Explicit confession of the Lordship of Jesus is not necessary for salvation, at least under certain circumstances—very wide circumstances, it turns out—says Rob Bell in his Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Despite writing as if he is fighting a rearguard battle against the unsophisticated, the narrow, and the self-righteous, this popular evangelical pastor is hardly arguing against the wind here.
In American Grace, a lengthy study of American religiosity, sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell claim that “a whopping 89 percent of Americans believe that heaven is not reserved [solely] for those who share their religious faith.” Outside that reluctant 11 percent (who presumably think that those outside their own small fold do go to hell), the wind is clearly with Bell, as can be seen not just by the book’s robust sales but also by the huge amount of attention it has received, very much including attention from the secular press. This part of the book’s notoriety is surely to be expected. For the secular press always hoists its Whig flag to salute any move toward liberalism inside traditionalist redoubts.
Even inside evangelical churches, unease with the doctrine of hell, at least as usually understood, has been growing, and protests from pastors and theologians have done little to avert the trend. As early as 1965, J. I. Packer was warning fellow evangelicals that they were “living and behaving as if universalism were true.”
And in his 1983 book American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity, James Davison Hunter observed: “There is a pervasive uneasiness both about the nature of hell and about who is relegated to it . . . which may portend a greater cultural accommodation.” In 1992, Zondervan, a major evangelical press, published a symposium of evangelical theologians titled Four Views on Hell—these views being defined as the literal, metaphorical, purgatorial, and conditional—which was three views more than before.
A basic problem with the loss of hell is that if the gospel of salvation is not clear on what we are being saved from, what would be the nonbeliever’s motivation for conversion and the believer’s motivation for evangelization? Bell solves the problem—to his mind, at least—with his central thesis: Heaven and hell are already present on earth, and Christians are specifically called to spread the reality of God’s heaven to the hellish realities of earth. After all, he points out, Jesus commands his followers to pray to God, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Since God’s will already obtains in heaven, our prayer—and thus our task—is to bring God’s reign to earth.
He does not deny the reality of heaven and hell as postmortem eschatological realities. But for him, to make the gulf between eternity and our temporal reality too absolute has the ironic effect of inducing the very lassitude that worries his critics: “It often appears that those who talk about going to heaven when you die talk the least about bringing heaven to earth right now. . . . At the same time, it often appears that those who talk the most about relieving suffering now talk the least about heaven when we die.”
Well, maybe. But it has to be said that Bell doesn’t really argue his case. Rather, he hurls a set of disjointed statements to see what sticks. One gets the impression that Bell delivers his weekly sermons in bullet points, at least to judge by his book’s staccato, rat-a-tat-tat style. Perhaps, though, in this era of MTV and attention-deficit disorder, Bell’s approach is best. Judging by sales and reactions to the book, he clearly knows how to reach people untrained in the art of reading extended arguments filled with nuance. Logical gaps in the argument (of which there are many) are rhetorically obscured by a vigorous self-confidence and an obviously passionate conviction that Christians can make a difference in this hellish world of ours.
Still, the gaps in his argument are considerable, as this passage nicely exemplifies: “Around a billion people in the world today do not have access to clean water. People will have access to clean water in the age to come, and so working for clean-water access for all is participating now in the life of the age to come.”
We’ve all been to funerals, I suspect, where the deceased is praised in eulogies by loved ones claiming that Uncle Wilbur, an avid golfer, is now swinging his nine iron in that great Country Club in the Sky. Into that vulgar, Americanized eschatology Bell slips all too often, because he makes the boundary between heaven and earth much too permeable. So much so that here, for example, he assumes (again without arguing the point) that we will have bodily needs, like thirst, in heaven just as we do on earth.
Generous views of salvation do not, of course, necessarily entail the conclusion that hell is empty, and Bell never goes that far. Like C. S. Lewis, though, he would insist that a person has to choose hell: “God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.”
But I think the doctrine of hell answers deeper questions than merely God’s respect for human freedom. The Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger makes the point that hell is a correlate to our moral judgments and serves as a refutation of relativism. It is, in other words, what he calls a “signal of transcendence.” In his book A Rumor of Angels, he refers to heinous crimes “in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offense as well as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions.”
So if hell exists—has to exist—then how many are saved and how many damned? Revelation wisely withholds that information. Avery Cardinal Dulles said in these pages several years ago that if we antecedently knew that hell was filled with the massa damnata and heaven not much more populated than your typical Shriners’ convention, despair would result. Correlatively, if we knew that only a few—those notorious applicants for the role of Antichrist, like Hitler and Stalin—were in hell, lassitude would set in.
Bell never claims to be a universalist, although he praises Gregory of Nyssa, who clearly was. One understands his eagerness to absolve the Christian missionary of the burden of accidentally sending someone to hell because the hapless evangelist got a flat tire on the way to an African village, after which an unchurched villager died (“What About the Flat Tire?” is the title of his first chapter).
But so eager is he to dispatch this conundrum that he misses the point of missionary endeavor. The Church, after all, is the Body of Christ and as such is an extension of Christ’s own ministry. Because of that identity between Christ and his Church, persecution will be the inevitable result: “They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.”
Indeed, he has next to nothing to say about the persecution of Christians throughout the world, which has reached a fever pitch unknown since the days of the Roman Empire, a blind spot directly related to his too-easy identification of Christianity with ameliorative humanitarianism. That blind spot tells us a lot.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake and is the author of Infinity Dwindled to Infancy (Eerdmans).