Rob Bell is an American pastor and founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids Michigan. His church has a five figure attendance and he uses innovative and controversial methods to attract people both to his church and to other media resources he offers including books, podcasts, and speaking tours. The following article refers to his book, LOVE WINS.
Rob Bell challenges established Christianity. He challenges the messages of eternal, conscious tormant as the penalty of sin, the eternal fire and brimstone wrath of hell, and the images of a far removed creator and his son ruling people with that rod of iron. At the same time, he pushes the concept of the loving father God who says his mission is to save all.
Rob Bell flat out attacks the traditional Christian concept of hell. While never exactly saying that there is no hell, he progressively questions our idea of hell with one argument after another.
Bell starts his book with the story of a woman who included a quote from Mahatma Gandhi in an art display that she displayed while Bell gave a series of teachings on peacemaking. Evidently, someone attached a note to the quote that said that Mahatma Gandhi was in hell. Bell’s attack is vigorous: “really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this?…”[i]
Bob continues with one argument after another along the same line and he presents his arguments powerfully. In his process, Bell challenges the traditional Christian concepts such as having a personal relationship with Jesus as phrasing not found the Bible. He challenges how having to say a sinner’s prayer, or perform some sort of “acceptance” contradicts the idea that faith is not by works, but purely by grace.
Bell focuses in on what he describes as an inadequately defined concept of hell because it is so loosely structured from the ideas of the grave, and the fiery city dump. Bell says about the Old Testament,
“But, simply put, the Hebrew commentary on what happens after a person dies isn’t very articulated or defined. Sheol, death, and the grave in the consciousness of the Hebrew writers are all a bit vague and ‘under worldly.'”[ii] He shows a similar lack of simple, straightforward, clearly defined logic in the New Testament
On the other hand, Bell applauds the cause of justice and even cites the need for punitive language as an influence to bring people back to justice. But he questions the finality of an eternal burning fiery pit called hell. As a case in point he talks about the language concerning Sodom and Gomorrah, often seen as a veritable cesspool of evil whose burning destruction sets the visual imagery for what will happen to those who don’t follow Christ. He cites the prophet Ezekiel who in chapter 16 says that God will restore the fortunes of Sodom and return it to what it was before. The implication is how that can be if Sodom and Gomorrah are the model for a eternal pit of fiery torment. He talks about how Jesus in Matthew 10 said it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than for the religious of his day. If Sodom and Gomorrah are the visual image of hell and hell is the worst thing that can happen, his point is how can Sodom and Gomorrah then be better than something else? Isn’t hell the absolute worst?[iii]
Rob Bell’s style is not clear cut logical reasoning. It actually reminded me of some of the things that I’ve read about Aristotle who would corner people with endless questions as he steered them toward specific points. Bell questions, questions, questions, and then attacks with one nontraditional line of reasoning after another at the traditional Christian concept that those that accept Christ in this life go to heaven, and all others burn in hell forever. Bell’s arguments sort of dance all over the place, coming at the reader from changing angles.
Bill documents actual churches where they include in their statement of belief that the “unsaved” will consciously suffer torment in hell forever. Then he refers other sections in those same statements of belief where God is described as this incredibly loving entity that is beyond belief. And he focuses on that paradox. He also makes the case for separation from God as being a torment the people experience here on earth now.
Rob Bell’s point is that despite the statements of belief of many a church, and what appear to be some simple, straightforward verses regarding hell the case is not that simple. Bell hammers home the concept that Jesus came that “all” are to be saved, and how the intricacies of the numerous verses about judgment, eternal life, and the world to come do not allow for the easy conclusion that just because someone does not appear to accept Christ in this life that means that they will burn in hell forever. Still, he falls short of coming out and openly embracing the concept of universal salvation. Rather he goes back to building the concept of a loving God, and challenging that that all-loving God is going to set up a place where people are going consciously suffer torment eternally.
Rob Bell writes, “we shape our God, and then our God shapes us. A distorted understanding of God, clung to with white knuckles and fierce determination, can leave a person outside the party, mad about a goat that was never got, without the thriving life Jesus insists is right here, all around us, all the time.
Jesus was very clear that this destructive, violent understanding of God can be easily institutionalized – in churches, systems, and ideas. It’s important that we are honest about this, because some churches are not life – giving places, draining people until there’s a very little life left. That God is angry, demanding, a slave driver, and so that God’s religion becomes a system of sin management, constantly working in angling to avoid what surely must be coming wrath that lurks behind every corner, thought and sin.
Jesus frees us from that, because he is kind of love simply does away with fear, … ‘You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’”[iv]
Rob Bell’s final message is that “Love wins.” The implication is that God’s incredible love is going to find a way for all.
Through personal stories of his own experiences and others, through biblical references, and through philosophical argumentation, Rob Bell strives to take the focus off of hell as some eternal place of conscious torment, and put it back on what draws people to Christ in the first place,the incredible and amazing love of God . In the process he completely challenges much of the traditional theology taught in churches today.