I was first introduced to the book I am here reviewing by a cover story in the April 14, 2011 issue of TIME magazine, entitled “What if There’s No Hell?” Now, from my atheistic point of view, this is a stupid question to ask. It is akin to TIME featuring a cover story on the question “What if There’s No Santa Clause?” But the story still caught my interest; I do not much care for being threatened with torture for the “crime” of thinking for myself, and so the notion of hell is an issue to which I afford some weight. I am also interested in the way the question is framed. The question is not “Is There a Hell?” but is instead asking whether or not the concept of hell is dead. This is an important direction for the mainstream media to move in. A connection can be made to the April 8, 1966 issue of TIME which featured the historic cover story “Is God Dead?” I am happy to see the magazine continue that kind of questioning 45 years later.
Evangelical pastor Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (NY: HarperOne, 2011) contains ideas over which the larger evangelical community in this country is up in arms, namely the argument that hell is a temporary place of punishment, not an eternal one. It is the kind of message that appeals only to those interested in “sophisticated” and progressive Christian theology. But the book is hardly oriented toward intellectuals (it is chock-full of more psycho-babble than I am used to seeing from Christian writers), which means that its popular-level approach is all the more aggravating to orthodox Christians who desperately want a hell that is eternal for nonbelievers.
The title of the TIME article on Rob Bell is actually rather misleading. In his book, Bell quite explicitly states that he does believe in a literal hell: “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course.” (p. 71). But Bell’s puppies-and-flowers interpretations of salvation and redemption have nevertheless ruffled the feathers of the evangelical community for a simple reason: The basic and traditional notion to which they tenaciously cling is that avoiding eternal, conscious torture is contingent upon being a sincere Christian. When a popular author comes along and assures his readers that even those who are not Christians when they die will not be tortured forever, this has the potential to knock the legs out from under the whole scam. The fundamentalist and orthodox Christian community hates Rob Bell for a simple reason: If all people will end up going to heaven regardless of what they believe in this life, why should anyone bother being a Christian? According to them, the book Love Wins represents Rob Bell’s attempt to freely give away Christianity’s tantalizing carrot while discarding the stick entirely. But according to Bell, this is not in fact what he is doing.
So what is Bell doing in Love Wins? Has he done away with the threat element of Christianity? Do his views lean toward a more positive and less judgmental direction, and might his views on the matter be on the rise among Christians in the 21st century? If so, I may finally be in a position to take no offense about what Christians have to say about hell. These are questions I wanted to have answered, and that is why I read Bell’s book.
I have to conclude that I am not impressed by Bell’s take on the issue whatsoever.
As briefly intimated above, the central argument in Love Wins is that all people who have ever lived will ultimately receive salvation, including those who have rejected the claims of Christianity in this mortal life. Bell argues that all people will eventually be persuaded by God’s love postmortem, in the life to come. Following are a selection of relevant passages from the book speaking to this point:
The writers of the scriptures consistently affirm that we’re all part of the same family. What we have in common – regardless of our tribe, language, customs, beliefs, or religion – outweighs our differences. This is why God wants “all people to be saved.” History is about the kind of love a parent has for a child, the kind of love that pursues, searches, creates, connects, and bonds. The kind of love that moves toward, embraces, and always works to be reconciled with, regardless of the cost.
The writers of the Bible have a lot to say about this love: In Psalm 65 it’s written that “all people will come” to God. In Ezekiel 36 God says, “The nations will know that I am the LORD.”
The prophet Isaiah says, “All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (chap. 52).
Zephaniah quotes God as saying, “Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder” (chap. 3).
And Paul writes in Philippians 2, “Every knee should bow . . . and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is LORD, to the glory of God the Father.”
Every person, every knee, every tongue (pp. 99-100).
Once again, God has a purpose. A desire. A goal. And God never stops pursuing it. Jesus tells a series of parables in Luke 15 about a woman who loses a coin, a shepherd who loses a sheep, and a father who loses a son. The stories aren’t ultimately about things and people being lost; the stories are about things and people being found. The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever. (p. 101).
At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins and all will be reconciled to God. (p. 109).
The nature of Rob Bell’s claim calls to one’s mind the theological belief that move rabbis to circumcise infants who have died before the age of eight days in order to ensure their proper standing with God, or Mormons who try to pray dead people into heaven, or completely made-up stories of deathbed conversions on the part of an atheist, rationalist or scientist. Bell is doing the very same thing in this book. In a sense, it’s even worse than all that, for he has conceived of something that is even lamer than a deathbed conversion. Now it’s a postmortem conversion. One can remain an atheist on her deathbed and beyond, and Bell does not care. All atheists according to him will eventually come around to his side sometime in the afterlife, unable to resist God’s wonderful love. How very convenient; Bell is appropriating the rotting corpses of all nonbelievers, now and in the future, for Jesus. While it is true that he is not name-dropping specific individuals who will convert postmortem, the fact remains that he is making a blanket statement about all people. And as a specific individual myself, I am affected by that blanket statement, as is everybody reading this review. Sorry, Rob Bell, you are not free to assert what I am going to believe or accept after I am dead. You have no basis upon which to speak with certainty about “the fate of every person who ever lived.”
