I am not an evangelical sniper.  I do not spend the majority of my time sitting on a roost, looking for other Pastor’s messages to refute and rebut.  That is simply not something I am all that interested in.  There are plenty of people who spend time serving the Body of Christ at large by evaluating the opinions and arguments of others.  I do not see my calling as focused in that area.  As a Pastor, I have a responsibility to protect and lead the flock God has called me to, however, and when perspectives from the world work their way into our arena, I feel the need to investigate and respond.  Recently, a new book has been published by Rob Bell (Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI), that has caused such a firestorm, I felt the need to investigate further.  Last week I finished the book, and I wanted to record some of my thoughts below.

First a disclaimer:  on the topic of “Love Wins,” I am certainly not the first to write a response.  In fact, virtually everyone with a blog, twitter or facebook account has added their two cents to the discussion.  If you search around long enough, you will find people much smarter, more godly, more experienced, and more eloquent than I sharing their perspective on the book.  I add my thoughts as much for a personal reflection after reading it, than a unique voice that needs to be heard.  With that said, here are some thoughts on the book in bullet form:

Bell’s basic premise:

  1. The notion of a literal, eternal hell is a non-biblical idea that is harmful to the church.  Bell says, “It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief (heaven and hell) is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus.  This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”  In a sense, Bell is saying the church should have consulted a marketing group before telling people about heaven and hell.  These truths get in the way of people seeing the love of God.
  2. The notion of a literal, eternal heaven and hell where some are saved and some are not saved is troublesome because it seems to set the criteria for salvation as something unstable, arbitrary and unfair.  Bell says, “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 to the kids’?  God choosing you instead of others?  What kind of faith is that?  Or, more important: What kind of God is that?”  In a sense, Bell is saying that to have heaven and hell decided by choices made in this life is to set God up as a monster . . . creating some people for eternal destruction because they do not have the same opportunities that others have.
  3. Focusing on heaven and hell as the eternal destinations for all people is a toxic premise, because it causes followers of Jesus Christ to not help people physically in the world today.  Bell says, “If this understanding of the good news of Jesus prevailed among Christians, the belief that Jesus’s message is about how to get somewhere else, you could possibly end up with a world in which millions of people were starving, thirsty, and poor; the earth was being exploited and polluted; disease and despair were everywhere and Christians weren’t known for doing much about it.”  In a sense, Bell is blaming Christians interest in eternity as a cosmic distraction away from obeying God in this life.
  4. If salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ, then people must hear about Jesus, and this puts way too much importance on evangelism.  Surely eternity is not decided by the faithfulness of others.  Bell says, “If our salvation, our future, our destiny is dependent on others bringing the message to us, teaching us, showing us – what happens if they don’t do their part?  What if the missionary gets a flat tire?”  According to Bell, faith in Christ is too narrow a message depending too much on missionary advance in a world where the majority of people don’t believe in Christ.  In his mind, it is unfair to think that our choices in this life impact our eternal destinies.
  5. While much of mainstream evangelical theology about heaven and hell see them as eternal destinations, Bell desires to redefine them as some kind of an operating system for the world today.  In other words, when people relate to one another and their environment according to the teachings of Christ, then we get heaven on earth now.  When people don’t relate to each other as Christ desires, then we get hell on earth now.  Bell does not seem very interested in eternity at all.  He focuses on redefining heaven and hell as realities we currently live within.  Bell says, “What Jesus taught, what the prophets taught, what all Jewish tradition pointed to and what Jesus lived in anticipation of, was the day when earth and heaven would be one.  The day when God’s will would be done on earth as it is now done in heaven.  The day when earth and heaven will be the same place.”  Later he continues, “So when people say they don’t believe in hell and they don’t like the word, ‘sin’ my first response is to ask, ‘Have you sat and talked with a family who just found out their child has been molested?  Repeatedly?  Over a number of years?  By a relative?”
  6. Heaven and Hell are fluid places that are very close together.  In Bell’s understanding, people will be moving out of hell and into heaven until eventually all are in heaven.  His Scriptural support for this is two fold.  First, he highlights verses that indicate God’s desire to save all.  Second, He highlights the story of the Prodigal Son where the Father is outside the party at the end of the story with the older son, wooing him into the party.  In Bell’s understanding, this shows the heart of God standing in hell, coaxing people to join Him in heaven.  Bell says, “And then there is exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity.  This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum. . . What Jesus does is declare that He, and He alone, is saving everybody.”  Later he says of the Prodigal Son story, “Hell is being at the party.  That’s what makes it so hellish. . . In this story, heaven and hell are within each other, intertwined, interwoven, bumping up against each other.”
  7. The bottom line for Bell is that eventually all will be saved on the basis of what Jesus has done, even if they have not consciously placed their faith in Jesus, or even know who Jesus is.  This belief is why Bell is correctly identified by those who read his book as a universalist.  He is a universalist on the basis of Christ’s work, but he is a universalist none the less.

