Category Archives: Controversy

New “Cessationism” tab Added to “ReformingChristianity- Resources for the reforming Christian”

Dear friends and followers:

A number of years ago I stumbled across the Netvibes platform, a web-based site that allows one to collect “RSS feeds” (e.g.,  podcasts and other syndicated content) and organize them in tabs to create a pleasingly visual, convenient way to access content.  Utilizing this platform, I created the “ReformingChristianity- Resources for the reforming Christian” Netvibes universe– a collection of fantastic online resources on Reformed theology that I regularly update.

Those following the recent Strange Fire Conference of John MacArthur and friends– that takes on the widespread aberrations of theology present theology of general in the charismatic movement–may be interested in a new tab I have added to this site, titled “Cessationism”, in which I have included excellent resources on cessationism (a major theme of the conference) as well as links to the audio and video from Strange Fire. Cessationism, as most readers of this blog probably know, is a reformed theological position that believes miraculous “sign” gifts such as miracles, tongues and prophecy were given by God to the apostolic community as the Christianity was being established so as to attest that the early leaders and followers of Jesus Christ were indeed authentic messengers of God, with a true message from God.  That message– the gospel of Christ, with all its implications for life, would later come to be written down in the collected teachings of the New Testament, via a process guided and overseen by the Holy Spirit. Cessationists believe that with the revelation of God now completely captured in the New Testament writings, there is no need for further revelatory gifts such as prophecy and tongues to be given at this time.  Cessationism does not deny that miracles and revelation may be sovereignly given at any point the Lord may so choose, but believe that in these days the Lord has chosen not to give such gifts as a normative pattern, and that the Church finds all it needs for life and godliness available to it in Holy Scripture.

Note:  In response to a reader’s comment, I edited the paragraph above to be more precise.  I do believe, unfortunately, that the Strange Fire conference was correct to point out that theological aberrations characterize the popular charismatic movement worldwide, whereas as reformed continuationists such as Piper, Grudem , Storms and Carson, who in their respective writings and ministries have made immensely valuable contributions to the Church, are in the minority.  MacArthur appealed to these continuationists, whom he considers friends in ministry, to consider whether their openness to the continuation of charismatic gifts has “provided cover” or has lent false legitimacy to those in the popular movement whose theology and practice is at odds with Scripture.  

Leave a comment

Filed under Charismaticism, Controversy, Strange Fire

John MacArthur Defends Strange Fire Conference & Cessationism

In this first installment of an interview with blogger Tim Challies, John MacArthur articulates the case for cessationism concisely and convincingly (in my view), while also defending the Strange Fire conference. Even if one is convinced that Scripture teaches all the spiritual gifts continue, I think one would be hard pressed to make a case that the sub-par prophecy and tongues and so-called miracles we see happening today in the movement are even close to matching the New Testament descriptions of these phenomena.  See also my previous post, The Main Point of Strange Fire was Correct and Needed.

Further resources on Strange Fire & Cessationism:

The Cessation of the Sign Gifts by Thomas R. Edgar

What Cessationism is Not by Nathan Busenitz

Where Have All the Spiritual Gifts Gone? A Defense of Cessationism by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

Cessationists View @ monergism.com

Cessationism by Willem Berends

Cessationism.com

The Cessation of the Charismata by B.B. Warfield

All Audio Messages from the Strange Fire Conference

A Case for Cessationism (Tom Pennington) (audio)

The Strange Fire Conference: A Case for Cessationism (Tom Pennington)

Strange Fire Conference #1: personal by Dan Phillips @pyromaniacs

Strange Fire Conference #2: Session 1, John MacArthur by Dan Phillips @pyromaniacs

Strange Fire Conference #3: Joni Eareckson Tada and R. C. Sproul by Dan Phillips @pyromaniacs

Strange Fire Conference #4: Steve Lawson on Calvin and the Charismatics by Dan Phillips @pyromaniacs

Strange Fire Conference #5: Conrad Mbewe by Dan Phillips @pyromaniacs

Lessons Learned at Strange Fire by Tim Challies

Leave a comment

Filed under Charismaticism, Controversy, Strange Fire

The Main Point of Strange Fire Was Correct and Needed

strange fire

Because I have been busy with coursework I haven’t had opportunity to listen to or watch all of the Strange Fire conference. I’ve read a number of commentaries on it, both pro and con. Again, the chief negative complaint seems to be the idea that a “broad brush” was used by  John MacArthur and the conference in its argument against charismaticism and that its broad generalizations were too dismissive of the movement in its entirety, thus throwing some good charismatics under the bus, and not acknowledging any positive contributions from the movement. These critiques do seem to have some truth to them, based on that which I have read and seen. As I have said I think the SF argument would have been that much stronger if the conference toned down some of its generalized statements or qualified them more consistently (though indeed some qualifications were made).

Still, the main point of the conference I believe was to point to abuses in the charismatic segment of the church that are rampant, extremely harmful and continuing to spread, and therefore must be challenged by responsible Christian leaders. Also an inference was being drawn– that these strange and hurtful practices stem from a flawed, unbiblical theology, one that needs to be corrected or replaced. Accordingly, cessationistic arguments were presented as the more biblical alternative.

The problem I have observed is that even with the proliferation of nonsense and abuses in the movement, it appears that the urgency among the more sound charismatics is on defending the good aspects of their theology, rather than crying out loudly against the abuses. And I suggest that there should be more time given to analyzing why is it that these aberrant practices flow so much within the charismatic camp. Does not the open door to subjective revelations, visions etc. result in many of the wacky leaders claiming God’s stamp of approval on their doctrines and practices?

I do sympathize with charismatics who want a deeper experience with God, more power and vitality in their ministry. Every Christian should desire this. I also applaud the charismatic’s expectation that God is ready to take action in our midst. What I object to however, is a re-packaging of gifts such as tongues and prophecy to become less than what the Bible declares them to be in terms of authority and accuracy, and the gullibility that causes people to accept claims of miracles happening without evidence.

Providential answers to prayer for healing, even in ways that might be regarded as miraculous– does not necessarily indicate that we are still seeing New Testament level miracles all around us, as is so often claimed by various charismatics. It is fitting and proper that many write on these issues in an attempt to make biblical arguments in support of their charismatic practice, but I have found their arguments wanting, especially in light of the continued proliferation of bad fruit in the movement. An earnest even well-meaning desire for more of God and His power should not be allowed to overtake good judgment informed and guided by wisdom from Scripture.

1 Comment

Filed under Charismaticism, Controversy, Strange Fire

“But they used such a broad brush!” A few more thoughts on Strange Fire

Interesting how many charismatics, in response to the recent Strange Fire conference are doubling down on defending charismatic theology with cries like, “mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater!” or “but they used such a broad brush… we’re not all like that, you know!”  Thus they direct their energies towards critiquing those who point out the obvious excesses in the movement– excesses they themselves acknowledge are happening all the time!  It seems they place greater priority on critiquing those warning others about the blatant errors, than on joining with them in denouncing these harmful practices. They downplay the harm that is taking place by arguing that such excesses are representative of only a minority. But even if that were true– and it is certainly highly debatable, given that the biggest names at the forefront of the movement seem to be leading the way in the excesses– the abuses are so harmful on a spiritual, emotional and material level that those who acknowledge excesses but are not urgently trying to stop them– at the very least joining in their denunciation– are in effect abetting them.

