Chapter 3 of Love Wins is entitled “Hell.” Given the fact that it is the most controversial chapter, it is perhaps ironic that it is also the most logically sound chapter in the book, at least in terms of the frequency of fallacies. As in every chapter, Bell makes many good points. He is certainly correct in acknowledging our ignorance about the details of God’s dealings with people in the afterlife, as he notes that the biblical witness is “fairly ambiguous at best as to just what exactly that looks like” (65). Bell also drives home a powerful moral lesson in his analysis of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. He reminds us that it is because the rich man failed to properly die to himself in his earthly life that he missed out on “the only kind of life that’s worth living” (77). Indeed. We’d all do well to keep this in mind. Thirdly, Bell observes that when teaching on hell, Jesus’ focus is not on a person’s beliefs so much as “how they conduct themselves, how they interact with their neighbors, about the kind of effect they have on the world” (82). This is a powerful corrective for many evangelicals today, who are tragically prone to thinking that mere cognitive states (i.e., beliefs about Jesus) are sufficient for salvation. On the contrary, Jesus says, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). Finally, Bell helpfully reminds us how God uses suffering and even Satan himself for redemptive purposes (85-90). Such a view of God’s sovereign use of evil almost makes one wonder if Bell is warming up to a Reformed perspective. Well, okay, not quite.
Anyway, here are two fallacies in chapter 3:
1. Equivocation on page 71: The fallacy of equivocation is committed when, in the course of making a claim or argument, one uses a key term in two or more senses (e.g., “This is a liberal arts college, and all liberals are political leftists. So this college must endorse leftist politics”). Bell equivocates on, of all things, the word “hell.” Through much of the chapter he discusses various source images of hell, such as that suggested by the term “Gehenna,” which referred to the Hinnom Valley outside of Jerusalem, a place that served as a garbage dump. Bell notes as well the hellish nature of certain atrocities, like the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, when some people would amputate the limbs of children just to spite their enemies. Then at one point Bell says, “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs” (71). Well, this is clearly a redefinition of the term “literal.” Normally, when used to modify “hell” we understand this to indicate a supernatural dimension where souls are tormented. But by reconceiving hell in physical terms, this permits Bell to use a different sense of “literal” accordingly. It’s a clever but deceptive move that is more like a conceptual shell game than astute biblical interpretation.
2. Straw Man on page 70: In Part 2 of this series I noted an instance of Bell committing the straw man fallacy (representing a view in its weakest light so that it is easily refuted). An even more severe instance occurs in chapter 3 as Bell responds to the objection that “the idea of hell is a holdover from primitive, mythic religion” (69). Bell says, “I understand that aversion, and I as well have a hard time believing that somewhere down below the earth’s crust is a really crafty figure in red tights holding a three-pointed spear…” (70). So this is the traditional view of hell that Bell wants us to get over? Talk about an easy dismissal. And, of course, by contrast, Bell’s naturalized view of hell as torture and injustice on earth looks incomparably more reasonable. But wait a minute… Later in chapter 3 Bell seems to affirm something like the traditional view of hell as a condition in the afterlife, declaring, “There is hell now and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously” (79). So why parody the traditional afterlife view, as Bell does, using the devil-in-red-tights description? I haven’t a clue.
Chapter 4 is entitled “Does God Get What God Wants?” and it features a number of significant observations, not the least of which is the biblical reminder that “God wants all to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Many people would say, presumably including Bell, that this is grounds for being a “hopeful universalist,” that is, someone who hopes that universalism is true (however implausible it might seem). And surely this is a proper attitude—to want what God wants in desiring the salvation of everyone. Bell also notes that many respected Christian thinkers down through history, including early church fathers such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and Eusebius, were universalists. So it is not a view that renders one a heretic, even if it is quite heterodox.
However, among the fallacies committed by Bell in chapter 4 are these:
1. Complex Question on page 108: The fallacy of complex question is committed when one asks a question that presupposes a particular (controversial or damning) view on some issue (e.g., “Have you stopped beating your wife?”). In defending the possibility that eventually everyone will be reconciled to God, Bell poses this question: “Could God say to someone truly humbled, broken, and desperate for reconciliation, ‘Sorry, too late’?” The reader’s natural response to this is, of course, to say “no,” which naturally puts us in a sympathetic position with the universalist. But notice the subtle assumption Bell slips into the question, specifically that some/all people in hell could really be “humbled” and “desperate for reconciliation” with God. While this is certainly possible, we don’t know that this will be true of anyone in hell. Many traditionalists, in fact, affirm a concept of hell in which pride, resentment, and other vices only grow more consuming and nefarious in the damned. So we need not grant the assumption behind this question, tempting though it may be.
2. Unjustified Claims on pages 110-111: In one of the most interesting passages in the chapter, Bell compares the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment with the universalist view. He asserts, “Telling a story in which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a very good story” (110). In contrast, he adds, “everybody enjoying God’s good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served and all the wrongs being made right is a better story” (111). Bell doesn’t bother to argue for this bold, and crucial, claim, besides declaring that the latter is “more loving, more expansive, more extraordinary, beautiful, and inspiring.” But why should we believe these claims? He doesn’t even attempt to justify any of them. Such unjustified assertions are especially exasperating, as far as I’m concerned, because, well, I think Bell is right. The universalist story is more aesthetically pleasing overall than the eternal conscious torment story. But so many of his readers are likely to find this claim controversial that he owes us some evidence to support it. Moreover, once this claim is justified, it’s a huge step from here to the claim that the universalist story is actually true.
