On February 13 I wrote a blog post titled, "Oh, Hell" in which I expounded upon some of my personal doubts and wrestlings with the concept of hell as presented in the Bible. I also mentioned I was reading Rob Bell's book on "Heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived," titled "Love Wins," and that I would get back to you when I was done, with my thoughts.
I finished the book on a jet plane, coming back from a vacation in beautiful Savannah, Georgia last week. And so, I intend to make good on my promise here.
Bell raises a lot of perceptive and fascinating questions about the Bible's treatment of the afterlife. I don't think he deserves all the criticism he's received (for instance, that he's a heretical universalist); he certainly doesn't take that position directly, although the questions he raises about the nature of God, and what really is or isn't said about hell in the Bible, might leave you with that impression.
Basically, if you want to walk away with clear ANSWERS to the questions he raises, this isn't necessarily the right book for you. Also, I think you should realize from the outset that much of what is discussed in this book might lead you (as it did me) into direct explorations of the various (perceived) conflicts between 5-point Calvinists and Arminians.
By way of review (and these are my own words), the extreme Calvinist position says that salvation (when it comes to who is saved and who is not) is "100% God's decree;" in other words, God chooses "the elect." We may think we are making choices for (or against) God, but in reality because we are elected (because those choices are foreordained by God), we are not really responsible for them. God alone decides who He will save, and who He won't. There really is no free human choice on our part involved.
On the spectrum of God's will/human choice, Arminianism swings to the opposite extreme. Salvation is completely a matter of free human choice. God has provided the means for salvation (the blood of Christ), but we are the ones who choose it. Therefore, some Calvinists accuse Arminians of believing we humans "deserve" at least "some of the credit" for our salvation. After all, we repented and made the choice. However, the classical Arminianist position itself clearly denies this.
For many years I've believed that at least the extremes of some of those who embrace both of these positions are in error, if you look at the whole of the Bible. The answer has to lie somewhere in between (or perhaps wholly outside of) these two extremes. Yes, the Bible makes it clear that God foreordains/elects the saints. (But, what does that mean? Calvinists say it's the salvation that's foreordained, and Arminianists say it's the future life of those who have been saved that is foreordained.) And yes, on the other end of the spectrum, it also makes it clear that our free will, our human choices, matter enormously.
This tension plays out in numerous places in Scripture. Despite many warnings, Pharaoh chose to oppose God and seek to keep the Israelites enslaved. The Bible says that God "hardened Pharaoh's heart" in these choices. And of course, the dramatic release of the Israelites from Egypt was part of God's plan all along, to demonstrate His glory to both Egyptians and Israelites.
So, it was both God's perfect will (His election), and man's choice (Pharaoh's decisions) that made this happen. Somewhere in the middle of our two extremes ... and it all works together for good for those who love God and "have been called" according to His purpose! (Romans 8:28)
Bell might tick off hard-core Calvinists in his assertions that God does not violate the principle of human freedom (if someone rejects him, walks away into a hell of his own making, God lets him go); and that God truly does not wish any to perish (and that God gets His way ultimately, which leads to the conclusion many people have reached that "Love Wins" is universalistic). I experienced this reaction first-hand when I discussed the book with a Calvinist friend recently.
(By the way, I know some hard-core Calvinists who spend a lot of time wrestling with the fear that they aren't really saved ... that, despite their acceptance of Christ's forgiveness for their sins, God may somehow ultimately "elect" for them to be damned ... which I think is possibly one of the more negative ramifications of Calvinism's extremes. Scripture says "All who come to me I will in no wise cast out" and urges us believers, time and again, not to fear! These Christian friends of mine have chosen to come to Him. Shouldn't they therefore release that particular fear? Would God break His promise?)
What Bell does do, through his questions, is pop some evangelical/fundamentalist "bubbles" that may need to be popped, or at least thoroughly discussed. For instance, take the contention (supported primarily by 5-point Calvinists, but also assumed by many other Christians) that at the moment of death, the curtain drops and your fate is sealed. That even if (when confronted with the majestic God who created you, in judgment) you fell to your knees and said, "I'm sorry I didn't believe in you and receive you earlier! I now understand the error of my ways. I believe in You now. Please forgive me, cover my sins with the blood of Christ!" God would shake His head and say, "Nope. Too late. Your fate is sealed, and now you will be tormented in hell forever for not doing this 10 minutes earlier. Sorry!"
That sounds extreme, I know, but that really does seem to be what many Christians believe. Bell points out that the loving Father who "desires for all men to be saved," the Father who hiked up His skirts and ran out to welcome His prodigal son back into the fold, wouldn't be capable of such evil. And, I have to say he has a good point.
However, I realize that 5-point Calvinists will make two valid points (which Bell plays around the edges of but doesn't really address directly): 1) The words of Christ himself (in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) seem to imply that the decisions we make in this life, and the inclination to make those decisions (based on the "ordainment" of God, according to Calvinists) are effective for all of eternity; and 2) If God truly does ordain those whom He desires to be saved, to eternal life, and those whom He desires to be damned, to eternal death, then He would certainly do so before the "it is appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgment" deadline.
Actually, my main bone of contention with extreme Calvinists is reflected in that last sentence. Could the Creator God of the Scripture really "desire some men to be damned?" Isn't this in clear violation of his own stated will, expressed in Ezekiel 18:27-32, 1 Timothy 2:3-4, 2 Peter 3:9, and elsewhere?
