Category Archives: “Love Wins” Series

A series examining the ideas of Rob Bell in his book, “Love Wins”, especially in regard to his take on hell.

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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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.

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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

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Eternal Hell Belongs to the Gospel of Hope- A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” Part 3- A Brief History of Hell

Until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell. Here and there, outside the theological mainstream, were some who believed that the wicked would be finally annihilated. . . . Even fewer were the advocates of universal salvation, though these few included some major theologians of the early church. Eternal punishment was firmly asserted in official creeds and confessions of the churches. It must have seemed as indispensable a part of the universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. [1]

The change in the modern attitude towards the traditional understanding of hell can be traced philosophically and theologically.  In his essay, “Is Hell for Real”, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. notes that early church teaching on hell was based on New Testament passages and was viewed as “God’s just judgment on sinners who did not put their faith in Christ. It was seen as real and eternal, characterized by fire and torment”. [2]But a challenge soon arose.

The first major challenge to this view came from a theologian named Origen, who taught that everyone and everything would ultimately be reconciled to God. He reasoned that God’s victory could only be complete when nothing was left unredeemed, and that hell would not be eternal and punitive but rather temporary and purifying. Origen’s teaching was rejected by a church council held in Constantinople in AD 553, however, and the church’s consensus on hell continued to be widely held for another thousand years. Rejections of hell during these years were limited to sects and heretics. Indeed, hell was such a fixture of the Christian mind that most persons understood all of life in terms of their ultimate destination. Men and women longed for heaven and feared hell.[3]

Though a Christian understanding of life, with a framework of an eternal heaven and hell, was for centuries the dominant influence in European and American thought, it is an influence that has dramatically waned in the last few centuries, due to new patterns of thinking that began to emerge during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. As Dr. Mohler relates, various streams of atheism and skepticism first emerged during the 17th century, raising doubts about hell which continued into the Enlightenment and Victorian eras.  At first this changing thought did not infiltrate the Church, but in the 19th century, opposition to the traditional understanding of hell became more vociferous.  As the thinking on hell of Victorian preachers, writers and thinkers both in Europe and America was evolving, this in turn influenced the aristocracy and educated classes, and there began to be widespread calls for changes to be made to traditional Christian teaching.  But the evolution in thought was having a wider impact than just the doctrine of hell.

Victorian-era doubts about historic Christian beliefs were not limited to hell, though. As Western nations colonized countries around the world, Westerners confronted other people’s gods, practices, and worldviews. This discovery led some Victorian thinkers to emphasize the universal fatherhood of God, and they came up with ways to soften Christianity’s claim of salvation through Christ alone. In Germany, a “history of religions” school of thought treated Christianity as just one form of human religion alongside others, with all religions understood to be human inventions. Above all, when they thought about God, Victorians increasingly came to the conclusion that he was universally benevolent. This concept of a humanitarian God would have doctrinal repercussions in the twentieth century.[4]

In the 20th century,

Technological revolutions… led to an outlook that gave science and the natural world preeminence, with spiritual truths relegated to mere personal or speculative interest. As a result, the place of religion was diminished in the public sphere. Secularization became the norm in Western societies, alongside advanced technologies and ever-increasing wealth.  [5]

For liberal Christians, heaven and hell became more about the grim realities facing us in this life than the next.  Facing such horrors as the gas ovens of Auschwitz, we could witness “hell” right now, in the present.  Influential theologians such Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, and Jürgen Moltmann also promoted ideas that departed from traditional views, with reformed theologian Barth holding out the possibility that God’s sovereign victory in Christ might lead to salvation for all.  Thus,

“By the end of the century, many liberal Christians had abandoned claims of exclusivity for the Christian faith. In accommodating themselves to the secular and antisupernatural worldview of the times, belief in a literal hell became incredible and unacceptable — an embarrassment to the Christian faith.”[6]

These historical trends bring us to our current day of pluralism, desensitization to evil, biblical illiteracy and institutionalized secularism, with Western emphasis on freedom and autonomy of the individual.  In today’s climate, the traditional teaching of a literal hell seems outmoded.  Modern technologies such as the Internet enable cultures around to mutually encounter one another in ways previously unimaginable.  Nations like America, with its diversity of religions, lifestyles, cultures and opinions living side by side, embrace “tolerance” as a supreme virtue, viewing this is as necessary to maintaining harmony and goodwill.  Everyone must be free to choose their own way, thus the Christian conception of heaven as destiny for believers and hell for non-believers, is seen as too exclusive and divisive, and as a relic from the past to be discarded and replaced.

In theological history, four general Christian schools of thought or approaches to life after death (literal, metaphorical, purgatorial and conditional) have appeared.  These in turn influenced various positions regarding the nature of hell.   The literal view has much in common with what we have been calling the “traditional” view, holding that hell is eternal, conscious, irreversible punishment.  But the literal view also is distinguished by regarding the Bible’s descriptions of hell (unending fire, worms that don’t die, black darkness, etc.) as literally true, whereas some traditionalists (e.g., Calvin, Martin Luther,) have considered these images to be symbolic in nature.