 

Some of my thoughts in response to this book:

  1. I have no idea how someone can write a book about heaven and hell and SKIP Revelation 20-22.  These three chapters are a foundational section of Scripture on the topic.  I don’t care if the OT has limited info on the afterlife, these 3 chapters say plenty.  Instead of making an argument from silence, Bell would have been better off looking at what the Bible DOES say about the topic of eternal judgment, heaven, and hell.  Overlooking these 3 chapters is either a massive oversight or an intentional deception because these chapters do not fit his agenda.  Revelation 20-22 declare a certain judgment of all people that is final, a real lake of fire for punishment, and a real paradise for those who are with Christ.  Failing to talk about these verses is akin to writing a Christian book on marriage and not using Genesis 1-3 or Ephesians 5.
  2. Bell’s emphasis of “heaven” being God’s kingdom come to earth is an important discussion.  I am glad he brought it up.  However, his eschatology is weak in this area.  Revelation 20 declares that after the return of Christ, there will be a 1,000 year reign of Christ on the earth before the final judgment, lake of fire, and new heaven and earth.  This 1,000 year reign is the heaven on earth Bell is looking for, but it is not the eternal state.  If we hope for Christ only in this life, we are to be most pitied among men, because as 1 John 3:1-3 tell us, we are not now what we will one day be.  The future will bring big change, and we are not limited to the problems of the hear and now.  This is not to relinquish Christians responsibility to love and serve others today.  It is simply to acknowledge that there is also a life after death.
  3. Bell is not the first universalist to say some of the things he is saying.  People have said these things for centuries.  Bell uses the fact that people have said what he is saying for centuries as support that he is right.  This is flawed thinking.  People also have thought that slavery and bigotry was right for centuries, and that does not make it right.  It just means that some lies are easier to believe.  The Bible is not as vague on the topic as Bell makes it out to be.  It is actually quite clear.
  4. I am very sad that Mr. Bell is using his national platform to muddy the waters so fiercely about Jesus Christ.  See this video below from an interview he did on MSNBC.  This is not the spokesman I want talking for Christianity.  In a way I feel sorry for Mr. Bell, as he is overmatched in the conversation.  However, he brought this on himself by climbing onto the tip of the spear and hurling himself into the conversation with his book, promo video, and media tour.

These are my thoughts.  What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Bell’s Hell

  1. I think this is a fair job summarizing Bell’s main premise. I listened to the audiobook in which Bell read his own text. My consistent thoughts while listening to Bell included: 1) His scriptural references were very short, and may therefore be taken out of context. 2) He takes a typical pastoral tool in looking at words like “all” or “will” and emphasizing they are not “some” or “may” and runs wild with it. 3) He quotes scripture and asks questions based upon each scripture without considering the holistic point that all the scriptures are making. In other words, he asks “How are we supposed to be saved?” He quotes verses, and asks which of the verses are correct. He seems to imply that the Bible is contradicting itself. My response to his redundant question was usually, “All of them, if you understand the scriptures correctly.” There is little use of discussing one verse in light of another verse.

    My biggest confusion came upon hearing the last chapter. I did not understand, after listening to all the previous chapters, why Bell was urgently begging his readers to believe in God immediately. It seemed that Bell implied, in light of the rest of his book, that our actions do have consequences, and believing in God earlier would provide us with blessings earlier. Thus, even though we could be saved post-death and enter heaven, we wouldn’t want to go through the life of non-blessings and hardship prior to death and entering heaven. But Bell never explicitly said that. Bell’s urgency for the reader to believe did not seem to match the message of the main content that everyone would get to heaven.

    While you make a good point with Revelation 20-22, the biggest scriptural reference I thought of that Bell omitted was Jesus talking about Judas in Matthew 26:24 and Mark 14:21. “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” This verse does not seem to hold an option for Judas, who lived at Jesus’ side for three years, to be persuaded after death to believe in Christ and enter heaven. Does that principle apply only to Judas and not to the rest of humanity as, according to Bell, promised by Jesus? I don’t recall Bell discussing this verse.

    To be fair, Bashir often interrupted Bell in the interview and asked questions that attempted to put words in Bell’s mouth. So, that will make any person squirm. However, after having listened to Bell read his book, Bell still contradicts himself.

