Rob Bell certainly knows how to stir things up. A short video on YouTube promoting his new book created such furious response from bloggers that it is hard to avoid the controversy. Between John Piper’s now-famous tweet and Justin Taylor’s Wittenberg Door-esque blog, the controversy over Bell’s new book threatens to burn hotter than the Hell which Rob Bell supposedly denies. In case you were offline last week, here is a useful summary of RobBellGate on New Ways Forward.
Any debate over doctrine is good, and any reformation of a doctrine that brings it more in line with scripture is good. This “Rob Bell is a Universalist” dust-up raises a few questions in my mind. Let me preface this by saying I am a firm believer in Hell as a real place, a separation from God in some real way. I have never been a believer in the popular image of Hell as fire and brimstone or ironic punishments meted out by cruel demons with pitchforks. All of that is based on Dante and Looney-Tune cartoons, or perhaps the Farside. I also think that calling someone a Universalist is the evangelical equivalent of an F-Bomb. Better to not use the word if you do not mean it.
First, Is a traditional belief in Hell required to be a Christian? There have been plenty of serious scholars who were undoubtedly Christian and even evangelical yet denied a literal hell. Clark Pinnock, for example, said “The traditional understanding of hell is unspeakably horrible. How can one imagine for a moment that the God who gave his Son to die for sinners because of his great love for them would install a torture chamber somewhere in the new creation in order to subject those who reject him to everlasting pain? (C. H. Pinnock, “Fire, Then Nothing,” in Christianity Today 20 (March, 1987): 40). Pinnock’s own view is more of a “conditional immortality” in which only the righteous dead are raised to eternal life, something which was at one time called “soul sleep.” Pinnock was deeply committed to the Gospel and the truth of Scripture, but he was also not bound by a traditional confession which demanded he believe in Hell.
I am fairly confident that denying a literal Hell will keep you from being a staff member at John Piper’s church (and mine, for that matter), but it does not separate you from what it means to be a Christian. I cannot imagine someone claiming to be a Calvinist, for example, and denying some form of literal hell. But I am not sure I want to define “Christian” as “Proper Calvinist.” When we debate the reality of Hell, we are asking questions about how to read the Bible properly. There are texts which imply some sort of eternal punishment Matt 25:46, for example), but do those texts imply a “real hell” or is the text using a metaphor? My view is that there is a metaphor, but that metaphor points to the terrible reality of eternal separation from God.
Second, Is it important that we imagine Hell as “hellfire”? Personally, I think the church has gotten itself into trouble by describe Hell too clearly. It is all too easy to laugh at the cartoonish descriptions of Hell found in a Chick Tract and never confront the terrifying reality of what Hell is really about. Luther himself said “It is not very important whether or not one pictures hell as it is commonly portrayed and described.” (Luther’s Works: Lectures on the Minor Prophets, II, Jonah, Habakkuk 19:34). Similarly, Charles Hodge said “ There seems no more reason for supposing that the fire spoken of in Scripture is to be literal fire, than the worm that never dies is literally a worm” (Systematic Theology, 3:868). I doubt that anyone will accuse Luther and Hodge of liberalism, although I would not mind reading Tweets from Luther, Eck and Carlstadt.
Third, What is the “proper use” of the doctrine of Hell? When I taught systematic theology I often ended my discussion of the eternal state with this question. I would quote passages from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” and simply ask if it is right to scare people into salvation with dark fantasies of eternal punishment. I recall one student very clearly saying that yes, if someone accepts Christ, then it is perfectly acceptable “to scare the Hell out of them.” I disagree, since I know I can emotionally manipulate people into any decision. The point of a doctrine of Hell is not to scare people into being good, nor should the doctrine of Heaven be used to coax people into being good. This medieval view of eternal life sounds a bit too much like Santa Claus, and this implied merit system certainly not the biblical view.
C. S. Lewis said that the doctrine of Hell ought to be more about yourself than others. The point is not to decide who will be in Hell or think through the delicious tortures your personal enemies will endure when they get there. Heaven and Hell are intensely personal doctrines which should motivate worship out of a thankful heart for the grace of God. “All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it; or else, that it was within your grasp and you have lost it forever” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chap. 10, “Heaven”).