So I've been trying to keep an open mind about all of the controversial topics that Rob Bell has kicked up. On most of them, if you put a gun to my head at this moment, I would have to side with my "camp." Though I am intrigued by Bell's theological reasoning, at this moment not much has changed: I still believe that hell is eternal, that lot's of people are going there, and that they can't or won't leave for eternity.
As I've said before, I'm not happy about this. It doesn't sound palatable to me. But as my main man Michael Patton says, "The palitability of a doctrine does not determine its veracity." Say what now? It just means that even though something sounds awful and ugly to our ears, that's no reason for why we should doubt its truth. There is no basis for rejecting a proposition because you have a negative emotional reaction to it. "God would never send someone to hell because he's a loving God." That statement is based purely on emotion, not on logic or truth. How do you know? What is the criteria by which someone ends up in hell? Have you studied this? The original statement acknowledges that you believe in both, so why do you get to agree there's a God but state that you know what he should and shouldn't be doing?
All that to say that there is one thing that has kind of tripped me up a bit. In my Evangelical tradition we universally affirm the following: What earns you eternal damnation are not the sins you've committed, but your non-acceptance of Jesus Christ as your savior. We say that you cannot save yourself, that no one is a good enough person because God requires perfection, and the only thing that saves you is to admit that you need Jesus/God to save you. That's it.
What Rob Bell says is that there are three passages in the Bible that are direct references to hell. Take a look at them:
Matthew 25:41-46: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Revelation 20:11-15: Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Did you notice a common theme here? The common theme is that each time hell is referenced, the reason people are being sent there are for ACTIONS or DEEDS that they have committed—not for things they believe or have failed to believe. Now, the only Christian response I'm aware of is the following: "Yes, they are going to hell for the action of not accepting Christ. Those other bad actions are just evidence of their one true failure, and that was to not accept what Christ has done." While feasible, I don't find this very convincing. I just don't. Christians, after they are saved, continue to do terrible things to themselves and other people. Now. This is not to say that people don't turn corners when Jesus smashes into their life, because they do. But even still, becoming a Christian is not a guarantee that you will not commit evil acts, so in light of that the explanation just isn't doing much for me.
I think the point Bell makes—that the Bible suggests hell as punishment for contradictory reasons that Evangelicals assert—deserves a robust response. Let me know if you have, or are aware of one.
P.S. You may be left thinking, "Ok, so Rob Bell admits that people do go to hell?" Not exactly. What he says about these passages is that they emphasize the importance of the way we live our lives today and right now. He says it's Jesus stating that the way we treat people is more important that we can possibly know. And therefore he uses strong imagery to emphasize that, but he's not actually telling us where people ultimately end up for eternity.