Bell’s Hell

If there is anything that evangelical Christians are good at, it is throwing kerosene on a campfire. More often than not, those campfires – at first only warming the toes of a few folks partaking of random fireside conversations around questions that few take seriously – leap into wildfires that ultimately and indiscriminately consume thousands of acres of thoughtful (and some thoughtless) men and women. But as wildfires are wont to do, they ultimately burn themselves out, leaving significant but temporary destruction in their wake; destruction that in time is all but invisible.

Such will be the fate, I think, of the campfire musings of Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. It may be that there is more readily-available fuel – and a larger gathering of campers – around Bell’s campfire than some of the others in my memory (“The Last Temptation of Christ,” Proctor & Gamble’s supposed satanic influences, Walt Disney’s occasional forays into dens of iniquity). Still, I think, the fire would consume itself soon enough were it not for the supply of kerosene-loaded extinguishers aimed by evangelical firefighters.

Some will claim that this is different – bigger – than earlier fires. They will say that his campfire is fueled by the flames of the very hell he reportedly denies. The result, I fear, will be two-fold: first, those who are asking the very questions that Bell raises will be driven not to the Source of the Answers, but to Bell’s book of questions. The fear here is that if (IF) Bell’s answers are, at best, insufficient and, at worst, unbiblical, then those who rely on them truly are in mortal and eternal danger.

Second, those who are not inclined to ask these questions will be driven neither to Bell’s book nor to The Book. Huddled together around the dying embers of their own campfire of second-hand faith, they will have neither the light nor the fuel to invite in and warm those who are shivering under the blanket of universalism.

Rob Bell dares to voice the questions that so many in this sin-depraved world are asking:

  • “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?”
  • “If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate?”
  • “What happens when a fifteen-year-old atheist dies?”
  • “So is it true that the kind of person you are doesn’t ultimately matter, as long as you’ve said or prayed or believed the right things?”

There was a time in my life when I would pass off questions like these with a wave of the hand and a trite, childish, “for the Bible tells me so”-kind of answer. As if just asking the questions somehow betrayed a hellish eternity for the questioner. In the last few years, I have been – by God’s grace alone – growing out of that spiritual arrogance (and whatever ignorance it accompanies). I am increasingly intrigued by, and invited into, such questions. The source of answers for me remains the Bible, yet I recognize that the answers are found not in a few memorized but out-of-context verses, but rather in the “whole counsel of Scripture.”

There’s a very memorable scene in the 1992 film, “A Few Good Men.” A young Navy attorney (played by Tom Cruise) is challenging a Marine colonel (Jack Nicholson) about the death of a private under the colonel’s command. “I want the truth” demands the attorney. “You can’t handle the truth!” shouts back the colonel.

Whether intentional or not, Love Wins is an invitation to all to pursue truth. The question with which you must wrestle – whether you are among the convinced, the skeptics, or the seekers – is, can you handle the truth?

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