Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Go to Hell, Rob Bell? " by Jerry Walls

I have been waiting for Jerry Walls' (one of my seminary professors from Asbury who has written on  hell, inlcuding his dissertation and the book "Hell:The Logic of Damnation") response to Reb Bell and the hell debate. I am glad he finally posted.  This is a Facebook note I have copied and linked  here:

Go to Hell Rob Bell? As promised, my thoughts on Rob Bell
by Jerry Walls 
I heard Rob Bell speak several years ago, and found him a winsome and engaging communicator.  However, I had never read any of his books until now.  But when people kept asking my opinion about his new one (presumably since I write about heaven, hell and other regions in the neighborhood), I thought maybe I should read it.  When one of my best friends offered to have a copy sent to my door, well, that settled it.
Having now read the book, after thinking, reading and writing about these topics for over two decades, I must say I am rather surprised at the firestorm of controversy it has generated.    In the preface, Bell writes with due modesty and candor: “I haven’t come up with a radical new teaching that’s any kind of departure from what’s been said an untold number of times” (p. x).  And indeed, he has not.  If I had read this book, blissfully unaware of all the internet wars, accusations of heresy and so on preceding its publication, I doubt if I would have given it a second thought.  This is not intended as a negative comment, but merely as an observation that much of the book is simply rather elementary truth about the love and grace of God and the power and beauty of the Christian story.
I enjoyed reading this book in the same way I enjoyed hearing Bell speak.  Indeed, the book has the feel of a sermon, or sermons of a good preacher who has a gift for turning a phrase, for injecting humor, and a good sense of timing in his delivery.   Many of the lines are evocative, epigraphic and lyrical.  Bell has a talent for stating basic truth in provocative and sometimes surprising ways and that makes for a fun ride, or read, as the case may be.
His first chapter is a rather entertaining critique of simplistic accounts of what is involved or required for being one of the fortunate few who will be saved.  His second chapter is about heaven, and there his target is a one dimensional view of heaven, which focuses only on the life to come, ignoring the present aspects of heaven and how it changes life NOW.
Not infrequently Bell has a tendency to play to the gallery, and score easy points by depicting the worst of evangelical thought and practice.  He sometimes reminds me of his forebear of an earlier generation, namely, Tony Compolo, who mastered the crowd pleasing “shame on those bad, bad Christians, but look at how great Jesus is” style of rhetoric.
Okay, but what about the universalism charge that had everyone fired up before the book ever saw the light of day?  Well, we need to be clear on what we mean by universalism, as there are a range of positions that could be given that label.  On one end of the spectrum is the view we can call “hopeful universalism,” which as the name suggests, is the stance of hoping and praying that universalism might turn out to be true.  We can’t be sure it is, nor can we be sure it is not, but we should at least hope for it.  Second, there is the view we might called “convinced universalism,” which is the view that everybody will in fact be saved.  While the reality of human freedom makes it at least possible that some will not be saved, we can be pretty sure that as a matter of fact all will in fact repent in the end.  Finally, there is the view we can call “necessary universalism,” which is the strongest position on the universalist scale.  This is the view that the only position that is even consistent with God’s perfect love and power is universalism, so it is the only view that is even possibly true.  This position has been defended with great sophistication in contemporary thought by the philosopher Thomas Talbott, and is the most interesting universalist option on the table (see the volume, Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, eds. Robin Parry and Chris Partridge).
While the latter two variations of universalism are certainly minority positions, and are arguably at odds with the broad consensus of Christian orthodoxy, the first version is often thought to be fully compatible with orthodoxy (I have critiqued and debated Talbott at length in my own work.  See chapter 5 of Hell: The Logic of Damnation; see also my exchange with him in Religious Studies 40: 2004).  Indeed, many Christians think it is incumbent upon us at least to hope for universalism.
Be that as it may, the only sense in which Bell is a universalist is the first of these options.  While he points out that there are noted spokesmen for universalism in the history of theology, and he admits that it would make a “better story” if all ended up reconciled to God (110-111), he stops far short of saying he believes it must turn out this way, or even that he is confident that it will.
Bell makes it emphatically clear that love cannot be forced, that love can be rejected and perversely resisted, and if this is true now, it can be true in the life to come.  This stubborn and harsh reality rules out any rosy or cheery confidence that all will be saved at the end of the day.  He writes: “What we see in Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next” (p. 79; see also pp 72, 103-105, 113-114, 117, 177).
However, he also makes it unequivocally clear that he believes God sincerely loves every single person, and will give everyone every opportunity to accept his love and be saved, whether or not they have heard of Christ in this life, or accepted him in this life.  And this, I suspect, is the real animus behind those who have such venom for this book.  Calvinists and quasi-Calvinists who believe God’s love is only for his unconditionally elect, or who think there is something sentimental or mushy about a love that is extended equally to all persons, even if that means the chance to repent after death, will understandably hate this book.  It is no surprise that from such quarters should come tweets saying “Farewell Rob Bell” though frankly, given the issue at stake, it might have been more apropos to have said “Go to hell Rob Bell”!
Again, there is nothing new or shocking here, except perhaps the fact that so many Christians are offended by such a picture of God’s love.  After all, if God went to the expense of providing salvation for all persons (of course Calvinists dispute this, at least usually), why would he not want to make it genuinely and fully available to all?  It is remarkable to me how many people believe God gives everyone at least some chance (perhaps small) to be saved, but stoutly resist the notion that he would, or perhaps even could, make it fully available so everyone has a full and fair chance to accept it.   I have argued in my book on hell that God will indeed do so, that he will extend to all persons what I have called “optimal grace,” which roughly speaking, is whatever grace will make it most likely that they will freely accept it (see also chapter 3 of my book Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy; and CS Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, co-authored with Scott Burson, pp. 226-224).
Indeed, Bell’s position on these matters is very much like that of CS Lewis.  It is telling that the only book on hell that he cites in his brief bibliography at the end is Lewis’s The Great Divorce.   In short, evangelicals who readily embrace Lewis should be little disturbed by what Bell says in his book.
If there is anything to be concerned about here, it may that a book that is as lightweight as this one should cause such a furor in the Christian community.  Again, I do not mean that as a putdown of Bell’s book.  Rather, it is more a commentary on contemporary culture.  And not just Christian culture, culture period.  Christians are merely reflecting the larger culture in their reading and thinking habits.
But this is where the culture is.  Guys like Bell understand this.  Someone needs to communicate with them.  So Bell should not be blamed for stepping up to the challenge.
                    -Jerry Walls 


