N.T. Wright on Bell's hell and God's love

T.C. Robinson quotes a passage from N.T. Wright (taken from a post by Trevin Wax) in which the bishop emeritus (not I think his formal title) starts by considering the question “Why are Americans so fixated on hell?”, then moves on to discuss Rob Bell’s teaching, presumably taken from his book Love Wins. Here is part of what Wright writes (emphasis added by TCR):

And it seems to be part of [Americans’] faith, often a central part of their faith that a certain number of people are simply going to go to hell and we know who these people are. I think Rob is saying, “Hey wait a minute! Start reading the Bible differently. God is not a horrible ogre who is just determined to fry as many people as He can forever. God is actually incredibly generous and gracious and wonderful and loving and caring. And if you paint a picture of God which is other than that, then you’re producing a monster and that has long-lasting effects in Christian lives and in the church.”

Rob BellIndeed. Wright accepts, as I do but Bell seems not to, that ultimately some people do reject God, and so God rejects them. That means that hell, whatever it is, is not completely empty. It doesn’t mean that we know who is going there, or how many they will be.

But Bell’s main point is one which Wright and I would agree with, that God’s love is more powerful than his wrath. Wherever the church paints a different picture from that, of God as “a horrible ogre”, then the good news, the gospel of Christ, is seriously distorted if not lost completely.

18 thoughts on “N.T. Wright on Bell's hell and God's love

  1. I have not yet read Bell’s book. I plan to….

    So, to quote the author…I “believe it best to only discuss books you’ve actually read”

    I agree Peter, there will be some who will not enter into the Father’s presence – eternity – whatever that looks like….for some reason, somehow there will be some who will reject His Grace..who that will be, how many, and what their eternity will look like – I do not know…and in this life, I don’t think anyone can know.

    I agree with Bell’s opening commentary regarding Gandhi….inquiring, is he really in Hell? We can know this for certain? I can never assume that anyone is in Hell – I know there will be people cast into an eternal judgment – but to say that I know someone is there now is quite audacious in my thinking. This is the judging that Jesus was talking about in Matthew 7 – I can not pass a judgment on anyone’s eternal destiny, that is something that only The Father can do. I can judge fruits and acts in your lifestyle here and now – but I can not judge your eternal condition – be that Heaven or Hell, for I do not know the condition of your heart.

  2. Chris, I haven’t read Bell’s book either. I don’t think I now plan to, as I know such a lot about it already! But I am not commenting on it, only reporting what Wright has said. I agree with you, and Bell, that it is not for us to say who is in hell or not. Actually probably most conservatives say that in principle, of individuals, but also say of known non-Christians like Gandhi that most likely they are in hell. Anyway, as Gandhi’s reported last words are “Oh God”, some might pin their hopes for him on a last second conversion.

    T.C., thanks for the link. That is interesting, especially the idea that people can in effect choose to deny and reject even the image of God inside them.

  3. How can you read the parable of Lazarus the Beggar any other way than that there is a Hell after death and that flames are involved? Why would Jesus have said it if it were not so? And, as rich Americans who pass by 90% of modern-day Lazeruses and do nothing, continuing our feasting and our election of right-wingers who do nothing for the poor, aren’t most of us likely to end up in Hell?

  4. King Cake, I think the answer to your question is in your own words: this is a parable. We don’t insist that there was a literal Good Samaritan’s inn or Prodigal Son’s pigsty, so why do we insist that there was a literal hell for the rich man? In fact this story of the rich man and Lazarus is not about ultimate eternal destinations at all, for the last part is about a time before the final judgment when the rich man’s brothers are still alive. And I don’t see any mention of flames in the text.

    But I agree that, whatever hell may be like, a lot of rich Americans and British people, including many who call themselves Christians, are heading that way.

  5. Thank you, Peter, for answering my comment. There were real Samaritans, thieves and victims of muggings, and there were real prodigals and fathers. Dives and Lazarus would be the only instance of Our Lord making up something that didn’t exist – Hell, and I can’t see why He would want to mislead us. Where Dives ends up is central to the story. It seems a strained reading of the text to say it’s not about eternal destination, when Hell is the consequence of Lazarus’ indifference to the poor Once you believe in Hell and that you could end up there, it becomes a central theme of your life, and hence American Evangelicalism with its repetition of Luther’s question, “Am I out or in?” Wright says this is the wrong question, which means he must be confident of a happy answer. Bell says that we should all be confident of a happy answer. But as long as Jesus says that if you live the life of Lazarus you will end up in Hell with a thirst unquenchable and a heart’s desire that no one you love suffer the same terror, it’s tough to get beyond, “Am I going there?” If Our Lord asked me why I didn’t do more, I could only say, “I was trying to keep from being fired so that my family didn’t end up like Lazarus, who was poor. And when I got home, there was so much T.V. to watch.”