William Crockett, a leading proponent of the metaphorical view, defines it as follows, “the metaphorical view says that hell is a real place, a place of serious eternal judgment, but a place whose exact nature is best left in the hands of God.”[7] Some who hold the metaphorical view seem to be trying to escape or soften the painful physical realities of hell, but traditionalists who take a metaphorical stance think the reality the symbols point to is actually far more awful than the symbols themselves.

 The purgatorial view is mostly associated with Roman Catholic theology.  In addition to heaven and hell, in Roman Catholic thought there is a third state after death known as purgatory, in which a person not yet holy enough for heaven, but not sinful enough to be condemned to hell, goes through a painful period of cleansing of their sins.  Those who apply purgatorial concepts to hell see hell not as a final destination but as a place where sinners undergo rehabilitation, as God continues to reach out to them in love.

Universalism teaches that everyone will be saved regardless of specific deeds or religious beliefs.  As mentioned earlier, Bell has been charged with being universalistic in the ideas expressed in “Love Wins.”  Michael E. Wittmer does a good job of analyzing Bell’s position on this score.  He writes,

Bell’s emphasis on human freedom prevents him from becoming a full-fledged universalist. He does allow for the possibility that someone will reject God’s love and choose to remain in hell. However, it seems fair to call Bell, as with Barth, an “incipient universalist.”… Bell apparently believes that it’s unlikely that any mere human will be able to outlast the omnipotent God, who “never stops pursuing,” who “simply doesn’t give up. Ever” (p. 101). I also think it’s fair to call Bell a “functional universalist,” for one undeniable takeaway from Love Wins is that everyone who desires to leave hell will be able to do so[8].

Finally, inclusivism refers to the idea that everyone who will be saved is saved by Christ, but that the knowledge of Christ required for salvation doesn’t have to be explicit but may be implicit.  For example, a person may live as a faithful Jew, Hindu, or Buddhist, yet in their own tradition encounter Christ unawares and be saved by Him.

Having outlined the major approaches to the afterlife/hell and looked at a brief historical background on hell, we can now better evaluate Rob Bell’s postmodern take on hell.   We conclude that Bell is mistaken to locate his views within the orthodox stream, for we see that not only is this contrary to the historical record, but also that his view has more in common with lines outside of the mainstream.  In our next article we’ll continue our series on hell and how it fits into the Christian gospel, as we take a closer look at Bell’s particular brand of inclusivism.


[1] Richard Bauckham, “Universalism: A Historical Survey,” Themelios 4, no. 2 (1978, September 1): 47.

[2] Timothy R. Keller et al, Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven?, Kindle Edition, ed. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Petersen (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Location 86.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. Location 160

[5] Ibid. Location 188

[6] Ibid.

[7] Zondervan Academic, “Four Views On Hell: An Interview With William Crockett,” Koinonia (blog), accessed July 2, 2012, http://www.koinoniablog.net/2011/03/interview-crockett.html.

[8] Michael E. Wittmer, Christ Alone: An Evangelical Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” (Grand Rapids, MI: Edenridge Press, 2011), 71.

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Eternal Hell Belongs to the Gospel of Hope- A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” Part 2: Why Hell is Important

Is Hell a real place of eternal flames, or do we make our own hells on earth by refusing to believe God’s version of our story?

Though hell is an uncomfortable, difficult topic to write about, I join with others in thinking a strong reply to Bell’s view is necessary.  I am convinced that only a Christian hope that is faithful and true to the Word of God is worthy of proclamation, and will bring real and lasting benefit to those who hear it.  It must be a Christian hope that, in line with Scripture, envisions God not only as perfectly loving, but also as consummately holy, and that sees human nature by contrast as desperately flawed and in urgent need of a Savior.

Accordingly in this paper I argue that Christianity has and must derive its ideas about God’s love and holiness, the nature of heaven and hell, and the destiny of mankind, not from what one would personally hope or wish to be, but strictly from the revelation of Scripture, rightly interpreted. While one can certainly sympathize with Bell’s desire that all would be saved by the love of God, our only authority for designating the precise parameters of Christian hope is the revelation of Scripture, not wishful thinking.  However well-intentioned they may be, ultimately Bell’s proposals are irresponsible and even dangerous in that they hold out false hope for unbelievers, and offer a confusing message to believers about what the gospel message is.  Bell sees a God who is never angry towards sin, yet in Scripture we find the good news of forgiveness and healing through Christ juxtaposed against the backdrop of God’s holy wrath against sin, shining all the more brightly against this dark reality.

To better understand and properly respond to Bell’s peculiar brand of inclusivism, we’ll look at the history of thought on hell, including discussion of the major approaches to the afterlife.  Bell is right to say his position is not new, and as we examine its historical precedents, we’ll see also his was always a minority view, not a central stream in the Church, as he claims.  Nevertheless his view does resonate with many today, and we’ll discuss why that may be.

