Two Books about Hell
Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived
New York: HarperOne, 2011
Hell Is Real (But I Hate to Admit It)
Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2011
In July, I met with an exciting group of campus ministers from universities around the world. These engaged and engaging young men and women never fail to challenge me with their penetrating questions about today’s leading theological issues. This time there were two issues under consideration: gay marriage (one by one the states are voting to approve it—what are we to think?) and Hell as interpreted for us by Rob Bell. Most of the time was spent on the first, but the second is equally timely and is today’s subject.
Is Bell a universalist? That is, does he believe everybody everywhere will go to Heaven? The subtitle of his latest book Love Wins seems to claim he knows: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
Does he think Heaven is a real place or is it more of the same of what we’ve got now? Is it a destination or a relationship or a matter of intensity or what?
I had just read Brian Jones’s Hell Is Real (But I Hate to Admit It), which was published several months after Bell’s book. It reads like a rebuttal, but in several ways the similarities outweigh the points in dispute:
Bell and Jones are both committed pastors who, more than anything else, want people saved.
They both are writing to fellow Evangelical Christians, calling for an open, nondefensive reexamination of things of eternal consequence.
They both write vividly, imaginatively—provocatively. Neither offers a staid, scholarly, footnoted study of Christian doctrine. They are preachers, popular communicators replete with good illustrations and calls to action.
They also enjoy a good fight. They do not back away from controversy. To the contrary—they invite it.
They are more certain than I am. They boldly go where I have feared to tread. While I’m an “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” thinker, they don’t need two hands. They have read, thought, and concluded. They may not always be right, but they are not in doubt.
A Poet and a Prophet
There are differences, to be sure. Bell is more the poet, Jones the prophet. Bell reads the Bible for what it says, of course, but also for what it suggests. He probes those connotations, drawing out the multiple nuances of words like Heaven, eternal, the age to come, Hell. His word pictures are vivid, enticing, comforting. But are they definitive? He doesn’t worry much about the literal.
Jones does. He reminds me of a fellow professor who made it clear that he said what he meant and he meant what he said. That’s how Jones takes the Bible. The definite meaning must be pinned down, the literal picture must be painted, the exact application must be made. As I said, Jones is the prophet, proclaiming God’s truth no matter who is turned off, no matter the personal consequences.
Jones offers his own précis toward the end of his argument:
In the first part of the book we explored why Christians stop believing in Hell, even in the face of strong biblical support. And then we searched the Scriptures to help us understand why Hell exists in the first place, and how knowing this truth fills us with apocalyptic urgency to reach the lost. Finally, I spent the last four chapters outlining a few simple action steps for you to follow so you can begin reaching those within your circle of influence.
He is convinced, “You really can do this.”
I like his term “apocalyptic urgency.” It sounds theologically impressive, but it just means that if you believe in Hell as a destination and you love people, you’ll be passionate about saving as many people from it as possible. Conversely, if you believe in Heaven as a destination and you love people, you’ll be equally intentional about getting as many people there as you can.
The choice is obvious to Jones: “Practically speaking, if everyone goes to Heaven, why bother with Jesus at all?” Since everybody isn’t destined for Heaven, though, we’d better be bothered.
He thinks in either/or terms:
Do you feel great sorrow and unceasing anguish for that non-Christian friend you work with? That Jewish neighbor? That Hindu person who works at the restaurant you frequent? If not, why not? To me there are only two answers to that question: You either don’t believe in Hell, or you don’t care that your friends will go there when they die.
I squirmed through the middle section, in which he quotes atheist Richard Dawkins:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
And then Jones goes Dawkins one better: “God is far more vengeful than Dawkins could ever dream.” In case we missed his point he adds, “Until you realize how vengeful God really is, you’ll never feel an urgency for your friends and family members who are without Christ.”
I was ready to quit reading. Too extreme, too unbalanced, I thought. Then in the next section, when he describes the loving God’s propitiating act in Christ, he regained my interest.
The best part of the book is the last. In the final section Jones presents some practical suggestions for expressing the love of Christ to friends who do not yet call him Lord, offering some of the more helpful pastoral writing on evangelism I’ve read. (I could then even forgive him for referring to me as an old man in my late 70s. He was way off by . . . at least a year or two.)
Both Jones and Bell rightly zero in on the nature of God. To raise the issue of Hell is to question “What kind of God . . . ?”
I just quoted Jones. Here’s Bell:
If something is wrong with your God, if your God is loving one second and cruel the next, if your God will punish people for all of eternity for sins committed in a few short years, no amount of clever marketing or compelling language or good music or great coffee will be able to disguise that one, true, glaring, untenable, unacceptable, awful reality.
So Bell presents a more consistently accepting, forgiving deity. This God will get everybody into Heaven one way or another—but only through Christ’s redemptive work on the cross.
Bell basically believes God will get what God wants, and we will get what we want. And either way, love wins.
If we want Hell, if we want Heaven, they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.
That does not strike me as strong reasoning. I’m not certain that’s how God works—or how love works. But there is a certain poetic truth to it.
And what about Jesus’ teaching that no one comes to the Father except through him?
What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.
Bell says the passage “is exclusive, deeply so, insisting on Jesus alone as the way to God. But it is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity.” By that he means, “What Jesus does is declare that he, and he alone, is saving everybody.”
We haven’t heard the last on this debate.
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a Christian Standard contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.