I’ve received a number of questions about Rob Bell’s forthcoming book, “Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” The two main concerns have to do with those critiquing the book before its release and the notion that reviewers should address Bell personally before writing publically about his views. But these concerns are not valid because the reviews have focused mostly on Bell’s promotional video.
Intentionally provocative and vague, Bell put out a short teaser as an obvious part of the marketing strategy. The publisher endorsement is equally vague: “Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith—the afterlife—arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.”
Perhaps Bell will end up with some version of the idea that we sentence ourselves to hell in the face of great love. There is a clear and important truth to this that is held by many respected teachers (see below). But it’s not the only side to what Scripture teaches about final judgment.
If this is all there is to say, it appears that love wins if you let love win. But Scripture teaches more about about why people fall under God’s final judgment. Further, the gospel does not tell me (as a sinner) that it’s up to me. Standing on its own, emphasis on human accountability falls short of the true gospel in which God rescues helpless and godless enemies (Romans 5:5-10).
Although I am not sure if I’ll read Bell’s book (just not the stuff I typically read), I watched the clip and understand the concerns it raised. But I disagree with those who oppose reviews of the video. Bell went public. He should expect public feedback. He spoke and he’s accountable for his words like everyone else.
The notion that Matthew 18:15-17 requires one to confront Bell personally before writing a review could be valid if the reviewer had a personal relationship with Bell. I might even understand how it could be best for those with a high profile among evangelicals to offer Bell an opportunity to engage in a personal discussion. But these would be matters of courtesy, not obligation. If he has not sinned against another, this is about doctrinal trust, not personal offense (Titus 1:9).
The difficult doctrine of hell
As to doctrine, admittedly, Bell raises a difficult matter. He is not the first and won’t be the last to struggle with the way the Bible speaks about hell and about those destined for it. I find the thought of unending suffering and separation from God emotionally difficult (if not impossible) to understand. However, I cannot ignore truth because I find it emotionally disturbing.
But keep in mind that Bell is in an obvious marketing mode with the questions he uses. His goal is not to offer answers on the video but to make you want to buy the book. The way he frames the issues plays into the hands of the critics (nothing necessarily wrong with that). Yet it puts a lot of responsibility on Bell to offer answers based on truth. If he does not, he has no true interest in love winning.
His questions: (from the video)
“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 take a class or converted or being born again? How does one become one of these few?”
“Then there is the question behind the questions. The real question [is], “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?”
A concern raised is whether Bell is going to end up with some version of universalism in order for love to win. It’s not clear based on the available information. It seems meant to be that way to draw more into buying the book. It has worked for him all along the way. I doubt that he will land on a view as completely irrational as universalism. My concern is that he will end up with a weak version of theism— a god who means well and wishes differently in some sloppy sentimental way.
As to the doctrine of eternal punishment, highly regarded leaders have struggled with the meaning of it. One thinks of John Stott’s engagement with David L. Edwards in “Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue.” Stott gave serious consideration to annihilation as the final end of the wicked. Years later, in a Christianity Today feature, I recall Stott saying he preferred to remain agnostic on the matter. But Stott is not alone. Philip Hughes (whose commentary on Hebrews remains a pastoral standard) embraced conditional mortality and annihilationism (The Image Restored, pp. 398-407). The list reaches well beyond these men, to include, Michael Green, John Wenham, Clark Pinnock, Greg Boyd, and E. Earle Ellis. F. F. Bruce and C. S. Lewis also appeared to remain agnostic on the matter.
Bell and Lewis:
I think Bell will end up with more of a C. S. Lewis approach to hell. Lewis did not seem to view hell fire as literal. Instead, he used a variety of analogies for understanding hell, many of which fit descriptions from the New Testament (see: James 3:14-17). Jesus also used a variety of metaphors to describe hell but his metaphors depict an horrific existence. The interpretations Lewis offered are compelling, but they do not seem to offer a complete picture for the magnitude of the imagery. One hardly thinks that Jesus would exaggerate about such matters.
I think Bell will merge with Lewis on hell being a matter of choice. “The final state of the sinner,” Lewis wrote, “is the horrible enslavement of the freedom he desired.” Lewis noted how, “Postmodern people struggle with the idea of God thinking up punishments to inflict on disobedient people. When sin is seen as slavery, and hell as the freely chosen, eternal skid row of the universe, hell becomes much more comprehensible.”
