Those of you with a good memory may recall a post I wrote a while back stating my intention to look into the theology of hell. Well, I must admit, that I have somewhat neglected that intention as other things have cropped up. So, slow as progress may be on that project, this was an essential part of getting to grips with the universalist position.
Even before the book came out, it prompted a vicious backlash from some quarters of the christian blogosphere, denouncing Bell as a heretic and declaring the book harmful. Though books that are condemned before anyone has had a chance to read them are amongst those that interest me the most. So I came to the book with a certain understanding of the view espoused. If you’re reading this review, then maybe you have a similar understanding. Of course, that understanding may be outright wrong, have an incorrect emphasis or be incomplete. However, the idea that it is about heaven & hell is absolutely correct.
Bell likes to ask questions.
He likes to leave lots of spaces.
If you’ve not read any of Bell’s writing before, he does have a particularly annoying style. In fact, ‘style’ is a good word to use. There a great focus on the manner of the presentation which does mean the content is sometimes compromised; not necessarily so that it is absurd, but there is a laxity here that one would hope not to find in a theological work. But then Bell’s writings aren’t those of a systematic theologian; they are the work of a pastor with a great heart.
Throughout the book, as if the title didn’t give you a clue, the idea of love shines through. No one could be in doubt as to the passion and compassion of the author both for his readers and the subject matter. On that count, no word of criticism can be levelled at Bell.
Diving into the subject matter, Bell opens with a look at the idea of heaven. It is a fairly well-known fact that Bell has much respect for (as do I) Tom Wright. The exposition given of repainting heaven here has undeniable echoes of Surprised by Hope, which is duly referenced at the end of the book. He portrays heaven not as a place where we go when we die – a view that I wish would die its own death. Instead he outlines the idea of the restoration (or rather, recreation) of a new heavens and new earth much closer to the vision outlined in the bible than one finds in tradition.
There shouldn’t be anything particularly controversial here, though for those who have grown up in churches teaching the idea that “[the aim of life is to go to heaven when you die]” and not questioned it, then this may come as something of a shock to you.
So that’s heaven done. Onto hell.
Before coming to this, the book’s reputation was for a particular idea that Bell had regarding hell. The accusation (for that is what it was) was that Bell was a universalist, advocating a view that after death everyone would have an opportunity to repent. The impression is that it was sort of half way between two heresies: universalism on the one hand, but with elements of purgatory on the other.
However, after I finished the book, I was left wondering “where was it?” It just didn’t seem to be there. I thought that half a dozen pages or so must have been stuck together. I had to go back and skim read two-thirds of the book in order to find what it was that got so many people in a tizz.
Because the fact is, that’s not what the second half of the book is all about. To portray it as such is to misrepresent Bell and the point he is driving at. When you read Bell, one must keep in mind that he writes for different groups of people at a time. With Velvet Elvis, for example, there was a distinct feeling that he was writing for those who had grown up with a particularly conservative viewpoint, showing them that christianity was more freeing than religious conformism, that there is scope for disagreement without condemnation. With Love Wins, he is writing to those who have been hurt. This is brought out in a Q&A at the back of the book, written after the initial publication, where Bell recounts the testimony of one his readers who had previously faced a very condemning attitude in church and had come to think of themselves as doomed and unloveable.
I don’t agree with Bell’s outlook, as he seems to portray a view of christianity that best suits his pre-existing ideas, rather than changing his ideas to best fit scripture. If you think of it as a message about love, rather than a detailed theology of hell, then it becomes more palatable. If someone only read Bell and took him as authoritative, then one would get a skewed idea; so in this respect I agree with his critics. But I would not go so far as to denounce the book as heretical. There are some very good questions posed here, and all Bell asks is that we try to answer those questions ourselves. Some of these very leading, but many more are worthy of deep consideration. The other thing that slightly rubbed me up the wrong way was Bell’s opening defence; he claims at the start that all that he discusses has been considered by orthodox (small o) christians for centuries, but he fails to mention that some of these views have been rejected, denounced or otherwise declared as heresies by a good number of those same people who have considered the issues. In so doing, he tries to present his view as mainstream. Though it is interesting, I really don’t think it is mainstream, nor should it be.
In conclusion, it’s not for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend it as a first port of call on studying hell. However, as a way of gaining and understanding Bell’s view, it is better to read him than only those who reject him. For those who have been hurt by those in church and are seeking assurance, this is a resource, but it is not a complete set of answers. It may be an interesting exercise to go through the book, noting all the questions and coming up with your own answers.