Bored With Hell

One of the more interesting features of the whole Rob Bell, Love Wins controversy was the fact that everything died down rather quickly. Bell’s promotional video was released, Justin Taylor blogged about it, everyone else blogged about Taylor’s blog, Matthew 18 was thoroughly exegeted, but once Bell’s book actually came out, things seemed to die down pretty quickly.

Now that the actual book-length responses are coming out (the newest of which is Francis Chan’s excellent Erasing Hell), many people seem surprised; “What, you’re still talking about this? Didn’t we already do this thing to death?” I’ve read a few posts pointing out the fact that since blogs effectively reviewed the book before it is even released, the work itself ended up being rather anticlimactic once it hit shelves. Which is understandable and it makes sense that people have quickly lost interest in talking about Bell.

Except that they haven’t, not really. There are, as far as I can tell, two categories of people who suggest that Rob Bell and his ideas are old hat and not really worth talking about anymore. The first category are obviously Bell supporters (or at least advocates of his brand of theology) who are tired of playing defense. And I get that–it’s understandable that they would rather not have to keep answering whether they think Hitler is in heaven. I imagine they are tired of trying to convince people that Bell is teaching perfectly acceptable orthodox Christianity.

The second group bothers me. These are people who seem to think that the battle has been fought and won. Bell was refuted, his ideas demonstrated to be unorthodox, and we don’t need to trouble ourselves with such things any longer.

We could stand to learn from Athanasius, who won the great theological fight of his day. Until he lost it and was exiled. Until he won again and returned in triumph. Until he lost again and was exiled. Until… you get the point. And the point is that we never stop fighting. Not because we love to fight (well, some of us do) but because the fight is never completely won. Now, I am of the opinion that Love Wins actually was refuted pretty decisively, particularly here. But that isn’t the point. If we convince ourselves that a few book reviews mean that we’ve done our job, we lose.

I don’t think that Bell’s book was popular simply because it presented new(ish) ideas and was controversial. I think it gained traction because of two reasons: 1) It is what an enormous number of people want to believe about God. and 2) It is what most of them already believe anyway. These ideas resonate in a very strong way with my generation (and younger) and if we are not careful, it will come to define their views on heaven, hell, and the Gospel.

The issues that Bell has raised are not going away anytime soon and I am concerned that we in the American Church have largely forgotten how to fight theological battles. Do we really fire just one good salvo and pack it in? Or do we really believe that the rejection of doctrines like hell and the exclusivity of Christ (I don’t care how he tries to package it in his book, Bell does reject it) are important enought to oppose?

In the end, the whole thing makes me feel rather sick–Rob Bell was a significant influence on me while I was in college and at my most cynical. Bell taught me to love the Church again and rekindled in me a sense of wonder for God and a hunger for the Word. Reading Love Wins wasn’t surprising, but it did feel like learning that all the awful rumors you’ve heard about a friend are true. I want to believe Bell is being misinterpreted, I want to believe that he is completely orthodox. More than anything, however, I want to preserve the ancient truths of Christianity for the next generation. Doing that means being willing to fight and willing to remember that the battle is never finally won.

So read the books that come out, educate yourself about the positions in question, and be willing to wait until the fighting flares up again. Because when it does, we need to be prepared to respond.


2 responses to “Bored With Hell

  • Clifton Griffin

    Very well said, Jack.

    I have had the same struggle with Rob Bell. I remember trying to juggle his strange analogies and constructs in Velvet Elvis, trying to fit them into something reasonably orthodox, with only partial success. It was like trying to hold a paradox in ones mind, without conceding that a conflict existed.

    But eventually, I gave up. I think this was probably during the nooma where he suggested that Peter began to sink into the sea because he lost faith in himself.

    With the anti-Rob Bell crowd so loud, I decided to just sit out. I would warn people to be careful as they read his books, but I didn’t want to go on the offensive and suggest he be avoided all together. I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water on the chance that his ministry had value, even if it was potentially dangerous.

    At this point, it’s hard to make that case. I think Christians have dropped it because we’re afraid of the reputation we’ll get for infighting. Even though Bell is preaching heresy, we are counting the cost to our own reputations for identifying it and acting on that.

    We live in a society that puts a low value on believing something and living/dying by that.

    But, that isn’t much of an excuse.

  • miketuttle


    I’m a bit new to the Orthodoxy game. So, I tread lightly on most issues out of a healthy combination of ignorance and respect. I read Love Wins, mainly to stay in the loop – or, rather, to try to find where the loop is nowadays. And, I’m still chewing on it and listening.

    Your point about the “heresy” label resonates with what I thought during the pre-release saber rattling: If Rob Bell (or anyone else) is going to be called a heretic, he will be in good company. The word brings up images of science-rejecting old men in robes who flip-flopped from Council to Council (Arius? Athanasius, as you mentioned?) and/or later had to be apologized for. Or Mel Brooks singing about Torquemada. Regardless of accuracy, it is a charged word that does not serve the cause very well and smacks of theological McCarthyism. It is a word that seems to be intended to scare off people who don’t have time to read for themselves. It carries more authority than just saying someone is “wrong”. It means, “He is wrong, and I know enough to prove it,” even if the proof is not forthcoming or ends up being a restatement of thin proofs, long-debated.

    I have noticed this, Bell’s book started people talking again about something most of us actually kind of hoped we were wrong about. And, the “heretic” label actually spurred me to read it. Who would’ve imagined that in the 21st century we would have heretics AND pirates?

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