I read the best-selling book by Rob Bell because a parishioner asked me to do so (its publication, I’m told, produced a great stir among evangelicals). It was the podvig I expected it to be, though a short-lived one: I finished the volume of 198 pages in about 45 minutes. I am not a speed-reader; it is that light.
Rob Bell, I discovered through Google (I don’t get out much) is the founder of the 10,000 member Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. After the services members of his congregation distribute bumper stickers (what else?) with the words “Love Wins” on them. In 2012 Bell left the care of Mars Hill Bible Church to the other pastors there and began different work. As well as speaking at the Viper Room night club in Los Angeles, he hosts small conferences for Christian leaders, at $500 per person for two 12-hour talks, with “just the right breaks for food and surfing”. (They are held in California, after all.) In 2011 Time Magazine included Bell in its list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Bell is a talented and prolific communicator. Previous books include Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith and Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality. A photo on the back cover of his latest book Love Wins (subtitled A book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived) shows him miked up and speaking on a stage to what was undoubtedly a large crowd.
The first thing I noticed when I started reading was the regular absence of paragraphs. I provide a sample, if I may, from page 1, with every sentence/ word of the following taking up a separate line:
“Someone attached a piece of paper [to a quote from Gandhi]. On the piece of paper was written: ‘Reality check: He’s in hell.’ Really? Gandhi’s in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?”
I could go on, but you get the idea, and largely the whole book is written in that vein. It is not so much like reading theology as it is like scanning free verse, as if E.E. Cummings (make that “e.e. cummings”) had started offering theological meditations. It reminded me irresistibly of the stuff I had read when I cracked open my last fortune cookie. I found the prolonged use of what is essentially verbal flourish and rhetoric perplexing until I looked again at the back cover. Then it came to me: he was not writing theology; he was giving a talk, playing to the audience, in a kind of religious stand-up. He was not functioning as a teacher, but a carnival barker. But Bell does have some theological points to make, even if they are offered in a form that is more like theological cotton candy than like true meat. It is to these points that I now turn.
Bell’s book, it appears, is aimed at a particular audience—namely, secular people who are put off by the worst excesses of American Protestant fundamentalism, by people who insist that they know Gandhi is in hell because he was not a Christian when he died. As far as these fundamentalists are concerned, everyone is going to hell unless they can be persuaded to “say the sinner’s prayer” and ask Jesus into their hearts. Jesus came and died on the cross as a sacrifice precisely to allow this to happen, so that people could go to heaven when they died. Bell is right to object to this caricature of the historic Christian Faith. He is not the first to do so, for thoughtful evangelical Protestants (to say nothing of Roman Catholics and us Orthodox) have been doing so for quite a while. Bell’s problem is that he sets up a straw man so that he can have the pleasure of demolishing it with rhetorical questions and with many a verbal flourish. It is easy enough to do, and it wins him points from secular people (one imagines that accounts at least in part for the book’s best-seller status). But when it comes to interacting deeply and creatively with the theological material itself, he utterly finds himself at a loss. Reviews from his evangelical peers prove this: Christianity Today’s Mark Galli writes that his answers may sabotage his goals, and he gives the book two stars out of five. Derek Tidball of the Evangelical Alliance (a coalition of British evangelical churches) writes that it is “full of confusing half-truths”.
As Orthodox, we can find much to applaud in the book, though none of it is new. We welcome the idea that one’s inner fundamental spiritual orientation, either to the light or to darkness, is crucial to one’s eternal welfare. We welcome the stress on the Kingdom of God as including the age to come, though it is not exactly a news-flash to any familiar with the Creed (“I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come”). We welcome the idea that hell—the Greek gehenna, named for the Jerusalem garbage dump in the valley of hinnom—is not an arbitrary torture applied by God, but is rooted in the dark fire defiantly nurtured in the heart by those rejecting Him.
