If you are an engineering student you’ve heard the joke that goes with that question. I like that joke. I think that joke captures a whole bunch of folk wisdom beyond just being funny.
I probably should just post this and not say much. But I’m dumb that way.
To me, what the Rob Bell Hellgate speaks to is probably less about Hell and more about how we internalize faith, or make faith our own. It is one thing to say scripture alone, but as soon as you say that, you start to realize that the scriptures are not a logical systematic textbook. They are a narrative written over millenia in different cultures and languages. And that narrative is messy. Almost every group of Christians has developed a second book to help in that interpretation. The Book of Concord is the Lutheran one. Lutherans like to use Latin. We call scripture the norma normans which means the norming norm, and the Book of Concord the norma normata which means the normed norm. Irenaeus would talk of the regula fidei (more latin) which means rule of faith. The scriptures were read with the rule of faith which we today call the Nicene Creed. A Reformed Christian would read the bible with the Westminster Catechism. A Roman Catholic Christian reads the Bible with the Papal encyclicals and canon law. I like to think of those books as guideposts. They are watersheds of wisdom that capture what a large group of Christians at a given time heard in the Biblical story. It can be real dangerous to faith to go outside of them. In the case of the Creed I’d go farther. (But even there there are two splits – the Coptic/Syrian church doesn’t accept it, the Greek church doesn’t accept the procession of the Spirit from the Son, and then there is the western church in all its forms.) Ultimately these are normed norms. Occasionally you need to test them. Occasionally the church needs to remind itself that we follow the living Christ and not a new law in whatever its form. God is his own interpreter as the Hymnwriter Cowper would put it.
What Rob Bell is doing is questioning some of the planks of those secondary books. Many would, but I don’t think he’s gone outside of the Nicene Creed. But to be honest, I’m biased. What he’s prodded at in my mind is the Reformation consensus – in something minor to a Lutheran and in something core to a Reformed Christian. He’s said the story of a forever hell doesn’t make sense with the Biblical picture of God. When the culture is cohering, nobody questions the culture’s interpretation key. It is only when things get scary, when the culture is breaking apart, that the interpretation key get looked at. And that just makes things scarier. But we shouldn’t be scared. Because we are in the Father’s hands. Compared to the Reformation itself – these are very minor questions.