Tuesday 13 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.


BenK said...

The Orthodox have long had internal disagreements, nuances and valences. Perhaps Christ freed some dead from every age, but universalism is not admitted to, confessed to, or affirmed in the scriptures or most Christian traditions. The problem with universalism or a 'too free grace' is not that it makes grace too free - that is impossible. The problem is that it leaves people in a burning building because it denies the teachings of the Law, which tutors us in our needs and insufficiency. History is not tragic, but this current world and those who cling to it, to their own mastery of it, who deny the authority of the Lord over themselves and their broken identities, will perish in the flames. The true depiction of the threat, which we all feel instinctively, is as much the gospel as the other major element - that there is a way to be free, by acknowledging the actual Lordship of the inescapable Lord, by denying ourselves and taking up our Cross.

To fail to depict one or the other, the threat or the means of salvation, is to disintegrate the Gospel. An empty hell ultimately makes hell irrelevant to this life, and salvation pointless; love meaningless. I'm sure many people are happy, in the short term, to hear that there is no meaningful sin, no consequences, and nothing to be saved from. Sounds like Rob Bell is pandering to them, which is very sad for him.

RodL said...

Thanks BenM, very informative.

Tony Johnson Joncevski said...

Thanks Ben for a such an articulate and engaging response to some of the nonesense I have read around Bell's book. God is love! And you have expressed that wonderful truth so well.

RodL said...

What I think Ben is getting at here is that Rob Bell is emphasizing the 'Yes' of God in the resurrection of Christ over and against our sinful 'No' (Pauline/Barthian). At the end of the day Heaven is not the goal, a restored relationship with God is. i.e.: 'everyone is saved but not all want to be saved'.

Spurgeon asserted:

''Sinners cannot live in heaven. Heaven would be an intolerable hell to an impenitent man (or woman), even if they could be allowed to enter; but such a privilege shall never be granted to the man or woman who perseveres in his iniquities.’ (Spurgeon, Treasury of David, Psalm 1 v 5)

The implication this issue has on our missional activity is far reaching. For instance how do we communicate Christ’s saving grace to sinners (those not wanting to live in Christ) who see that in rejecting Christ/Church they are saving themselves from the perceived hell, that would be for them a Judeo/Christian heaven?

An example in modern culture is the song by AC/DC, highway to hell ‘going down, party time My friends gonna be there too’. This pub rock anthem credits satan for salvation and celebrates the notion that hell will be a dynamic place of pleasure and self-fulfilment, as opposed to the caricature of the Judeo/Christian heaven being a static 24/7 church service with all the restrictions of tyrannical father.

By no means are Bell’s views the final word on these issues; if anything he has at least opened the door for much needed dialogue ( between East and West, as Ben has rightly pointed out) about heaven, hell, the coming day of Christ’s judgement on earth and the bodily resurrection of all humans that accompanies it.

Pamela said...

I enjoy reading "Eternity". Love will always win, despite our best efforts to muck it up.
We need to trust the One who heals us. I believe God asks me "Do you trust me enough to follow me? Do you trust me, that I have no hidden agenda working against you?" Sometimes trust feels like risk and folly but we press on. :)

JBH said...

The most articulate amongst the critics are not worried about the extent of God's graciousness, they are worried that God's own disclosure on the topic has been contravened. And this review instantiates a similar tendency. A review on a book on universalism (from a Protestant no less) that is completely devoid of God's direct address on the matter.

Caro said...

I haven't read Rob Bell's book, but have read a lot of comments (and even tirades) about it, (and can't help but wonder how many of those who criticise the book have also not read it, but just jumped on the bandwagon of people who are, in my opinion, far too quick to shout "heresy!").

This piece has piqued my interest even more, and made me think I really do need to read Bell's book, and see what I think about it myself. Thanks Ben for your thoughtful insights and comments.

William said...

'Farewell Ben Myers' (jk)

John said...

Yes God is completely Gracious and has always loved all beings unconditionally.
Even the very worst of human beings.


Why does everything always have to turn out to be Christian?And speaking of bad theology I would suggest that Eternity magazine specializes in it.

livingos said...

