At the risk of posting a long response to your question about Rob Bell’s book on hell on my facebook wall, I’ll post it here.
The first thing that needs to be said is that there is not much that is new here. One of the earliest teachers of Christians was a man by the name of Origen of Alexandria. He lived around 200AD. He was an early proponent of what has now come to be called “Universalism” (i.e., that everyone will eventually be saved or—at the risk of oversimplification—that everything will eventually be okay in the end). As he writes in his most important work, On First Principles:
For the end is always like the beginning; as therefore there is one end of all things, so we must understand that there is one beginning of all things, and as there is one end of many things, so from one beginning arise many differences and varieties, which in their turn are restored, through God’s goodness, through their subjection to Christ and their unity with the Holy Spirit, to one end, which is like the beginning. (I.6.2)
In short, there is much in the theology of Origen in 200AD that fits with the idea that “love wins.” Furthermore, there is a more contemporary and very prolific Catholic theologian—Hans Urs von Balthasar—who translated Origen’s works and adopted similar views which put him in tension with the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church.
So those who wish to jump into the debate about hell, salvation, universalism, etc. would do well to acquaint themselves with both Origen of Alexandria and Hans Urs von Balthasar on these subjects. And they should do so with an open mind and an appreciation for the broader contours of their theology—because there is quite a bit of it that is rich and good! Despite the fact that Origen (or better, Origenism) was condemned by later Church Councils, many great theologians continued to read and admire Origen’s theology and work. It is worth emphasizing that one could easily forfeit what is worth appreciating in Origen and von Balthasar by prejudging all of their work on this one point of doctrine.
Ultimately, the debate comes down to the following intuitions—intuitions that are not always understood or acknowledged by the opposing factions. I’ll put them in the following way, based on their Scriptural equivalents:
Intuition #1: God, who is Just, will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.
Intuition #2: God, who is Great and Good, will—eventually—be “all in all.”
(1Corinthians 15:28; Ephesians 1:23)
With respect to Intuition #1, in Exodus 34:7 God speaks to Moses and gives him a memorial name by which He wants to be remembered by His people: YHWH. In fancy, theological-speak, we call this the “Tetragrammaton.” He then provides a description of how that name is to be understood:
“YHWH, YHWH, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, Abounding in Loving-Kindness and Truth, Who Keeps/Guards Loving-Kindness for Thousands, Who Forgives Iniquity, Transgression, and Sin.“
But the text continues…
“but He will by No Means Leave the Guilty Unpunished, Visiting the Iniquity of the Fathers on the Children and Grand-Children to the Third and Fourth Generations.“
This understanding of God is absolutely foundational for understanding both the Old and New Testaments. For one, notice that the entire 80-90%—perhaps we should even say 99.9999%—is focused on the abounding grace, compassion, and covenantal love of God. It is only the 10% or .0001% that is left for judgment and punishment. The clear emphasis is on divine patience and love for mankind. Judgment and punishment are there, but they are not the overarching emphasis. The New Testament equivalent of this is 1Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind, love keeps no records of wrong, etc.“ Even though I haven’t read Rob Bell’s book, I am fairly certain there is a dimension to his thesis reacting to a hyper-critical, stare-down-your-nose-at-the-heathen form of Christianity that should have no place among those who walk in the name of one who befriended tax collectors and sinners. If this is the case, there is much in both Old and New Testaments that lends itself in Rob Bell’s favor. For God is compassionate and gracious, “not wanting any to perish, but all to inherit eternal life,” as it says in 2Peter 3:9. To the extent that Rob’s book tries to pull the pendulum that has swung too far—that is, from a God who craves judgment and punishing sinners back to the more biblical understanding of God’s patience and grace—it is to be commended. As I haven’t read his book, I cannot say whether it does, in fact, accomplish this; or if it does, whether it swings the pendulum too far in the other direction.
