*Posted by Everett Berry
Approximately five months ago, Rob Bell’s ruminations on hell hit the market in his book Love Wins. In that time, many reviewers, pastors, scholars, and bloggers provided lively interaction with his proposals. However, I believe there is one point in particular that Bell presses regarding the idea of hell which still lingers in the minds of many who are sympathetic to his case. And that is the idea that God eternally punishing unbelievers is a moral indictment against Christianity as a whole. I think Bell is on to something important here. He hits the right nerve when he claims that it is psychologically crushing to say God is loving only up to the point of death and then he suddenly becomes a bringer of unending judgment. He contends that this is the very reason why unbelievers are reluctant to embrace Jesus because they do not feel they can trust the God he represents. Put another way in an interview about his book, Bell questions whether someone who may live for 17 years and die must be punished for more than 17 million years for only 17 years of sin. How does one respond to such a critique?
I believe the answer simply is that Bell is wrestling with the right concern but obviously considering an even more problematic alternative. At the intuitive level, Bell’s caricature of God is unacceptable. The rub however is that the unsavory idea of finalized judgment is an intrinsic part of the biblical storyline and therefore a non-negotiable part of the gospel itself. Furthermore, as to the charge that a God who punishes unbelievers forever is psychologically damaging, one must not forget that Scripture is filled with scenarios that are emotionally jolting and frankly unacceptable to the modern mind. God destroys all the inhabitants of the earth except for Noah and his family (Gen 7:23); Aaron the High Priest is not permitted to mourn publicly for his two sons who were killed (Lev 10:4-6); Moses is denied entrance to the Promised Land for one act of disobedience (Num 20:11-12); Ezekiel is told not to mourn for his dead wife (Ez 24:15-17); An angel warns Joseph of Herod’s plot to kill baby Jesus but did not inform all the other mothers in Bethlehem (Matt 2:13-18); and God comforts yearning martyrs with the promise that more will suffer the same fate (Rev 6:9-11).
The real problem for Bell is that ironically, he is inescapably western. Why? Because he wants to domesticate God so he will be intellectually permissible to people who want to consider Christianity as somehow viable in an age where any idea of hell is out of the question. The problem though is that God cannot be tamed or deconstructed. The same One who will judge unbelievers in the future (2 Thess 1:5-10) likewise stands as wrathful against them now (Jn 3:36). So God does not change from being loving to wrathful at death. Rather the full realization of his wrath begins after death (Heb 9:27).