Thursday, March 31, 2011
Bell and Hell
I hesitate to add to the hype and hoopla surrounding Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins. But having read the book, I have been taken aback by the viciousness of the attacks on Bell. In fact, I find the outrage and fury surrounding the book more interesting than the books itself. Having read it I have to wonder where some of Bell’s critics have been. The first half of the book is firmly grounded in the work of our generation’s premier New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright. Bell acknowledges this in his “Further Reading” section at the end of the book. His exploration of hell draws from C. S. Lewis’ classic, The Great Divorce. While some have carped that neither Wright nor Lewis are true evangelicals, it cannot be denied that both are heroes to many who would count themselves as evangelicals. While Wright's work is relatively recent, Lewis' book was published in 1946. Lewis did not deny the existence of hell, far from it. He rather suggested that leaving the “grey town” for heaven may not be as easy as some of its denizens may think. When they arrive in heaven on their day trip from hell they are perfectly free to stay. But the vast majority returns to hell because they cannot have heaven on their own terms. Lewis makes it clear he is not trying to describe the geography of hell, but rather creating a fable. The fable addresses the profound and enduring love of God and our human capacity for self-deception and stubborn self destructiveness. Lewis would like to believe in universalism, but knows too much about human nature and values too highly human freedom to hold any hope for universal salvation. Roman Catholic scholar Hans Urs Von Balthasar wrote a little book entitled Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved. He held out the theoretical possibility of universal salvation given the freedom and love of God, but did not go so far as to say it would actually happen. Bell is not always easy to understand. Sometimes his poetic fancy gets away from him. But in the end it seemed to me he was saying something very like Lewis and Von Balthasar. You can choose hell if you want to. You can remain turned in on yourself and isolated from God and love. But the gates of hell are locked form the inside and the gates of heaven are never shut. As Lewis’ guide George MacDonald tells him in The Great Divorce, in the end you either say to God “Your will be done.” Or God says to you, “Your will be done.” In Lewis’ and Bell’s imaginations neither hell nor heaven are what many evangelicals expect. But then everything said about heaven, hell, and, for that matter God, is said via metaphor and analogy. Both Lewis and Bell are trying to integrate their understanding of God’s enduring love and God’s desire that all be saved, with the reality of human freedom and resistance. Love Wins is a provocative, engaging and quick read. But before you read Bell go to the sources. Take a look at Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright and The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. The response to Bell once again underscores the serious divisions in what is called evangelicalism. The neo-Calvinist crowd around Piper, et. al. has decided that they and only they are the arbiters of evangelical identity. Rob Bell has given them a convenient target for their wrath and a valuable dividing line. I’m with Lewis. I am not interested in being either “neo-Calvinist” or “emerging” but merely Christian. These ongoing recriminations are humiliating and hopeless. God help us.