Less worthy of applause is Bell’s inept handling of both Scripture and Church history. Bell has been much criticized for the universalism apparent in his book (as well as for his reluctance to just come out and say exactly what he means). Though he stops just short of saying that eventually all will be saved, he leads us to draw this conclusion. In particular he wants to suggest that eternity isn’t exactly eternal, and that the punishment of the damned in hell (or as it turns out, the not so damned) will come to an end. He does this by trying to take refuge in the Hebrew and Greek. Bell alleges that the Greek aionion (used in in Mt. 25:46, where Christ says that the wicked “will go away into eternal [aionion] punishment”) doesn’t mean “‘punishment forever’, as in never going to end…Forever is not really a category the biblical writers used…Jesus isn’t talking about forever as we think of forever. Jesus may be talking about something else”. Just what that “something else” is, Bell does not say. But it is clear that the “something else” for him leaves room for the final salvation of all. His evasion is futile, for the same Greek word aionion is also used in the passage to describe the fate of those “going away into eternal life”. By anybody’s figuring, the punishment of wicked must last as long as the life the righteous, since the identical adjective is used to describe it. Bell’s equivocations aside, the Biblical writers do indeed sometimes use the category of forever. Consider Ps. 90:2: “From everlasting to everlasting [Hebrew olam], You are God”.
Bell also plays fast and loose with the Greek word for “punishment” in Mt. 25:46. Bell writes, “the word kolazo is a term from horticulture. It refers to the pruning and trimming of the branches of a plant so it can flourish…the phrase [eternal punishment] can mean ‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction.” As a quick look at any Greek lexicon reveals, this is nonsense, for the noun kolasis used in Mt. 25:46 refers to punishment, injury, torture. While it is true that the Liddell-Scott lexicon cites the fourth century B.C. writer Theophrastos as using the term to describe “a drastic method of checking the growth of the almond-tree”, the later and overwhelming usage of the term denotes punishment and injury, such as the maiming of slaves. Our Lord said that the punishment involves “departing into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41), and this proves that something more than “a period of pruning” is meant. Bell is playing fast and loose with the facts, trying to dazzle his audience with a false show of learning.
This same disregard for facts is apparent in Bell’s handling of Church history. Bell writes “beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody…In the third century the church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen affirmed God’s reconciliation with all people. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa and Eusebius believed this as well. In their day, Jerome claimed that ‘most people’, Basil said, the ‘mass of men’…believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God.” Once again, the distortion takes one’s breath away. First of all, Clement of Alexandria and his successor Origen were hardly “church fathers”—indeed, Origen’s speculations and universalism made him a source of almost endless controversy and conciliar denunciation. His admirer St. Gregory of Nyssa admittedly espoused universalism, but his was certainly a minority voice. The fact is that the Church has simply not followed this lead. One would like to examine what Bell considers the sources of his assertions about the Fathers. No citations are given.
It seems that Bell’s arguments for universalism amount to this: that God wants all to be saved, and it is inconceivable to Bell that God would eventually not get what He wants. The idea is that eventually God’s love will wear down the resistance of the damned and they will come to repent and be saved after all. Bell acknowledges that this repentance “can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced”, and that “it always leaves room for the other to decide”. He speaks of the tensions between divine love and human free will as “tensions we are free to leave fully intact”, and thus refuses to answer the question (as St. Gregory of Nyssa did). But he seems to suggest that in the end, God will have what He wants because He’s God, “because love wins”. His argument, when shorn of its rhetorical flourishes, is simply this: everyone will be saved, because otherwise love would not win, and that would mean the defeat of the loving sovereignty of God.
C.S. Lewis answered this argument long ago, in his book The Problem of Pain: “It is objected that the ultimate loss of a single soul means the defeat of omnipotence. And so it does. In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat. What you call defeat, I call miracle: for to make things which are not Itself, and thus become capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing of all the feats we attribute to the Deity”. Here we see a deeper and more subtle handling of questions of heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived. Unlike thinkers like Lewis, Bell fails to grapple with the underlying issues raised by universalism, either philosophically, Biblically, or historically. Instead he succumbs to the temptation to score cheap debating points on stage.
Bell is to be congratulated for his desire to deal thoughtfully with these issues so as to make sense of the nuanced and varied material, and to commend them to the modern secularist. It is more the pity that he did not succeed in this laudable desire.