Yet it is argued by such folks that what must take highest priority is the promotion and protection of the pure, sound theology at the heart of charismaticism that is being overlooked in all this– both by those guilty of corrupting excesses, and by those outside the movement who remain studiously ignorant of these important life-changing truths.  Their urgency then is not towards denouncing the excesses to help protect those being exploited by false teachings, but rather, to restore  and proclaim the underlying classic charismatic doctrine, which they claim is sound and only needs to be purified that it may bear its good fruit.  Thus their strategy seems to be –  go on the offensive against those pointing out and trying to stop the abuses, because such folks are actually getting in the way of all the good that will result when people live in accord with charismatic doctrine it is purest, most correct form!  Moreover, there are often unfortunate accusations made against cessationists like MacArthur  -that they are not motivated by love, but rather by their fear of not being in control, pride in their right doctrines, lack of supernatural experiences.  This then is what produces their sinful, willful unbelief in the power of God to do miracles and healing in peoples’ lives today.

But critics of the charismatic movement and its excesses do in fact acknowledge that there is a more sound doctrine among some charismatics.  Conferences like the recent Strange Fire conference even point to those charismatics they consider friends and colleagues in ministry, whose overall theology is sound and does bear good fruit.  However they also point out the obvious– that abuses within this movement are so rampant and widespread, showing no signs of slowing down, that something must be done.  And they also point out that the more responsible, sound charismatics are not at the forefront of condemning these excessive practices, though they ought to be.  So in effect the scholarly defenses of continuationism presented by better charismatics, combined with their lack of denouncing the excesses, provides cover for such harmful practices to continue to spread.

For further reflection, see also:

The Broad Brush Phil Johnson

Two Quick Thoughts About Strange Fire Tom Chantry

The Right and Wrong Way to Engage John MacArthur’s “Strange Fire” Conference Trevin Wax

Lessons Learned at Strange Fire Tim Challies

 

And from the other side:

Strange Fire: can’t we just get along? Adrian Warnock

Strange Fire – A Charismatic Response to John MacArthur Adrian Warnock

1 Comment

Filed under Charismaticism, Controversy, Strange Fire

It’s Time to Get the Gospel Right (Pt 2- What is the Gospel?)

This is a follow-up to my last post.  Thanks to those who commented.   I agree with the comment by “savedbygrace” on that post– the gospel we preach defines us.  This is precisely why I think it is so important we get it right.  Of course as imperfect beings, we do not and will not have perfect theology this side of heaven.  Nevertheless we must strive to improve our understanding, and moreover, I think God expects us to preach and teach an accurate gospel in the essentials.

So, is the gospel an invitation to a “charismatic” life characterized by the super-spiritual– constantly receiving direct revelations from God on what we are to do, say and pursue; being able to “see in the Spirit”; the ability to do all the same miracles Jesus did that we may convince people to believe; prophesying that which we claim is from God (but may not be 100% accurate)?  I don’t think so.

Granted, Christianity is indeed a supernatural life and the Holy Spirit indwells us, and we are called to be filled with the Spirit today (see John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; Eph 5:8).  But this does not require that we have all of the above sorts of manifestations.  God is free to give such things if He chooses, but I don’t think in this day He is normally giving such gifts. Rather, we have been equipped by God’s Word and by His Spirit to live the Christian life we are called to live (2 Tim 3:16-17; 1 Cor 12:4-31).  Thus I think the chief mistakes in the larger charismatic movement are: 1) to pretend that miracles are happening all the time when in fact they are not; 2) to downgrade the gift of prophecy to hit-or-miss pronouncements characterized by inaccuracy; and 3) to promise healing based on a supposed provision of the atonement that guarantees it (see my article, Sickness, Healing and the Christian, Pt 2 (Biblical Analysis).)

A reformed, and I think biblical response to the charismatic portrait of the Christian life demonstrates practical differences in the two approaches:

  1. We pray to God for all our needs (Phil 3:6) and may even ask Him to do miracles, which He may or may not do as He wills. We rejoice if and when God does miracles in our midst, but of course, do not and cannot demand them. We define miracles as that which is extra-ordinary (as in the healing a of a man born blind, for example). God’s providential care for us as He answers prayer doesn’t necessarily constitute a miracle, which by definition is a special and rare occurrence.  Moreover we argue that the miracles of Jesus’ day were signs authenticating the message of Jesus and His apostles (Matt 12:28, 2 Cor 12:12) and that that season of miracles apparently has passed.
  2. We preach and teach the Word of God as accurately as possible (2 Peter 4:1-2), knowing it alone is God’s inspired revelation to us (unlike charismatic prophecy, we don’t need to guess what percentage of the prophecy comes from God and what part is human error).  We trust therefore that God’s Word is sufficient to provide the guidance and instruction we need to properly live a Christian life and to teach and make disciples (2 Peter 1:3, 2 Tim 3:16-17). We define prophecy as Scripture does– the very words of God spoken through the mouth of people (2 Peter 1:21).  So we hold all prophecy to the high standard of Scripture in terms of its accuracy– if it does not come to pass– it’s false prophecy and the person who has spoken it is falsely speaking for God (Deut 13:1-5; Deut 18:20-22).
  3. As we obey God and live for Him we ask that He would heal the sick, and we can lay hands on the sick, as the Word prescribes (James 5: 14-18).  But we leave the answer to these prayers to God– if He heals, we rejoice in that, and if He does not heal, we trust that God knows best (2 Cor 12:8-10). We don’t claim God has healed if in fact He has not healed, and we don’t charge folks with not having enough faith if their prayer for healing is answered in the negative.  We  don’t claim to know that all sickness is caused by sin or by the devil, but trust that ultimately God in His sovereignty rules over this and all areas of our lives.

Thus far we have been addressing what the gospel is not. I have claimed it is not an invitation to a supercharged, mystical life full of continuous miraculous manifestations.  So then, what is the gospel and what is the normal Christian life?

The gospel is that Jesus Christ– Son of God and God in the flesh– came to Earth, lived among us, was crucified on a cross for sins and was raised again by the authority and power of God after three days in the grave (1 Cor 3:3-5; John 1:9-18, 34; 1 John 5:11-12, John 10:18) .  The person who puts their faith in Christ is forgiven all their sins, because God poured out His full wrath and anger at sin upon Jesus as He hung on the cross, and by raising Him from the dead, God validated Jesus’ claims to be God, in fulfillment of the many ancient prophecies that predicted a Messiah would come that would do all the things Jesus did (Romans 4:23; Romans 5:9).  The life Jesus lived– a perfect, selfless life– satisfies God’s requirement of holiness– and Jesus’ record of sinless obedience is transferred to the one who has faith in Him (2 Cor 5:21). So our sins of commission and of omission are both fully taken care of and removed by the cross and the obedience of Christ, and we are thus reconciled to God, adopted as His children, and called to a new life of fellowship with Him and with brothers and sisters who have likewise been called (Romans 5:10; Col 1:22; John 1:12; 1 John 1:3).  Much more could be said, but these are the essentials.

