The Christian’s hope of heaven has unquestionably an earthly dimension. ‘In keeping with his promise’, writes Peter, ‘we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’ (2Peter3.13). Our eternal home will not be the heaven to which our souls depart at death, but a renewed earth in a renewed universe which we shall occupy and enjoy in renewed resurrection bodies.
It is this ‘earthly’ heaven that Rob Bell celebrates in Love Wins. ‘It’s almost automatic’, he says, ‘for many to think of heaven as ethereal, intangible, esoteric, and immaterial. Floaty, dreamy, hazy’ (p.56). On the contrary, ‘earth and heaven’ are destined to ‘become one’ (p.57), with each of its citizens possessing a ‘resurrected, heaven-and-earth-finally-come-together-as-one body’ (p.61).
The difficulties with Bell’s heaven lie in the details and first of all in their haziness. The picture he paints is a comprehensive one. It brings together the present and the future, the one merging into the other, and is peopled by the entirety of earth’s inhabitants. It introduces something from the past, namely, the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and hell figures prominently too. Bell’s canvas is nothing if it isn’t broad! At certain points, however, it is difficult to be sure what exactly he is portraying.
The details are clear enough, however, to be alarming. Bell tells us, for example, that there are ‘flames in heaven’ (p.50). Peter’s statement above about our eternal destiny as Christians being a ‘home of righteousness’ is one of many in Scripture that portray heaven as a perfect place. Its occupants have been altogether freed from sin. Not in Bell’s heaven. We will not ‘automatically become totally different people’, he avers. ‘Our heart, our character, our desires, our longings ‘those things take time’ (p.51). We will continue to be a work in process. And the perfecting will potentially be very painful.
It appears, too, that no one will be missing. The idea of two eternal locations – one for the saved and the other for the lost, separated by a great gulf which no-one can cross – is explicitly repudiated. We will all be together. For eternity.
In asserting this Bell is not denying the reality of a hell. Love Wins clearly teaches a hell: ‘There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously’ (p.79). Bell’s hell, however, is not the hell of the Bible – the hell to which God in justice sends sinners as a punishment for their sins and in which they will consciously suffer forever. It is not in fact a place at all.
Hell for Bell is the misery people bring upon themselves by the sinfulness of their hearts and choices. It is a subjective state. ‘There are all kinds of hells’, he maintains, ‘because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human’ (p.79).
So hell is a here and now, this-world reality. On the basis of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son we are to believe that ‘Everybody is already at the party. Heaven and hell, here, now, around us, upon us, within us’ (p.190). And so it will continue into the world to come.
But we can get out of our hell! God, we are told, allows people ‘to live with the full consequences of their choices, confident that the misery they find themselves in will have a way of getting their attention’ (p.90). ‘Consequences are for correction’ (p.88). And according to Bell, the door will be endlessly open for sinners to receive that correction, deliver themselves from their hell, and begin to enjoy heaven.
And will they all go through the door? Bell hesitates to say ‘Yes’. On the one hand he wants to affirm that love wins; that by means of the miserable but love-permitted consequences of their sins people will come to their senses and turn to God. On the other hand God respects our freedom. Because of that, the possibility exists (however remote) of some holding out indefinitely – still in heaven locationally but subjectively continuing in hell.
How does Bell support these views? Not by cutting the knot and saying that Scripture is wrong but rather by a mishandling of Scripture that is deeply to his discredit.
His basic assumption, for example, is that God just could not send people to a place of suffering forever. It would be incompatible with his love and fatherhood. No attempt is made to prove that. It is simply taken as self-evidently true. Scorn is then poured on those who disagree and their position caricatured.
How does he defend his notion of a future restoration? By the quotation of text after text that sounds apposite but which in truth has either little or no bearing on the matter. And by leaving out a vast deal that plainly teaches the opposite.
Then there is his doctrine of the work of Christ. Bell strongly affirms that Christ is the only way to the Father. But he is also sure that when it comes to ‘how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him’, Christ is silent. ‘He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him’ (p.154). This opens the door to heaven for people of other religions. But it does so at the expense of the clear and repeated insistence of Scripture that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation – something Bell denies.
The doctrine of hell is the most solemn in all the Bible. It needs to be handled with great care. No-where is speculation more out of place. And it must be preached lovingly. But first it must be believed. Do we have a solid basis for such belief? The Bible is emphatic in its teaching that God is love. Lovingly he sent his Son and lovingly he offers him in the gospel to one and all. And to all eternity God will never treat any of his creatures unlovingly. But there is such a thing as the wrath to come. Explicitly and repeatedly God portrays himself as a God who will judge sinners and whose judgment will mean an eternal separation from him. We may shudder. But we cannot be honest and fair with all that Scripture says and not come to that conclusion.