Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pastor Rob Bell And The Heaven And Hell And Choice Thing: Not The Usual Thinking At All

Rob Bell's ideas of heaven and hell are not quite like this.

While conservative Catholics are stirred up by the Fr. Corapi story, conservative Evangelicals are all stirred up by the latest book from mega pastor Rob Bell.  One is living through his own personal hell while the other would say he chose it for himself.

Critics heated Up By Bell's Hell

By Cathy Lynn Grossman  USA Today  3/16/2011
RNS) Talk about hellfire! One of the nation's rock-star-popular young pastors, Rob Bell, 40, has stuck a pitchfork in how Christians talk about damnation.

Pastor Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, arrived in stores Tuesday (March 15).

Critics pounced before the book was even published, provoking weeks of fierce infighting among pastors, theologians and anyone else who scans the Christian blogosphere.

In Love Wins, Bell claims:
  • Heaven and hell are choices we make and live with right now. "God gives us what we want," including the freedom to live apart from God (hell) or turn God's way (heaven).
  • Death doesn't cut off the ability to repent. In his Bible, Bell sees no "infinite, eternal torment for things (people) did in their few finite years of life."
  • Jesus makes salvation possible even for people who never know his name. "We have to allow for mystery," for people who "drink from the rock" of faith "without knowing who or what it was."
  • Churches that don't allow for this are "misguided and toxic. 

Small wonder that traditionalists call him a false teacher of a Jesus-optional gospel, leading innocents to damnation and a traitor to the evangelical label. (Those were probably just the nice things.)

In an interview with USA TODAY, Bell jokes: "I am not aware that labels are the highest form of goodness and truth." He rebuffs critics who say he presents a Jesus-optional Christianity: "Jesus spoke of the renewal of all things. He said, 'I have sheep who are not of this flock.' Through him, extraordinary things are happening in the world." (Jesus also said 'there are many rooms in my Father's house.)

Bell's view is "that God is love, that he sent Jesus to show us that love, that love demands freedom. So making definitive judgments about other people's destiny is not interesting to me. The heart of God is to rescue everyone from everything we need to be rescued from."

It's a mercy that Bell doesn't read his press or social networks.

Justin Taylor of the Gospel Coalition, a network of traditionalist scholars and pastors, says Bell's views are "dangerous and contrary to the word of God. ... If Bell doesn't believe in eternal punishment, then he doesn't think sin is an offense against a holy God." (Seems to me a certain Pope would agree.)

It was Taylor's critique last month, based on reading a few chapters, that triggered explosive arguments radiating from Christian sites to CNN. Now that he has read all 200 pages, Taylor is even more convinced of Bell's errors.

"Whether you like it or not, the Bible presents true teaching and warns against false teachers, even those who look like great people," says Taylor, digging at Bell's highly stylized videos circulating online and among churches coast to coast.

But Richard Mouw, president of the world's largest Protestant seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary based in Pasadena, Calif., calls Love Wins "a great book," well within the bounds of orthodox Christianity and passionate about Jesus.

The real hellacious fight, says Mouw, a friend of Bell, a Fuller graduate, is between "generous orthodoxy and stingy orthodoxy. There are stingy people who just want to consign many others to hell and only a few to heaven and take delight in the idea. But Rob Bell allows for a
lot of mystery in how Jesus reaches people."

Below are excerpts from Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived:
"A staggering number of people have been taught that a few select Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and

 hell with no chance for anything better. It's been clearly communicated to many that this belief is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear." (Especially now when mankind is doing a damn good job of making the planet our very own living hell.)

At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church has been the insistence that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins."

"When people say they're tired of hearing about "sin" and "judgment" and "condemnation," it's often because those have been confused for them with the nature of God. God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone."

"For some, the highest form of allegiance to their God is to attack, defame, and slander others who don't articulate matters of faith as they do."

"None of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will." (But a certain mindset thinks they have.)


For all the notoriety Bell has gotten for his tome, one thing I personally found compelling is his emphasis on the power of human choice to set our course and determine our world.  He underscores this by pointing out that the word 'heresy' means to choose.  Bell believes God's love is there for us to choose to find.  It is always available without our having to earn it.  We only have to choose it.    Too often the more traditional theology sees choice as a curse and a negative sort of event.  All that original sin thinking is not particularly inspiring or hopeful and doesn't lend itself to relating to God in those inspiring hopeful kinds of ways.  It too often turns the God of Love into the irrational parent of punishment, propelling some believers into acting like God chooses favorites and they are it.

