I read Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, and my hair didn't catch on fire. I didn't become a homosexual or fall down to worship Baal or even start swearing more, so far as I can tell.
Bell is symptomatic of a trend in American Christianity, in which successive generations of Christians thinkers proof-text their way to views that seem supported by Scriptures but are unmoored from traditional Church teaching. Whether you are teaching that Jesus wants everyone to have a Cadillac, or that God sends hurricanes to punish America for not imprisoning homosexuals, or that hell is a mental creation of the individual rather than a space prepared by God, you can find some verses that support your point of view.
Then other Christians emerge to offer counter-verses, or to explain how you don't really understand your verses, and then someone breaks out the Greek and Hebrew dictionaries. Then the battle is on, with each side incensed that the other side can't see what is so very obvious.
I don't have much to say about hell. As a child I went to churches where it was used as a threat. As an adult, I believed for a time in the notion that God made man fall on purpose, solely for the pleasure of burning a great many people for eternity. Today I am content to say simply this: It is not now nor has it ever been up to me to determine whether hell exists or who goes there. My task is to run the race well, and to teach my children to run the race, that on the Day of Judgment we might be found worthy.
Bell appeals to people raised in an evangelical environment that is long on judgment and short on grace. I am certainly one of those people, and so the hard questions he asks appeal to me. I also appreciate his blunt articulation of a tacit teaching that is not Christian but that many Christians hear, namely that hell is a torture chamber designed by God to pay back people who reject him. In this overly simplistic view, Christ saves us from God. Bell takes on this transactional view, and he focuses on the essential reality that Christ-who is fully God-came to man out of a deep, abiding love for us.
But insofar as he teaches that there is no coming judgment and no hell awaiting those who reject the living God, Bell is outside Christian teaching, despite his best efforts to proof-text and selectively quote Church fathers to the contrary. "Suddenly shall come the Judge," prayed John of Damascus, "and the deeds of man be revealed, but with fear we cry to Thee. . . ." The Judge is coming, and we need be fearful, and to suggest otherwise is to urge your brothers and sisters to step off the track, have a chili dog, and wait on cheap grace. It endangers, to those of us who believe salvation can-by the grace of God-be won or lost, the soul.
Something else I appreciate about Bell, which I wish I saw in more of his critics, is a heart for the lost. I have no doubt that if it were up to Bell, no one would go to hell. If it were up to me none would go either. I think that's the right heart attitude, to pray for all, that all might be spared, not even but especially the undeserving.
But it's not up to us, is it?