Where the pendulum can swing too far is in dismissing this last part of Exodus 34:7 as though judgment is some kind of sixth finger to divinity that doesn’t really matter much to life and doctrine. The truth is the Bible teaches that God really is abounding in loving-kindness, patience, and grace. He is like the father in the story of the prodigal son who doesn’t wait for his son to return home but rushes out on the road to embrace and kiss and forgive him for his wrongdoing: “Bring out the fattened calf! for this, my son was dead, but now he is alive again! He was lost, but now he is found!” (Luke 15). Furthermore, when Jesus inaugurates his teaching ministry, he reads from the scroll of Isaiah 61 and deliberately interrupts his reading with a verse from Isaiah 58:6—”to set the oppressed free.” He also puts the scroll down in mid-verse, choosing not to read “the day of the vengeance of our God.” It is clear that Jesus was countering a popular understanding of Messiahship—and certainly not without its biblical justification—that conceived of “Messiahship” primarily in terms of prophetic judgment and fire. John the Baptist echoes this view when he says “I baptize you with water, but after me comes one who will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit” (Luke 3:16; Matthew 3:11). But Jesus, in ways that have very close parallels with Exodus 34:6-7, impressed upon the minds of his listeners at the synagogue that day that his Messiahship was to be understood as that of a good Shepherd who kicks a hole through the retaining wall and leads the sheep out to green pastures and living water. If there is judgment, punishment, discipline, or vengeance, it is tangential to this primary task of his Messiahship of “setting the oppressed free” and likely to be reserved—in a more intense form—for the “last days.”
And this gets to some key points I would like to make. Look at Paul’s admonitions in his letter to the churches in Rome. In Romans 6, he writes, “Shall we continue in sin that God’s grace may abound?” He responds with an emphatic “God forbid!” (me genoito in the Greek). With respect to Intuition #1, try to put yourself in this perspective. Look out over an imaginary horizon of masses of people who persist in sin, who reject God’s provision of grace and salvation, and yet are rewarded with eternal life. There is a sense of injustice and imbalance here. From this intuition, it makes God out to be both unjust and unfair.
Of course, one can look to the parable in Matthew 20:1-16 as a defense for this imbalance being compatible with the justice of God. In the parable, the owner pays the same amount to those who worked all day and those who worked for half a day. When the all-day workers complain, the owner says “What’s it to you? You agreed to work for this amount of time for this amount of money. You got your money. That was our agreement. What’s it to you if I choose to pay someone else the same amount of money for fewer hours? It’s my money. I can do with it as I please. You got yours; so stop your complaining. Perhaps you can come back tomorrow and I might agree to pay you more for less. But today is today. Our agreement was our agreement.” In the same way, someone could argue that those who reject the gift of God and the salvation offered through Jesus are—at the end of the day—like those who only worked for half a day. God has the prerogative to give eternal life to sinners if He wants to; and what’s it to those who have already received forgiveness and life? But what this fails to consider is the prevailing pattern throughout the Old and New Testaments of God’s faithful, patient, covenantal love actively—but not forcefully—attempting to woo his unfaithful, impatient, constantly covenant-breaking people back into his loving embrace, followed by a long period of chance after chance after chance offered to them for repentance and forgiveness until, finally, “enough is enough!” Then judgment comes.
It is so easy, in light of the things said above, to dismiss this judgment as irrelevant and minuscule when compared with God’s abounding love and grace for mankind. But don’t let appearances deceive you. Its apparent smallness comes with a built-in intensity—the biblical imagery of fire is very appropriate here—that is directly proportional to the amount of time and patience that has led up to it. To what shall we compare it? Think of a father who gives his teenage son the keys to his car, trusting that his son will act responsibly. His son messes up, betrays his father’s trust, and acts irresponsibly. The father forgives him and gives him a second chance. The son betrays his father’s trust again. The father forgives him, communicates his desires for his son to act responsibly, and gives him a third chance and so on. But at some point the son so persists in irresponsibility that the father finally comes to the end-of-his-rope. What do you think the final conversation between the father and son will look like? Don’t you think it is precisely because of the extra patience and grace of the father—and the son’s pushing this grace and patience to the very limit—that the final judgment the father enacts upon this son will come with severe consequences? perhaps never being allowed to use the car ever again? As I like to put it, “Woe to the one who, like Pharaoh, pushes God’s patient love to the very end! Forgiveness may come 490 times, but come 491,“ Grievous punishment is for him who forsakes the way; he who hates reproof will die” (Proverbs 15:10). Those who wish to emphasize the patient, loving-kindness of God are in the right; but those who underestimate the severity of God’s judgment on the other side of persistent disobedience, sin, and hard-heartedness—all the more tragic when viewed as a response to God’s long-suffering patience and grace—are not listening with “ears that hear.” Fire eventually swallows up Sodom and Gomorrah. Floodwaters eventually swallow up Noah’s neighbors. God will, eventually, judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42; 2Timothy 4:1; 1Peter 4:5). There comes a time when “enough is enough.” This is the clear testimony and pattern in these biblical texts.