So what does this Christian life look like?  Well, outwardly it is a very normal life, in many respects.  The Christian doesn’t necessarily look any different than before, but inwardly, a miracle of new life has been wrought in his/her heart, one which plants a desire to love God and to be obedient to Him (Ezekiel 36:26; 2 Cor 5:17).  We are drawn to the Bible (1 Peter 2:2), which by the Spirit we recognize as the true Word of God to His children (1 Cor 2:12-13).  This new life implanted within has a supernatural quality, in that we have new desires that prod us and help us to transcend our old selfish tendencies.  But the Christian need not manifest anything outwardly spectacular.  I think that biblically the Bible doesn’t teach that Christians need special experiences like being “slain in the Spirit”, speaking in tongues, the so-called “baptism in the Spirit” that is subsequent to salvation, in order to be fruitful.  Yes, we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) but this seems to be an ongoing process that involves many non-flashy activities– reading and meditating on God’s Word, obeying God’s Word, etc.  Ultimately, people will know we are Christians, not because of our exciting supernatural manifestations, but rather, by the fruit we bear in love towards God and others (see John 13:33-35; 1 Cor 13).

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-24, ESV)

For further thought:

Providence by J. I. Packer

God’s Providence over all (PDF) by B.B. Warfield

The Sufficiency of Scripture Part 1 and Part 2 by Gary Gilley

The Gifts of Miracles & Healings Today?  by Fred Zaspel

Divine Providence, or What About Miracles? by S. Lewis Johnson

1 Comment

Filed under Charismaticism, Controversy, Theology

It’s Time to Get the Gospel Right

The recent conference by John MacArthur, “Strange Fire” has generated a lot of controversy.  It stirs up an ongoing and often heated debate among evangelical Christians on “cessationism vs continuationism”: did miraculous gifts such as tongues, miracles and prophecy “cease” some time after the establishment of the early church and with the canonization of Scripture?  Or are those gifts continuing in operation, and to be sought after and put into practice today?  Unfortunately lack of clarity about terms such as cessationism, continuationism and charismaticism creates confusion as people debate these issues.  Online debates I have been part of often suffer from the lack of clarity.  Since there are varied positions within cessationism and charismaticism, to call oneself a “cessationist” or “continuationist” or a “charismatic” isn’t enough and usually requires further clarification.  Exactly what kind of “cessationist” or “charismatic” are you?   Lisa Robinson has a post right now that addresses this topic, “What is a Cessationist?…or Why I think We Need Another Term“, and I think her post is a helpful conversation opener on this.

Yet I think that what underlies the need for clarity of these terms is something even more fundamental and urgent to our mission as Christians: what is the gospel?  In other words, it seems the believer needs to figure out if charismatics are right or cessationists correct, because these very different positions have such a great impact on our mission of making disciples, and also lead to very practical differences in following Christ.  I encountered a Facebook post about continuationist Mark Driscoll showing up at the John MacArthur conference.  I noticed that several people sympathetic to the continuationist position in their comments on the post were bashing cessationism and Reformed theology with statements I felt were very derogatory as well as inaccurate characterizations of it.  Now perhaps many in the charismatic community who know of the Strange Fire conference feel the same way– that the conference unfairly caricatures the charismatic position.  One of the commenters on the post made this statement:

I am just learning about all of this and still reading. but it sounds to me like two “camps” with different ideas of how the holy spirit should look. they spend all their energy and time on defending “their” way instead of using that time and energy on preaching the gospel to a dying world. seems like they are missing the whole point.

I think the commenter makes a salient point, one that I can sympathize with.  It’s true that believers can be too focused on internal squabbles and get distracted from their main task, which as we know is to preach the gospel and make disciples.  But while we must not pick a fight on every little matter, there are matters too important to our mission to not get right.  In my mind there is no more important issue than getting the gospel right.  What exactly did Christ accomplish for us on the cross?  What should the Christian life look like? Is the believer still a sinner, or a saint who sins?  Must we have all these answers precisely correct before we go out and make disciples? I am not going to attempt in the brief post to answer all of these questions (but perhaps I’ll address them in future posts).

Yet I do believe it is part of the task of preaching the gospel message to be able to give accurate and Scriptural answers to these basic, critically important questions.  How can we preach a saving message if the gospel we preach is not real or true or accurate?  The Church is even charged with correcting false teachers/teaching.  How can we do so if we don’t know what the true gospel is?  We’re in the midst of a raging spiritual battle in which the forces of darkness are quite happy if the message we preach is a distortion that leads people away from the true and living God, all the while deceiving them into thinking that Christ is being truly preached.  We have been warned by Christ Himself that false Christs will come (Matt 24:24), and that in the last day many who thought they were working in the name of Jesus will find that Jesus rejects not only their works but them as well (Matt 7:21-23).  This is a very sobering warning.  Time is short, and there are eternal stakes involved if we allow ourselves to be deceived.

In my opinion the popular charismatic message has got things very wrong. It declares that all the miraculous gifts that were part of the early church continue today in the same exact manner as in the early church and are even crucial to the life and mission of the church.  Every believer should be a miracle worker, a prophet, a tongues speaker and a healer, or at least be ardently seeking these available gifts.  The Strange Fire conference looks at the phenomena happening in much of the charismatic world under the lens of Scripture, and finds it unbiblical.  The miracles they claim are happening cannot be verified, the prophecies proclaimed are usually wrong, the tongues are not practiced in accordance with Scriptural guidelines and don’t appear to be real languages, but only gibberish.  Accordingly Phil Johnson charges, it commits “the sin of attributing to the Holy Spirit words He has not spoken and things He has not done.”  Now John MacArthur and Phil Johnson are well aware that there are charismatics who are well-studied, who teach an orthodox view of Scripture, who are not at all guilty of the excesses often found in the movement.  In fact there are even well-known “Reformed Continuationists” like John Piper, Wayne Grudem and others that they esteem very highly for their ministries of the Word.  Nevertheless, these reformed continuationist leaders who are aware of the “strange” phenomena seem very reluctant and reticent about criticizing these aberrant practices.  Over at the Cripplegate blog, Mike Ricardi has posted Phil Johnson’s outstanding message, Strange Fire – Is There a Baby in the Bathwater? and I think Phil really hits the nail on the head when he writes:

But there’s this carefully cultivated, non-committal spirit of indecision that permeates most of the Reformed charismatic and “open-but-cautious” segments of the evangelical community. It is a deliberate agnosticism with regard to discerning spirits.

So the extremists and the charlatans can make any claim or pull any stunt they like with near impunity. The handful of Charismatics who have the most influence in conservative evangelical circles have basically settled into a comfortable indifference. (Remember the line I quoted from Michael Brown earlier? “Why [should] Pentecostal and charismatic pastors renounce extremes in their movement?”) Supposedly “cautious” continuationists watch the procession of charismatic horseplay. They are curious, intrigued, generally nonplussed, but they refuse to make any judgment until after the wheels come totally off the latest bandwagon.

It someone looks into the turbid swamp of charismatic sludge, and thinks that attitude of non-judgmental passivity is the baby, forget it. That kind of smug, deliberate indecision has more in common with double-mindedness than with faith. There are times when staking out a middle position is simply the wrong thing to do. And it is never more wrong than when thousands of people are going around claiming to speak for God but prophesying falsely.

It is time to get the gospel right.  We have been blessed and equipped to complete our mission with the authority and power of the Word of God, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).”  Why then do we need to seek after sensational experiences, prophecies, miracles, tongues, especially if, when we stop kidding ourselves and admit the truth, we can see that the things we are seeking after are not authentic?  How does inaccurate, hit-or-miss prophecy help anyone?  How does if further the cause of Christ to claim that healing and miracles are happening when in fact they are not happening?