However, I would point out to those who argue (on the basis of Heb. 9:27's*, "It is appointed to men once to die, and after this the judgment"), "Once saved, always saved" and "Once you die in your sins, you are always lost," that even that proof text itself is not explicit about the amount of time, space, or other events that may elapse between those two things ("once to die," and "then" -- when? -- judgment). Catholics would probably insert into this space, "Hence, Purgatory" which of course is the view that an intermediary state of being is needed to fully purge/cleanse our souls from sin before we can be allowed into a sinless heaven.
Not being Catholic (and not seeing any direct evidence for Purgatory in Scripture), I naturally do not accept this contention, but something akin to Purgatory (and supported by the Old Testament metaphor of the "Outer Court of the Gentiles" when it comes to the Temple, or to similar outer areas of the Tabernacle) might possibly exist in the fringes of the journey to Heaven. C. S. Lewis alluded to this in his brilliant allegory, "The Great Divorce," wherein a busload of passengers are delivered on a day-trip from Hell to Heaven. They have great difficulty even stepping upon the grass of Heaven's outlands, as they are so incorporeal, and it is quite clear that they must become "adjusted" to the realities of heaven (their souls cleansed from all that binds them to hell) in order be able to traverse "inward and upward" toward the Center of God's universe.
The Great Divorce leaves us with the sense that all of the bus riders save one judge this journey too difficult to make. They are too comfortable in hell, having gone there in the first place because they are too uncomfortable being exposed to the holiness of God, with all of its demands. In other words, they are too used to being the captain of their own ship. The narrator alone leaves the reader with the impression that he is going to miss the bus ride home to hell, and seek to make the changes necessary to travel inward and upward. (I.e., repentance after death!)
Based on Bell's words in "Love Wins," I think he would agree with Lewis. Although I don't think he necessarily views hell as a place of punitive justice (where God pours out his wrath on sin by torturing lost souls in eternal torment), he certainly does contend that "a hell of our own making" exists. He affirms free will, the fact that God gave men the ability to choose, and will never force them to do otherwise. He agrees that if God freely gives man the ability to choose his grace, there must be the possibility that some will not choose it, perhaps may never choose it.
But, at the same time, as I mentioned earlier, he raises some intriguing questions. Evangelicals agree that God is omnipotent (as expressed by Bell's phrase, "God gets His way"). And most of them agree with straightforward interpretation of the verse "God desires that none should perish." (Although I recognize that 5-point Calvinists might not acknowledge the straightforward interpretation of this verse. One friend said to me: "That verses doesn't mean 'everyone' ... just the elect." But I'm sorry, that's not what it plainly says ... is it?) If God wants all people to be saved, and He ultimately gets His way, what does this portend for the future of all people?
Also, there is the intriguing passage in Isaiah 45:23 — "By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’" Which is reinforced quite heartily by Paul in Romans 14:11 and Philippians 2:9-11. If every knee will bow and every tongue will confess (swear allegiance to, according to Isaiah) the Lordship of Christ ... then where are His detractors?
Only three possibilities, as far as I can see, remain: 1) Rob Bell is right: Love Wins in the end, and ultimately God gets His way. All ultimately repent and are covered by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. 2) Those who fail to repent (the goats of Matthew 25) are destroyed in the "Second Death," the lake of fire reserved for the Devil and his angels (Revelation 20;14), and all others (the sheep) worship God forever as He intended. Or 3) This verse doesn't really mean what it seems to mean ... either "every" doesn't really mean "every," or as one of my Calvinist friends might contend, "bowing to the Lordship of Christ" is forced upon wicked unbelievers somehow ... which raises the question: is forced allegiance really allegiance?
I've ordered those three possibilities in accordance with what I hope is true. But, scripturally, I think the best argument really lies with option #2. Scripture doesn't really seem to entertain the possibility that Satan and his demons will ultimately repent and serve God, although I don't see this as outside the realm of possibility for God's grace, certainly. (Remember, "He who is forgiven much, loves much" Luke 7:47.)
The bottom line is, just as Scripture really isn't clear on these things (what we need, after all, is to trust God today, and having the answers to these questions doesn't necessarily lend itself to this trust, does it?), I don't think we as fallible human beings can be completely clear, either. Bell makes a good point that there is not a hard-and-fast, clear-cut interpretation of these matters. My Calvinist friends might shout "Heresy!" but just shouting heresy hasn't ever helped the cause of Truth, as far as I am aware. I don't see that Rob Bell's conclusions (or at least the questions he raises) are anti-biblical in any way, so I'm certainly not ready to throw the first stone. (And, might I add ... I've actually read the book! Many of his critics have not.)
There are some things about the WAY Bell writes (his imprecise, somewhat vague, poetical style, which I assume comes from the way he preaches) that annoyed the heck out of me. But once I survived this in the first half of the book, I felt like the second half made wading through the first half worth the wait.
*By the way, even hardcore Calvinists will agree that Scripture presents several different types of "judgment," and it is not immediately clear which type Heb. 9:27 is referring to. If "judgment" refers to the Great White Throne Judgment, the final judgment at the end of days, depicted in Revelation, then certainly there is some "space" which must be inserted where the word "then" occurs in this verse.