Again, I despise the whole concept of hell, because I do not much care for threats, whether directed at me as an atheist and anti-theist, or anyone else. But I am just as opposed to Bell’s concepts, because I do not much care for being lied about. As far as I am concerned, Bell’s Invisible Friend can keep the doors of hell unlocked for me as long as he wishes. Unless everything that has been and is said about the Christian God is a lie, and the message at the heart of the faith is completely different from any message heretofore related, I am not joining up now or in the afterlife, assuming there even is an afterlife.
But this leads me to point out another major problem with Bell’s notions. If I die and somehow find myself still conscious and aware in a place where I am experiencing agonizing torture, I may find myself succumbing to alternatives, taking that second chance sooner or later merely as a matter of avoiding the torture. Thus, the act of walking out the unlocked doors of hell and into the place of God would, for me and countless others, still be the result of coercion under extreme duress, not a result of any willful violation of personal integrity. Bell’s vision is one in which everybody gets their souls raped. Love does not win, even in Bell’s scenario.
In Love Wins, Bell displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between belief and worship. I strongly suspect that any first-year seminary student would be able to destroy his arguments in a heartbeat. Bell cites verses like Philippians 2:10 in support of his claim that all people who have ever lived will be saved (“That at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth”), but he curiously seems to have underplayed verses such as Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not every one that saith unto me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doeth the will of my father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?’ And then I will profess unto them, ‘I never knew you: Depart from me, ye that work iniquity.’”
The “every knee should bow” verse and others similar to it speaks about all people attesting to the truth of Christianity’s claims. This is different from whether or not all people are going to worship the Christian God. Belief does not equal worship. I believe the Ebola virus exists, but I do not worship it. If in fact the Christian God exists and I encounter this being in the afterlife, I am obviously not going to continue being an atheist. But this does not mean I am necessarily going to worship this God.
There are a number of other passages in the Bible in which Jesus is quoted as saying membership in the kingdom of heaven is not for everybody. For example, while Bell cites the words of Jesus in John 12:32 (“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me”), he downplays the parallel stream of judgment found in John 3:36: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” Bell also selectively incorporates passages from the Old Testament, such as Psalm 145:9 (“The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works”), but if one reads further into this psalm, one finds in verse 20 that “The LORD preserveth all them that love him: but all the wicked will he destroy.”
Rob Bell is hard pressed to find a way to get around these and many other passages, other than to conclude that certain parts of the Bible are wrong and others are right. But how does he then know that the parts to which he appeals are correct? As a nonbeliever, I am in the more honest and consistent position of being able to say I see no reason to think any of the Bible’s theology and doctrine is true.
In addition to mistaking belief for worship, Bell also mistakes tribalism for universalism. Bell devotes an entire chapter in his book to asking the rhetorical question, “Does God Get What God Wants?” Arguing that God promises a comprehensive restoration of all things, Bell cites verse after verse from Lamentations, Hosea, Zephaniah, Isaiah, Joel, Amos, Zechariah, and Micah, all referring to eventual restoration. But what Bell is missing is that the entire focus for the Old Testament prophets is on God’s relationship, not with the world per se, but rather with his covenantal people in particular. The love God has and acts upon is covenantal love for his chosen tribe, not universal love for the world. If God shows compassion, it is because he is vindicating his covenant with Israel, as in Exodus 2:24: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.” The God of the Old Testament is not an all-loving God. He is a God whose love is reserved for a chosen few. Everyone else is “other.”
It is important to point out that Bell’s ideas are not new in any way. During the first few centuries after Christianity’s birth as a new religion, a number of doctrines on several issues emerged which eventually came to be deemed heretical. Questions regarding what hell is and whether or not hell is eternal were intensely debated even then, and the lasting effects of those early schisms is seen today in the many different viewpoints concerning the afterlife within the same religion. Thus, the Catholic Church affirms the existence of purgatory, while Protestants do not, and in 2007 the Catholic Church officially discarded with the centuries-old doctrine of limbo. Some Protestant Christians consider hell to be a separation from God, but not a literal place of torture. Others adopt annihilation theory, which states that the saved will consciously continue on in heaven’s blissful afterlife, while the unsaved will simply cease to exist, a state they say can be metaphorically considered as hell. There are others who consider hell to be a temporary state in which sinners are punished for their wickedness until they have in essence paid for the totality of their sins in life, after which they are allowed either into the fullness of heaven or some diminished version of it. There are still others, like Rob Bell himself, who propose that hell is a temporary state where the unsaved are offered a second chance to accept God.
