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?
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.
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.
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.