I've read every one of Bell's books and every time there was some controversy surrounding either the book or some small phrase or question he posed within those books. The fanfare about this book however seemed different and much more volatile, and now that I have read the book, I think a lot of the discussion is warranted.
I agree with Rob that questions need to be asked, he asserts (rightly) that the church as a whole has ignored or neglected asking questions and in so doing has failed to wrestle with their faith in real, tangible ways. Thisbelieve is true, because too often we see nominal Christians walking around holding to things dogmatically that they themselves have neither studied or asked questions about. People like this do need to be pushed out of the nest and challenged to question why they believe what they believe...a sort of testing of your faith if you will.
I think in this book, the questions that are asked are good questions, thought provoking in nature and helpful in finding out why we believe what we believe.
That said, I think a ton of the conclusions that Rob comes to are false and even dangerous. He shouldn't be touted as some great Bible teacher who has come up with some "new insights into the Christian faith" because a ton of what he says in this book was said by Origen and others a long time ago. I might point out that Origen was accused of being a heretic after he went public with his beliefs on Hell and the afterlife.
The first chapter on Heaven I will admit is very good and the thinking that Heaven can be on earth now is a thought we Christians too often ignore, to the detriment of our environment and sults in a huge lack of helping the least of these as Rob very strongly points out. Rob basically took NT Wright's book Surprised by Hope and repackaged it to fit into this short chapter. Rob however, ignores the "then" discussion on Heaven. He does a great job of arguing a Heaven "now" but ignores the Heaven in the future for the most part. This ends up making Heaven seem deep for now, but almost makes it seem small for the "then".
The next chapter is where Rob starts coming up with stuff...I mean literally coming up with stuff. He begins a discussion about Hell in this chapter and goes after all the Scriptures that mention Hell. He goes first to The uses of the word Hell in the Hebrew Old Testament and basically through exegetical gymnastics debunks a real, literal and eternal hell. What drives me insane about what Rob does is that he uses his credit as a pastor to make these assumptions. He uses no scholarly proof to help make his points, he simply says " this is the way it was in that day" and " this is what they believed about this and that" without giving any kind of proof text to help him make the case...we' re left to simply take his word on it.
He then takes the same approach to the times in which Jesus speaks of Hell and he refutes the idea that aion means eternal in the Greek language. He says that the real definition for every instance of the Greek word aion is in fact " age or period of time" not eternity. This helps him debunk the idea of an eternal torment as the Scriptures do talk about eternal Hell. Here again, he takes on thousands of years of scholars saying that the word aion is defined as meaning "eternity"...yet we are to take him at his word again that he is right and the many scholars before him are all wrong.
I must say the thing that ticked me off the most was his literal translation of "Gehenna" which is the word Jesus used the most for "Hell". It's true that this was the dump outside the walls of Jerusalem and that Jesus was using this as a word picture to describe Hell because it was constantly on fire and the animals would gnash their teeth, fighting for the scraps of trash that were there. Rob asserts however that Jesus was not describing Hell as anything but the literal trash heap...giving Hell a "now" sense rather than a "then" sense. This ticks me off so much because in all his other books, he says NOT to do this with the teachings of Jesus. He is constantly in his other literature forcing us to see the deeper meaning of Jesus' stories and to not take them at face value but rather to dig into them. He seems here to retract that thought for a moment so it can conveniently fit his frame of Hell.
Rob continues to talk about God and how he is too loving to have a judgement in an eternal hell the way most Christians believe (and have believed for thousands of years). He says that type of Gospel is destructive and demeaning to God. Yet, in my mind it speaks to a loving and Just God.
Rob believes that there is an eternity available for forgiveness, which then means that some time, through eternity all will come to Christ and receive the forgiveness of all their sins. This Rob asserts is how love ultimately wins. He says that due to God's desire for the whole world to be saved, God will make it happen, despite people's choice to ignore God in their lifetime. Rob thinks that God would be a mean and ungracious God if he were to send people to an eternal hell for the sins of their short mortal lives.
Rob readjusts the exclusive claims of Christ in ways that fit the purposes of his premise, yet again fails to offer any research evidence or quotes from other Biblical Scholars.
I could continue on this conversation about Rob's book but I will continue to come to the conclusion that he asks good, hard questions that are worth wrestling with but his conclusions are wrong and dangerous. With Rob's form of the Gospel, there is little to no motivation for missions, since in the end all will eventually turn to God. There is also no real sense of being saved from anything because even if we are in a literal torment for "awhile" eventually, my eternal experience will end with bliss in Heaven. There is also a neglect of realizing Satan and his power to manipulate our lives, althought Rob would say he makes "hell on earth" which is true, but why would he bother just to make our short mortal lives hell if he could do it for eternity? Rob's form of the Gospel robs the cross of its power and in so doing basically negates the need for Jesus to have even been here.
Rob states that Jesus is central to what he is speaking about but I have to disagree. I sadly hang my hat here. I like Rob Bell and enjoy his challenging questions from all of his literature, so to hear him speak of heaven and hell in these ways saddens me. I will not say as John Piper has said: "Farewell Rob Bell" because I think there is hope he may see his errors but this book did make me sad because of the theories and conclusions Rob has come to.
Lastly, if you decide to read this book, read it alongside of someone else who can help you when you find yourself struggling with what Rob discusses. Seek out s friend to walk and talk with about it. Do not walk the streets of questions alone because it can be dangerous. Ask, Seek and Knock for these are good things, but do them with a friend to make the experience better!