I grew up in a theologically liberal mainline Protestant church. Week after week I dutifully attended Sunday school and occasionally went to worship services. When I was twelve years old, I went through the obligatory confirmation class with the other kids my age. As an adolescent and teen I still attended regularly though many of my cohorts drifted away. Most of the ones who remained active were comfortably agnostic.
I remember a lot of questions in church being asked and debated about social issues and national politics, but little being said about God, Jesus, salvation, and especially heaven and hell. The Bible was rarely utilized or regarded with any real authority, since higher criticism had rendered it unreliable. So, by the time I was in high school, I was thoroughly perplexed about what was true and my eternal destiny. Was I good enough to make it to heaven, or was I doomed to hell (or was there even such a thing)? I did not know, and if the subject ever was brought up by me or anyone else, it was rebuffed with a vague sort of condescension. “We don’t talk about hell and damnation here”, one youth minister sternly told me. To sum up my experience in that congregation, I guess I would have to say I was just plain confused.
Those old feelings were rekindled in my memory while reading Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In eight short chapters Bell gives his views on the issue of the fate of the dead, using much the same ambiguous approach that I remember reading in my earlier Sunday school texts and in sermons I heard as a child and youth.
For instance, Bell maintains that God loves everyone so much that He will never give up trying to reach them even after death and that ultimately He will be successful. This is classical universalism. He seems to consider those who believe in an eternal hell as somehow unloving by presenting a caricature of how some people picture hell. You know, the one with an angry God torturing sinners forever in flames if fire. Bell believes these images are stumbling blocks to many intelligent people’s faith in God and may cause them to reject Christianity.
Further, Bell reiterates the age old debate about the fate of the heathen who have never heard about Jesus or the gospel. His answer seems to be that God’s saving grace extends to those who, for whatever reason, do not know about Christ. He maintains that they may comprehend Him in other ways and by other names. That is, of course, typical inclusivist and universalist reasoning, like what I was taught as a child.
While I don’t pretend to have the absolute solution to that problem, I can’t dismiss Paul’s appraisal of paganism in Romans 1: 18-32: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” People were judged by the light of the knowledge of God they had, but Paul states that they all universally rejected that light and fell into darkness.
Bell also resurrects old arguments for reinterpreting the Hebrew and Greek words for hell (sheol, Gehenna, et.al.). These same arguments have been used for centuries by universalists and annihilationists (egs.: Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists) to discredit the traditional concept of eternal damnation.
I won’t try to address all the above assertions here, they have been refuted very well by scholars far more knowledgeable than me (see for examples: The Life Beyond by Ray Summers , Sense and Nonsense About Heaven and Hell by Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman , or The Kingdom of the Cults (Appendix- The Puzzle of Seventh-day Adventism] by Walter Martin [2003 edition, edited by Ravi Zacharias]).
One other issue I need to raise is Bell’s apparent view of the atonement of Christ. He seemingly, as I read it, defines Jesus’ death on the cross as merely symbolic. That is, he downplays, if not totally rejecting, the sacrificial nature of the atonement. That is, Jesus did not die to make a necessary propitiation for mankind’s sins, rather His death was only symbolic of God’s overarching love for all people. If I read him right, that is a serious deviation from historic evangelical doctrine.
Sad to say, most of my friends in the church of my childhood long ago abandoned any attachment to Christianity. Most probably remain agnostic, some are atheists, and some drifted into eastern religions and cults. Happily, by God’s grace, in high school and college a few of us found our way out of the labyrinth of liberal theology and to the truth of the Bible and confidence of salvation through Jesus Christ. I believe that if I had read Bell’s book then, it would have only compounded my confusion and never help me discover the solution to my dilemma.
And that is my main concern with this book: that nonChristian seekers and young Christians, contrary to what Bell thinks, will read this book and never understand clearly the consequences of sin and the need for trusting in Jesus alone for their salvation. That was the case with most of my friends growing up in church. They were not attracted to Christ by maudlin liberal theology, they were repelled, some into the arms of agnosticism and cultism. Love does indeed win, but it must be the kind of love that is based plainly on truth. As John stated “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” (1 John 3:18)
© 2011 Tal Davis