Rob Bell’s Hell_, and God’s Goodness

[Note: unfortunately the software behind WF assumes the word hell_ is a curse word, and changes it automatically to @#!*% ... Till I figure how to fix this spelling issue, I've added _ to the end of the word, so it stays readable.)

The underlying tension behind the latest theological controversy – about Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins – is our uncomfortable belief in hell_. On the one hand, the New Testament, and Jesus especially, talk often about hell_, and suggest it is a nasty reality. On the other hand, hell_ sounds a Medieval, cruel belief, the dirtiest pleasure of a sadist God, a place where eternal suffering lasts far longer than the earthly sins committed. Many of us, then, wish to explain hell_ away, understandably, and Rob Bell’s book is the latest example of this sentiment.

In my view, however, whatever content we ascribe to hell_ – definitive death, eternal suffering, some meaningless state away from God – the existence of some form of hell_ is necessary if we are to have an all-good God. To get rid of hell_ does not give us a more loving God; rather, it gives us a more cruel, more mediocre God. A perfect heaven can exist only if there is also a hell_; if there is no hell_, there won’t be a heaven either, and neither earth: everything is consumed by hell_.

Let me explain. If a good God did not want to punish evil somehow, this could mean only two things. Either true, objective evil does not exist – date rape, systematic genocide, use of mentally sick people for selfish purposes, all these are not evil - and should not be punished. I don’t think any of us would sanely advocate this option, would we? Or else God does not care about evil. He gives in, hides the dirt under the carpet, and lets evil go unpunished. He looks at the Holocaust, at the hills of corpses in concentration camps, looks Hitler in the eye, and says that it is ok, no big deal. He looks at the father who preys on his daughter every evening, and shares her with his friends, and prefers to shy away instead of naming that evil.

Can you see the God we end up with? It is not a more loving God, but a less loving God. It is a God who does not care about evil, who in the name of sentimentality calls everything all right, and who ultimately is not good. It is a God who does not care about us. It is a God who watches the nightmare of wars and abuse and exploitation and selfishness and is too weak to care, or too timid to name evil as evil, or who is does not know what goodness is. We wanted a God so good that he abolishes hell_, but we end up with a God so weak that hell_ takes over him.

Instead, God’s provision of hell_ means that he takes our reality seriously, and does not let any evil act we suffer go unseen. God’s hatred of evil is a consequence of his unflinching goodness; his wrath is the greatest demonstration of his love. Only a God who abhors evil could be any good; only a God who sadly makes space for hell_ can redeem reality truly and create a heaven out of our mess. Hell_ does not mean that God is cruel, it means just the opposite: that he is not cruel, that he opposes evil without blinking, and that he is wondrously good.

Hell_  and God’s opposition to evil are not repulsive doctrines of a cruel God. On the very contrary: they are evidence of how unspeakably good our God is. Nor are they what the Christian message is about: they are just the shadows of a very bright picture, the low echoes of a virtuoso symphony, the dirt that shows that God’s shoes do indeed walk on this world; they are just the necessary consequences of the evil of this world. God is not focused on hell_, not at all. He is rather at work in the redemption of reality, in the restoration of every living thing to the glorious peace of heaven, to his society of purity and justice and love. God does not ignore or take pleasure in evil, but he is so indescribably good that he looks evil in the eye, and so indescribably graceful as to include and redeem evil people like us in his heavenly masterpiece. He is in fact so good that he offered himself to pay for our sins, and satisfy his wrath, so that hell_  does not take over reality, but is in fact dwarfed by the majestic redeemed society of heaven. This is goodness beyond description, this is a wide-eyed redeemer of evil, this is a trustworthy architect of heaven.

René Breuel


[i] Romans 12:17-21 NIV.

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8 responses to “Rob Bell’s Hell_, and God’s Goodness

  1. Hi René,

    I wonder about your claim that “Rob Bell’s book is the latest example” of those who wish to explain hell away. I just checked this morning and his book is still only on pre-order.