“In the long run,” wrote Lewis, “the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? But THEY will not BE forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that’s what he does” (The Problem of Pain).
Perhaps Bell hopes to get God “off the hook” by suggesting that God does not send anyone to hell but that we send ourselves. How foolish in the face of great love to choose hell for ourselves! But will Bell embrace some version of universal salvation for love to win? It’s not clear yet. Yet if his answers are not based on truth, this much will be clear, he has no interest in love winning.
Scripture teaches that God does not “desire that any perish but that all come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). “`As I live,’ declares the Lord, `I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live’” (Ezekiel 33:11; cf. Lam. 3:33a). “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God, `Therefore, repent and live’” (Ezekiel 18:30-32).
Four teachers: Packer, Stott, Sproul and Carson:
J. I. Packer wrote, “The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference. Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less. God’s readiness to respect human choice to this extent may appear disconcerting and even terrifying, but it is plain that His attitude here is supremely just, and poles apart from the wanton and irresponsible inflicting of pain which is what we mean by cruelty . . . what God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgments which those whom He visits have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow” (Knowing God, p. 139).
John R. W. Stott offered helpful insight: “Why is it that people do not come to Christ? Is it that they cannot, or is it that they will not? Jesus taught both. And in this “cannot” and “will not” lies the ultimate antimony between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But however we state it, we must not eliminate either part. Our responsibility before God is an inalienable aspect of our human dignity. Its final expression will be on the Day of judgment. Nobody will be sentenced without trial. All people, great and small, irrespective of their social class, will stand before God’s throne, not crushed or browbeaten, but given this final token of respect for human responsibility, as each gives an account of what he or she has done” (The Cross of Christ, pp. 95-96).
R.C. Sproul explained that, “All things being equal, God does desire that no one perishes, but all things are not equal. Sin is real. Sin violates God’s holiness and righteousness. God also is not willing that sin go unpunished. He desires as well that His holiness be vindicated. When the preceptive will is violated, things are no longer equal. Now God requires punishment while not particularly enjoying the personal application of it” (Following Christ, pp. 217-18).
D. A. Carson wrote, “The Bible does not present us with a God who chances upon neutral men and women and arbitrarily consigns some to heaven and some to hell. He takes guilty men and women, all of whom deserve his wrath, and in his great mercy and love he saves vast numbers of them. Had he saved only one, it would have been an act of grace; that he saves a vast host affirms still more unmistakably the uncharted reaches of that grace. Hell stands as a horrible witness to human defiance in the face of great grace” (How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, p. 92).
Yet all of these teachers would agree that in the Bible, God is presented as the Judge who sends some people into hell. Jesus warned his followers not to “… fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Jesus referred to hell as a place where God in judgment sends people (Matthew 25:41,46).
The Bell opportunity:
The stirring caused by Bell offers the Church an opportunity to present what the Bible actually teaches about eternal destiny. Putting things in order, Scripture teaches that all humans will be resurrected (Jn. 5:28-29; Dan. 12:2; Acts 24:15); judged by God (Heb. 9:27; Rom. 2:4-10; 14:10-12; Rev. 20:11-15), and separated between two distinct eternal destinies (Mt. 25:32,41,36; Jn. 3:36; 14:1-3; Rev. 21:3-8).
Eternal in duration or consequence?
Most people know that the Bible doesn’t describe a pleasant end for those who reject God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. But what type of judgment falls on them? Is it eternal suffering or eternal annihilation? Eternal in consequence or in duration? Part of the debate centers on whether ‘eternal’ is meant as a consequence (i.e. eternal punishment– not eternal punishing; the result is eternal destruction,) or as a duration (i.e. never-ending –a process rather than a result).
The destiny of unbelievers is described as:
Daniel 12:2 – Everlasting contempt
Matthew 8:12; 22:13 – outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew 8:42,50- the furnace of fire where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew 18:8; 25:41 – Eternal fire
Matthew 25:4 – Eternal punishment
Mark 9:48-49 — A place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched for everyone will be salted with fire.
