If you’ve spent any time on the internet this year, you probably know that Rob Bell is a much-loved and much vilified US pastor whose latest book Love Wins has caused a great deal of comment and even anger. The cause of the anger is many commentators’ fears that Bell has subtly espoused a doctrine they regard as heretical.
Is the fuss warranted?
Bell is a gifted communicator, but on this occasion he has kept his views somewhat ambivalent, asking questions as much as giving answers. But there is no doubt he is questioning the traditional doctrine of hell as a place of unending punishment and torment for unbelievers. The resulting furore has led me to review the evidence again for myself.
Three views of hell
There have been three different understandings of hell within christianity, more or less based on three views within first century Jewish thought.
- The most widely held view among christians, that unbelievers will be condemned to unending punishment,
- The view apparently taken by Bell, that hell is a place where people have another opportunity to respond to God’s love, so that, in the end, love wins.
- A midway view, that those who accept God’s offer of forgiveness receive eternal life, but life ends for those who refuse God. This was apparently the most widely held belief at the time of Jesus.
Assessing the evidence
A summary of the Biblical evidence is at Hell – what does the Bible say?. The evidence suggests the following conclusions:
- The traditional view (unending punishment) may initially seem strong, but it is based on surprisingly few unambiguous passages. It rests most strongly on the non-Biblical concept of an immortal soul (the Bible talks instead of resurrection), a few verses in the highly symbolic book of Revelation, and some sayings of Jesus that are commonly misinterpreted.
- Universalism is attractive (we should all desperately want everyone to be saved), but seems to lack both Biblical support and common sense.
- The middle view, often called ‘conditional immortality’, seems to me to make most sense of the Biblical evidence. In particular, it recognises that Jesus spoke of ‘destruction’ (which implies an end), and that ‘eternal’ means ‘in the age to come’, not ‘unending’. It is more realistic than universalism and more compassionate than the traditional view.
- No view is entirely satisfactory as each has passages that appear to support it and others which appear to oppose it. But the conditional immortality view seems to explain more and require less of a stretch when considering difficult passages.
- We should be careful how we discuss our views, and proponents of the traditional view need to be very careful they do not appear vindictive.
This conclusion will not please some, but I invite you to check out the passages for yourself – they are all listed in Hell – what does the Bible say?.
Why the fuss?
Why is there so much upset about this topic? Why have so many people weighed in to criticise Bell (via a two page blog or a 21 page essay), rushed to his defence, or (more rarely) provided balanced comment? One can only guess, but it seems many christians see the topic as fundamental, even though I don’t know if it changes how we live. I fear that some seem to want the doctrine to be true, although others are concerned to warn people.
Those who espouse one of the ‘milder’ views must be careful of wishful thinking, while those who hold to the more traditional view need to be very careful to speak the truth (as they see it) in love. And we all need to be careful of being too dogmatic when the evidence isn’t as clear as we would like it to be.
The last word (for now) goes to missions advocate Justin Long, who criticises “an apathetic church that spends hours and days and weeks and months thinking about, talking about, and debating about hell yet that spends not even seconds each year on behalf of 2 billion people who, according to the standard view, are consigned to eternal torture—because the church can’t be bothered to surmount the challenges and reach them with the saving good news if Christ.” He concludes: “I just wish unreached peoples got as much press.”