Does what I am saying deny the power of God?  No, because I am not saying that God will not answer prayer for healing, even in miraculous fashion, nor am I saying that God may not visit us with extraordinary things whenever He wants.  But my charge is not to seek after the extraordinary but to humbly live for Christ.  I seek His power not that I may have ecstatic experiences or by miracle doing prove to an unbelieving world that the God I worship is real, but that I may live faithfully and honor Him in the way I speak and act and live.  The gospel itself is the power of God, and it accomplishes the miracle of raising the dead to life, and we have the privilege of being part of that.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16)

3 Comments

Filed under Charismaticism, Controversy, The Gospel, Theology

Theological Debates on Facebook- Are They Profitable?

I’d like to ask a question—can profitable discussion on a theological issue actually happen on Facebook?

I had an experience recently where someone took offense because they felt I was commenting too much on their theologically oriented wall post.  But the determination of “too much” was based on his purely subjective notion of how much commenting on his post was appropriate.  Now I’ll admit — after he posted a critique of a theological “meme” (i.e., statement) I was quite dogged in asking him to provide the reasoning behind his several assertions about it.   He declined to do so, which of course, is his prerogative.  On the other hand, it was also my prerogative to continue to comment and engage with others in the discussion, which is what I did.  But this seemed to disturb him.

I chose to comment on this particular post because it touched on God’s sovereignty, a theological issue I think extremely important and practical for believers. In declining to respond to my request for explanation of his argument, one reason he gave is that Facebook is not a conducive forum (for intelligent debate).

Well,  in one sense he may be right.  The Facebook feed comes at you with many random streams of data.  Perhaps for many of us the experience of being in FB is like watching TV while flipping through channels– one is just looking for passive, mindless entertainment.  Yet we can choose to focus our attention, can’t we, even while in Facebook?

Now it’s true Facebook discussions can be utterly worthless and a waste of time when the participants simply talk past one another.  We see this all the time.  But, especially among Christians talking theology, I don’t see why civil, gracious, intelligent, even fruitful discussion may not occur, if we actually take time to hear one another out and respectfully present our arguments.   Of course, because Christians are sinful human beings, discussion may devolve from noble passion to fleshly, ignoble heat.  Yet as long as folks refrain from personal attacks, imputation of bad motives, and maintain focus on the issues at hand,  giving each other some grace, I think discussions can stay on track.  We may even learn from them.

I have been involved in debates both good and bad.  In bad ones (and for me these seem to occur more often on Facebook) folks seem impatient with the process of discussion/argument itself– thus they neglect thoughtful responses and are very reactive (I’ve been guilty of this myself, as I’m sure many of us have).   Also it seems some want to state their opinion just as a soundbite (perhaps related to the ephemeral nature of Facebook?), but are not  prepared (nor seemingly interested) to defend their view/opinion against possible objections.

I’ve also participated in more interesting and productive online theological “debates” (over at the Theologica forum, for example).  I believe the difference between good and bad theological discussions relates in part to whether participants are confident enough in their own position to open the floor to debate and allow various sides to present their respective cases.  Sure, maybe 9 times out of 10, such debates end with folks remaining firmly convinced of the truth of their own original position, but at least those participating and/or “listening in” can examine the reasoning and arguments of all the positions and form their own conclusions.  In this way, I think such dialogue may be beneficial. Also, when one has to defend one’s position, it challenges you to think more deeply on it, if only to be able to articulate the reasons for one’s stand and to answer objections.  This can surely sharpen one’s thinking.  Debate isn’t necessarily bad (as some tend to think); if handled well, it can be educational, even edifying.  Though not necessarily easy, I think fruitful theological debate is do-able.  It’s a shame we don’t often achieve it.

Going back to my recent experience, again I own up to the fact that I was very insistent on continuing the discussion even after the originator of the post said he did not want to engage further with me.  I was so eager to make a persuasive case that Gods’ sovereignty is a crucial, foundational and practical truth in the believer’s life, one that can help us even as we try to make sense of all the bad and evil things that happen in a fallen world.   So I pressed on in the discussion, with the thought I would interact with others who were also commenting.  Was continuing like this a breach of commenting etiquette?  I don’t know.  But I would also ask, if one is not interested in the give and take required for a theological dialogue to be productive and/or educational, then why initiate a discussion in a public forum?

Thoughts?

Leave a comment

Filed under Controversy, Theology, Web & Tech

Eternal Hope Belongs to the Gospel of Hope- A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”- Conclusion

Mishandling Scriptural texts, Bell’s view on hell in “Love Wins” is distorted, revealing weak views of God’s holiness and man’s depravity, which in turn impact his understanding of the work of the Cross.  As we have already mentioned, Bell denies clear biblical evidence that God is wrathful towards sin, because for him such wrath is incompatible with an understanding of God’s character as essentially “love”.  Yet in Scripture we find God’s various attributes co-exist peacefully, and that there is no implied contradiction between a God of love and a God who hates sin.  In fact, the wrath of God is an attribute just as perfect and integral to God’s character as His love, and one whose contemplation serves importance purposes in sanctification. As theologian Arthur Pink writes,

A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness. Because God is holy, He hates all sin; and because He hates all sin, His anger burns against the sinner (Psa 7:11)… The wrath of God is a perfection of the Divine character upon which we need to frequently meditate. First, that our hearts may be duly impressed by God’s detestation of sin. We are ever prone to regard sin lightly, to gloss over its hideousness, to make excuses for it. But the more we study and ponder God’s abhorrence of sin and His frightful vengeance upon it, the more likely are we to realize its heinousness. Second, to beget a true fear in our souls for God: “Let us have grace whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28,29). We cannot serve Him “acceptably” unless there is due “reverence” for His awful Majesty and “godly fear” of His righteous anger, and these are best promoted by frequently calling to mind that “our God is a consuming fire.” Third, to draw out our souls in fervent praise for having delivered us from “the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).[1]

God’s holiness compels Him to hate and actively oppose all sin, but this passionate hatred of sin is also fueled by His love, for it clearly sees the destructive force of sin in the lives of people and of creation.  Bell’s portrait of the Christian life in “Love Wins” often speaks of how human sins hurt people and holds mankind back from realizing its “God-given goodness and humanity,” but he hardly mentions sin in relation to its deep offense against a holy God.  It is a very man-centered perspective that misses the major emphasis Scripture puts on sin as man’s major problem.  Bell’s view of the cross is similarly man-centered, subjective and psychologically oriented.  In one place he writes,

We read in Hebrews 9 that Jesus “has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.” In the ancient world, people regularly sacrificed animals—bulls, goats, sheep, birds. You raised or purchased an animal and then brought it to the temple and said the right words at the right time. Then the animal was slaughtered, and its blood shed on an altar to show the gods that you were very sorry for any wrong you’d done and you were very grateful for the rain and crops and children and any other gifts you could think of that the gods had given you…  That’s how it worked. Offer something, show that you’re serious, make amends, find favor, and then hope that was enough to get what you needed. So when the writer of Hebrews insisted that Jesus was the last sacrifice ever needed, that was a revolutionary idea… The psychological impact alone would have been extraordinary—no more anxiety, no more worry, no more stress, no more wondering if the gods were pleased with you or ready to strike you down. There was no more need for any of that sacrifice, because Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice that thoroughly pleased the only God who ever mattered. That’s how the writer of Hebrews explains what happened when Jesus died on the cross.[2]

