If Bell's intention was to help people think about Hell more, then he succeeded. If Bell's book intended to present a clear orthodox view of Hell, then he failed. That is because Bell is far from clear. His is slippy when he writes, even though people say that he is a good communicator. Bell is good with putting words together, but taking a step back, I think he needs do some more work with presenting a solid idea, rather than presenting a series of questions.
Here is just one example of what I am talking about. This is from the fifth chapter where Bell started with Eminem wearing a cross at one of his concerts. Bell finally circles back to Eminem at the end of the chapter with:
Did Eminem stumble upon this truth?Notice how Bell answers the question: "Did Eminem find the truth about Jesus because he wore a cross around his neck?"
Did he, somewhere in his addiction and despair and pain,
hit bottom hard enough that something died—the old,
the hard, that which could never bring life in the first place?
Did he stumble into that truth that’s as old as the universe—
that life comes through death?
Did he in some strange way die,
and that’s why he’s back?
Is that why he wore a cross around his neck?
Because we all want new life.
We want to know that the last word hasn’t been spoken,
we want to know that the universe is on our side,
we want to know on Friday that Sunday will eventually come.
That is why the cross continues to endure
It’s a reminder, a sign, a glimpse, an icon that allows us to tap into our deepest longings to be part of a new creation.
Because that’s how the universe works.
That’s what Jesus does.
Death and resurrection.
Old life for new life;
one passes away, the other comes.
Friday, then Sunday.
You die, and you’re reborn.
It’s like that.
What is his answer?
There isn't one.
Bell doesn't answer his questions, he just raises it and moves on. (I'll stop with all the carriage returns)
This is the same thing that Bell does at the beginning when someone said that Gandhi was in Hell. Bell doesn't say one way or the other that Gandhi was in Hell, he just asks questions. Likewise Bell doesn't say Eminem will or won't be in Heaven, he just asks questions. For someone writing a book about Heaven and Hell, I think I would like a bit more certainty and declarative statements about the topic. Don't get me wrong, questions are good, but only if they get answered.
The other main issue I had with this book was Bell's use of the Bible. I already spent some time on his third chapter, so I will just briefly mention two more examples.
In chapter 2 Bell says:
Many people think of heaven, and they picture mansions (a word nowhere in the Bible’s descriptions of heaven) and Ferraris and literal streets of gold, as if the best God can come up with is Beverly Hills in the sky. Tax-free, of course, and without the smog.Really? Nowhere in the Bible's descriptions of heaven are mansions mentioned?
"In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you." - Jesus (John 14:2 ASV & NKJV)Some other translations don't mention "mansions", they say "dwellings" or "rooms". Even if "rooms" was the right translations, it would still mean that Jesus' Fathers place (could that be Heaven?) is pictured as a mansion. I only recall this verse because my one year old daughter listens to a song that uses this verse. Maybe Bell should listen to some Colin Buchanan....
In chapter 4 Bell focuses a bit on the gates in the new city at the end of Revelations and how they are never shut:
we read in these last chapters of Revelation that the gates of that city in that new world will “never shut.” That’s a small detail, and it’s important we don’t get too hung up on details and specific images because it’s possible to treat something so literally that it becomes less true in the process. But gates, gates are for keeping people in and keeping people out. If the gates are never shut, then people are free to come and go.
Can God bring proper, lasting justice, banishing certain actions—and the people who do them—from the new creation while at the same time allowing and waiting and hoping for the possibility of the reconciliation of those very same people? Keeping the gates, in essence, open? Will everyone eventually be reconciled to God or will there be those who cling to their version of their story, insisting on their right to be their own little god ruling their own little miserable kingdom?Bell offers a good warning about getting too hung up on some details in Revelation, but he complementary misses the context of this new city. The gates of this new city is never shut in Revelations 21:25. Before that, in the previous chapter, in Revelations 20:11-15 people were judged and "thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." It is only after that the new city is introduced and the restoration happens. Like Bell's use of Zephaniah, he skips over the bits before and moves into the future restoration for "all" people.
Bell's selection of passages I think indicate an over emphasis of God's love and a lack of God's Holy judgement. Don't get me wrong. I think books about God's love is important and good, but not at the expense of God's other characteristics. We must remember that the angels in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8 were not signing about God's "love, love, love". And this overemphasis of God's love, gives you a screwed view of God. Have a look how Bell talks about God and judgement:
Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.
If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities.Bell has a hard time joining the two issues of God's love and God's judgement together, and so dismisses the side of God's judgement altogether. Bell also borders on talk of God being guilty of divine child abuse. For some reason here on earth it is OK to call in the authorities when a crime has been committed, but God himself can not give out judgement. The state can punish people for wrong doings, but not God. God is love. If God acted in this way, He would be committing a crime, but the state can because it has authority to punish. That sounds a bit topsy turvy. I think Bell needs to re-think, or re-categorise what a crime is and what punishment is, because there is a difference. One is wrong. One is just. Its important that you don't mix them up.
If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.
For what I can understand about Bell's view of Heaven and Hell is that these are the same place. Everyone is going to be there, and some people will experience it as Hell because their hearts are not changed and some people will experience it as Heaven because they get to be with the loving Father. But that is not all. Those who are "in Hell" after experience God's love may come to him, if they change their own hearts and that could take millions of years, but ultimately love wins. If I have read Bell correctly (and there is a chance that I didn't as he is a bit hard to pin down through all his questions and implicit meanings) then I think he has moved away from the orthodox view of Heaven and Hell, despite his attempt to trying and align himself with it.
In a letter Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, wrote to Hans von Rechenberg in 1522 about the possibility that people could turn to God after death, asking: “Who would doubt God’s ability to do that?”
Again, a good question.A bit later Bell pulls in more people:
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,” and Augustine acknowledged that “very many” believed in the ultimate reconciliation of all people to God.
To be clear, again, an untold number of serious disciples of Jesus across hundreds of years have assumed, affirmed, and trusted that no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of heartsThe issue some people had with Bell was that he provided no citations. No footnotes to check out these assertions. That reference to Luther does allow people to look up his letter which Carl Truman did and quotes it in context. It is worth checking out, along with his comments as church history is kinda his area.
The quote above mentions that an untold number of believer throughout history have held all people will be saved, just does not hold up. There has no citation to this statement, why should I provide one? (although check out DeYoung's link below which that does)
There are some good things in this book. Bell emphases more than one atonement theory, which I think is lost sometimes with people sole defending penal substitution. Also Bell doesn't like the cheap gospel presentation that forces people to make a decision as some sort of future fire insurance from Hell. Christians should be becoming disciples and not just pushed to make a decision that only impacts their life when they die. I agree, but there is just too much in this book that I think is un-Biblical for me to recommend to anyone.
Kevin DeYoung produced a 20 page review of this book the day it came out.
Al Mohler also has written a review of this book
Rob Bell interviewed on MSNBC getting some tough questions. This is worth a watch
Hell of an analysis - my thoughts on Bell's use of the Bible in chapter 3 of this book
Pouncing in the Evangelical World - My comments on people going after Bell before this book was released - which I think caused more people (including myself) to read this book.
Jesus wants to save Christians - Another book of Bell's that I have read