Skip to main content

Bell’s Hell: A Review by Michael Horton, Part 8

March 29, 2011

Michael S. Horton

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.

Chapter 7: The Good News is Better Than That

According to Bell, heaven and hell are not actual places but subjective states in which people live. To be sure, living “heavenly” or “hellishly” will affect the people around us and the wider society. In the parable of the prodigal son, we are at a party and it’s up to us whether we’ll join in or sit off to the side in protest. “In this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other” (170).

Any other interpretation would violate the central dogmas that Bell has already made evident. “A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony. If there were an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities” (173-4). “That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can’t bear it. No one can” (174). “We’re at the party, but we don’t have to join in. Heaven or hell. Both at the party” (176).

So we can ultimately choose our own personal “hell” and, evidently, inflict pain on others by not joining the party. So, I ask Rob Bell, does God really get what he wants? Does love really win? Even when heaven—the age to come—is still a place where people can still sit the party out, presumably along with the hellish effects that Bell has already acknowledged such resistance to entail? 

The gospel is better than “me and my personal relationship with God.” It is truly cosmos-encompassing, not only with people from every nation and tongue gathered around the Lamb, but with a new heavens and earth. And this does change our existence here and now, as we are transferred from the kingdom of death to the kingdom of life in God’s Son. However, in Love Wins, the rich and surprising story of God’s indefatigable love is thinned out to something that is more palatable to a culture that cannot face the reality of a God who is still just and holy, and therefore “a consuming fire,” apart from the mediation of his Son, whom he has freely given—and still freely gives—to all who will receive him.

Part 9 (the final installment) appears here.