If you're a Rob Bell fan (and frankly, what Christian aged 18-35 isn't?), then you are familiar with his Nooma videos and possibly some of his many can't-make-a-normal-looking-book books. You know that in the videos he teaches something using stories, walking down alleys, and a slightly trembling, urgent-sounding voice.
Here is the video and below it is the text of what he has to say after telling a story about a work of art which features Ghandi.
Will only a few select people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe or what you say or what you do or who you know or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated or take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these few?
Then there is the question behind the questions. The real question [is], “What is God like?”, because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But would kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?
This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies and they say, why would I ever want to be a part of that? See what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like. What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, beautiful, that whatever we have been told and been taught, the good news is actually better than that, better than we could ever imagine.
The good news is that love wins.
If you're a theology nerd, then you know that this has many Calvinists all huffy and lathered up, claiming that Bell is probably a universalist, and, therefore, unorthodox at best and heretical at worst. He could be an annihilationist, which still leaves an empty hell but upholds that some will eternally be separated from God. I don't think he's gonna be simply an soteriological optimist (a la Clark Pinnock and his A Wideness in God's Mercy, which teaches near universalism through the death of Christ). I think he will be a full-blown universalist, albeit a Christian one (all are saved through Christ) and not a normative religious pluralist (all are saved through their own religion, no matter how unbiblical it may be).
Either way, it's nothing new. Yes, that's right: in this instance, Rob Bell is not original. I'm sure he'll say things in the book that his fans will consider real zingers, and no doubt there will be an emotional appeal to his arguments. But the underlying arguments will not be original. Clark Pinnock argued for a generous, optimistic soteriology before Rob Bell was even born, and liberal theologians have been denying the reality of hell for over a century.
Additionally, though Bell and others who deny the orthodox, historical teaching on hell undoubtedly feel that their understanding is the true biblical one, the reality is that to arrive at such a conclusion requires some impressive hermeneutical sleight-of-hand (in the form of redefining the word for "eternity" and "eternal," reading annihilationism into the text, and using the varied biblical images for hell to conclude that they cannot all be true literally [fire and "blackest darkness" cannot both be literally true at the same time]) and an emphasis on emotional, philosophical questions (such as those Bell asks above) over a better question like, "what does the Bible actually teach on this subject?"
I may actually buy this book for its argumentative value. I know some friends of mine are going to wave this around triumphantly as they eulogize hell once and for all. But I say, not so fast and not so original.