3. False Dichotomy on pages 110-111: While I’m at it, this critical passage also showcases the fallacy of false dichotomy. Notice that Bell’s comparison involves just two views: the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment and the universalist view. He completely ignores an important alternative—conditional immortalism. If the damned are ultimately annihilated in hell, then their torment is not “endless,” yet their destruction certainly satisfies the demand for just punishment for unforgiven sin. Many scholars (e.g., John Stott, F. F. Bruce, and Edward Fudge) would argue that this story is “better” than both the traditional and universalist views. Since Bell is so critical of eternal conscious torment yet also denies universalism, one would think he would welcome consideration of conditional immortalism. But, alas, Rob Bell is a perplexing thinker.
Dr. Spiegel, I enjoyed your critique of Bell’s book. I find your criticisms quite fair and sympathetic at most points, which is refreshing compared to the majority of the ‘Evangelical’ (whatever that means nowadays…) blogosphere. However, I do have a few questions about the criticisms of these chapters, mostly regarding what I see as a difference in interpretations of Bell’s writing style and purpose in asking question, I suppose. Thanks, JRP.
1. Isn’t that Bell’s exact intention? To play off the phrase “literal hell?” He knows that’s not what people mean… that’s why he makes such a ridiculous crack at it. I read it intended as a joke; a funny way to respond when people ask the question instead of saying, “No, I don’t.”
2. I also don’t think Bell is arguing against this “straw man” version of hell. He knows that no one seriously argues for it, he merely mentions it in jest, and never attempts to knock it down.
1. I see how an answer to his question comes subtly attached with a sympathy for universalism, but how is it a Complex Question fallacy? He doesn’t assume the answer of ANOTHER question while asking it (as does the question about beating your wife). Rather, his question does exactly what is intended–expresses the ‘traditional’ view in another way, casting it in a dimmer (yet very fair and realistic) light: as a situation with no hope.
2. I think the burden of proof (or argument) really rests with his opponents on this one, for agreeing with him seems to be most consistent with modern conceptions of “good” and “just.” I agree with him as do you; I don’t why anyone would ask him to defend that.
3. I agree completely here. I do think some form of restorationism is more pleasing to my taste for justice, yet I may be quite biased as a 21st century white American male. I do think though, that it is most consistent with the “Make all things new” (Rev 21) and “Every knee shall bow … in heaven, on earth, and below the earth” (Phil 2) themes.
Jonathan has some excellent thoughts, and I’ll leave them as they are. A few comments and questions of my own:
I wonder how many people around the world (or even just in America) actually do believe in a literal hell of everlasting fire and brimstone ruled by the Devil wearing tight red spandex and carrying a pitchfork? Is it possible that contemporary media has actually become so abusive that naive people will believe in something like that? Surely I hope not, but perhaps Rob Bell believes so and wants to strike down that view too.
Doesn’t Bell’s statement that “the idea of hell is a holdover from primitive, mythic religions” carry some weight to it? One of the arguments for the doctrine of universal reconciliation is that the early church, including Jesus himself and his disciples, did not believe in the kind of hell the church believes in today. The concept of fire-and-brimstone hell was an introduction of the ancient Greek and Roman mythologies into Christian culture and eventually into the Bible in response to political pressure. Now, I haven’t done extensive research on this, so it could be completely off, but it seems like a valid argument to me.
And I agree that a conditional immortalist view is a much “better story” than the eternal-hellfire view, though I would argue that the Universalist picture is better yet than an annihilationist view. After all, what’s better? Saving some, or saving all? To me, the belief that God will reconcile all things to himself and will save all people from destruction (whether it be eternal damnation or annihilation) gives me so much more to hope for, demonstrates God’s sovereignty over the universe so much more, and causes Christ’s death and resurrection to be all the more powerful, poignant, and significant. It causes me to truly rejoice for the first time in my life that God is good and loving and that his love for me is not conditional on anything I do or say or believe. This is a Good News that I really want to share!
Paul D. Adams
Re: Chapter 4, #3…..
Would/could you add Scot McKnight to the list with his “death after death” idea? (See my summary here and the pointer to your post on conditional immortalism.) Admittedly, McKnight states annihilation does not answer all the questions, but he’s clearly sympathetic to it in his One.Life.
*But notice the subtle assumption Bell slips into the question, specifically that some/all people in hell could really be “humbled” and “desperate for reconciliation” with God. While this is certainly possible, we don’t know that this will be true of anyone in hell.*
While I understand that the parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” may or may not inform us of the true conditions of eternal damnation, I find it interesting that the rich man never asks to be released from hell, even when such a request would have made sense in the story (as in, he first requests for the “tip of the finger dipped in water and touched to his tongue” rather than asking for release; and instead of asking to be allowed out of hell long enough to warn his brothers, he asks that Lazarus be sent).