  1. a thousand thank yous for sharing this - it is helpful and timely.

  2. Which Afterlife?

    In his new book "Love Wins" Rob Bell seems to say that loving and compassionate people, regardless of their faith, will not be condemned to eternal hell just because they do not accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.

    Concepts of an afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Here are three quotes from "the greatest achievement in life," my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    (46) Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine union, consider the alternatives.

    (59) Mysticism is the great quest for the ultimate ground of existence, the absolute nature of being itself. True mystics transcend apparent manifestations of the theatrical production called “this life.” Theirs is not simply a search for meaning, but discovery of what is, i.e. the Real underlying the seeming realities. Their objective is not heaven, gardens, paradise, or other celestial places. It is not being where the divine lives, but to be what the divine essence is here and now.

    (80) [referring to many non-mystics] Depending on their religious convictions, or personal beliefs, they may be born again to seek elusive perfection, go to a purgatory to work out their sins or, perhaps, pass on into oblivion. Lives are different; why not afterlives? Beliefs might become true.

    Rob Bell asks us to reexamine the Christian Gospel. People of all faiths should look beyond the letter of their sacred scriptures to their spiritual message. As one of my mentors wrote "In God we all meet."

  3. Still stealing copy write I see.

    I am so glad you are no longer able to endanger my family with your postings.
    also, just to let you know... you have linked this site to a computer virus.

  4. Thanks for chiming in all.


Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!