So much for Intuition #1. What about Intuition #2? This second intuition is one that I think is harder for those with Intuition #1 to understand and acknowledge. Most of us, I think, find it much easier to understand the reasoning and scriptural texts in support of Intuition #1. But my guess is that Rob Bell, like Origen of Alexandria, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, have been captured by the reasoning and scriptural support for Intuition #2. And it goes something like this. Whereas Intuition #1 focuses on what is “fair” and “just” and judges sin, hell, and eschatology in light of this, Intuition #2 focuses on what is “ultimate”, “cosmic”, and “final.” The idea is that God doesn’t merely finish what He starts, but He does so in a way that leaves everyone speechless. To put it in the form of a question: If God is so Great and so Good and so Wise, doesn’t it make sense, doesn’t it seem reasonable, that He would initiate and leave us with a final picture, a final state of the world, a final state of all things that matches such Greatness, Goodness, and Wisdom?? What does it mean for God to be “all in all” after the Messiah has put all things in subjection to the Father if not the “final perfection of all things”?
To put it another way, think of it negatively: Suppose God leaves the final state of things with some severe shortcomings—masses upon masses of people living in conscious torment “without hope and without God in the world.” You never hear this. You are never made aware of it. Somehow the dungeon of torture rarely touches the pearly gates of your consciousness, if ever. But while you enjoy your heavenly bliss, as you listen to unparalleled forms of music and view manifestations of light and presence that you can only barely imagine right now, somewhere behind or under or beyond the throne of the Most High God, beneath the throngs of angels and tongues and tribes and nations, there is an even larger throng of those living in conscious torment and hell—a hell they have no doubt chosen for themselves, a hell that is a result of their persistent disobedience and refusal to turn toward that undying and faithful love that has pursued them to the very end. From the perspective and intuition of justice—where “the guilty are by no means left unpunished”—this picture may look copacetic. But from the perspective and intuition of “all in all” — of final perfection — of the picture we are left with before the Alpha and Omega — we are left with a tapestry of imperfection. Here lies the work of the Almighty God. As you look it over you see a more perfect world that “could have been” but isn’t. What you are left with—at the end of days—is a picture that seemingly falls short of the glory and magnificence of God. Couldn’t the Almighty God have done better? Couldn’t the plan have been more ingenious? and the final outcome even more worthy of praise? At the end of the day, am I left speechless before a beautiful God and a beautiful world with a final end as magnificent as its beginning? When you start to look at it from this perspective, when you try to put yourself in that intuition—from a stance of defending the Beauty, Magnificence, and Genius of God—for both the creation and the consummation of all things—you find yourself having a hard time fitting hell, and the ideas and concepts associated with hell, into that final picture.
So where does this leave us? As I like to tell students in my Bible classes, “Beware of the temptation to shoehorn your least favorite verses in the Bible to fit the systematics of your theology. The Bible is written in such a way that there will always be verses that do not fit as snugly into your understanding of things as you might like.” Am I saying that there is no answer to this question? No. Am I trying to play the role of the deconstructionist who points out the faults in each party’s views with no constructive proposal of his own? No. What I am saying—or would, at least, like to say—is that if this dialog about hell is to be fruitful, we would do well to consider the tensions as tensions and use them for meditation and contemplation of these texts. There is no fruit for those who hastily seek the coherence of their own theological frameworks. There is no fruit for those who want the drive-by theology on hell, salvation, and eschatology. The real fruit—the fruit of the Spirit—the fruit of the living Word—the fruit that brings life out of death—that never fears a permanent separation from the Tree of Life and the presence of God—is the fruit that comes from the laborious contemplation and study of these texts—that wrestles and abides with them. It doesn’t caricature these sacred words as easy children’s puzzles one only needs the corner pieces to finish. There is no Alexander the Great before the Gordian knot. This knot—or rather, these knots—are held against the bound hands of a Messiah who is said to have freely died for the sins of the world. These knots are upon his hands and his feet, held and fixed to a cross that is said to have both the questions and the answers that lead to eternal life. Whether you will be one of the few (or many) who will be ‘transfixed’ by the encounter remains an open question. And the beauty of the final picture may (or may not) have everything to do with how you respond to it.