Delving further into his argument, we will find that contrary to Bell, Scripture does not present either hell or heaven as a purgatorial process, nor are there “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time”[1] for postmortem salvation for all people, as Bell envisions. Instead Scripture repeatedly sounds the alarm that a future, literal, consciously-experienced heaven or hell is the destiny of every individual, and that this destiny is based upon choices one makes solely this side of the grave. These choices are therefore of utmost urgency and importance, with irrevocable consequences.

The doctrine of hell cannot be severed from relation to other important doctrines. The nature and significance of hell is intertwined with one’s understanding of such doctrines as revelation, man’s total depravity, and the interplay of God’s perfect attributes of love, holiness and justice, particularly in the work of the Cross. How one thinks about these other doctrines impacts how one will define and delineate hell. Bell’s view on hell suffers from a biblically defective view of revelation, God’s holiness, man’s depravity, and the work of the Cross.

Finally, the traditional doctrine of hell cannot be jettisoned without losing crucial aspects of the true gospel message: its exclusivity, its urgency, its emphasis that an infinitely holy and righteous God is perfectly just in executing punishment against all sin and rebellion against Him, even as He lovingly, mercifully and graciously rescues a multitude of sinners. He did so by sending His own Son to die for sinners, removing God’s wrath against them by suffering the very pains of hell on their behalf. The love of God powerfully triumphs over sin, not, as Bell surmises, because everyone is already saved and hell will at some point be emptied, but because God has accomplished through the finished work of Christ the definite, full and eternal redemption of His people, whom He called to Himself before the foundation of the world.

In the next post in our series on Rob Bell and hell, we’ll do a brief review of the historical background of thought on hell.  This will help us better understand Rob Bell’s alternate take on hell, which isn’t new but finds much common ground with liberal theologians.


[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), 106.

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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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Eternal Hell Belongs to the Gospel: A Response to Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”- Introduction

Last year, Rob Bell set off a firestorm in the blogosphere with his book “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”  The reason for the controversy about the book?  Rob Bell, a popular pastor and author with a sizable following, seemed to be advocating universalism,  offering his inclusive vision as an alternative to traditional, exclusive views of salvation, heaven and hell.  In the book, as well as in a promotional video released shortly before its release, Bell set out to raise doubts in people’s minds about the traditional view, often by asking a series of provocative questions.  Here’s what Bell said in his video:

Several years ago we had an art show at our church and people brought in all kinds of sculptures, and paintings, and we put them on display. And there was this one piece that had a quote from Gandhi in it; and lots of people found this piece compelling. They’d stop and sort of stare at it, and take it in, and reflect on it—but not everybody found it that compelling. Somewhere in the course of the art show somebody attached a hand-written note to the piece, and on the note they had written: “Reality Check—He’s In Hell.”

Gandhi’s in hell? He is? And someone knows this, for sure; and felt the need to let the rest of us know? Will only a few, select, people make it to heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in hell? And, if that’s the case, how do you become one of the few? Is it what you believe; or what you say, or what you do, or who you know—or something that happens in your heart? Or do you need to be initiated, or baptized, or take a class, or converted, or being born again—how does one become one of these few?

And then there is the question behind the questions, the real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message—the center of the Gospel of Jesus—is that God is going to send you to hell, unless you believe in Jesus. And so, what gets, subtly, sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that; that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good; how could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news.

This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies; and they say: “Why would I ever want to be part of that?” See, what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about Who God is, and what God is like. What you discover in the Bible is so surprising, unexpected, and beautiful, that whatever we’ve been told or taught, the good news is actually better than that; better than we could ever imagine.  The good news is, that love wins.

The promotional video was amazingly successful in what such things set out to do: generate lots of buzz and debate about a book before its release. The blogging community was heatedly debating the book and Bell was generating great publicity through various media interviews. Bell even landed on the cover of Time magazine on April 14. The issue’s cover story, Pastor Rob Bell: What if Hell Doesn’t Exist?, published right before Easter, presented a sympathetic take on Bell’s effort to re-think the Christian message for a postmodern age.

Last year on this blog I too joined the fray, writing several articles critical of Bell’s views, as I began a series of articles in which I hoped to cover the topic of hell and offer a thorough response to Bell’s book.   In my initial reactions, I intuitively sensed that Bell’s book was headed on a dangerous theological trajectory.   Yet other priorities, including seminary, interrupted the series of articles.  But recently, I was faced with writing a term paper on the topic of hell for a systematic theology class, and chose to use Bell’s book as a thematic way to delve into the subject.   Thus I have had opportunity to analyze Rob Bell’s message in “Love Wins” again, more closely and systematically .  My sources for the term paper included a re-read of “Love Wins” and several book-length responses to it,  as well as several well-written book reviews and many other online articles on hell.   Having written my paper, I conclude that my initial concern about Bell’s theological stance was more than justified, and in the paper I defend traditional understandings of salvation, heaven and hell against Bell’s re-fashioning.  I have decided to turn the paper into a new series of articles I’ll present here.
As I write in my paper,

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.

I hope this new series will help readers think about what may be lost by abandoning the traditional view of hell, which, though unpleasant to contemplate, is an integral part of the gospel message.

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