How the Bell tolls for thee
by Patrick Lafferty
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
On at least one count, Rob Bell is spot on.
Who’s Rob Bell?
In case you missed the excitement, he’s the pastor in Grand Rapids, MI whose latest book, Love Wins, has provoked prodigious controversy within the church and attracted wide interest outside her. Time Magazine even devoted its annual Eastertide cover to explore one possible implication of Bell’s musings—namely that Hell may merely be a religious contrivance designed to restrain our more destructive impulses.
Though we won’t review his book here, Bell’s dominant argument is that the view of Hell held by the vast majority of believers for the vast majority of church history is “misguided and toxic.” Many Christians, he insists, are so preoccupied with Hell that they effectively reduce the Christian life to avoiding divine punishment. In his imitable style, Bell frames his criticisms most often in the form of provocative questions: if God is so irreducibly merciful, how can we say He is willing to consign souls to an infinite misery for arguably finite offenses? And if God is as eminently sovereign as we claim, how can the end of our physical life bar God from restoring our eternal souls to Himself?
Bell’s arguments, even if couched innovatively in the interrogative, are not new. Nor have they required novel, unprecedented responses. He is clearly thoughtful in his formulations, and he vocalizes what many perhaps wonder from time to time about the justice and mercy of the Lord. But of those who have thoughtfully considered Bell’s book, one dominant complaint is that he argues too tendentiously from the Scriptures.
For instance, yes, the Old Testament intones abundant anticipations of Israel’s restoration following her apostasy. But it’s an excessive inference to conclude that God will similarly restore individual unrepentant persons to Himself even after their death. It is also true that God takes no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked (Ezek 33:11), and that He desires all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4). But to extrapolate from His loving interest in redeeming souls that He extends His offer of mercy following death is, as one reviewer put it, a bridge too far.
We perhaps ought not besmirch Bell’s interest in providing what for many is a more palatable answer to the question about the fate of the countless who enter a Christless eternity. Unfortunately, the case he makes rests too much on hopeful conjecture, while at the same time unintentionally diminishing the very quality of God it seeks to elevate—namely, His love. That is, while Bell believes extending God’s redemptive reach into death’s realm glorifies His love in how it expands the population of heaven with those who turn to Him after death, the Scriptures would seem to argue that the pinnacle of God’s love is seen not so much in the number of those who are saved, but in the fact that He saves anyone at all. God was not bound by anything but His own promise to redeem a people for His own possession (1 Pet 2:9); any complaint that God has been too frugal in extending His mercy assumes an obligation on God’s part of which the Scriptures do not speak. His is a love so amazing, but as God, He may do as He pleases (Ps 115:3).
Still, Bell has one criticism of how the traditional doctrine of Hell tends to be handled that is well played. There are many who call themselves believers who seem to warn others of Hell without the slightest bit of anguish in their voices. The 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that truth claims are, at their core, attempts to exert power. While Foucault’s truth-claim would seem to be guilty of its own indictment, those who brandish the fires of Hell like a cudgel often seem to betray a greater interest in exercising control than humbly pleading for repentance. They lack the very contrition and compassion that issues from a godly boldness in witness, of which Mark spoke last Sunday. For all their vehemence at apostasy, Jeremiah and Jesus wept over those whose intransigence would condemn them. Can anyone rightly understand Hell, much less warn of it, unless they share the same anguish of spirit over those who pay it no thought?
The attempt to coerce is but one example of fatally flawed forms of witness. Evangelism motivated by guilt or mere social conformity, while perhaps not as hypocritical as manipulation, lacks as much integrity in how it is absent of love. And though indifference to the entire evangelistic enterprise avoids the disingenuousness of those other efforts, it betrays, as Mark soberly reflected, the deepest of disconnects in our soul: how can something ostensibly so central to our identity and hope never find its way to our lips that it might be shared—even awkwardly?
In view of all that can go wrong in the attempt to fulfill the Great Commission, the significance of the promise of the Spirit’s power in witness rings loud and clear. We really do need help that is not inherent to us in order to speak clearly, relevantly, and credibly of Christ and His gospel. There’s too much riding on the dissemination of this message to go without sufficient help. There’s too much of us that can get in the way of the dissemination to look to our own lights and strength.
So what can we do if we find lurking beneath our impulses to bear witness manipulation or mere conformity? What if we find no impulse at all? It has to begin with praying, if only that prayer might become henceforth what guides and sustains us in the privilege of pointing people to the Cross. These will be prayers first of repentance, acknowledging the absence of truth or love in our telling (or timidity). Then they will be prayers of request that we would see God as He is and souls as they are.
There may be much misleading in Pastor Bell’s most recent work. But if he ends up sending us to prayer that we might speak and act with the right balance of love and admonition, in the end, God wins.