  6. I meant Dives’ (which is Latin for Rich Man) indifference to the poor. I am beset by my grand daughter demanding another bottle (her 4th) with the insistence of a trader in the commodities futures pit, and it’s difficult to write error free whilst negotiating with a two year old – “Yes, you can have it if you eat this nice French prune!”

  7. King Cake, I understand why you are being distracted! I need more time to think about this story and what it teaches us. I don’t think it is intended to teach us about the nature of hell. I have heard it suggested that Jesus is taking a traditional view of hell and making a point about it, rather than giving his own teaching. Similarly I might mention in a sermon point St Peter at the Pearly Gates (as I did here) without actually believing or wanting to teach this as literal truth.

  8. Thanks so much, Peter. Even Bertrand Russell, no friend of the afterlife, thought Jesus to be wicked because he spoke so much of Hell, and caused so many who follow him to live in fear. I don’t see how to get around it, except to assume that you’re not going there. But how do you convince yourself of such a happy ending, when He said, “Many are called and few are chosen;” “The way is narrow and few there are that take it;” “Depart from me, I never knew you;” “It is better to live in this life without an eye than to spend eternity in Gehenna” “If you love me, keep my commandments. ” “Be ye perfect, as my Father in Heaven is perfect,” etc. Then, besides all this, we have Jesus’ picture of God as the merciful Father of the Prodigal, and Jesus Himself rewarding the smallest courtesy from the thief on the cross with eternal Paradise.
    Thanks for helping me work it our “with fear and trembling.”

  9. I meant “work it out with fear and trembling.” Another scary prescription from He who says “Be not afraid.”

  10. King Cake, I would need to look more carefully at some of those passages in context. But there is a big difference between saying that most people are not going God’s way and saying that they will all suffer everlasting conscious torment. If most are saved, it is not because they deserve it, but because God is merciful.

  11. I read Bell’s book and I think the most crucial point that he gets across is that we need to actually start bringing heaven to earth and stop viewing it as such a distant prospect. American Christians are gallivanting all over the place screaming that you must say a certain sinner’s prayer to “get in.” Jesus said that he was the kingdom of heaven and told us to pray that heaven would be made manifest on earth. Also, Neither Peter, Paul, James, John, Jude, nor any other New Testament writer ever said, “You must say these exact words to be saved!” All they were concerned with was that people knew what Jesus was like and that they become like him.

  12. Thank you, Johnny. In most ways I agree. But I think there is more to being saved than becoming like Jesus. At least, it would be wrong to suggest that people are saved by the “works” of copying Jesus’ way of life. Without the power of the Holy Spirit our best efforts to copy him are a waste of time.

  13. For those like Wright and others whose main argument is that some reject God so God will reject them, how do they satisfactorily explain this verse from Colossians 1: 19 “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself ALL things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

    It is plain as day here and in dozens of other verses in both testaments that God intends to reconcile to Himself every last bit of His creation. So how do individuals of any quantity or number, in any degree of rebellion, get left out of God’s stated purpose? Is man’s will to reject God greater than God’s stated intention to redeem them?

  14. Jack, that’s a good question. I wish I had a good answer, but I don’t. I could suggest that we cannot take all the “all”s in the Bible as completely inclusive with no exceptions, as if so we would end up with contradictions. But maybe you should look at Wright’s works to see if he has an answer, which would surely be better thought out than anything I could come up with.

  15. There are a few things to consider here
    Right and left wingers may give to the poor on a individual basis without announcing it so you may never know.
    Only God knows whether their actions are truly from the heart when and if they give.

    Only God knows if an individual is going to Heaven: conservative or liberal is not what salvation is based on
    Why assume a person does not care about the poor because they don’t vote the way you do?

  16. HH, thank you for your comment. I agree with you, although I do think that some voting choices in some elections are hard to reconcile with a proper Christian care about the poor.

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