Rethinking Rob Bell’s Rethinking of Hell & Rethinking It Again

Ben Witherington is picking apart Rob Bell’s Love Wins chapter by chapter here.  Here’s a taste of his critique of chapter 7:

Let me be clear that I think in one sense Rob is right—- God is not quixotic.  He is not gracious and loving one moment,  and cruel the moment after you die.  I think that is true— indeed I believe wholeheartedly in what Hebrews says— that Jesus himself is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  The character of God does not change.   The problem here with Rob’s equation is that the character of God is that he is always both holy and loving, always both just and gracious, always both fair and merciful.  The problem is— Rob is forcing us to choose between the moral attributes of God, and suggesting that one of them,  God’s love, erases or trumps the other ones.   And this frankly is not the Biblical view of God.

The great mystery of God, which makes God’s grace and love all the more astounding, is that God doesn’t take a pass on his holiness or justice for a while in order to be loving and kind.   And nowhere is that clearer than on the cross— God loves the sinner but hates the sin that separates us from God, and rightly so.  And the reason he is so hard on sin is precisely because he has such a deep desire to have an everlasting loving relationship with us, and is inalterably opposed to anything that gets in the way of that.

Take for an analogy the doctor dedicated to saving lives at all costs.   That doctor has a passionate dislike for cancer, indeed he is doing everything he possibly can to eradicate it.   But there is a problem.   Believe it or not, some people would rather keep their cancer and die an early death,  than have to go through the painful arduous changes required of them in order to become a new person who is cancer free.   You may be thinking, I’ve never met a person like that.   Well, let me tell you, I have as a pastor, and it is heart-breaking.  The point of this analogy is some people, no matter what prefer, the cancer of their sin,  to a relationship with their God.  They really do.   And so God allows them the consequences of their choices.  This is not because God is wooing them in this life, but mean and cruel thereafter.   It is not God who is mean and cruel—- it is this very person who is destroying himself.

And precisely because God is all about ‘freely given and freely received’ which is the very nature of love,  God let’s them go.   With great sorrow, he allows them to have the consequences of their choices— and the devastating part is those consequences are permanent.   This life matters ultimately— it really does have everlasting consequences for all of us.    This is what the vast majority of Christendom has always believed about the Grand Story, and rightly so.   It is a morality play as much as it is a love story, frankly, because we have a deeply ethical God who structured reality in a moral manner.   Indeed, I would say that  real love, love that is holy, and redemptive, and sanctifying and life changing in a positive way, could not exist if God were not both holy and loving, and had not set up reality in that fashion.

On the other hand,  Rob is perfectly right that the Good News is better than just being a ticket to heaven, or a get out of jail free card.  Yes it is,  it is much more than that, indeed it is about a loving and joyful relationship with God forever,  but at the same time the Good News is not less than that.  It does include that. Does Jesus then rescue us from the scary judgmental Father?  No, in fact.  He rescues us from ourselves.   Because we are our own worst enemies.  God is just being God who is holy love always, all day, all the time.   We on the other hand are quixotic, changeable, unreliable,  and self-destructive.  That’s the truth about us.  Without a radical rescue, all would perish, and none would be saved— and it would be all our own fault.

Of course it is true that many people project their loathsome and toxic image of themselves on God, but frankly, that is just projection and then perception.   It is not reality.  Here is where I say we do not get to re-create God in our own image.  That actually is idolatry.   A no fault religion actually is not Christianity.     A no condemnation for those who are in Christ religion (Rom. 8), is another matter.   It’s no good blaming the man with the mop on aisle three who is doing the clean-up for the mess that was made there by someone else, in this case, us.  We need to look ourselves in the mirror and accept that we have created our own hell, and Hell is the logical and proper consequences for doing so, unless of course we accept that radical rescue plan from the Stranger who comes in the night like a thief.

But Scot McKnight wonders if such critiques are still skirting around the real issue: “You can’t condemn Rob’s view until you face the problem and tell the world your quantification theory.”  Find out what he means by quantification theory here.  Those of you trying to pin down my position on this debate — good luck.



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