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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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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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