About two years ago, former Mars Hill pastor Rob Bell created waves through the North American Evangelical world with his book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (2011). Critics called him many things, but objections centered mainly on Bell's apparent rejection of the sort of image of Hell one would expects from 19th century fire and brimstone, revivalist preachers or late medieval disparagers of mortal flesh immortalized in the scene of the danse macabre (which, oddly enough, looks a lot like a scene from the hit zombie-drama The Walking Dead).
Bell's point seems to have been this: Hell is not a literal place, occupying a space somewhere just beyond or behind the space of our everyday experience. No, Hell is a state we create for ourselves by closing ourselves off from God. Not being entirely sure what the latter statement means, I find it usually a good idea to go looking for those tips for 'practical application' of a teaching. And when we go looking, we find that Bell was looking for a more forgiving version of the Christian faith. Threats of eternal condemnation in a place of perpetual suffering don't measure up to the most forgiving of standards, so objective version of Hell will have to go.
The sort of argument Bell put forward is not new. Back in 1963, the Anglican bishop John Robinson published a book, Honest to God, in which he argued our ideas of heaven and hell (among other things) are outdated in a modern science age. In our churches, Robinson pointed out, we talk as if heaven is physically up above us and hell physically down beneath our feet. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Yuri Gargarin had pierced that veil of physical transcendence, looked for God, as he later reported, and did not see him. The take-away for Robinson was that we have to rethink what we mean about heaven, hell, and the fate of human beings, since cheap physical metaphors no longer work.
Now, when I first heard about Bell's book, I perked up my ears to listen to what other people were saying, but I didn't see much use in expending my own time reading. What I heard confirmed what I expected I would read. Since the commentators were stirring up a great fuss about Bell's denial of the existence of an actual location for Hell, my instincts told me that Bell was dabbling with some sort of post-metaphysical, and so post-Chalcedonian, version of the Christian faith. If you deprive theologians of the ability to use terms like human nature, fallen nature, and the two natures of the God-man Jesus Christ, talk about Hell very quickly falls by the wayside. Metaphysical nature-talk gets at something 'out there', so to speak. Which means, when mysterious the existence of evil gets affirmed, and people try to flesh out exactly how evil is going to be finally eliminated, talk about Hell as a place 'out there' also creeps in.
This morning I read Bell's book--from cover to cover, inside of an hour and found that it wasn't quite what I expected. Bell used some odd language to characterize the relationship between Jesus and God, but nothing that fell outside of the bounds of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. Indeed, he spends a whole chapter about how the man Jesus is God, how salvation is only found through Christ, and so on and on with all the standard Evangelical Gospel stuff. In addition to the whole Hell-is-not-a-place argument, some helpful questions were raised about what the so-called 'personal relationship' with Jesus actually amounts to. Nothing immediately objectionable to Christian who want to identify themselves with a tradition of orthodox teaching going back to the Apostles, Fathers, and Doctors of the Church.
That is, until I got to the part of what Bell thinks Hell actually is. There are at least two definitions of Hell presented in Loves Wins--and they are, as far as I can tell, disconnected from each other. One is a physical definition. Bell has readers think about the damaged bodies of the child-victims of war or the victims of rape, about the suffering violence inflicted on the human body causes. The other is a subjective definition. Bell tells his readers to think about people who cut themselves off from the healing message of Jesus Christ. That was the same message had by the Hebrew prophets, one of social engagement, of feeding the hungry, of aiding the downtrodden. Bell's point is that people ought not close themselves off to other people. Things go badly when they do.
And I can't figure out, for the life of me, how the two versions of Hell fit together.
Superficially, the correspondence is obvious. Victims of violence need the help of everyone, as do the economically disadvantaged. The reality of Hell, however, was traditionally associated with punishment for wicked deeds. If Heaven is the perfection of our imperfect attempt to show grace and mercy, Hell is the perfection of our feeble human attempts to balance the scales of justice. Hell is not an actual physical location; it is a place of judgment. Maiming children or raping women both fall into the category of deeds that get you thrown into prison. (As should the unscrupulous activities of bankers and politicians...) So, if you believe in God, why should it be problematic that these deeds will also get you thrown into Hell? What's the problem? If you don't believe if God, you are still stuck with the problem of whether there are certain criminal actions are deserving of incarceration, whether incarceration is ultimately a constructive practice, etc.. I am not proposing to answer either question. I am simply pointing out that Bell avoids treating the questions with any seriousness.
Bell seems to want his readers to fix problems of human suffering, but he also avoids engaging with the causes of human suffering. Somewhere he goes soft on the whole issue--not just of aiding those who are suffering--but challenging those who are causing people to suffer. And that is a very real problem, it seems to me. There's a sort of self-satisfied bourgeois mentality at play here that says I'm okay, you're okay, everything is okay. But when things are obviously not okay, all it knows to do is repeat the mantra: I'm okay, you're okay, we're all okay--which is not okay.