Critics Heated Up By Bell's Hell
By Cathy Lynn Grossman
(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.
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."
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."
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 punishment in 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."
"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."
Cathy Lynn Grossman writes for USA Today.