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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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Is Hell Reasonable? (Part 1)

In my previous article, Lady Gaga, Rob Bell and Hell, I spoke of the controversy that has surrounded Rob Bell’s recent book, “Love Wins.”  I completely agree with Denny Burk’s excellent review, when he says,  “Bell likes to make assertions that are cloaked in questions. It is a manipulative tactic that has an air of epistemological humility but which he employs with great skill to make theological arguments.”  Bell’s questions/arguments just so happen to end up proposing a totally new “story” of the Christian faith, one that denies the traditional view of hell as eternal punishment for sins committed in this life, even as he makes a strong case for a universalistic salvation scheme.

Before its release, Justin Taylor had raised the issue that Bell’s promo for Love Wins strongly implied a universalist stance. Many blasted Taylor for his pre-critique. And Bell denied being a universalist.  Yet now that the book is released, Bell’s own words seem to show he advocates a post-mortem universalism. He writes,

Given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God (Love Wins, p.107, bold text mine).

Even after making a bold statement like this that sure sounds like universalism, Bell still says he’s not a universalist, “if by universalist we mean there’s a giant cosmic arm that swoops everybody in at some point whether you want to be there or not.”

In “Love Wins”, Bell explains his position, “Will everyone be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or fully answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires (p. 115).”

Is Bell being cagey, or just inconsistent? Does love win in the end because God “gets what He wants (p.98)” and given enough time everyone is saved, or does the “freedom that love requires” mean that some will forever deny God?

Denny Burk well sums up Bell’s position,

God either will fail in His purpose to save all or He will not. Bell cannot have it both ways, but he certainly tries. This section of the book will allow Bell to say “I am not a universalist.” Even though his heart is clearly with the universalist position, he gives himself a back door to deny it. This is why Bell’s teaching is so subversive. He presents one of the most compelling cases in favor of universalism that one will ever read in a popular book while denying that he is one himself.

If “love wins” (i.e., everyone will be saved eventually, even after death), how does this impact the traditional doctrine of hell as the eternal punishment of sinners who in this life did not embrace God through the saving message of Jesus Christ? On the subject of hell, Bell is again slippery, for does not deny he believes in a real, literal hell. But Bell’s definition of hell is not the traditional view. For Bell, hell is when “God gives us what we want” (Love Wins, p. 72). He emphasizes the “hells” people experience in this life, as a consequence for resisting and rejecting all that is “good and true and beautiful and human now (p.79).” There is also a hell after death in which Bell assumes people will continue resisting and rejecting God, but it’s clear he thinks there’s still hope for such to be eventually reconciled to God.

Bell, in typical fashion, asks leading questions that imply disagreement with the traditional view of Hell,

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 will 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… What kind of faith is that? Or more importantly: What kind of God is that?” (Love Wins, pp. 2-3).

Denny Burk writes in response,

because Bell has already labeled the traditional doctrine of hell as “misguided” and “toxic” (p. viii), it is not difficult to see that Bell already has an answer in mind to these questions. Indeed, the very way in which they are phrased shows that these questions are leading to a conclusion. Bell suggests that God’s own character would be in question if the traditional doctrine of hell is true. Thus these are assertions and not true queries. These are assertions about the reality of hell and the nature of God.

Bell then, seems to be asserting these ideas bout hell:

  1. God’s loving nature precludes Him from condemning people He created to eternal punishment.
  2. The traditional view of hell is unfair and incorrect in proposing that God punishes people infinitely and eternally for sins committed in a finite lifetime.
  3. The idea that only a few select few will be saved, while everyone else is damned, cannot be acceptable to God, nor should we find it acceptable.
  4. God would not create millions of people knowing in advance that they will end up in hell, or that He will damn them to hell.
  5. A Christian who believes in traditional propositions about hell is misguided and has a wrong view of God.

Though I believe Bell’s take on hell, as well as his universalistic scheme of salvation, are incorrect in their interpretation of the Bible, Bell does raise challenging questions that ought to be answered. The doctrine of hell is truly terrifying, and I think it is quite natural for human beings to recoil in horror from it, especially as we imagine our loved ones (or anyone, for that matter) being sent there. Thinking back to the man in the Lady Gaga video, is the traditional doctrine of hell something so harsh and misguided that it ought not to be included as part of the gospel message? If God is love, does He and can He send people to hell? Assuming one answers these two questions affirmatively, there’s still more tough questions. Why must hell be eternal? Why did God create some human beings that He knew would be in hell?

If we can wrestle with such profound questions and come out on the other side with a surer, biblical grasp of God’s purpose in creating hell, understanding better how hell may bring glory to God, and emerging with greater reverence and love for God, then the current controversy serves a good purpose.

Having raised the questions, I’ll tackle them in Part 2.

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