Here is the reason why Bell can dismiss the Old Testament sacrificial system as something barbaric– he thinks it is something the Jews picked up from surrounding pagan cultures!  Bell betrays lack of understanding of the depth of man’s sin behind this God-instituted practice, as well as stunning lack of comprehension that the sacrificial system was not a pagan, human invention, but something God Himself instituted.  The Jewish sacrificial system was not on a par with “appeasing gods” as Bell seems to think, but a system God established because of the deadly serious nature of sin, which must be atoned for by blood (Lev 17:11).   When Jesus by His one-time sacrifice brought to an end the sacrificial system under the old covenant (Hebrews 9), Bell doesn’t seem to recognize that His act was not the dismantling of a pagan practice, but bringing the system to the fulfillment of its purpose.  Jesus’ sacrifice is the better and perfect sacrifice, but that doesn’t mean the old pattern He was replacing was unnecessary and wrongheaded.  His interpretation also indicates a seemingly low view of Scripture’s inspiration, for it is clear from both Leviticus and Hebrews that the pattern of animal sacrifices was God’s idea.  And this from a man reputed to have begun his pastoral ministry preaching through Leviticus?  Kevin DeYoung’s book review offers good thoughts on Bell’s conception of sin:

It would be unfair to say Bell doesn’t believe in sin. He clearly does. But his vice lists are telling: war, rape, greed, injustice, violence, pride, division, exploitation, disgrace (36–37). In another place, he says that in heaven God will say “no” to oil spills, sexual assault on women, political leaders silencing by oppression, and people being stepped on by greedy institutions and corporations (37-38). These are real problems and throughout the book Bell mentions many real, heinous sins. But … What’s missing is not only a full-orbed view of sins, but a deeper understanding of sin itself. In Bell’s telling of the story, there is no sense of the vertical dimension of our evil.  Yes, Bell admits several times that we can resist or reject God’s love. But there’s never any discussion of the way we’ve offended God, no suggestion that ultimately all our failings are a failure to worship God as we should. God is not simply disappointed with our choices or angry for the way we judge others. He is angry at the way we judge him. He cannot stand to look upon our uncleanness. His nostrils flare at iniquity. He hates our ingratitude, our impurity, our God complexes, our self-centeredness, our disobedience, our despising of his holy law. Only when we see God’s eye-covering holiness will we grasp the magnitude of our traitorous rebellion, and only then will we marvel at the incomprehensible love that purchased our deliverance on the cross.[3]

From the start Bell’s book suggests that Scripture is hopelessly unclear on the nature of salvation, in that it supposedly describes numerous different mechanisms by which one might be saved.  But this again seems merely clever strategy on Bell’s part.  If he can persuade the reader to believe that the process of salvation, the nature of the afterlife or details of how one gets into heaven and avoids hell are all murky and impossible to determine, then he can present his speculative theories under less scrutiny. But of course Scripture is not unclear about how one can be saved, for the one who has ears to hear.  Bell ignores such passages as Romans 10: 8-17, which presents clear instruction on how one is saved.

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.[4]

Bell asks about this passage, “what if the missionary gets a flat tire?” implying that for God to place the fate of people’s souls in the hands of human preachers puts eternal destinies on shaky footing.  But the answer is that God uses human means to accomplish His ends, but isn’t absolutely dependent on them.  Again, it seems Bell raises such questions as part of a strategy of shaking the reader’s confidence that there are definite answers.  In this way, Bell can propose that there isn’t just one way to salvation, but many, which perhaps to his way of thinking gives one better odds of being saved.

Conclusion
What do we lose if we replace the traditional message of the gospel that includes the teaching of an eternal, conscious, punishment in hell with a friendlier, more inclusive message like Rob Bell’s?  Would it not be easier, as Bell suggests, to enthusiastically share the good news knowing that such a terrible and scary doctrine was not part of the package?  Perhaps we might feel less unpleasant preaching a gospel message stripped of hellfire, but we would also hopefully feel convicted, for we would be preaching a lie.  In Rob Bell’s bloodless story, God has saved us from what, exactly?  Bad choices?  But choices don’t really matter that much in his system– won’t we have endless opportunities to re-think them and say “yes” to God?

If Bell is right, why is Christ so urgently pleading with us to heed His warnings, that we might escape the dreadful hell He paints with images terrible and true?  No, my friends, eternal hell belongs to the gospel, for the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news set against the backdrop of very bad news—that our sins have separated us from a holy God and condemned us to wrath and hell.  God in His wisdom has given us this solemn message, and it is not for us to refashion or compromise.

The teaching of hell highlights the black and white nature of the gospel message— Christ is not one option among many; He is rather “the way, and the truth and the life”, and no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6) for “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).” Hell underscores the urgency of the decision to be made—we all stand on the edge of a dangerous abyss, not knowing if we will be given another day to make this momentous choice. The prospect of hell wakes us up out of our stupor, challenging us to act now.  “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2).”  Finally, hell reminds us what God in His great and glorious mercy rescues us from, though we were once His enemies.

Thank you for reading.  I hope you have enjoyed this series.  Below, under “further reading” I’ve listed resources for further study on these topics.

 

[1] Arthur W. Pink, The Attributes of God, first edition printing 1930 (Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 1993), 36.

[2] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York, NY: Harper Collins, Inc, 2011), 123.

[3] Kevin DeYoung, “God Is Still Holy And What You Learned In Sunday School Is Still True: A Review Of “Love Wins,” DeYoung Restless and Reformed (blog), accessed July 3, 2012, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review.

[4] Romans 10: 8-17 (English Standard Version).

WORKS CITED IN THIS SERIES

Bauckham, Richard. “Universalism: A Historical Survey.” Themelios. 4.2 (1978, September 1).

Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Kindle edition. New York, NY: Harper Collins, Inc., 2011.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume III, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1940), 793.

DeYoung, Kevin “God Is Still Holy And What You Learned In Sunday School Is Still True: A Review Of “Love Wins,” DeYoung Restless and Reformed (blog), accessed July 3, 2012, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review

Keller, Timothy, R. Albert Mohler Jr., J. I. Packer, and Robert Yarbrough. Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? Edited by W. Christopher Morgan and Robert A. Peterson. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.

Pink, Arthur W. The Attributes of God. First edition printing 1930. Pensacola, FL: Chapel Library, 1993.

Walvoord, John F., William V. Crockett, Zachary J. Hayes, and Charles H. Pinnock. Four Views on Hell. Edited by Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

Wittmer, Michael E. Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”. Kindle edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Edenridge Press, 2011.

Zondervan Academic, “Four Views on Hell: An Interview with William Crockett,” Koinonia (blog), accessed March 1, 2011, http://www.koinoniablog.net/2011/03/interview-crockett.html.