  2. Hey Ben,

    Great to hear from you! I made that assertion based on the official publicity of the book, which affirms, “In Love Wins, Bell goes to the heart of these issues and argues that the church’s traditional understanding of heaven and hell is actually not taught by the Bible” (http://www.harpercollinscatalogs.com/harper/517_1875_333133383337.htm#readmore), as well as on reviews such as Mark Galli’s, who affirms, “After reading the book, it’s hard for me to believe that Bell doesn’t espouse universalism…” (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/april/lovewins.html?start=1).

    I would love to hear your take, and whether you agree with me or not in this issue, after you check out the book yourself : )

    Anyhow, my article did not really address Bell’s views, nor was meant to do so. I just wanted to enjoy the current debate to address the theme of hell, and how it is crucial for us to understand God’s character, love, and goodness.

    Blessings!

    René

  3. Hello René,
    I was also wondering when Rob was going to be brought back in the picture to tie into your argument you began in the opening of your post.
    I wonder if going by the publisher’s blurb for your position on Rob’s book is to do him a disservice. The publisher desires to make money by selling books. We all know from experience that what is blurbed by the publisher is not necessarily capturing the content in context.
    Based on what I have heard by Rob on his numerous presentations (sadly on video only, not in person), it seems his take on hell, as the publisher’s blurb asserts, would be incongruent with his theology.
    I’ll look forward to reading his book to see for myself.
    I appreciated your high-soaring words of affirmation of God’s perfect goodness. It’s a grand day to worship our great Lord.
    Pax,
    Patricia

  4. Dear Patricia,

    Great to hear from you! Thank you for your joint appreciation of God’s goodness!

    You are very right, a publisher’s blurb is meant to sell the book, more than to be a faithful summary of its thesis. I agree that we should evaluate someone’s views only according to the person’s actual words, and that is why I abstained from describing and assessing Bell’s specific view, since the book is yet to come out, and I agree with Ben that we should abstain from judging it before we can actually read it. I just quoted the blurb in the above comment to answer Ben’s question, since if a blurb may not be the most accurate summary, it won’t advocate something opposite to what the book will argue either.

    Like you, I appreciate Rob Bell too. He is a great communicator, and great at asking provocative questions that get people thinking. He got us all thinking now, eh? Let’s wait and see what his answers will amount to then.

    Good to have you around!

    René

  5. Hi René
    Yes, Rob does get us thinking! I agree with you that he communicates with excellence.
    Not having read him before, I look forward to ascertaining if his great speaking style is “heard” in his writing.
    Thank you for clarifying why you quoted the publisher’s blurb in your response to Ben.
    Thank you also for founding and hosting such a fantastic blog. I read very few because so few are worth reading! John Stackhouse’s endorsement for the blog made for a quick decision to bookmark it and read it regularly! He was a prof of mine at Regent and I respect him very much, so an endorsement from him is worth paying attention.
    P~

  6. Thanks for a thoughtful article which reafirmed God’s great love for us without ignoring the clear Scriptural teaching of Hell. Always a difficult doctrine, one I’d rather ignore, yet I can’t if I believe the Bible. I do, however, think we may have misinterpreted some verses on Hell. I’m finding thru reading many blogs on the subject, that there are many other verses that imply Hell could be much different than the eternal torment for those who didn’t accept Christ (including those who’ve never heard about Him) Hell was created for the Devil and his angels, the Bible says. If God were to punish people forever who never had the opportunity to know him, would He still be a loving God?

  7. Yes Laurie, you are very right, there are a number of interpretations of what hell will be. Some people defend that hell means that souls die and do not go suffering forever, for example.
    As you mentioned, there are also a number of views about the fate of who who never heard Jesus’ message. These are difficult issues in which Christians are free to disagree with one another. But one concern I have, which I tried to express in this article, is not let these controversies dominate our minds and squeeze out the central truth of the gospel: that God is so amazingly good that he offered himself to redeem us from sin, death, and hell.
    Cheers!

  8. Pingback: The Peaceful Doctrine of God’s Wrath « Wondering Fair·

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