He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very vague boy

Why the prophet of a more compassionate Christianity leaves me feeling decidedly uncharitable.

Rob Bell is a guy I really ought to be more impressed by than I am. He’s pretty much single-handedly made it respectable for evangelicals to believe in universal salvation, an idea which is central to my understanding of Christianity. Yet I’ve never found his presentation of it (or of much else) terribly convincing.

A large part of why is captured in an excellent article by Meghan O’Gieblyn in the Guardian. She describes how grappling with the notion of hell eventually pushed her out of the evangelical faith she grew up in. One of its strengths is that it tougher on those Christians who dodge the notion as on those who proclaim it loudly. Foremost in the former camp are the new, and often very successful, brand of evangelicals who hope that the relentless use of syrupy songs about love can make the bitter message that most of humanity is facing damnation palatable. She’s also pretty brutal about Bell:

In the spring of 2011, I was browsing through a crowded airport newsstand when I glimpsed an issue of Time with the headline “What If There’s No Hell?” The subhead elaborated, “A popular pastor’s bestselling book has stirred fierce debate about sin, salvation, and judgment.” The book in question was the modestly titled Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who’s Ever Lived, and the pastor was Rob Bell. Bell wears hipster glasses and black skinny jeans. Most of his congregants were generation Xers who had difficulty with the Bible’s passages about absolute truth, certainty and judgment.

I found a copy of Bell’s new book at that same airport and blew through it during my three-hour flight to Michigan. It was a light read. Bell sets out his prose like a free-verse poem, and roughly half the sentences are interrogative, a rhetorical style that seems designed to dampen the incendiary nature of his actual argument. He does not, as the Time headline suggests, make a case against the existence of hell. Rather, he argues that hell is a refining process by which all of the sins of the world, but not the sinners, are burned away. Those who are in hell are given endless chances throughout eternity to accept God’s free gift of salvation and, because this gift is so irresistibly good, hell will eventually be emptied and collapse. Essentially, this is universal reconciliation – the idea that all people will be saved regardless of what they believe or how they conduct themselves on Earth.

Love Wins created an uproar in the evangelical community. Zondervan (basically the Random House of Christian publishing), which had published Bell’s previous books, dropped him upon reading the proposal. After it was published, Albert Mohler Jr, a prominent pastor, called the book “theologically disastrous” and thousands of Bell’s congregants left his church in protest. At the same time, a lot of evangelicals who seemed to have been harbouring a private faith in universal reconciliation defended the book. In the secular media, the theology of Love Wins was lauded as visionary. “Wielding music, videos and a Starbucks sensibility,” Time magazine wrote, “Bell is at the forefront of a rethinking of Christianity in America.”

“Rethinking” doesn’t feel as accurate as “rebranding”. Throughout Love Wins, Bell seems less interested in theological inquiry than he is in PR. There was one moment while reading Love Wins where it seemed as though he might initiate a much-needed conversation about the meaning of hell. Toward the end of the book, he begins to mobilise a more radical argument – that heaven and hell are not realms of the afterlife but metaphors for life here on Earth. He recalls travelling to Rwanda in the early 2000s and seeing boys whose limbs had been cut off during the genocide. “Do I believe in a literal hell?” he asks. “Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.” Here, I brightened at the idea that perhaps Bell was out to make a statement as bold and daring as [Megachurch pastor] Hybels’s 9/11 sermon [about his own desire for revenge], using hell as a way to talk about the human capacity for evil.

But no such moment came. As I read on, it became clear that Bell wasn’t actually looking for a way to talk about the darker side of human nature. Soon after he posits the possibility of a metaphorical hell, he glosses over its significance by suggesting that the “hells” of this Earth are slowly being winnowed away as humans work to remedy social problems like injustice and inequality.

Love Wins succeeded in breaking the silence about hell, and its popularity suggests that a number of evangelicals may be ready to move beyond a literalist notion of damnation, reimagining hell just as God-fearing people across the centuries have done to reckon with the evils of their own age. At the same time, the book demonstrates the potential pitfalls of the church’s desire to distance itself too quickly from fire and brimstone. Bell claims to address the exact theological problem that motivated me to leave the faith, but rather than offer a new understanding of the doctrine, he offers up a Disneyesque vision of humanity, one that is wholly incompatible with the language biblical authors use to speak about good and evil. Along with hell, the new evangelical leaders threaten to jettison the very notion of human depravity – a fundamental Christian truth upon which the entire salvation narrative hinges.

This resonates pretty strongly with my feelings toward Bell. I first came across him when he was one of the big names speakers at the Greenbelt festival. He delivered an affirmational pep talk replete with pat anecdotes yet lacking much reference to the Bible, God or anything else that couldn’t have equally been used by a lifestyle coach or new age guru. Nonetheless, I gave Love Wins a chance. Or rather I did for the first 100 pages after that I gave up. Never has such a short and breezily written book seemed longer. He just wouldn’t come to a point – any point in fact. It was as if he’d anticipated the backlash and hoped to avoid it by burying his message under reams of platitudes. This was not only infuriating for anyone who likes their writing reasonably direct but seemed to negate its value as evangelism. How was anyone new to Christianity supposed to detect that within this book was something new. Rob Bell obfuscating about there being no damnation must sound an awful lot about an Alpha Course avoiding discussing the opposite.

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