Monday, February 28, 2011

Heaven, Hell and Rob Bell

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever LivedThe internet is buzzing with controversy as Rob Bell (prominent pastor and writer) has released a teaser video to promote his new book, Love Wins.  As is usually the case with Christian controversy, trenches have been dug.  Some are writing off Bell and doing everything short of preparing kindling at the base of a stake.  Others are vehemently attacking any brother or sister who so much as gently questions Bell's theology.

At the center of the debate, Bell's questions about sin, salvation and eternal punishment.  As believers, we can't deny the importance of the issues in question.  Regardless of where Bell lands on the issues, he isn't talking about worship styles or the use of certain gifts.  These are not fringe issues.  Bell is addressing the central doctrines of the Christian faith.  Have a look at the teaser, which by the way is very creative:

Since the book isn't available until the end of March, I don't know what Bell is going to say about heaven and hell.  It certainly seems that by questioning the love of a God that condemns people to hell, he is implying that (because God is loving) He will not ultimately send everyone to hell.  Bell is known for implications.  Is he teaching universalism (everyone will go to heaven) or inclusivism (everyone who believes in something will go to heaven) or just sparking controversy to sell books?  Until I read his book (and knowing Bell probably even then) I can't speak with certainty about his belief on the subject.

However, in the teaser video Bell models a prominent theological method that I'd like to bring into question today.

Bell is right to say that our view of heaven and hell reflects our view of God, and our view of God is absolutely central to our faith.  I would argue that there is another "question behind the question" namely, "How do we know God?"  Historically, there have been two methods: 
  1. We define Him according to our own understanding.
  2. We know Him as He reveals Himself to us.
With brevity, let's have a look at each method.  

According to our Own Understanding:
Bell's question: "How can that God be good?" reflects a theological method that puts the knowing subject at the center of knowledge.  Since the Garden of Eden, humanity has defined or judged God according to our own perception of what is good.  During the enlightenment, theologians applied Rene Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" principle, which puts oneself at the center of knowledge, to the the study of God.  The epistemological (study of knowledge) method of the Enlightenment and Liberal theology was to reject all authoritative truth claims, except ones that come from one's own questioning.  In other words, I am the only person who can know anything about anything, and I know things because I question.  I trust no one and no thing to give me answers.  This means ruling out God's own revelation about Himself in favor of human reason.  

As He Reveals Himself:
In contrast to human tendency, enlightenment philosophy and liberal theology of the Schleiermachrian ilk, stands God's redemptive self-revelation.  Each of us have the choice to make our own speculations about God and His nature or trust His revelation of himself.  This is not to say we suspend rational thought.  It does mean putting God at the center of truth about Himself as opposed to ourselves.  

Our Choice:
There is one vital reality to know as we consider our theological method: God is not of this world.  He is infinitely beyond it.  Human knowledge is inherently tied to four-dimensional space-time.  Our logic is limited and bound to it.  Consider this: God created space and time.  He is not limited to it.  He is outside it, and therefore outside the limits of human knowledge and reason.  The only way we can know anything about Him is if He reveals Himself in our space-time universe.  This is why Christ came (Matthew 11:27John 1:18).  It is why the Word of God was written (Luke 1:1-4, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, 1 John 5:13).  We only know God as He reveals Himself.  Everything else is just an earth-bound guess.  

Don't believe me?  Try making a statement about God absent of any of His revelation: no Christ, no Bible, no universe.  I would say that you would only be left with yourself and your guesses, but since you are created in the image of God that rules you out too.  Without God's revelation, we have nothing.  

God's self-revelation does not always align with our limited views of love and justice.  The question is: What trumps?  Does God's revelation top my mortal opinion, or do I think I know love and justice better than God? Let's have a look at some of Bell's questions in light of God's revelation:
What makes this hard is that our perception seldom lines up with God's revelation.  This is the crux of the matter.  I readily admit that it doesn't seem loving that Ghandi might be in hell despite all his good works, because he didn't surrender his life to Christ (Isaiah 46:6, John 14:6) .  However, the reality is that my view of love is broken and His is perfect.  

We are really dealing with two issues here: 1) Heaven and Hell and 2) How we know God.  So, I recommend we give Rob Bell a chance and read his book.  But, first let's answer the question behind the question.  If you are ready to address the issue of truth, have a look at Has God Said by John Douglas Morrison. 

Questions for the Week:
Where do you get your truth about God?  Is there something about His revelation of Himself that makes you uncomfortable?  What do you find hard to believe about God, and how do you reconcile that with what seems true? Let's discuss this.  


  1. Thanks for posting the video, I kept meaning to look into what everyone is freaking out about.

    As you know I am normally a fan of Rob Bell and appreciate how he approaches subjects. With that being said if he lands on the side of universalism I will be disappointed. Where I hope he lands in the end is somewhere closer to inclusivism. Stating that yes there will be judgment, yes there is a hell, however we are not God so it is premature for us to state with certainty that we know where people are going.

    That is often what I find so interesting about theology. We all have our few things that we say "we know only in part" and play the mystery card. And then there are a few other issues that we say "it is crystal clear!!". I don't want to say that we cannot have certainty (we can!) and I don't want to say there isn't mystery (there is!) but I always want to encourage humility and hope. Humility that we are not God and we only know in part, but let us hold onto that part with faith and hope.

  2. Well said, Dan. While I hold to an exclusivist view of salvation, I do believe there are things God has not revealed to us. I think of Melchizedek. God seems to have revealed himself to him individually.

    Also, we do not know the hearts of people or what God can do in the last stages of life. Ghandi is a great example. While we don't know of him surrendering his life to Christ, he did affirm the importance of Christ. It is certainly possible that he surrendered to Christ in his final days without our knowledge. We can't know the heart of another. We can only speak the truth of salvation in Christ alone and hope that they accept Him.

    I also like your comment about mystery and certainty. There are plenty of things that are very clear and plenty of things that God simply does not fully reveal. It is part of what makes theology so exciting. Humility is key no matter what!

    By the way, I am normally a fan of Rob Bell too. I have had some serious concerns about his theology from early on. Those concerns address some fundamental orthodox issues. He does have some valuable things to say that make his work worth reading. As with anything, we need to have discernment to eat the meat and spit out the bones.

    Thanks for the great comment!