate himself through his self-substitution in the person of his Son. It is not that Jesus has, independently of the Father, intervened to deliver us from the wrath to come. It is, rather, that God so loved the world that he willingly gave his Son to deliver us from his own coming wrath. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Rob Bell does not read the story this way, so it is natural that he would find no place for a traditional doctrine of hell as the expression of God’s personal, active wrath against unrepentant sinners. But in missing the need for hell, Bell has missed the gospel itself, for the gospel only makes sense against the background of the wider story of the danger of God’s wrath against humanity.
If some literary critic wants to come along and argue that the One Ring in Tolkien’s masterpiece was not really a threat to the well-being of Middle Earth and that the story is really about how we all create our own “One Ring” when we act like jerks to one another, then he will have to forgive me for saying he has been indulging too much in the Gaffer’s brew. Such a move to demythologize The Lord of the Rings may minimize the danger, but in doing so it would clearly destroy the story as we know it. Moreover, it would make for some awful reading.
This is what Rob Bell has done to the Bible. He has eliminated the danger, which is an essential element in the wonder of the story. A Ring-bearer without a real magic Ring is not much of a hero. And neither is crucified wrath-bearer without real, divine wrath to bear.