Hell’s Bells

by Richard on April 28, 2011

Andrew Brown on Rob Bell in Cambridge

On stage with our own Maggi Dawn, Bell was a fascinating performer. What he said made very little impression on me compared to the conviction and elegance with which he said it. He was always in movement or absolutely at rest; he never fidgeted or slumped. In this he reminded me of Tony Blair, but where Blair, the last time I saw him preach at his Foundation, used a lectern, Bell performed on a largely bare stage and was altogether more active, as if he were dancing out a three-card trick with his feet while he expounded his theology. Sometimes he spread his arms like an aeroplane’s wings. I half expected him to take off while he zoomed around the stage.

The audience loved him, and he treated them skill and kindness. He spoke entirely without notes, and with tremendous fluency and a knack of seeming to talk to us all as individuals. He spoke well of his wife, and told a story of a miraculous return from the dead in Los Angeles. When he was asked a tricky question, he would say “That’s a very good question; thank you” before evading it. He would not even say that Judas was in hell. That may be entirely orthodox, but it is also rather brave.

It was obviously an encouraging night, but something in Brown’s review makes me nervous. He’s big on Bell’s style, but has little to say about Bell’s substance. Shouldn’t it be the other way arbout?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }


Kim 04.28.11 at 2:38 pm

He’s a smooth operator, that’s for sure. And genuine with it.


Peter Banks 04.28.11 at 5:51 pm

I went to his London evening and it was moving, powerful, affirming and a great day out! He was incredibly gracious to both the obtuse and objectionable questioners and made some points that drew gasps of approving wonder from the assembled throng.

Another impressions I had was how many of the church’s ‘missing generation’ were there along with us oldies ;-)



Paul F. 04.28.11 at 7:16 pm

I was surprised his book was controversial enough to merit the cover of TIME. The cover was misleading, of course. (”What if there’s no HELL?” - as if he had done away with it completely) Folks can’t handle any degree of complexity anymore, can they?


doug 04.28.11 at 7:46 pm

“as if he had done away with it completely”

in fact that is what he DOES advocate. Hell is not a narrative but literal.


PamBG 04.29.11 at 12:53 am

Wow. Wish I were still in Cambridge. I would have loved to have heard him speak.


Kim 04.29.11 at 7:48 am

Doug, have you read Love Wins? If you haven’t, then for the sake of informed and intelligent conversation, shut the hell up. If you have, then also shut the hell up, because - no change here then - you haven’t actually listened to what Bell says, for it is explicitly and absolutely clear that Bell is not a universalist because - ironically, a lot like you in fact - he allows for the possibility of people, if they insist, finally sending themselves to hell.

BTW, Love Wins is a poignant evangelical cri de coeur, but it is not a very good book. If it had been written by someone without the drawing power of Bell, it would be ignored. As Halden Doerge has observed (at “Inhabitatio Dei”), it’s in the theological bush leagues compared to major, yet accessible, works like Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God (1999) and GregoryMacDonald’s [Robin Parry's pseudonym] The Evangelical Universalist (2006), let alone the quite beautiful systematic thinking of Barth and von Balthasar on the topic. But, with Emergence theology, it’s good (not to mention funny) to see this perfect storm in American conservative evangelical circles.


PamBG 04.29.11 at 12:21 pm

It’s more of an extended sermon than a theology book.

And he does allow for the possibility of people sending themselves to hell. What he doesn’t believe is that God sends and holds people in hell in order to punish them. Bell asks the question “Does God get what God wants?” and the answer is “No, because God wants everyone with God and some will choose to be outside God’s presence and God will permit that to happen.” (My paraphrase)

But, the scandal, I think, is that Bell doesnt believe that God holds people in hell in order to punish them. And that’s what seems to make people angry.


Mendip Nomad 04.30.11 at 9:04 pm

Not much time, as essays are the order of the day (well, week actually!) but I was at his Cambridge talk and he was brilliant, if more than a little tired - it was the last one of the tour, and was an additional date that had been added late on. Despite the tiredness I thought he was great. And there was substance - Kim, he may not write like one of them, but he has clearly read some of the great theologians and philosophers. Part of the challenge, though, is that he talks in stories (sound familiar? Not that I’m making any kind of comparison) so if you’re not paying attention then you can miss the substance. But it was there. He does believe in Hell, he doesn’t think it necessarily empty, he doesn’t believe that a God who is love would work by coercion so therefore that love can be denied or ignored, and he doesn’t think death is the end of the matter. There was certainly substance as well as style, and he was well worth going to see and hear! :)


Paul F. 05.01.11 at 12:31 pm

“He does believe in Hell, he doesn’t think it necessarily empty, he doesn’t believe that a God who is love would work by coercion so therefore that love can be denied or ignored, and he doesn’t think death is the end of the matter.”

This is pretty much in line (with some nuances of course) with the majority of the 20th century’s greatest orthodox theologians (Barth, Balthasar, Rahner, Moltmann, perhaps also Emil Brunner). I don’t think Bonhoeffer said anything of this sort, but he was an inclusivist.

And so an American evangelical spells out what the best of the best have been saying for a good century already, and now he’s as popular in some quarters as the clap.

More than a few folks need to catch up on the masters.


Mendip Nomad 05.02.11 at 9:37 am

Paul F. - quite! But then, the masters aren’t the Apostles who wrote the Gospels and letters so what do they know, right?! I mean, revelation stopped with Revelation didn’t it? ;)

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