Further reading

Books on Hell and Responses to Love Wins:

Four Views on Hell by William Crockett (Author), Stanley N. Gundry (Series Editor), John F. Walvoord (Contributor), Zachary J. Hayes (Contributor), Clark H. Pinnock (Contributor)

Is Hell Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven Contributors: Tim Keller, Al Mohler, Jr. J.I. Packer, Robert W. Yarborough. Editors: Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson

Hell, Rob Bell, and What Happens When People Die by Bobby Conway

Book reviews of Love Wins:

Bell’s Hell- Review of Love Wins by Michael Horton (PDF)
God is Still Holy & What You Learned in Sunday School is Still True by Kevin DeYoung (PDF)
If Love Wins, What is Lost? A Response to Love Wins by Rob Bell by Paul B Coulter
Love Wins – Universalism’s New Champion by Gary Gilley
A Review and Commentary on Rob Bell’s Book by Jay Zinn

General Articles on Hell

The Rationale of Hell By John H. Gerstner
The following 9 articles included in a PDF:
The Greatest Loss by J. C. Ryle (1816-1900)
What Is Hell? by Edward Donnelly
Eternal Torment for the Wicked: Unavoidable and Intolerable by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
The Resurrection of Damnation by Samuel Davies (1723-1761)
The Torments of Loss by Thomas Boston (1676-1732)
The Torments of Soul by Edward Payson (1783-1827)
The Torments of Sense by Thomas Boston (1676-1732)
Exhortation to Escape Hell by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
Christ Has the Keys of Hell and of Death by Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)
The Christian Doctrine of Hell:
Hell, by R.C. Sproul. A brief introduction to the doctrine from Sproul’s book Essential Truths of the Christian Faith.
Eternal Punishment, by Arthur Pink. A non-technical explanation of the traditional doctrine and its biblical basis, with responses to arguments commonly raised against it by Universalists and Annihilationists.

Misc. articles on hell

Sermons
Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, by Jonathan Edwards
The Eternity of Hell’s Torments, by Jonathan Edwards

Scholarly Articles
Future Punishment, by Charles Hodge
Hell, by Stewart D.F. Salmond
A Kinder, Gentler Theology of Hell? by Larry D. Pettegrew
Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part One, by Alan W. Gomes
Evangelicals and the Annihilation of Hell, Part Two, by Alan W. Gomes

Inclusivism
Series on Inclusivism
The “Very Pernicious and Detestable” Doctrine of Inclusivism Robert L. Reymond
Lisa Miller Interviews Rob Bell
Monergism articles on Inclusivism

The Arrogance of Inclusivism
Inclusivism: Is God Really Fair?
What is Inclusivism and Why Does It Matter?
What About Those Who Haven’t Heard?

Leave a comment

Filed under "Love Wins" Series, Controversy, Hell, Theology

Eternal Hell Belongs to the Gospel of Hope: A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”- Part 5 Bell’s Hell and Scripture

Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number “make it to a better place” and every single other person suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God? Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life? This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God; it raises questions about the beliefs themselves. Why them? Why you? Why me? Why not him or her or them? If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate? How does a person end up being one of the few? Chance? Luck? Random selection? Being born in the right place, family, or country? Having a youth pastor who “relates better to the kids”? God choosing you instead of others? What kind of faith is that? Or, more important: What kind of God is that?[1]

One may observe from the long quote above that Bell can’t stomach the traditional view of hell and wants people to stop believing it, because he thinks it paints a bad picture of God.  Accordingly his strategy in “Love Wins” (typified by this quote) is to barrage the reader with emotionally charged, loaded questions seemingly designed to provoke doubt that one can ever arrive at any certainty concerning how one may be saved or what happens after death, and at the same time, to make the reader question the rightness of traditional understandings on salvation, heaven and hell.  This post will be the longest in our series.  I want to look at the numerous arguments Bell makes against the traditional view of hell and respond to them as thoroughly as possible within the space constraints of a blog article.


Can a Loving God be Wrathful?

One of Bell’s chief arguments against traditional hell is a running theme throughout his book: a loving God must love all equally, give everyone an equal chance at salvation, and doesn’t punish sinners without a redemptive purpose behind the punishment.

Bell’s God is all love, no wrath.  He echoes the perennial refrain of many who’ve objected to the tradition doctrine of an eternal hell, “It is not fair that God would punish eternally the sins committed in a finite lifetime”.  But to find the truth, we dare not rely on our own deliberations and feelings, but must yield to the revelation of Scripture.  Are we more righteous, just and holy than God?  Is the sinner qualified to tell his holy Maker how, and on what basis, to execute judgment?

Contrary to those who argue that the punishment of an eternal hell makes God cruel, unfair or capricious, but base their argument on the biblically unsubstantiated assumption that God must show equal compassion to all, Scripture does not obligate God to show mercy to everyone.  Rather it emphasizes His absolute sovereignty and freedom in this matter.  God declares, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion (Romans 9:15; cp Ex 33:19).” In contrast to Bell’s salvific scheme, in which human beings become equal to God in determining their own destiny of heaven or hell, in Scripture the emphasis in redemption is always on God’s initiative and power, for apart from God’s work in us, the Bible tells us we are lost and condemned sinners enslaved in lust to our sins, having no hope and without God in the world, destined for wrath (Eph 2: 2- 5, 12; Luke 19:10, Romans 1:18, 5:6-8).  As rebellious sinners, we aren’t owed salvation or rescue from hell (Romans 9:20-23), and God must intervene if we are to be saved (John 6:44), yet at the same time Scripture affirms that human beings have a genuine choice between turning to God in repentance through Christ, or rejecting Him and continuing on the path of rebellion, a choice that has real, eternal consequences (John 3:18, 36).  Certainly there is mystery here, but this is specific information Scripture gives on questions of salvation and eternal destiny.  To take care of our sin problem, God did not simply forgive unilaterally, as Bell proposes.  Scripture is clear:  we receive forgiveness of sins through a conscious act of faith that trusts in Christ Jesus as payment for our sins, thus escaping the wrath of God (Romans 10: 9-13; Romans 5:9).
Bell and those who argue along his lines ignore the biblical record that consistently highlights God’s righteous wrath against sin and against sinners. Bell writes:

Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God. Let’s be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer. This is crucial for our peace, because we shape our God, and then our God shapes us.[2]

It is telling how Bell makes his argument.  Notice he dismisses the importance of establishing whether the traditional view of God’s wrath is true “technically or theologically (i.e., biblically).  To him this is not as important as how such a view makes us feel about God.  Presenting no substantiating argument, he simply asserts that we do not need to be rescued from God’s wrath, his implicit argument being that such a view of God is psychologically disturbing to our “peace” of mind (“we shape our God”, indeed).  Bell overlooks the biblical theme that to be saved from sin isn’t primarily about being rescued from damage we do to ourselves through sin (though this is a benefit), but escaping the punishment and judgment rightly due to sinners.  The entire Old Testament could be put on exhibit to make the case that God never takes sin lightly, but rather, in unrelenting wrath against sin, punished evildoers, instituted the pattern of animal sacrifice designed to atone for sins (foreshadowing the ultimate sacrifice for sin Christ would make as Lamb of God), and gave His law to command Israel into holy living.  The theme of wrath against sin continues prominently into the New Testament revelation, where the record plainly shows, even from partial listing of passages, that God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness of men and that there is a terrible wrath against sin still to come (namely, hell), which one escapes only through  Christ.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (Romans 1:18).

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed…but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury (Romans 2:5,8)

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God (Romans 9:22)

…and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:10)

The overwhelming thrust of Scripture reveals that Bell couldn’t be more off-base when he downplays God’s just wrath against sin and implies such a view of God is inaccurate.  A loving God can be wrathful against sin, because sin is the negation of everything good and right and beneficial.


After Death – a Total Mystery, or Judgment to Heaven or Hell?

