Rob Bell on Hell, Part 2, and the Gospel

This chapter rooted in the story of the Prodigal Son, the Elder Brother and the Compassionate Father of Luke 15 typifies the entire book well. It discusses hell and the gospel. One topic is handled very well, the other very poorly. Let's look at the divide.

This chapter rooted in the story of the Prodigal Son, the Elder Brother and the Compassionate Father of Luke 15 typifies the entire book well. It discusses hell and the gospel. One topic is handled very well, the other very poorly. Let's look at the divide.

I will go in the reverse order of the chapter, which starts with hell and ends with the gospel. Bell does a wonderful job in discussing the gospel as not about merely entering heaven and as God retelling our story with an offer of his love. Bell stresses correctly that people end up with a distorted self understanding, either because of excessive unworthiness or a debilitating pride. The gospel is about God's love and offer of acceptance into a joyous relationship with him that transforms how we see ourselves and life. It is joyous participation with God and a story worth sharing. All of this is very well said and worthy of reflection.

But this coin has a head and a tail. On the other side stands what Bell says about hell through this text. It reflects what he has said about hell throughout the book. Here he redefines the biblical idea of hell, abstracting and psychologizing it as a state of mind and not a place. They are not separate locales, he says, but are intertwined. Well, they are both intertwined AND locales. They are intertwined because each is a part of the fate and reality of where God will place us one day or else all the texts on judgment in Scripture do not make any sense. They are locales because that is how they are portrayed in texts like Luke 16:19-31 and Revelation 20:1-3, 7-15.

An observation: Bell uses Luke 15 to discuss and define heaven and hell, but that text is not about that topic directly like Luke 16 is. Luke 15 is about grace and appreciating it, something the prodigal does and the elder brother does not. Why not use the text that discusses the topic in question most directly, noting the imagery that relates to hell with care, rather than simply leaping into psychological discussion? What Bell discusses is selective and how he discusses what he chooses to discuss is revealing.

But back to hell. He defines hell as "our refusal to trust God's retelling of our story." That is not hell in a biblical sense, although it sure can take you there. What Bell calls hell is human stubbornness and sin. Redefining hell in this way does not help us theologically. Hell is a place where we are permanently separated from a just and gracious God who has offered us himself as the way to life. We get there by our refusing to accept his offer. Part of what will make it hell is that when judgment comes it will be clear that He exists and that He made such a gracious offer to give us life. This is where the Rich Man and Lazarus story is so important as are parables that picture a completely shut door after we make choices in this life.

However the most serious flaw in the chapter, one that rivals the serious, earlier double non-sequitur in chapter 5 is the way Bell characterizes God's judgment. Such statements slander God and his justice. Somehow for Bell God's rejection of people and judgment of them for not responding to His kindness and grace is a reflection on God and not on the one who has refused to respond to God! It is a reflection of God as a "mean and vicious tormenter" because He can turn in the blink of an eye from offering Himself to us to judging us forever. But what Bell misses is that this action was not made in the blink of an eye. It was a considered and revealed judgment that God announced would be his response if we refuse to acknowledge Him and His way and His right as God. God laid all his cards on the table long before we responded. God played His hand when He had Jesus die for us and offer us the joyous life Bell so well describes. God told us that to refuse this is to refuse entry into the kingdom of God, Notice how entry into the kingdom is entry into a place, not just a state of mind.

In what is too often the case for us in our modern world, the problem cannot be with us; it has to be about the portrayal of God and about Him, who has turned on us and made us a victim of His whim. Now where is the justice in this assessment of God by Bell? Our choice and refusal ends up being an indictment on God's character for responding by accepting the choice we made. And it is not as if God did not reveal the importance and consequences of the choice we make as He was making the offer. I think by undervaluing hell as a place and a place with a long future, Bell opens the door to undervalue our accountability to God and devalues His character, distorting and transforming God's justice into charges of divine injustice, even calling such a standard of judgment the work of an "unlovable" God.

This section of the book is slander against God and the biblical teaching about judgment. What is sad is that God loves us so much that we get our choice and the consequences of what we ask for, consequences He revealed to us in Scripture. When we downplay the consequences and our eternal accountability to God by asking what kind of a God would do such a thing, the result is that our portrait of God becomes distorted. We lose sight of the fact that God makes the rules of life in His creation, not us.

Sadly, all Bell has to say about hell in this book reflects a serious distortion of not only heaven and hell, but of justice and God. The result is that people are not challenged to reflect on how they think about and approach God with humility and faith; rather they can now blame Him for their own failures. We become a society of victims where we make the call on what makes God just. The saddest thing is that grace and love lose out in this distortion as we make the call on how God should act, risking missing His revealed justice and love in the process.

Again, it pains me to have to say this so directly. But the blind spot in this emphasis is not a mere cataract; it is a very black hole.


One Comment

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    Andrew Carr

    Dr. Bock’s Blog

    Dear Dr. Bock,


    Thank you for the insightful comments. The careful reader will learn a great deal about theology and hermeneutics. The sense of humor and irenic tone are appreciated also.


    In Christ,