On the other hand, Rob Bell is trying to recreate Christianity in a whole new way, and this he has admitted. He is quoted in a Christianity Today article on the Emergent Church as saying “This is not just the same old message with new methods. We’re rediscovering Christianity as an Eastern religion, as a way of life.” This “rediscovery” does not incline Bell to dispense with the doctrine of hell entirely, because there are certain forms of Buddhism, for example, that feature the rough equivalent of hell in their doctrine, called Naraka. This is a place where the deceased go for a finite period of time to work through their accumulated karma until it has achieved its optimal effect. Naraka can therefore be a very bad place in which to find oneself. Because everybody’s karma is different, there are “Cold Narakas,” “Hot Narakas,” and “Isolated Narakas.” Rob Bell probably knows about this aspect of Buddhism.
Rob Bell is a man who has rightly and understandably found the traditional message of Christianity rather distasteful, and accordingly he has read through the Bible with a presuppositional mindset, reading into the Bible exactly what he wants to find. In a recent MSNBC interview with Martin Bashir, Bell stated, “I begin with the belief that God . . . when we shed a tear, God sheds a tear. I begin with a divine being who is profoundly empathetic, compassionate and stands in solidarity with us.” From this starting point, Bell has adopted his own standard by which he chooses which Bible verses are accurate and which are inaccurate. His god is the one that agrees with him; he has defined God as “love” (as he understands love) and then has proceeded to make determinations about what a truly loving being would do based on his definition of love. The end result is a book in which we learn that God is (surprise!) exactly what Rob Bell has defined God to be. Bell is clearly an individual who places a great deal of importance and emphasis on love, and this is very commendable. But it also means that the God he writes about in Love Wins is nothing more than a projection of himself and of his own values. And in this specific sense he is no better than hardcore orthodox fundamentalists, who are guilty of the very same projection.
As a complement to his exercise in selective use of scripture, Bell has found ideas both in other religions and in ancient views of Christianity that he finds particularly appealing, and used these other ideas as a way of marketing a bold and different vision of Christianity. But his blatant presuppositionalism constitutes the biggest blow to any credibility he might otherwise have as a champion of a more liberal Christianity. In a BeliefNet.com profile, Bell is quoted as saying “I affirm the truth anywhere in any religious system, in any worldview. If it’s true, it belongs to God.” In other words, whatever is true is true, and since according to him God is truth, whatever is true is necessarily of God. Therefore, if any religion contains within any of its tenants something that is true, then it is necessarily of God. It is little wonder why the majority of evangelical Christians are outraged by Bell.
Atheists and agnostics have just as much reason (maybe more) to be annoyed at Bell. If all he was doing was blurring the edges of Christianity a bit and dragging in elements from other equally stupid religions, that would be no more or less stupid or offensive than anything else that happens within religion’s own walls (after all, Christianity itself started out as a mishmash hybrid of Judaism and Zoroastrianism). But in the process of trying hard to make Christianity more palatable to nonbelievers and freethinkers, he shows us that he just does not get it. He displays very little to no understanding of our position and our motivations for rejecting religion. He does not seem to realize that trying to appeal to us by taking the softer side in a debate with orthodox fundamentalists, a debate which amounts to a petty argument over which of them have the right to own the souls of our decaying corpses, is not working. More importantly, Bell is still speaking of matters about which he can have no knowledge, rendering his assertions in Love Wins just as absurd as those of anyone else, including dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalists who want us to be tortured forever. As his subtitle suggests, he is pontificating on “the fate of every person who ever lived.” Whether his take on hell and redemption is more palatable and morally desirable or not is irrelevant if his flat assertions about the existence of an afterlife are not supported with any evidence in the first place.
In fact, the more palatable and appealing direction Bell is trying to take Christianity is itself a sure indication that he is making things up. After all, there is a reason one hardly ever sees ministers and theologians making up doctrines that are more unappealing and absurd than those already contained in the religion’s faith statements. Instead, what we see is that ministers and theologians increasingly make things up that are more and more appealing, despite their absurdity. This includes Bell’s idea that everything is eventually going to work out for the best for everybody who has ever lived.
In a different sense, I am always encouraged to see these kinds of desperate and flailing attempts on the part of ministers to modify Christianity in the hopes of making it more palatable, because such attempts are an indication that they are losing the cultural discussion. The secular and freethinking community is wreaking a noticeable effect on the culture, and that is why we are seeing books like Love Wins and similar books by authors such as Brian McLaren and John Shelby Spong coming out. Mainstream Christians are realizing that their product is not going over very well, and such realizations have historically been the primary reason Christianity has become as socially domesticated as it has in our day and age. The wider culture is having a clear say on the lens through which the scriptures and Church tradition should be viewed, so it is no surprise that a more rational and moral Christianity is trying to meet the expectations of that scrutiny. Christianity is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, a time when society’s plausibility structures are far superior and vastly more developed than in the days of the first few centuries of Christianity. And at this point in the game, Christians are pulling their own teeth in an effort to be rational and moral and yet still cling to their religion.
This review was originally published June 25, 2011 on Nathan Dickey’s Blog.
Christian journalist Raymond Billy interviewed me about this review in an article on Resonate News about atheist responses to Rob Bell’s book.