In his chapter on hell, Bell argues that the Bible doesn’t provide much specific information about life after death.  By taking this stance, Bell positions himself to freely speculate about what may occur post-death.  In the New Testament, Bell finds a paucity of references to hell.  He notes that “Gehenna”, the Greek word for hell, literally means “garbage dump”.  Because it is an actual place His listeners were familiar with, Bell implies that Jesus used this word to make His hearers consider hell more in terms of this world than the next.  That there is mystery in Scripture concerning full details of the afterlife is not surprising. 1 Corinthians 2:9 tells us “… no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”  But just because we haven’t been given a complete picture of all that will come after the grave doesn’t suggest there is lack of clarity or information in Scripture about what we must do to be saved and avoid hell.  We’ll speak more on this in the concluding post of this series.

Second, Bell claims Jesus used hyperbolic, at times violent imagery in depicting hell to jolt his listeners, not into fearful apprehension of what will happen to them in the next life, but so they will contemplate the terrible things that happen to them in this life when we reject our “God-given goodness and humanity.”  But the images Jesus uses in describing hell are consistent and precise.  He speaks of “unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43)”, the “worm that doesn’t die (Mark 9:48)”, eternal fire (Matthew 18:7)”, and “hell of fire (Matthew 18:9)”.  Jesus’ language suggests terrible future judgment, not warnings about bad things that happen to people in this life when they reject God.  Though indeed the sin that rejects God brings untold pain and suffering to this life, hell is far, far worse. That’s why Jesus warns us to “not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).” We are to fear God, who can and will punish the unrepentant in hell.  The urgency of His warnings and the severe language He uses give no hint that we get a second chance after death, but instead there is a definite air of finality.  Scripture confirms that we only have this present life to decide for or against Christ when it says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27 ESV).”


The Rich Man and Lazarus- Is Hell the Self-Imposed Chasm of a Proud Heart or Irreversible Destiny Set by God?

Bell also examines Jesus’ famous story of Lazarus and the rich man.  For Bell, the story’s lessons are primarily directed at the religious leaders who were listening in.  Bell notes that the rich man in the story was asking Lazarus to serve him water, apparently even in death seeing himself as Lazarus’ superior, as he was in life.  The “chasm” between the rich man and Lazarus, according to Bell, is his own heart, his proud ego that demands that Lazarus still serve him.  Bell says that the story illustrates the message that Jesus teaches again and again, that “the gospel is about a death that leads to life”.   The key understanding, Bell says, is that the rich man hasn’t yet died to himself in such a way that he could find life.  The rich man is a stand-in for his audience, showing them their failure to love their neighbor, and the story teaches there are different kinds of hells (individual and communal) we must take seriously.

Here Bell reads details into the story that aren’t there but favor his interpretation.  First, the story never says that Lazarus was the rich man’s servant, but only that he had stood outside his gates and begged from him.  Second, the story mentions that the chasm fixed between the rich man and Lazarus was fixed by God, “in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us (Luke 16: 26).”  Contrary to what Bell proposes, the chasm has nothing to do with the rich man’s heart, and the actual details of the story contradict Bell’s notion that if the rich man somehow dies to himself and overcomes his ego, he’ll be able to cross the chasm over to Lazarus.  In order to fit the story with his purgatorial notions, Bell simply invents details.

The story of Lazarus and the rich man testifies further against Bell’s post-death theories.  Though as a parable the story should not be pressed for exact details regarding the nature of the afterlife, it is a story on the afterlife being spoken by our Lord, who was certainly in a position to give such details. As such, we should pay close attention. It is not unreasonable to suppose that Jesus would include helpful, not misleading data to help generations to come in their understanding of what comes after death.

So we learn from the story that the rich man is aware of the blessedness of Lazarus in heaven, and remembers his past.  Though the story is concerned with the pre-resurrection state (Hades) rather than final destination (heaven or hell), we observe that there is immediately after death a conscious awareness of one’s eternal status before God, and entry into blessing or suffering in accord with that status.  The rich man wants desperately to send a warning to his loved ones who remain on earth, that they may escape his terrible fate.  Yet he cannot, and the story directs attention to the fact that there is a chasm fixed by God between Lazarus and the rich man.  Again, we find here no support for a post-mortem turnaround.   It would seem a chasm also exists between the dead and the living, for Abraham dismisses the rich man’s request that Lazarus be sent to his brothers on earth, saying “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”(Luke 16:29).

Finally the story also teaches that the testimony of the Law and Prophets if heeded was sufficient to save, but to a sinful heart indifferent to the sufferings of others, even a resurrection from the dead (pointing to Jesus) would be ignored.  An observation Bell makes about the story challenging us to be concerned about individual sin that leads to suffering on a societal level is valid, but Jesus is  also clearly warning about individual sin that leads to individual suffering in the afterlife, because of God’s just punishment of evildoers.


More Bell arguments:  the Greek Word “aiōn” and Sodom and Gomorrah

As mentioned, Bell raises other objections against the traditional view of hell.  He tries to show that the Greek word “aiōn“, used to describe both heaven and hell, really means an “age” or period of time, and that the writers of Scripture did not conceive of eternal life as an endless duration of time, but rather as a certain quality of existence.  In a section titled “Does ‘eternal’ mean ‘forever’?” Paul Coulter in his excellent review of “Love Wins” points out that Bell does not demonstrate that the Greek word “aiōn” cannot mean eternal,  and that in fact Bell concedes that the term is the equivalent to the Old Testament word  “olam” which can mean eternal, especially when referring to God.  Coulter writes,

On page 31 he equates aiōn with the Hebrew word olam in the Old Testament and on page 92 he accepts that olam can mean something like our common meaning of ‘eternal’, at least when it refers to God as being God “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2). This amounts to an admission that aiōn can indeed mean everlasting, and this conclusion is backed up by its usage in the New Testament in contexts where it must include the meaning ‘unending’. It is used to describe God (Romans 16:26) and elsewhere Paul says that God is worthy to receive “honour and might for ever” on the basis that he is “immortal” (1 Timothy 6:16). Surely he did not mean to say that the immortal God who will live forever deserves to be honoured and has power only for an age! Similarly Paul calls the resurrection body an “eternal house” (2 Corinthians 5:1) while in another passage he says it is imperishable and immortal (1 Corinthians 15:53). We must conclude, then, that Bell is wrong (indeed he contradicts himself) when he says elsewhere in categorical terms that aion [...] doesn’t mean ‘forever’ as we think of forever” (p.31). His error is not in recognising that aiōn has a range of meanings in the New Testament (any Greek lexicon of the New Testament will reveal that it can) but in his attempt to narrow the range of possible meanings in relation to the life Christ gives and the nature of Hell and Heaven. Aiōn does not only mean ‘eternal’ but ‘eternal’ is contained within its range of possible meanings as defined by New Testament usage. Whether or not it means ‘eternal’ in a given usage can only be determined by a careful study of the context and I maintain that the usage to refer to the life that Christ gives, the Kingdom over which he rules and the punishment of which he warns must include the sense of ‘unending’ when the context and the wider New Testament evidence are taken into consideration.

In keeping with his argument that there is no fiery, everlasting hell because of the endless opportunities sinners will have to reconcile with God, Bell provides an inventive take on Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 concerning Sodom and Gomorrah. In Matthew 10:15, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.” Bell interprets this as meaning that in the judgment, even the infamously evil Sodom and Gomorrah gets another shot at redemption. But one certainly must read such an interpretation into the text. The context here is Jesus sending out His twelve apostles with the gospel, and Jesus is simply saying that with greater revelation (Jesus actually visited and performed miracles in these places where the gospel is being preached) comes greater culpability and condemnation should the message be rejected.


