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?

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