The doctrine of hell is “one of the chief grounds on which Christianity is attacked as barbarous and the goodness of God is impugned.”[i] Rob Bell wishes to address this problem in his latest book, Love Wins,[ii] by providing an alternate way at looking at hell.
This post was written to critique Rob Bell’s recent book – especially in light of the stance of this site against universalism. This is a daunting task, as one is led into many different tangents almost every page from Bell’s book. Typically, the digressions have to do with one of the following: sloppy exegesis (e.g. taking Scripture passages out of context), misstating the orthodox understanding of hell or poor arguments that in Bell’s mind trump the plain meaning of Scripture. So, in a sense, it would take a book 3-4 times the length of Bell’s book in order to properly address each and every misstep. What I will attempt to do, instead, is something more modest.
I will begin my critique by introducing the reader to Rob Bell and then summarizing his book Love Wins chapter by chapter. Some further analysis will be provided about his conclusions and methodology used in the book. The traditional concept of the doctrine of hell will be provided as a reference for comparison against Bell’s view. The reader will be given a brief tour of the history of this particular Christine doctrine. With this groundwork in place, I will outline three major issues I found in the book which provide the foundation to his overall view.
I will then present material to help evaluate how important the doctrine of hell is – whether it is essential or something less core to Christianity. Last, I will evaluate some implication of Bell’s view of hell to the Church in general. For the reader’s reference, I have included a section listing of all the verses that are used to support the orthodox view of hell, but with an understanding that one may need to do further exegesis/study to get a more complete interpretation of the passage. A section has been provided answering some common objections to hell. I also provide resources that are either specific refutations of Bell’s newest book or general resources to be referenced for further study on the doctrine of hell.
Who is Rob Bell?
Rob Bell was born in 1970 in Michigan and is an American author and pastor. He is the founder of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. He is also the featured speaker in the very popular NOOMA video series. Bell graduated from Wheaton College in 1992 and earned a living by teaching water skiing lessons during the summers at a local camp. It was here that Bell claims that God led him to teaching. Bell moved to Pasadena and received an M.Div from Fuller Theological Seminary. According to Bell, he never received good grades in preaching as he always tried innovative ways to communicate.
Bell moved back to Grand Rapids and began helping with preaching duties at Calvary Church on Saturday nights. Bell then announced that he would be branching off on his own and then started the Mars Hill Bible Church (1999), which began meeting in a school gym in Wyoming, Michigan. Within a year, the church was given a shopping mall in Grand Rapids and soon purchased the surrounding land. In July 2000, the church opened with 3,500 seats. By 2005, Mars Hill had 11,000 in attendance between two gatherings each Sunday. As of March, 2001, attendance is estimated at 8,000-10,000 each Sunday. After I started this paper, Bell resigned his position at the church for reasons unrelated to this book (according to Bell’s resignation letter at the church website).
In 2005, Bell wrote the book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. In 2007, Bell released the book Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections between Sexuality and Spirituality. He has gained much attention over his latest book, Love Wins, released in 2011. Time magazine recognized him in the “2011 Time 100” – the annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.[iii]
My first exposure to Rob Bell was at a leadership event called Catalyst hosted in Atlanta, Georgia by John Maxwell several years ago. He was a very eloquent speaker and addressed the Old Testament passage (Malachi 4:2) about “healing in his wings” in reference to the coming Messiah. The woman with a blood issue in Luke 8:43-48 placed her trust in Jesus as the Messiah by touching the “wings” of his Tallit (garment) in hopes of receiving healing. It was a very moving talk and I would estimate that 500 people came down to the stage to place their hands on an example Tallit as an expression of their faith in Jesus as the Messiah (as the one who brings healing).
