Bell attempts to show us that God is love and that ‘love wins.’ While I agree it is important to look at the love of God, it only makes sense to do so in relation to everything about God. We can’t focus on one attribute to the exclusion of others. This is a mistake common in other theologies that Bell would rightfully repudiate. We can’t focus on His judgment in exclusion to other attributes. We can’t focus on His goodness in exclusion to other attributes.
Once we understand all the attributes as a whole – His justice, love, goodness, and so on – we begin to see that Hell is a reality and is eternal. Hell exists for those who do not want to submit to God. We may ask how could a loving God send someone to Hell, but the better question is “how could a loving God force someone into Heaven?” Why force someone to repent? How is that loving? More importantly, how is that just?
Hell exists for more than rejecting God, it also does exist as punishment. While I do believe the flames to be metaphorical, I do believe it to be a punishment of sorts. Yet, it is not as though God created torture devices and a way to make people miserable (for God is good), but instead He lets His glory permeate throughout Hell and those in rebellion hate Him for it. They are punished by having to see His glory, but never experience His power. They are punished by having to see the Divine Light when they would rather live in darkness. And this is done forever and ever because they have lost the ability to repent.
This is a sad reality and one that should be looked upon with all sobriety. Salvation is far more than Heaven and Hell, but it does include Heaven and Hell. Because they exist, they make what we do all the more important. We act in the now, but live in eternity knowing that there is a real Hell that we must avoid and must help others to avoid as well. We “work out our salvation” so that we might spend eternity with the fullness of God and not away from Him, only experiencing His presence, but not His power.
What Bell seems to miss is that the Gospel teaches us that salvation occurs both now and in eternity. Too often the Church creates a dichotomy of “either/or” or “one is more important than the other.” Thus, they argue we should spread the Gospel and if we have time serve the physical needs of others. It seems that Bell is overreacting to this.
Yet, both Bell and those who create a false dichotomy or hierarchy are wrong. The Gospel isn’t a matter of “either/or,” it is a matter of “both/and.” We feed the hungry with physical food, but also feed their souls with the bread of life. We clothe the naked with physical clothes, but we also help to give them the covering to their spiritual nakedness. We give physical money to the poor, but we help them discover riches that make our current world seem like a trash heap.
We should never emphasize one aspect of the Gospel over the other; to do so is to miss the point. We shouldn’t scare people into Heaven, but we shouldn’t make promises of mansions and streets of gold when this is a mere metaphor for the greatness that Heaven will be. Alternatively, we shouldn’t tell people that Hell isn’t a reality and that they’ll all make it to Heaven because this is simply untrue and dangerous.
We should serve people now, but also tell them what is to come. We should take care of the poor, we should engage in social justice, we should help end oppression; we should do all of this because as Christians are live in eternity now. It makes no sense to sit around and wait for Heaven when we are already citizens of Heaven. Bell is right to point this out, that because we are citizens of Heaven we should live like it in the now. To summarize Francis Schaeffer in his book True Spirituality, “We should live as though we’ve already been to Heaven and come back.” But this also means we should warn people of what’s to come. We should let them know that judgment is final. It means that while we care for their physical needs, we care for their spiritual needs as well.
In all that we do, let us do it out of love. But love doesn’t lie, love is truthful. Love doesn’t hide danger, it exposes it. Love isn’t complacent, love is active. Love doesn’t wait for eternity, love brings eternity now. If love wins, then we will tell people about Hell. If love wins, we will introduce people to the living Jesus Christ. If love wins, then we won’t deny Hell, but will embrace its reality, take up our armor, and charge its gates knowing that it will never prevail against us.