Rob Bell and the Other Side of Purgatory

I read the book. The controversy over the book, “Love Wins”, is not only blown out of proportion, it is missing a significant assertion by Pastor Rob Bell.

I realize most church folks (and a good number of UM clergy are among those) who have not heard about the controversy, much less read the book. I encourage you to check out this blog and this article to get a flavor. Even before it was released, all hell started to break loose — mostly because Bell has a different take on hell than the classic place of eternal torment. Because of what others said, I decided to read the book. Although I have some disputes with Bell, I liked the book because it made me think. However, it does travel into some areas of discomfort for those who hold fast to their classic Christian images.

So, here’s my take on the issue Rob Bell is REALLY talking about. His assertion is a new take on the idea of purgatory. (For those not familiar with this doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church click here to find a short but thorough explanation). For the sake of this discussion I would say purgatory is understood as a place, an existence, and/or a state of being entered into when a person dies. A realm between earth and heaven where one must go before entering into the full joy of heaven. The idea is that we must be cleansed of all our impurities before entering heaven for nothing impure can enter (Revelation 21:27). It is an “in-between place” where we are no longer alive in this world but have not yet entered the realm of God’s Kingdom. And the reason for that is that even though Christ forgives our sin, there are still impurities in us (think of poor attitudes and unholy behaviors like gossip and selfishness).

What Rob Bell has done is taken the idea of Hell and combined it with the idea of Purgatory. It begins with the title of his fourth chapter – “Does God Get What He Wants?” He lifts up passages like 1 Timothy 2:3-4:

This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

It is a valid question – if God wants all people to be saved, does God not get what he wants? Rob Bell makes the argument that God must – “In the Bible God is not helpless, God is not powerless, and God is not impotent.” (Love Wins, p.101)

Honestly, this characterization of God is hard to argue against. This is the God who declares “I will never leave you nor forsake you”, who likens himself to a shepherd looking for a lost sheep until he finds it and a woman who looks for a lost coin until she finds it. Rob Bell puts it this way: “This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever.” (Love Wins p.101) Bell clings to the Scriptural notion that God is a God of never-ending mercy.

And this is where Bell redefines Hell as something of a new Purgatory. He in essence says that Hell is that place where we live apart from God. And that Hell can be experienced here in this life and then even beyond. He votes to keep the word “hell” because we all know that place – in our life or in the life of others. What he argues is that we already believe God can save us from the “hell” we currently live in. We believe that this hell may even be of our own making – a “hell” in this world born of our own rebellion. We believe Jesus came to save us and give us a new life. We already believe God can save us from our sin. Bell just takes it a step further by saying that even beyond this world we may live in sin and live in hell but there is still hope that we can be saved. Bell indicates that God will get what he wants and He is not limited to the lifespan we experience in this world. Hell is the new Purgatory – a place we live after we die until we are willing to die to ourselves and truly live. A place where God allows us to experience torment and struggle with the goal to drive us back to the source of life, which is God in and through Jesus Christ. And Bell says God will wait – forever.

Rob Bell is not a Universalist. It is more accurate to say he is a Theistic Optimist. He believes in a God of love – a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And Bell asserts that “Love Wins”.

There are many ways to critique Bell’s book. There are more questions about the nature and character of God that he does not address. In particular, I would ask him what his take is on seeing God as a God of justice as well as mercy. But, in all honesty, I like the aspect of God that Bell lifts up. I depend upon a God of love. I have hope for the world only because we were created by a God of love. I might even be a Theistic Optimist when I think about people who have “bumped up against the church” (that phrase courtesy of Rev. Elizabeth Moreau) and have not seen, or felt, or experienced God’s love. And every one of us knows that happens. How do we reconcile the fact that our distorted proclamation of Jesus has contributed to the damnation of others and subjected them to a eternity of pain and torment with the idea of a God who loves and longs for every being to find life? Is God limited to our ability to get it right… all the time… with every person?

Hard questions without easy answers – unless you’re Rob Bell, it seems. For Bell the answer is simple, “Love Wins”. I kind of hope he’s right.

That’s my take on the book. If you read it, read it carefully, and, keep in mind it does not answer all the questions. But, at the same time, I encourage you to pray that in this life LOVE WILL WIN.

Holy high-five to you,


6 responses to “Rob Bell and the Other Side of Purgatory

  1. Thanks, Mike. Most of the media on the book has been too reactive for me to pick it up. I think I’ll check it out.

  2. The book sounds intriguing and I plan to read it. Your blog reminded me of a discussion in one of my Bible studies about Satan and sin in heaven. Most of us had not thought about Satan in heaven but it does say in Revelation that Satan was flung down to the earth. It also made me think of the martyrs under the altar crying out for justice. I still believe that had the martyrs been more forgiving, they wouldn’t have spent so much time under the altar.

  3. David Williamson

    “Hell is the new Purgatory – a place we live after we die until we are willing to die to ourselves and truly live. A place where God allows us to experience torment and struggle with the goal to drive us back to the source of life, which is God in and through Jesus Christ. And Bell says God will wait – forever.”

    Mike, I first heard of this basic idea more than 50 years ago, reading a post on a bulletin board at Asbury Theological Seminary. It was a quote from Nel Ferre’ and went something like this: “There is a reality we call Hell, but it is the place where God ‘puts the screws on’ to finally accomplish his will.'” [I do not have the documentation before me, and this is a memory from many years ago, but beyond the words there is a profound concept. It rang a bell with me then, and I am increasingly confident that a just and loving God has a better plan than eternal punishment with no redemptive purpose. So, as to your question, it is justice in the nature of God as well as his love which requires us to go beyond the traditional concept of Hell.

  4. Kristen Hailey

    That’s another blog where I started to read more about this conversation. I am looking forward to reading it. Whenever I used Rob Bell’s (or anyone’s, for that matter) material in youth ministry, I always asked a lot of questions and did not take (nor did I want the youth to take) the material as answers. I like that people write to make us think differently and challenge diehard tradition. It doesn’t mean that we, they or another person have it right or wrong but rather lets us ask better and/or more questions.
    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts! Mind if I borrow your copy? LOL

  5. I finished the book this morning. No, nothing new is presented here that hasn’t been presented by a theologian or an early church father some time over the last two millenia. I plan on spending more time in the future meditating over chapter seven especially! On the other hand, I see where so many open ended questions will put many people who have God-in-a-box (systematically speaking of course) into a thither. Thought control can be very challenging to maintain when persistent questions are planted in the heads of carefully nurtured young thinkers.

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