I've just finished Rob Bell's controversial book. So much ink is being spilt over it online and on paper that I almost don't want to add anything to what is already being said about it. But it raises such big issues that I think it is worth a post.
For those who haven't read it, Bell's chief contention - though continuously hedged around with questions and qualifications - seems to be that hell will be entirely depopulated. Indeed he spills a lot of ink in aphorisms and rhetorical questions that apparently imply that hell is a category of thinking, behaviour and attitude to God and others that applies in this life only, without there being any corresponding underlying eternal reality.
Three things strike me most about the book:
1. Bell's style. Anyone familiar with Douglas Coupland and his peers will find themselves at home with Bell. Aphoristic in the extreme, never afraid of apparent self-contradiction, believing that the question and the journey are at least as important to grasping truth as are answer and destination. Perhaps more so. The book was described accurately to me as beautifully-written liberal theology. And it is.
Anyone familiar with Jacques Derrida will instantly detect Derridean impulses here. Derrida was famous for trying to edit authorial opinion out of the text - including his own texts. To do so he was often highly playful with genre, tone and language so as to always leave himself the option when someone said "but you said this" of replying along the lines of "maybe that is part of what I said." ie always leaving open the possibility of claiming that he had been misconstrued. As with Derrida, so with Bell. With the additional similarity that the style is so overt that it often constitutes the message in itself. One of the main differences between continental and American philosophy post WW2 is that continental philosophy often took the form of trying to show the inaccessibility of meaning through its very style. Very Nietzschian. The same can reasonably be said of Bell.
To be honest, its not a bad way of asking probing questions. But the problem here is not the questions. It is that Bell is trying, at least partly through his style, to throw doubt on the possibility of there being real, concrete answers. The book is replete with examples of him trying to remove certainties in areas in which very nearly all believers have always agreed the Bible is clear and perspicuous.
2. Bell is heavily reliant on exegesis that I can only describe as gymnastic. Sometimes he does say some good and helpful things, make no mistake. His description of the prodigal son as being a parable of three different stories - that of the father and of each of the brothers - with a challenge to believe the father's story rather than our own narrative being a good example. However in very many instances what starts off OK is then persued to unbiblical, unorthodox ends through exegetical fallacy after exegetical fallacy. I started off counting the different types of hermeneutic juggling and lost count after 5 chapters. I suspect that a lot of folk with no grounding in good Bible handling will simply miss this because he claims, time after time, to be expounding the plain meaning of Bible texts. Time after time he just isn't.
3. But here is a caveat I want to raise. Towards the start of the book Bell sets up the main target he takes aim at, namely believers who are almost gleeful at the idea of a God who is only for them and who cheerfully consigns everyone else to Hell. This, says Bell, doesn't cohere with the biblical person of Jesus Christ. To begin with this contrast is set up so strongly I thought he was simply setting up a straw man of the worst chariacature of evangelicals he posibly could in order to knock it down. By the end, I wasn't so sure. Rather I think he may be reacting against a very real subset of evangelicals whose working out of their doctrine he has found by bitter experience to be unloving and unchristlike.
Care is needed here. I think this is a poor book, theologically weak and doctrinally misleading. But it would be easy to tip over from that into two very bad things:
- That Bell's opponents level such guns at him that they simply reinforce the very thing he is reacting against. However we receive this book, the way we treat those with whom we strongly disagree is a crucial theme to emerge from reading it for me
- That Bell's opponents find his method and conclusions so disturbing that we fail to hear the often searching questions he is asking. Because while I don't buy his answers, I have to admit that he asks the questions that a lot of people are asking: how can a loving God send good people to hell? being a chief one. Or, harder still, if God creates people who never hear the gospel or have a chance to respond and then sends them to hell, in what sense is he loving in respect of them? In responding biblically to the Bell's contentious conclusions, let's not miss the fact that he is expressing extremely pertinent questions in a way that everyone - believer or not - will hear and think "that's a really important question."
There is no doubt that the frontline of apologetics today where I live is not in the area of science and faith or whether you can prove the existence of God. It is in the area of whether God, as the Bible describes him, is good or monstrous. Many come to texts about hell and automatically assume that they indicate de facto that God cannot be loving, which used to be taken for granted. We used not to have to argue for it, but now many assume that the burden of proof is placed on us to demonstrate why hell, OT conquest narratives, final judgement, current existence of evil, etc don't invalidate the goodness and love of God.
The questions Bell raises therefore are not just about Hell. They are about whether the God of the Bible is good. His conclusions - and the way he arrives at them - are disturbingly poor, but I can't help but resonate with the questions he wants us to grapple with.