Eternal Hell Belongs to the Gospel of Hope- A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” – Part 1: Why Do We Believe in Hell, Anyway?

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. (Jesus, in Matthew 13:40-42, ESV)

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 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. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Jesus, in Mark 9:43-48, ESV)

The fearsome, terrible nature of hell as described in Scripture makes hell an unpleasant and much ignored subject in our day, even in many Christian pulpits.  Yet because hell is such a visible component of the teaching of Jesus Christ, it cannot be ignored for long.  The traditional understanding of the nature of hell– eternal, final, conscious punishment of sinners– surely underscored in the minds of Bible readers in all ages the heinousness of sin against an infinitely holy God, bringing to the fore the Bible’s teaching that all are by nature condemned sinners deserving God’s wrath.  The traditional view taught that apart from sins being forgiven and atoned for by Christ Jesus, the sins of humanity condemn the race to future punishment in an eternal hell, forever separated from the life-giving God, and suffering the unutterably painful yet just consequences of rebellion against Him.  Could such an understanding of hell, so naturally repulsive and terrifying, have come about as mere human invention?  Why has orthodox Christian tradition through the centuries come to the consensus from reading Scripture that hell is indeed a place of conscious, eternal punishment?  It cannot be because humans desire such a place to exist.  Speaking of this, theologian Charles Hodge has written:

Much less can this general consent be accounted for on the ground that the doctrine in question is congenial to the human mind, and is believed for its own sake, without any adequate support from Scripture. The reverse is the case. It is a doctrine which the natural heart revolts from and struggles against, and to which it submits only under stress of authority. The Church believes the doctrine because it must believe it, or renounce faith in the Bible and give up all the hopes founded upon its promises[1].

Hodge asserts that the Church, despite natural aversion to it, believes the traditional view because of its appearance in Scripture.  Yet the reaction of others in the Church to proclamation of the traditional doctrine is altogether different.  They deny its Scriptural basis, claiming it has been read into the Bible and influenced by Platonic thinking.  The late Charles Pinnock, an annihilationist (i.e., one who believes that at death the soul is permanently extinguished rather than sent to an eternal hell) concluded that the traditional view “is fostered by a Hellenistic view of human nature, is detrimental to the character of God, is defended on essentially pragmatic grounds, and is being rejected by a growing number of biblically faithful, contemporary scholars.”[2] Popular pastor and author Rob Bell is also highly sympathetic to those who feel revulsion at the traditional view.  He suggests that rather than deriving from scripture, “the idea of hell is a holdover from primitive, mythic religion that uses fear and punishment to control people for all sorts of devious reasons. And so the logical conclusion is that we’ve evolved beyond all of that outdated belief, right?” [3]

Accordingly, in his book, “Love Wins, A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” Bell presents the view that hell is not a final destination of punishment and eternal torment, but is rather our “refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story”[4].  For Bell, heaven and hell are not fixed destinations, but purgatorial processes.  In the end, “love wins” because God conquers the heart of every individual by His tireless overtures of love, even if that process must continue beyond death.

Bell’s desire to promote an inclusive Christian message he thinks is more in tune with the loving heart of God than the traditional view might be commendable, if he proved scripturally his case that the traditional view is harmful and wrong, while his alternative is correct. The problem is that he utterly fails to accomplish this. His presentation not only casually dismisses the centuries-old Christian historical consensus regarding the nature of salvation and hell, but ignores clear scriptural testimony contrary to his vision, instead relying on highly speculative interpretation and arguments woefully short on sound exegesis to make his theories work.

Reading “Love Wins” stirs me and others in a direction Rob Bell likely did not intend— to defense of the traditional view of hell.  Why the outcry against Bell’s ideas, some might ask?  Do traditionalists take such sadistic delight in the thought that some will burn for all eternity that we feel compelled to take up arms for this view?  I believe rather that the response to Bell’s hell reflects an intuitive understanding that hell is a vital doctrine closely tied to many others in the redemptive plan, and that to redefine or discard it introduces theological imbalance and confusion in our common understanding of that plan.  But more than this, I think there is recognition that if our loving Savior Himself warned about hell more than any other person in Scripture, then telling the story of hell is not incompatible with love, for it is love that motivates His warnings.  In this spirit, a number of excellent and thoughtful works, including full-length books, book reviews, and blog articles, have been written in response to Bell’s work.  I have been impressed with many of these works in their strong rejoinder to Bell’s ideas, yet charitable tone.

So to summarize, we believe in hell because it’s a teaching we find in Scripture and most prominently, from the lips of the Savior Himself.  As we continue our series on Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” we’ll consider further why the traditional doctrine of hell is vital and not to be discarded.


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

[2] John F. Walvoord et al, Four Views on Hell, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and William Crockett (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 165.

[3] 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), 69.

[4] Ibid. 170.

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2 Comments

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

2 responses to “Eternal Hell Belongs to the Gospel of Hope- A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” – Part 1: Why Do We Believe in Hell, Anyway?

  1. If you believe, and teach, eternal hell… then that is where you will be going.
    Google K7VHQ and click on San Jacinto and read some thinkgs the KJV obscures. Bob

    • Alexander M. Jordan

      Thanks for visiting and commenting. However, your comment I have to say is illogical and contrary to Scripture. The Bible does not teach that people who simply warn others about eternal hell are the ones who will end up there. Believing or not believing in hell is not what saves anyone, nor what keeps one out of hell. It is putting our trust in Christ Jesus that saves us. Yet Jesus Himself warned repeatedly about hell, showing a clear connection between salvation and hell– in other words, we are saved to Christ and away from hell– the place of God’s just wrath against sin and sinners. In describing hell, He used terms and phrases that sure sound like He is describing a place of punishment that goes on forever for the sinner. This is the negative destiny of the unrepentant sinner who rejects Christ– and Jesus contrasts this against the parallel positive destiny of the believer, who receives eternal life. I’ll be commenting more on this in upcoming posts in this series.

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