I must admit, Bell says some incredible things in the first few pages of this chapter. The chapter is entitled, The Good News is Better Than That. As with the last few chapters, I have cringed as I began them, fearing what I would encounter. There have definitely been some moments where I have shouted at the pages of this book with disbelief, unable to believe what I read (particularly when Bell was redefining the word forever). For a few sweet moments, I found myself in agreement with Bell. Even with someone whom I have disagreed with so much, finding ground where we can agree is pleasant.
After an introductory story, Bell zooms in on the story of the prodigal son. I think he does a fairly good job at breaking down the two stories within this story: the story of the younger son, who squandered his inheritance, and the story of the older son who remained at home. Without rehashing everything Bell said about this parable, here are the two main points that I felt like were pretty good. For the younger son, he had decided he was unworthy of being called a son. For him, the decision he had to make was whether or not he would receive the grace which his father was pouring out on him. As Bell put it:
“Although he’s decided he can’t be a son anymore, his father tells a different story. On about return and reconciliation and redemption. On about his being a son again. The younger son has to decide whose version of his story he’s going to trust: his or his father’s” (p. 165)
We all find ourselves in this place, and we find ourselves there over and over. Those addictions we cannot completely remove from our lives; the bitterness that some of us have harbored for years; these kinds of things try to define us. We allow them to label us and we willingly carry those labels. It is here where we must decide: are we going to believe what we say about ourselves or our friends and family say about us, or are we going to believe what God says about us?
The older son is a different story. He stayed home, but he was just as messed up as his younger brother. Bell correctly paints the older son as a guy who was so caught up in doing that he forgot all about being. He did everything that his father asked – like a slave – but he never enjoyed who he was – a son. He complains that his father never gave him anything, when in fact everything his father had was his all along; he only needed to ask. This son, too, is faced with the choice of believing his version of his story, or his father’s.
But perhaps Bell’s most profound insight in this parable is how he explains the father’s explicit lack of fairness. The point of him throwing a party for the younger son has absolutely nothing to do with fairness. The party is exactly opposite of what the younger son deserved. But that is the point. The father was not trying to be fair. He was trying to demonstrate his grace toward his son. Bell describes the father’s actions as profound unfairness. To that, I say amen and thank you God for being profoundly unfair in extending grace to myself uncounted millions of others through your Son Jesus. But then this:
“Jesus puts the older brother right there at the party, but refusing to trust the father’s version of his story. Refusing to join in the celebration. Hell is being at the party. That’s what makes it so hellish.” (p. 169)
[Shouting at the book]
After regaining my composure, I continued reading. Here is the line of though Bell continues for the rest of the chapter. Hell is a state of being we create for ourselves through our unwillingness to trust God’s story for us. Here are a few samples from this chapter to demonstrate Bell’s intent.
“Again . . .we create hell whenever we fail to trust God’s retelling of our story.” (p. 173)
“Hell is refusing to trust, and refusing to trust is often rooted in a distorted view of God.” (p. 175)
“We are at the party, but w don’t have to join in. Heaven or hell. Both are at the party.” (p. 176)
“Everybody is already at the party. Heaven and hell, here, now, around us, upon us, within us.” (p. 190)
Even as I typed this, my mind began reeling. Is he really saying this? Bell has already revealed that he no longer believes hell to be eternal. In his musings he has made it clear that whatever he believes hell to be, it is not eternal, and anyone who finds themselves there will have some kind of postmortem opportunity to be redeemed at some point in the future. Now he builds heresy upon heresy. Hell not only is temporary, but it is neither flaming nor dark nor worm-ridden. In fact, hell is a state of existence brought about by your refusal to trust God; a state of existence that is apparently side-by-side with those who have trusted God and are enjoying his presence. What about Jesus’ descriptions of worms that do not die, and fire that is not quenched (Mark 9:48)? What about a lake of fire that will be the ultimate destination of those who are not written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 20:15)? While Bell’s former arguments over the interpretation of aion could be debated on interpretive grounds, what he is doing here is completely discounting several passages of New Testament scripture that explicitly describe hell as a place of torment by fire, darkness, and worms that refuse to die. This is where Bell gets taken out of the penalty box and gets completely voted off the island.
There is one last thing that Bell says that is worthy of mention. Bell becomes critical of how we frame the Gospel in terms of a rescue. He thinks that doing so subtly teaches people that Jesus rescues us from God. This idea is repulsive to him.
“Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God . . . God is the rescuer.” (p. 182)
This is completely contrary to the Gospel. In a very real sense, Jesus does rescue us from God. Consider Romans 5:9-10:
“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (ESV)
It is through the death of Christ, that we have been reconciled to God. Jesus saves us from God’s wrath. We were enemies of God, but Jesus died so that we could have peace with him. This cannot be clearer, even from a measly two verses in Romans. The fact is the Bible is full of evidence that Jesus saves us from God’s wrath. God is both the one to be feared, as Judge, and the one to be praised as Rescuer. Jesus does save us from God; this is the mystery of a just God who forgives sinners. And it is a mystery which has been revealed clearly in Jesus Christ.