I had heard that Bell was part of this “emerging” church movement that appealed to a postmodern generation, but it was unclear (at that time) whether Bell himself had adopted postmodern philosophy as part of his worldview. For those who have read my critique of Brian McLaren’s book A New Kind of Christian or talked to me about postmodern Christianity, know this has been a concern of mine. I believe this movement has brought attention to areas that need to be addressed in the Church (around spiritual formation and authentic Christianity), however I do believe that it is detrimental to the Church overall. As a short diatribe, I believe postmodern Christians have thrown out the proverbial “baby with the bath water” in their view around the notion of “truth,” which has led many in this movement to disparage orthodoxy and the value of the mind. This ulimately erodes the foundation of Christianity. The basic truth “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life” becomes meaningless (on their view) if truth is relative or cannot be known (cf. my McLaren critique mentioned above for more info on these connections).
Several years later, I read Bell’s book Velvet Elvis on a trip to Kenya. I found the book (at times) challenging to read. Bell began the book by explaining how difficult it is to interpret Scripture (because it is problematic to get to the truth, etc.) and how many times people have been incorrect. He gave some specific examples and then proceeded to give the “correct” interpretation of these passages (thus violating his initial premise). Although I found myself agreeing with Bell’s applications for the Christian life, the methodology he frequently used to interpret Scripture was troubling. In his books, Bell likes to use questions and time and again does not come out and tell you exactly what he is asserting, but instead leaves you to come to a certain conclusion. Many times he creates false dichotomies without offering a possible 3rd or 4th alternative. I found that he frequently pulled verses out of context to make a specific point. Other times he would try to create a sense of “who knows?” by emphasizing tougher passages of Scripture while ignoring the context or looking at other clearer passages of Scripture on the same issue. I found that I had to put down the book numerous times, because of my frustration at his method in making his points to the reader. In the end, I did find I generally concurred with his applications, so I was willing to “let go” of my trepidation; however I was concerned where Bell might go in another book using these same methods. I believe my concerns have been validated by his latest book.
What is Bell’s View in Love Wins?
Bell begins the book claiming that many have hijacked the story of Jesus and that is now time to reclaim it (p. vii-viii). It is later clear that he means those who hold to the traditional, historical view of hell. He also claims that the historic, orthodox Christian faith is a wide diverse stream which he later asserts includes divergent views of hell. He continues his dialogue casting doubt on what it means to be “saved” or how one is “saved” (p.1-19) – even claiming that it can’t be “belief,” because even demons believe and shudder (while making no distinction between assensus (assent) and fiducia (trust) in regards to truth propositions).
Bell then continues with a chapter about heaven, emphasizing the “already, but not yet” aspect of the Kingdom of God (heaven). He does, however, equivocate between heaven and the Kingdom of God, which allows him to make a case for “eternal life” available here and now, but also something to continue in the afterlife. He makes an important foundational claim that the Greek word aion which is usually translated as “eternal” is not about some time in the future, but is more about a quality and vitality of life lived now and continues after death (p. 58-9). I believe if Bell had just written a book about heaven, or stopped at this chapter, the book would have been worth reading (and recommending).[iv]
Bell proceeds with hell in the next chapter (p. 63-93) by first surveying the Scriptures for the doctrine of hell. He briefly explains the Old Testament passages about Sheol and the realm of the dead, which I would agree (with Bell) are more vague about hell or the afterlife. Next, Bell claims that the word “hell” is only use twelve times in the New Testament (exclusively by Jesus), without adequately addressing the concept of hell which I will argue later in this paper is used by other New Testament writers. He also mentions “Hades” as being used in Revelation, Acts and also by Jesus. Bell then claims belief in a literal “hell,” but redefines it in the process. On Bell’s view, hell is both here and now, just like “eternal life” is here and now. Hell refers to a state of rejection of God’s goodness and love and is the reason for our present day sufferings (which we call “hell”). Bell dismisses any New Testament references to “judgment” as reflective of the political environment directed exclusively at religious leaders, rather than the fate of unbelievers. Instead, he insists that since God is a God of restoration, this punishment is not meant to be eternal. He continues with an assertion that Jesus isn’t talking about forever in the same sense that we normally understand this word.
