Rob Bell, the Book, and a Candle

John Mark Reynolds

Rob Bell, the Book, and a Candle

Love moves the heavens and the stars. Love created the universe and love will win in the end. Rob Bell did not say this—Dante did—and Dante believed in Hell. Dante also thought all of us, including himself, in danger of going there for all eternity.

Dante believed in Hell, because of reason, reading the Bible, and because of love. If love is to win, then Hell must exist. Sadly, Rob Bell has chosen the culturally sterile, ethically bankrupt, and unloving position of denying love’s demand: hell exists and love built it.

It would be easier to disagree with Bell, if he were not so likable and also right about so many other things. Bell is admirable in being open to possibilities. Socratic questioning is a good thing and nobody should deny Bell the right to speculate.

Sadly, speculation can substitute for rigor and Rob Bell is not a very careful thinker.

Old books like the Bible require rigorous exegetical skills or they end up saying what we wish they said. Bell’s god ends up looking suspiciously like Rob Bell, never a good sign in a theologian.

Bell’s god will not take “no” for an answer. Like some cosmic lounge lizard, He follows you for eternity until you give Him a sympathy date. Bell’s god has more in common with Zeus, whose “love” always got what it wanted, than the Triune God of Scriptures. The good news about the God of the Bible is that He is nothing like Homer’s Zeus: God will let you love somebody else.

Love will win, but true love does not always get what it wants. If the beloved gets what he demands, love will accept the choice, even if that means rejection of the beloved. Our God knows our “no” means “no.”

Christianity has always been clear: if you don’t like God’s paradise, then you get to live someplace else. If you don’t like God’s rules, then God loves you enough to let you live by the rules you have chosen.

Bell struggles, it seems, with the notion that human choice counts for eternity.

This either ignores or discounts the possibility that human existence in the next life is outside of time. If humankind exists with God in Heaven or in Hell outside of time, then there is no “enduring” punishment. If time does not exist in Paradise, then there is literally no time to repent and change course. Like the angels, a person after death is fixed. The dead are literally out of time.

If the new heaven and new earth are inside of time, Bell ignores our experience of sin or any bad choices. We are most free at the moment we choose to love something we should not, but as we continue in that path we often become more addicted to our choice. Hatred grows and consumes until no will is left.

Turning away from bigotry and hatred requires intellect, but hatred and bigotry consume the intellect. God Himself cannot unmake time and if a man destroys his will and his intellect, then repentance is no longer possible. There is nothing left of the man who will not give up his petty loves or has turned his hatreds into himself.

Sin can be so rooted in a man that it becomes the man.

Bell assumes that “death” is merely a stage of human existence and does not mark an ontological change. The very substance of a person changes at death, if for no reason than he exists for a moment bodiless. This marked difference ends a phase of our existence, but Bell does not respect that division.

He demands that the afterlife look a great deal like this life, though without the nasty bits, but the life of the world to come is almost nothing like this life. This life, marred as it is by our failure to love, is only a dim shadow of the world to come. If we are not changed in this life, the very pleasures of Heaven will be greater pain than the fires of Hell.

Bell claims he is saying nothing new and this is true. He has taken the road of so many who will not love the “other” enough to hear “no.” He demands that everyone think, in the end, as he thinks. He demands his god wins, but his god is a tyrant and not the Lover of Sacred Scripture. If Bell is right, love hasn’t won… a nagging, harassing, hectoring god has.

Christians have seen this weak love too many times. What are the results?

Men who live with a healthy fear of Hell make more careful ethical choices. Love cares about the beloved. The lover cares about every word, every choice, and weighs every decision. Bell’s god wears us down, no choice we make matters in the end, and Bell’s nanny god is not worthy of love. The lover fears offending his Beloved, but nobody need to fear offending Bell’s god.

The Christian God loves us and so respects our choices. He knows who we have become and does not unmake us if we will not be unmade. If we will be damned, then damned we will be. God is just in His love and having made us with free will He does not cheat His own standards.

Men with a love of God and a fear of missing Him produced Western culture and great art. Dante, John Chrysostom, C.S. Lewis, and Jonathan Edwards disagree with Bell. Unitarians, that nineteenth-century artifact, agree with him. There is no doubt which belief is more culturally robust. The high choice between Heaven and Hell produces the cathedrals like Notre Dame; the less serious views of Bell produce ephemeral stuff suitable for a You-Tube culture.

We have seen all this before now. The Victorians who denied hell read as syrupy, culturally bound, and unaware the Holocaust was around the corner. Theologians so up-to-date they sound as dated as yesterday’s You-Tubes may like Bell, but Christians will stick with Dante’s Bible.

We could grow morbid about the truth of Hell, but need not. Love sends us to where we wish to go, respects our choices, and judges us justly and with mercy. Nobody will go to Hell that did not choose damnation and nobody will stay who wills to let things go. Bell just does not love that idea.

Our love is like a guttering candle in a high wind. It burns too weak for the gales of death which will rip apart our souls and bodies. Most of our loves are selfish and come mixed with hatred and in the face of true Love will be snuffed out. Real love, unmitigated love requires tapping into a flame that burns like the sun and cannot be extinguished when the cold winds and waves of death overwhelm us.

Bell’s comforting words will not keep our petty love from going out in that coming tsunami. It will reshape us utterly and only real love can endure it. If we are not prepared the Good Book says, the storm will extinguish our feeble candle forever. Love always wins.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.

Publication date: March 29, 2011