Great to read a properly articulate response to this book. Thank you.

Michael Earl said...

Barth would surely have it that the grace of God is 'free grace' given that God's love is offered freely, a gift. A gift cannot be forced on someone, in which case it ceases to be a gift and becomes an imposition. God's gift of free grace tests the freedom humanity itself has been given as part of that same grace. What will we do with such a gift, such a hope? Our response must arise out of that freedom, or it is not truly free. The rich man walks away from Jesus as he is free to do. Jesus' call, God's grace, and its implications were too much for him to handle, even as we're told by Mark that Jesus 'looked at him and loved him'. Where does that leave him...and us?

Mike E

Phillip Mutchell said...

Well I've just had the unusual experience of finding myself in complete agreement with someone. Thank you.

Toby said...

Surely the Psalmist would have written 'If I make my bed in *Sheol*, ...'

DM said...

Does the book go into Jesus' saying "I never knew you"?

Sharon said...

Based on your review and attitude regarding grace therein, I've converted from considering Bell some kind of wishy-washy progressive quack, to opening my mind to his ideas again. My opinion has been based mostly on people I personally know who think he's great, good people, but they tend to think anything "free" is good and let's all get in the pool and party.

At the same time, I have universalist leanings myself, and feel the cost of my formal theological education thus far is worth it for being exposed to one sentence: "What if hell were empty?" I'd thought of that but didn't have the words, couldn't put it together.

So though I won't read Bell's book and don't care for his style of religion, I can see the error of my ways in judging him by those whom affiliate with him.

There certainly is enough grace to go around, and yes, hell will be empty indeed! The end of the NT bears this out...but that's another topic. ~ Peace.

Robert Griffith said...

Thanks Ben. A very helpful review and reflection in the midst of a sea of ignorant malice and slander directed towards this book and Bell (too much of which is written by people who haven't even read the book!)

Paul Tyson said...

Thanks Ben. CS Lewis' Great Divorce toys with the possibility that perhaps it is possible that some might choose damnation, even for eternity, and in fact that is a possibility each one of us should seriously consider in relation to ourselves. That is, we are free to cling to the nothing of evil, the unreality of death, the sheer willful rebelliousness of sin for the sake of the autonomy of the un-real Cartesian self, and so unless we repent and receive grace without harboring the least ounce of hell in our heart, we can even stand against the inexorable love of God. The orthodox idea of hell as the continuous pursuit of the love of God to the soul set against that love is indeed orthodox, and the - I suppose its Protestant - notion of hell as a place where God is not is entirely theologically inconceivable and has no scriptural warrant.

Charlie said...

Can you give us the reference for that great quote from Barth?

Ben Myers said...

Hi Charlie. The Barth quote is from "The Proclamation of God's Free Grace," in God Here and Now (Routledge Classics, 2003), p. 42. This essay is (I think) Barth's simplest, clearest, and most concise response to the claim that he teaches universalism. Another nice line from the same essay: "The Lord God could be more liberal than we think or like. But we are speaking about God's liberalism and therefore about the freedom of grace" (p. 44).

Peter Denshaw said...

Many thanks for this – it has helped me understand some asides to a chap I hadn’t heard of (Rob Bell), but whose name keeps cropping up in some other blogs.

A good deal of my early exposure to theology was Evangelical theology, because that was the theology of the vicar who prepared me for Confirmation (1/3/78).

‘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.’

I don’t think this is so in my case, as the theology was pretty sound Anglican Reformed theology – limited, exclusive and legalistic – but not restrictive. 30-odd years on and with a reasonable knowledge of the basics of Anglican, Evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox theology (particularly patristic and ascetical theology) coupled with an academic social scientific interest in religion, I think there is a good case for saying theology tends to be influenced by the dominant systems and thinking of a given society rather than vice versa. An Empire seeking unity in its polity and government backs Trinitarian over Arian theology. Power shifts from feudalism to a mercantile, legalistic, literate, nascent capitalist society and we see Catholicism is usurped by Protestantism with its emphasis on a personal transaction redeeming humanity and a personal relationship with God through the study of Scripture afforded to the emerging merchant classes through increased literacy and printing.

