by Matthew Raley
I am surveying features of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins that evangelicals should watch over the coming years. A second feature is Bell’s description of the nature of God.
According to Bell, the evangelical God is impossible for people to trust. This God has put a time-limit on repentance: death is the end of people’s opportunity to have a relationship with him, and hell awaits people who do not believe. Bell says that this sort of God is “violent” and “destructive.” If this account of God were true, he says,
A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with [people] would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.
If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. (pp 173-174)
He goes on, calling this God “devastating,” “psychologically crushing,” “terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.”
Bell counters that God is love, and that God’s invitation into his love never ends. Hell is not God tormenting people, but people choosing to reject God’s love and creating their own torment. Even when they reject God, he always brings them back because redemption is part of his very nature.
Yet Bell’s story about how God redemptive nature displays the same divine volatility Bell finds in the doctrine of eternal hell.
For example, Bell uses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to make the argument that hell is temporary. He calls them “the poster cities for deviant sinfulness run amok,” recounting how God rained sulfur on the cities, destroying everything. “But this isn’t the last we read of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Bell cites Ezekiel 16, where God says he will return the cities to what they were before, then asks rhetorically, “What appeared to be a final, forever, smoldering, smoking verdict regarding their destiny … wasn’t? What appeared to be over, isn’t. Ezekiel says that where there was destruction there will be restoration.” (p 83, emphasis original)
So God sometimes destroys people to make a point. Then he restores. Bell calls this a “movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life.” (p 85)
Using Bell’s standard of a loving God, his account of what he calls God’s redeeming nature shows the same violence he condemns when discussing eternal torment in hell. The God who destroyed Sodom is the child abuser about whom Bell would call the authorities. The people of Sodom did not choose sulfurous rain; God inflicted it upon them.
The only difference Bell shows between the God who destroyed Sodom and the God who punishes souls eternally is the amount of time involved.
So let’s imagine Rob Bell preaching love and hope to Sodom: “This fire isn’t forever. Your father loves you! He’s inviting you to participate in his love! Just wait: you’ll have another opportunity to love God!”
Or we could ask this question: Would it matter to the people destroyed in the fire of Sodom that their punishment was only temporary? Would they trust God any more, or hate God any less because they have another opportunity later?
Or we could make up a scenario about pain. Suppose I promised you that the Soviet guard in the gulag would only beat you every day for 10 years. Would the temporary nature of the torment make it tolerable? What if he only beats you daily for a week? Okay, okay: your beating will only last 5 minutes.
Bell’s proposal that hell is temporary in no way makes his account of God’s nature coherent.
Celebrity status will not exempt Bell’s arguments from the precision of, say, Richard Dawkins. Evangelicals should watch what happens when Bell’s distinctions without differences fail to make God any more loveable.
Love Wins accepts generalized standards of love and justice — standards that are, to be sure, accepted by most people without examination. But the received wisdom of generalizations about “a loving God” or “a just God” fall apart once we delve into specific cases. “Loving” toward whom? “Just” in whose cause?
I think Bell will have to discard every biblical account of God’s punishing a sinner in order to preserve his view of redemption. That is where I think his “better story” about God will lead. Bell has failed to put human pain in the context of any serious look at the requirements of justice.