Rob Bell isn’t the first to write a book on the doctrine of hell. In 2010 Sharon Baker wrote Razing Hell. Brian McLaren wrote one in 2005. Other titles by various authors here, here, and here. But since Rob Bell is more broadly recognized in evangelical circles, he will draw both contempt and praise on a larger scale. In late March 2011 the Mars Hill pastor and creator of the Nooma videos will release his book titled, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. He introduces the book in a 3-minute video here.
Needless to say the video and the upcoming release of this book has created a firestorm of controversy. John Piper briefly tweeted: “Farewell Rob Bell” with a link to Justin Taylor’s pre-book release comments on Rob Bell’s book. Taylor pays backhand compliments to Bell for laying his cards on the table rather than using “studiously ambiguous” terminology. Taylor and Piper are no doubt attempting to get a head start on the controversy before the book is even released. They will be happy to pronounce an indictment on Rob Bell’s theology once it is “on the table.” And rest assured, that indictment will come not a moment too late.
Rob Bell has dared to evaluate a theology that has troubled many Christians and non-Christians alike. Even those who believe in a hell of eternal torment probably don’t want to believe in such a fate for the unbelieving. They likely believe it “because the Bible says so” or because they’ve been given sufficient reason to believe that the character of God is not reduced by believing in such a doctrine. So why would a sincere and concerted effort to discover the biblical and justified view of the doctrine of hell be met with such contempt? What does John Piper, Justin Taylor, and others like them have to lose if Rob Bell is right? What is threatening about an alternate view of God’s justice and judgment that is so worthy of contempt?
If the traditional view of hell—that God sends people to an eternal conscious state of torment for not following Jesus—is indeed biblical and the true end of the sinful and unredeemed, then not only is the fate of all individuals at stake, but the very character and nature of God is at stake. If the traditional view of hell is unbiblical and not the reality for those who are not called “Christians,” the character and nature of God is still at stake. At the end of the day (or the end of time), the doctrine of hell has more to do with the character and nature of God and our relationship to God. Neither side of this debate would disagree that the stakes are high. God, not hell, is on trial here.
It is no ironic thing that the defenders of the traditional view of hell are already damning Rob Bell’s new view before the book has even been released. It is sad, really, and a poor example of Christian charity, much less a demonstration of brotherly love toward a fellow believer (so far they haven’t demoted Bell to apostate). Instead of seeing this initiative as silly or unfair, Taylor and Piper see it as being faithful to the testimony of the Bible. Do they really think Rob Bell doesn’t himself believe that he is being faithful to the biblical witness? Do they really think that Rob Bell has cast aside the Bible simply because he believes the Bible gets it wrong? Or will Bell simply say, “The Bible teaches us something different“? Most ironic is that Piper’s entire ministry is based on redefining the way we think about our relationship to God! Piper’s Christian hedonism is so contrary to the way we think God is, but teaches what I heartily affirm is how God is truly to be understood. It’s not about us, it’s about God.
This is why Rob Bell’s new book is such an important contribution to the debate over hell.
Kudos to Rob Bell. Even if he’s wrong.
[UPDATE: David Sessions has a great piece called "What the Rob Bell Controversy Says About John Piper." Julie Clawson also wrote about a recent experience related to the Rob Bell controversy, and shares her thoughts on hell.]