Hence the idea that Salvation is specifically the property of practicing Christians (and if we’re brutally honest a certain species of Christian) that by a spooky coincidence just happen to also be the religious majority of a particular social and economic system, is hardly surprising. People want to believe that their beliefs are the correct ones, particularly when they have personal costs (tho’ given Bible Belt stats on divorce, teen pregnancy, violent crime etc. one has to wonder just how great is that personal cost!).

Michael Ramsey appeared to hold a ‘pro’ view on universal salvation – I think there is Scripture evidence for holding such a view (e.g. Matt 7:22 suggests it is possessing the properties of mercy, compassion and bearing one another’s burdens that is the key to salvation: outward piety – and signs and wonders – is no guarantee).

Thanks again for this – I wish more Christians would realise that there are two millennia of Christian traditions and writings to draw upon, rather than much of the fair on offer in many Christian bookshops (Christian Penny-Dreadfuls – written with more than a passing thought on turning a fast buck, rather than providing sustenance to the spiritually hungry!). Yes, as someone has noted above, it would be foolish to think other traditions are without divisions, but each provides a different take on theological issues and problems and there is great profit from looking at an issue from another angle.


Marc said...

I can't see the comments if I am using Safari. Please, try to solve it. :-)

Marc said...

I can't see the comments if I am using Safari. Other blogs that use disqus work fine for me. Please, try to see if this could be fixed. Best, Marc

Aaron Walton said...

This is an interesting post. Sadly I have only read Metropolitan Hilarion's book and not Rob Bell's. If one rejects that the Eastern Orthodox have a sound basis for their position, is it not fair to say that Rob Bell might be following the Fathers, but following them in error? As far as I can tell, the idea of Christ bringing the godly out of hell was a reaction to Marcion's teaching: Marcion taught that when Christ descended the Godly hated him because they knew they had been tested by him, as a result the ungodly went to Christ and were saved. Irenaeus responded, no the Godly went to Christ! Then the Father's built one upon the other at that point.

In Hilarion's book he mentions how some Fathers like Augustin ignored the rest of the Fathers and went back to the Text and never came to this doctrine. In the same way, I question its basis. It is extremely hard to go to the text and arrive with this conclusion. Is Rob Bell able to come to this conclusion with sound exegesis? I do not know, I haven't read his book. For the most part this review only looks at the idea and not how the idea is come to.

For the record, Christian Universalism (the idea that all come to Christ) does not bother me as Universalism does (that there are multiple ways to come to God). Karl Barth also said "One should not surrender himself in any case to the panic which this word seems to spread abroad, before informing himself exactly concerning its possible sense or non-sense." (The Humanity of God [61])
Sadly I cannot find the other quote I want... but he also makes a statement to this affect: "Isn't that what we are supposed to pray for? That God might save every man?"

Geoffrey said...

I've been reading for a while, borrowed a line or two for Facebook status updates, and generally love what you have here. I'm a theologically-educated clergy spouse (it's my wife who's ordained, not I) and she is teaching a class in church on Bell's book and one of the many "refutations" of it.

For myself, I found Bell's book aggravating because it was poorly organized. Indeed, I found it to be set-up back-to-front. Beyond that, other than overplaying the whole "gehenna" bit, there was nothing out of the ordinary inside. It's nice to read a beautiful appreciation of this simple work that opens up the possibilities inherent in the words, "I believe in Jesus Christ."

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford

Greg Colby said...

I posted this article over at Signposts02 - and by crikey it's generated some heat - over 200 comments in 3 days!


josh barkey said...

If it did, it might say something about the context of that statement - how it was made in reference to actions taken (or in that case, not taken) towards the poor, marginalized and oppressed... not, as some might suggest, some propositions you assented to during the organ-music-lowing of an altar call, when you cried a bit and really, really meant it.

Joshuasphilosophy said...

Both my schooling and my job is inundated by "strange Christianity". Articles like this refresh my soul. Thank you.

USB 3G said...

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USB 3G said...

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