    Despite the theological disagreements with Bell, I am somewhat appalled by people using very colorful language to describe Bell, the person, when referencing the ideas in the book. Ravi Zacharias said, “It is an exaggeration to call it a book. […] It really not ought to be called a book. It’s not fair. It ought to be called an outburst.” This is an ad hominem argument meant to degrade Bell, implying that his book is also degraded. “There are far better books on the subject conveying the general ideas he has. More sophisticated. Brilliantly done.” This is unfair, because only few can be the best at writing on a particular topic. “I believe this is only the beginning. We’ll see more so-called books coming out and it will either be bordering on heterodoxy or some kind of backpedaling to take away what he has given up in here.” It is true that actions define the person. We are to believe that what Bell has written is what Bell thinks, and we can make some direct conclusions about Bell. But through our disagreeing with his book, we seem to be declaring Bell as a member of the realm of hell prior to his death, removing the opportunity for forgiveness. What if Bell does backpedal and says, “I was wrong”? Does he not still deserve forgiveness? Pray for Rob Bell. But don’t pray violently for him.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Mark. I have not read Rob Bell’s latest book, but I do intend to at some point, if only to learn for myself what he is saying, rather than take it second hand through the lens of others, whatever their opinions on it. However, I am somewhat familiar with the brand of universalism that Bell at least flirts with in his book (although he himself denies that he is a universalist), having read some about it. One thing that I’m glad you make clear is that there are different forms of universalism. There is universalism that denies the saving work of Jesus on the cross, and there is universalism that affirms it, claiming that in fact Christ’s sacrifice will eventually bring all into a saving relationship with God. As you stated, Bell appears to at the very least be flirting with the latter type. In contrast, the former can be any sort of belief system ranging from Unitarian Universalism all the way to some sort of vague New Age view of God as some sort of benevolent “life-force”. Both may indeed be in error, but I think this is still a significant, perhaps even critical difference.

    I want to be clear that I am not a universalist, not because I think God isn’t “loving” enough, but because 1) I believe that love must out of necessity and virtually by definition be completely free, and that God, who is by nature Love, created us to freely accept him and Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. The flip side of this is that we have the very real freedom to reject him. I really don’t think one can have it both ways. 2)The Scripture seems to clearly affirm everlasting judgment (either with the traditional view of eternal conscious torment or total annihilation — there appear to verses that support both possibilities). Proponents of universalism (of the second type above) that I have read have not, in my view, made convincing Scriptural arguments that Hell will eventually be emptied. This is not to say that I haven’t often wished that it might be true, and that I may have been wrong about what Scripture says about these matters, if I were to be completely honest. Somewhat along these lines, I think that the comments of Roger E. Olson (who is an evangelical Arminian — not sure where you stand on Arminianism vs. Calvinism — and a blogger who I have grown to appreciate for his perspective, even if I don’t always agree with him) here are worth pondering:

    http://www.patheos.com/community/rogereolson/2011/07/30/how-serious-a-heresy-is-universalism/

    However, all this said, I do think it is at least permissible for we as Christians to at least harbor a *hope* that all will be saved, if only because the Scripture tells us that God himself is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). In other words, we should not be in the business of wishing Hell on even our worst enemies, because Christ died for them too. As it has been said, “let God be God”, for only he has the perfect wisdom and judgment to decide these eternal matters.

  3. Stephen and Dan . . . thanks for your comments! Great thoughts here. Just a couple of thoughts:

    1. Stephen, I totally agree that people’s tone in this conversation can turn ugly towards Rob Bell. It is a great reminder that we are to not try to “win” an argument, but we are to “love” him, as we disagree over the merits of an argument. Great reminder.

    2. Dan, great observations on Bell’s beliefs. I think (after reading his book and listening to him talk) that Bell would argue something like this: People do have a choice. Given enough time people will choose God. Since eternity is a long time, all people will eventually choose God. When they choose God, the reason their choice can allow them to be with Him in heaven is because of what Jesus did on the cross. Hell in the afterlife is a location that is: (1) Near heaven. (2) Temporary. (3) Becoming increasingly empty. (4) A place where God still exists pursuing people so that they might turn to Him. You are also right when you say that Bell does not like being called a universalist. His position is nuanced, but his position does still have all the people in the universe saved in the end, so whatever you call that, that is what he believes.

    3. This is an emotional topic. It should be. The fate of billions of people is literally on the line. Thankfully God does not ask me, Rob Bell, or any others to come up with a decision on what happens to people after they die. God Himself takes care of this. I certainly would never want ANYONE to go to hell . . . I desire God’s desire “wishing that none would perish . . .”

    4. I have never met Rob Bell and probably never will. I have nothing against him personally. I am not a “Bell Scholar” and have not read anything else he has written. I do not pretend to know where he stands with the Lord . . . but he seems to be trusting in Christ for the forgiveness of his sins, so I would have to assume that he is a believer in Jesus Christ just as I am. I just happen to think he is wrong on this topic and wish he had not taken his position (which I think is harmful) and ushered it onto a national stage.

    Thanks for the dialogue men!

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