Bell’s next chapter attempts to show a logical problem with either the attributes of God or our concept of hell. If God is all-powerful (in control) and he desires that all be saved (I Tim 2), then does God get what he wants? Bell offers two options – either all people will be saved, or God doesn’t get what he wants (thus is not all powerful). Bell asks – since God is a restorative God, why would his offer to us end just because our life ends? Bell then claims that there are many who believe that we get a “second chance” after death – not only in our current age, but also in our Christian heritage that we have inherited, such as Luther, Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Bell then throws out some additional names such as Jerome, Basil and Augustine who recognized that some/many believed this (without providing any historical references or revealing to the reader that these same authors wrote against this view and considered it heresy). Bell believes this “second chance” view is at the center of the Christian tradition since the beginning (p. 109). Bell finishes the chapter by quickly dismissing Revelation as a letter not meant to be referring to the future, but to current times of the writer John (i.e. preterest eschatology). Bell maintains that since God honors free will, we get what we want (heaven or hell), but God also gets what he wants, so that all will eventually choose heaven (in this life or the next).
In Bell’s fifth chapter, he proceeds to explain the cross as God “reconciling all things to himself” although he explains that many different images are used to describe this event. The metaphor of “sin, guilt and atonement” would only be understandable to primitive cultures that still used the sacrificial system and so is not applicable today (except in small pockets of civilization). Bell believes that the main story is God rescuing all of creation, and includes all people. The message that some people are “in” and others are “out” is too small of a gospel and cannot be true when the real story is God restoring “all things and people on earth”.
Bell’s last chapter is titled, “There are Rocks Everywhere” and is his attempt to reconcile the exclusivity of Christ with his inclusivity of God reconciling all things. He claims there is “a force, an energy, a being calling out to us, in many languages, using a variety of methods and events” (p. 141) and uses I Corinthians 10 as his proof text, as he believes Paul claims Jesus was in the rock that accompanied Moses. Thus Paul believes Christ is found everywhere and can be found in what the Greeks called zoe or what Obi-Wan called “the Force.” It is unclear to me as the reader, if he is making God so amorphous that it becomes pantheistic or if he is saying something more modest like Don Richardson (Peace Child) finding cultural keys that help the Gospel to be spread. Bell continues to explain that those who come to the Father may not know they are coming exclusively through him. It isn’t apparent if he is advocating pluralism – that all religions lead to God. Bell mentions Colossians 1 (without the verse number 23) as supporting the fact that the gospel has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven (thus supporting his previous assertion that Jesus can be found everywhere). It is ambiguous to the reader where this leaves missionaries – are they wasting their time?
Bell finishes the chapter with an attempt to distance himself from pluralism, by explaining two types of views. Exclusivity, he explains, is the idea that only those who believe in Jesus in the “precise” way will get to heaven otherwise you go to hell. Inclusivity is the idea that all religions lead to God (like a mountain with multiple paths). Bell advocates instead the idea that there is exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity (p. 155). This is accomplished by the fact that Jesus is the only way, but yet Jesus is found in all places at all time – since the gospel has been announced to every creature under heaven. Sometimes people use his name, other times they do not (p. 159). This seems to be a nuanced form of inclusivism – one where the individual may be practicing some other religion (or not), recognize Christ there (maybe in the rocks), but not know his name, and ultimately be saved through Him.
As a summary of Bell’s view, heaven and hell are basically the same place. Hell is the byproduct of rejecting God’s love (in this life and the next). What we call “hell” in this life is the direct result of our unwillingness to follow God’s ways. Hell is both a present reality and a future reality for those who are not ready for God’s mercy. But hell is not eternal, since God will have his way. God’s purposes cannot be thwarted and eventually everyone will realize they have been reconciled to God. The orthodox understanding of hell as “eternal conscious torment” is inaccurate. God does not pour out his wrath (because we bring about this suffering upon ourselves) nor does he punish for eternity. As the title of his book states, love wins.
In Part 2 – I will begin to critique Bell’s view.
[i] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 107.
[ii] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York, New York: HarperCollins, 2011).
[iv] I owe this observation to discussions I had with my own pastor, Ken Van Vliet.