There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love questions and those who love answers.
Question-lovers focus on the ambiguity and uncertainty of belief. Reality is bigger and more complex than our theories about it. Consequently, we must be humble in the face of mystery, knowing how much we do not know.
Answer-lovers focus on the clarity and certainty of belief. Reality may slip the grasp of theory at the margins, but theory has a firm grip on reality at the center. So, we must act courageously in the world on the basis of what we do know.
Rob Bell loves questions. His critics love answers. This difference between them—a difference that is both temperamental and methodological—illuminates the controversy surrounding Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
Bell asks, “Does God get what God wants?”—namely, “all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:4). He further asks, “Do we get what we want?” A “yes” answer to the first question makes you a universalist, that is, a person who believes that God both desires the salvation of all people and realizes that desire. A “yes” answer to the second question makes you a proponent of hell, that is, a person who believes that we can be separated from God for eternity.
A “yes” answer to both questions makes you Rob Bell, a hell-believing universalist.
If that description of Bell strikes you as an oxymoron, you are probably an answer-lover who longs for clarity and certainty. To you, belief in universalism and belief in hell form an incoherent set. Either/or but not both/and.
But Bell is a question-lover comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. God will get what God wants. And we will get what we want. Either way, love wins. “If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins.”
Read that quote again. If we want heaven, love wins. If we want hell…love wins there too?
In my opinion, Bell can make that statement only by redefining hell. The Christian tradition—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant—defines hell as the sentence of eternal punishment rendered by God against the unrighteous. One of the source passages for this definition is Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. In that passage, Jesus teaches that he himself will separate the righteous and the unrighteous and render judgment. “Then they [the unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Bell thinks the tradition has misinterpreted Jesus’ words in verse 46. There, Jesus contrasts two fates: kolasin aiōnion and zōēn aiōnion. The standard English translation of these two phrases is “eternal punishment” and “eternal life,” respectively, although the words everlasting and forever occasionally appear instead of eternal. According to Bell, the “word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish.” And aiōnion describes either “a period of time with a beginning and an end” or “a particular intensity of experience that transcends time” (emphasis in original). According to Bell, then “the phrase [kolasin aiōnion] can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction.”
If the tradition defines hell as eternal punishment, then Bell redefines it as temporal or particularly intense pruning. The former is ultimate and retributive. The latter is penultimate and remedial. What Bell says about the interplay of human sin and divine judgment in the Old Testament captures the gist of what he’s saying about hell: “Failure, we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.”
There are several problems with reasoning about hell in this way: First, Bell commits “the root fallacy” when he thinks the root-meaning of kolazō/kolasin determines its meaning. In the New Testament, kolazō and kolasin are translated as “punish” and “punishment” in the four instances where they are used (Acts 4:21, 2 Pet. 2:9; and Matt. 25:46, 1 John 4:18, respectively). The root-meaning in and of itself cannot determine whether that punishment is remedial (which is what Bell intends by “pruning” or “trimming”) or retributive. Second, the word aiōnion must be translated the same way in both of its instances in Matthew 25:46. If hell is temporal, so is heaven. If hell is an intense experience that transcends time, so is heaven. Obviously, Bell desires to limit the duration of hell, but in doing so, he ends up limiting the duration of heaven at the same time. Third, the problem of citing the Old Testament interplay between human sin and divine judgment is that this interplay is corporate and historical. In other words, it applies to the nation (Israel) or city (Jerusalem), not every citizen or resident. And it applies to that corporate body’s experience in this age, not necessarily in the age to come.
Bell doesn’t draw a sharp distinction between this age and the age to come. He argues—correctly, forcefully, and with great insight—that they overlap in the present age. (He also argues—again, correctly, forcefully, and with great insight—that our eschatology should shape our ethics.) Theologians describe the overlap as inaugurated eschatology. In other words, through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ inaugurates “the age to come” in the midst of “this age.” In terms of heaven, this means that we can begin to experience “eternal life” right here and right now. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “The old has gone, the new is here!” But inaugurated eschatology also applies in terms of hell. Romans 1:18 says, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people.” And 2:5 adds, “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” According to these verses, right now, we begin to experience either “eternal life” and “new creation” or “wrath” and “judgment.”
The New Testament teaches inaugurated eschatology, but it also teaches consummated eschatology. If the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurates, his second coming consummates. Consider, again, Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, which begins this way: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him…” (Matt. 25:31). Or 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Or Revelation 19:11: “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.” In these passages, and in many others, Christ’s return marks a definitive turning point in the relationship between God and his creatures. In the words of the Nicene Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
For Bell, there does not seem to be a definitive turning point, a crisis moment where destinies are finalized. Hell, especially, is temporal and remedial. How long one spends there depends on how long one resists God’s love. “Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.” Bell draws attention to Revelation 21:25, which says of the New Jerusalem: “On no day will its gates ever be shut.” Then he writes: “That’s a small detail, and its’ important we don’t get too hung up on details and specific images because it’s possible to treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process. But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go.” Bell sees this as an image of hope. Those who have chosen hell can choose heaven. Logically, though, the image contains a note of despair, for what stops a person who has chosen heaven from choosing hell? Absent the precipitating event of Christ’s second coming and the final judgment, it seems to me that life as Rob Bell portrays it will always be an ongoing struggle between heaven and hell, with no guarantee of a final resolution.
And if that’s the case, in what sense does love actually win?
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