Rob Bell believes in a literal Hell. That is the claim he makes in chapter 3 of Love Wins. In order to demonstrate this claim, Bell recalls an incident when he drove from the airport in Kigali, Rwanda, to his hotel, and witnessed along the way children who were missing limbs. His guide explained that these children were the victims of a cruel practice of mutilation that occurred during the Rwandan genocide. Bell writes,
Do I believe in a literal hell?
Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.
Hell appears to be what we experience when others do harm to us. Yet later, it appears to be something we inflict on ourselves:
God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.
We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice.
We are that free.
We can use machetes if we want to.
So when people say they don’t believe in hell and they don’t like the word “sin,” my first response is to ask, “Have you sat and talked with a family who just found out their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?”
I cannot follow the logic here. Bell says we have the power to choose Hell if we want it. But then his example of a molested child and suffering parents is an example of victims who have not chosen Hell for themselves but have rather been afflicted by someone else. Is the child molester in Hell too when he gratifies himself by victimizing children? In his world, Hell must not be a bad place after all.
In saying this, Bell does not deny that Hell is also a future reality:
There are individual hells,
and communal, society-wide hells,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.
There is hell now,
and there is hell later,
and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.
At the end of the chapter, Bell writes:
To summarize, then, 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. We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world God’s way.
And for that,
the word “hell” works quite well.
Let’s keep it.
As I read this chapter, I was reminded of a recorded debate I heard featuring John Dominic Crossan. Crossan is a liberal New Testament scholar and co-founder of the Jesus Seminar. He has argued in print that, after Jesus’ crucifixion, his body was probably eaten by wild dogs and never seen again. In the debate I heard, Crossan insists that he believes in the resurrection, but he just defines it in a different way. He does not believe Jesus’ body was raised, but he does see in the faith of the disciples a “resurrection” of sorts in which the Jesus who died lives on metaphorically. In essence Crossan demythologizes the resurrection (strips it of its “mythical” elements to make it palatable for modern consumption) and thereby transforms it from a historical event into a non-historical ideal.
I think Rob Bell has demythologized Hell. He maintains that he believes in a “literal hell” so that he can check off all the right boxes on the theological identity form, but he redefines the term to mean something that it has never, in the orthodox tradition, meant before. As tragic as missing arms and legs are, and as indicative as they are of the radical corruption of humanity and the sufferings of this present age, these kinds of things are never what the church has meant when it has used the word “Hell.”
In Christian orthodoxy, Hell is the final place of judgment where those who are found outside of Christ at the final judgment experience the wrath of God due to them for their sins forever.
In Bell’s view, Hell is the experience we inflict on ourselves (or others inflict on us, or vice versa) that is not in any way an experience of the personal, active wrath of God. It is simply the natural consequence of our rejection of the good things God wants for us. It is a condition that can be reversed at any time, whether in this life or after. Thus, Bell affirms postmortem mobility, the view that those who suffer in “Hell” for any length of time after death can repent at any time and be redeemed.
I don’t recall Bell ever mentioning the wrath of God, even once, in this entire book. I may be wrong, and if someone can correct me on that, I would be glad to look more closely at what he says about divine wrath. But the fact that I cannot even remember a discussion of it indicates that this issue of massive theological importance (especially in a book that is largely about Hell!) has been shortchanged. It does not appear to me that Bell even has a category for the wrath of God. God does not actively punish sin, in Bell’s world (so far as I can tell). Instead, God passively allows us experience the natural consequences of our actions because of his commitment to allow us freedom of choice, which is a natural outflow of his love for us (more on this in a future post).
But what about all of the Jesus sayings on Hell? What can Bell do with those? When he discusses the warnings of coming wrath in the ministry of Jesus, he rightly notes that a number of these warnings refer to the coming judgment on Jerusalem in 70 AD. But then he truncates Jesus’ message when he paraphrases it this way:
The Romans, he keeps insisting, will crush you.
There is nothing false in this statement, but it is almost like saying, “Airplanes killed 3,000 people on 9/11.” It is a true statement that misses the point. Jesus’ warnings about the destruction of Jerusalem were warnings about the coming judgment of God on a rebellious nation. Rome is simply a pawn on the chess board, like the airplanes were instruments in the hands of the hijackers. A day of reckoning had arrived for the nation that had rejected and murdered the Son of God, and God responded with a willed act of vengeance as just retribution for their sin. And every day of reckoning in history is a foretaste of the final judgment to come, when God will cast his enemies into the lake of fire where they will be tormented day and night forever (Revelation 20:10). The active role of God in the judgment of sinners is inseparable from his holiness in Scripture.
By separating Hell from the (non-existent?) wrath of God, Bell is forced to come to unbiblical and internally inconsistent conclusions about what exactly Hell is.
Is Hell what others inflict on us,
or is it what we do to ourselves?
Tell, me Rob, because it seems like that is
in this chapter.
Do I experience Hell when I reject the good things God has for me?
Or do I experience it when others unilaterally decide to inflict suffering upon me?
And why have you left God’s active judgment,
his just retribution,
the defense of his name,
completely out of this discussion?
“For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”–Hebrews 10:30-31