Carson Clark has posted a video of N.T. Wright commenting on the American spectacle of Rob Bell's book on hell and the Christian response to it.
Wright on Hell & Bell from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.
There is something both fascinating and gruesome about how we have dealt with all this Rob Bell stuff. It says a great deal more about us, I think, than it does about God, or hell.
John Dyer has an excellent analysis of the situation from before the book was released: Love Wins and Truth Prevails but speed kills ‘em both. He also wrote a version of this for Christianity Today entitled “Not Many of You Should Presume to Be Bloggers: How Social Media Changed Theological Debate” – and points out, lusciously: “The commenters seemed to agree with the post by attempting to enact its main point.”
I was terribly taken aback by this whole “perfect storm” Dyer describes, realizing that the way the video was released, its content, the book blurb preview, a few chapters released to reviewers but not the whole book … was about to set the Christian community into Jerry Springer mode. We would have a lot of yelling, and very little substance.
Reviews of the book seemed to indicate that it was rather fast and loose in hermeneutics and other areas. I haven’t had a chance to read it.
I was tremendously impressed with Rob Bell’s fielding of questions at his interview with Lisa Miller. He is an incredibly talented man, when he’s working a field where he’s adept. But getting into the larger issues of Christian faith is not his thing; he is much better at imaginitively beckoning us to consider the awesome expansiveness of God’s love, and its implication for ourselves and those with whom we interact.
In this interview, Bell set out one of the founding premises of his book, and I think also, the presupposition behind much of the American argument:
That hell tells us a lot about God’s character; and that a person’s view of hell says a lot about what they think of God.
I would agree here in a qualified sense, but primarily disagree.
Hell would tell us a lot about God’s character if we knew quite a bit about hell, and were able to understandingly discuss it. What we think about hell does tell us something important about our our belief in God, if we allow this belief to be important in conditioning our view of God – e.g., if we dwell on it.
I would argue, very simply:
We can not imagine hell, or that which rightly belongs to God, in matters of judgment which are “ultimate” from our perspective as embodied humans in our present state here on earth. It seems to me that Christ’s words on judgment, His few words on hell, and the general literary qualities of His words, and those of the apostles, should indicate to us: “This is way beyond our grasp … the categories which we use to try to understand these things are simply not cut out for such things … we will end up in contradictions and probably many false classifications if we try to move too far in this territory.”
Thus: we should not dwell on hell, nor should we hold detailed beliefs regarding hell, nor should whatever beliefs we have in hell, be particularly important in conditioning our ideas about God, or “telling” us what we believe about God – simply since we must acknowledge, this is beyond our capacity of thinking, imagining, and perceiving.
A correlary: does what we think about the physical nature of the cosmos, tell us a lot about who we are, who God is, or what justice is?
I would say: “No. It doesn’t matter if we think that over billions of years it is expanding or contracting; whether it has edges, or somehow folds upon itself in a single, circle-like continuum; this breaks the very boundaries of our imaginations. Whatever our beliefs about this, we still tend to agree on how to treat our neighbours, what we need to do in life, etc. etc.. Changing from one viewpoint to the other is not likely to have serious consequences for the important aspects of one’s world view.”
So I am in profound agreement here with N.T. Wright. I think that dispensationalism and “literal” readings of prophesies somehow found their ways into American consciousness in a way that is rather unique – not only amongst those who consciously believe in such things, but even amongst atheists. It’s a part of Americans’ shared imagination, as it were – effecting the imagination at a deep level. All Trinitarian churches have believed in hell; most have abided by Scripture’s implicit warnings in the language regarding hell, and the explicit warnings regarding arrogance, preventing detailed speculation regarding hell itself from becoming an important part of the collective imagination or the way in which we tend to view things.
Americans tend to be pioneers – thinking no territory can’t be mapped out and fruitfully occupied. There is something very admirable in some of the ventures of the imagination where Americans have dared to go, where others have not. But not all exercises of the imagination are profitable; some most certainly blight the soul, or numb the mind. And I would suggest that hell is somewhere our minds and imaginations don’t need to go.
People of other cultures tend to respect boundaries more; and are more aware of “proprieties” – that our very finitude demands of us that we respect certain limits. Americans with their pioneering mentality seem to think that all limits are equally surmountable.
With hell, this is simply not the case.