Why do so many people want Rob Bell to be wrong?

LOVE WINS. from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

I’m late to the game on this one. I blame my work schedule and Call of Duty Black Ops.

More seriously, though, Rob Bell is once again stirring the waters, driving out the money changers, and <insert your bible analogy pun here> of the American Fundagelical Church™ by releasing a very short video that makes only one simple claim: “Love Wins.”

The doctrine of hell, when you think about it, is a horrible teaching in the literal sense of that word. It’s shocking, extremely unpleasant, and dreadful to consider that the majority of the human race will suffer eternally without even a moment of temporary respite. It’s almost unimaginable. If it doesn’t make your stomach churn (or worse), it should.

Enter Rob Bell, who seems to be suggesting that maybe Christians have gotten it wrong (he’s not the first to say this, of course, if he is in fact saying this). Enter several Evangelical heavyweights, including John Piper and Josh Harris, who seem to be willing to count Bell among Hell’s population before the book even comes out. Shocking in a very sarcastic, not literal way.

But let’s not get too sidetracked. This post isn’t about supporting or refuting Christ-centered universalism (which Rob may or may not support himself), and it’s not about casting stones at Piper and Harris. Lots of people are making cases for and against what Rob may or may not be saying. E.g., for. E.g., against. Or, an excellent book on the topic that I’ve read through multiple times.

Instead, I want to ask a much more basic, simple question that in my view permeates, informs, and steers the entire conversation, often without people even realizing it ought to be asked.

Why would any Christ follow want the doctrine of hell to be true?


28 thoughts on “Why do so many people want Rob Bell to be wrong?

  1. That’s like asking why people want to believe AIDS is real. It simply is so. It is the state of the human condition. To deny it is absurd and wrong.

    Bell’s efforts to explain away hell (or to pretend to do so in order to sell books… speaking of money changers) are, in fact, more dangerous than attempts to explain away the AIDS crisis.

    Insofar as I “want” there to be a hell, I suppose I hate the idea that I have been co-opted by a delusion. But that is a secondary motivation.

    I’m not sure what the point is of writing a book wondering about whether we Christians have been wrong about hell. Bring a theological case to the table or don’t. If he does the former, I suspect it won’t bear much scrutiny.

    Is there any other field of inquiry where authors can make a living throw crap at the wall to see what sticks? In what other field can someone can craft a flimsily argued work, and then get paid to be publicly offended at the response?

    1. Kevin,

      I don’t want to assume anything about your doctrinal position on this, but your past paragraph does suggest to me that you haven’t read much scholarly work on the topic of Christian Universalism. I assure you, there’s a great deal more out there than just crap on a wall.

      Whether or not Bell’s book will be more than that, well, time will tell. I have every intention of picking it up and putting any arguments he does make through the ringer.

          1. Maybe so, but in the science media, there is much carving apart of other ideas. This practice is accepted, and considered normal. In Christianity, it’s considered uncouth. Just because someone has an idea, we’re supposed to pretend that idea is sound.

  2. In my sometimes humble opinion, some Christians want the doctrine of hell to be true, not because they want people to suffer, but because they’ve turned Christianity into, or have accepted a version of Christianity, that is about believing a certain set of doctrines, of which hell is one.

    1. turned Christianity into?
      What do you think it originally was? It’s founder spoke more about hell than any of the apostles… and spoke more harshly and directly about it than the most conservative preachers dare to today.

      1. “turned Christianity into…believing a certain set of doctrines”

        Do you think that’s what Christianity is about?

        Regardless, I’m not a Christian, so I don’t see much point in arguing for or against hell. All I will say is, yes, Jesus is portrayed in the four gospels as speaking about certain places and scenarios that were translated as hell.

  3. If Christians often say that good cannot exist without evil, then the existence of Heaven necessitates the existence of Hell.

    Then again, the claim regarding good/evil may just be an attempt to squirm out of the Problem of Evil while the torments of Hell spring from a latent human tribalism that requires a “Them” in order to feel secure about being an “Us”. I would argue that the oft heard insistence that Christians are a persecuted minority in America would weigh in favor of this interpretation.

    More broadly, a single doctrine (e.g. Hell) can satisfy a number of psychological needs that cannot be expressed as an answer to a single Why.

    1. Just a note… good and evil aren’t really things but qualities. And evil is probably better thought of as an absence of good (like a shadow to light).

      The reason, IMO, there would have to be a hell (however you want to define that), is because of freedom and the abuse of freedom. You have to have freedom to have love. With freedom comes the ability to abuse it and act in an unloving manner. If someone rebels with that freedom, and isn’t forced to then comply, hell would be a necessary result.

  4. I agree with you that people are prematurely jumping on this without having read the book yet…. although, I think you’ll have to admit that the publisher kind of provoked it. If Bell or others aren’t comfortable with this, then he should have used a different publisher. My guess is that he’s quite happy about all the attention and controversy.

