Although some evangelicals treat Rob Bell as a heretic, I tried keeping an open mind as I read his book Love Wins. Most of Bell’s critics habitually quote C. S. Lewis, whose literary mentor was George MacDonald. Do they realize MacDonald was a Christian universalist who believed with all his heart that God’s love would eventually win every soul?
Lewis disagreed with MacDonald about the eternality of hell, because he believed that the perpetuity of human freedom made hell an everlasting probability. But even Lewis—while portraying his mentor’s change of mind about hell in The Great Divorce—suggested the possibility of an escape. (Shame on you, if you’ve not yet read that masterpiece! . . and I won’t let my description of his “escape” episode tempt you to avoid this insightful novelette by Lewis.)
No matter what their theological degree or expertise, only the heartless can trample over the pathos and moral outrage exuding from Rob Bell’s question: “Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?” The question is as old as the early church, and there have been others who stood within the orthodoxy of the ancient Creeds yet struggled until answering it in much the same way Bell does.
A quick search online will provide all the arguments you need against Bell’s optimism, if that’s what you’re looking for. However, while disagreeing with him, I share his logical pain over the thought of a place where the lost forever receive cruel and unusual punishment. But if that’s the straw man Bell sets up to knock down as a foundation for his theories, then he must be talking about a destiny that exists only in the theological imagination of Calvinists. I say this not because of the disagreeable nature of hell’s intense suffering, but because of the unloving nature of a Calvinistic deity who doesn’t care about keeping a certain large number of lost souls from going there.
Calvinist intellectuals may ridicule the "simple-minded" enthusiasm of Arminians, but it’s the sovereign will of the all-loving God, celebrated first in Catholicism and later in Arminianism, that freely grants prevenient grace for awakening sin-bound souls. This grace allows every sinner the awesome freedom to responsibly choose or adamantly refuse the light of Christ. Divine grace to obey must logically accompany each and every divine command to repent, otherwise the whole concept of human responsibility is as much an illusion as the maya of Hinduism. At the same time, it’s the endless mercy of that all-loving God—forever desiring none to perish—that maintains a place called hell for all the impenitent. Yes, a real hell, and for very holy reasons.
How could it be otherwise? God sovereignly sets the will of sinners free to respond to Him. When they resist, God refuses to abandon lost souls to their miserable, relentless flight from truth. Ongoing divine Love and Light are never silent or complacent in the midst of ongoing human rebellion. C. S. Lewis believed “that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” (The Problem of Pain). And so, right along with Lewis, I believe that “God in His mercy made \ The fixed pain of Hell.” (from Lewis’ poem “Divine Justice”). Hell’s ceaseless pain is divine Love’s incessant knocking on doors kept shut by the perpetual defiance of self-will against the healing of divine Light.
No, I can't agree with Rob, who tries to defend God’s reputation by making hell into a short prison sentence, nor even with Master MacDonald, whose fearfully fiery purgatory would set Brother Bell's teeth on edge. Their big mistake, so similar to that in Calvinism, is to make God's loving grace irresistible, while underestimating His sovereign enabling of human wills to freely choose their ultimate destiny.
Neither the bliss of heaven nor the blast of hell need a further defense to free-willed minds than this: Light’s passionate marriage to Love forever celebrates in heaven every human’s pursuit of truth, and Love’s absolute allegiance to Light persistently refutes in hell all stubborn commitments to lies (Romans 2:6-11). Both conditions—that of paradise and that of perdition—mercifully demonstrate God’s eternal promotion of authenticity. Both destinies validate the everlasting duty of humans to choose goodness. Therefore, both forever glorify the grace of a holy and loving Creator.
[for further thoughts along these lines, see my poems, “Inviting Visitations,” “Hellfire and Damnation” and “The Knock.” Also, see my previous blog article, “The Problem of Hell.”]