Bell’s Hell: A Review by Michael Horton, Part 6
Michael S. Horton
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
Chapter 5: Dying to Live
For me, the greatest danger of Bell’s interpretation in this book is his view of Christ’s cross. Obviously, if there is no wrath or judgment, then whatever Christ achieved for us on the cross cannot be understood in terms of a vicarious substitute. There is no objective propitiation and, since everyone is already God’s friend (regardless of whether God is theirs), no objective reconciliation.
So it’s not surprising that Bell explicitly downplays this aspect of Christ’s work:
"There’s nothing wrong with talking and singing about how the ‘Blood will never lose its power’ and “nothing but the blood will save us.’ Those are powerful metaphors. But we don’t live any longer in a culture in which people offer animal sacrifices to the god. People did live that way for thousands of years, and there are pockets of primitive cultures around the world that do continue to understand sin, guilt, and atonement in those ways. But most of us don’t. What the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand…They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners could grasp" (128-9).
This is exegetically untenable, historically inaccurate, and spiritually destructive. First, the reference point for Christ’s substitutionary atonement is the sacrificial system instituted by God, not pagan sacrifices. Second, the Christians who wrote the hymns to which he refers were no closer to the world of pagan sacrifice than are we. Third, Christ’s work on the cross was not an object lesson. What kind of a father would offer up his own son in the place of his enemies simply as a way of teaching something about something else? Scripture clearly teaches that the Father gave his Son in our place, that Jesus bore our sins in his body on the cross. This is not a metaphor or a way of putting things in terms that first-century pagan-sacrificers would have understood; it is God’s saving gift in history. To be sure, in doing this, God accomplished more. Because this vicarious sacrifice absorbed the legal debt that we owed, Satan, death and hell no longer have a claim on us. The powers of darkness are defeated and Christ is the victor. Yet none of this is possible unless Christ’s death is first of all a satisfaction of God’s justice.
Bell is no more helpful when it comes to the resurrection of Christ. Although he affirms the resurrection, he turns it into a species of natural religion. Ironically, he death not as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor 15:26), but, ironically, in a more Greek (Platonic) way, as the natural portal to life. Rather than a surprising announcement that God has broken the vicious cycle of death, death-and-resurrection become an eternal truth that the cross and resurrection represent: “For nature to spring to life, it first has to die. Death, then resurrection. This is true for ecosystems, food chains, the seasons—it’s true all across the environment. Death gives way to life” (130). “Death is the engine of life in the relational realm as well…So when the writers of the Bible talk about Jesus’s resurrection bringing new life to the world, they aren’t talking about a new concept. They’re talking about something that has always been true. It’s how the world works. Although the cross is often understood as a religious icon, it’s a symbol of an elemental reality, one we all experience every time we take a bite of food. Once again, death and rebirth are as old as the world” (131). This is pure Romanticism, natural theology at its worst.
Part 7 appears here.