Bell uses another thought which I also found compelling, and that's the notion of Jesus as a rock which gives water.  This references the command of God to Moses.  When the Israelites were dieing of thirst in the desert Moses is told to bang on a rock with his staff.  Lo and behold out pours water from the least likely of sources.  Seek and ye shall find will be true even if it seems a totally unlikely possibility. God becomes free to be as Jesus says He is, not as some of us might think He should be. 

I suspect though, it's Bell's notions about redemption after death that is not sitting well with Evangelicals, and especially Evangelical pastors.  That's not a notion that exactly supports the idea that pastors are really all that necessary.  Should this kind of thinking take hold, Evangelical pastors might have to go along with the notion of Purgatory so they too can claim some influence on what happens after death.  Next thing you know Pat Robertson will be selling indulgences through the 700 Club and Calvin will be spinning in his grave.  

In any event this is pretty far out theology for an Evangelical leader.  It will be interesting to see if this kind of theology starts to make some headway.  I'm sure the Tea Party and the Republican Party will do all they can to see it doesn't.  For them hell sells and sells well.


  1. These people are so interested in having God be who they want a god to be, they have no time to listen to each other about how and who God has spoken him/herself to be.

  2. Coolmom, you are right. People tend to make God in their own image.

  3. One of my very favorite Robert Heinlein quotes:

    Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.

    I'm not sure exactly what Heinlein meant by this, but my interpretation is: What a person has to say about the nature of god actually says more about that person than it does about God. Every time I hear fire and brimstone coming from a pulpit, I consider this. I may not be all love all the time. But I'm pretty sure God is. While I have little sympathy for the likes of Hitler [for example], I'm not ready to cast any human into hell and call it 'God's Will' either.

  4. Which Afterlife?

    In his new book "Love Wins" Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from "the greatest achievement in life," my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote "In God we all meet."

  5. Heh, I like how you mention evangelists returning to the idea of purgatory as a way to retain their hold on people's souls. The idea is silly, of course, but what is really crazy for me is that Rob Bell's book is convincing me that purgatory might actually exist. Lately I've been having a lot of trouble with the Catholic part of my faith, and I've been questioning a lot of my own beliefs, trying to figure out if they line up with a picture of a loving, merciful God and comparing them against my understanding of the Bible as well.

    Purgatory is one of those things I've been a bit iffy about, but now here comes Rob Bell with his idea of hell as a temporary punishment, meant to correct and purify us, and bringing along scriptural references for the ride, and goshdarnit, I think I could buy what he says. It kinda makes sense to me.

    And the idea of a God who punishes only to correct and bring about repentance is good news in comparison with what I've believed so far. Bell claims in an interview that, in his experience, people who hear this message are compelled to share it with others, because it is GOOD NEWS. (His claim was in response to people's worry that this idea of second chances in the next life could make people apathetic about giving themselves to him in this life.)

    I think it's a thoroughly inspiring book, and while I don't agree with everything he says, it's certainly started to make me trust God more.

  6. Paul, your last sentence about learning to trust God more hits on what I've been thinking quite a lot about lately. Trust is the key to any healthy relationship. The foundation of trust is consistency with open compassion. It's really difficult to formulate trust in a God who seems capricious, punishing, and vindictive. Hell seems to be the real estate for agents of this kind of God. Even as a little girl I had real problems trying to reconcile the God of love with a God who would send 'pagans' to hell who happened to be born in a culture which did not know the Gospel, and apparently this God had been doing this for two thousand years. It seemed totally unfair. It also seemed I was expected to live my life in such a way that I compensated for God's deficiencies.

    As I got older it became apparent that God was not deficient, our definitions of God were deficient and that we humans knew very very little about Reality. It was at this point I really started listening for what Jesus was saying about God and Reality. It wasn't what I had been led to believe.

  7. I can understand the non-Christians liking this book because it does tickle the ears and remove some of the uncertainty out of things eternal. But for those of you who say you are Christian and have a relationship with God which should include fellowshipping with Him in His Word and prayer, and have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit should have a little more discernment and be able to see this does not line up with the God breathed scriptures of His Holy Word.