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Bell’s Hell: A Review by Michael Horton, Part 9

March 30, 2011

Michael S. Horton

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.

Chapter 8: The End is Here

The title of this chapter reinforces the impression that Bell has simply collapsed the future into the present.

I share Bell’s sense of confusion with many of the mixed messages of my evangelical childhood. On one hand, we sang, “This is My Father’s World.” On the other hand, we sang, “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through.” One of the things that struck me about Reformed theology is that its view of redemption was as encompassing as sin. As the Calvinist hymn-writer Isaac Watts put it, “Joy to the world…as far as the curse is found.” I agree wholeheartedly when Bell writes, “A gospel that leaves out its cosmic scope will always feel small” (135). Paul joyfully includes not only our souls but our bodies—and not only our bodies, but the whole expanse of the creaturely world, in the train of Christ’s victory (Rom 8:20-23). “For in this hope we were saved” (v 24). Yet Paul adds, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (v 25). 

I also share Bell’s verdict that some churches are toxic places. “That God is angry, demanding, a slave driver, and so that God’s religion becomes a system of sin management, constantly working and angling to avoid what surely must be the coming wrath that lurks behind every corner, thought, and sin” (183). The gospel message I recall from my childhood was a mixed message. On one hand, salvation was by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. On the other hand, everything depended ultimately on me: my decision, my prayer, my “walking with the Lord,” my commitment, and—at least if I wanted jewels in my crown—on extraordinary piety beyond the entrance requirements. 

However, Rob Bell is far more confusing (and “toxic” is probably not too strong) on just these points. First, the age to come is so identified with this present age that I’m not sure how he thinks the two collide here and now, apart from our own determination to make heaven on earth through social renewal. What exactly makes Jesus Christ the unique Savior of the world? And what is qualitatively new when he returns? For what are we sill longing, that only his presence in the flesh can satisfy—not only for us but for the restoration of the created order? Second, no less than those he criticizes, Bell alternates between salvation by grace and works. Do we enter the new creation, justified and forgiven, because of our “Christlike life” or by Christ’s life, death and resurrection alone through faith alone? “Forgiveness is unilateral,” he says. “Not because of anything we’ve done” (189). Apparently, faith is not a gift of God, but an act of our own free will. Yet not even this faith in Christ is necessary. Just be open to God’s love. And even if you’re not, it’s fine. Given enough time, you’ll come around—even if it takes suffering “the flames of heaven.” Is this a kinder, gentler sort of purgatory? 

It’s time for us to stop the speculation. Dante and the old revivalists were wrong to speculate about the details of heaven and hell that God has not been pleased to reveal to us. But Rob Bell is no less speculative. Where Scripture has clearly spoken, Bell has not wrestled sufficiently. Yet where Scripture is silent, he unleashes his imagination. 

Bell still claims to be working within the ambit of “the historic, orthodox Christian faith” (x). The questions—or rather, objections—he has raised are simply part of an “ongoing discussion” in the church, with “all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity” (xi). He interprets Jesus as inviting this kind of questioning: “‘What do you think? How do you read it?’ he asks, again and again. The ancient sages said the words of the sacred text were black letters on a white page—there’s all that white space, waiting to be filled with our responses and discussions and opinions and longings and desires and wisdom and insights” (x). However, Jesus did not believe that God’s Word is a three-ring binder in which we can add our own ruminations. At some point, believers have to wrestle with the passages. And this is something I did not see in Love Wins.