    As to your question… a couple of things: a) If one is a true Christian, they don’t get to make up doctrine based on their likes and dislikes, and b) Love requires justice, or it isn’t love. I’m not saying that makes things easy to resolve, but that how most people understand ‘Love wins…’ is to misunderstand love fundamentally…. ie: false dichotomy.

    1. I think you’ll have to admit that the publisher kind of provoked it.

      Perhaps. I think it depends on what Bell actually says. If he doesn’t come to a conclusion that resembles or even hints at universalism, then yes, this was a shameful publicity stunt. If not, though, well, I guess I don’t have a problem with honest marketing.

        1. My guess, based on previous experience, is that the book more or less insinuates a universalist view, but that he will spend the next two years accusing those who disagree with this position of labeling him. Two years from now, he will simply write a book advocating universalism.

          If Rob Bell responds thoroughly and honestly to critics of his book, I’ll eat a Milk Bone dog biscuit.

          1. Agreed there… that seems to be how it goes. Off the top of my head, like Bart Ehrman, Brian McLaren, Norm Geisler, etc. I think you can include me on the Milk Bone challenge. 🙂

        2. The criticisms may be well founded. I just think they’re premature. Given the weight of the criticism, i.e., Bell is a heretic dooming himself to hell, I think it’s better to err on the side of, let’s wait until the book comes out.

      1. But… then the response by Piper and others is quite justified. More simply… either a) shameful publicity stunt (and then I’d blame the publisher more than Piper, etc.) or b) honest publicity (and then what is wrong with the response?)

  5. A lot of Christians remind me of Jonah’s indignation at Nineveh. They get very upset at the idea that Christ’s salvation might apply to everyone and that there might not be a Hell. After all, if Christianity is a chore you put up with because you want to go to Heaven instead of Hell, you feel like you “deserve” something better than unbelievers.

    I think it would do Christians some good to look at what salvation actually meant in the gospels and in Paul’s letters. It had very little, if anything, to do with the afterlife.

    1. What? Paul thought the world was going to end in his lifetime. He was absolutely concerned with the afterlife.

      The only people I know who espouse the attitude you describe are the straw men set up by people who believe what you believe.

      1. Technically, Paul doesn’t really talk about “hell.” He does spend a lot of time talking about God’s judgment. He also talks about heaven (briefly). But he doesn’t talk about hell, especially in terms of laying out a doctrine of it.

        From a historical perspective, I think that if you study the history of theology, it’s pretty obvious that the doctrine of hell develops much later than the canon itself. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it does mean (IMO) that we can’t be anachronistic when we read Paul and the Gospels.

        By way of analogy, the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t a “biblical” doctrine, in that it’s not explicitly spelled out in the text of Scripture. That doctrine developed over time and wasn’t formalized for at least 100 years after Jesus’ death, and of course, it’s not formally accepted until the ecumenical councils.

        1. At best, then, you can arrive at the annihilationist position. However, if you pair Paul’s teachings on the afterlife with Christ’s comments on the kingdom and hell (which is what any sensible person ought to do), you cannot arrive at the idea that everyone is saved, regardless of what they believe.

          If you want to re-imagine hell beyond a literal lake of fire manned by a dude with a pitchfork, be my guest. But the Bible speaks directly to eternal death for those who are not reconciled to God through Christ.

          As far as judging the book before it is out, I would argue that there is really no sense buying the book. If the video’s are an honest presentation of what is contained therein, he’s really treading over arguments that have long since been dismissed. If it isn’t, I’m disinclined to reward his little publicity stunt.

          That said, I have seldom been wrong w/r/t the trajectory of the emergent church. I could have written Rachel Evans’ book based on the publishers review. This isn’t Greg Boyd or Tim Keller we’re talking about, here.

          1. I pretty much agree… even with your take on the emergent church.
            I’d also say we shouldn’t let the publicity stunt work. However, a few qualified Christians always need to put the smack-down on this stuff as well. We can’t just ignore it.

    2. Christianity… a chore you put up with? Also, NO true Christian ‘put up with anything’ to get to heaven rather than hell… that’s kind of opposed to the foundation of Christian teaching. And, I think to get back to the original question… I don’t think most Christians do not want to see people come to Christ and enjoy heaven (noticed the proselytizing nature of Christianity by chance?). We just know that Scripture says it will be otherwise.

      Why don’t you fill us in on what salvation actually meant in the gospels and Paul’s letters? You haven’t, by chance, been watching History Channel, or reading Crossan or something like that, huh? (note, we’ll laugh at you… nicely though… if that’s what you come back with)

      1. I think salvation, as Paul and Jesus often talk about it, is more about God’s kingdom coming to this earth than it is us escaping to an afterlife of either eternal bliss or eternal torment.

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