Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Will hell be empty? Rob Bell's Love Wins

Here's a piece I wrote for this week's edition of the Christian newspaper, Eternity:

Love Wins is a book about God. It raises the question: what kind of God do Christians believe in? That's an important question in a world where so many of us – both within the church and without – have been hurt by bad theology. Perhaps we were taught that God has two different personalities: God can switch back and forth between vengeance and mercy, so that we never quite know what to expect. Or perhaps we were taught to think of God as a watchful policeman, always ready to hand out infringement notices whenever we step out of line. Or maybe we grew up feeling that God is more ‘pure’ than ordinary human experience, so that parts of our lives – especially those non-spiritual, bodily parts – are disgusting and offensive to God.

There’s nothing trivial about bad theology. A diseased picture of God will inevitably produce symptoms in our thoughts and feelings, in the way we live and relate to each other, in our whole way of looking at the world. Family life, sexual life, friendship, work, leisure, creativity: all these parts of our experience are deeply shaped by the way we think about God. I often meet people who are still nursing wounds from the theology they imbibed as young children, people who are recovering from the worship of a bad god.

Rob Bell is writing for people like that. And his point is simple: Jesus shows us what God is like; Jesus shows us the triumph of God’s love for the whole human race. 

Thus Bell raises the question whether human rejection of God might finally be overcome by God’s love; whether hell might turn out to be empty; whether all, in the end, will be saved. The easy assumption that salvation is only for ‘us’, he thinks, is an evasion of the universal significance of the gospel. If Christ’s resurrection doesn’t somehow affect every single human being, then we haven’t really grasped the meaning of resurrection. You might compare it to a legal system: it applies either to everybody or to nobody – it’s not the sort of thing that applies to just some members of a society. In a similar way, Christ’s resurrection is significant either for everyone, or for no one. As Bell puts it, Jesus is ‘as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe’. He is the exclusive way to salvation, yet he includes all humanity within himself.

Some critics have questioned Bell’s orthodoxy – especially his emphasis on the universality of salvation. But the most striking thing about his approach is its deep indebtedness to Eastern Orthodox tradition. The Orthodox churches have always emphasised the universality of Christ’s work – not only his death and resurrection, but also his descent into hell. The Orthodox liturgy proclaims that hell was emptied by Christ: ‘Hell’s gatekeepers trembled before you; you raised with you the dead from every age.’ In another part of the liturgy, Orthodox Christians sing: ‘Rising from the tomb, you broke the bonds of Hades and destroyed the sentence of death, O Lord, delivering all from the snares of the enemy.’ 

The leading contemporary Russian theologian, Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, explores all this in his recent book, Christ the Conqueror of Hell (2009). He shows that, in Orthodox tradition, Christ’s descent into hell has a universal significance. Christ breaks the power of hell and releases all its captives: ‘Christ’s saving of the dead and the exodus from Hades were not one-time events that occurred in the past without significance for the present. These are events that transcend time, whose fruits were reaped not only by those who were imprisoned in hell before Christ’s descent but also by future generations.’ 

Rob Bell seems to be referring to this Orthodox tradition when he argues that ‘at the centre 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.’ Once you see Christ’s death, descent and resurrection from an Orthodox perspective – as something universal, even cosmic in scope; as something that reaches every human being without exception – then the real question becomes: How could anyone ultimately escape the reach of God’s love? 

As Archbishop Hilarion argues, the universal scope of Christ’s work doesn’t necessarily mean that all will be saved. But it means that even hell itself is no longer a place of separation from God. Christ has penetrated into the depths of hell, flooding its darkness with the light of love. Hell has become a site of divine activity, a venue of divine love. ‘If I make my bed in Hades, you are there’ (Psalm 139:8). Thus the torment of hell can only be understood as the torment of love. Hell’s power is abolished – but someone might still reject God to such an extent that even love becomes a torment, an unbearable ‘scourge’.

This Orthodox tradition is conveniently ignored by those critics who accuse Rob Bell of heresy. As though Eastern Orthodoxy is not sufficiently ‘orthodox’! As though the Christian creed confesses anything positive about hell – except that Christ ‘descended’ there before rising again!

From the perspective of Christian tradition, I don’t think there are any grounds for questioning the orthodoxy of Love Wins. As far as I can tell, Rob Bell really just presents the gospel: he tells of God’s victorious love, a love revealed in Jesus Christ, a love that is deeper than vengeance and stronger than death. 

The hostile reaction to Bell among North American evangelicals reminds me of the way some people responded to the great Reformed theologian, Karl Barth. Barth placed so much emphasis on God’s grace that his critics called him a universalist. But in Barth's view, both universalism and its denial are errors. The important thing is to uphold the absolute freedom of grace: if grace is free, then we should neither deny nor affirm universal salvation. It’s not our decision to make – ‘salvation belongs to the Lord!’ (Psalm 3:8). Yet Barth thought the ferocious condemnation of universalism exposed something pathological in the Christian mindset. When he was accused of promoting universalism, he once replied: ‘Strange Christianity, whose most pressing anxiety seems to be that God’s grace might prove to be all too free …, that hell, instead of being populated with so many people, might prove to be empty!’

If that is our greatest anxiety – that God might turn out to be too gracious – then perhaps we ought to heed Rob Bell’s celebration of triumphant love, universal love, a love ‘as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart that no one else knows about.’

Or to quote one of the great theologians of the Orthodox tradition, St Isaac the Syrian: ‘Like a handful of dust thrown into the sea are the sins of all humankind compared with the mercy and providence of God.’ 

If that’s true, then we can be sure of one thing: in the end, love wins.

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