II Thessalonians 1:9 – Everlasting destruction
Jude 6-7 – Everlasting chains
Is the fire metaphoric?
John R. W. Stott (a teacher I hold in highest regard) suggested that, “The fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and ‘unquenchable’ but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which ‘rises forever and ever’ (Rev. 14:11; cf. 19:3)” (p. 316, Evangelical Essentials, David Edwards).
But how does this same approach apply to the burning bush of Exodus 3:2-3 which “burned with fire yet was not consumed”? Consistency of metaphor would lead one to think that smoke rising forever and ever indicates something is burning in the fire.
Other arguments against eternal punishment.
1. The issue of justice:
Sins committed in a finite realm should not suffer an eternal consequence. Justice demands punishment in proportion to the crime. This argument may sound appealing on the surface but it fails at the Cross of Christ. Why did the infinite, eternal God have to come and die for the sins of finite creatures? Sin against an infinite God is infinite in consequence. Are we implying that people can sufficiently pay the consequence of sin against God? I am sure we are incompetent judges of the penalty sin deserves.
“Unless we come to grips with this terrible doctrine (of hell), we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him, he was experiencing hell itself” (Tim Keller).
2. Conditional immortality of the soul:
This is argued by the late Philip Hughes in The Image Restored, pp. 398-407. He taught that immortality belongs to God in the purest sense and to believers only through Christ (I Tim. 6:15-17; II Tim. 1:9f). This seems to be based on a limited understanding of death as extinction. But, if spiritual and physical death do not result in cessation of existence, why would the second death? (Eph. 2:1-3; Heb. 9:27; Rev. 20:6; 14:21:8). Scripture does not equate death with non-existence. The evidence points in the opposite direction.
3. Luke 16:19-31 is a parable and should not be considered a literal source of information:
To begin with, this text is not identified as a parable. But even if it’s parabolic in nature, treating it as an unreliable source ignores the one who is telling the story. Should we believe that Jesus Christ would use speculative imagery on such a serious matter? If this refers only to a temporary intermediate state ending in a judgment of annihilation, the judgment seems like it would be a welcomed end. This is clearly not the point Jesus is making.
4. The problem of eternal dualism:
Philip Hughes wrote: “With the restoration of all things in the new heaven and the new earth, which involves God’s reconciliation to himself of all things, whether on earth or in heaven (Acts 3:21; Col. 1:20), there will be no place for a second kingdom of darkness and death” (p. 406, The Image Restored).
The lake of fire is certainly not a Kingdom. Ongoing punishment itself would be a continuous testimony to the defeat of evil. The reality of victory over death secured by Christ is not threatened by hell (Heb. 2:14-16; I Cor. 15:54-55; Rev. 20:14; 21:4).
In the final analysis, eternal annihilation of unbelievers just fails to deal adequately with the testimony of Scripture (See: Lk. 12:47-48; Matt. 25:41, 46; w/Rev. 14:9-11; 20:10, (note on Rev. 20:10 – The beast and the false prophet are real people, not symbols. There would be no point of symbols suffering).
Six points for those who want to know the truth:
Theologian Millard Erickson suggested a six-point answer to the question of where people go after death. His points are worthy of careful reflection.
1. All humans are sinners, by nature and by choice; they are therefore guilty and under divine condemnation.
2. Salvation is only through Christ and his atoning work.
3. In order to obtain the salvation achieved by Christ, one must believe in Him; therefore Christians and the church have a responsibility to tell unbelievers the good news about Him.
4. The adherents of other faiths, no matter how sincere their belief or how intense their religious activity, are spiritually lost apart from Christ.
5. Physical death brings an end to the opportunity to exercise saving faith and accept Jesus Christ. The decisions made in this life are irrevocably fixed at death.
6. At the great final judgment all humans will be separated on the basis of their relationship to Christ during this life. Those who have believed in Him will spend eternity in heaven, where they will experience everlasting joy and reward in God’s presence. Those who have not accepted Christ will experience hell, a place of unending suffering and separation from God (The Evangelical Mind and Heart).
Update: Now that his book is out, I find myself wishing that Rob had landed closer to where I thought he might rather than further from love based in truth. Very disappointed but hopeful and praying.