Do you believe in hell? In his as-yet unpublished book “Love Wins”, the influential pastor and speaker Rob Bell is thought to be suggesting that it may not. Despite no-one having seen the book it has nevertheless taken the Christian world by surprise and threatens to unleash a storm of controversy by suggesting (perhaps) that a loving God isn’t the sort of God who will cast unbelievers into an eternal hell.
The full title of the book is Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. According to the publishers:
In Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith – the afterlife – arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic – eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.
A heated debate
This is a real and heated debate. Justin Taylor at TheGospelCoalition says “this video from Bell himself shows that he is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity”. Jason Boyett at Beliefnet is beautifully cutting about that attitude.
The church has had fault lines in it forever, and a traditional game in Christianity is to play “spot the next rift”. For the past thirty years or so the brewing debates have all seemed to be about sexuality – whether women can be ministers/bishops, whether same-sex couples can be married. These have been debates driven by rapidly changing social attitudes and the church’s attempts to come to terms with how these differ from the attitudes of the writers of the Bible. This debate looks different. Rob Bell has unleashed a good old-fashioned purely theological debate that strikes right to the heart of how we each see our lives and the point of being here.
Here is the promotional video in which Rob Bell introduces the issues. Actually at the moment the debate is centred on this video, because since the book is not yet published it is all most people have to go by.
This may not have been a live theological debate in recent years, but it has deep personal significance for many people. I often say I don’t regret anything in my life, but there is something that I actually really do. Many years ago, when my brother died, my mum asked me whether I believed he would have gone to hell because he wasn’t a Christian. I was at the time a fairly insufferable newish Christian full of zeal and certainty. I have no idea where my brother stood. I told my mum that if he had not given his life to God then yes, the Bible would suggest that hell was where he would be going. I believed I was giving the only answer I could, but looking back I wish oh so much that I had been less certain, less blunt and simply more supportive. I regret that very much.
This debate seems to be coming out of the blue and yet already there have been an awful lot of responses which suggest this story might grow. My hunch is that most Christians actually want another answer on this issue. Most of us see God as the father in the story of the prodigal son, a man who saw his rebellious son coming home and didn’t wait to find out why he was coming home, whether he was sorry or repentant or what he wanted, he started celebrating and planning the welcome party there and then. For most of us that is a God who accepts us back from our own personal hells, not one who sends us to hell. We know what we have been told that the bible says but we actually would like to hear someone giving a different interpretation because we feel stuck with one that doesn’t fit. This might be it – but then we haven’t read the book yet!