Does “Making All Things New” Mean Everyone Will Be Saved?
Yet another argument Bell raises against the traditional understanding of hell is his insistence that God reconciling all things to Himself and Jesus “making all things new” means that God intends to save every single individual. As Michael Wittmer relates in his book, Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”,

Bell pushes ahead with numerous promises from the Old Testament prophets that God will restore both his people and the pagan people of Egypt (p. 88). Bell assumes that such passages imply that every person who ever lived there will be able to leave hell. But the idea of escaping from hell never comes up in these passages. God is merely promising that those who call on the Lord in this life will be saved, and that, in fact, many will call on him.[3]

Those who argue along the lines of Bell would have us think that a loving God simply cannot send anyone to hell.   Yet it is a loving Savior who continuously warns us of the reality of hell, whose words powerfully contradict the idea that all will someday find their place in heaven.

Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.(Matthew 13:40-42 ESV)

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
(Matthew 25:41 ESV)

And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell.
(Mark 9:45 ESV)

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46 ESV)

And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.(Revelation 20:15 ESV)

The word of God warns us in strong, urgent language so that we will turn to God and escape His wrath. And if this picture of hell that Scripture gives is accurate, it is unspeakably wrong to offer anyone any other hope of salvation than what Scripture gives, that is, “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved (Acts 16:31)”.

Next time, we will present our concluding thoughts.


[1] Ibid. 2

[2] Ibid. 182

[3] Michael E. Wittmer, Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” (Grand Rapids, MI: Edenridge Press, 2011), 54-55.

Leave a comment

Filed under "Love Wins" Series, Controversy, Hell, Theology

Eternal Hell Belongs to the Gospel of Hope: A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”- Part 4- Bell’s Inclusivism

In this series on hell we have been responding to Rob Bell’s alternative vision of the Christian message.   In “Love Wins” Bell’s essential claim is that the traditional (he labels it “toxic” and “misguided”) view that some are saved by Christ while others are lost in hell forever turns the good news into bad news that drives people away from the opportunity to embrace Christ.  Moreover, he argues that this is not in fact the real message of Christianity– the true message is that “love wins” because God will relentlessly pursue everyone in love until every heart is won– even if this requires pursuit after one’s life on earth has ended.  For Bell, this triumph of God’s love is what the Bible means when it speaks of all things being reconciled to God  and all things being made new. 

Thus far in our series we discussed why in the first place Christians came to believe in hell as an eternal place of punishment.   We concluded that Scripture warrants this view and that the fact that the doctrine is naturally unpalatable is a proof of its validity.   Though a painful truth to contemplate, hell is important because it comes to us from Scripture, mostly from the lips of Jesus Christ.  For this reason we suggested that hell is an integral part of the gospel message, bound together with other key doctrines– the heinous nature of sin and God’s holy nature.  We can’t simply nor easily discard the traditional doctrine of hell.

We also took a brief historical look at how the Church has thought about the afterlife/hell and concluded that Bell is mistaken to locate his views within the orthodox stream.  In this post, we begin to examine  Bell’s particular brand of inclusivism, showing its ties to previous streams of thought.   Please note that this series is not a personal campaign against Bell– but strongly objects to the refashioning of the traditional Christian message Bell and others are presenting, as we think these innovations do incredible spiritual harm.

Bell’s thoughts on hell have precedents in the thinking of such disparate theologians as the heretic Origen (whom he follows in thinking God’s victory consists in full redemption of everything) and the reformed Barth (with whom he shares the thought that God’s sovereign power suggests that He can and will “get what He wants”, i.e., everyone saved).  In line with Victorian thinkers, Bell’s God is universally benevolent and a father to all, and Bell’s tendency to be embarrassed by the traditional view, and to re-define hell in metaphorical terms that place hell more in this world than the next, follows the liberal Christian trajectory.  His position on the scheme of redemption falls closest to inclusivism.  Yet I agree with Michael Wittmer, quoted earlier, who labels Bell’s position “incipient” or “functional universalism”.  Bell thinks the only people who may not be immediately won to God (I use this phrase since according to Bell, all are already saved) are those who by free choice resist God’s call; nevertheless he suggests that such people will eventually succumb to God’s relentless pursuit of them.

Bell’s inclusivistic, post-mortem view of salvation includes a partly metaphorical and partly purgatorial view of hell.  Bell rejects the traditional view that salvation involves conscious turning in this life to Jesus Christ in faith, so as to be rescued from the punishment and condemnation due one’s sins. Hell is neither a literal place of eternal torment nor a judgment inflicted by God, but the consequence of rejecting and resisting that love.  Bell writes,

God has no desire to inflict pain or agony on anyone. God extends an invitation to us, and we are free to do with it is as we please. Saying yes will take us in one direction; saying no will take us in another. God is love, and to refuse this love moves us away from it, in the other direction, and that will, by very definition, be an increasingly unloving, hellish reality. We do ourselves great harm when we confuse the very essence of God, which is love, with the very real consequences of rejecting and resisting that love, which creates what we call hell.[1]

Following liberal Christian theologians, Bell’s hell is what we experience in this life, our “refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story”.  Bell does claim to believe in a “literal hell”, but when he says this refers to the sufferings of this life, not the next.  He writes,

Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs. Have you ever sat with a woman while she talked about what it was like to be raped? How does a person describe what it’s like to hear a five-year-old boy whose father has just committed suicide ask: “When is daddy coming home?” How does a person describe that unique look, that ravaged, empty stare you find in the eyes of a cocaine addict? I’ve seen what happens when people abandon all that is good and right and kind and humane.[2]

We have mentioned that Bell’s view offers postmortem opportunities for growth and salvation.  Indeed in Bell’s picture both heaven and hell are places where one gets to re-think choices and decisions one has made in this life.  Our time in heaven or hell will be a necessarily purgatorial process, since Bell thinks each of us will need a lot of work after death before we will be fit for heaven:

Jesus makes no promise that in the blink of an eye we will suddenly become totally different people who have vastly different tastes, attitudes, and perspectives. Paul makes it very clear that we will have our true selves revealed and that once the sins and habits and bigotry and pride and petty jealousies are prohibited and removed, for some there simply won’t be much left. “As one escaping through the flames” is how he put it.[3]

Bell’s salvation picture might be summarized then as: a loving God who is not angry at sin; a salvation already accomplished for us by Christ that we just need to open our eyes to see; heaven or hell is of our own making but never final since in our freedom we can always choose for or against God’s love; God meets us in whatever religious tradition we may be in; God won’t punish or condemn any to an eternal hell but will pursue and perfect everyone in love, even after death.

It is not surprising that such a view finds widespread acceptance in a Church infected by the modern sensibility that highly prizes human reason, freedom and individual choice, and which is increasingly dismissive of the traditional Christian worldview that once, but no longer, dominates Western thought.  In our next post we’ll examine the Scriptural case Bell makes for his understanding of hell.


[1] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York, NY: Harper Collins, Inc., 2011), 177.

[2] Ibid. 71

[3] Ibid. 50

Leave a comment

Filed under "Love Wins" Series, Controversy, Hell, Theology