Bell’s Hell: A Review by Michael Horton, Part 3
Michael S. Horton
Part 1 appears here, and Part 2 appears here.
Implied already in the “questions” are the following answers the pre-determine Bell’s assertions. At the heart are the following assumptions:
1. God’s Love Trumps Everything—Including God’s Other Attributes
2. Sin is Subjective
3. Salvation is Subjective
4. Heaven and Hell are Subjective
Chapter 2 Here is the New There
Salvation isn’t just about your soul going to heaven when you die. Whatever Dante and pious grandmothers have taught us, the mainstream theology of the church has always focused the Christian hope on “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” Nevertheless, N. T. Wright, Brian McLaren, and now Rob Bell announce this as if it were a press release for some shocking new revision of Christianity.
We don’t deny the realities of which Bell speaks: the end of oppression, injustice, poverty, violence, and the reign of righteousness and love. However, we cannot bring new creation into existence. With Christ, the age to come has been inaugurated, but it will not be consummated until Christ’s returns. In the meantime, we proclaim the gospel, baptize, and teach everything Christ delivered, and we love and serve our neighbors in our callings in the world.
In Rob Bell’s account, though, it is up to us to bring about this consummation. Jesus didn’t tell the rich young ruler that it’s all by grace, a gift. Rather, he told him to keep the commandments. “This wasn’t what Jesus was supposed to say” (27). “Jesus blurs the lines, inviting the rich man, and us, into the merging of heaven and earth, the future and present, here and now” (59). Jesus was preparing his followers for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-everything feast (33-34). This obviously changes the way we live now (a point on which I can only enthusiastically agree). Bell nicely observes that the way we talk about crowns, mansions, streets of gold, and so forth, make it sound as if the age to come fulfills our greed rather than creating delight in each other without coveting or going to war over it (46-48). However, ironically his exegesis of 1 Cor 3 (works being tested by fire) is similar to the misunderstanding of many conservatives. Where Paul is focusing on the ministry of pastors who build on the foundation with flimsy versus precious materials watching their work exposed as a sham, Bell interprets the passage as “flames in heaven,” where individuals suffer the purging of their inmost attitudes and actions. “The ones you’ve despised for years. Your racist attitude would simply not survive. Those flames in heaven would be hot” (50). As in most doctrines of purgatory, the line between heaven and hell becomes thin indeed.
“Heaven, it turns out, is full of the unexpected. In a story Jesus tells in Luke 18 about two men going up to the temple to pray, it’s the ‘sinner,’ the ‘unrighteous man,’ who goes home justified, while the faithful, observant religious man is harshly judged. Again, surprise” (52). This is what “heaven” and “hell” are all about: existential judgment versus existential blessing. Bell imagines a woman who has struggled to raise her children alone. This is what it means for Jesus to invite people to enter his kingdom. “Does God say to her, ‘You’re the kind of person I can run the world with’?” (53). Who is the ‘kind of person’ God ‘can trust run the world with’?
So getting into Christ’s kingdom is based on our works after all. Wow, given how badly I’ve run my own life, I’m pretty sure I’m—we’re—lost unless God to comes down and take care of things himself. Isn’t the creation of the new world a gift? These religious people—they’re always talking warmly and sweetly about this really easy salvation plan and then they come back with some serious fine print. Is this the fine print? And this leads to a far more disturbing question: If “salvation” is basically a project that we’re completing with God right now on earth, then is there really any hope for anyone else either? Bell says that to the rich and famous Jesus asks, “Where did they spend those millions of dollars? What did they do with those talents? How did they use their influence? Did they use any of it to help create the new world God is making?” (54). “When it comes to people, then—the who of heaven—what Jesus does again and again is warn us against rash judgments about who’s in and who’s out” (54). Some some people are “out”?
Then there is the thief on the cross: “He simply asks to be remembered by Jesus in the age to come…Jesus assures him that he’ll be with him in paradise…that day. The man hadn’t asked about today; he had asked about that day. He believes that God is doing something new through Jesus and he wants to be a part of it, whenever it is. And that’s all Jesus needs to hear to promise him ‘paradise’ later that day. Just around the corner. In a few hours” (55). Bell does affirm the intermediate state—namely, the soul’s presence with God until the resurrection (56). Nevertheless, he doesn’t show how this—and the believing thief’s presence with Jesus later that day “in paradise”—fit with his subjective definition of heaven and hell.
Part 4 appears here.