Comparing Bell and Chan on Hell

October 2nd, 2011

“Hell reappeared,” wrote Martin Marty in his August email column “Sightings.” Marty was referring back to his own 1988 piece in the Harvard Theological Review entitled “Hell Disappeared. No One Noticed. A Civic Argument.” At that time, in an admittedly pre-Google era, his research revealed not one single scholarly piece on hell in an academic journal in the past century.

Thanks to Rob Bell (Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived), hell has not only reappeared it’s back with a vengeance. Or rather, not-hell, perhaps we should say. Or at least not your father’s hell. Or maybe it is, if you read Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle’s rebuttal to Bell (Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up). As with most hotly debated theological topics, it all appears to come down to a discussion of interpretation of Scripture. Or maybe it’s soteriology. Or maybe it’s grace vs. predestination. Whatever it is, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “there’s a battle outside and it’s raging.”

Bell’s Love Wins arrived like a bombshell in the evangelical world last spring. Since its publication, a number of books have appeared to refute its claims—Mark Galli’s God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News is Better than Love Wins from Tyndale, Christ Alone by Mike Wittmer, and Chan and Sprinkle’s Erasing Hell from David C. Cook. Not long prior to the publication of Love Wins, Prof. Sharon Baker from Messiah College brought us Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about God’s Wrath and Judgment in 2010, and Bishop Will Willimon's Who Will Be Saved? appeared in 2008, but neither of these made near the splash of Bell's manifesto and the responses it has spawned.

Perhaps it’s Pastor Rob Bell’s status as something of a rock star idol on the evangelical emerging church scene, or his 10,000 member Mars Hill congregation outside Grand Rapids, Michigan, or his facility with social media, or his publisher’s marketing coup, or his conversational style that propelled his book first to the center of the debate. The same perspective as Love Wins would doubtless not have ruffled feathers had he come from a mainline, progressive, or West Coast base. But Bell’s standing as a star pastor in the evangelical world underscores the controversial nature of his assertions and invited an impassioned reaction from his critics.

As Robert McAfee Brown would have said: who we listen to determines what we hear; where we stand determines what we see. To liberal/progressive Christians, much of what Bell puts forth will hardly seem new. To evangelicals, he is a sheep gone astray, and a prized one at that.

What is it about Love Wins that has sparked so much controversy? Is it Bell’s contention that Jesus’ love extends to every person? Is it that both heaven and hell, in Bell’s view, are known and experienced in the real life glories and atrocities of this world? Is it his insistence that hell is not avoided through the words of a personal decision to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior while ignoring the real-life hell God’s children experience as a result of disease, famine, and war?

Chan and Sprinkle make the case that Bell has distorted Scripture. As stated in the Preface, the primary voice in the book is that of Francis Chan, drawing heavily on the academic foundations of his friend, Preston Sprinkle. Contradicting Bell, they assert a very real hell after death as well as in this life, a hell that is horrible and eternal for those who do not claim Jesus as Lord. They are serious and rigorous. Chan does not flinch, asserting that his own grandmother will experience a life of never-ending suffering. His sense of urgency is clear throughout the book. A decision for Christ must be made in this life in order for a life of pain and torment to be avoided in the hereafter.

Much of their argument with Bell hinges on interpretation of scriptures related to the concepts of Hades, Sheol, and Gehenna. They contend that Jews of Jesus’ day believed in hell as a place of punishment after judgment, described in imagery of fire and darkness where people lament, a place of annihilation and never-ending punishment. They cite numerous scripture passages to underscore this view. From this they conclude that these would have been Jesus’ beliefs as well and therefore the framework to be carried forward into the present day.

Perhaps, then, it is important to note that some rabbis take a very different view, describing Gehenna as the place of cleansing fire endured for a twelve-month period. During this time of refinement, sins were purged away, at which point one rejoined the company of the righteous. Not being myself an expert on these matters, it does seem reasonable to imagine that one might persuasively argue both perspectives, as is the case on most historical-critical matters in theology.

Perhaps, then, Bell’s critics are right to be alarmed when noting that discussions of heaven and hell quickly lead into discussions of everything—our view of God, Scripture, sin, Jesus, the cross, salvation, the church. It is indeed a slippery slope. To name just one such critical matter: does the reader believe in the God of Chan/Sprinkle, a God who does the right thing though it may be the hard thing, a God who “does whatever He pleases,” as they argue, a God who shows his power by punishing non-Christians forever? Or, does one believe in the God Bell describes, a God yearning for all his children to come home, a God who has given free will, a God who in Christ offers an experience of heaven here and now, a God who is living water that sustains everyone?

Both books call for soul-searching on these matters, Chan and Sprinkle from the perspective of urgency in turning away from certain ravages of hell in the life to come, Bell more from the perspective of healing for those who have been hurt by religion and those who turn away from the church for fear of ostracism and shame.

As Christians reflecting on God’s gracious action in our lives, we are tasked with creatively articulating the wisdom of the past as we think afresh about God, revelation, sin, and redemption. Now that hell has “reappeared” as a major topic of theological discussion, these books will help us wrestle with what we believe and with how we live. And as Bell leaves the Mars Hill church to share his message with a broader audience, it might be time to look at the whole debate through the lenses of evangelism and soteriology, pondering anew just what message the church means to send to a hurting world.

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